Fawlonionese

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Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay, “Fawlonionese,” first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Summer 2010 issue.

When my dad was little, he worked. He helped his father to strip furnaces in the basements of the wealthy and gathered scraps of metal and coal off the streets to sell. But even though he learned to work doing physically exhausting, menial tasks, his expectations for himself had nothing to do with the expectations that the world had for black boys in 1950s Detroit. High school counselors prophesied his future with words like “plumber,” “electrician,” and “trade,” and pursed their lips in amusement when he said that he’d like to go to college. They didn’t know and probably wouldn’t have much cared that at nine years old this deeply creative child had taught himself how to develop film. He and his friend Rodney offered to do odd jobs shoveling snow and mowing lawns in a wealthy nearby neighborhood called Indian Village. One day, he turned to Rodney as they stood on the lawn of a historic white brick home on Seminole Street and said, “One day I’m going to own this house.” And it didn’t take too long before he did.

But his vision of the future soon began to push past the best that Detroit had to offer. He defied his guidance counselors by working seven times harder than anyone else and graduated from high school at age sixteen. After attending Wayne State University, he convinced CBS to allow him to be their first black cameraman. And then, in an unlikely burst of bizarre luck, the riots came. Newsweek magazine was desperate for photographs because their all-white staff of photojournalists feared the streets, so he got a job by simply walking the avenues outside his own home with a camera. Not long after, he had a job waiting for him in Los Angeles. He hoped eventually to work in cities around the world.

He married young, had a daughter named Lisa, and got divorced. He worked as a manager at the public library, where he met my mom-an Italian girl who still lived with her parents near Eleven Mile Road. The two of them decided to move to Los Angeles together, and eventually they had me. My half-sister remained in Detroit. 

We visit Detroit frequently to see family, but the house on Seminole is a dream unrealized, a possible home that we decorated in our minds whenever the apartment we shared in Los Angeles seemed too small. As the years have passed, it has become a loaded notion, this house. It has been flooded and gnawed at by the dogs of neglectful renters, ransacked for its claw-foot bathtubs by thieves, and targeted by bigoted neighbors who complain about upkeep with only a thin smile covering their racism toward my father. These obstacles, like all the others he’s faced, have made the house into an obsession for him. He cannot afford to refurbish the house, but he tends to it slowly over time, like the soldier who keeps watch overnight while periodically stoking the fire. Whenever we go to Detroit for Christmas, the house must be wrestled and tamed to accommodate our basic needs for food, bathing, and warmth.

Far away from Detroit, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a man named Michael Faraday. When he was young he experienced obstacles similar to those my father faced. He was born to a blacksmith in South London and educated himself. A passion for chemistry grew out of the reading he did as an apprentice to a bookbinder and bookseller. His introduction to the world of science began when he approached a famous chemist at the Royal Institution with a book of rigorous notes and observations, and he eventually became the man’s secretary. On his travels as an apprentice, he was forced to take the role of a servant, his body traveling and eating separately though his mind was treated with admiration and respect. In order to push through to success, he had to convince the men and women around him of his basic human worth.

Long after he’d made a name for himself, he walked to the front of a lecture hall at the Royal Institution in London, surveyed the audience of students and said, “There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.” I imagine him with tall, vertical wisps of bright white hair-backlit even when standing in a dark room. His smile would have been a small, blue glow, hovering above his body. 

After picking me up from the Detroit airport, my dad tells me that he’s been in pain all day. For hours, his foot felt cramped and numb, which for a diabetic can be cause to fear the worst-circulation problems sometimes require amputation. My face remains impassive during the silence that awaits his self-diagnosis. “I was at Home Depot when I decided to take off my shoe. I couldn’t take it anymore. And do you know what? There was an extra sock in there, stuffed into the toe.” We smile even though the punch line feels dark. We are here visiting family for Christmas. When we speak to my mother on the phone she, still in LA, tells us she is lonely and shopping for flannels. She’ll join us in a week.

The car moves smoothly along an empty highway, exits on Van Dyke, and turns onto Seminole. We pass through a section of Detroit that is like an abandoned movie set-an artificial stage crumbling like burnt wood after a fire. I find relief in the opulence of our historic home. 

At dinner I can’t help myself. I say, “It’s a little pink.” I am looking at the chicken in the soup that my dad made. On the plane ride over I entertained daydreams about eating a meal at Greektown-flaming saganaki cheese, oily salad, and chicken lemon soup. My father rarely cooked when I was growing up, and this is what I say to myself by way of explanation as I examine the meat in the chicken broth, the bloated neatness of the canned vegetables. My stomach reacts uneasily to the funny taste of the soup, which most likely has something to do with the fact that my dad used the hot spout of a water cooler and a Clorox wet wipe to clean my dish before putting the food inside. At the moment, there is no running water. 

When it is time to go to bed, I change into a giant red nightgown that my dad laid out for me and thick socks. As I join the teddy bear on the mattress, the bed makes a crunching sound and tips to the side, creating anxiety that if I move too much I might cause the entire thing to fall over. The room was decorated with a child in mind, painted pink and situated close to the upstairs heating vent. But since the ideal of the room has been brought to life so slowly, over the course of so many years, the child has grown up, and the pinkness and stuffed animal have become palpable symbols for the gap between our family’s dream and our reality. A photograph that I took when traveling with my father is framed and hanging over my maternal grandmother’s blue-green armoire.

My father is across the hall. Before he calls goodnight to me, he says “Pee pee,” as in, “Use this bathroom if you have to.” He doesn’t normally say things like this to me, and it makes me feel momentarily stunned that I ever grew up and left home. 

In the morning, my dad shaves in front of the mirror in the downstairs hallway. I take his picture with the digital camera that my parents gave me a few Christmases ago. Taking pictures and writing are crafts that my father and I share. He teaches me about f-stops, and I edit the travel articles he writes for magazines. 

Because we have a long day of errands ahead of us, I have convinced him that we should drive to Starbucks. Coffee shops have become the space we carve out for bonding during holiday visits. We often bring books and notepads with us on these trips, in case we need to discuss quotes and ideas with each other. As we walk across the small parking lot outside the café, I tell him to stand still while I take a picture of him in front of the graffiti-marked brick wall. This is a quiet way of acknowledging the expeditions we used to take together to shoot pictures of graffiti during one of the summers we spent in Paris. 

As we drink our coffee and drive to the Department of Water and Power, we talk about a book that he is reading-a dark parable about a father and his young son, struggling in a post-apocalyptic world. My dad goes off to woo the woman in a beige cubicle across the room who’s in charge of turning our water back on; I read the first pages of the book. The setting seems eerily similar to the streets of the cold, tired city outside. Sewers in a Detroit winter are always leaking warm columns of smoke into the bleached white air. Back in the car, I take a photograph of the mist as it rises outside the windshield, juxtaposed with a red traffic light, behind a stream of water that looks like a crack in the window. My dad sees the image as it flashes on the camera’s LCD screen, and says, “Damn. I wish I’d taken that.”

A photograph of Faraday in his later years shows that he had bright white hair, but instead of wisping upward, the flame drapes down from a center part, curling at his ears. He based much of his career on making connections between magnetism and electricity, magnetism and light. He also helped to build lighthouses and acted as a judge for art exhibits. He strode through the Crystal Palace for the 1851 World’s Fair, the sunlight catching on his hair as he passed by daguerreotypes, different types of security locks, and a proto-fax machine. 

During his lectures around 1860, which were later published under the title The Chemical History of a Candle, he spoke as though he were a preacher, making sweeping parables: “Now the greatest mistakes and faults with regard to candles, as in many other things, often bring with them instruction which we should not receive if they had not occurred. We come here to be philosophers, and I hope you will always remember that whenever a result happens, especially if it be new, you should say, ‘What is the cause? Why does it occur?’ and you will, in the course of time, find out the reason.” 

When my sister had Jeremy and later LaShawn, it seemed like a new start for my father. He could be to his grandchildren what he’d never managed to be to his first-born child. And the relationship he built with Jeremy has been tender and instructive. Jeremy has always been sweet and soft spoken. One Christmas, when I was sixteen and Jeremy was fourteen, he walked into the house on Seminole and crept slowly across the room. He moved like a deer, and I felt a surge of love and loss for him glowing in my chest. A flash of recognition, a mirror in his face, made me feel that this emotion was mutual. I felt this way again the last time I saw him, at my grandfather’s funeral. We’ve spoken very little to each other over the course of our lives. Now, at twenty-four, he is spending the second of many years to come in a Pennsylvania prison. When Faraday says that he will explain the candle, it seems he is trying to accomplish something that cannot be done. Like grief, like loss, like chaos, a concept so unrestrained as fire seems uncontainable by something so succinct as a reason.

At night we go to buy Christmas presents at a mall. A wealthy suburb of the festively lit city washes past the window in the form of a dark brown smear. My dad recalls the time that he fell down and lost consciousness three years ago, while fixing up the house. He underwent a CAT scan. A childhood friend named Buddy took him to the emergency room. And here’s what’s weird: he woke up in the same hospital his father had died in. On the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. A specialist walked in and said, “What’s wrong with you?” My father said he didn’t know. I may as well mention that he is vehemently superstitious.

“Well, you don’t have a brain tumor.” 

“Good.” 

“How much do you sleep?” 

“Three or four hours a night.”

“Why don’t you go home and go to bed.” 

Buddy had a round face as sweet as Jiminy Cricket’s, and he passed away one week before my visit. My strongest memory of Buddy is from my grandfather’s wake. We stood at the back of the room, and he told me about eating well to stay healthy. “Lots of vegetables. Broccoli-steamed, not fried.” Across the room, my grandfather looked like a figure made from purple wax in the coffin, so thin I couldn’t see any semblance of him in his face. My father’s grief at the time made it hard to look him straight in the eye. 

On that day my father blacked out, on that morbid anniversary, he fell down from exhaustion, but maybe too at the specter of his father’s death. Or at the specter of his own. I feel uneasy about this after we have arrived at the mall. I slam the door to the car and climb over a pile of snow that has collected on the curb.

“A combustible thing like that, burning away gradually, never being intruded upon by the flame, is a very beautiful sight, especially when you come to learn what a vigorous thing flame is-what power it has of destroying the wax itself when it gets hold of it, and of disturbing its proper form if it come only too near.” The thing that helps to create the flame is itself destroyed. This is a perfect description for my father’s relationship to the house, or more specifically, for what it makes him do.

After hearing my paraphrase of Faraday’s quote, “of disturbing its proper form if it comes only too near,” my dad says, “It’s kind of like a metaphor for life. Who was it, Einstein, that believed that energy couldn’t be destroyed? Didn’t he believe in reincarnation? Something about how energy goes back to itself, goes back to something larger than itself. It changes form. That’s not like a candle, though. Is the wax ever really extinguished in a candle?” I say yes, it is, but perhaps I’m missing his point.

My first, clear memory of my grandfather is outside of the Indian Village house. I was probably nine. The sidewalk outside was icy, and he and my grandmother emerged slowly from a beige Cadillac. He was huge around, and tall, and did not really seem to see me. Everyone was afraid of slipping on the ice. When a candle is lit, sometimes it is in honor of someone who has died. As though their spirit, which still exists somewhere, were being maintained in the form of a flame…

Read the rest of Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay, “Fawlonionese,” in the Michigan Quarterly Review Archives.