I had to be three years old. We were living in the projects. It was nighttime and I was standing in a big rocking chair. The room was full of books and records in shelves down low, easy for a three-year old to get to. The walls were covered with photos and drawings and I was warm.
I was playing a harmonica to the music on a phonograph. Josh White was singing the blues on a 78-rpm disk. My parents liked Josh White. His songs spoke to the Negro experience and the class struggle. My old man moved us to the projects so we could live with working people. He liked working people. He was a Communist. Of course, I didn’t know any of that. I was simply was dancing in the chair and blowing, pushing the harp back and forth across my teeth.
I remember that the picture on the album cover showed a black man in a white shirt standing in the burnt-out ruins of a prairie home. Charred planks and timbers reached up to the blue night sky. The ragged tower of a brick chimney was the only thing left standing. On the mantelpiece stood a clock, strangely intact, only the glass face shattered by the heat of the fire. Halfway to the horizon, across a sea of dark-green prairie grass, a passenger train shone silver in the moonlight, its windows radiating warmth into the dark and desolate night. The black man had a naked guitar strapped to his back.
The lonely man, the dark night, the unreachable warmth and movement of the train all cried lonely but I was making music. I wasn’t lonely. My life was good there in the projects and my mother sang lullabies to my sister and me when she tucked us into bed that night.
* * *
I woke to voices and banging. Somebody was hollering and pounding on our front door. It made a hollow sound and the voices were muffled. “Mumph mumph in there, yuh mumph mumph communist.”
I could hear the worried tones of my mother’s voice. The end of each of her phrases floated upwards.
“Mumph, mumph on out here, yuh mumphin’ dangol red,” commanded a second voice. There were two of them. The sound of my father’s voice sounded low and smooth, like when he was reading the funny papers to us.
“Go on home now,” my father said.
“Communist. Dangolf commmunists.” I shrunk under the covers. I remember asking Who were they, these men who came and pounded on our door? Were they my father’s friends? Why were they so angry at us? What would they do if the door broke? What would my father do?
I lay alone, eyes wide open in the darkness. My heart was racing. My father hadn’t moved. Nobody came to our room. Nobody relieved the blackness of our bedroom. The apartment became still and silent once more and I fell asleep, but fear had entered my life that night. I remember how different life felt after that.
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