It was a breath before the birth of day, a time when even movement was still. A timid New York winter had fooled the daffodils, making them sprout prematurely, and buds hung from upon high, coating branches in need of color. How well the trees know change -- if only people could be so wise.
The hint of spring turned Jeremy Bishop's thoughts to a familiar place: home. His second thought, the one that sneaked in, was alien: Father.
He retreated to his rocking chair, keeping his eyes on the blur of yellow blossoms. The rocker had become his home away from home. His bedrock. He had bought it his first week in New York at the Chelsea Flea Market, where plentiful pockets can acquire a sense of history. He'd lugged it from housesit to sublet to every apartment he had slumbered in, in doing so, making each of them home. No matter the surroundings, the rocker was always the focus, stability when weary and worry combed his waylaid brow.
He watched Central Park put on its day face and contemplated what those two words, home and father, meant to him.
They were far from one and the same, and rarely, if ever, did the two waft in on the same thought. Now he would have to think of them together. Home was where he was going and it was "father" who had called him there.
As his rocking slowed, he became aware of the minutes that had passed. The hands on the clock indicated it was nearing ten-thirty, almost time for his car to arrive. He knew he had to get out of the rocker, which would deprive him of its comfort. He hesitated a moment, basking in the hug of the chair, and pressed his hands on his thighs, leaving behind its embrace. The car would be waiting.
It all began with a phone call. Yesterday. Tuesday. He had been at his photography studio doing a shoot, making the day no different than most, for ultimately, his life as a photographer was catch-as-catch-can over a cocktail or a phone call. But this call changed the realm of focus. Though he finished the session, he was certain he would never look at the prints. The pictures would remind him of that moment in time, developing memories he had pushed to a stop.
"Studio," said Doug, Jeremy's assistant, answering the phone. "Bishop! Telephone."
"Take a message. I want to finish this roll."
"She says it's important."
"Isn't it always?" said Jeremy, still focusing on his subject and without the slightest bit of irritation; camera clicking, filaments flashing in cadence with his words. "Who is it?"
Flash. Flash. Flash.
He stopped shooting, but his finger remained firmly pressed on the shutter button, advancing the film toward images now lost on him. When his finger released the button, the false light stilled and the camera came down to graze his side.
He walked toward Doug, looking at him as though this was some sort of prank, yet no laughter presented itself. He took the receiver and for a moment, stared at the pinholes, wondering what words would prick through them, puncturing the day.
"Hello?" said Jeremy, and although that word, said face-to-face, is usually posed as a cordial statement, an introduction, his tone made the word what it truly means when said over the phone -- a question seeking information.
"Jeremy. It's Carol. I got this number from your Aunt Jessica."
"Yes, Carol; that's fine," said Jeremy without the slightest semblance of emotion. "Listen, I'm in the middle of a shoot right now. Can I -- "
"Jeremy -- "
" -- call you back?"
"Jeremy, your father died this morning."
The silence that followed was not associated with a moment of reflection. It was the kind that came when saying nothing was better than saying something prematurely.
Their conversation continued as the bustle of the studio continued around him. The contrast was mind boggling, like that of rapid eye movement or a strobe light's slowing motion, but the camera in one hand and the receiver in the other kept him aware, yet disconnected. He told Carol he'd fly down tomorrow, and then he hung up the phone. As he stood there, all of his yesterdays became today -- and not all of them were like this, a spring one.
"Is everything okay?" asked Doug. "Hello? Earth to Jeremy."
"What? Oh, yeah," he said, finally separating Doug's words from Carol's. "Could you reschedule my appointments for the next few days, please? I should be back by Monday. Then call the travel agent and -- "
"Is something the matter?"
"What are you, my mother? Could you just do it?"
"Look. Sorry. It was about my father."
"Father?" asked Doug, a bit surprised. "You've never mentioned your father. For some reason, I just assumed he was dead."
Jeremy looked at Doug, but he didn't say the words.
He was returning home, yet he had always wondered exactly what that was. "Home is home is home," he remembered Charles saying. For Jeremy, home was where the largest amount of memories existed, a place you're free to flee, and he did it well. Now he was going back there, but would going back mean moving forward?
"You must plow your own rows, mindful of pebbles 'long the way." That's what he heard Mama B saying as he stood behind the rocker in his filled yet barren apartment. In times such as these, it was her spirit that kept him going. Now and always, he plowed on.
A deep breath.
Another. Then he held it as if it were the life it possessed.
He released the rocker, and the sound of its sway filled his ears, drowning out the faint hum of electricity. He took one long look around, extending his gaze beyond the open space in which he stood to the other rooms, confined by either drywall or exposed brick. He could see every one of the rooms without being in them, as though looking at blueprints and filling in the thin blue outlines with the things he'd acquired over the years. The gaze was that of someone seeing something for the first -- or last -- time. He again looked at the rocker, which had stopped moving and now stood stalwart.
Then he began the journey.
When the elevator opened, the doorman came to get his bag.
"I've got it, Jimmy."
"Off on another trip, Mr. B?"
"Well, have a good one."
Whenever he left the building, he could depend on some exchange with Jimmy, always ending with his saying "I'll try." Some things never change. Today it was pleasing to have some sense of certainty.
The driver put the luggage into the trunk and Jeremy settled into the backseat. He hadn't slept and his bloated face had yet to regain its normally firm shape. His sunglasses, centered on his face, became another reflection, providing a sepia view.
"Would ya like a paper or magazine? I've got the Times or the Post," said the driver, attempting to scope out what sort of passenger Jeremy would be. "I always say, 'tween the two, you can kinda get an idea of what's goin' on. One makes ya feel smart; the other makes you glad ya are. 'Course, I leave it up to you to decide which'n does what."
Still no answer from the backseat.
"D'ya mind music?"
Still no answer.
The driver had seen many like this and had often found himself thinking, So dat's how it's gonna be, Mr. Big Shot? Mr. Just-Get-Me-Where-I'm-Going-and-Don't-Talk-to-Me?
But those thoughts were inaccurate on this journey. Jeremy wasn't that sort of passenger at all. Yes, he took car services and had his moods, but ignoring wasn't something he practiced often.
"Do you have a paper I can borrow?" asked Jeremy.
"Please, don't call me sir." The driver could have easily been his father, in age if nothing more.
"Whatevah ya say," said the driver, glancing back at Jeremy. "I offered ya one earlier. Used some of my best material, too."
"Sorry. My mind was elsewhere."
"Really? Where's that?"
"Far away, but never far away."
The driver glanced in the rearview. He passed the paper and watched as Jeremy hid behind the news of the day, noting that this was probably best, a silent fare.
For as long as he could remember, he had been told that his eyes were those of an old person. When he was born, they looked out on the world as though they had seen it all before, and the haze that coated them wasn't at all one of youth or confusion.
He was an old soul and set in his ways from the moment the warmth of the womb changed to the slap of room temperature.
Having always been old, he realized that the things we love the most are things we've had the longest and the things we've longed for but never had. Love lost and love desired carry the same weight, for no price can be placed on time spent.
Jeremy was no stranger to loss.
He was left with Mrs. Bishop, his father's mother. He didn't realize she was his grandmother; titles matter little where nurturing is concerned. Mrs. Bishop had three children, yet only Jess remained with her while Jeremy was there. She was the oldest and stayed near home, while her brother and sister went off to conquer the world.
Mrs. Bishop and Jess were like pods bursting to free their seeds, providing life for the next. But it was life that showed Jeremy that often birds had other plans, nabbing the seeds for nourishment of a different kind. He and he alone called Mrs. Bishop Mama B. Bishop never could find its way off his "lazy tongue." Time strengthened his tongue, but the taste for the name remained.
On numerous occasions, he'd heard that his first word was mine, but because of his lazy tongue, they believed him to say Mama. Though most women would coo at the thought of a child's first word being Mama, he was certain no joy was found in what they believed to be his first proclamation, for it was nothing more than a constant reminder, another wound to bleeding hearts. They soon realized that he was saying mine. He would grab his Mama B or Aunt Jess and say, "Mine."
Jeremy's mother died a few hours after he was born. One soul for another. She was holding him when she died. No one was present. He was the last person to feel her alive, yet too unaware to appreciate it.
He wondered if she smiled when she held him. He wondered if she thought he was the most beautiful creation in the world. He wondered if she felt the angel in her arms in the same way that she felt the one hovering over the hospital bed. Did she gently gloss his cheek with the smooth tips of her fingers as he'd seen other mothers do with their newborns? He could write a list of wonders that never wandered far from mind.
Wondering and wandering were his most familiar friends.
It was Jess that found him in her arms, his tiny hands and mouth grasping for a nipple numbed, nurturing soured. He was the last to fill that heart that had kept him alive, and though his eyes had not opened and he couldn't rightly say he remembered their time together, he could say that that moment was one of his prized possessions. Still, it was nothing he could or would ever hold.
Mama B called me Patience. I knew my name was Jeremy, but she called me Patience.
Many, on first hearing it, would question, "Patience? Why you callin' that boy that? That's a woman's name."
And I suppose they were right. That name does suit a woman. Yet, like a child too young and unaware to realize he is poor, I didn't know that I wasn't a woman. Sure, I knew they were different, but I didn't know the difference. Ignorance is bliss.
"Mama B?" I asked one evening. "Why do you call me Patience?"
"Why?" she asked, stopping the sway of her rocking chair. "I been callin' you that all ya life. Don't you care for the name?"
"It's fine. It's just that my name is Jeremy."
I rarely questioned her about her actions. She was an elder, but when you're given a girl's name, time warrants a defense when prosecuted by unruly peers.
"See, Jeremy is ya given name," she said, relaxing into her rocker. "But through the course of life, people always take on other names, and then you grow into it, just like you call me Mama B. It's just more personal, a show of affection. When I was a chile, I was called Sister 'cause I had all brothers and it was easy for them to call me that 'cause I knew who they meant. Now, anybody that knows me from them days still calls me Sister. It's something familiar, and people like that."
"Then how did you come up with Patience?"
"Well, it just seemed to suit you. Patience, you see, comes from being able to wait on things and being still. You ain't never minded being on ya own. You were a still chile -- still are.
"You showed patience right from the get-go. When you were just a wee little something, I had to check on you to make sure the crib hadn't gotten you. I'd put my pinky finger under ya nose, just to be sure, and them quiet l'il breaths were just as faint, but they were breaths nonetheless.
"Lawd knows how I prayed that nothing would happen to you, 'cause I'd never be able to live it down. But you'd just sleep, all sprawled out like you owned the world."
The telling of it seemed to take her back to a simple time, a time with no questions, just reassurance. As the recollections passed before her, a smile filled her lips. It seemed like a fond memory for her, though it sounded like it was a burden at the time. Perhaps that is what retrospect is once it truly becomes that.
Oh, yes. See, most babies -- least any I've been 'round -- will cry when somethin's wrong. But not you. It was like nothin' was ever the matter with you. Just too good to cry. Most babies will test their lungs when they get hungry in the night but not you," she said, striking the match against theside of the space heater and lighting her cigarette. She took a long drag, and as the smoke slid out of her mouth, so did the words. "It was like you knew the bottle was comin'. But it would scare the dickens out of me, 'cause the bottle was all you had and I had to see that you were eatin'. I ended up havin' to just put the bottle in the crib with you.
"This one night I got up, worry had me tossin', and I looked in on you. I pulled my rocker in that very room there, where your daddy used to sleep, and looked at you for the longest while. You never rolled over, just stayed still, stretched on your backside. When you finished one bottle, you'd throw it to the side. And I don't mean just drop it -- you'd throw it." She laughed until the laughs became coughs. She reached down in her housedress pocket to pull out the inhaler, then shot the contained breaths into her mouth until they supported her lungs, returning the smile to her face.
"Yes, you'd throw it, and without as much as a peep or the openin' of an eye, you'd feel around until you found the next one, then the next. Three bottles a night in that crib, but never did I see you reach for an empty one. Not one time. You've stretched out now, but you were a big baby. Had more creases than a skirt."
When she finished the explanation for my name, she finally took notice that I was in my pajamas -- my PJs. They were the kind that encased the feet. They shielded mine from the uninvited drafts that even the finest old houses take on.
"You all situated for bed?" I nodded my head, indicating that I was, still pondering the story of my name. "Did you wash out your ears?" Again I nodded, with a prelude smile on my face. "And behind them? Let me see." And she would grab me and look at my ears, always saying, "So clean I can see ya thinkin' muscle, and it looks to be workin' overtime."
This had become a nightly ritual with us, and we played our roles to perfection. But her story had made me lose my center, and the words planted me next to her rocker, unable to uproot.
"Why the long face?" she asked. "You look like you just lost your best friend."
"You're my best friend."
"And you mine, Patience. But you haven't lost me."
I didn't say anything to that. I just stood there, holding the arm of the rocker, displaying that stillness that had garnered me my name.
"What's on your mind?" she asked as she pulled me around to the front of the rocker. "Patience?"
"Speak up, now. I said, 'What's on your mind?'"
"Now don't stand there lookin' like that and tell me nothin'. Somethin' must be toilin' up there; ya face is longer than a Easter sermon."
I stood looking at her. I considered making up some question or smiling as though I had just been longing for some more attention, but I couldn't bring myself to do so.
"Is my mother ever gonna come see me?" I said, waiting for a story to present a fond memory in her eyes.
"No, sweetheart. She can't come see you."
"Doesn't she want to see what I look like?"
"Your mama can't come see you."
I knew I should leave it at that, let the worry rest. I could see that Mama B wanted me to leave it at that, and it hurt me to hurt her by continuing, but...
"Now, you know ya mama's up in heaven. See, she felt that she could keep a better watch on you up there. Up there with God."
"Will I go up to heaven soon and see her?"
"When ya time comes, you will, and then you can see her."
"You think she'll be happy to see me?"
"Oh, Patience, all of heaven's gonna be happy to see you."
Mama B's voice began to quiver like the last leaf of fall, but this time it wasn't from attempting to stifle a cough. Before it broke completely, she told me that it was, past my bedtime and that I should get my rest.
I left her with a kiss and the sound of my second feet sliding against the grain, a noise that could tighten a sagging jaw.
She lit another cigarette and began to cough as she pulled her Bible off the nightstand. The Bible was almost a foot thick. Though I strained whenever I tried to lift it, it seemed to fit comfortably between her legs, filling the fall of her housedress.
I pulled back the generation of quilts that covered the bed and climbed underneath them. They weighed heavily on me, so much so that I could barely move from side to side -- not that I wanted to. No, I wanted the weight of warmth all over me, capturing me like the sight of a star in a cloudbreak sure to come.
"You need some more blankets?" she asked.
"Now, I can pull some out from under the mattress if you need them. It's no trouble."
I told her that I had enough, and she turned back to her reading. But periodically she kept looking in, if not at me, then in my direction. I could see her, but she couldn't see me. She was in the light, I in the dark.
"You need the heater turned up?" she asked, looking yet again.
"No, ma'am. I'm fine."
"Now, don't forget to say ya prayers."
"Awright, then. Have a good night's rest, and I'll see you in the mornin'," and after a heartbeat, "God willing."
I lay there for a while, looking at the space heater in my room, with its blues and oranges and yellows, different, yet all shooting from the same sprout of flame. I could hear the heat's scurrying murmur. It sounded like wind would sound if you could hear wind. But wind is nothing more than a feeling; the sound is made by the things it passes through.
"Mama B?" I said, almost fearful of disturbing a moment of solace.
"Do you think God was sleeping?"
"What's that?" she asked, seemingly annoyed by the asking.
"When my mother died?"
"No, sweetheart. He wasn't sleepin'. God never sleeps. He's always watchin'."
"That's what I thought. Good night."
I rolled over like a wave under the blankets and faced the wall. The wood paneling seemed to be breathing and the manufactured knots on it curved before my eyes as I made every attempt to stare through its plies. I could feel Mama B's eyes transfixed on me, for by now they had adjusted to the darkness. I heard the big Book close and the rocker wince. She walked into the room and made certain that the quilts covered me. I kept my eyes closed when she did this. Though I knew she couldn't possibly believe me asleep, she said nothing.
As she walked away, I picked up my head, straining my neck like a turtle coming out of its shell of protective burden. She turned up the heater and her face glistened in the glow of iridescent warmth. She slowly returned to upright and placed her hand on her hip. She stood there for a moment before making her way back to the rocker, back to the Book, back to moving her lips. But her eyes weren't on the ancient words; they were closed to a crow's-feet squint. I knew she was praying, and I was certain it had something to do with me.
Something to do with patience.
I put my head back on the pillow and again focused on the wall. After a while, I too closed my eyes, but I didn't say my prayers. I didn't forget. I just didn't say them. If God was indeed always watching, always awake, then He would know that I hadn't said them.
I wanted Him to know.
Copyright © 1998 by Brian Keith Jackson