Some Things, You Will Never Know
What we want to believe about our ancestors and what we believed as children pose questions that may never have answers.
My Grandfather at the Edge Hill & Star Theaters, Gloucester VA 1948
I want to believe he was fair,
didn’t joke with the whites about
the Blacks. I want to believe,
if the whites ever razzed him
about working both sides,
that he said something back to them,
something calm, direct, wide-minded.
I want to believe he shook
every hand, hope he carried
no weapon. For patrons
who arrived late, I want
to believe he shone the same torch.
(Surely, it was the same light, it
had to be, I want to believe.)
He was likely fair, not just
pointing latecomers to seats,
but walking them there. He must
have answered their questions
about the restroom, schedule,
or snack bar. Show me the way, sir,
dead a week before I turned
eighteen. Tell me the answers,
old man, you who pass between
adjacent theaters, shuttling
the one reel they share.
I imagine congratulations
on the little girl born four days
before his own birthday, wonder
about the sister-in-law who fled
the Armenian genocide
as a child, wonder about
his conscience. Lord, all the places
your mind goes for the heart’s sake,
to try to balance the scales.
Show me the way, sir; tell me
the answers, old man; shine your light,
blood usher, not at the screen
where it will go unnoticed
but on me, and us, in this dark
cathedral of fantasy.
Before the Tabrons moved to the edge
of the neighborhood; before Karen,
Kevin, Calvin, and I talked at the bus stop;
before seventh grade, when Latasha Canty
told me I had a cute butt; before
one year when Sherry Matthews and I
were in the same class after Ivan Frink
and I had been in class together
for years; before all of them,
Derek bounded around the classroom.
The teacher asked, “Derek, will you please
sit down and do your work?” and he replied,
“I’m is.” On picture day, when we
were called down, he said, “Alright, man,
let’s go get our pictures did.”
Because I wanted to make them laugh
and knew they would, I brought these moments
home to my folks — my people — like a cat
presenting a mouse to its owner:
Just for you — look what I killed.
There’s so much I want to believe,
and so little I know. I know
my grandfather drove the middle
peninsula for a wholesale
distributor, talking and taking
orders for gas stations, farms
marinas, churches, school boards, stores.
I know my mother’s father
let me ride with him to see
a Black man named Billy Watt. A bit
of a trip, I think the road was straight
with long rises and drops, woods
and fields on both sides. It seemed his house
was the only one around; I know
we didn’t go inside; I bet
that was mutually deliberate.
I want to say he greeted me
“How are you, young man?” but this
is all retro-projection,
and his heavy accent, sodden
as lake-sunk logs yet quick
as a gnat, was too much for such
young ears that had been nowhere, fluent
only in the mild warp
of the Kempsville tongue. But these men
seemed to carry on just fine. I think
they’d known each other for some time.
I know my grandfather understood
most of what Billy Watt said.
I know I understood nothing.
In late June, I read Return of the Jedi
in the bed of my dad’s little silver pickup
as we wind and roll through the Blue Ridge.
The forest moon of Endor and Douthat State Park
are the same world. I remember the thrill
of the biker scout chase, knocking on the cab’s
back window, yelling, “I think this movie’s
gonna be pretty good!” Weeks later, home
in Virginia Beach, my mother lists our errands,
tacking on, “…and then I thought maybe
we’d go by Pembroke Mall.” It’s 1983,
and that name’s magic won’t live forever
but is still real for now, especially
the short south hall: Mother’s Records & Tapes.
Pizza Delight. The smoke and lightning
of video games and switchblades in Spaceport.
And — ta-da — the movie theater.
She would take me to see if the movie was
any good, but all she said was, “I thought
maybe we’d go by Pembroke Mall.”
She wanted me to put it together.
Second Home, January 2002
In the months that followed, we saw flags
in every scene, and its idols too — pins, ties,
handkerchiefs made in places we co-pimped.
The phrase See Something, Say Something greeted us
in subway stations where I’d descend
and whir through a tunnel and see the lights
go out, hear gunshots, explosions, green gas
filling the car like in a comic book.
Then my mind stepped back and nudged itself
out of its vision, and found the world
just fine. I wanted to see everything
and say nothing. I wanted to watch TV
every free hour. I still don’t know
if I was with us or against us,
but in the theater of false choices,
in the sideshow of safety logic,
in the Diamond City and its sibling states,
two hundred miles from my birth and rearing,
one winter day I walked up a gliding
escalator, emerged from underground
to find a man — who spoke a little more
of my language than I did of his —
selling hot honey roasted peanuts
in wax paper bags, with the tops
just folded closed, for a dollar.
I have had few moments more glorious
and wonder what the dollar gave him
now, watching myself stride satisfied
towards North Stuart Street, supplicant
of belonging blessed at last as something
in me then put down roots in the tunneled,
tangled diamond of loss, with a wax paper bag
held near my chest, emptying and still warm.
Andy Fogle is the poetry editor of Salvation South. He is the author of Mother Countries (forthcoming from Main Street Rag), Across From Now, and seven chapbooks of poetry, including Arc & Seam: Poems of Farouk Goweda, co-translated with Walid Abdallah. He’s from Virginia Beach, spent years in the D.C. area, and now lives with his family in upstate New York, teaching high school.