I had a friend once never tired of asking me
to tell about my family, more than I knew . . .
I had no heart to say no, I went on
through the night telling stories I had heard
like this one, the one about my mother:
(We were in Cambridge, sitting in Harvard Square, that dusty carbuncle
of the fountain of the immortals. I knew I was considered progeny of wealth,
how else could a Southerner have entered Harvard? I knew how, I knew who
came from here and chanced to cross my path or me his, and my mother could
not dissuade me from leaving the South, for this man was not from the South
but of the South, though I was not talking to him but of him, eventually.)
She was a newborn baby, nearly, when her mother was widowed, her father
dying in a cell in McAlester, Oklahoma, in the state penitentiary, of natural
causes, the warden declared, and her mother had to carry her along all the way
there from Sallisaw to gather up his bones and take them home to bury.
After that, she mourned a whole year. Her son came home. He held her close.
My mother learned to walk by watching. She learned to talk by listening.
She would make out in this sadly incredulous world where nobody survived
capital. It was I’m against you because you’re against me, or you should be,
otherwise what are we waking for and sleeping like a baby with all the flesh
of beauty at our disposal and nothing said by those sweet lips to contradict
my mother toddling out the door and finding the horse her father had stolen
for her brother, it was way up in a stand of pine so thick with brambles light
was forbidden entrance. A fancy way I was taught to say "dark," I admit,
but no one could find that horse but my mother and her brother grown
to be a man by then, and it was he who preceded me here courtesy of the man
who sent me. We never met. He was dead by the time I came here. I was happy
not knowing how he died or where or by whose hand . . . My mother knew all
the facts, she had to put them all together to even come close to knowing why.
Her mother taught school. She always wanted to and here she had her chance.
One room schoolhouse. Big boys and big girls and little ones of each. So funny
she thought, here I am a grown woman learning as much as they but not about
reading, writing, arithmetic, and all, but about what it is finally to be a mother.
And so the time was passed. My mother was sixteen when she met her husband.
A callow youth who cared only for the wild life. She learned to love what he did.
She was twenty when I was born. She was working in Fort Smith. She whored.
It was her husband. He loved The Row. She did not last long. She tired of a life
that knew nothing but money come from flesh, she had been born of flesh.
I don’t know why my mother had to marry a man who only wanted to make money
that way. He was a blackguard and I grew to hate him more each year he lived,
until he was gone when I was twelve. My mother knew nothing else she could do
to make a living. She knew New Orleans had a history. She found a woman whose
name is now famous even though she’s dead, and she learned what to do from her
to be a success in the Crescent City. I was sworn to secrecy. I went on with my life.
She was a haunted soul. Her past was lost to her. No mother, no father she could
share her troubles with, her mother dead from cancer not long after she started
teaching, and as I said already her father long gone by then. It was in New Orleans
she took an interest in voodoo. She wanted to learn from Madame Ju-Ju, whose
lineage came down somehow from Marie Laveau. Most voodoo women were from
Marie Laveau’s bloodline, or so they would say, whether it was true or not . . .
She began spending as much time with Madame Ju-Ju as in her madam friend’s
brothel. It’s on St. Charles and you can ride the streetcar out there and it’s plain
like any other mansion, and nobody knows but the customers what happens there.
Or so my mother used to say. How could I believe her? She bequeathed to me
a healthy skepticism that included even her as I grew older and grew more willful.
I did not befriend the women who worked with my mother until the madame died.
My mother took over, heir apparent by proclamation from the dying woman’s lips.
I learned to tend bar, wait tables, and I had steady work and lived in the Vieux Carre.
Then the man who I talked about when we began this conversation came to town.
Come to find out he was a friend of my mother’s, loved her, but she did not love him.
My mother could no longer love anyone, she said. Her girls shielded her from all men
they believed had a design on her and wanted to take her money and her house from
her. My mother knew this man did not care about money or the house. He wanted her
to marry him. My mother said no, I don’t know how many times. He never took no
for an answer. He did talk her into letting me go with him to Boston and there we were
briefly living in his mansion in the Back Bay when I was admitted to Harvard University
with his great assistance, for like all of the school’s graduates or even friends of graduates
a word of commendation quickly served to take your name to the top of the brief roster
of those who were considered candidates for admittance to America’s original bastion
of higher learning. Thus I joined the pantheon of Emerson, Thoreau, Norman Mailer.
Why did I mention Mailer? Because he was my first acquaintance there. He loved books
and pitted his entire concentration not only on engineering but, more forcefully, on books
like Studs Lonigan and U.S.A., and was determined to write a novel as great as anything
Hemingway had done, especially in A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises.
When he graduated from Harvard he joined the army and from his time in the war
he fashioned The Naked and the Dead. I never saw him after that. He was too famous.
I was the one who sat with Juan Flores
in Harvard Square the day he said all this.
I had no reason to doubt anything he said.
He was bright enough to graduate with honors.
And he was my friend. I loved to hear his stories.
Recently I’ve lost track of his whereabouts.
Last I heard he was living with a Chicana Jew
in Chicago, she had lifted his heart by the roots,
he reported. He described her in great detail,
none of which I need relate here, not publicly.
Juan had a great love affair with his mother,
as he liked to say, always one who loved to shock.
He had turned to poetry after Harvard, turned
inward, said fuck it, his phrase, to the real world
of corporate power, trickle-down weltanschauung
When his mother died I heard from mutual friends
in Chicago and New Orleans he was heartbroken.
It was another kind of heartbreak the Sufis meant.
He had not seen her in so long he thought his absence
might have contributed to the way she let go of her life.
That is what I heard. I wrote to the last address
I had in Chicago and my letter was returned
undelivered. I tried to find a Lisa Alvardo
by telephone but there were far too many,
and I abandoned the search until now . . .
Now I suddenly have a dream of where Juan is,
in some dive in N’Orleans called Hotel HOTEL.
I find it, amazingly, and call and there he is,
his voice drugged with sleep, or so he claims,
and I don’t care, I tell him I tried all I could
to track him and he says, Lisa is still there . . .
He tells me all about Mama Ju-Ju and how
she let him see again what he missed forever.
He tells me how he is going to stay here
as long as he must to find where her coffin
floated to when the Katrina flood took it off
and left him forlorn, unforgiving of what
he had done to Lisa, to himself, and to her . . .
(8 January 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander