by Emily Raboteau
Bernie-ism 18.1: It is a privilege to be able to invent oneself. It is also a burden.
My big brother Bernard took great pains to learn how to talk Black. Street Black. Prophet Black. Angry Black. Which wasn’t something you heard a lot of where we grew up. It started when his voice suddenly changed. One day, he spoke in the smooth tenor treble of a choir-boy angel, and the next he possessed the devilish bass of Barry White. Once he was blessed with that depth, Bernie culled some of the diction from our father’s brilliant friend, Professor Lester Wright and pulled the rest from Public Enemy. The result was stunning.
It pissed off our mom. ‘Talk like yourself, Bernie. Please,’ she’d say. If he was in a good mood, he’d touch the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other and answer, ‘Mother Lynn, I am nobody but myself. Do I make you uneasy? Let’s examine your fear.’ Pure Professor Lester. Perfector of charm. If he was in a bad mood, he’d just snarl, ‘Step off, bitch,’ and mom would lean over the kitchen sink and cry into a dishrag. He shaved his head like Michael Jordan. He was a teenager. He had transformed.
When we were little, people remarked on two things about us.
The first thing was how we got along so well. Bernie and I never fought because I adored him too much. He told me once he thought we were the same person in two different bodies and that’s why he’d never hurt me. It wasn’t that he adored me back. It was that he thought I was an extension of himself. I wasn’t finished yet when I came. I came too fast and I left some of me behind. That was you. So you came afterwards to finish me up.
The second thing was that we didn’t look Black, although Bernie came closer; fuller lips, darker skin, flatter nose. Still, most people would guess Bengali or Brazilian when meeting him for the first time. Until his voice changed and they heard him speak. Then he would make more sense to them.
I remain a question mark. When people ask me what I am, which is not an everyday question, but one I get asked every day, I want to tell them about Bernie. I don’t of course. I just tell them what color my parents are, which is to say, my father is black and my mother is white.
People don’t usually believe me. You look ______________ (fill in the blank) Puerto Rican, Algerian, Israeli, Italian, Suntanned, or maybe Like you Got Some Indian Blood, but you don’t look like you got any Black in you. No way! Your father must be real light skinned.
In fact, he isn’t, but somehow in the pooling of genes, our mom’s side won out in the category of hair. And this is really what makes you Black in the eyes of others. It’s not the bubble of your mouth, the blood in your veins, the blackness of your skin or the Bantu of your butt. It isn’t your black-eyed peas and greens. It’s not your rhythm or your blues or your rage or your pride. It’s your hair. The kink and curl of it, loose or tight, just so long as it resembles an afro. And ours didn’t. That is why when Bernie shaved his head, he started to pass for the whole of one half of what he was. Even more than talking the talk, that was the act that did it for him.
My big brother Bernard is a vegetable now. Mom keeps him on a cot in the living room. Him and his wires and tubes and bags of fluid and breathing machines and the shit-and-piss pot. She gives him sponge baths three times a week. When I go down to visit, I wipe the dribble from his chin and I think about him dribbling basketballs. Before. Now he has burnt basketball skin. No hair at all (afro or otherwise). Half a face.
Bernie was tragic long before that, though, because he was too beautiful and because he was Bernard III. He was a legacy.
His looks were more of a curse than a blessing really. People just couldn’t stop staring at him. Our mother put our father through grad school at Berkley by pawning Bernie off as a child model. He had that third-world poster child appeal. That red-brown skin and those soup-spoon mud-water eyes.
We still have Bernie framed in a diaper ad that hangs in the upstairs bathroom. There’s baby Bernie before I came along; a little brown Buddah staring out at you over your morning crap, one fat fist raised next to his adorable face in a gesture of benediction or defiance depending on how you look at it. I asked our mom to take it down after the accident because I thought it was tasteless. What with him having to wear diapers at night now as a grown man and all. That just made her sniffle and twist the plastic pearl buttons on her nightgown so I let it go.
But he was beautiful. The way a leopard is. Or twilight.
My father is black and my mother is white and my brother is a vegetable. When we were small the vegetable told me stories. The stories began when we moved from the West Coast to the East Coast. I remember elaborate stories under the blankets or in the back seat of the car on a long night trip, the highway winding before us, unfathomably long.
* * *
The highway is winding behind us. I am six and my brother is seven. We are driving across country form Oakland where kids like us are a dime a dozen, double-dutching on asphalt and break-dancing on cardboard dance floors under helicopter skies. Bernie and me in the back seat with the U-haul bumping behind, playing hock-a-loogie flip-the-bird to the cars in the lanes on our sides. Bernie and me and our ashy knees. Dad is zig-zagging up and down America for our education instead of going in a straight line because that is what our dad is like. Only PBS and no Barbie dolls.
We stop in Salt Lake City and Bernie steals some salt peanuts for us to share.
‘Here, Em,’ he says and we’re crunching them and throwing the shells on the ground. My dad says ‘Where did you get those?’ and Bernie says, ‘Huh?’ My dad says take them back and Bernie says why, we already ate half. Mom says do it anyway because they’re not yours and stealing is wrong and dad slaps Bernie full in the face and says,
‘NO. The reason you don’t steal is because that is exactly what they expect you to do.’
Everyone in Salt Lake City is looking at us. Bernie takes the peanuts back with five fingers on his face and my mother turns to my dad and she says to him,
‘I guess they expect to see you hitting your children too.’ She goes after Bernie and pets him like a puppy dog. She loves him best. I suck on a peanut shell until it turns soft on my tongue.
We stop at Mount Rushmore and dad tells us about the big heads and mom says, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Bernie says, ‘No. It would be something if you painted some clown faces on ’em and put a roller coaster in front.’
And we all laugh because Bernie always makes us laugh.
We go to the Badlands and there is no one and nothing all around like we are the last people on the earth. The clouds are like long white hair falling sideways. Dad tells us about Sitting Bull and the Sioux and the Ghost Dances and Bernie tells me he can see their ghosts dancing real slow over by the hill and I ask him do they have bows and arrows. He says, ‘No. They’re crying.’
We pass through Wisconsin to see Grammy Livy and Pops snoring through his nose in his armchair with the cigar ashing down his sweater and all Aunt Patty’s kids on the walls in their first communion clothes but not me and Bernie. Pops has a nose like a strawberry. His feet are big like toy boats and his big toes are poking through his socks. He wakes up and says, ‘Who are ye then?’ Bernie says we’re your grandkids, Pops and Pops says, ‘Oh. In that case, will ye have a drink?’
‘That’s not funny,’ says our mom.
There is a mah jong box on the mantelpiece and we want to see inside but it is not for kids to touch. Grammy Livy has a pinchy mouth. She gives us all turkey and Wonderbread with butter on it and Jello for desert except it’s called ambrosia salad because of the coconut on top. She stares and stares at Bernie. Bernie asks her does he have a booger on his face. Nobody says much. Mom slams the door on the way out so hard the windows rattle.
‘Did your dad smoke cigars?’ Bernie asks our dad.
‘No.’ says our dad. Our dad’s mom and dad are dead.
‘Did your mom make Jello?’ I ask.
‘You’d catch her with her pants down sooner than you’d catch her making Jello. Unlike some people’s mother’s, mine knew how to cook food with flavor.’
Mom wacks Dad with her pocketbook. ‘Shut up, Bernard.’
‘All right, Lynn,’ he says, ‘but just because you know I’m right.’ He pats her on the behind and we all get back in the car.
We drive by a metal rainbow in St. Louis. Bernie tells me look at the pot of gold at the bottom. I can’t see it. All I see is a paper cup rolling in the wind. I pretend I can see it because I believe Bernie can.
We stop at a Bob’s Big Boy in Arkansas and we sit at a table for twenty-five minutes and the waitress still isn’t coming. We’re hungry. Our mom said we should go but our dad said no, we stay. So we’re staying.
Everyone in Bob’s Big Boy is staring at us and when I stare back, they look at their hamburgers. Nobody is saying anything. It’s like a library only evil. My dad has a stone face like a Mt. Rushmore man. His fists are stones on the table and his knuckles are tight white like ice-cubes. My mom isn’t saying anything. Bernie is scribble-scrabbling on his paper place mat with Bob’s Big Boy crayons. He draws a hangman hanging with a red hat under his feet and gives it to dad.
‘That’s not a very nice picture,’ dad says.
‘I’m hungry,’ Bernie says.
Mom waves to the waitress. The waitress is pretending not to look. She has black hair near her scalp and then it turns yellow like strings of corn.
‘Hey, lady! I’m hungry,’ says Bernie. ‘My little sister’s hungry too!’ The waitress pretends she can’t hear. She goes into the kitchen. Everyone is looking at us from the corner of their eyes. I don’t know why they don’t like us. My lip starts to shake. Nobody is moving. I want to go. I feel like crying but my brother is smiling. Everyone is staring at Bernie. Bernie slides off his chair and turns in Michael Jackson. He starts to do the moonwalk on Bob’s Big Boy’s black and white floor. Dad says sit down but Bernie doesn’t do it.
Dad’s face breaks open. ‘Quit acting the fool, boy!’ he says and he gets up and storms out and the bells on the door jinglejangle. Everyone starts eating their hamburgers. Bernie rolls his eyes. Mom’s staring at the chair where Dad isn’t. She’s biting her fingernails.
‘I’m fucking hungry, Mom,’ says Bernie.
‘I know, honey,’ she says. ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’ She puts a dollar on the table even though we didn’t eat anything and she forgets to tell Bernie to mind his potty mouth.
We leave and Bernie has his hand full with Bob’s Big Boy crayons but nobody makes him take them back. My father is mad and my mother is sad and my brother is bad. I think we will be driving forever.
‘There’s this kid, Johnny, and his sister, Raisa,’ Bernie wakes me up to tell me at a Motel 6 while our parents are fast asleep in the next bed.
‘This kid Johnny has a hole in his pocket. I don’t mean a hole in his pocket like what a quarter falls through, but like a black hole from outer space that’s rolled up in a ball and sitting in his pocket sort of like it’s a marble only it’s a black hole. Understand?’
‘Yes,’ I say even though I don’t.
‘So when they need to get away, Johnny takes the ball out of his pocket and throws it on the ground and it turns into the hole. Then him and Raisa can jump in and get away. Only one time they jumped in and they ended up on the other side of the world but it’s not China. It’s this country where it’s only giants that live there.’
‘Good giants or bad giants?’
‘And Johnny made a serious mistake. He forgot to put the hole back in his pocket for them to get back. He lost it. So they’re stuck there.’
‘Yes.’ Bernie rolls over so his back is to me. ‘Go back to sleep.’
I dream about the giants and I tell Bernie about it when I wake up. He says what were their names and I say Rushmore Fishmore and Bob’s Big Boy. Bernie smiles at me and says we had the same dream.
Our dad’s mom and dad are dead but he has his grand aunt, Nan Zanobia at the bottom of Mississippi and a hundred second cousins and we never met any of them before. When we get there, Nan Zan is watering the flowers and when she sees us, she drops the hose and puts her hand over her mouth. Nan Zan is old old.
‘Good Lord, Bernard Jr., is that you?’ she says and she comes running at us with her arms reaching out and she tells my dad he’s a sight for sore eyes it’s been too long and are these your pretty babies, lemme get a good look at them.
‘You must be Bernard Number Three!’ she says and she makes Bernie turn around in a circle and she laughs and she claps once and says, ‘Woooo, look out for this one! Girls gonna flock to him like flies to honey! Look at them daddy-long-leg lashes!’
“What happened to Bernard Number One?’ asks Bernie but Nan Zan doesn’t say anything. She looks at me instead. Her eyes are scary blue. I think maybe she can’t hear so good cause she’s so old. I hope she’ll say my eyelashes are like daddy-long-legs even though I know they aren’t.
‘You must be little Emma. Girl, you came out with some good hair. Let’s see your kitchen.’ I don’t know what she’s talking about and then she puts her fingers in the back of my hair and she says there’s no naps in my kitchen. Dad tells her there’s no such a thing as good hair or bad hair and Nan Zan says, ‘Hush, Bernard, Jr. You ain’t a woman so you don’t know.’
Nan Zan lives in a shotgun shack and there’s so many cousins I can’t remember all their names and she cooks us fried shrimps and okra and rice and black-eyed peas and lemonade to drink and watermelon and pralines with pecans stolen right off the neighbor’s pecan tree by the boy cousins.
Bernie goes with the boy cousins and their BB gun and I go with the girl cousins. They can’t keep their fingers out of my hair and the one called Sweetie Pop gets out her coconut hair grease and she’s slathering it on and they’re all pulling and twisting, yank, yank, yank. It hurts and I say stop, please stop and they call me stuck up white prissy and won’t let me play jacks. The boy cousins come back whooping and hollering with a dead owl in a brown paper bag. It’s got a BB in its neck.
We drive up to the blue mountains in Tennessee and the sun is setting low but it’s not night yet and the humpty bumpty mountains really do look blue and the air looks blue and soft and my brother Bernie looks blue in the seat next to me. I think he is asleep but then he opens his eyes halfway and he says Dad and my dad says yes son. Bernie says did God make the mountains or all we all just guessing. My dad doesn’t say anything so Mom says it was God, Bernie; of course God made them.
We drive and we drive and we are finally there which is Princeton where our dad is going to be a professor and my mom says wake up! We’re here. Every lawn is big and has a garden and in every garden there are tiny sparks of light and my Dad says those are fireflies and Bernie squashes one and wipes the glow on my forehead and I scream and my mom and dad laugh.