Finger Painting

Winner: “Best of Non-Fiction” in IUPUI’s award-winning literary magazine, Genesis. Spring 2014 Issue

Winner: Honorable Mention, Creative Non-Fiction Award. IUPUI English Department Student Awards.



“We’re going to see your Daddy today,” said my grandmother with one eye on me, the other on one of the soap operas she watched religiously; one hand held a pick, the other the phone. “That son of a bitch,” she yelled “Carrie left her home and job for him and he slept with Mona?”

She was referring to the soap opera. I could tell because the music got slow and dramatic, and every camera shot was a gradual close up. I’d been staying with my grandmother while my mother was in the hospital. Therefore, if I had nothing better to do, I was watching the soap operas with my grandmother. Although, I didn’t mind it considering how much larger her, still small, home was in comparison to the tiny apartment that my mother and I lived in; at least this was an actual house.

My grandmother picked at my curls until I was in agony. She would say that I had “that good hair,” and to “quit faking crying.” She did all this while at the same time talking on the phone to her friend who lived just two houses down the street. They would speak on the phone while they watched TV. I wondered why they didn’t visit each other and watch these shows together. She always complained about the phone bill.

My grandmother called the soap operas her “shows” which confused me. Did she own those shows? Did she have some control over them? Adults seemed to enjoy saying things to confuse me. I remember begging my mother for a happy meal and her telling me that that we didn’t have “McDonalds’ money.” For years I believed that McDonalds had their own form of currency that you had to obtain to purchase their food. There are many things that I didn’t understand in my youth, that I understand now, but there are still some things that evade my comprehension.

We piled into my grandmother’s Lincoln: me, my Aunt Billy Ann, my Uncle Tim, with my grandmother in the driver’s seat. “I have another surprise for you,” she said, pulling the big old white Continental out of the driveway. “We’re going to stop and pick up your mom”.

I hadn’t seen my mother in what seemed like forever and I couldn’t wait to be in her arms again. My Grandmother had told me that my mom had some “problems”, and the people at the hospital were helping her with them. It had always been just my mother and I; we were a team and I missed her dearly. I didn’t miss my father at all. The most obvious explanation was because I’d only seen him a handful of times and how can you miss something that you’ve never had? Plus I didn’t want anyone to break up our team.

I’d seen pictures of my father and my mother holding me as an infant, standing in front of a collection of odd backdrops of woods; my father always wearing the same uniform with his name and a set of numbers. I had spoken to him on the phone a few times; he had a high, soft voice like Aaron Neville.  He would tell me he loved me and he missed me, but I never quite knew how to respond to someone who was basically a stranger. I didn’t know how to speak with my own father. Besides, I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not.

As we drove, my Uncle Tim teased and tickled me. He was always in a good mood despite the shitty cards that life had dealt him. He was very kind, but of below average intelligence and had a difficulties with school. This led to a life of manual labor that had beaten his body down, so that he walked hunched over as if he were in the middle of crouching to pick up a coin. Three days before Christmas the year before, while on a date, my Uncle Tim’s car broke down during a snow storm. He’d worked as a mechanic before so he got out and popped the hood to see what was wrong. Meanwhile, a drunk driver was careening down the hill behind him. The car started to fishtail and the driver over-corrected, sending his car head on into Uncle Tim’s car, with Tim in between. The impact shattered most of the bones in his right leg and nearly severed it completely. The drunk backed his car up then sped off, leaving them alone, with no transportation in a blizzard. Uncle Tim’s girlfriend thought fast and covered Tim up to his hips in snow and took off through the dark looking for help. Uncle Tim lived, but he lost his leg that night and the drunk driver was never found.

The old Lincoln pulled up in front of the hospital and there was my mom waiting outside. She got into the backseat with me and I hugged her so tight that a tornado could’ve picked us up and we would have landed still clutched together. Her eyes were clear and her movements seemed normal. I liked her better when she was like this. “When will you be home?” I asked her. “Very soon”, she replied. This answer was sufficient for me. No definite time frame could replace the hopeful suddenness of “soon”.

While we drove, my mother joked with my aunt Billy Ann. She was my favorite aunt – she called me Super J – I spent much of my time glued to her. Aunt Billy Ann slept in the bedroom down the hall from my grandmother. I never thought about why all my aunts and uncles lived with my grandma. I never questioned why they would sequester themselves to their rooms and tell me they’d be out later. Later usually meant much, much later, and when they finally came out, they looked different. Their eyes wandered, and they either couldn’t sit still or could barely move. Super J, is all she could mutter when she’d come out of her room on nights like that. She’d kiss my head and tell me it was late and time for bed, then she’d rendezvous with my uncles whose rooms were in the basement.. Sometimes I’d sleep in her bedroom. But once I wet the bed and even though she told me everything was OK, I’d also once wet the bed at a friend’s sleepover and now he didn’t talk to me anymore. I was afraid that if I did it again then my favorite aunt wouldn’t want to be my friend anymore. From then on I slept in my grandma’s bed and endured her horrible snoring.

My aunt Billy Ann died when I was 13. Her liver made a bargain with her heart and they both went out on her at the same time, in the middle of the night. My uncle Willie found her the next morning, slumped head first over the side of her bed with the house phone in her hand; a busy tone humming because my grandma had left the phone off the hook to avoid late phone calls waking her. Willie never told grandma about the phone; no one has. She couldn’t take it.

After a long drive the car pulled up in front of what looked like a castle. As I hopped out of the car I remember thinking that my dad’s house was huge. It was all brick, had a big gate with a guard, and the biggest fence I’d ever seen wrapping all the way around his property with some spiky stuff wrapped around the top. We walked through the gate, then a door that led to a waiting room with families sitting all around. The inside didn’t look like a house at all, I thought. There were vending machines, a water fountain, men’s and women’s restrooms, and a big steel door with a clock above it. We waited for what seemed like forever.

Then a man walked through that enormous steel door with a clipboard. “Erby family,” he hollered. We all stood up and followed the man back through the door. The sound of it closing behind us echoed throughout the hallway. We walked up to a man who told us to stick our arms out and spread our legs. I wondered why he was doing this. Was he a doctor giving us a checkup? If so, he forgot to knock on my knee to see if it jumps.

We took a right down an even longer hallway and arrived at a little booth with bars hanging down half way and people sitting on the other side, their faces obscured by the bars. My mother held me in her arms, and I watched as they took her fingers and dipped them in ink and pressed them on a sheet of paper. Then they took my fingers and did the same. This whole experience was so foreign and new to me that I was overwhelmed with anticipation of what would happen next. It definitely wasn’t a house. Maybe it’s a giant apartment complex with big nice apartments the size of normal homes, I thought.

We walked through another gigantic steel door, and immediately had to stop because of the large bars that stood in front of us. They shut the huge steel door behind us and a buzzer rang and the door to our cage opened. We walked into a large room filled with circular tables. A nice black lady police officer with curly, shiny hair gave me some blank paper and crayons to color with. I asked for a pencil, but she said we weren’t allowed to have any pointy objects. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew that Grandma wouldn’t be able to run her pick through my hair in this place.

I had two red crayons and one blue one. Why two red ones? I don’t know; maybe the lady was colorblind. I started to draw, but noticed that when I put my hand on the paper it left smudges from the ink still on my fingertips. So I set down the crayons and began painting a picture for my dad. I made clouds and used the red crayon for the sun and the blue for the sky. I drew me, mom, and dad all holding hands. I colored in the spots around the smudges and marveled at my masterpiece.

Another loud buzzer went off and a man I’d seen in pictures walked through the door. He was black and going bald. He looked older than my mom, but the thing that really stood out was how muscular he was. To a boy who loves wrestling and comic books, a man built like a superhero was amazing. He approached the table and received a group hug from everyone. I followed suit, not out of love, but because it seemed like what I was supposed to do.

He gave my mother a big hug and kiss. I’d never seen my mom kiss anyone like that. Then he got down on one knee, and reached his hands out and he picked me up with one arm, like I was a leaf; his strength astounded me. I asked him if I could feel his muscles and he said yes. As I reached out for his arm he flexed it and the giant bicep muscle grew even larger, as hard as a rock. He asked me how I was doing in school and who my favorite basketball player was, but all I could do was stare at the scars on his skin. It looked like he’d been burned all over. He had two scars on his right arm, like big patches of leather, but the burn marks on his left arm were in defined shapes that I couldn’t quite understand, like hieroglyphics. I was mesmerized by his finely tuned wounds. He was a god.

The visit came to an end and we had to say goodbye, but now I at least could tell my friends I had a dad, and I could confidently say that he could beat up their dads. I never asked him what kind of home it was, or why he always wore the same uniform, or any of the millions of questions that I had. I was never good at expressing my thoughts in the moment I thought them. I hoped my finger painting would suffice.

The second we exited the gates of the prison I became sullen, knowing that my father wasn’t coming with us and that we’d soon be dropping mom back off at the hospital. I wanted a family like the other kids at school. I was already the only kid in a small private school who wasn’t white. When kids would ask about my father I’d make up lies like when I told a story about his experiences in the marines. If they asked about my mother I’d just say she was sick and the doctor didn’t know what was wrong. The pity I received from people was quite off-putting. I didn’t want their pity; I wanted their normal lives.

We dropped my mother back off and I cried the rest of the way back to my grandmother’s. When we arrived my aunt and uncles retreated to their rooms and shut the doors, and my grandmother got on the phone. I went out to the backyard and sat on a fallen tree branch. Being alone wasn’t anything new to me, but it hit harder following the events of the day.

There was an old tree with a box crate nailed to it, simulating a basketball goal, which seemed to be a good foot higher than a real one. I threw rocks through it until it got dark, wishing I was at home with my mom and dad.  I wasn’t sure if I had a real family or not. What’s the definition of a family? It’s like the difference between a home and a house. I didn’t know the difference, I’d always lived in a tiny apartment.