My mother says it is dangerous be like him
Family reunions at my grandma’s always housed more empty plates than people. White duplex on Davis Street. Dirty work boots on white linoleum floors next to my black Mary Janes. Air heavy with fried chicken and alcoholic sweat and the powder my grandma wore on her nose. Orange cigarette butts on the back porch beside my sidewalk chalk portraits. Hands too shaky to help me draw, used to the company of a bottle. Hips accustomed to strange hands holding them, dip can rings on rear jean pockets. Each person had a reason that led him or her away from the table.
Mid-afternoon church services before dinner, the sun shining through the stained-glass windows seem to multiply, like they are trying to bake the confessions out of us. Sometimes this was the third or fourth service I would go to that week. Skirts only bought if deemed appropriate, hands at my sides to determine fingertip length. Bible verse of the week on the fridge for me to memorize. King James version only. My mother believed church would save me.
Halfway through the reunion, my relatives' antsy feet would begin to tip-tap under tables from staying in one place for too long or from lack of nicotine, cutting the only time we had with each other in half. My grandma moved into our house three years ago, ending the tradition of Christmas occurring at her place. Evergreen trees still meant my mom reliving memories of her parent’s divorce, cards with family portraits fallen flat in mailboxes, and the fear that any money sent would only fuel loved-ones' addiction even further. Every December 26th my grandpa would make his yearly call to my mom.
The Willie Nelson look-a-like filled the screen on my mother's phone. It was a Tuesday night in April. My mother was on the plane from Little Rock to Phoenix before twelve hours passed, rushing to see him and to say the things that cannot be said on a yearly phone call. Her tiny fingers and his tobacco stained ones intertwining. His lungs the color of the asphalt he spent his life laying. His body shrinking into itself laying in a hospital bed. My mom sat by his wife, a woman who is not my mother's mother. A woman who stole him from the family he should have loved. A woman with red-brown skin and black hair who taught him of spirits in nature and adopted him into the tribe.
Before he passed, my mom started talking more about how alike my grandpa and I are. How she used to braid my pale hair because it reminded her of his twin ponytails peaking out from under a weathered cowboy hat. How our dreams take over our logic. How our hearts stay dominant over our heads. How I always look like I am five seconds away from leaving.
After my grandpa passed, my uncle Paul did too. Then my great uncle, an aunt, a cousin whom I never had a chance to meet. Five pine caskets in white churches in three states. My grandma cried for days. My mom barely cried at all. Lemon scented cleanliness as she scrubbed my foster siblings' sippy cups.
These babies whose parents once held them with needle tracked arms and shaky hands. These babies who came to us to escape this decay. These babies sleeping a room over from mine, my car parked outside the window, and a full pack of cigarettes in the middle console.
Government Warning: Smoking Kills. I read it in my mother's voice, then my grandmothers, then my uncle's. Lastly, my grandfather's, though I had only heard the rasp once. When my mother found them, there was only one missing. My lungs were not black and my skin was not withering. My first cigarette scented my hair to match my grandfather's though, overpowering my usual Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, and that was enough.
Cream color cylinders dropping into the commode. Then tears in my mother's eyes, then black tobacco on her hands instead of soap. Baby bath toys between me and the door. And again, my siblings on the other side of the wall.
My mother says it is dangerous be like him. She has told me my whole life that I am. I want to know him badly. Flipping through a photo album with a sunset cover holding half decayed pages of my mother's pictures of Willie, labelled as Manuel Clark, scented with old. My finger prints on all of the edges, on every picture. Putting myself in the Arizona sun. Oh, how sweet it would be to be known by someone just like me.
On weekends without funerals, she and I hosted search parties in antique stores, always paying too much money and time just to find another empty plate to hang on the wall. The left kitchen wall was the first to be taken over with blue and pink and yellow patterned porcelain. Over time the plates wrapped around family portraits seemingly suffocating our tiny family, a pine box removing us from the conglomeration.
Lately, my mom has started flinching when I slam the door behind me. I don’t know if it’s out of fear I’ll break a plate or fear I won’t come back. But her fear translates into seemly absurd rules. Her sadness turning into new fear. Turning into new rules, making the air feel that much sweeter when I climb through my bedroom window to touch the grass below. Making deserts feel close enough to run to. Making me feel resilient enough to make it there alone. With the help of my grandfather of course, the holes in the blue-black night sky moving to line a path for me to follow.
I cannot imagine my grandfather in heaven. Sans cowboy hat, wearing all white. Hands on a harp. Are cigarettes allowed in heaven? And turquoise belts and stones that heal and hidden illegal eagle feathers? He would refuse to go without these.
This is not to say I hope that he is dammed.
I see him strong. Bones made of abalone and fuchsite and crystal quartz. Running through the desert, sipping water from cacti, soaring along with the eagles, and climbing the Red Rocks in Sedona.
Grandpa Manuel, I still pray for you. Wherever you may be, I hope to meet you again there. I will bring your hat and your eagle feather. And I will bring your healing rock. And I will bring the word of God (in King James). I will bring these things and we will pray, you to the Great Spirit and me to Yahweh. I'll put the healing rock on your ribs and when you are healed I will hand you a pack of Camel No. 9s. And we will celebrate until the Arizona sun rises, singing hymns I know my grandmother taught you too:
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
Have loved long since, and lost awhile!