May 18, 2013
Posted on Jun 28, 2010
By Mr. Fish
When I was 7 I wanted to be Angela Davis.
Not a fireman, not an astronaut, not even what so many of my friends in 1973 dreamed of being—none other than the voice, and some would argue the moral conscience, of our generation, Cornelius from “Planet of the Apes”—but a black feminist revolutionary communist ex-convict philosopher genius sistah what are you looking at, honkie?! hellraiser. Afro as big as a Hoppity Hop, no makeup, fist in the air, whitey afraid to walk down the same side of the street as me, the biggest shoes anyone could imagine seeing on a woman. A woman, that is, with legs of equal length, a clarification that I feel I must make because my grandmother had a friend who had one normal-sized leg and another leg maybe 10 inches too short, the difference being made up by a gigantic black shoe that looked like a small suitcase containing what I’d always imagined were silver dollars packed so closely together that there was no sound from her walking to indicate any value in her handicap. I used to imagine that she was one-sixteenth a Frankenstein, as uninteresting as somebody one-sixteenth a Kennedy, barely worth the ingredient because it did more to point out the much larger portion of herself that was unpedigreed mutt.
Her name was Aida Hobson, and during summer afternoons at my grandparents’ house in Springfield, Pa., I’d hear, sometimes as many as three times a week, the screen door off the back porch open and then slam shut and her walk across the linoleum like half a pony and unload an armload of tomatoes and spiders from her garden onto the kitchen table, the flabby drum roll of picture-perfect fruit reverberating through the house as faintly as aristocrats applauding through white gloves. Then the pony would turn and the screen door would slam shut again, but not all the time. If my grandmother wasn’t busy with a crossword puzzle or the painting of her hideous yellow toenails, some as thick as cough drops, or a card game with my twin sister and big brother and me, she’d meet Mrs. Hobson in the kitchen and the two would settle into chairs on the back porch for cigarettes and coffee and inaudible talk about what always sounded like plans for either a prison break or a murder or how much more salacious the next sorority party was going to be, Aida’s Spanish accent lisping through third-grade English with the allure of exotic cooking. The laughter inside their conversation was always too secretive or lustful or serious to seem entirely appropriate for two women with such dainty mustaches and underwear one could easily imagine, if mounted properly, capable of pulling a mid-sized skiff full of useless books across a vast ocean.
“Angela who?” said my grandfather, straining to hear me over the applause of the 40 pieces of bacon that he was cooking on his brand new birthday present, a slab of superheated Teflon as big as a headstone that, when plugged in and shingled with bacon, dimmed all the lights in the house and made every dog in the neighborhood spin in circles and roll around on the ground and ululate.
“Davis,” I said. “Angela Davis. Roger has a poster of her in the basement.” Roger was my 24-year-old uncle who was still living at home and was slowly turning the 1950s décor into something more conducive to the growing of mutton chop sideburns and the cashing of unemployment checks. “You know, the big picture of the black lady, near the air hockey table?” No response, the bacon grease beginning to fog my and my grandfather’s glasses. “The black lady!” I insisted, balling up my tiny white fists. “Free Angela Davis!” I said, quoting the poster and feeling the injustice of the words. “Down in the basement!”
“Air hockey table?” he finally said.
“Forget it,” I said, going out the back door and down the steps and into the garage to climb into the backseat of my grandparents’ station wagon, where I planned on using the momentum of my foul mood to properly mourn the end of summer. It broke my heart to smell the newness of the upholstery, only 3 months old, the intoxicating aroma of fresh plastic mixed with suntan lotion and cheeseburgers, and to remember the long summer days spent being driven back and forth to the mall and the tennis courts and the movie theaters and the public swimming pool and how, in less than 48 hours, I would be crammed in between my sister and brother in the backseat of my parents’ green Nova, the upholstery smelling like old snow and my mother’s menthol cigarettes, with my stepfather’s empty beer cans rolling around under the driver’s side seat like tiny skulls from an indifferent slaughter of retarded children. It wasn’t that there was any less love at my parents’ house than there was at my grandparents’, it was just that there were cats and dogs and a television that burned 24 hours a day and a fondness for alcohol to compromise the rationing size of the available portions.
“You’ve got to understand,” my brother would explain to me with some measure of impatience, “some of those dogs have been around a lot longer than you or me. For Petesake, Buffy’s almost 11.” He was right. Buffy was almost 11. And although Bullet, Buffy’s second husband, and me shared the same exact age almost to the day, the fact that he was able to toilet train himself years before I was made him, by comparison, something of a fecal prodigy and me an exhibitionist of utter helplessness. There was no contest. In fact, while I’d never even kissed a girl before, although I was swung around hard by my hood once and thrown into a stack of trashcans by Betty Boyle for trying, Bullet was already a grandfather.
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