By W. RALPH EUBANKS
All thinking Southerners, at some point, find their minds at war with their hearts, a battle that often ends with the heart claiming victory. It is this triumph of the heart that landed me, a black expatriate Mississippian, back in my home state again. Yet returning to Mississippi after nearly forty years, albeit temporarily, as a visiting professor, has left me torn somewhere between acceptance and separateness. In some ways, the longer I am in the South, the less I try to maintain my distance from the place.
By SEAN BERNARD
Living with Ricky is fine. The things you accept—they’re small things. Like the way he kicks off his shoes in the hallway at the end of the workday, leaving them there for you to nearly break your ankle on when you have to pee in the middle of the night. He has a point: if you know you’re going to trip on them, why don’t you just move them? Or also how he’ll fall asleep after work on Fridays—you both get off at five, but he always gets home first and somehow has time to be on his third Corona when you walk into the apartment, and he’s sitting in the yellow beanbag chair, half-asleep with an Angels game on, remote tucked safely under his leg. He’s happy to wake up early Saturday morning after you’ve talked the night before about sleeping in together, the weekend being the only real chance you get to wake up with him slowly, to lie in bed in that half-drowsing state that’s exactly how you’d spend your whole life if only someone would, you know, create a job for that, a job where pajamas were the uniform, a bed the office, and being snoozy and not really worrying about the clanging outside world was the main task at hand—those mornings, while you’re drooling into your pillow, Ricky will yank on his sponsor-laden clothes and go bicycling. Leaving you to wake up alone. Which isn’t so bad, but then he’ll call around noon asking you to pick him up at the local craft brewery as he’s had too many to bike home. That’s responsible, though. Calling you.
When the storm’s coming, you can feel it. The atmosphere’s tense, quivering the leaves, hot, damp air close up to your face, the cloud doubling and darkening, metallic grey, sucking in the light. There’s a portent in the frenzy of birds and the cat’s retreat into the bottom of the clothes cupboard. Sometimes night falls and everything is still on edge, pending. The child loves to hear the thunder sneak up in the dark with a low growl. She counts the seconds after each cannonade. When the rain finally falls, you can’t hear much else, even when there’s shouting. She likes to climb out of bed into her window and get gooseflesh in the wind, then to jump back, shivering, under the covers to get warm. Then she does it again. Once there were hailstones, thrashing the asbestos roof. The noise obliterated everything, like a drug; she slept.
On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
When your partner comes home with you for the first time, try to prepare her. Explain how they still see you as a child: cake and candles, streamers and balloons, bubblegum and colored pencils as parting gifts. Though you’re twenty-three, your father insists, “You won’t be grown up in my book until I’ve walked you down the aisle.” Expect jokes about Clinton’s impeachment and Hillary’s headbands. Anticipate talk of bootstraps—how “some people” have never learned to pull themselves up. On the refrigerator, George and Laura Bush grin inside a heart-shaped magnet. The radio plays Rush Limbaugh all afternoon.
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At the boarding school where I teach, my campus residence bears a plaque with the name of an English teacher who drowned after falling through ice. He had been skating on the river after the year’s first deep freeze, which had been followed by a snowstorm. I was told that once his pickup hockey game had ended and the players dispersed, he made the choice to remain behind, to skate upriver, enticed, perhaps, by the beauty of new snow, to explore the transformed hemlock-banked waterway alone. This happened the winter I was hired, before I started teaching the following fall. Our paths had crossed briefly during a fellowship in New York City and at a cookout in New Hampshire with friends we had in common. I didn’t know him well, but liked him immediately, and afterward I felt as if I’d lost a friend, a kindred spirit. I appreciate what he might have felt. The power that could have drawn him onward along that white, unblemished path until it betrayed him.