by Jumal Andre Brown
“There are times when we can choose to step either over or into an introspective puddle of our own and other’s tears, and then get a glimpse of the past, present, and future.”
“Stop that damn howling!” said my grandpa.
I wiped my eyes, sniffled with the grace of a snorting pig and looked at the source of my distress: A large gash ran down me knee, formed when I tripped and fell into a pile of broken glass and rocks.
“But I can’t stop crying,” I sniffled as I picked out pieces of glass and tiny pebbles.
“Crying! Crying! Ain’t neva heard o’ dat befo,” he said in an accent that was slightly southern with a bit of New York pace to it. I looked up at him as the sun gleamed off the darkness of his skin. From this vantage point he looked like the shadow of God. No, he was more like a demigod, because I could possibly imitate this being of vitality and hardness.
“Men don’t cry!” he yelled. It came out muffled due to the cigar that hung halfway out his mouth. His straw hat tilted to the right of his perfectly round head. His blue jean overalls were caked with dirt from half a day’s work of tending to the yard. He poured whiskey into a plastic cup, letting if fill halfway, topped it off with Sprite, then shot me a look of disturbed disgust.
“Just don’t believe this shit,” he said to himself. “Well ahh be John Brown…what da hell I’m posed tah do?” he muttered, then took a couple puffs from his cigar.
There I stood, seven years old, wondering why men don’t cry. Momma and grandma always called me their little man. Maybe they had no clue that tears were only meant for them and those like them. How could they? I mean, I could feel them flowing like tiny waterfalls down the curved peaks of my very own cheeks. Why not cry if we have the ability to cry?
“Imma learn you how tah be a man today, boy,” he said. My grandpa grabbed a hunting knife from a sheath inside his back pocket and handed it to me. He pointed to five catfish sitting on a table he had set out.
“Skin dose, and chop off all dem heads first,” he said.
I looked at him with red puffy eyes, grabbed the knife, limped over to the table and proceeded to chop off the heads of the fish.
“If I don’t learn you nothing, imma least learn you to be a man today,” I heard him say in the background. I glanced back at him as he was taking a swig of his whiskey, cleaning out his shotgun. I looked down to my gashed knee. Do all men drink whiskey and play with shotguns in the place of tears?
That was the day that I learned that men don’t cry.
I sat on the bottom step of the back porch while my grandpa and three of his usual friends sat around an oval red table taking sips of whiskey. Grandpa sat on an old brown folding chair closest to the door, still wearing his blue jean overalls, still puffing his cigar. His other two friends sat at the table on hole-riddled seats, padded seats that had been pulled out the back of a car. These two wore dirty blue jean overalls; one wore a straw hat and the other wore a ball cap. Each held a cup of whiskey in hand. These two always complained about their wives.
The other friend sat opposite grandpa sipping whiskey and smoking his own cigar. And, of course, he also wore blue jean overalls but no hat, just a head full of dirty grey hair.
Whenever he smiled he revealed a big gap where two front teeth should be. The rest of his teeth were capped in gold. They always gathered around the table at night. Grandpa sipped on whiskey the entire day, and by the end of the night he was usually on his way to being drunk. I could hear the music of Howlin’ Wolf singing the blues from within the house.
Grandpa always said that the sound and words of the blues were what tears for a man would sound like. I sat quietly listening to Howlin’ Wolf snarling from the guttural depths of his soul, begging people to just “leave me alone ‘cause I just don’t wanna be bothered.”
“Goodbye baby, Ohhhh I just don’t wanna be bothered.” :I heard the collective of men sipping whiskey and smoking cigars humming and singing these notes in unison. To me the blues sounded like what a man who wanted to cry would listen to. Whenever the song stopped it left behind a mild silence and I noticed none of the men said a word. Grandpa always left his favorite songs on repeat. Then the same snarling of Howlin’ Wolf started up again. And this time no one sang with the song. They just sipped on whiskey and stared out into the sea of darkness, bouncing their knees at various times to the lazy syncopation of the notes.
I pondered what they saw in the sea of darkness. Maybe they were watching wailing apparitions of themselves crying multitudes of tears that drowned into the dark sea as they slowly marched, one by one, to the methodic sound of the blues into the darkness.
That was the day that I learned that men are afraid to cry.
I walked into my grandpa’s bedroom and looked at a black and white picture of a lady that looked to be in her forties with long straight hair that went below her chin, a small button nose with full lips and a perfectly round face. I sat on the edge of the bed trying to peer into the soul of the woman forever stuck in the picture frame.
“Malt,” I heard my grandpa yell, a nickname that only my family knew me by. “We got’s tah go to tah store,” he said. Today was Saturday. This was the day that grandpa always went to stock up on his supply of liquor to sell to his customers that paid his house a visit on Sunday. Most of them were as old as he was, I always noticed. Guess this was their antidote to help them cry. He walked into the bedroom and stopped at the doorway for a moment, eyeing the object in my hand. He sat down next to me as the weight of the bed shifted more downward.
“Who is this, grandpa?”
He tenderly grabbed the picture and attempted to explain to me who this mystery woman was, but only got to the word “Mother” before his eyes began to water. He seemed lost in the picture for a moment before realizing that I was staring at him through this whole endeavor.
“Damn allergies!” he proclaimed. “We gotta get ready to go to the store!” To this day I still wonder about this woman, but I never asked about her again. The reaction told me everything.
That was the day I learned that men might be able to cry.
The day after my fourteenth birthday was a Sunday. This was the day when I always helped my next door neighbor tend to his garden. I ran down his black paved driveway and saw him sitting on the edge of his truck bumper with two tomato plants in hand.
“Mr. Mark,” I said, bursting with excitement. It was a strange sight, because he wore blue jean overalls like my grandpa and a straw hat to boot. The only difference was that he was an old white man with grey hair. I wouldn’t have called him a god or a demigod like grandpa though. One of his messenger angels, maybe. I heard what my neighbor told me was Frank Sinatra singing from a CD player that sat on the bottom step of the back porch. The garden had four rows of vegetation. The first four rows were full of red peppers, lettuce, squash, and cabbage.
“We got one more row of holes to make,” he said. Then he handed me a metal shovel covered with a film of cow manure. After we finished making holes for the plants he handed me a glass of ice tea. “Break time” he said. We stand there drinking ice tea as we listen to Frank Sinatra singing “It was a very good year”. I watch my neighbor as he takes sips of his ice tea while staring at the garden.
“Me and my pops used to always drink fresh ice tea while we worked the farm. We didn’t have much, but we always had fresh ice tea, the garden, and Sinatra, yep.” he said.
Mr. Mark grabs a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his eyes which I notice are somewhat reddened. He again stares at the garden which now appears to be engulfed in the glare of the morning star. “When I was seventeen it was a very good year, it was a very good year…” sang Sinatra in the backdrop.
“Wow, that sun sure is bright, huh?” said Mr. Mark.
The alto saxophone sounding in the song captivated me as I imagined he was not really staring into the garden at all or the glare of nothingness; rather, he watched intently as the sun cried enflamed tears that escaped down the blushed cheeks of the atmosphere to rest on all the memories that we held dear, leaving behind a salted blaze to be tasted on the tongue of our sometime repressed minds.
This was the day that I learned that all men might be able to cry.
“I’m coming on uuuup the ruff side of the mountain, I’m coming on uuup…” sang a female organist in the front of the congregation. She sat playing an organ across from a coffin which held the body of an old man with a full head of grey hair and a very noble look on his face. His nose stuck high in the air and his lips poked out.
We were holding a funeral service for my dad’s father, or papa as me and my little brother were always instructed to call him. He was different from my southern grandpa, or even Mr. Mark. He was more formal, seemed less machismo in his mannerisms, and didn’t like to get dirty. He was a small man, maybe five feet and six inches. Maybe. My father always said that papa was the only man he ever saw cut the grass in a suit without ever getting a speck of dirt on him. He was also a former music teacher. There were many former students along with the family attending the funeral service. The organ continued in its high and low pitch to keep up with the singers voice…”I’m coming on uuuup the ruff side of the mountain…”
My mother and father sat in the pew in front of me. My mother was five foot high in stature, as oppoesed to my father who six foot four inches. My mother wore a black dress with a black hat. My father sported a black suit and what many in slang tongue call “pimp hair”: straightened hair that falls at his shoulders. My father grew up during the 1970s, served in Vietnam, played football in college, and spent a lot of time in and out of jail. I sat right behind them between my little brother and a younger male cousin. As the song seemed to intensify, my male cousin began crying. So did my little brother, and so did many of the people inside the church including most of the men. I looked ahead to my father who appeared to still be looking ahead at the coffin and then suddenly he broke into a convulsion of tears. From the back he looked like he was having some type of spasm attack. I couldn’t see his face. My mother put her hand on his shoulder, gave him a tissue and he calmed down as his head slightly jerked up and down a bit. I suppose if you repress tears long enough they might be released violently one way or another.
Tears ran down my face.
This was the day I learned that men do cry.
Now a twenty something man, I watch my little nephew as he runs around a tree, then falls and hit his knee on the ground. I stand over him as he begins to cry. I could feel the impulses of my brain beg me to commit the utterances — “stop crying because men don’t cry” — but instead I let him cry for a moment. I hear the sounds of Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Sinatra, and church music coming together as one song, playing in the back of my head as I eye my weeping nephew. I bandage his knee as he’s crying and still resist the urge to tell him “men don’t cry.” I stare at him for a moment, still wanting to say the phrase.
“Stop crying, you alright, keep it movin’ boy,” I said. I can still hear the echo of the blues playing in the background of my mind. He looks up at me still sniffling and weeping looking into my eyes for a moment then stops.
“See, you alright,” I said. He returned to running around the tree.
This was the day I remembered that men do cry.
Jumal Andre Brown is a Youngstown native poet, author, short story writer, and is a spoken word/open mic performer under the performance name of Nufula. He has had poetry published in The Penguin Review and is also a member of the Premier Poets Guild as well as a recipient of the 2007 Robert and Virginia Hare Award for Poetry.