Bumpers by A. Naomi Jackson

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen

Trisha ended up selling pharmaceuticals. To me, her choice of career, selling drugs to people with imagined problems, suited her. I never told her that, though. Marriage has taught me that it’s best to keep certain observations, even the smart ones—usually the smartest ones—to yourself, that the path to peace is paved with the unsaid. Besides, it was her work that kept us afloat long after my academic ambitions dried up. 

        I still remember a time before we’d lost hope in us, twenty years before, when we were still young and some kind of beautiful. That day, a hot day in August when our legs stuck to the leather seats in my car, and we turned the air off to save gas, we were on a road trip to my first assistant professor job. Trisha still believed in me then, and I still believed in her ability to change me, make me better. On the way from Atlanta we talked about Marion Barry, what we would do to help our people, what we’d name our children – Alike for a girl or one of the Akan day names for a boy. We stopped by my Aunt Mary’s in Anacostia on the way to see Trisha’s parents, where we planned to spend the night before driving on to Connecticut. 

       When my Aunt Mary came to greet us in her driveway, Trisha started talking about how she wished she had brought some tissues with her so her skin wasn’t shining like a roasted pig. 

       “You can never be too prepared,” Aunt Mary said as soon as we walked in. She wiped her house shoes on the welcome mat. Trisha stood in the living room in her argyle socks and stared open mouthed at the mantle where two semi-automatic rifles flanked my cousin’s ashes. 

       My mother had told me to look up her sister when I came to the District, that she’d take care of me. I didn’t know what she meant by “take care of.” Aunt Mary was a spinster. Her prized only son was seemingly immaculately conceived, and then gunned down at twenty-five in a way that made my mother shake her head and murmur about how Atlanta was right where she needed to be. When her son died there wasn’t much else for Aunt Mary to concentrate on besides her bid whist game and E&J, which she said was short for Ease & Jesus. She couldn’t cook; her culinary misadventures were fodder for stories my mother told to smooth over missing her sister. 

       My mother didn’t have faith in my promises, so she phoned ahead and told Aunt Mary we were coming. There were two plates of rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes from Boston Market on the table when we arrived, real forks lain neatly on scratchy brown paper napkins. After we sat down to eat, Trisha kicked me under the table. I looked in the direction where her head was jerking. “Never again” was painted in green cursive on a red urn, a paean I think to Trevor’s birthday on Christmas Day, which I shared. Trisha looked at me like it was time to go, but we had just arrived, and I was hungry, and that chicken was the best thing I’d tasted since we got on the road 12 hours earlier. 

       “Aunt Mary, I’m so sorry if this is hard to talk about, but do you mind telling me what happened to your son?” Trisha said. On the drive up, Trisha had tried to ask me about Trevor, but I didn’t say much, only that he’d been my best friend one day, and gone the next. She held my hand then in that way she did when she came up against one of my walls.

       I cleared my throat, and waited for Aunt Mary to speak, because, truth be told, I wanted to hear what happened from her. Every time my mother had started to tell me, she’d stopped. Trisha, who’d tried to like my mother and failed, said that I inherited my obstinate silences from her. 

       “Thugs got him. Thought my baby was another little nigger in one of their gang wars. Mistaken identity,” Aunt Mary said.  

       “Damn,” I said. 

       “My Trevor was a good boy. Never gave anybody any trouble. Sweet as pie and as serious as a shotgun if he needed to be. But mostly sweet.” 

       “I’m so sorry to hear that,” Trisha said. 

       “No sorrier than me. But what’s done is done. Now my work is just to see the rest of my life out, protect what’s mine, get my affairs in order. I want to go peacefully. Never had no worry hanging over me in life. Certainly don’t plan to have none in death.” 

When Trevor died, I was finishing up my Fulbright year, which I’d spent researching young men’s rites of passage in West Africa. When I first started my project, the frenzy about the plight of black men and boys had just started, and I thought my work would be important.

       “I’m really sorry that I didn’t make it to the funeral. I would’ve liked to come, but I couldn’t see how I could make it back here from Ghana where I was.” 

       When Trevor died, I was finishing up my Fulbright year, which I’d spent researching young men’s rites of passage in West Africa. When I first started my project, the frenzy about the plight of black men and boys had just started, and I thought my work would be important. Six months of fieldwork and an article in the leading anthropology journal led to speaking invitations everywhere from academic conferences to community centers. I managed to talk myself into a fellowship and then a job at Yale, and for some years, I rode off the fumes of those talks and that one article. This was before the black faggots took over the conversation about black masculinity and made it something else entirely. 

       The day my parents called to tell me Trevor died, I was resting after a session with a prostitute in my hotel room in Ghana when the lanky porter came to wake me. I watched the red felt on his bellboy hat bob up and down as we took four flights of dusty stairs down to the only telephone. At first, because the line wasn’t clear, I thought my mother called me to say that Trevor had a job, but then my father got on the phone and said no, no, not a job, he’d been shot. Then he put my mother back on. She said she’d love to buy me a plane ticket home, but money was tight, and they couldn’t help me right then. 

       Aunt Mary interrupted my reminiscence. “It’s okay, baby. Funerals aren’t for the dead, really. And I’m sure Trevor would’ve understood. He was always going on about you, bragging about how big your brain was. He tried to explain to me what your work was, said how it was going to help everybody, but then my head was never too good for that kind of thing,” she said. 

       “Aunt Mary, do you have any friends around that you can call on if you need anything?” Trisha asked. 

       “Oh, of course, baby. Sybil and Dondrie down to the center, and all the girls at church. We play cards, and sometimes they ask me to make those diaper cakes for the baby showers. But I wouldn’t call on them if somebody was knocking down the door trying to get in. Police barely helpful. I don’t see how some other old ladies would help my cause.” 

       “Huh,” Trisha said. The drive to her parents’ house was 45 minutes, an hour with traffic, which we’d miss if we stayed past dinner. The drive up to New Haven was at least another three hours. I sunk my teeth into a chicken leg and marveled at how my mind was tricking me into thinking the meal was delicious. I put my hand to the table and felt how still it was. The hours on the road had made me feel like I’d always be moving. Even with Trisha in the passenger seat searching for the black radio stations and rubbing the knots in my shoulders, I had felt myself easing over to the ugly side of cranky all day.

       “Well, enough of that talk. I see somebody done got their nose open. Told you it would happen,” Aunt Mary said, nodding in my direction. 

       She left her watch at the kitchen window, which overlooked the alley, and sat down at the head of the table. Thirty years of working for Off Track Betting and five years of a solid pension had added some flashy touches to Aunt Mary’s house. I knew what it looked like before, when rain kept me up at night, leaking from the roof into a bucket in the room me and Trevor shared summers when I stayed there. The fat glass apples on her chandelier glinted off the fake rubies on her slippers. She turned to address Trisha, who was moving food around on her plate, only occasionally bringing delicate morsels to her lips. 

       “Last time I saw this one at the family reunion I asked him if he had anybody special, and he had his head hanging all down, talking about, No, Ma’am, not anybody worth mentioning. And look at him now, all grown and coming in here with this pretty light thing.” 

       Trisha bristled at the word, “light.” She was one of those D.C. blacks who was light, bright, and damn near white, and hated anyone mentioning it. I loved a lot of things about Trisha, her pearly laugh, her slight waist and thick thighs that held me like lifesavers when we made love. It was fair to say that I was probably one of the first men, raised up by my father to love dark-skinned women as a matter of duty and honor to our race, who saw Trisha’s beauty beyond her milky complexion. 

       “Well, Aunt Mary, I can’t thank you enough for this food and your hospitality. It certainly was a long drive up here.” I leaned back and patted my belly. Trisha told me often that she didn’t want a fat man, and I wasn’t fat then, not yet. 

       “Of course. You know we take care of each other. And I’m always just happy to bless my eyes on you. Every time I see you I think of my Trevor.” 

       Aunt Mary turned to Trisha, and spoke, even though Trisha was only giving her the knobby point of her shoulder for encouragement. “Can you imagine? Me and my sister hundreds of miles away. Her down in Atlanta and me up here in D.C. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I picked up the phone to call Maddie and there she was on the other line before I even dialed. Said she had something to tell me. And I said, me too, but since she was younger, she should go first. I about near died when she told me she was pregnant. And she dropped the phone when I told her I was, too. Had to dial her back real quick and then we just laughed and laughed. Seemed like these children popped out of the same oven. Same birthday, same coloring. I can almost hear Trevor in his voice.” 

We rode our bikes all around Anacostia, even once they were too small for us, our knees hunched near the handlebars. We had the same skin that burnt brick-red in the summers, the same pouty lips that made girls want to listen to anything we were saying.

       Growing up with Trevor was like having a twin I only saw twice a year. Some summers, he came to see us in Atlanta and the barefoot days stretched wide enough for us to play touch football, chase fireflies, search all in the green behind my house. Others, I went to D.C., and we rode our bikes all around Anacostia, even once they were too small for us, our knees hunched near the handlebars. We had the same skin that burnt brick-red in the summers, the same pouty lips that made girls want to listen to anything we were saying. 

       The thing I loved about Trevor was that where I was always over-thinking things, never quite sure what to say when I met a girl or brave enough to ask for time on the basketball court, Trevor was always just himself. He wore his skin like he belonged in it. The same freeness I saw in him was what I saw in the boys in Ghana when they finished their rites of passage, like they had woken up one day and been told they were men and believed it. If anyone was going to make it out, be all right, I was always sure that it would have been him. 

       When I was young, when my father wasn’t looking, I cried a little bit when he picked me up from Aunt Mary’s at the end of the summer. I knew I would miss Trevor, had gotten used to having someone to talk to. I was worried about the way that the long, quiet stretches between when I got home from school and my parents got home from work yawned open and threatened to swallow me whole. Eventually, I learned to sneak girls over while my parents were at work, to paper over the hum of appliances with the sounds of lips smacking, and then, as the promise of my future success was solidified by a scholarship to an Ivy League school up North, bodies grinding too. But in the early days, before I’d discovered girls as a balm for my solitude, leaving D.C. meant leaving Trevor, and that made me sad. 

       As kids, when we were apart, it was like Trevor and I still spoke to each other. We weren’t much for the phone, but there would be these strange coincidences, like the time we both broke the same wrist on the same weekend playing football, or the time I called to tell him I was moving up to Boston for college and the line was busy because he was calling to tell me he had decided to enlist in the Marines. My trip to D.C. with Trisha was the first time I’d been back there since he’d passed three years before, and even then it still wasn’t real to me that he was gone. I kept expecting him to bound in with a gallon of milk for his mother, or all sweaty from the basketball court. 

       The Marines hadn’t taken him because of his eyesight, and though I’d tried to help him find a job, soon it became clear that life just wasn’t going to be easy for him like it’d been for me. The last time I talked to Trevor was right before I got on the plane to Accra, from an airport phone where I dialed his number by heart. I was flying through Dulles, and even though my layover was too short for a visit, I called because it seemed strange to be so close and not speak to him. When we spoke, the report was the same—no, no job yet, and yes, he was still with the same girl Kim who he’d been going out with since the seventh grade. I wonder what happened to her.

       Trisha always told me that for an only child, I sure did have a problem being by myself, and I always thought that some part of that longing for company had something to do with Trevor. When I cheated on her with one of the girls who worked at the auto dealership where we bought our matching Camrys, Trisha said that if I didn’t have such a problem being alone it never would have happened. She blamed herself too, said that maybe if she had traveled less for work, cooked more, things would have been different. 

       If I’d had the words or the courage to tell her, I would have said that I felt alone even when I was around her. But I was tired then, and relieved that she wasn’t crying, and that she wasn’t leaving me, so I kept that to myself. By that time, I was on my second try at tenure, this time in a po-dunk town outside Topeka where even the ugly black girls seemed pretty to me. I’d learned to hope for less, and certain arguments just didn’t seem worth having anymore.

       The first time Trisha caught me cheating, she insisted that I go to therapy, said that she thought I needed to talk to someone. I can’t say that I went into it with an open mind, but it didn’t help that the therapist Trisha found was a white woman whose paleness conjured vampires, and quite frankly reminded me of her. The head doctor asked me the basic questions about my career, my marriage, my childhood. After I’d told her everything, she said that maybe my research on black men and boys was a way of working through how I’d had to learn to become a man on my own since my father was often working and Trevor was so far away. She suggested that reconciling with my father would help assuage the emptiness I tried to fill with extramarital affairs, and that maybe we could use our time together dealing with my residual grief from Trevor’s death. I just snorted and walked out of there, because I was sure that whatever was wrong with me had been that way for a long time and was beyond repair. After my session, I told Trisha that I did not need to spend my free time listening to some white woman tell me I had Daddy issues or that crying more would bring Trevor back. 

A year into our new life, I was teaching knuckleheads at the local community college while she downward dogged in Silver Lake.

       I never went back to therapy, and that was another thing Trisha held against me. A few months after the fourth and last cheating incident, when we were both at the end of our rope with Kansas, she got offered a sweet early retirement deal and decided that she wanted to move to California, that the sun would be good for both of us. A year into our new life, I was teaching knuckleheads at the local community college while she downward dogged in Silver Lake. Just before we moved, Trisha found out what those restless leg drugs she’d been pushing her whole career had done to people. The yoga and meditation didn’t heal any of the folks she’d made sick, but all the chanting and moving around made her feel better. I didn’t complain about the money she spent on classes and retreats because I thought of these payments as a sort of reparation for my failings. Besides, I didn’t have any leg to stand on talking about money that was hers. 

       The day of the road trip, we still had some semblance of hope. After dinner, Aunt Mary led us to the living room. She wanted to show us a couple photo albums, most of which were dedicated to Trevor, but some included pictures of me. Trisha’s face drooped during the Trevor hour, but then brightened when she saw my younger self; she even convinced Aunt Mary to give her one of the pictures. I pretended to be embarrassed, but it was nice, given that Trisha was so adept at pointing out my faults, that she wanted some innocent part of me. 

       We got ready to go, but not before handing over the bag of Georgia peaches we’d brought as a present. I looked around the dining room and realized that we’d left the peaches in the car. Trisha volunteered to get them, said that she needed some air anyway. Aunt Mary turned off the water on the dishes she was washing and looked at me. 

       “Now, I know you probably won’t listen to me, because your eyes all googly in your head right now. But that girl don’t mean you no good.” 

       “What you mean, Aunty?” I said. 

       “She come up in here looking everything up and down, as if she knows better, could do better. You can do better than that, boy.” 

       “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

       Trisha came in then, her flushed face bobbing above her Free Mumia t-shirt. She lugged the bag of fruit inside and let the screen door slam behind her. “It’s hot out there,” she said. 

       “Oh yes, honey. D.C. feels swampy come August. Where you say you were from again?” 

       “Maryland. P.G. County. But my people are from D.C. by way of South Carolina. I did some genealogy this summer, traced my family right back to the port where my great-great grandmother was bought, but then after that, there was nothing. I thought my honey might be able to find something when he went to the slave castles in Ghana, but then, nothing there either. Funny how black folks’ family lines just disappear. As if we just made ourselves.”

       “Oh.” Aunt Mary said. She wiped down the counter, clearing away imperceptible dirt.

Aunt Mary gave me a long hug that I felt might take the air out of me. And then she turned to Trisha, who extended her hand to be shaken.  Aunt Mary just looked at the hand and then patted her on the shoulder.

       “Well, I guess we should be going now,” I said, and got up from where my behind had imprinted itself on the chair’s red leather. 

       Aunt Mary gave me a long hug that I felt might take the air out of me. And then she turned to Trisha, who extended her hand to be shaken.  Aunt Mary just looked at the hand and then patted her on the shoulder. 

       “Nice to meet you. Now, you take good care of my Trevor,” Aunt Mary said.  

       Trisha started to correct her but I was standing behind Aunt Mary now, and gestured for her to let it go. 

       We walked back to the car and I noticed the way that it sagged with the weight of our things. Before I could say anything, Trisha jumped in. 

       “That tire won’t make it to Bowie. I’d be surprised if it made it around the block.” 

       “I know, love,” I said. We got into the car, and I tried to remember the location of the gas station where Trevor and I used to pump air into our bike tires. 

       “I still don’t understand why none of your people like me.” 

       “Why would you think that Aunt Mary doesn’t like you?” I tried to suppress the yawn that was creeping into my throat. 

       “Just the way she looked at me, all judge-y. And then patting me on the arm and telling me to take care of her dead son. And I can’t even get into the guns. That’s just creepy. Who keeps loaded guns on their mantle?” 

       “Honey, that’s just how she is. The woman lost her only child, and now she’s grieving.” 

       “Now, see, that’s what I don’t understand about black people. Everybody’s scared to get some therapy because they think that getting therapy would mean that they were crazy. But maybe, just maybe, we’d be in a better place if people just decided to get help when they needed it.” Back then, Trisha considered herself a young Frantz Fanon. She had her whole life mapped out. She’d start a PhD program in psychology while I worked on my first book, and then she’d start a private practice after we’d had our first child. A miscarriage in our first year in New Haven pulled a seam in the perfect order of the life Trisha had imagined for herself, and she never was able to knit it back together in quite the same way. People say that children give a marriage a future, and I wonder sometimes whether having children might not have given us something to focus on besides each other. 

       We were on the road again now, and I eased into the gas station Trevor and I used to go to. I’d never forgotten that its name was Bumpers, which always made me and Trevor laugh then, and made me chuckle even without him there to egg me on. 

       “Oh, so you think I’m funny?” 

       “I’m not laughing at you, dear. Just trying to get this tire fixed. You know what they say, ‘what can go wrong—”

The same ancient man who’d helped us as kids, Mr. Bumpers, took painfully slow steps from the convenience store towards the car.

       “Will.” Trisha was an expert at axioms. Her favorite one back then was “black love is black wealth,” a not so subtle phrase she kept repeating until I proposed.  

       The same ancient man who’d helped us as kids, Mr. Bumpers, took painfully slow steps from the convenience store towards the car. I was sure the car’s body would hit the ground by the time he arrived. He was dressed in indigo overalls with his name stitched in red script across the right shirt pocket and a pair of Air Jordans that looked like a hand-me-down from his grandson. When he finally got to the car, I tried to savor the last moments of cold forced air before sliding out into the soupy heat.

       “Mr. Bumpers, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I used to come by here with Trevor Tompkins when I’d visit sometimes. We’d be riding our bikes.” I didn’t like the way I sounded, the pleading for recognition, so I stopped there.  

       The old man shaded his eyes from the sun, which was still high even as early evening slipped into night. His cataract-blue eyes caught me in them; I softened once the hook was in. 

       “Of course I remember you. Mary’s nephew. Reckon your head was a little bit bigger then. Shame what happened to Trevor. Him and his mama are salt of the earth kind of people. My kind.” 

       “Yes,” I said, gravely, as if I were accepting condolences. “So, Mr. Bumpers, you think you could help us? I managed to bust out the front tire driving up from Atlanta, and we still got more miles to go.” 

       “Can see how you did that, what with the load you’re carrying.” His eyes let me go, and I felt some tension I didn’t know I was holding release. He moved closer to the car to assess the damage. 

       “I told my mother to expect us by now,” Trisha said. 

       “Everything’s going to be ok,” I said, trying to be sure. 

       But it wasn’t. There was no spare tire in the back of the car because we’d packed it with everything that wouldn’t fit in the moving trucks. And while Bumpers had gas and air, he had no tires that would fit my car. He would have to drive over to Northeast to get us the tire, then send us on our way in the morning. 

       Aunt Mary welcomed us back in again, easy, as if she knew we weren’t really going anywhere. “Told your mama I’d take care of you,” she said.

       Aunt Mary made us some tea and Trisha used the phone to call her folks. I knew she didn’t like to talk on the phone in front of people, so I tried to get Aunt Mary interested in the show that was on her new television, Golden Girls I think it was. But Aunt Mary still noted the sighs Trisha heaved into the phone, and the way her mouth corners turned down. When Trisha finished, I hadn’t heard what she said, but the way that she looked at me with her eyebrows drawn together and her shoulders thrown back, I knew that I’d hear about it later.


       By the time Aunt Mary died, we’d moved to California. My mother called me to tell me, but she had to put my father on the phone because she couldn’t form the words herself. Even though we couldn’t really afford it, I was determined to go to the funeral, became even more emboldened when my mother told me that the fall she’d had meant she couldn’t travel. The way I saw it, I only had a few chances left to be heroic. 

       I went to Aunt Mary’s funeral in no small part because I felt like things started to unravel for me after I didn’t get to see Trevor laid to rest. Each time I was on the verge of a breakthrough with my work, Trevor’s ghost came to haunt me. I was driving home late one night from Topeka after I’d given up on an unproductive night in my office to spend time with my mistress. Usually that would take my mind off things, but that night I rolled off of her after some fumbling attempts and made an excuse about getting home. I put on my clothes with my head down, trying to avoid her confused pout, her legs tucked under her on the couch I’d bought her. 

       I was at a stoplight when a man who looked like Trevor and me when we were much younger leaned into my passenger window to ask for directions. I sent him on his way and sped off as soon as the light turned green. That summer, there’d been a spate of car jackings that happened just like that, but something about him made me stop. After that, all I could think about was Trevor and what happened to him. I guess part of me felt like I didn’t have a right to be successful if he didn’t make it. I didn’t have the heart to put my tenure file together, just let the last year of my contract wind down and started sending my resume out for the third-tier jobs I’d cringed at in grad school. Saying goodbye to the mistress was easier than I thought, and I let myself get buoyed along by Trisha’s enthusiasm about moving west, which mercifully seemed to outweigh her disappointment in me. 

       By the time Aunt Mary died, I wasn’t prepared to take on any new ghosts, and had resigned myself to a simple life, one without haunting. So, even though Trisha wouldn’t go with me, and I didn’t like traveling by myself, I went. At the funeral home, there was a low hum not unlike the purr that settles in the heat of a good late-night card game. Sybil and Dondrie were there; they recognized me because of the way they said I favored Trevor. And then there was Mr. Bumpers who I knew, before he said anything, would call Aunt Mary his kind of people. 

       I saw her into the ground, said ashes to ashes and dust to dust with the menagerie of bent brown folk who had gathered at the cemetery. And then I flew with the remains down to my mother’s house. Before I left for L.A., I scooped a handful of grey dust into a sachet. Something so I would remember the person who knew me before I did, who had a sense of how it would all turn out. 



Contributor Notes

A. Naomi Jackson is the 2013-2014 ArtsEdge resident at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded the Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction to complete her first novel, Who Don't Hear Will Feel. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Encyclopedia Project, The Caribbean Writer, and Sable. Her short story “Ladies” was the winner of the 2012 BLOOM chapbook contest and the E. Lynn Harris Award from Lambda Literary Foundation. She has been a resident at Hedgebrook and  Vermont Studio Center.