Dad said, "Thank you," and took the box.
The man looked at me, looked at the ground, walked away.
Dad smoked till the man was out of sight, then he threw his cigarette in the gutter and opened the box.
"He gave us donuts!" I shouted.
Dad looked at me and started chuckling. "That guy thinks we don't have any money." He took a donut, laughed again, and blew powdered sugar out of his mouth.
I ate a glazed, and then a chocolate with sprinkles. Dad ate all the rest, steadily, devouring them with great relish and no preference for jelly over oldfashioned over chocolate or bear clawonly pleasure, and great amusement.
AT HOME I was either left alone, or overwhelmed with attention. Mom and Dad were either oblivious or hyperaware. They disappeared on a trip for seventeen days and left me with the maid. On Mom's return I ignored her when she called my name. She had my ears examined. They were infected. I needed surgery; tubes installed to drain them. I was four. Mom set herself the task of increasing my medical vocabulary, to make the hospital less frightening. (When an orderly rolled me into the operating room I asked him, "Are you the anesthesiologist?") I received books to read during my recovery, and became the kind of kid who spends all his time alone, reading, till Mom noticed my left eye didn't turn all the way to the left; then it was back to the doctor.
I HAD a friend down the hill, in the long shadow of our building, whose mother cooked us meatloaf. When I discovered meatloaf, and that other mothers regularly cooked it for their children, I went home and said, "Other mothers cook.
Why don't you cook?"
Without hesitation Mom said, "Other mothers don't write books."
It was the end of that question for me. And thenceforth, as if to compensate for not cooking the food we were eating, she began reading from her books at the dinner table.
Mom was a captivating reader. She'd won the all-state elocution award in Oklahoma, in the forties, and when she told a story, especially a story about her childhood, Mom made me love words.
BUT MOM had lots of other people to captivate. The apartment was headquarters for a salon-cum-luncheoncalled the Roundtablewhere Mom hosted conversation. The guests were notorious strangers. They always came, if for no other reason than to see the view. They were: union leaders; unionized prostitutes; Alex Haley; Native American secessionists; Agnes Moorehead; radical lesbians; Nobel laureates; Joan Baez; Black Panthers; Dear Abby; an astronaut; Eldridge Cleaver; Jessica Mitford; Gloria Steinem; a Catholic priest; a woman who had murdered her husband; Shirley Temple; a lesbian priest; Betty Friedan; welfare mothers; Werner Erhard; a Soviet ballerina; Daniel Ellsberg. And so on.
Jessica Mitford was an old British woman with huge round glasses who proclaimed, "When I die I've given instructions that I want to be buried like this," and then pulled one corner of her mouth up and dragged the other one down, and eyed the other guests (the mayor, a plastic surgeon, Agnes Moorehead, Shirley Temple). "I want to make sure you all check on it. That's the way I want to look." Eldridge Cleaver brought Dad velvet flower-embroidered shorts that had a codpiece hanging down the front. Once I came home from school and no one was in the kitchen. The cook and the housekeeperin French maid's uniforms had joined the table for lunch with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. (Said Mom, "They were the perfect people to talk with domestic workers about the difficulty of working in someone else 's home.")
Mom presided over the Roundtable with a silver bell that she rang to get everyone's attention. After ringing the bell Mom directed the conversation by asking questions. And as I went about my only-child activitiessearching out a wire stripper to connect a camera battery to a nail and make a laser gun; constructing an orange juice dispenser out of Dad's discarded WaterPik dental hygiene machine (so I could have breakfast in my room); synthesizing an alcohol-free imitation wine; using bendable drink straws to siphon and circulate cold water throughout my bathroom during a heat wavewords found their way into my newly drained ears:
From Oh The Glory Of It All by Sean Wilsey. Copyright 2005 Sean Wilsey. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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