Forever. In an Instant. by Danny Gardner
It had the sound of cracking glass, which left my brothers and I shaking our heads. He usually broke things, occasionally out of anger, but mostly because his six foot-two, two hundred twenty-five pound frame just wouldn’t fit in our small house. It struck loud enough to outdo my chewing as I enjoyed a verboten bowl of Captain Crunch. On the old Zenith black and white played one of my favorite Woody Woodpecker reruns. My eldest brother, John Laymon–no one ever called him John the Third–preened himself in the mirror. Wally, the middle son and my partner in crime, tore through his own bowl of contraband as he kept time on the wall clock. I had ten minutes before the Cubs game aired, effectively running me out into the front room, with the old man’s dog, and my comic books, and toys, and loneliness. I knew no one would play with me. John finally discovered that girls discovered him. Wally would watch the game so he could emulate Leon Durham or Ivan De Jesus at little league practice. My mother Rosalita rested after a long nursing shift at Mount Sinai Hospital, on the West side. The old man left for work wearing his utility blues and carrying his toiletry bag and duffel. Normally, he’d bark a command, followed by a point and a wink, and say “I’ll be back.” Yet that day, he departed without saying goodbye–macabre, yet appropriate.
He was a Chicago Fire Fighter, assigned to Roseland, that most epic of Chicago ghettos. He was an axe swinger, and work usually involved injuring himself with spectacular heroics, leaving my mother to tend to the pieces. She received a tough, fatherless upbringing by my grandmother, a widowed creole and Sicilian battle axe, and had been sandwiched by male siblings on both sides, all who either preceded or followed her in untimely and violent deaths. Perfect training for handling a hard man, and raising his al-dente sons.
She refined her blunt style during her internship at Cook County Hospital. When informing us of our father, she spoke with textbook accuracy, playing it more annoyed than aggrieved, never looking up from whatever she was cooking, quietly infusing our Italo-creole staples with her angst.
“Don’t have your shit all over the floor. Your father has a compound fracture of the tibia.”
“When you walk in the room, announce yourself. He’ll be blind for two months. And no practical jokes, or I’ll whip your ass.” That was our old G.
Once, in a burning three-flat tenement, the old man punched out a fella armed with a shotgun, then hauled him out of the fire, saving his life. When he went back inside to ventilate the blaze, the first thrust of his poke into the plenum ceiling yielded several bags of drug money, of which he didn’t take a dime. Other kids’ fathers worked in offices, or in sanitation, or the postal profession. Our father was a hero, a straight up badass, and his woman upheld his honor.
John Laymon Gardner, Jr. was a duty-minded man, or so we thought, and he never returned after he left for his shift. Not that we took time to analyze this odd occurrence, as the three of us figured we were royally screwed. John Laymon was caught being cute, instead of mowing the lawn, and Wally and I not only ate in the bedroom, but sugary breakfast cereal my mother had stashed for us out of sight. He walked past his sons, who were frozen in fear, without acknowledgement, and we panicked as he shut his bedroom door, figuring he would return with the wide, thick, fire department issue belt. A few moments later, we were relieved when we heard my mother’s shouts. “Stop, fool! I’m sleepin’!” Refusal gave way to rapture, and my mother shouted “Close your door,” which meant her and the old man were gonna do it. And do it well. So don’t listen.
Nothing ever latched in the crib–not the windows or cabinets or doors–and ours eventually cracked open from the perpetual draft. After a long while, I caught a glimpse of my mother, draped in a bed sheet, heading toward the kitchen to light a cigarette on the stove. I remember smiling, as their open affection and passion filled me with warmth and made me feel safe. I felt pride when the old man would stop whatever he was doing when his woman walked by, and snatch her up and mash and grope her. She’d pretend to resist, just before they’d melt into one another, lost to the rest of the world. Pop was the type of fella who made other men look bad to their wives. “Why don’t you kiss me like that?” they’d complain.
Ma was considered by my father’s family to be ghetto and shameless, and she’d be the first to tell you they were right. Oh, she could play what she termed “the nut role,” demurring to you, speaking the Queen’s English. That was just before she’d kick off her good shoes and come at you, toe to toe, knuckles up. I loved my Ma, but she was a five foot thug, but even when it was embarrassing, it was endearing. John and Rosalita shouldn’t have been together, and loved as if they couldn’t help themselves. Moreso, she was in-love with him, even after sixteen years and three children, and when she mothered me, it was as if she was taking care of some part of her husband that lived deep inside of me. If I was caught whining, or crying, she’d firmly command, “Don’t be a punk. Be a man. Like your father.” It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to relate it to being raised in Sparta. In her house, my only hero would be the old man, and my only friends were my brothers. You had to fight as well as you did anything else. She insisted upon it, and I saw nothing wrong with it, as I adored them all, in that way Malcolm X loved Elijah Muhammad–the Latin sense: worship, veneration, idolization.
Then she walked back to the bedroom, lit Kool 100 dangling from her lips, and closed the door that never latched. In seconds, that fateful crack split the air, and with it, my universe. Forever. In an instant.
“Call the firehouse! Your father shot himself!”
Her tone came off as cold steel, the sound of a professional taking drastic action. We were frozen in disbelief. Was it another accident? Was he being a tough guy again? Silly man, always hurting himself.
“Call the fuckin’ firehouse!” she screamed. Despair was advancing, leaving cracks in her strong voice. John Laymon ran first, Wally ever behind, leaving me in the bedroom, alone. Again.
“Ma! 911 said…”
“I said call the firehouse! Call his friends!” she screamed, as she ran toward the kitchen, naked, blood on her hands, to make the call herself. As a nurse, and a child of the concrete, she knew, in a black neighborhood, with the presence of a gun, the Chicago Police Department would arrive before an EMT. Then he’d be deader than dead. “Call his friends,” she said. Call heroes, for a hero. John and Wally remained in the kitchen as she ran, full speed, back down the hall and into the room.
I couldn’t help it. I was curious, and afraid for her. I’d never seen her panic, and the idea of my father felled, by anything, seemed impossible. I opened their bedroom door and peeped around the corner, through the small side room and into the closed edition that was their bedroom. From that short distance, I could see his naked body on the floor, his large feet violently twitching. She knelt over him and, in-between efforts to keep him alive, begged him to hang on. I moved closer, and when she noticed me, she shoved me hard, back out into the side room. Wally snatched me into the hall and screamed “Don’t go in there again!” Tears streamed down his face. John, also in tears, paced the front room as he awaited the Fire Department. Rather quickly, my father’s colleagues from nearby Truck 50, Ambulance 30 arrived, followed by his own crew from Battalion 22. Then a few others. So many fire and rescue vehicles were on our block, you’d figure Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked another lantern. Everyone but the goddamned Alderman showed up. Teams went in, and my brothers and I were ushered, out past onlookers, through to the home of our matronly next-door neighbor, Mrs. Morehead. There, we waited, and John and Wally cried, prayed and openly speculated on what life would be like without our father. I had neither tears, nor hope he would survive. Instead, I only thought of her, so vulnerable in her post-coital nudity, kneeling over her husband, trying to save him, and failing, miserably.
After what felt like eternity, we returned home, and were sent into our bedroom with our mother. She wore our father’s hooded robe that she gave him for his birthday, and in it, she looked tiny, and exhausted. With the last bit of resolve she would ever possess, and the same clinical tone she’d taken many times before, she made hard words.
“Boys, I’m sorry. Your father is dead.”
I watched John Laymon sink into himself, and Wally crumble into a million pieces. My hard working, noble and determined mother, who was equal parts Blessed Madonna and Gangsta Bitch, slowly realized that her husband took his own life, in front of her, after they made love, and her face turned a permanent shade of gray. I wept alongside them, but only for them, for they were the ones who were home with me. Took care of me. Encouraged and enabled me. Now, in the face of a selfish act, they were anguished beyond relief. I loved them, and they had always been so real to me. Now they appeared translucent, like the dotted outline of Grandma in the Family Circle comics I’d read in the Chicago Tribune. With my father. Just one week prior.
As throngs of people, most we hadn’t seen in ages, filed into our house, my mother unraveled from delayed shock, weeping, wailing and cursing God. Whispers of “Why he’d do such a thing?” persisted in the crowd. John and Wally were embraced and encouraged, yet no one spoke to me. Sure, I received pats on the head, and the occasional “Hey, li’l man. You aight?” Otherwise, there seemed to be little concern. Adults continually claimed I was young, and I’d be okay, as if I was somehow blissfully unaware that my father’s brain matter was on the wall of his bedroom. My existence dissolved away into the larger narrative of my father’s suicide, and there was nothing I could do. I was only a child.
On the surface, the old man seemed the model of restraint. He rarely raised his deep voice, and when he did, it usually preceded some physical chastisement we figured we deserved. He only drank on occasion. He kept fit, and active, and poured himself into his work. He was a black home owner who took immaculate care of his property. He kept an active presence in the community, where he’d confiscate illegal fireworks from street kids, or show up to a fire on his day off, just to help. He was handsome, personable, and 1970s cool, with enough edge to make folks think twice about messing with his family–a good thing to be on the South side of Chicago.
Then he would punch through a wall, or rip a door off its hinges, or rise up upon one of us and snatch us off for a beating without expressing why we deserved it. It was jarring, and we each, including my mother, silently resented it. That time James Evans threw the chair against the wall in front of Florida, JJ, Thelma and Michael, John Laymon pointed at the tv and said, “Just like the old man.” Yet, where on Good Times, when James felt remorse for terrorizing his family within twenty-two minutes, we lived with our father’s violent unpredictability until, immediately, it stopped. No more waiting for him to get home to beat us down over some second hand account of misbehavior. No more police line-ups in the kitchen on report card day. That wild love that he shared with our mother, equal parts passion and anger, no longer hung in the air. I honestly thought we could get along without him.
I’d soon learn otherwise.
I knew something was off when she kept me out of school. Ma was fanatical over education, and I had to be near terminal to take a sick day, but I had been out of the Magnet program she fought to get me into for almost two months when a truant officer showed up at our front door. I wouldn’t let him in because I thought he was scamming me, as, before then, truant officers only existed in the old black and white sitcoms and cartoons. I told him my mother wasn’t home–usually gone, somewhere, anywhere but there–and I remember taking the pink slip of paper from him. I also remember he somehow knew what my father had done, and remarked he understood. Seems as if everyone knew, and understood, yet no one understood that I understood.
She then passed me off on other people’s parents, so she could remain out in the street, cutting a rug, running with the peers of her youth she had turned away from to marry my father, and raise his family. She found no shortage of partners in drowning her sorrows, both with drink and the addictive opiates doctors routinely prescribed hysterical women. She let the work she had relished fall to the wayside, sabotaging her career and quitting her leadership position in a huff. She had irked my pride every bit as he, because they made their living saving lives, and helping those who couldn’t help themselves. I wanted to tell her to get up! Go to work! Be that super cool mom that you used to be! Don’t give up on your dream! Not for him. Not after what he did. I wanted to tell her all those things, but those weren’t the sort of words that came out of a child’s mouth in my house. Rosalita used to be my protector and defender, keeping my father’s wrath from my hide. Now she was faster to the punch than he was, no belts. A fist, to the mouth. On my brothers, who were big like my father, it was multiple fists, or a broom, to the face. Then back in her bedroom with her pills, and drug store booze, the record player cranked loud with songs she’d once enjoyed with him, wailing like a banshee.
When John Laymon began running with the Blackstone Rangers street gang, and Wally quit baseball and found weed, a subtle darkness took over my life, as if deeply tinted sunglasses were permanently affixed to my face. I wanted us to realize that, though the old man was gone, we had each other, and we didn’t need anyone else. John taught me how to crow-step before I threw a baseball, and how to speak to girls. Wally kept me safe on the walk home after smart kids’ school, encouraged my urban nerdiness, and kept me out of trouble. Ma insisted I be a man, be strong, draw a line between myself and the ugly world into which I was born, even if I had to use my fists–or worse–to do so. She taught me how to be black, but not only black, and still be black and proud. Our collective choices were what made him seem relevant. He was about himself, obviously, but we were a unit. The king was dead, but the kingdom still lived. Please, please, just wake up!
I would have told them this, but no one ever came home. If they did, they spent their time hitting me. I tried telling the dog, but she didn’t give a shit, so I told my action figures. I don’t think they listened either.
It was 1981, and black folk didn’t commit suicide back then, so it had to be something else. And that’s how the rumors started. At little league practice, where I hoped to find normalcy by following in my brothers’ footsteps, a teammate remarked that his parents said my mother killed my father and made it look like suicide. Somewhere in my neighborhood, responsible adults gathered to openly speculate how my five feet tall, one hundred pound mother managed to get a gun in the chin of her gigantic husband and squeeze the trigger, all while he was on his feet.
“Maybe he was sick.”
“Maybe he was in trouble.”
“Maybe she did it.”
Anything, but the truth.
Most parents shunned me, as if my father’s suicide was a germ they didn’t want their families to catch. My mother’s self-destructive reaction put me on the neighborhood shit list and openly, with no shame or remorse, folk explained as much. “Your mother isn’t our kind of people,” they’d say. “Your daddy went to hell.” Some fathers would come by our house, at night, looking for my mother. Just checking in. Seein’ how she’s doin’. When my baseball coach tried it, I asked him how his wife was doing. Then I was off the team. My mother became the whore of the neighborhood, whom other wives feared, as if her dead husband left her unbridled. The Hester Prynne of Halsted St.
It became harder and harder for me to write my own story. In school, when my peers acted out, it was simply inappropriate behavior, but when I acted out, it was a sign that I was finally cracking. Intervention upon intervention ensued, as if you can fix a kid’s life in the thirty minutes before you go on a smoke break in the teacher’s lounge. Each time my mother had come to school, for my fighting or lack of motivation, she appeared more and more unhinged, which validated the notion I was at risk. Once she showed up hammered to a parent/teacher conference, I learned to forge her signature on my report cards and detention slips.
The social order of black pre-teenage life had been scattered with land mines. I had always been naturally funny–a gift from my mother–and playin’ the dozens was my shit. Snaps would start in the lunchroom, and I’d go in on someone topically, in that good natured way which is how the game is played. “Your clothes…” this and “Your hair…” that. If my opponent felt he was losing, or some girls would come around, raising the embarrassment factor, it was “Your mom is a drunk,” and “Your old man killed himself.” No more snaps. No more lunch in the building with the other kids. I got so tired of fighting, I eventually chose to act cowardly, just because it was exhausting to punch them all. Me, the Kwai Chang Caine of the South side.
Once the insurance money and his firefighter’s death benefits came in, my mother quit her job and sold our second generation family home for a steal to a single mother who didn’t mind sleeping in a room where a man blew his own brains out, the bullet hole still in the ceiling. She had the same idea as most urban mothers at the time; move her kids to a better neighborhood out in the suburbs. Where white folks didn’t want black folks. Where black folks didn’t want other black folks. Where black children didn’t want to be, what with no public transportation, or sidewalks, or acceptance. It was likely a good idea when the first black family decided that the idyllically monikered Country Club Hills was the place to get away from Chicago gangs. By the twentieth family, the gangs were effectively exported, or rather franchised, like a minor league farm club for self-destructive niggas. White flight and the HUD Section 8 program ensured I was trapped out of my element, and by high school, my light-skinned, good hair havin’, big-word usin’, Dungeon and Dragons playin’, comic book collectin’, Commodore 64 programmin’ ass was fighting more there than I ever had in my working class block just outside the Ten-Tray.
Once, in my third year, after a particularly nasty scrape in gym class, the dean of students, Mrs. Martin, herself black and proud and from Chicago, cracked open my file and saw my grades and commendations and test scores and asked me what happened to me. I kept mum, because if anyone found out I lived in a mad house, with violent addicts, where if I was lucky, I’d have one meal a day, I’d wind up in a foster home where, with my luck, life would be worse. I spent my three-day suspension completely indoors, where no one except the cat noticed I was out of school. The cat, that replaced my father’s dog, which my mother tied to a tree in the Cook County Forest Preserve, before she drove off in his pick-up truck, that she subsequently sold for pennies, intent upon removing all traces of his existence from our lives.
The strangeness went on, and as each of her children reached the age of emancipation, one-third of the death benefit was reduced. Her despair was her occupation, which meant no income, and by my last four months of high school, we lost our home in foreclosure. John was in the US Army, failing every psychological examination, but soundly passing all other training, and he wound up supporting Ronald Reagan’s criminal actions in Latin America. Wally moved in with relatives who became his partners in openly loathing our mother. They wouldn’t have the child who was loyal to her in their home, so he saw to it I could live in the stoner den where he hid out for years. Finding it impossible to abide second-hand hashish smoke, surrounded on all sides by death metal black-light posters, I left after one night, choosing to sleep in a booth inside the tavern of the bowling alley where I worked, or in class, as I expected to never graduate. One friend was compassionate enough to lend me a spot in his garage, which ended when his parents realized they were harboring the child of the crazy woman whose husband offed himself. Our damned reputation followed us all the way out to the boondocks.
My friend Jason, he and I ace boon coons, both of hard families from Chicago, heard the rumors about my situation and, working the lanes on league night, freaked out on me, unable to understand why I would keep my situation a secret. His mother sent for me to move in and take a bed in his room, where I’d remain until graduation. She tearfully took me to task for hiding what was happening, but perhaps I was, in my own way, keeping my mother’s honor, even though she left me alone to fend for myself. Rosalita moved into the one bedroom apartment above my grandmother’s house in the Englewood ghetto, where she would eventually die in her bed, alone, all of eighty-nine pounds. Her body left on August 9, 1993. The coroner listed the cause as hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Her spirit left April 4, 1981. I list the cause as collateral damage.
My Def Comedy Jam episode first aired the night of her repass, bringing that dim and muted pallor of death over the accomplishment I busted my ass, alone, to achieve. Every relative was gathered around the television, watching and laughing, and clapping. I walked out the door and sat on the porch. Each time my show re-aired–which seemed to be a thousand times–I felt a little nauseous. To this day, I won’t watch it.
Even into adulthood, when I tried to transcend my history by leveraging my few minor successes in entertainment, my father’s action, and my mother and brothers’ subsequent reactions, preceded me, no matter my own record. Once, a business associate, who had come to me by way of a family member, helped himself to more money than he was due and tasted my wrath. When word of what he had done got out, he denied everything, instead going with, “Well, Danny sort of went crazy.” He was able to absolve himself of culpability because of my family’s reputation. It was as if folks checked their watches. “Yeah, that’s about right. He’d be crazy by now. Ah well.” Among family, and friends who knew me my entire life, I had been allowed a sort of half-life on my prospects for happiness. What business did I have seeking success, or love, or family? Didn’t I remember what my father had done?
I snuck up on the cousin-by-marriage with whom my sticky-fingered associate had been friends for so long, and confronted him about his recommendation. “I could have told you that would happen,” he said, off the cuff, to which my fierce reply was, “Well, why didn’t you?” My cuzzo had no answer. He just looked at me, the synapses slowly firing, likely thinking “Oh wow. Danny has dreams? Like normal people?” I left without kicking his ass, because his wife was super nice.
When my ex-wife saw fit to put distance between us and raise our children without my involvement, she found justification and assistance because, well…you know…my family. One summer, when I felt my children were old enough–and I had finally gathered the nerve–I brought up the subject of their grandfather, only to find that their mother’s father had already done so, with little regard for how delicate that could have been for them, or me. He put it across to them that I was flawed, yet it was okay, because for all their faults, at least their mom’s family had no suicides. Sadly, that was the typical refrain. One could have a family rife with the other aspects of black despair, but just don’t go committin’ suicide. Danny Jr. asked me, “You’re not going to kill yourself one day, are you?” My nephew, John IV–which is still weird to say–asked me “Is that what Gardners do? Leave their children?” Leave their children. No post-Robin Williams discussion of the ravages of chronic depression. No sympathetic speculation of the untold effects of untreated mental illness in black people. It wasn’t even dying. It was leaving. It wasn’t sickness. It was a flaw of character. I stood apart, an other among the others, though, in time, I came to dig the gravitas, and value the insights.
The collective consciousness of black folk is one of our saving graces. When we seek freedom, equality and justice, we do so en masse, and we get results rather quickly, relative to the overall human timeline. America has managed to straighten its crooked racist spine far faster and more comprehensively than other nations because, put plainly, black people roll together. Even if we don’t always agree, we fall in line. Those who don’t are considered out for self. We may not publicly condemn and attack these individual stragglers, but we give them the side-eye, and consider them late to the game. When it works for us, it’s beautiful. When it works against the individual, its oppressive and caustic.
My father didn’t just take his own life. He unraveled his family, both immediate and extended. He put a rent in the fabric of the lives of his friends, colleagues, and city. He caused ripples in the whole of black consciousness. Black folk are taught to survive, at all costs. To overcome, no matter the pain. Even if we kill one another, we mustn’t kill ourselves. We must claim, not avoid, suffering. Embrace and laud struggling. Had America’s slaves took suicide as a viable option, there’d be less black folk in America than Armenians. By my father’s choice, psychically, everywhere, suicide had become black folks’ thing. It had become possible. And someone had to pay for that.
I guess that someone was me.
The great James Baldwin, that most vulnerable of literary Titans, once remarked in an interview how “a person is in sight of his or her death around the age of forty. You see it coming. You are not in sight of your death at thirty, less so at twenty-five.” I can dig Baldwin’s vibe, yet my father’s act gave me that sight at nine years old. He already knew death, as he had heroically denied fire it’s carrion, time and again. It wasn’t cowardice, or weakness, or deficiency, or devilry, that led him to take his own life. It was proximity. It was intimacy. I inherited my father’s fascination with death, not as a living man who craved his own end, but as a vengeful ghost, who must manage amongst the living. Thanks to my father, I’ll never fear death’s approach, for it has always been my close companion. And, with that out of the way, I can live much more fully than those who fear death coming around the corner.
When I finally spoke to my children about my father, I made it as simple as could be. “Your grandfather took his own life. In front of his wife. His children in the next room. And that’s why I never will.”
My eldest daughter, the old soul, asked me if my father was in hell, and I told her the same as the Catholic priest who officiated his funeral told all of us.
“If God could forgive mankind for crucifying his only Begotten Son, I think He can forgive John Gardner.”
And so can I.
Danny Gardner impressed audiences with his performance on the 3rd season of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam (All-Stars Vol. 12). He went on to act in film and television and has enjoyed a career as screenwriter (“The House of Usher”) and feature director, (“5150”.) He has written comedy material for many of the brightest names in the business, and continues to perform regularly.
Ambulance photo by Hiii Fiii
Alley by Orin Zebest