When I was ten I wanted to live inside my father’s dreams. My father worked nights and slept during the day. Our apartment on 938 Longwood Avenue in the fifties was what someone coming from the South, or maybe Texas, might call a shotgun shack. My family lived in unit number three. One walked up several stairs from the front stoop past the mailboxes, a long corridor, and then up a long flight of stairs. The first door on the right was where we lived. Inside, the rooms were next to each other like shoe boxes. Off the hallway was a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, then a living room, with two more bedrooms in the back. A fire escape outside the bedroom on the left. During the years I would grow up in this space, the rooms would change. Bedrooms would become living rooms. A kitchen would become a bathroom if there was no hot water. Richard’s room would become Marie’s room. I saw my father sleeping in many different rooms.
A man sleeps because he is tired. He also has a thirst for sleep if he wishes to escape. Maybe after drinking or making love, the wetness of sleep can wash away a man’s pain or guilt. A man can also crave sleep if he wishes to dream. Here a man can discover his wings. He can learn to fly again. He can leave this world for another. To dream is to be free. For my father to dream it was the chance to slip past the labels and gravity of opinions that people had of him. He could avoid being called dumb or stupid. He could fix anything you gave him. I remember a large picture of my father that was stored in the back of a closet. In the picture my father is handsome, cool, debonair, a lady’s man, Billy Dee Williams when Diana Ross was Lady Day. My father was in his twenties when this picture was made. He had the look of a gambler, or maybe Malcolm Little before he took an X for his name.
We lived on Longwood Avenue because some cousin or uncle helped my father find a place to live. Here was a man with three children, trying to make ends meet. He needed all the help he could get. On those late afternoons when he would leave the house for work he would ignore the sky and clouds. He would have no time to name the trees, plants, or flowers. My father walked down the street the way jazz musicians entered clubs carrying their instruments. He had a presence of coolness, detachment. A musician turning his back to his audience.
Egberto Miller walks to the subway carrying his lunch. My mother has taken the time to fix him a good meal. I will remember the exchange of small brown paper bags more than hugs and kisses between my parents. When we moved into the St. Mary’s Housing Projects, we lived on the seventeenth floor; my mother would watch my father walk to work from the bedroom window. Behind her would be an unmade bed. The outline of my father’s body was still trapped against the sheets and blankets. My father never overslept when it was time to go to work. He never dragged himself out of bed. He was up and in the bathroom washing his body before you could even talk to him. This is why I believe he never dreamed. His eyes never had that soft, hazy, distant look. His eyes never looked tired. When you work hard every day you don’t look tired; you are tired but you never mention it. There are no excuses.
I wonder what my mother thought about my father always sleeping. No time to really go anywhere. What was she thinking while bending over the stove? My father is sitting at the kitchen table. He props his head up with his hands. He is waiting for his meal. Years from now I will recognize the pose. It’s the picture we get from the losers’ locker room after the World Series, the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. It’s defeat after making an error, the ball going in and out of the rim. A foot touching the line in the end zone. Or worst, the referee or umpire missing the call. Yet there is something heroic about my father. It took many years for me to realize the simple beauty behind how he ate his food. The care that he gave to even the most mundane task.
Just before I went off to college, he printed my name on the inside of a new typewriter case, his block letters so beautifully even. I looked at my name each time I took the typewriter out. I was named by the women in the family. A great aunt gave me the middle name Ethelbert. My mother’s mother was named Eugen without the E at the end. I write my name on a white sheet of paper, Eugene E. Miller. I hand it to my father so he can spell it correctly.
Excerpted from Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer by E. Ethelbert Miller. A 20th anniversary edition of the book was just published by Black Classic Press. Author of several collections of poetry and two memoirs, he is the editor of Poet Lore magazine, and host of the weekly WPFW morning radio show On the Margin. He lives in Washington, DC.