This is an excerpt from a solo show I did in the NY International Fringe Festival and then at Collective: Unconscious. It’s written in dialect. I did a lot of thinking about how to represent Jesse’s dialect on paper; originally, there were no “g”s (“somethin,” not “something”), but no apostrophes (“somethin,” not “somethin’ “). But in looking at this from years down the road, that approach felt condescending, inconsistent, and inaccurate. It felt, frankly, racist. The misspellings of words seemed to carry with them an implicit message that Jesse was either ignorant, or stupid, or both. He is neither. (I chose that initial style after reading stories of John Edgar Wideman, where I first saw it—I was trying to be thoughtful about this then. I’ve just changed my thinking.)
So after some searching, I’ve adopted Angela Flournoy’s piece on dialect as my guide. So. Come back in ten years, maybe I’ll have changed my thinking again. Who knows? In the meantime, enjoy.
JESSE, a 73-year-old WWII veteran, sits on a corner on a hot July day, eating crabs and telling his friend Frank a story.
It was 1946.
“Jesse,” Momma said. “Jesse!”
“Jesse, you get down here, I got something to say to you.”
Ha! I’d ain’t never moved that fast, not even on that Normandy beach.
“Jesse, how long you been back now?”
“Eight months, Momma.”
“And you are doing what to better yourself?”
Now, you ain’t never seen my momma, God rest her soul, but she was just about the scariest damn woman on the planet. She get mad at you, you better off standing still than running, but you also better off running than standing still, if you know what I mean. There wasn’t nothing she wouldn’t have done for me, but I didn’t know that then. Or maybe I did, but I was nineteen years old and I’d fought for my country and seen Germans and Paris to boot. My momma’d ain’t never seen nothing but kitchens and living rooms and laundry rooms and such, and most of those she was cleaning for other people and the ones she wasn’t cleaning for other people she was cleaning for us.
Pass over one of them crabs, Frank. Man, there ain’t nothing like a fresh Maryland Blue, and that’s the truth.
So there’s my momma, standing like the Great Wall of China but twice as hard, and she says to me, “Jesse—what are you doing to better yourself?”
And what was I going to say? I wasn’t doing nothing to better myself and she knew it. But I had a secret my momma didn’t know. She was standing there still thinking of me as her little schoolboy. She knew I’d fought and all, but it just wasn’t real to her, all that war stuff. She was proud, all right, and she done polished the buttons on that uniform about a million times over, but she didn’t know the most important thing I learned over there. War, hell. I learned love, man. And that’s the most powerful lesson there is.
I tried to tell my momma, I did. “I’m looking for love, Momma, that’s how I’m trying to better myself.” Whooooo, ha! You should have seen her face. You ever see a puffball, one of them round mushrooms grow in a field, and they get bigger and bigger all the way up to about basketball size and then one day you pass by and they lying there in pieces all over the ground? And you sorry you missed the explosion, but you always miss it? Well, my momma’s head looked just like one of them puffballs about to pop. And that’s one explosion I wouldn’t have been sorry I did miss.
Ha! That was more than fifty years ago and I’m still surprised momma didn’t tan my behind until it was the size of a damn toothpick. I know I look like a praying mantis now, but back when I was nineteen I had a body on me, yes I did. I was built like Mr. Olympia himself. And that’s when I was in Paris, and that’s when I met Mireille. Meeeee–raaayyy, ain’t that pretty? And she was prettier than her name, skin like milk and eyes like the sky and brown hair that ran like a river down to her waist. Oh, she was something. And there I was, poor scared black boy from across the ocean, signed up to make my momma proud and cause I thought I ought to do right by my country, and I seen things give grown men nightmares the rest of they lives. But Paris, man, Paris was beautiful. Occupied, Vichy, I didn’t see it. I know this sounds crazy, but all I saw’s Mireille. And I don’t know why to this day, and I know better than to ask the good lord too many times, but for some reason all she saw was me.
And I was trying to explain this to my momma. Cause when I left Paris, I left a piece of myself in the ground with Mireille, and here’s what. When you leave a piece of yourself somewhere like that, it leaves you with a hole inside, and you know what that hole fills up with?