By Donald Quist
Thinking about you, I nearly collide with a Buddhist monk as I exit a Starbucks. I mime an apology to the robed gentleman. He pauses from chatting on his flip phone to smile at me, no harm done.
I don’t notice the soy cappuccino dribble on my hand until I’ve joined a line for the taxi queue outside the shopping mall. The humidity makes it difficult to feel the sticky beverage on my damp skin.
I chug the remainder of my drink. With a napkin I grabbed from the coffee shop, I wipe my fingers. I don’t see a recycling bin nearby, so I fold the receptacle and tuck it into an empty pocket in my messenger bag to dispose of later.
I check my watch. The Immigration Bureau offices reopen from their lunch break soon. A police officer waves me up to the next pink Toyota Corolla. I climb into the back seat. I shut the door. The meter beeps and we start moving.
Before the military took control of the country I had more difficulty getting taxis in Thailand because of my complexion. Since the National Council for Peace and Order mandated that all drivers dress better and accept all passengers, I can always walk to the nearest Skytrain or Metropolitan Rapid Transit station. At these locations a cop usually waits beside the line of potential fares, ready to issue a fine to any cabbie that refuses to accept a customer.
I tell the driver my destination. I hear “okay” in Thai, but the sigh that follows says the distance will inconvenience him. I scan the cab. A collection of clacking plastic religious pendants dangles from the rearview mirror. Below the holy jewelries is a turtle bobble-figure glued to the dashboard. A three-spoke racing wheel that you might see in the Fast and Furious films replaces the factory steering. Above our heads, a Theravada blessing scrawled in white clay paste punctuated with flecks of gold paper offers protection on our journey together.
On the bottom corner of my window, small yellow vinyl decals clarify the driver’s rules: a cigarette, a beer bottle, and a hamburger, each in its own circle covered by a forward slash. A fourth sticker features a silhouette of a naked woman. She also has a circle around her, but the letters OK replace the strikethrough.
I don’t remember ever seeing symbols like these in your taxi.
~ ~ ~ ~
All my life you have made money driving a taxi around Washington, D.C. You wake up each day after the early morning rush hour of the Beltway. You ride into the capital from Maryland; you might stop for lunch or coffee if you haven’t packed food and a thermos. You drive late into the evening, arriving home long after dark.
I’ve always admired your work. As a child, being a taxi driver seemed to me a lot more interesting than confinement to a desk cubicle like my mother. Although your job has routine, you face constant deviations and obstacles you must circumnavigate: street closures for road accidents, presidential motorcades, demonstrators, shootings, and terrorist threats. You have freedom to make your own schedule. You get to explore and meet new people. One time, you took Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. to the airport and he gave you a tour sweatshirt.
Another time a person tried to rob you at gunpoint. You grabbed the pistol and kicked the mugger. You took the weapon, but when the assailant turned to flee you chased him down the block.
Mom likes to tell the story of how—while you both still lived together—I once chased after you. We must have just finished playing in the front yard. Although a toddler, I managed to unlock the gate to follow your taillights as you headed to work. A kind stranger reunited me with my mother later the same day. I was discovered a quarter mile from home and rescued before I tried to cross Montgomery Village Avenue.
In the third grade I asked you if I could spend the day riding in your cab. You seemed excited about the idea. We didn’t get to see much of each other, even though I went to your place every day after school. At your apartment I spent most of my time with your wife and my half-sisters. When Mom finished work in the evenings, she would come to take me home with her. I usually left before you returned. We both recognized a day together as a much needed opportunity to reconnect.
Unfortunately, I got motion sickness trying to read a book while the car rocked like a boat in the stop-and-go traffic. By the early afternoon I knelt on the floorboard with my head rested on the front passenger seat, trying to dam the waves of nausea crashing in my gut. I pleaded for you to take me home. I never asked to ride with you again, and you never offered.
I had dreamed of growing up to have a career as an author and a taxi driver. But I didn’t appear suited for the latter. I cried that night in bed beside my mother. She asked me what was wrong but I didn’t know how to tell her the outing had forced me to acknowledge the growing divide between you and me.
You and I have always exhibited notable differences in personality, and for more than half my life I have weighed more than you. But I yearned to possess at least one trait indicative of you, if not physically then mentally.
~ ~ ~ ~
I reach into the front left pocket of my pants and remove my phone. I search through the saved images until I find a picture of you. You stand in knee-high rubber boots in front of a chicken-wire fence. Behind you a group of hens wander and peck aimlessly. Your jean shirt, soiled with perspiration and dirt, sags off your shoulders. Under your prescription sunglasses I can still see your tired eyes, but your hands rest proudly on your waist and I notice the small smirk below your greying beard.
The snapshot comes from the Mangoase farmland you and I bought together with some of the money my wife and I earned selling our restaurant before moving to Thailand. I had intended to use some of the land to launch a food cooperative with farmers in the region, but it proved hard to conceive while living between Thailand and the USA.
Now it has become your retirement plan. A project that might validate the years you toiled. The farm could give meaning to the mistakes you’ve made, the moments you’ve missed, the hurt you’ve caused, and the pain you carry on your back. Over the years you’ve increased the trips to Ghana and extended the duration of your stays to ensure that the farm’s harvests succeed.
In my adolescence I resented your ties to West Africa and your jaunts abroad. I cursed the Gold Coast whenever you couldn’t attend a school event because you were too busy trying to earn money to send overseas, or whenever I eavesdropped on your phone calls with my mother and you’d tell her you couldn’t help financially because you had to save for pilgrimages to Africa. Every summer you vanished to Ghana with a trash bag full of my old clothes and toys. I’d seethe at the thought of you distributing my garments and action figures to other children. I’d picture you in Accra buying expensive rounds of Guinness and Heineken for your old schoolmates while my stepmother and sisters shared canned meat and disposable cups of instant noodles.
By the end of middle school I had grown too big to whip with a belt. Recognizing my salient disdain for Ghana, you threatened to send me to live with my grandmother in Teshie whenever my mother or stepmother reported to you that I had misbehaved.
I nearly repeated the eighth grade due to my violent conduct. You had to collect me from the principal’s office on two occasions, including a time when I had been caught fighting another student for stealing and reading my poetry aloud on the bus to school. I remember that day well because you said my bulk, compounded by my tender demeanor and affection for trench coats and berets would only continue to goad the other black kids into harassing me.
You had to pick me up from school again a few months later for assaulting a fellow student in the cafeteria during lunch. I had returned to classes that day after serving a two-week suspension. Yomi, a Nigerian boy who also lived in your apartment complex, had demanded the chocolate milk from my school lunch tray. He hoped to assimilate himself with some of my usual tormentors, the same kids that teased him for his dark skin and accent. They called him Kunta and FOB (fresh off the boat). Sometimes they’d chant, “Yomi ain’t no homie!” When I refused, Yomi snatched the dairy carton and laughed loudly. I shoved my hand into his open mouth and hooked his front teeth with three of my fingers. I pulled him to the floor and managed to drag him several inches before he thought to bite my knuckles. I yelped in pain and a school resource officer ran over to separate us. The assistant principal told you she planned to petition to have me expelled from the school district.
In your taxi, I pressed myself hard against the passenger side door. I clenched tightly, awaiting your fists and slaps. I knew you couldn’t reprimand me for fighting because it was one of the few things about me that you could comprehend; you believed a man shouldn’t allow himself to be bullied or intimidated. Instead, you shouted about the inconvenience, how you should have been driving at that moment, how you were losing fares, money you needed to take care of responsibilities in Ghana. We arrived at your building. Once we entered the apartment and the door locked behind you, you gripped my face. I returned your glare and you slapped me. Pushing me hard against a wall, you pinned my chest with your forearm and said, “I borne you.”
You surprised me that night by calling my mother’s townhouse and asking her to give you custody over me. My mother agreed, conceding that I could use discipline. I announced myself on the telephone line. I had been eavesdropping on another handset.
I refused to live with you. You ignored me. You yelled at my mother and issued her an ultimatum. If she didn’t bring me to you that night, I would never be welcomed in your home again. I shrieked for you to apologize. I warned that if you didn’t say sorry to Mom, I would kill you. You both fell silent, your voices replaced in my ear by the sound of my own heavy breathing. I said, “I hate you,” and slammed the receiver to the hook.
I thundered out of the house.
I spent the night curled on a bed of cold, wet pine needles beneath a line of shrubs outside a Methodist church on Montgomery Village Avenue.
~ ~ ~ ~
Thinking about that evening conjures a fresh swell of embarrassment. I raise my glasses and pinch the bridge of my nose. I regret what I said and did. I can recognize your intentions now; you meant well. You asked to bring us closer and I ran away. I sigh and lean forward. The sweat down my spine has seeped through my shirt and adhered me to the pleather cushions of the cab’s back seat. I roll my neck, reach a hand behind me, and peel the fabrics apart. I pull my shirt from my body and it makes a gentle sucking sound.
I’ve never apologized, but I assume you forgave me. I stayed with my mother, and the next year I started high school in a new district. I saw you even less. You must have noticed. The summer before my senior year, you told me you wanted to take a family trip to Ghana and asked if I would like to join. I said yes, happy for the chance to see my paternal grandmother again and spend time with my stepmother and sisters.
That summer I learned that your obligations did extend across the ocean. Your modest career as a taxi driver in America provided your wealth in Ghana, and you used your economic status to help others. Over eight weeks I observed you open the gates of your impressive villa to grant a few microloans, cover education fees and provide school supplies for children, allow local access to the clean drinking water in your well, and throw a party feeding your extended family. I finally grasped the depths of your kindness and generosity, and acknowledged that although you may not have been a great father or husband, you try to be a good man.
While together in Ghana, you volunteered to teach me how to drive a manual transmission. This culminated in me crashing your pickup truck into a street gutter, snapping the front axle and one of your ring fingers on the dashboard. I pressed myself hard against the driver side door and clenched tightly, awaiting your wrath, but you calmly instructed me to climb out of the vehicle. We walked away from the accident and marched quickly on the red clay road back to your property. Dozens of smiling eyes peeked at us from cinderblock huts and the convenience shops housed in old shipping containers. I thought I heard folks laughing until I realized that the soft chuckles belonged to you between winces of pain.
That summer I lost some fat and gained muscle. Before I came with you to Ghana, I had attended a single practice for my high school’s football team on a whim and intended to join the varsity players in the fall. You greatly approved of this and said playing sports would make sense of my size. You further supported the endeavor by giving me a few cedis to get a membership at a nearby gym, and you made sure my grandmother controlled my food portions at every meal.
When I returned to school, I joined the marching band instead. You stuttered and screamed over the phone when I told you. Between expletives you said you didn’t understand why I made life so hard for myself. You demanded to know why I would rather “parade around the football field with a sousaphone like a fat faggot.” And I considered lying and telling you I was gay to make you choke on your own disappointment.
~ ~ ~ ~
I glance away from my phone. The road looks unfamiliar. I search outside my window for a landmark I might recognize, but I don’t find anything that tells me this will lead to my destination. The taxi sputters climbing a bridge over a brackish waterway littered with foam containers and plastic bottles. Along the railings of the bridge, men cast fishing lines into the murky channel. In the distance, lurking over a row of copper shanties, a sun-scorched billboard displays a message from the junta: “We Promise to Restore Peace and Order and True Democracy to the People of Thailand.”
Did you see similar signage growing up in Ghana under the shadow of the National Liberation Council and the National Redemption Council and the Supreme Military Council?
As a boy, you witnessed Ghana’s first freely elected black government overthrown by a US-supported coup d’état in February 1966. I’ve asked you about those events but you’ve never offered any significant details. Once, walking together through the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, we saw two black and white photographs in the adjoining museum. In one image, President Kwame Nkrumah converses with JFK. In the other, Nkrumah shakes hands with Chairman Mao. You leaned over to whisper to me, “They made the coup to kick him out because they feared he’d go communist.”
In college, I read President Nkrumah’s book, Dark Days in Ghana, to learn more about my heritage and know more about you. Written during his exile in Guinea, Nkrumah examines how foreign pressure and neo-colonialist interests spurred the destabilization of Ghana and other newly independent African states in order to usher in a new kind of economic imperialism. As you suggested during our museum visit, Nkrumah asserts that his foreign policy of non-alignment steered Western leaders to believe Ghana required regime change. He speaks about how the American media encouraged public support for the US military and CIA intervention that delayed his nation’s total liberation.
I wonder how you consolidate these two identities: African and American.
Nkrumah’s account frustrates me, because I know its truth. As an African American, I’m acutely aware of how my country uses various forms of media to propagate and justify attacks on people of color.
The first dog-eared page in my worn copy of Dark Days in Ghana features a letter to Kwame Nkrumah from the American expatriate Richard Wright, author of Native Son. In the haunting note—written six years before Wright’s death and twelve years before Nkrumah’s ousting—Wright warns of colonialist threats to Ghana’s emancipation. “Make no mistake, Kwame,” he says, “they are going to come at you with words about democracy; you are going to be pinned to the wall and warned about decency; plump-faced men will mumble academic phrases about ‘sound’ development; gentlemen of the cloth will speak unctuously of values and standards…”
Wright’s predictions refer to a lengthy history of oppression: the tendency of the United States to actively repress populations longing to free themselves from servitude and subservience, and its propensity to construct narratives to validate those intrusions on bodies of color. This predisposition is woven into the fabric of America’s identity and has shaped much of America’s foreign policy since World War II.
Acknowledging the role your adopted country played in destabilizing your home, there has to exist an internal conflict.
I wanted to ask you about this a few years ago, the last time we saw each other in person. I had flown to America to attend my MFA graduation in Vermont. I told you and the rest of the family not to bother coming to the ceremony, but I decided to spend a night visiting with you and my stepmother before leaving the country again. You came home late from driving your cab all day to find me on the floor of my sister’s childhood bedroom, packing a suitcase for my return flight the following morning.
You said I looked slimmer and surmised the move to Thailand had been good for P and me.
You asked if I was okay.
I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.
If I were bolder when we last met, I would have asked if you could forgive me for absconding to a country notorious for the kind of political instability and despotism you hoped your children would never have to endure.
In response to your question I only managed to mention the guilt of living so far away from my ailing mother.
“Sometimes I feel selfish,” I said, because I knew you’d understand, because now when I look in the mirror I often see the same rubbed-red, jetlagged eyes and solemn expression that you bore the year your mother died on the other side of the Atlantic.
You laughed like I’ve seen you do when reminiscing with friends who shared your journey to America, and you told me I have to do what’s best for me and go wherever I find opportunity to live better.
~ ~ ~ ~
The taxi parks at the mouth of a tight, dark alleyway lined with canopied food stalls. I don’t recognize the location, but the driver tells me I’ve come to the correct place. He waves me out.
I don’t argue. I pay him and step onto the grimy street. The taxi speeds off to the next fare and I am stranded on a busy city block I don’t know. Unsure what to do, I amble forward.
Maybe my destination lies on the other side of the slender thoroughfare.
I waddle through the crowds packed between the food vendors, and I emerge from the alley with curry shrimp paste and warm cooking oil smoked into my flesh. A ferry waits at the end of a floating dock. The vast, brown Chao Phraya stretches and curves in front of me. Beyond the water I might find my endpoint.
I recall another line in Wright’s letter to Nkrumah, “There will be no way to avoid a degree of suffering, of trial, of tribulation; suffering comes to all people, but you have within your power the means to make this suffering of your people meaningful, to redeem whatever stresses and strains may come.”
I consider texting these words to you. I think you’d appreciate them. But in place of a quick text I write this note to wish you well, to let you know this distance has helped me see you more clearly, and to apologize for not knowing when I will stand with you again on the same continent—because I am chasing opportunities you afforded me, pursuing a chance to do more than just survive.
Briny winds roll off the waves as the boat slogs against the river’s forceful current. I check my watch. The immigration bureau offices may close before I reach them. Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse, I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.
"Junior" was previously published in Harbors (Awst Press, 2016).