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The Narrative Game - Jane-Marie Auret

My dad lays across the denim couch, his ankles off the end of the armrest and his belt threaded but unbuckled, one forearm dangling off the side.

I shut the front door and kick the snow off my boots.

“Home safe?” he mutters into his elbow stretched over his face.

“As has happened the past 17 years.” My sweaty clothes itched from running.

“If everything’s okay, let me rest. I ache. I need to rest,” he says, his eyelids tremoring shut. My father was a hard worker. He snored.

I let him alone.

“Ze first course!” Dad announced, brandishing two plastic plates heaped with steamed mixed vegetables; our own mirepoix: carrots, peas, corn, lima beans, green beans. No salt. No butter. Steamed in the microwave. Flavorless. He handed me mine and, as was customary, we stood in the kitchen chewing greens while watching our bratwurst—the entrée—sizzle.

My dad cooked dinner like he did math. He balanced our meals. One half of each plate was for vegetables. On top of that he’d add a sausage or a fried ham slab or a potato he baked with cheese. Kind of like little-kid-plates with dividers: one half was for veggies, one fourth for protein, the other fourth for bread. The bread steamed out of the oven.

My dad baked his own bread twice a week. It hurt his gut to eat wheat raised with RoundUp. Every month he’d drive 80 miles north to an Amish farm and buy whole-grain flour meal in 40-pound bags, which we stored in the “butcher’s pantry”, which was a little concrete shoot in our basement which only mattered when the house was heated by coal in the 30’s. Now it was just for storage.

My dad used sugar and warm water to activate the yeast. He’d add flour. He’d wait. He’d punch it down, add more flour, wait, and bake. His bread was terrifically flavorless and mealy, like the fiber of ripe fruit; but the exaction he put into feeding me healthy always helped me swallow what he cooked, however bland.

“In history, we learned about railroads.”

“What, like, how they run?”

“No, like, what they did. For America.”

His thin lips pursed straight, curious.

“Like, for a long time after Independence, ‘America’ just wasn’t British. You know? Allegiances to states were much stronger than allegiance to a national American identity. A yeoman farmer from Georgia wasn’t the same as a Puritan from Connecticut. Except railroads created a more cohesive American identity, except for indigenous people, obviously. Everywhere they connected, the railroads united. But the railroads weren’t standardized in the South, which was a major reason the Confederacy lost the Civil war.”

“Huh.” He paused to think about it, mixing instant, unsweetened icetea in a cooler. “So today if we ran a railroad to Mexico, would your history teacher think we’d become more similar?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s just called globalization.”

“Hey, if I could get a higher paying job in Mexico and keep my American vote, I’d move there. I like Guava,” Dad said.

My mom was a half black Dominican, which makes me a forth. I’m brown. My mom is gone.

My grandma—dad’s mom—claims we can trace our lineage to the Mayflower. I am an only child, my dad is an only child, my grandma is an only child, and my grandma’s mom was the only surviving heir to the Varris plantation of Fort Vernon, Alabama after her brother died in World War II. My great-grandma’s Grandpa, Thomas Richard Varris, after whom my father is named, was the last to own that plantation and the people on it. It’s shameful, and I wish I could go back and change history, starting with Hernan Cortez. But I can’t. In any case, the family lost every last cent they once had, and my grandma and dad are poor. The ancestor Thomas Richard Varris’s great uncle was Edward Rutledge, who signed the declaration of independence for South Carolina. Rutledge’s ancestry is traced to Roger Wilder, who heard the Sermon on the Mount from the Mayflower. My grandmother recites her lineage. The honor it upswells in her is like psalms. The only heirloom she has is a silver cross necklace, which she clasps frequently to ground herself in reality.

How delightfully ironic that the only living heir of the Varris plantation is a brown girl. On the one hand, I am black. On the other, I was raised by white people who saw me as their own. They say that for other ethnicities, if you are more than a third, you are that ethnicity; which would disqualify me from my blackness. Except that in this country one drop of black blood makes you black. One drop. That’s not true elsewhere. In the Dominican Republic, almost everyone is part black, but they consider themselves white against Haitians. Even in American, race has not been a stagnant category. In the 1800s, European Catholics didn’t count as white, but in the 1900s Hispanics, Arabs, and Indians all counted as white on the US census for years. No, the only standard definition of “whiteness” throughout American history has been that it is “not black.” A malleable, exclusionary category.

Except, now, I am the part black descendent of White Protestant America.

“What’d you learn in school today, pumpkin?” Dad would ask and listen at length about whatever book I was reading, whatever concept in math, incident in history, or anything funny; but the moment I mentioned a girl I didn’t like, or a teacher I thought was unfair, he’d draw a line in the air and say, “I don’t want to hear about your drama.” Dad doesn’t believe in drama. I was at school to learn, to prepare myself for a life where I earned good money. “You’re not there to be liked,” he would say.

My dad has always lived physically. He experiences life with his hands. Even now, he wakes up every morning to run to Nine Mile road and back. He does seventy pushups a day. He works as a tech who repairs the gages which press plastic resin pellets into car headlights and bumpers; so he spends the day climbing, twisting, jamming, and unjamming the leviathan of sheet metal responsible for the end of the assembly line. He is contract—not union. No health insurance. Medicaid. He has never taken a day off. He washes his hands at the end of the day, but the grease never fully scrubs off.

One day, when I was 16, I volunteered to work at the voting polls for state election primaries. I couldn’t vote at the time, but I cared about politics and got stationed on the west side of Detroit close to Hamtramck, about 3 miles from where we lived. The neighborhood was pocked with burned buildings not yet torn down; and I was secretly excited to go where I was told not to. Dad acted as though the poverty there would contaminate me.

Except, my car buzzed too much and broke down. I had to call him.

“What the hell do you mean you’re in the middle of Hamtramck? What the hell are you doing there? You let them station you there? You didn’t think to check your car’s fucking oil first? I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

I didn’t want to putter around the engine without my dad there, so I awkwardly humphed in the driver’s seat awaiting his arrival. When I looked up through a windshield, a crusty grey-white man was hiding around the corner of a house. His cheeks were hollow. He and I looked at and through each other for a long time, and he fidgeted. Fidgeting means drugs.

I didn’t know what he was thinking, or if he meant harm. He looked like a drug addict. He didn’t walk towards me, he just spent a long time making eye contact. Like minutes. Just then my dad pulled up, and I knew I’d be okay.

As my dad popped the hood, I explained, “As a matter of fact, I did check my oil. Last week.”

“It’s the battery. You left a light on.” He attached jumper cables.

“You have no way of knowing if I left a light on.”

“How’d the battery die?”

“I don’t know! The car’s old!”

“Why did you drive an old car down the side street of some neighborhood in Hamtramck? You are old enough to know to not drive into Detroit. Not with this piece of junk. You can’t drive this car for a month. It’s amazing that I ever—”

Just behind him, the drug addict guy was approaching us. “Dad!” I interrupted, “DAD!” pointing behind him.

My dad spun around like a teffle lever, arms raised, growling, to which the grey-white, fidgeting man who said, “Richy? That you?” Correct, he knew my father’s name.

My dad’s face blurred blank, but his cheeked flushed bright red.

“Richy!” The guy hailed again, open armed.

My dad puffed up like a rooster, arms cocked out. Coldly, he explained, “I don’t know who are.” He stepped a little on his left foot to scare him.

The guy jolted with surprised and scampered off. “That’s right!” My dad congratulated himself. Eventually the engine revived.

I never asked about how that guy knew my dad’s name, and my dad never followed up to take away my keys.

My dad loved his three dogs and kissed them on the lips. He took them everywhere he could and bought them snow boots for the winter. He even cooked them slabs of meat along with our dinner and complimented them when they ate.

My high school boyfriend was a man named Tamir, who is black with black parents. We both loved history and gossip, because we liked learning about how other people thought about things. The interesting part of history class was sitting in my seat imagining myself the boss of Tammany hall, deciding whose kneecaps I would break today. Tamir would engage my thoughts and provide details like, “he thinks that you only tax profits. He’s going to say, ‘how can I pay when I have no money leftover?” I would have to decide if I was going to break his kneecaps or show mercy. That’s why I loved Tamir. Tamir helped me rule Tammany hall. This was the narrative game.

Tamir always told me that he thought I was real pretty, and stopped at my locker to let me know he still loved me every day. He was a linebacker because he was extremely overweight, which is a characteristic my dad would have hated in himself, so he judged in other people. I liked that Tamir was big. It made me feel effeminate. Every day, we kissed before lunch, but always ate with our friends separately.

My dad lays across the denim couch, his ankles off the end and his belt threaded but unbuckled, one forearm dangling off the side.

“Everything alright?” Dad asked to his elbow.

“Yes, sir. Just like every other day since I’ve been alive.”

“Alright, let me nap. I ache.”

When I was five, my dad bought me an alarm clock. He said, “I’m not playing around. Hey! Listen. You’ll get yourself out of bed by 6:30, you’ll eat breakfast, and you’ll get to the bus stop on time. Miss the bus, you go to summer school.”

Now that I had a car—an old one that buzzed—but a car, nonetheless, I slept in late as I please.

In a modern American liberal mindset, children are born perfect, and society corrupts them. Therefore, you must find your authentic self—who you were as a child—in order to reactivate that former perfection. This is the process of self-fulfillment.

My grandma believes the opposite. In a Christian mindset, according to my Calvinist ancestors, children are born corrupt, and the denial of that corrupt, innate self purifies the spirit. Therefore, you control your impulses, tell yourself “no”, and logically evaluate your dreams to let them go. This is the process of self-emptying. “It’s not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less,” my Grandma would say.

“Do you see all those liberals who hate themselves? They are hurting because they don’t realize they can’t provide their own fulfillment. Even people on drugs are doing it for their self preservation. They just haven’t accepted that the self can’t be preserved, which is why you worship God.” “No, Tiana, you can’t go to therapy. You don’t need self-esteem, you need selflessness and humility.”

If I had to pick one major disagreement between Republicans and Democrats right now, it would probably be the stance on if society is a positive or negative influence. Civil disobedience is logical if you presuppose that society corrupts you. Civil obedience is logical if you believe society saves you. A lot of African American people from the Bible Belt believe in civil obedience, which is problem to be addressed by leftist racial discourse, which calls for revolution on the basis of race. My dad works every day with no health insurance jamming and unjamming the pipes of the machine that presses plastic pellets not out of self-fulfillment, but out of his idea of what it is to be a classically honorable man, which comes from the denial of what he wants or needs. He tells himself “no” to provide for me. That is the essence of his Christian, white manhood. This was his narrative.

My dad wasn’t possessive of me, but he felt protective. “I want you to take pepper spray to school.” He told me once I revealed that I was dating Tamir. “I’m sure that you think he’s a nice kid, and I’m sure he does like history, but I promise you that the reason he’s being nice is because he wants to, umm, become intimate.”

I chuckeled.

“He can kiss me. I’m okay if he does.”

“No! No driving him home. I swear to God, I’ll take that car away. You have to come home by 10:00 every night.”

“Thomas Richard, that’s insane.”

“Excuse me? Look, you are at an age where I cannot save you from yourself. If you get pregnant, you will not be able to go to a great college and have that classic experience where you join a sorority. I want that for you. You want birth control? I can buy you condemns. Hormone pills will make you gain weight, and they don’t always work.”

“I’ve actually thought about this. I want a non-hormonal IUD.”

“Okay, what’s that? He looked it up on his phone, which only worked when connected to WiFi because we didn’t have a good data plan. He pressed the screen again and again until something made his eyes buldge. “I change my mind. You’re grounded forever. Go to your room.”

I’m pretty sure it was the price.

“What would you do if you were Lakota and you saw the railroad?” Tamir asked.

“I’d want to kill them all.”

“Would you commit murder against the Chinese men who were building the railroad? Who were as impoverished as you?”

“I mean, that genocide mostly happened because of small pox. But also, I don’t know. I mean, it’s very glorified to say ‘I will fight until death,’ but I think that when you’re really faced with the certainty of dying, you won’t fight. If I knew I was going to get killed, I might choose life in submission.”

“Or you might get small pox and end up dead anyway.”

“Stop, that makes me want to cry. People are relearning Lakota. That language is coming back.” I had to complete the narrative, which doesn’t end in complete tragedy. Except, the buffalo are gone.

“You see those people doing drugs, sweetie?” My grandma pointed at some people with nasty teeth on the street corner from her car. “Someone has hurt them, maybe. But they’ve been hurt in their worldly bodies. Pain on earth nurtures the spirit. They are being purified like gold in hot fire. Some of them will come to Jesus. This is what Jesus meant when he said ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’.”

I did not tell my grandma “that’s what Karl Marx meant when he said “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Then again, opiates are addictive because they make people feel really, really good.

We ate vegetable soup that night. My dad had minced onions, celery, and carrots and sautéed them in butter, then he added a pack of frozen peas, corn, carrots, and green beans. He added three cans of tomato sauce and spiced it with garlic powder, salt, and black pepper.

He shook the pepper like a painter makes the finishing brush strokes on his masterpiece. Just swish. A smidge more. We ate it with the sweet, mealy bread, like the fiber of ripe fruit.

Austerity is a form of art.

One night, I came back far past my curfew, having just dropped Tamir off at his house. I saw the grew-white, fidgeting man from when my car broke down in Hamtramak in his car pulling out of my driveway.

I suspected why he knew my father.

“Hooray! Hooray!” My dad shouted when he saw my acceptance letters.

“Choose Emory! It’s a wealthy, Methodist Univeristy with great financial aid. Your ancestors from Alabama would be so proud of your acceptance!” Grandma said.

“University of Michigan is good too, pumpkin. It’s your decision.” My dad added.

Shortly before I was off to college, on August 14th, 2018, I went down to the butcher’s pantry because I wanted to be the one to bake bread for my father.

When I went down to get the bag of flour for the bread, I opened the old coal shaft and dragged out the sack of wheat. I heard plastic scraping underneath it. I lifted the bag and saw a plastic box with five orange little bottles labeled OxyCotin. One bottle was prescribed to a Nancy Fowler. One to Mark Fisher. One to Tirone Wilson-James. One to Claire Rodriguez. One to Dmitri Nincovic.

None to my father. That was part of his story. Part of the narrative he didn’t want me to know. If I told my grandma, she’d cry and tell him to find Jesus. He would be so ashamed if I knew. He aches all the time, I understood. I put the bottles back on the ground, and laid the wheat meal over them.

On that same day, August 14th, 2018 my dad told me, “Hey pumpkin, take this.” He handed me an envelope. In it were three things: my grandma’s silver cross necklace, $1,200, and a little sheet of paper which said for Your IUD. That’s also part of the story.

A cross, an IUD, opiates, Jesus, a quarter black woman raised in white America, and my lovely, aching father.

I understand, Dad, I do.


Jane-Marie Anderson has published twice before: once in Wising Up Press's Longer Than Expected anthology and once in Tulip Tree Press's Stories that Need to be Told anthology.


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