An Utter Up in the Speech of Smoke
The last time I combed a woman’s hair was in 1968. I was five years old and liked to sit on the edge of the bed in late evening, after dinner, mostly when my father wasn’t around or had fallen asleep from work, band practice, or boxing. I would comb her hair downward with a black, wooden brush, and with my other hand, pretend I was sculpting it into a black waterfall. That woman was my mother, Jeanette Ellis, and although I had a son’s crush on her long hair, I was more in love with her eyes, which always seemed to be the exact maker-replicas of mine whenever I looked into them. By five years old, I’d seen her laugh, scream and cry, and each time—no matter the emotion—I felt as if I was seeing an advanced screening of myself. Thomas, like a little Jeanette, gifted her vision—mother and firstborn son, Libra and Scorpio (on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio), respectively.
I cried and cried and cried all the way to school on my first day. I was so used to being at the babysitters and watching other people cry at funerals on television, that it seemed only a natural act for me to also cry as she pulled me away from the babysitter and television off to the annoying world of books, paste, playgrounds and girls who said things like “Thomas Ellis, you would be cute if you combed your eyebrows!” The learning from the opposite sex had begun, hell, I didn’t even know eyebrows were hair until then. Looking back, it feels like my mother held my hand every morning from kindergarten all the way to third grade and I am certain I was the only kid being walked to school every day by his mother, and when I asked when I would be able to walk to school on my own, she said “If you make a few friends, you can walk with them.” Friends, uh-oh, not easy, hmmm but here goes. I chose a slightly older boy named Jerry. He laughed a lot, was bigger than I was and probably about four years older. He didn’t agree that I walk with him, not really, so I kind of followed him and a few of his friends each morning until they accepted me and my knowledge of mama-purchased Avengers and X-men. Somehow I knew more about Marvel than any of them. I even earned Jerry's trust enough to go the swimming pool with him, lying, saying I could swim, thinking again that it would be just like it was on television, effortless. I was young, a youngin’ so I Lestered-in like a sax lick in a jazz reference (I hate references especially the ones dressed like referees but I like zebras, go figure) and in walked water (another jazz lick-ference) because I couldn’t swim and was getting my butt kicked in five feet of the Blues surrounded by screaming, peeing-in-the-pool kids high on sugar, salt and sun. I’d seen my father put out a few so-called neighborhood fires but where was my mother to put out water, the water this time, the water I was fighting, the water that accepted every part of me except my breathing. Bubbles frisked me and I sank and “…swallowed the lake” to quote an early poem by Clarence Major. Some days, when I am writing, I can vuja de it. Me in the silence of a chlorinated stanza break. Jerry, more than metaphor, a diver sent from a Robert Hayden poem (and not the one about fathers or Winter or Sundays either) to save and deliver me to poetry. And all I could think, skinny in trunks and choking on the concrete deck, is who would tell my mother I almost died, or if I died. Laughing Jerry?
I didn’t really notice how much my mother (who the kids in the neighborhood sometimes called McMom because she was a Swing Manager at McDonalds and often passed out french fries and cheeseburgers on her way home) smoked until we moved to Jean Toomer’s Seventh Street right next to the John F. Kennedy Adventure Playground in 1972 and I, being the eldest of two, because the errand son for her favorite brand of cigarettes, Winston, as well as the soda boy for various Royal Crown Cola products. I loved taunting the female impersonators who worked both corners, at night, near the Immaculate Conception Church. I was more signifying than cruel, but when my father explained to me that—though they wore dresses and wigs—they were as strong as men and would beat me like a man if they got their hands on me, well, then I stopped throwing all of my lightskinned, rhetorical doo doo at them. I may have been Gale Sayers poetry-fast but no one shakes a monkey out of a tree like a group of female impersonators. I became known to them as the boy with the sodas and cigarettes and like McMom, I passed a few out and lied when I got home. Robert Shaw, who went to elementary school with me showed up on that corner. Caramel Colored, doe-eyed and full of sass and style. “All you got are tired ass Winstons!” Robert looked cool when she smoked, elder Asian male cool. I wish I had a camera did, oh yeah, I did—a narrow instamatic with flash cubes sticking up from the top of it. Showing up with that plastic joke would have been like begging for an ass whooping.
I recently read an article that mentioned what a notorious chain smoker Jacqueline Kennedy was, but how she was rarely photographed with cigarettes or smoking. They say there were two packs in her purse on the day of the assassination. It is clear to me now that my mother was also, all those years ago, masterful at pack hiding. As a matter of fact, I didn’t photograph her smoking until 2012. Her reasoning, while sitting out on the porch during a humid, later Summer afternoon in Washington, D.C., “This is the best way to keep the mosquitoes away. You don’t want to get bit and bit and bit, do you?” Mother the protector. She knows how much I hate mosquitoes and knows how much the nasty little bloodsuckers love me. I swell up.
Having once been a percussionist, I have an ear for hitting and over the years my mother’s coughing, from smoking, has become a sort of drumming. In the 1996 I took a teaching job in Cleveland instead of a one in San Francisco, just so I would be close enough to make to D.C. if the drumming in her chest, throat and lungs ever needed tuning. Some weekends I would wake up, hit the road at 6 am and be there by noon. Park, ring the doorbell, and when she opened the door, I would simply say, “May I use your bathroom” and she would respond, “I knew you where coming.” She was hard to sneak up on, and sometimes she would already be on the porch smoking when I arrived. When my younger brother was arrested for armed robbery in 2005, just a few weeks after the publication of The Maverick Room, I decided I would buy a Leica and spend as much time as I could on that porch with her. Raise my camera, turn her head. Lower my camera, lift her cigarette. I can’t remember a single drive back to Cleveland—black box-shaped JEEP or gray, smoked colored SAAB—that I didn’t have wet machine guns in my eyes.
The expression “up in smoke” sucks because the ruins, left behind, don’t go up. They go down. In fact the smokes separates from the ashes, victim and torturer much in the same manor in which schools of poetry split and with very similar aesthetic outcomes but not that, not now. This post is about the edges of addiction and how, jump-cut nod to Godard, my mother landed in the ICU with a collapsed lung and a very weak heartbeat right after Thanksgiving, then from the ICU to rehab back to the hospital and back to rehab again where she recently gained five pounds, can speak clearly, and let me take her photograph but not without making a sweet-mean, mean-sweet, Mama Mug. That’s her, me, her, Jeanette Ellis, in the black and white photograph at the beginning of this post, sitting with her Speech and Language Pathologists going through a more intense version (among other things) of what I have been wrestling with in my poetry, new and lost speech. The speaker without a permanent land of guage but still full of carrier, of kinship to literacy and racy ill litter and, in some cases, no recognizable (by the addiction-causer) medication at all, not even the ill na na pictorial or lyric leaning to one side of the rehab bed most patients who have been in care for awhile prefer. No you, reader, no visiting hours for you, only a walker as singular as recovery, no persona; maybe reruns of CSI, bland food and checkers or chess. Memory here speaking: When I was about twelve years old, I snuck a huge sip of my mother’s coffee while she was in the kitchen making pancakes for breakfast. Light brown from the milk and full of sugar, it was so damn good I backed the fuck up, and to this day not a drop yet, but like an anti-utter, son’s lips to mother’s forehead, poetry should stutter, “I will be back to see you s’s’soon.”
Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, D.C. and earned his MFA from Brown University. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (2013) and The Maverick Room (2005). He co-founded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a Whiting Award in 2005. Ellis has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Case Western...