I wish I’d remembered to bring that library book to my mother’s house earlier.
“Marcus,” Mom said, “are you going to bring me that new James Patterson you checked out a week ago? It’s only on a two week loan.”
“Yes, Mom,” I said and hung up the phone in the law school lounge.
I got in my car and drove away from the law school library. Normally I didn’t forget to bring books to my mom. She lives alone and doesn’t move so well, but I was studying for the bar exam. Sixteen hours a day of pouring over outlines and listening to lectures on subjects ranging from criminal law to contracts makes you forget non-law related things. This summer I’ve discovered the human mind can only hold so much information.
Mom sat at the formica table in the kitchen with the shades drawn, a small sliver of light peeking in through the window and shining on the newspaper she was reading. I often found her reading the paper, and she normally kept on reading until she reached a stopping point even if I was there.
She jumped a little as if she didn’t know I was there and slid the paper under a stack of mail. “Oh, I didn’t expect you so soon. You scared me.” She smiled at me closed mouthed. Normally she smiled open mouthed, and she had the whitest teeth, which were made brighter still by her mocha skin. Her smile transformed her from a pretty woman to a dark skinned Audrey Hepburn. Maybe if things had been different, I thought.
The corners of her eyes were moist, which was strange because my mother rarely cried.
So I walked over to her slowly and sat the book down on the table. I bent down on my knees and held my mother’s hands and gazed up into her brown eyes. I said soothingly, “What’s wrong, Mama? I always know when something’s bothering you. Is it something in the paper? Let me see.” I usually shifted to “Mama” when showing affection or talking about personal, family things, which meant just the two of us. It had always been the two of us. I didn’t know my father, nor did I ever think I would.
She yanked her hands away and pursed her lips. “You don’t need to look at that.”
Now I really wanted to see what had her so gyrated. “Mama, let me see it.”
Her lips puckered up. “No …” she said, “no … please don’t.” Tears cascaded down her face.
“Mama, it couldn’t be that bad.”
“It is,” she said. “It is better you don’t know.”
“Know what, Mama?”
“What’s in that story and what’s left out—what really happened, you know.” She reached under the mail and slid out the paper. She pointed at the paper and turned her head away as if she wanted to avoid the odor of rotten fish.
At first it appeared to be just a picture of men in suits, but then the faces caught my eye. Black shoe polish coated their faces and made them round like obsidian stones encircled with slack, white circles for mouths and around the eyes.
“Blackface,” I said.
I read the caption. “Moravia University Gamma Sigma Fraternity member Hickman Horton, now a judge, in ‘blackface’ at a party from twenty-five years ago.”
“Mom, I’ve seen Judge Horton before. I’m a little surprised, but there are a lot of these racist assholes these days. What’s new?”
Mama’s lip no longer quivered. She didn’t divert her eyes anymore. With her hands she began smoothing her skirt, a nervous habit I’d noticed over the years when people looked at her or at me with a question in their eyes.
I’m much lighter skinned than my mother, and I always believed—though my mother never admitted—people were saying with their unspoken and befuddled stares, “Was the father white?”
My mother never told me the race of my father. In fact, she never talked about him.
Until that day.
“He’s your father,” she said matter of factly.
“Judge Horton?” I asked.
“Judge Hickman Horton.” She pointed to him and thumped her finger on the picture like she wanted to smash it apart, shattering the memory of it from the past as if time could be cut out of the past like the bad spot out of a banana.
My mind goes down strange paths sometimes. Thoughts build upon each other and spin off in all directions like a golf ball bouncing on a pebble-strewn path, and my mind shot back and forth.