The Black Santa

I remember sitting on his bony lap,
fake beard slumping off his face,
his breath reeking sweetly of alcohol,
a scent I didn't yet know at five.
And I didn't know that Santa
was supposed to be fat, white, merry—
not shaky and thin like this
department store Santa who listened
as I reeled off that year's list:
a child's oven I'd burn my fingers on,
a mini record player of gaudy plastic
I'd drag from room to room
by its precarious orange handle,
an Etch-a-Sketch I'd ruin by twisting
its dials too hard—my requests
as solemn as prayer, fervid, fueled
by too many hours of television,
too many commercials filled
with noisy children elated
by the latest game or toy.
I bet none of them
ever sat on the lap of a Santa
who didn't ho-ho-ho in jolly mirth,
whose sunken red eyes peered
out from under his oversized wig
and red velveteen cap, his teeth yellow,
long fingers tinged with yellow.
I did not find it strange
to call this man Santa,
to whisper my childish whispers
into his ear, to pull on his sleeve
to let him know I really deserved
all that I'd asked for. I posed
for an instant photo with him,
a woolen cap over my crooked braids,
mittens sewn to my coat sleeves.
No one could have convinced me
this Santa couldn't slide down
any chimney, though his belly
didn't fill his suit, and his hands
trembled, just a bit, as he lifted
me from his lap. No one could
have told me that a pink-cheeked
pale-skinned Santa was the only Santa
to worship, to beg for toys and candy.
I wouldn't have believed them,
wouldn't have believed anyone
who'd tell me Santa couldn't look
like me: brown eyes, face, skin.

More by Allison Joseph

Notebooks

What good are notebooks?
—Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

 

I crave them as if craving something carnal,
blankness of pages erotic, clean with sensual
possibilities and ready to be dampened
by my insistent ink, swirls of language

made plain on thin blue lines taut
as tightrope. I collect them like other women
collect shoes or boyfriends, fingering pristine
pages while standing hushed in aisles

of bookstores and stationery shops,
stroking plush-covered ones with a single
finger, loving floral-print ones more
than actual flowers, needing another and

another until my house is overrun
with them, and they start arranging
cocktail hours and support groups—
for the ones I have not written in

grow lonely, and the ones managing
the burden of my desperate handwriting
need someone to talk to, peers to confide in
about these dog-eared secrets and semi-scribbled

imaginings, covert half-truths, outright lies.
How they congregate around my bed,
waiting for me to pick one up, start
another hazy page of scrawls and arrows,

cross-outs and restarts, confessions
that will never be confessions until
I judge them fit for judgment. Sometimes
when fate has flattened me with its one

hard fist, only the black-and-white
composition notebooks of childhood
will do, marbled covers unchanged
from when I first learned cursive—

one letter reaching for the next
in the crazy tilting of my untested hand.
Only those wide-ruled lines will do,
those patient beginnings.


My Father's Kites

were crude assemblages of paper sacks and twine,
amalgams of pilfered string and whittled sticks,
twigs pulled straight from his garden, dry patch

of stony land before our house only he
could tend into beauty, thorny roses goaded
into color. How did he make those makeshift

diamonds rise, grab ahold of the wind to sail
into sky like nothing in our neighborhood
of dented cars and stolid brick houses could?

It wasn’t through faith or belief in otherworldly
grace, but rather a metaphor from moving
on a street where cars rusted up on blocks,

monstrously immobile, and planes, bound
for that world we could not see, roared
above our heads, our houses pawns

in a bigger flight path. How tricky the launch
into air, the wait for the right eddy to lift
our homemade contraption into the sullen

blue sky above us, our eyes stinging
with the glut of the sun. And the sad tangle
after flight, collapse of grocery bags

and broken branches, snaggle of string
I still cannot unfurl. Father, you left me
with this unsated need to find the most

delicately useful of breezes, to send
myself into the untenable, balance my weight
as if on paper wings, a flutter then fall,

a stutter back to earth, an elastic sense
of being and becoming forged in our front
yard, your hand over mine over balled string.

Soul Train

Oh how I wanted to be a dancer
those Saturday mornings in the
living room, neglecting chores

to gape at the whirling people
on our television: the shapely
and self-knowing brownskinned

women who dared stare straight
at the camera, the men strong,
athletically gifted as they

leaped, landed in full splits.
No black people I knew lived
like this—dressed in sequins,

make-up, men's hair slicked
back like 40's gangsters,
women in skin-tight, merciless

spandex, daring heels higher
than I could imagine walking in,
much less dancing. And that

dancing!—full of sex, swagger,
life—a communal rite where
everyone arched, swayed, shimmered

and shimmied, hands overhead
in celebration, bodies moving
to their own influences, lithe

under music pumping from studio
speakers, beneath the neon letters
that spelled out SOUL TRAIN—

the hippest trip in America.
I'd try to dance, to keep up,
moving like the figures on

the screen, hoping the rhythm
could hit me in that same
hard way, that same mission

of shake and groove, leaving
my dust rag behind, ignoring
the furniture and the polish

to step and turn as they did,
my approximation nowhere near
as clever or seductive, faking

it as best I knew how, shaking
my 12 year old self as if something
deep depended upon the right move,

the righteous step, the insistent
groove I followed, yearning to get
it right, to move like those dancers—

blessed by funk, touched with rhythm,
confident in their motions, clothes,
their spinning and experienced bodies.