Dear Shannon

Back then, children were only aware of four careers, and they rose black like totems against the distant horizon. Supposing youth ever did wane and, improbably, we did morph into adults someday, the only things we thought of being were policemen, firemen, doctors, or lawyers. I liked the first two options. You know, normal schoolboy fantasies. Most people in Hearne, Texas were farmers, but my family lived in the urban area of the town. My dad worked at a gravel pit until I was nine, when he passed away. What I remember of him is pleasant. My mom stayed at home with my sister and me. It was just the three of us. My older two brothers and sister were grown and on their own, so my mother, sister, and I existed in isosceles-type equilibrium. My mother seemed ideal to me as a boy, like some incarnation of justice always making sure we knew right from wrong. My sister was more someone to play alongside of than with—she was interested in dolls and I preferred trucks, hoops, or hunting, yet the two of us were still close.

I started school at six, and I loved it. Knowledge wasn’t really something I had to keep tilling and poking and prodding around for to obtain. It opened itself up to me like a treasure chest with a rusted lock, dousing me with imaginary numbers, obelisks, kingdoms, codes, runes, poems, obscure words, treaties, promises, and dreams. I loved math, literature, and history. I read on my own when I could spare the hours, but back then we were always trying to get something to expand and grow—a garden, an animal, something that in future seasons colored gilt or jade could be eaten, could give us life. I was valedictorian of my senior class. Don’t ask me what I spoke about. I don’t even remember. There are ten million words, memories, moments I would give you willingly if I could place them in the right order, summon them to the surface of my mind, but age can hide eras and seconds under leaves, lock them in gardens, shut them up in closets, bind them to the shadows.

I was drafted after high school to aid the U.S. in our fight against Korea, although, fortunately, I was able to stay here. I met your grandmother while in the Army. I took her to her high school prom when my buddy, whom she had invited, couldn’t get leave. I thought I’d do him a favor. He promised me the girl was pretty—and wow. She was beautiful, but she was also kind, and she knew exactly what she wanted from life. I felt that the two of us could locate the labyrinths within each other and follow the winding corridors to that wild place which is the heart. Times when I was granted leave from the military to take Almeta, my Be-Bop, out on dates were wonderful. The rest of my days as a soldier weren’t as lovely. I tried to serve my country valiantly, but I hated taking orders. After my compulsory two years I didn’t sign up for more.

With Almeta as my wife, I headed to Houston to go to Texas Southern University. Two years in the army had earned me four years of college tuition. My life seemed to be divided. Unlike my classmates, I was a married homeowner. In a little while I was also a father. I worked two jobs, but I also had homework. On campus, I majored in tailoring, later electronics, enjoying classes and college life. At home, I tried to find time to be with my wife, and my newborn daughter, Diane, whose birth had made me so content. After three and a half years of college with only thirty hours left to go, the government told me my college tuition money had run out. Again, the duplicity of my life struck me. As a young husband and first time father I had a great home life, yet my hopes for a college degree had ended.

You see, I have had a happy life but an extremely hard one nonetheless. I felt blessed to have had six healthy kids, but I always wanted to provide for them and my wife a little more than I have been able to. I didn’t have a favorite out of the six, and I didn’t have many rules to follow. I only insisted that they study hard so that life would not be so difficult. I had to work most of the time, but whenever I had a few moments to play with my kids I treasured them. Even now, I love being with my grandkids—not participating in any particular activity with you or for any special reason, but merely because I like the aura your children’s children give you when you are near them. I admire their accomplishments and delight in their differences, respecting them all as individuals.

One of the most difficult things in my life has been racism. I hated segregation, and sometimes I wouldn’t adhere to it. At work, I drank from the white water fountain, brandishing a knife at anyone who didn’t like the sight of it. It broke my heart when both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. died, because I thought that blacks may never attain civil rights. We have, to a certain extent, but the roots of the civil rights movement have nurtured all types of fruits. As foul a thing as segregation was, when it was around there had to be black business owners because blacks weren’t welcome as clients in so many white businesses. Blacks had no choice about either being entrepreneurs or supporting other black entrepreneurs. Now that blacks can patronize any establishment, black entrepreneurship has decreased, converting racial segregation into economic segregation. While my generation focused on attaining civil rights, younger generations should work on attaining education and encouraging people of all races to support black entrepreneurship.

I have had so many years and seen so many wonders. I have seen a nation morph and a man walk on the moon—although at first I doubted my eyes. I believe in a Supreme Being that we cannot see. I don’t go to church because I do not like the tenets of denominations and the claims of pastors, yet I am loyal to God. Perhaps I cannot give you all of my stories because so many have been bitter. I didn’t consciously suppress them, but the mind is a survivor which out of necessity hides darkness. Yet despite the thorns that have been cruelly placed in so many lives, I assure you, Granddaughter, there is a better world somewhere. Search for its light, listen for its noise, gather it in your arms and help it to hatch. Wherever you see hope or hear rumor of this new world, hasten to it. Tend it. I have spent my life helping it to dawn. Now, Granddaughter, I pass this sacred duty on to you.

Of Wisdom and Beauty

Estella was for milk the taste of lilies sucked while lying upon a heartbeat the tempo of canary wings. She came into Almeta’s world when it was time to nurse before withdrawing like the ever-widening boundaries of a ripple. It was Daddy who had the strong thighs to sit on, arms like tree branches to wrap tightly around her. His smile was one half of her heart, and his voice the other, but a nightmarish day would drag him, bound to a running mule, to his death.

Almeta Brown, my grandmother Mamo, pulled her hands around the mound, then slid two fingers along the surface, leveling the top. The rich black dirt looked like Belgian chocolate, and her imagination deftly turned the cotton fields beyond her into a marble banquet hall. Safe in the land of dreams, she was satisfied with the sweet pungent smell of her well-baked mud pie. Soon, into the silence her guest would come to pick her up in his arms, whirl her around, and never let her go.

As soon as she heard his footsteps a smile erased her look of firm concentration.

“Daddy!” She gripped his ankles tightly and listened to his effervescent laugh.

“Hi, Daddy! Want some cake?” She smiled delightedly as he took a big bite.

“It’s wonderful, Honey,” he said.

Her five older brothers and older sister watched as Mamo talked animatedly with an oak tree draped with moss. Her brother, Sam, quietly walked from the cotton fields to where my grandmother played. He knew there was no time for breaks. The older children and their mom, Estella, had to add to the amount of cotton they already picked the sum their father would have harvested, but the Brown family was close-knit and, to Sam, looking out for his baby sister was more important than money.

Money. Their dad had almost saved enough to have paid the family’s debt before he… Sam pushed the thought away, not wanting to cry about the loss of the man he loved most. The demon who owned the land they worked had refused to give Estella the money her family had earned so far, forcing them to begin their hopelessness anew. And now the two year old sister who had ignored their mother and wanted to spend all her time with their father—to everyone’s amusement—could not grasp that he was dead.

“Come on, Almeta,” he said, raising his sister onto one of his hips, “pretend you’re playing with a baby doll.” He handed her a used can. There was no money for toys. Perhaps all of that pretending was what had made it so easy for her to pretend their father was alive. After checking on Lily, the youngest of the eight, he headed back into the fields wishing night wasn’t so slow in coming.

* * *

“Where are we moving to, Almeta?” Lily asked her sister. Her brothers were too old to play with, and besides, they were boys, so she spent most of her time shadowing my grandmother.

“To Fred Smith’s farm.”

“What’s it going to be like?”

“The same as Helen Peel’s farm.”

“Well, why couldn’t we stay where we were?”

“For the same reason we had to leave the farm where I was born in Mylam. Sometimes sharecroppers have to switch farms.”

“I don’t like being a sharecropper, Almeta.”

She laughed. “Nobody does, Lily. But think on the bright side—Christmas will be coming soon.”

“I know what you won’t be getting.”

“Oh hush, Lily,” said Almeta, but she couldn’t help cracking a smile. Two years ago, when she was much less mature than now at age eight, Estella had given Almeta a doll for Christmas – a real one. But by that time Almeta had seen plenty of dolls and plenty of kids, and aside from the kids in her family, she didn’t like either. She took the doll to the woodpile and chopped off her head, declaring that from then on she wanted no more babies, neither real nor plastic.

“I know I’m not getting a doll, Lily. But I’m not six anymore. I wouldn’t chop her head off.”

“No,” sighed Lily unhappily. “You’re eight. You have to leave me and go to Port Sullivan School.”

“That’s better than going into the fields like our brothers.”


“Come on, girls,” said Estella. “Everything’s packed up.” She squeezed them close, comfortingly. Estella was as thin as a sapling and as musical as a lark. Her children speak of her today in beatific terms, remembering how much she loved them. They were so close to her that they called her by her first name, Estella, instead of Mother, which was how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have addressed her. She loved all eight of her children, but she gave special care to her two youngest daughters for whom she tried to secure all the advantages that she had been unable to offer their brothers.

Somehow, by the time my grandmother was thirteen, Estella had managed to save enough money to end her days as a sharecropper and buy a house for her children, where she lived until her death. The house was on New Street in Hearne, Texas, and it was here my grandmother developed a new love – a love of silk and velvet, locks and words. Like a craftsman, anything she put her hands on seemed to become more beautiful. She could turn a yard of celadon silk into a dress fit for a marquis and hot comb the hair of her neighbors into the latest styles. More importantly and despite being only a teenager, she began to develop a reputation for the advice she gave to her clients, many of whom were decades older than she. My grandmother says that in a strange way she always felt like an adult, perhaps even before she should have. God seemed to have placed in her the wisdom that most others come by only with years of experience. Almeta knew not to dwell on what you can’t fix and to find a solution to what you can. Clients who wanted only a new skirt or beehive hairdo would return to her weeks later to thank her for solving their problems.

Almeta dreamed of being a seamstress when she grew up and made her own school clothes. She already worked as a hair stylist, thanks to a neighbor who ran an in-home salon and referred excess customers to her. At school, Almeta was a popular cheerleader, at home, a self-proclaimed psychologist, offering as much wisdom as beauty. No longer surrounded by fields of cotton, her world was full of football games and outings to the ice cream shop, and, in her high school years, crushes on handsome soldiers.

She had invited one dashing man to the prom, but, unable to get leave from the Army, he promised to send a friend of his in his place. The man he sent was a few years older than my grandmother, a man with aspirations to be a tailor who wore beautiful, hand-fitted clothes. He was handsome, debonair, and even more alluring than Almeta’s original date. He was my grandfather, Charles Prince – Big Daddy. After high school they married and moved to Houston to start their new lives.

Big Daddy attended Texas State University so he could be a tailor, while Be-Bop, as he called my grandmother after the sock hop jazz music that was popular when they met, eagerly pursued her dream of working as a seamstress. Big Daddy had to work two jobs while he was in school, so Mamo was always there to help him study. From his books she learned how to run a business, a set of skills she continues to use as a self-employed seamstress.

Despite Mamo’s incident with her baby doll, she has told me with tears in her eyes that if she had to live her life over again she would still have all six of her children. She didn’t like kids while she was one herself, but she loves each of her three boys and three girls in a different way because they are individuals, and she wouldn’t want to live without any of them because they are what make her life beautiful. Her parenting years were filled with special moments, whether sewing alongside her youngest daughter, Cheryl, or having one-on-one talks with my father, Charles, at night. She enjoyed raising each unique child. Her nine grandchildren also give her joy, because she is happy to see us being raised with the same values she and Big Daddy imparted to their children. To her, we are like nine more members of her immediate family. Every Friday her children and grandchildren gather at her house to catch up on the week and enjoy each other’s company, perhaps interrupted once or twice by a late bride-to-be, picking up a miracle of intricately beaded ecru silk and thanking my grandmother for relieving her jitters.

The ancient stories are full of enchanters who are weavers and seamstresses. Rumpelstiltskin and Maleficent understood that thread and silk had the power to shape lives and worlds. They knew that life is not about the fabric you weave but the dreams you create, not about the change that occurs when straw is spun into gold but the metamorphosis of the human spirit. Mamo has just turned sixty-nine years old and is full of vitality and light. In the letters I write to her on her birthday and each Mother’s Day, I liken her to splendid objects such as Mexican ceramics or a flock of butterflies. She wields a brilliant magic – one that allowed a heartbroken sharecropper’s daughter to take silk and tresses, joy and love, and form the life she wanted and the family she treasures. And as much as any child she has raised or any dress she has sewn, she herself is truly a masterpiece.

Haiku Series

Ciudad is breathing

Music plays, everyone sings.

The air absorbs sound.


Old woman dances,

the river of cobblestone

flowing below her.


A young girl in bed

tosses and turns in her sleep.

She waits for the morn.


Awakes to the sound

Of a bustling calle

Her home never sleeps.

A Wild Swan the Color of Autumn

She is like the feeling I get on an autumn day when you are floored by the uninhibited nature of God. I have watched Him cull the green from leaves to reveal bullion marred only by aubergine and been so amazed at His dreams that my heart speedily ripened with love and longing.

Yet I have sat on autumn days and watched trees make refuse of their glory, casting aside jewels as though they were crinkled bitter hearts. I have yearned to stop the morphing of oaks, yet rebelliously they continue with their work, passionately hurling away art, wildly growing.

I love my woman’s wildness as I love her grace, and both loves are known to all who know her. She has the sultriest voice, the softest hands, the most infantile dark eyes—she is the most natural of all creatures to love—yet love has rarely bound her, and she has left tearful schools, towns, and husbands when her heart told her the time had come. She is the feeling of all autumns: untamable beauty. She is my grandmother, Dear, formally Mildred Joyce Guillory, before that…

“Pearly Odessa.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pearly Odessa.”

“Seal, that’s a pretty unusual name.”

“L.C., did you just give birth to this child? I’ll name her what I want.”

Names change, but they do not change the people behind them. Being called Pearly Odessa for three years wasn’t what endowed my grandmother with her jewel-like good looks. Her aunt renaming her “Mildred” as an act of kindness wasn’t the cause of her sensibility. If we left life up to names, Seal, my great-grandmother, Queen Esther Cecile Roberts, would have been the wife of Ahasuerus, not my great-grandfather, L.C. Roberts, a farmer and small business owner. Thank goodness our histories and futures don’t depend on a range of vowels and diphthongs. Life, fortunately, relies on more silent things like land, rich earth, and cozy houses. If it had not been for my great-grandfather’s farm in Shepard, Texas, who knows what my grandmother’s life would have been.

*           *             *

My grandmother pities children who weren’t born in the country, who did not express their love to each other in toe tickles under rainbow quilts or by admiring fistfuls of baby chicks together before racing through acres of pine. But the true tragedy of an urban existence is the loss of a sense of origin. My grandmother cannot savor ice cream in the center of her tongue without thinking of snow or eat cheese without hearing her mother’s friendly banter to her favorite milking cow. More importantly, a city child doesn’t know that the best eggs do not come from the store but are borrowed from your neighbor, that the finest gift isn’t tied with ribbon but is the slabs of meat you unquestionably and joyfully divide among friends when you kill one of your livestock.

I know she wasn’t a mean child as her siblings have sometimes claimed (tongue halfway in cheek), yet she was certainly the toughest. Born between two boys, she couldn’t bear to think that one might be stronger or braver than she. In her adult years she would become her parents’ favorite child, the one always available to help and care for them, but at that time there were no favorites. Dear was simply the most tomboyish, the kid her father preferred for a sawing partner because she was steadier than her brothers; the fiercest, beating up any one who tormented mentally disabled kids. And because my great-grandmother was often sick due to scarlet fever’s war on her immune system, Dear was the child who took care of the others. Christmas was a bane to her with the other ten Roberts eating up desserts as soon as she baked them, but on other days she was awed by the immensity of time. Despite her maternal role, she never seemed to miss out on any of the fun that came with being one of nine kids or the pleasant solitude one could find living on a forty-acre farm. It was in these moments, when his children were separate from each other, under magnolia trees about to shatter from the weight of blossoms or floating serenely on the man-made lake, that Papa would have quiet talks with his kids about their lives. It didn’t matter what they wanted for themselves as long as they knew how crucial it was to dream. Yet my grandmother’s dream never changed. Ever since she could speak she’d wished for the same two things, and my great-grandfather, with faith in his daughter’s talent and the will of God, was sure she would get them.

Each Roberts loved the other ten with unspeakable depth. Schoolchildren knew that bullying one of the Roberts kids meant challenging all nine, and the security and unity the Roberts kids provided each other stood upon the foundation of their parents’ love. Their dad had decided that leaving home at age twelve was a rosier alternative to locking horns with his step-dad, and although he had only attended the first and second grades, he owned several small businesses, his own land, and had become the most respected man in Shepard. His approval was mandatory for white politicians if they wanted the black vote. He had read the Bible cover to cover several times over and was familiar with the lives and motives of Bathsheba and Sampson, wise to the workings of the spiritual realm. Yet he was boyish and loved to laugh, especially when tickling his kids’ toes with feathers or placing fake cigarettes in their mouths after they’d gone to sleep. His wife of seventy-one years was the sassiest, prettiest woman in town. Papa loved her intelligence and independence. She had a foul-mouth and a sweet heart, and she openly gave her family all of the love she had lacked as a battered orphan. Tight as a plaid-uniformed clan, as full of love as a tree on the isle of Paphos, the Roberts grew big, laughed loudly, and prayed hard with ceaseless devotion to each other.

*           *             *

It was a long walk from the farm to the bus stop. Too long, Mamo Seal felt, for her six year old baby girl. Not until the age of eight could Seal bear to let her second born child walk to school, and there, instead of being placed at the beginner’s level, first grade, the teachers asked her if she would be more comfortable with her big brother in second. Dear and Junior beamed at each other. Of course she would be more comfortable with the boy who pulled her everywhere in a wagon claiming she was “too good to walk.” The two of them skipped to Mrs. Crumbly’s homeroom, the same homeroom their mother had been in.

My grandmother amazed her second grade teacher. She ripped through her books, decoded her equations, and colored between the lines. At the end of the year Mrs. Crumbly suggested they place Dear in the fourth grade, and of course, if it would make Junior more comfortable, he was welcome to come along.

Dear was the pride of the school. Like a rural gladiator, she competed and won wrestling matches—it turns out she wasn’t only tougher that the brothers immediately older and younger than her, but also most boys in the county. When it wasn’t wrestling season, she was a champion basketball player. From the seventh grade on, any time a teacher was absent Dear was pulled from her lessons and called upon to sub, and she couldn’t understand why. She knew that the grammar her teachers had taught her wasn’t like the grammar of characters in books. She had never seen any of the big cities she’d heard of in social studies or visited ballets or museums. Because she felt inexperienced, she concluded that she must not be as smart as everyone thought. Fortunately everyone heartily disagreed.

They disagreed in word and money. Quietly, Dear’s parents saved enough from farming, trucking, and selling lumber to pay her tuition to Texas Southern University. There, the larger world unfurled itself for her. She learned to golf and to bowl. She played varsity basketball until a coach nearly caused her to collapse, so greedy for points he refused to pull her from the game despite her exhaustion. She took art classes with one of the twentieth century’s finest artists, John Biggers. She sharpened her claws and teeth.

In Shepard, Dear had known there was a vague difference between people—a difference that manifested itself in the rules about which churches and schools one was allowed to attend. Yet she also knew that outside of these institutions her parents and she and her siblings had always had friends who were both black and white—friends who crowded into the Roberts’ living room when Joe Louis fought and cheered unanimously when he won, friends equally dismayed that they couldn’t send their kids to learn in the same classrooms. My grandmother knew she was as good as everyone else. She couldn’t believe the big city of Houston did not. She didn’t understand that all over the South, unlike the haven that was Shepard, blacks were seen, and often saw themselves, as second class citizens. Every time there was a Civil Rights march or protest my grandmother would drop her books and run for it.

Although Dear had promised to work to buy her own school clothes and also bought school clothes for her younger siblings, she and other black students decided to quit their jobs at segregated establishments. My grandmother’s employer, a bigoted white woman, was notorious for not paying blacks for their labor if they quit her.

One day Dear went to her former job, demanding that she be paid for her work. The woman told her that she would “pay her when she paid the others,” meaning never. Dear insisted upon getting her money right then, and a second time the woman refused. That third time, the woman had barely gotten “I’ll pay you when” out of her mouth before my grandmother leapt over the desk to attack her. Startled by the sight of my grandma flying through the air, fists clenched, eyes gleaming like forbidden fire, the bigot handed over the money. Waiving her paycheck proudly in the air, my grandmother sashayed out of the office.

My grandmother is the snake you don’t poke, the horse you know better than to try to saddle. She is the beautiful dolphin that can attack sharks. She is the splendor and sublime majesty of the tornado and its terror. There is something I have always known and loved about her: she is crazy. Perhaps crazy is the wrong word, because the fight that erupts from the midst of her beauty only comes at appropriate times. She is neither insane nor cruel. She is wild. I will always love her for that.

*           *             *

It happened quietly like a pink lily unfolding to the dawn. Slowly desire blossomed into reality. She pinched herself to see if it was real, and when she looked around she knew she was not dreaming. The thing she had been wishing for ever since she was a little girl had happened. She was a teacher.

And although West Columbia’s school district had requested a plain, wholesome teacher and been a little intimidated by this young woman in her three inch stilettos, Mrs. Washington welcomed Dear into her homeroom for student teaching.

“Class, this is Miss Roberts. Miss Roberts is going to help me for a little while. Isn’t that nice? Now Miss Roberts, I am going out to make copies for a few minutes. Please watch the class for me. But never mind Josh. He’s stupid. He can’t learn. No one in his family ever could.”

No sooner had Mrs. Washington left her third grade classroom than my grandmother was kneeling by Josh’s side.

“Hello, Josh.”

“Hello, Miss Roberts.”

“Do you know what I thought when I first came in this classroom?”


“I thought about what a handsome little boy you are. Do you know how handsome you are?”


“And do you know what else I know about you Josh?”


“You are not stupid. Don’t ever think you are. You just need some help.”

My grandmother didn’t care about what methods were currently fashionable in education. She was familiar with a number of techniques, and she taught each child using the one he best understood. And when Mrs. Washington came back, Josh was diligently completing his math worksheet, happy that someone had finally taken the time to explain the problems to him in a way he could understand. He turned out to be one of the strongest math students. Mrs. Washington hardly had time to be awe-struck because soon it was time for recess, and Dear couldn’t wait to slip into her sneakers and go play with the kids.

It was Mrs. Washington who learned from my grandmother, and at the end of the year, her coworkers, the principal, and the students cried when she declined a permanent teaching job in West Columbia. Dear cried, too, but she was tired of West Columbian whites expecting her to call them “sir” and “ma’am” and thinking they could inquire about any detail of her private life. Besides, she was homesick for Shepard.

*             *             *

I can look at a picture of my grandmother in an evening gown, in her twenties, looking youthful and flighty as girls come, and to me she looks exactly like a grandmother. And Mrs. Crumbly looked at my grandmother, now a teacher, and still saw her as a little girl. A precocious little girl, but one needing supervision nonetheless. My grandmother didn’t feel like hearing Mrs. Crumbly’s opinion on what she would have done differently after every class. She wouldn’t submit lesson plans to her for approval or acquiesce to her methods. After declaring in every possible combination of words that she was no longer a child, to no avail, Dear left Shepard. It was time for her to be a woman.

*             *             *

Dear and her first husband, Thello Davis, had divorced. That was okay with her. A husband wasn’t what Dear used to whisper to her Papa, anyways, when he asked her what she dreamed of. The marriage had given her the second thing she had told Papa she wanted: two daughters. My mom, Laquetta, and my aunt, Carmeleta, the only children my grandmother would ever have. Though Dear was a single mom, she expected her kids to have the best of everything. When the top dollar day care she left them in served them the same food day after day, she realized nothing would do for her kids than the love of the gentle golden man and spunky seal-colored woman who had made her own childhood blissful. So in exchange for a house, Dear’s parents agreed to take care of her kids until they were school age, and, to Laquetta’s relief, right before first grade when she would have been placed in Mrs. Crumbly’s1 strict class. Dear missed the children she had longed for since she was their age, but spent every weekend with them. During the week, she found herself back in her college town of Houston, teaching and raising eyebrows at Settegast.

*             *             *

When my grandmother first began teaching at Settegast, a weak boy named Anthony who let girls hit him had still managed to beat up every teacher he had had from kindergarten until fourth grade, confident in the knowledge they wouldn’t hit him back. And now he was in the fifth grade—with my grandmother. My grandmother was standing by the door pleasantly greeting her students as they came into her class, when Anthony drew back to hit her. Before Dear knew what she was doing, she had Anthony on the ground and was pounding him as hard as she could. Finally, another teacher heard Anthony’s screams and tried to draw my grandmother back from the volatile place her soul had leapt to the moment she had seen the young boy’s clenched fist.

“Come to your senses!” cried the older woman over and over until finally my grandmother quit beating Anthony. Then she got up off the ground and walked quietly to the principal’s office to make a phone call to the superintendent.

There was no repentance in her voice just as there was no worry. Calmly, she voiced her resignation, explaining her act, yet she was surprised when the superintendent begged her to stay.

“You are the best teacher at Settegast. You can’t leave! Besides, that Anthony deserved it.”

“But you don’t understand. I tried as hard as I could to kill him.”

“Yes, and he deserved it. I want you to continue teaching at Settegast.”

With that over Dear had one more call to make. She picked up the phone, slightly more cheered, and explained to Anthony’s mom that she had tried to kill her kid.

“He deserved it,” agreed Anthony’s mom. And while I can only imagine the lawsuit my grandma would face today, Anthony never harmed another teacher. In fact, when he gave my grandmother a death threat, the male students in her room stood guard over her at lunch until things calmed down. Although she was delighted with the rest of her class’s show of support, she insisted that they relax because she was capable of defending herself—clearly. Yet the boys guarded her for the next few days until Anthony shaped up. That wasn’t the last hair raising episode my grandmother experienced at Settegast.

Perhaps I should explain that Dear is not a respect-your-elders kind of person. The people she feels deserve respect are children, and even as a kid and young woman she never minded telling off adults in authority, usually because she was wiser than them and because she is wild. Dear would blatantly deny all of this, but her behavior speaks for itself. You’ll see.

Since Dear was a young teacher both the parents and the faculty thought they could push her around. One mother whose twins had already been held back in the fifth grade once placed her children in Dear’s class thinking that a young teacher would be too intimidated to hold them back a second time. But my grandmother, knowing the twins still weren’t ready for the sixth grade, refused to promote them. Their mother began calling Dear and then the school, threatening to “beat her ass.”

The older faculty members at Settegast felt that Dear was in a situation she couldn’t handle and should have asked for advice. At a faculty meeting, the principal hinted that young teachers, not naming names, when they found they had problems should ask older faculty members for help. My grandmother, knowing he meant her, told the principal that the worse fool was an old fool, and she didn’t intend to ask for help from any of the old fools on the faculty, which was when the older faculty members decided to nickname my grandmother “Young Fool.” Dear had earned a reputation as a disrespectful radical and still had the twins’ mother to deal with. On the last day of school, the kids’ mom marched to the fifth grade hallway to make good on her word, scaring the principal so badly he hid in the bayou behind the school. The woman stormed down the maze of halls with the ferocity of the Minotaur, shaking the first fifth grade teacher, hitting the second, trying to knock out the third, and then heading for my grandma. But Dear, who thought she might be coming, already had a baseball bat with her, and when she raised it up with a glare in her eyes the woman simply walked past her classroom. With one gesture Dear had shown both the faculty and the parents that she would not be pushed around.

That summer, Dear was invited along with two white teachers to begin a Head Start program at a white school called Tidwell. She was married to a new man, Chester Harris, and working on a new campus, yet racism, the poisoned interplay of darkness and light that had lurked about to hurt her so many times before, was waiting for her again. The first step to starting a Head Start program was to recruit students, and since Tidwell was in a neighborhood of ivory, the two white teachers were sure that nobody would let my grandmother into their suburban ranch house if she were to knock on doors. But after two days, neither of the white teachers had recruited a single student.

“But you can’t go, Mildred. Nobody’s going to let you in.”

“Of course they will. I’m human.”

Dear knew that there is always either a beautiful plant in someone’s yard, or a nice chandelier in their entryway, or even a beautiful smile on their face to compliment them on. She knew to place banter before business, trust before propositions, and soon several white parents were willing to entrust their kids to my grandmother.

Yet one house she approached was more ragged than the others. Inside lived a woman more haggard that her peers.

“I’d like for my son to go to Head Start, really. It’s just—he doesn’t have any clothes.”

“If I buy him clothes will you let him come?”

The woman looked away, “I have no way to get him there.”

“If I drive him there everyday, will you let him come?”


For my grandmother, there is no reason not to reach out to a child—not disability, not poverty, not even a criminal record. After helping to raise eight siblings, having two kids, and teaching for forty years, she still can’t get enough of children. She never thinks of all of the kids she has already helped and feels satisfied. There is always one more to nurture.

That summer, Dear reached out to a number of kids with a radically different background and color from her own, yet she did it so splendidly she was offered a permanent teaching job at Tidwell—by a white principal so racist he couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“I can’t teach here. They need me at Settegast.”

“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”

“Of course. I want the best for students, too. That’s why I’m a teacher.”

“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”

“I don’t understand. I said I wanted the best for students, too.”

“No. We want the best for our white students.”

My grandmother was disgusted. Just because Settegast was an all black school didn’t mean they were undeserving of qualified teachers.

“If you don’t take the job teaching here I’m going to be very unhappy.”

“Well I’d rather you be unhappy than me,” retorted my grandmother, slamming the door as she left his office.

But that evening, a long talk with a friend made her see things in a new light.

“White people think black people are stupid. Can’t you see that Mildred? You have to teach at this white school so you can show them that we are human like everyone else.”

It made sense. And that’s how Mildred Harris became one of the first black teachers at Tidwell. At first, both the parents and students at Tidwell were leery of a black teacher. One boy even fainted. Yet after the first year, parents began requesting that their children be placed in her homeroom, and after accepting as many kids as she could, finally the principal had to close her class. But the other teachers were jealous. How could these southern white parents want their kids placed in a black person’s class? My grandmother’s talent in teaching meant that they could not feel superior, which meant that they could neither snub nor pity her as planned.

It was the beautiful woman who has stared at me from a picture many times who offended my grandmother. Dear and the lady stand on opposites sides of the rows of their two first grade classes. And above the woman’s brilliant smile, balsa colored hair is piled into a thick, elaborate updo. It was this woman who decided to be kind to grandmother and let her know that she felt sorry for her “being a Negro.”

“You feel sorry for me? I heard you sigh in the faculty meeting and wish that you had fifteen cents. Fifteen cents so that you could tie back your long Pentecostal hair. And I, who do not depend on change, gave it to you. Yet you feel sorry for me?”

“I never thought of it that way,” said the woman, who was more ignorant than mean. And after more years of teaching with my grandmother, Rapunzel would begin to be able to think about black people the same way she thought of white people. Of course, in a few more years she wouldn’t be there because Tidwell would become a school entirely attended and taught by blacks. A few years more, and Dear would have divorced her second husband, married her third, a wonderful man named Murphy Guillory, and switched to teaching in the North Forrest school district. It was one of Houston’s poorest areas—a place my grandmother felt she was needed. So much changed yet my grandmother remained wildfire. Working like an alchemist, she changed juvenile delinquents into good students, and like an angel, she loved neglected children who had never been nurtured. She slapped a police officer once, told off a few more principals. She continued loving and warring until my parents married, and then Dear began to voice a third wish she had: to be a grandmother.

*           *             *

From the time my mother married at age twenty-five and for the next seven years, my grandmother begged for a grandchild. But one Wednesday her first grade class made her so angry that she drove furiously to my parents’ home, breaking every speed limit on the way.

“All these years I’ve begged you for a grandchild, and you wouldn’t give me one. You know what? I don’t even want one anymore. My class gave me fits today. Kids are terrible! So it doesn’t matter to me if you never have a baby.”

That Saturday my parents visited my grandmother to let her know they were pregnant with me. Dear wept with joy. Dear has been such an active grandmother. She retired that year and didn’t return to teaching until Ashley, my younger sister and her only other grand-child, entered school. Two years ago, she retired for good. The two of us have always been best friends. She is my heart. As I wrote to her in one of the letters I give her each Mother’s Day and birthday:

You are so beautiful to me that it is like I am looking at you from the inside of the sun or between the petals of a flower. You are a person both outside of me and inside of me—someone I can touch, but someone who also can reach me intangibly and touch hidden places within. You are like a narwhal, or a sphinx, or any other creature that is truly splendid. You have so little to do with common streets and quotidian desires that it seems improbable that God would place you in the world. Why didn’t he just leave you as a figment for an artist to ponder or a dream lighting an ebony night with unnamable colors? How did you get to be my grandmother, out of all of the people you could have been? God could have woven you into any era, and you would have shone like a newborn moon. You are the kind of grandmother who would have taught Rosa Parks to sit and Maya Angelou to rise. Being given you as a gift for a grandmother is like a parent giving the Northern Lights to a child to cure their boredom—an excess of treasure that one still would not turn down. No one could possibly deserve such a magnificent butterfly as you, but all are pleased to be in its presence.

My grandmother has given me more love than I can express, and she has taught me no less than what it means to be human. I have asked her what made her such a good grandmother, and she has answered me by telling me about her own.

Dear’s only grandmother was her dad’s mother, a beautiful yet cruel woman named Missouri. She had a face that could stop you from breathing and long, thick, black hair she wore in a braid that reached her knees, yet she didn’t have a heart big enough for all of her grandkids. She’d bake cakes and invite only two children to eat them: one of my grandmother’s brothers and one of her cousins. Dear and the other children would pretend they didn’t want her “old clammy,” but being rejected hurt all the same. As a little kid Dear began wanting to be a grandmother so that she could do it lovingly. She promised herself that she would be what a grandmother should be—someone willing to “walk through water” for her grandbabies. She has more than achieved her goal.

I asked her once why Missouri was so mean, but my grandmother can only speculate.

“Her mother was full-blooded Cherokee, and her father was white. Perhaps they had different values, and she had a dysfunctional childhood. Or maybe she wasn’t mean and just had a strange way of being in the world.

“Everybody used to give Missouri things—beautiful things that she would never use or look at. She’d just place them in a trunk by her bed. I bet she died with a trunk full of beautiful things…”

There has never been a beautiful thing that my grandmother and I have not shared. We split oranges, share French perfume, divvy up seashell necklaces and jewels. We share the same heart, though it beats differently in us both—hers perhaps feistier, mine more serene. Yet maybe we are sharing a deception, only superficially varying in our mildness and vigor. I only know that when my grandmother shows a picture of herself at my age, everyone thinks it’s me. We lock eyes after someone makes a comment, mentally sharing the same sentiment. Our arms wrapped around each other, one’s head against the other’s chest, we are that Aristophanic being never split. The two of us are connected by autumn, eternally sharing the same deep love and necessary wildness.


1. Mrs. Crumbly is still alive and is extremely healthy physically and mentally. I’ve met her, and she is as much of a character in real life as she is in Dear’s stories.


A hundred dead and dying flowers occupy the shelves in Alma’s garage. Many sunlit mornings push past her window and beam in hot amber bars against her curling wallpaper. They coax her to the nursery, where she meticulously searches for the most colorful, healthy-looking plants. Petunias, violets, pansies—especially pansies—each blessed with the delightful promise of continual budding, would jerk and twist in their crates in the back of the car, waiting for their debut to new soil. Her son decided her future for her, so the foliage will now sit for a bone-dry day on the shelf; another, another.

Cathy makes her tea at six o’clock each morning. She has never been to England and hates her “first generation American” title. She speaks with an English accent acquired from her parents, dead and gone, reads etiquette books from cover to cover, writes on fancy stationery to old acquaintances who seldom return a word. Her house seeps lace, buckles under the weight of gaudy chandeliers, drowns in inherited china used once a year when her brother and his family visit for Thanksgiving. He does not speak with an English accent.

Judy pours God onto the road every morning with rice flower and colored spices in the hopes of dispelling negative vehicular energy. She powerwashes the house once a month; she prays; she reads all the important books and follows their words humbly and blindly. She sleeps in a bed with her boyfriend who never kisses her and three spiders who kiss her often. “And I’ll take this,” she says, handing the clerk a small wind chime. She picks up peacemakers wherever she finds them: incense, candles, lavender bath balm, a book of inspirational quotations compiled by Roger M. Baldwin, Ph.D. She keeps a modest home, whose roof shelters a wild daughter, a growing son, her boyfriend, and herself. The wind never blows too much around her house. She spends most of her time as a counselor at the retirement community. She works at the quilt store. Sometimes she makes quilts inspired by the work of Picasso, whose art she greatly admires. She believes above all things in happiness derived from the simplest of pleasures: the song of a sewing machine, brightly patterned fabrics, Mr. Fuzzy the cat, the perfect color of thread. She takes Paxil to see the colors brighter. The staff of the Annex, the restaurant next door, believes her to be positively imbalanced. Judy’s daughter is moving to Feather River Junior College up north, she says. It’s up north, west of some cattle ranching town that no one’s ever heard of, she says. Now Judy moves all of her quilting things into her daughter’s old room but she forgets one thimble, which sits in the corner, occasionally illuminated by the headlights of her son’s truck as he returns from another lost rodeo, or sometimes by the moon.

A visiting singer would have thought that the weekly carolers were the highlight of Alma’s week, but nobody knew for sure. “Page 33!” she would plead, and the high school good-doers would dive into a bland and overdone rendition of “Red River Valley.” Toward the beginning of their visits to the Acacias retirement home, she would ask only once. But days and their magic, miserable work forced her to ask twice sometimes. The second time through, the students would only sing the first, third, and last verse. To the singers, the shortened version always sounded funny and cheap, and maybe it sounded funny to Alma too. Maybe that was the taste in her mouth on the rainy night that she didn’t wheel out into the entryway to hear the singers. The singers didn’t know that she felt hung up by the dwarfed version brought-to-you-by-Alzheimers-by-old-age-  maybe-just-by-wanting-to-hear-the-whole-song- twice-to-hear-the-whole-song-just-once. In fact, when the wailing ambulance pulled out into the rain, they didn’t even know it was Alma.

The Titanium Man

The 1st Day

On the first day of his new life in the new neighborhood, Mister Dylan heard about the Titanium Man. The Titanium Man was built entirely of metal, every part of his body! No bones, no liver, no kidneys! But he was not a robot. His was not a voice made up of controlled beeps and monographic measurements. He spoke with lucidity, like any other person would, and had hair and teeth.

When the Titanium Man goes to the window, he raises the sash effortlessly and looks out over the city. He only does this at night, when people aren’t watching. If they are, he stays out of any light. Otherwise there’d be a big outcry of, “There’s the Titanium Man!” from down below on the streets. And the grown-ups don’t want to wake the children up.

The 2nd Day

At ten years old, Mister Dylan had glasses that had been his father’s as a child but hollowed out and fitted with stronger frames. They magnified everything about his eyes, making them look dark and ringed. The one for his right eye was thicker since he had taken it out with a glue gun by mistake two years earlier. Mister Dylan could be likened to a pear in his many black spots, some on the whites of his eyes, some on his arms and knees, because he had come to fruition several years too early. His head was itself the bulbous twig of his body, more of an ellipsoid than a sphere.

Mister Dylan kept Barbies in his basement under a white cloth, a frenetic pleasure. His father was president of the local chapter of the N.R.A. and Mister Dylan would often have to play downstairs while they held their meetings, because during this busy time of aluminum and beer and loud noises, no one cared to check after him. To keep himself from being discovered, he hid behind an enormous broken chandelier that his mother had once loved, checking every so often to see if he was being watched through the oblong droplets of glass. His father was a tall, skinny man whose face moved like a wooden puppet’s. He always rested his beer on his right knee and could not gain any weight no matter how sedentary his lifestyle and how much deep-fried food he took in. His was an incidental healthiness.

Mister Dylan did not have Barbies in his room, where he invited Tom Peel. Tom Peel was known for his ability to peel little kids like skinned fruit. He was also somehow connected to everything adults weren’t.

“You want to see the Titanium Man?” Tom Peel asked.


“What’s in it for me?”

“I have some candy left over from last Halloween.”


“Twelve packets.”

Tom Peel was sold. He snorted so every pore on his face widened. He was really very ugly.

“It’s in the closet.”

Tom Peel went into the closet and rooted around until he produced a bag with a smiling pumpkin on it.

“It’ll take a few years if you want to see him,” he said.

“A few years?”

“Yeah. You have to pass some tests. To see if you’re strong enough. Then you have to get a passport. It’ll cost about five hundred dollars.”

 Mister Dylan said nothing.


“I’d like to see him before the sixth grade.”

“Pfft. That’s impossible.”

“Can’t you arrange something?”

Tom Peel froze, Dots encircling his mouth. He stared out the window. ”You trying to violate my trust?”

“What trust?”

Mister Dylan realized that Tom Peel had not been following their conversation as closely as he had. He was displacing what he’d heard in Mission Impossible and Lethal Weapon into reality, into Mister Dylan’s room.

“I don’t think you’re ready for something like this.”

“I can handle it.”

“You’re gonna need more credentials.” He chewed on a Dot, which Mister Dylan imagined was his attempt at a cigarette. “Fancy stuff.”

“Fancy stuff…something cerebral. Like Ph.D.s?”

“What the hell—?” His concentration broken, Tom Peel spit the candy onto the floor. “You new kids are all such losers. Call me when you’re ready to be a man.”

He kicked the door on his way out.

>The 3rd Day

At dinner, Dylan’s mother smokes, taking the taste from his food.


“What, Dylan?”

“Can you put it out?”

“No, honey. This is what Mommy does at dinner every night.”

She is taugt and auburn, with rosy flushes in her cheeks. If her foreface hadn’t sagged into jowls, she might have been beautiful.

“How was school?” his father asks, and Dylan crosses his feet and grins.

“I didn’t go to school.”

“Well now, that’s just ludicrous. Every kid goes to school. I learned plenty of good stuff in the fifth grade.”

“Honey,” says his mother, but she is chewing and keeps herself from finishing her sentence. She swallows audibly. ”I think you should try and be nicer to the other boys in your new school.”

It’s a cesspool. Even the paint on the walls smells of idiocy, and it’s dry.

His father cleans his plate with a single scoop of his fork. Somehow, the corn and potatoes have congealed into a magnificent shape—similar to the state of Arkansas—easy for him to pick up.

“May I be excused?”

Mister Dylan fiddles with the pink dovetailed slab that will help build Barbie’s soon-to-be workplace. She is going to stand behind the counter and serve bubblegum wads the size of her fists. They are different flavors and can be made into a myriad of shapes through a series of cheap molds, none of which Mister Dylan owns.

He drags Barbie seductively around the kitchen corners of her town home, making her leap out in her bathrobe at nothing, anticipating an as-of-yet intangible romance. She makes soup for herself and sits, her hard breasts bulging sagaciously beneath the terrycloth, waiting with the supple air of an expectant female. It calls to mind for Mister Dylan the mournful words of the late poet Pablo Neruda: “I see a barber shop and I want to cry/ How I am sick of being a man!”

The 4th Day

Mister Dylan met Cole on the playground. Cole had a broken arm, perhaps the one thing about him that made him of any interest to anyone. The cast went half the way up his arm, past his elbow, bending in an uncomfortable curve.

Cole was lucky enough to live in the Titanium Man’s apartment complex. At night, he could hear him moving from his bed and tripping over chair legs. He never cursed because he didn’t have any feeling in his toes. He ate foil for a midnight snack, and he was always hungry when there was a big moon out.

“Have you ever seen him?” Mister Dylan asked.

“Tons of times. But I only see parts of him, not the whole thing. Like, y’know, I catch the back of his leg going in to the el’vator.”

“So you’ve never seen his face?”

“Nope. You’re the new kid?”


“You’re kind of stupid-looking.”

Mister Dylan tried to avoid the special classes populated by the children whose test scores were stamped in gold and framed in the principal’s office. They worked in desks, which grew into rows, and rows into rooms and rooms in to hallways and hallways into colonies, all scribing the great manifestos of their fact-filled lives. Mister Dylan knew a few things about colloidal suspension and the various processes needed to produce carbohydrates in plants, but he let this information slip easily away from him, as a rock from his palm, knowing he’d never use it.

Instead, he was placed in classes with Tom Peel. To pretend he was awake he’d close his left eye and doze off, one eye settled, completely unseeing, on the rest of the class. When he looked with both eyes he was able to put into focus the miserable construction-paper attempts at Thanksgiving settlers and Indians by his classmates. When he drew his Native American he drew a fully clothed fat man in aviator glasses, smoking a cigar and smiling. He had long pigtails and a button-down polo shirt and his lips were creased heavily from living on a farm in the wintertime. His name was Forgotten Thunderbird, and he was sent in a manila envelope to the principal’s office.

There were cracks in the classroom wall, and through midday hallucinations Mister Dylan thought he could hear Cole speaking through them. ”The Titanium Man is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning. He never leaves his apartment because people will make fun of him. But I wouldn’t. I’d just try to take him apart.”

The 5th Day

On a Saturday morning, Mister Dylan watches the sweaty backside of his mother struggle in the preparation of pancakes. Outside, on the windows, there are traces of pigmented fingerprints from tag games whose chaser didn’t stop at the regulated boundaries. Maybe their house was Second Safety. Mister Dylan had experienced such a thing, when one kid was so determined to hunt him down and tag him that the chase turned into a carnivorous, unsmiling pursuit, often ending in someone getting slammed against a car.



“Can I go outside?”


“What? Why not?”

She turned around and set the pancakes down on a plate in front of him. By the look in her eyes he could tell she didn’t have a reason.

“Just because.”


“Your father and I have a surprise.”

Outside, Tom Peel’s magnificently large body worked itself over the hood of an abandoned bus. There was a volcanic noise as he landed on the other side of the machine, on the pavement.

His father came in the room carrying a little suitcase-shaped bag wrapped in brown paper.

“Do you know what this is, Dylan?”


He pulled the string off and the paper fell away. There was a box.

“Take one guess.”

“A model car?”

His father’s face dropped. He looked to his wife and she smiled wanly and shook her head. He lifted the lid from the box.

“This is an old Ford. Very old, from before you were born. I just finished painting it.” There was a note of melancholy in his voice. ”It’s nice, huh?”

Mister Dylan pressed his finger to the hood. He could see where his father had skimped on brushstrokes. There were white stripes.

He pressed harder. His finger went through the roof.

The sun seemed to peak in the sky. The pancakes hissed. His mother wiped her wet fingers on the side of her head.

“What did you just do?”

“I went through the roof. I didn’t realize it was just…”

“I’ll show you through the roof, you little punk!”

His father clenched his fingers, looking on the verge of violence. Then he pointed to The Room.

“This was for my meeting tonight, Dylan!”

His mother—how she could love him at the moment Mister Dylan never figured—pressed herself close to her husband’s shoulder and nodded at her son, dismissing him to the Upstairs.

The 6th Day

Mister Dylan, downgraded to Dylan, did not leave his room until noon on Sunday. From the time he woke up until he couldn’t take being hungry anymore, he sat in front of his mirror and gave himself an extensive haircut, resulting in the loss of almost all his hair. The window opposite his door looked out onto a wall, and the wall was covered in ivy. He opened it and pushed himself forward, his feet against his bed, until he touched the wall with his denuded scalp. His father came into his room, rolling a cigarette between his palms.

“I want you to come downstairs now, Dylan.”

Dylan lunged at his shelf and threw the Old Testament at his father’s head. His father ducked to one side and smiled. The Old Testament hit the wall painfully, so the sound rattled in Dylan’s ears.

“I’m sure happy I don’t keep the rifle with me on Sunday mornings. Otherwise you’d be riddled by now.”

He meant it as a joke, of course, but Dylan clutched his chest as his father closed the door. He felt the pulses in his hand and his heart beating faster, faster.

The 7th Day

The Titanium Man leans out of his open window onto the midnight city. He moves to get up and there is a rough squeaking noise in his elbows. He has been meaning to oil them, but it’s the sort of thing that takes time to do; first he’s got to scrub his joints and then he has to loosen his bolts and then he can oil any sockets worthy of oiling. It’s not worth it, not right now. He flashes his eyes, which are blue-gray screens, over Grant Park. He can’t see anyone moving down there. He dips his finger into the concrete sill as easily as one might dip into a cake’s frosting. He realizes just then that he needs more ice in his refrigerator, by now the pail should be nearly empty. He checks the fridge. He’s right. He’s completely out.

At the ice machine the Titanium Man detects movement. He wraps his bathrobe tighter around his waist. A child, one arm fully casted, is jamming and re-jamming a dollar into the snack machine. He kicks it, screaming at the juice button.

The Titanium Man stands astride of the machine and lifts it slightly off the ground. He lets it drop and the child’s juice appears.

“Cranberry. Is this what you wanted?”

The boy shakes his head.

“It’s got enough sugar in it for you.”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“That’s all right. Very few people can sleep. When does the cast come off?”


“You guys and your bones.” He fills his ice bucket and chuckles brightly.

The 8th Day

“I saw the Titanium Man last night. In real life,” Cole says to Mr. Dylan.

“Are you kidding?”

“Nope. He was six feet tall an’ metal, an’ he was wearing a bathrobe. He talked to me.”

“What was he doing?”

“Getting ice.”

“For what?”

“Who knows? Maybe t’freeze every radiator in the world. Or maybe he’s gonna spread it on the ground and make winter with his superpowers.”

“He’s going to use it to freeze the school,” the girl in front of Mister Dylan whispers.

“No, stupid!” another boy says, and his voice is like a hoarse catcall. “He’s gonna choose one kid an’ freeze ’em, and take them back to his house to study.”

Everyone leans close in to him, his story the most compelling.

“He’s going to unfreeze them and thaw them and take off their arms and legs and sew on a frog’s head and arms and legs.”

“Woah. A frog’s head?”

“How do you know who he’s gonna choose?” asked Mister Dylan.

“Oh, you know it,” the kid’s braces were shining with cunning. “You have a dream about it, and when you wake up, you’re in his hotel apartment and your head’s on the other side of the room.”

The little girl shuddered and began crying. On the forestage of his mind, Mister Dylan could see himself being cut apart. His limbs were distributed liberally to guests at a dinner table, and at the table’s head was the Titanium Man.

The 10th Day

Mister Dylan assembled a plastic family: Barbie, Ken, their houseguest Kiko. He had been rehearsing his speech for three days. They looked expectant for his delivery, especially Barbie, her arms extended in a permanent embrace. Mister Dylan smiled kindly at the three of them, children of his imagination.

“I don’t want to search for some purpose to playing. The lives I have made for you are as realistic as they will ever be. We exist, all of us, in solipsistic chasms of emptiness—each of us feels his or hers more poignantly than they do others’. You’ve had to add on to your basement because of flooding, pay for collagen injections, loosen your belts around Christmas time. And while this is a dismal request, I want you all to go on living my life after I am done living it. I haven’t grown or changed in two years and am unlikely to grow five inches in a night; you, with your unchanging faces and toned bodies, you can safely occupy my space, if only for the sake of living, as your presence is felt as deeply by anyone here as mine ever was.”

Mister Dylan wiped some drool that had leaked down onto the side of his chin and watched the numbers flip on his clock. Steadily, 8:43 gave way to 9:12, and only the nine and the one changed while the two was somehow wrung from the three. He pulled apart his blinds and looked down Milwaukee, toward where the Titanium Man’s apartment building was. As the night came on, he could feel a cloud forming around his vision, but fought childhood to keep it up.

The Titanium Man lived three blocks away. Walking there was almost like floating. He went in through the building’s lobby and crossed over to the staircase. There was no one else on the bottom floor. He learned from a map that there were seven floors, and the Titanium Man’s apartment was on the third. 2054 was the first number off the stairs.

“Hello?” he called, too loudly, and there was only a quiet humming. Then there were soft red lights from under the door crack, the metallic unlinking of chains. The knob turned, and Mister Dylan was overcome with a giddy, intoxicating sensation—so much that he couldn’t tell if he was actually alive or had ever been—and he shut his eyes tight to keep himself from waking up.

Guys, Get Up!

“Guys, get up! Breakfast is being served in a half hour. You’ve already missed the morning service!”

I groaned. My whopping three hours of sleep had not served me well. I rolled over and saw Andrew looking up at me. Andrew had dark hair, a yellowish tone of skin and eyes with a slight slant to them—Asian. In fact, everyone in the room was Asian, excluding myself.

It seemed a strange idea initially, but when my friend Alvin invited me to come on a previous retreat of the Cincinnati Chinese Church six months before I figured it was better than gazing at a glowing monitor all weekend. I had been having trouble making friends at my family’s church; they just weren’t the kind of people I fit in with. The youth at my parent’s church seemed to me the perfect stereotype of teenagers—no ambition, only caring about the moment, and doing everything for the sole purpose of fitting in. I dreaded going to church each Sunday; I didn’t want to become one of these people. The Cincinnati Chinese Church offered a fresh start.

I was amazed at how quickly I assimilated into the social world of the Chinese Church. It was the first time I had ever felt “popular,” so naturally I continued to return. It was a wonderful atmosphere—a place where I could worship the God I loved and enjoy the company of the people who seemed like me—not externally, but internally. As I continued to return to the Chinese church, a lot of my “friends” made fun of me. They called me an “inverse Twinkie,” a clever racial slur referring to Caucasian people who are under the impression that they’re Asian. I simply smiled and played along. I found that I cared less and less what they thought—I had discovered a place I loved, a place I belonged, and I was happy. The reason I fit in so well with the youth group was a bit oblique at first, but eventually it became obvious to me. They’re scholarly people, intelligent; they love God and have a knack for computers—which also happens to be a perfect description of myself. I climbed out of bed and got dressed. I was sore from the previous night’s festivities—nothing quite like Frisbee Football, or Ultimate Frisbee as my Oriental friends had dubbed the game. I smiled to myself as I walked down the dimly-lit hallways of the campus. “I am at home,” I thought.

The Memories in a Pair of Socks

I put these socks on tonight, because the only place to work undisturbed on my history homework was my chilly attic bedroom. Moments after I had slipped on the blue and yellow/grayish wool-blends, I felt the cold, hard tile of an empty church hallway beneath my feet. The picture in my mind was of a weekend retreat, the third of five that were part of a youth leadership training program. I, of course, have vivid memories of all five retreats, but for some reason these socks take me back to that January weekend: The snowball fight. The warm, carpeted floor of the room hung with Monets. The girl I lost (not that I ever actually had her). The cold, hard tile of that hallway.

If I looked through my sock drawer, I am sure that I would find many more stories, many more places. I know, for instance, that there are some mottled gray wools with holes that could reminisce about cold-weather camping trips with Boy Scout Troop 10. They might also tell of the times they served to replace the ripped cloth boots from my roller blades. Perhaps, though, they would just complain about being neglected of late, in favor of the two newer pairs of softer, less itchy wool-blends; the ones that talk of churches, and also speak of sandals. Or maybe they would fault the black, thick dress wools with the elastic all stretched out (they have tales to tell about frigid marching band shows with the cuffs of the flannel pants I wore under my uniform tucked in so they wouldn’t show) for being part of what has kept me from camping and skating for the last four years.

I suppose it is possible that there may be, somewhere in this house, some white cotton tubes with colored bands around their tops that remember back nine or ten years to when I thought that it was still in style to wear them stretched all the way up my calves. I’m not sure why I continued to wear them that way even after my classmates informed me that plain whites bunched around the ankles were much more fashionable. I am also not sure if I will ever wear my old, gray wools again. Nor am I sure why this pair I am wearing right now wants so desperately to be roaming the cold hallways of a church late at night. I am, however, sure of one thing: in the hour that it has taken me to write this, I have remembered much that I had forgotten, and even learned a little about myself, and it is all thanks to my socks.


Who’s responsible, for

That dark patch, can’t scrub it

Off my skin. Why, it’s a stain.

Not me, maybe me. Was it then


Couldn’t be, I let you in. You loved


Liar, perhaps stupidity did. Sorry, I mistook


For somebody else. Please leave

Now, I can’t look upon this mess anymore.

I weep, oh folly, I weep.

Many questions, countless reasons. But I

Still don’t know. Why?

Fuck the maternal bonds, or the supposed Soul-


To Mate – the necessity of life?

Kill me then,

Here and now.

Masking in the Morning

Restricted absent cleansing approach

Aroma sheek mineral oils

Falter skeptic stress relief

In a conference of intergenerational

Exfoliation maneuvers


Colored contour interprets confidence

Embalmed for powderfresh comfort

Brush to naturalize the effect