I knew we had come home when I looked out the backseat window of my mom’s car and saw the old man in the straw hat rocking against his stove. The pipe he held between his teeth made him smile. He was part of the family, or that’s what I thought when I was six and a half. We’d cross the east coast, south to north and north to south, more than just a few times a year. My mom, my sister and I lived in Florida, and we would come home to Grandma’s, to Lorain—a decrepit city twenty minutes outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
The old man always rocked, always smoked and always smiled. I could depend on him in ways I struggled to depend on other things—my mom, her men, the cities we lived in. We’d come home, and the old man would always be there. He was an advertisement for E.H. Roberts Company, his rocking chair, the H in “HELP,” as in DIAL HELP. 277-HELP/ 366-HELP.
The numbers stood large against the side of the building like two lines of subtle poetry.
He rocked against the stove at the knee, at the hip, at the ankle, and either real smoke came from his stove then or I imagine it. I’d say hello to him, in my mind, and know that it was time to put on my shoes.
We’d pass the old man in the rain and snow, when not one ray of sunlight broke through the clouds overhead, in the fall, when the wind picked leaves up that had fallen to the ground and swept them against the building, and in the summer, when in the heat, I could imagine what it felt like to be stuck.
It was in the summer that I pitied the old man most.
He sat at the corner of Fifty-seven and 254. There, eight lanes of traffic, four going north and south, four going east and west, made the sign of the cross. Not the Holy Cross but the Red Cross cross.
Maybe I’d seen that cross on TV, on public access channels between stories about the local wastewater system and cartoons, and that’s why it stood out in my mind. Maybe that cross was familiar to me because the Red Cross set up stands along the beaches like tiny fire ants setting up homes at the end of driveways.
Before we moved to Florida, my mother, sister and I lived in New York. First in Durkirk, three hours away from Grandma’s, then in the City where my Titi lived. In the City, there were bodies everywhere. Bodies bumping into me on the street, bodies spilling out angrily from the subway, bodies glistening in the heat in Titi Sylvia’s apartment.
I lost little gold earrings somewhere among all those bodies.
We moved to Florida shortly after and moved in with some uncle or another.
I’ve forgotten that move, the move from New York to Florida. I imagine that one day I fell asleep in the backseat of my mother’s car, the same one I’d look out from later to greet the rocking man, and woke up in a new state, a warmer one, one that smelled like oranges and made me feel like palm tree leaves.
My Uncle David had three sons and a daughter. One of them, Michael, looked like Michael Jackson, and I told him so. Sometimes he danced to make me laugh.
Uncle David was married to a woman whom my mother said abused Michael and Mark, Michael’s younger brother. Maybe I shouldn’t have known that then because after I knew, Uncle David always seemed distraught and ready to cry.
Eventually my mother found a place of her own, or maybe she married a man in a wheelchair. We’d travel north with George in his van and Lobo, his dog, kicking our feet up onto the hard-plastic windowsills in the back.
My mother was youngest then, smiled more, had the most patience. I’d watch the quarries stretch like layers of sand in a bottle on either side of us—red, tan, brown, white—and ask my mom how many more miles till home. She seemed to always say three more exits.
Three more exits, Honey, and I’d fall asleep for a while.
After my mom divorced—divorce always hung on like a horizon at the end of my mother’s relationships—she would make the drive to Grandma’s on her own. She’d pile my sister and I into the backseat of her car with pillows and blankets and overnight bags stuffed under our feet.
The drive must have liberated her from the life she thought she was screwing up. It must have felt freeing to head for cooler skies and a ground with roots.
My mother must have felt like the old man rocking against the stove—a stand-in, stuck, smiling because she had to.
Sometimes, before home had pulled her back for good and before the magic of the road had worn off, she’d pull over when the afternoon sun was highest in the sky and hand her gold watch to me. “Wake me up,” she’d say, “when the big hand’s here and the little hand’s here.”
I’d look so long at the dashes on the face of watch, at the little diamond at the top where the twelve should have been or at the fields of long grass that stretched out on either side of us that I’d forget where she’d told me the hands needed to be.
I learned to turn the watch’s hands with the dial along its side.
published 14 June 2014