I am sitting outside the dressing rooms exactly where my mother left me ten or fifteen minutes ago, after kissing me goodbye and dissolving into the Macy’s crowd, when the white man who is my father appears. On the couch to my left is what my mother would likely refer to as a whole heap of clothes, little kid shirts and little kid pants that have been discarded by shoppers before me and left in a state of complete and utter confusion. On the couch to my right is a girl who, I have learned, has reached the fourth grade. We have known each other for barely ten minutes. Yet we have formed the kind of immediate friendship that is possible only between children who are yet to discover that even at its beginning every path is an ending one.
My father greets me with a smile so big and so wide that I think it cannot be genuine. Supposedly, I have been brought here so the man standing before me can buy me a winter coat to replace the one I have had for as long as I can remember. Already, I understand that my mother cannot afford such things herself. I understand, too, that she has left me to wait alone so that she does not have to come face to face with my father.
What I cannot understand is why I must wait at all for a man who means little more to me than any of the other adult faces that materialize once or twice a year for moments such as my birthday. I wonder why he has not simply given my mother money to shop, as he usually does. But my mother is a no-nonsense woman with little patience for the questions of a child, and so all morning, even as the bus took us past the many coats in the windows of the shops along Queens Boulevard, I somehow managed to keep my curiosity to myself.
“Hey, buddy,” my father says. He seems not entirely certain of something, and when his eyes land on the too-small arms of my coat, he puts his lips together as if he has tasted something bitter. But when he looks back up at me, it is with a smile as big and as impossible as before. He removes his hands from the pockets of his sports coat and lets them fall loosely at his sides. “You’ve been growing,” he says.
Years from now, in a future that is not yet a dot on the horizon, my mother will speak of this moment as one might speak of a great triumph. “I guess he was disappointed to find out I could tell a story just as good as him,” she will say at a graduation dinner shortly after my father’s next appearance.
“He was giving me some story about why he couldn’t take you, his son, for an itty bitty coat,” she will explain. “He had to move, he was between jobs, horse dead, cow fat. So I told him I’d had to sew the two sleeves of your coat together to make a single sleeve long enough for your one arm. And that if he ain’t wanna get you a coat, then he would be the one to carry you by the hospital when the sleeveless arm caught a frostbite and needed to be cut off. It was only then he decided to be a man and tell you him damn self.”
Today, my father motions me to him and says, “Let’s go.”
I am slow to obey, hesitant, because although I have no doubt that the man before me is my father, I am still connecting him to the younger man forever wincing into the sun in the picture frame on my bedroom dresser.
The girl beside me, who is herself dark-skinned, looks curiously between me and the man who is my father. “That yo daddy?” she asks with her eyes. She then glances down at my arms, not all that differently than my father has. Except I can tell she is not concerned with my coat but with the bit of flesh left exposed by the coat’s too-small sleeves, the hue much lighter than hers which has already earned me a host of nicknames amongst my classmates. And the next look she gives me is one of understanding, as if everything suddenly makes perfect sense.
My father, who seems not to notice the girl’s looks, holds his hand out farther and asks me what I’m waiting for. “Come on, buddy.” He cannot know that my mother, having encountered another black family, has asked the adults of that family to watch over me. Or that in the minutes that followed, the girl’s parents have treated me like one of their own, even looking my way from time to time as if giving serious consideration to what I think of the various outfits that their son, the girl’s brother, tries on. But perhaps my father senses this connection, because he turns and for the briefest of moments allows his smile to shine on them.
As he takes me away, I privately vow to return for my new friend, to make her my wife, though my child mind has only a blurry notion of what it means to marry someone, other than us getting to spend the rest our lives together. I cannot imagine that by the time I sit down for lunch I will have all but forgotten her.
We have been wandering amongst the coats for a minute or two when my father takes one from its rack and holds it up over me so that he can imagine what it would look like with me in it, my arms in its arms and my body in its body. “Not bad,” he says. “What do you think?” This seems to me like the kind of question an adult asks without actually wanting an answer, and so I wait for him to make a decision. But he goes on holding the jacket, imagining and imagining, and he might keep on standing this way if not for a passing salesclerk who stops to suggest that I try on the coat in a nearby mirror.
“This way,” the clerk says cheerily.
“So,” my father says, after he has helped me out of the old coat and into the new, “what do you think?”
I nod, realizing that he expects an answer of some sort. The coat he has chosen is a khaki color, and I am sure my mother will hate it for this, that she will say the color of the coat is too close to the color of my skin. And yet, I am sure, too, that it will be my father, and not me, who takes the blame.
My father, convinced I am satisfied, tells the clerk that we will take the coat. The clerk says she is more than happy to hold the coat at the register until we’re done.
We begin down one of the store’s many aisles, my father scanning the clothing racks on either side of us. “I noticed you’re not wearing a sweater,” he says. He seems to be merely thinking out loud, but only moments later he stops at a rack full of sweaters and takes one up. “How about this one?” he asks. Before I can respond, he takes up another and holds the two sweaters up before me, one in each hand. “Do you like them?” I have enough sweaters at home, but I do not tell him this. I instead ask if I shouldn’t try them on. My father says nothing at first, simply looks off in the direction of the salesclerk, who is busy helping another customer. Then he turns back to me, looking like he has just heard something funny, and he puts a finger to his grinning lips. “Shh,” he says in a whisper. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” I giggle nervously, excited by the thought of disregarding one of the many commandments handed down by the adults of my world, and my father takes this as a yes to both the first sweater and the second.
After draping the sweaters over his arm, he points out that I am not wearing a hat. And so we travel a short ways to the hats. My father picks one out, but when I stare down at my own two feet and mumble something about preferring a different one, one with flaps that cover my ears, he takes up one of those too. My eyes fall next on a scarf that is on display just beside the hats. And because my father’s hands are now getting full, he gives me the hats and the scarf to hold until it’s time to return to the register.
And so we go, my father plucking shirts, pants, gloves, socks from their racks as we continue about the store. I am eight and a quarter years old, and the act of shopping, the endless hours spent in dressing rooms trying to find the perfect fit, ordinarily falls into a category with combing the knots out of my hair and helping my mother with the dinner dishes. But now, suddenly, I need only point my finger in the direction of something and that something at once becomes mine.
We have moved on to shopping for the warmer months when my father picks up a t-shirt that clearly will not fit me for years and years to come. I think that my father is just being silly, and so I tell him, this man I am obliged to hate, that the shirt is too big. “That won’t fit!” I squeal with glee. “Room to grow,” my father says.
By the time we get to the register, we are carrying between us more clothes than can possibly fit in my room’s tiny closet. The clerk from earlier rings us up, asking me all kinds of questions as she does. When she is done, my father hands her the old coat. “Don’t think we have much use for this anymore,” he explains. Only now does it hit me that I am saying a final goodbye to something that has been a part of me for as long as most anything in my life thus far. And perhaps sensing my sadness, my father takes the new coat from the bag and tells me I can wear it out of the store.
We head for the elevators, shopping bags filling my father’s hands. Downstairs, we pass collared shirts and cuff links and ties, the kinds of things my father might buy if shopping for himself, and then we step out into the noise and activity of 34th Street.
“Let’s get some lunch,” my father says, once more sounding like a man thinking out loud.
We cross at Broadway. One day this stretch of road will be closed off to vehicles, but today we are left to wait until the light changes.
“The white man says go,” my mother likes to say when it is our turn to walk.
We stop in a diner a few blocks below 34th. At first glance it is a diner much like any other, basically the same as those in my neighborhood, apart from the fact that everything here looks a bit bigger and a whole lot newer. It is nearly full with people eating and talking, but with the exception of some of the people working here, most everyone in the place is white. There is a host, and he leaves us with menus that are leather-bound and contain no pictures, just letters made of a delicate, looping cursive.
A waiter comes to take our order. My father already knows what he wants. I, on the other hand, am overwhelmed by the mountain of choices before me and need more time. The waiter is a beast of a man, with long, wild hair falling over the top of his forehead and a heavy beard that leaves only a small space for his eyes, nose, and mouth to show. When he returns a short while later I avoid looking his way altogether. I look instead to my father while pointing at the spot on the menu where it lists the spaghetti and meatballs. My mother has never made the dish, but I have seen people eating it and am interested.
The food soon arrives at the table, however, and I discover that there is very little magic to spaghetti and meatballs. Nevertheless, I know all about the rules for waste and I set out to clean all the food off my plate. My father, meanwhile, does more talking than eating. With the shiniest of forks, he moves his fries from one side of his plate to the other, occasionally spearing a few and raising them to his mouth but more often than not posing some question or another. He wants to know if I’ve had a good day, if I’ve enjoyed this or enjoyed that, if I’ve gotten everything I want. He has a gold band on his left ring finger. The band is a little loose on him, and whenever he finds himself with nothing to say, he twists the band around the finger until more words come.
Eventually, I give up trying to finish my food and my father takes one last bite of his sandwich and sets it down, half-eaten. I am sipping from a cup of coke larger than any I have ever been allowed, but the coke is now near its end and there is an unpleasant noise with every pull of the straw. The diner is even more crowded than before and I have to strain to hear my father over all of the loud talk.
“It’s important to be happy, don’t you think?” he says.
He waits for my agreement, and though I am not sure I fully understand, I think nothing of giving him one more yes in such a long line of yeses. He then reaches below the table and emerges with a couple items in his hand. The first item is a pocket-sized map. And after pushing our plates to one side of table, he opens the map and places the second item, a polaroid photograph, square in the middle of it.
The photograph shows three people, a man, a woman, and a child standing beside one another like a perfect family. The family is situated halfway up a set of steps that lead to a freshly painted house, and because the sun is somewhere behind the house, their faces are partially obscured by shadows. Still, I can see that the man in the picture is my father and that he has his arm around a woman with hair as blonde as the game show hostess who makes the letters light up on TV.
My father now leans across the table and points to the woman in the photograph. “This is Samantha,” he says. “Your stepmother.” And although the look of perpetual satisfaction has not entirely disappeared from his face, I detect a subtle shift in his mood, a certain turn towards seriousness that is not at all part of the person I have come to know. “This is James,” he goes on, moving his finger over the boy. “He’s your stepbrother.”
He moves the photograph aside so that I have a clear view of the map. “Do you know where New Hampshire is?” he asks. I nod, but he goes ahead and shows me anyway. He points first to the island of Manhattan. “This is where we are now,” he says. He then shows me Florida, all the way at the bottom of the map, and California, all the way on the left. Finally, his finger lands much closer to where it started. “This is New Hampshire,” he says, “where Sam and James live and where I’ll be living from now on.” He keeps his finger on New Hampshire and then, to emphasize the mere inch or so between me and him, sets his thumb down on New York.
There is more, but before my father has a chance to go on, the waiter comes to ask if we are done eating or if we need more time. Neither of us has finished even half of the food on his plate, but this does not matter to my father, who tells the man that we are indeed ready for dessert. The waiter goes off and returns with clean plates and utensils in one hand. My father folds the map back up to make room on the table, but when the man goes to lay a plate in front of him, my father stops him and says that he would like a coffee and nothing else.
In the waiter’s other hand is a circular glass tray. The tray is covered and under the cover are slices of various cakes and pies. No two slices are the same and I have trouble deciding between the cheesecake, the chocolate cake, and the apple pie. My father sees this and he, knowing the path to a young boy’s heart, tells me to get as many as I want. “You can take home whatever you don’t finish,” he says.
I start in on the cheesecake with renewed appetite. My father sips his coffee, at times playing with his ring, at times rubbing his thumb against the smooth surface of the table. “I want you to know,” he says after a silence, “that you can come visit anytime you like. Okay, buddy?”
“Okay,” I want to say. “Okay.” Somewhere, some place, in some half-conscious part of my brain, I sense that we have come for this, that all day we have been headed for this very moment. However, I am worlds away, inside the door of that freshly painted house, at the dining room table seated across from James, my stepbrother, as we both eat cake by the handful and as the woman who my mother refers to only as “that woman,” the woman who I know as Samantha, Sam, stands out front watering a rose garden which has risen to great heights in the unwavering daylight of our lives. “Okay,” I want to say, and not because I think it is what he wants from me.
But before I can respond, he raises his hand to look at his watch, a watch nearly as big as the hand itself, and announces that it is time go. “Your mother will be coming soon,” he says. He holds the folded map and photograph in one hand. Apparently, these are not for me and he slaps them twice against his palm before he puts them away. They disappear below the table, never to be seen again.
I manage to finish all but the apple pie, which my father gets wrapped up for me to take. He pays the check and he stands and puts his coat back on. The collar of his shirt, though, gets partially hung up on the collar of his jacket, and as we make the walk back to Macy’s I am overcome by a desire to reach up and smooth out this minor blemish in his presentation.
My father leaves me at the dressing rooms, a wall of shopping bags on either side of me. “I’m glad we had this time together,” are his last words. An eternity passes and I still do not see my mother. There is much food in my belly, too much. And the food, combined with the fact that a jacket is no longer necessary, makes me want to lie down where I am. I take the jacket off, but the day becomes no brighter. A salesclerk stops to ask if I am lost. I shake my head no and he goes off without another word.
Finally, I hear my mother calling my name. Only then do I start to cry. My mother is not a tall woman, certainly not tall enough to spot me from a distance, to look past the clothing racks and the shoppers and the shopping bags. Not even while standing atop the boots that she wears every day of winter, spring, and fall. “I am your mother,” she has said to me when I do not do as told. “And I always go be your mother. Forever and ever and ever.” I can hear her voice coming closer, closer and closer, but I continue to sit there, half-hidden, eyes watering, knowing full well that I need only get up on my feet for her to see me.
Jon Lewis-Katz is an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Bronx Community College. His writing has appeared in publications such as Fiction, New Walk, and the Trinidad Guardian, and he has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bronx Council on the Arts, and the Jerome Foundation.