Tuesday, March 19, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Farm by Sabah Muhammad

The Farm
Sabah Muhammad

PHOTO: Ian Carroll

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Saturdays held the illusion of a family vacation; several trips across a lightly-dewed lawn, our breath visible in the sun-kissed morning, loading the car with bags, snacks, and pillows. My mother would line the three of us up at the front door, her arms full with damp towels, combs, and brushes. She thought being well-groomed could stave off the initial judgments and discrimination of upturned southern noses. Once our faces were shiny, ears free of wax, and even our eyebrows lying flat, she would force us to use the bathroom once more whether we had to go or not. Then we would push each other into the car, sleepy but excited, anticipating the ride ahead. I was the youngest and was forced to ride Bitch between my sisters. I always threw a fit, but secretly I was glad to have the comfort of miniature mothers on both sides. I was Baby Jacob. Erica made sure I was buckled, including the chest strap. Cassandra never had a problem with me resting my head on her shoulder and pinching the fleshy back part of her upper arm. This became a habit I developed, one that lulled me to sleep on the way to the farm.

Erica and Cassandra rarely let a moment go by in silence, they’d create a game before we made it to the highway. I happily awaited my assigned role. Even when I was losing, or incessantly It, I yearned to be part of their big-kid freedom. Their favorite car game was humming tunes from TV shows so we could guess the lyrics. For the first hour of the trip, before Erica went to sleep–she was always first to go to sleep, mouth opened, head against the door panel–my mother would sing and play games with us between sips of steaming gas station coffee. She would take each one of our names and improvise a rap to LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” as she drove. She had a beautiful singing voice, which she rarely used. My mother was not the kind for too much chatter, she believed in giving information on a need-to-know basis. When we became much older Erica claimed it was really her way of lying by omission.

But then we were children singing songs at the top of our lungs at six in the morning, only to be interrupted by the appearance of cows. Those giant animals–staring, eating, and stinking– announced our arrival into the country. Every weekend, as if we’d never seen them before, we would stop what we were doing, giraffe our necks, and press our noses firmly against the chilly window to look at the animals. We watched them until someone choked on the stench of manure, wrinkled their nose and said “Ewww, who did it!” Our mother would laugh, and with the game or song forgotten she would ask, “What would y’all do if we lived on a farm?” Cassandra would always lay down her pad and pencil to answer first.

“I would be a farmer and grow food for our family and for all the homeless people on the planet.” She was only twelve, but thought of such things as if all Barbie-wielding twelve-year-olds could possibly save the world.

“I would wear pretty farm dresses and grow flowers,” said Erica.

“Oh, really?” said Mom encouragingly.

“Yes, and I would ride horses all day and feed them hay and apples.”

“And what else?”

“And I would put braids in their tails with pink and gold ribbons on the end. And my horses would always be clean and they would never stink. And I would teach them to talk and wear horse dresses that matched mine.”

Cassandra always carried a pencil and paper to draw but Erica was the story teller, the longer she spoke the more elaborate her stories became. It was a tactic of my mother’s to let Erica talk everyone in the car to sleep. Then my mother would ask me.

“So, Baby Jacob, what would you do if we lived on a farm?” Normally I said I would play with the animals, run with the chickens and pigs. This pleased my mother and sisters and they would squeal and say, “Gross, you want to eat slop,” or call me little piggy until they forgot it was funny. But this particular morning I answered more like Cassandra. I thought of the simplest answer that would make it all better. With a Kool-Aid smile, expecting to be encouraged like Erica had been, I said, “I want to live on the farm to be with Daddy.”

Everyone became silent, pushing hasty reactions to the roof of their mouths. Erica began to cry. Cassandra hated weakness and jabbed across me to punch her on the shoulder. Stop it, Stupid. In a second my mother’s calm was gone and she was threatening spankings if Cassandra didn’t apologize. Being a woman of few words, my mother always followed through on her promises of a spanking. She was also notorious for a pinch and twist to our arm at the first sign of public misbehavior. Erica stifled the sobs but continued to force silent tears down her cheeks. Cassandra offered a cold apology and opened her notebook to write. What I did, I’m not sure.

PHOTO: Clinton Steeds
I stuck my finger in my mouth and poked Cassandra’s cheek. Instead of grabbing my head with both hands and trying to lick my squirming face like she always did, she firmly balled my fingers and shook her head. I understood it was time for all of us to be quiet. I kept my feelings on the surface–back to searching for cows, or playing with my handful of Legos.

In the car on that morning, as I watched the farms turn to forests, on the way to the farthest reaches of Georgia, I took out my seven small multi-colored blocks. I built and rebuilt a nameless structure while Erica cried herself to sleep, Cassandra mused, and my mother calculated her life’s mistakes in the seventy-fivce miles that remained until we reached the shotgun town of Waycross.

PHOTO: Steve Snodgrass
By the time I woke up we were at the farm and Erica was jumping up and down holding her hands between her legs while my mother removed necessary items from her purse–gum, hand mirrors, pens, even tic tacs would have to stay locked in the trunk. Between fishing out her driver’s license and dollar bills for change, my mother snapped at Erica to hold it. Cassandra was in charge of me. It was easy for her to slip into motherly duties, fluffing out the nap dent in my hair with a small yellow pick comb, or wiping the curdled signs of sleep from the corner of my eyes with a baby wipe. There was nothing to be done about the lines indented across my cheek from the folds of Cassandra’s shirt that I’d slept so comfortably against. Cassandra just laughed at me and said she could follow the map on my face all the way to the moon. When my mother got everything together in a clear make-up bag, we crossed the gravel parking lot creating a rhythmic march over the loose pebbles and rocks.

PHOTO: Sonny Abesamis
This farm was large and there was not one animal in sight on the massive green lawns. It did have a gate that stretched forever in all directions and a stark blue sky that created solid lines between grass, gate, and heaven. Behind the gate was a brick, box-shaped building with very few windows. About twenty feet above us, just under the snake coils of barbed wire, there was a silver intercom. Shielding her eyes from the sun, my mother titled her head back and stared at it, my eyes followed hers. Feedback pierced the air followed by a loud buzzing and a slow-moving gate; once it was opened we could go inside. It was at that moment that a stream of yellow emerged from the cuff of Erica’s pant leg and crept across her white sock. Immediately Cassandra began to laugh and Erica dropped her chin to her chest to hide her tears from view. Without speaking my mother turned on her heel and made quick strides toward the car. Doubled over with giggles and walking fast to keep up, Cassandra pulled me across the parking lot while Erica penguin-stepped to the car, sobbing snot down her shirt along the way. Her only changes of clothes were flowery pink and green shorts and an oil-stained men’s t-shirt which had probably been used to wash the car. With one cold, tight-eyed look from my mother Cassandra stopped laughing and helped to put Erica’s pissy clothes in a plastic grocery bag. I opened my jacket to hide Erica from view while my mother tried to calm her down enough to dress her in the strange new outfit.

PHOTO: Corrie Barklimore

PHOTO: Kate Ter Haar
When we made it to the gate for the second time, there was another family waiting with us in silence. There was an older egg-shaped woman with a fanny pack and men’s haircut, and a tall man with tangled, fuzzy blond locks that hung from a trucker hat. And there was a younger woman, even smaller than my mother, with a brand new baby in her arms, and a boy about my age clinging to her leg. I waved my Legos at him and he buried his face into the younger woman’s acid-washed, denim-covered thigh. I thought he was afraid of me. I took no consideration of what the farm might look like to him. From what I had been told, I met my father at the farm. My mother began making this trip across the state and open country when she was five months knocked up with me in her stomach. The gates that loomed above my head toward eternity and the barbed wire that welcomed visitors was never a threat to me, it was where Father lived. The new family stood with us at the gate waiting for the buzzing, and then we were free to walk ten yards over more crunchy gravel to a set of sliding doors that led inside the brick building where we would meet the guards that managed the farm.

PHOTO: Rennett Stowe
I understood the family that came in with us was new because they didn’t know the rules and did everything wrong. The guards had to keep giving instructions. The new family tried to bring food with them, and diapers in a big baby bag instead of clear plastic bags. They kept beeping when they went through the metal detectors and between the three adults and two children they had to rent a locker for the things they could not bring. Then the man in the group started cursing. When guards all moved their hands toward their hip, he changed his voice to a whimper and apologized. He was told his ID was no good and his only choice was to wait in the car until visiting was over.

When Erica and Cassandra walked through inspection, they were like queens, setting an example for the new family, heads held high as if the metal detector was an “archway of coronation.” We didn’t beep, and our money was already in quarters and sealed in a plastic bag. After inspection, guards herded us into a claustrophobic waiting room with more sliding doors. I usually ended up staring directly into the crotch of a female guard with an iron curtain bosom that practically rested on my head. This guard was in charge of opening the two massive security doors that would eventually lead us to the Farmers. She used a special key, like a metal blow-pop stick, to unlock the doors. Then slowly with earth-splitting noises that vibrated the bottoms of my feet, the doors slid open. My mother’s joke was to ask if it was my stomach rumbling that made our feet shake–not today. Everyone seemed to know that today was different.

PHOTO: Derek Key

We followed the guard down a long white hallway where she used her special key once more to call an elevator that would take us downstairs to the visiting room. Sometimes we would see our father right away. When the doors opened he would be there with a smile on his face, relieved to see us. Other times, we would wait for him. While we waited, our mother would send Cassandra to the vending machine for Lorna Doone shortbread cookies and Fritos. These were my father’s favorites and she liked to have them on the table when he arrived. Today was one of those waiting days.

My mother paced behind her chair and we all sat looking in the direction where the Farmers entered. When their door slid open they were greeted like celebrities, heads turned and people stood up to meet them. The young woman in the new family was already crying and the visit was just starting. When the door opened my mother would stop pacing and grip the back of a chair, when she finally saw him her shoulders would relax and a smile would slowly creep across her face. We had to wait for him to come to us. Then my mother would cup my father’s smooth face with her left hand and he would press his cheek into her fingers with his eyes closed. Then my parents would kiss. The Farmers were only allowed two kisses, one at the beginning and one at the end of the visit. I always looked away during the kiss, especially the goodbye kiss. Almost at once all the Farmers would grab their wives and embrace with savage desperation. What followed was the type of inappropriate kiss, with sounds and visible tongues that would rarely be seen in public or followed by the addressing of children with pecks on the forehead.

PHOTO: Derek Key
The initial conversation, after the “You look good” and the “I miss you” was always about lawyers and money. Then they would talk about Daddy’s brothers and friends who owed him debts. When he brought this up, my mother became annoyed and refused to continue talking. During these annoyed periods to keep the visit flowing, my father would grab me in his arms and call me his Boy. I would talk about Legos and school and tell him he needed to come to our house so he could see my racetrack. We would talk like this for a while as I sat in the rarely-felt safety of his lap. He smelled of fresh starch and detergent, a smell I loved but also associated with an empty stomach. He was tall and slim with accusing slits for eyes–eyes that I also saw when I looked in the mirror. His nose flared involuntarily when he spoke. He rarely used his hands when speaking, and when he addressed us it was with an intimidating kind of attention that forced us to look away.

The visiting room was always full. Every chair had a body and each table was covered with candy bar wrappers, chips, and soda cans. There were other children visiting Farmers but we were not allowed to play with them. We were told the guards would shoot us if we did. That was enough. We were the best-behaved children at the farm. We were only allowed to get up for three destinations–vending machine, picture booth, or bathroom. When our parents argued or needed to speak privately, Cassandra would be in charge of taking us to the vending area. She became a pro at taking her time to make a decision among the plexi-glass protected snacks. It became a game:

“Jacob’s favorite is 100 Grand, so what color is the wrapper?”

“Blue and yellow.”

“Jacob, that’s red and yellow.”

“And Erica how do you spell red?”


“What about yellow?”

“That’s too hard.”

“Oh well, you can only eat what you can spell.”

And on it went until Erica began to cry and Cassandra eventually gave up her self-indulgent harassment. Today, we were sent to the vending machine. Our parents argued because our mother was going to college, and Daddy wanted to know how she could possibly afford school and what made her think she was the college type.

We learned to stay away until our mother’s face released its tight-lipped tension. Arguing wasn’t allowed by anyone on the farm, but with so much noise from each sitting area it was difficult to notice my mother’s usual frustration at being accused of cheating on Daddy with his friends, forgetting him at this time when he really needed her, and now daring to gain an education. Work was usually a “vending machine issue” for my parents. They would send us away to replenish the chocolate and sugar supply on the table every time conversations went in that direction, as if more artificial sweeteners and salt would create a solution. Earlier in the year, we stopped receiving welfare because Daddy’s lawyer, Richard Adams, offered our mother a job as a receptionist. My father was angry because he heard about my mother’s new job from our grandmother. Daddy’s family didn’t like my mother very much; she was too private for them, and too good at getting things done without help.
PHOTO: Derek Key

When we finally returned with a new stock of Cheetos, peppermint patties, and Sprites, my father was talking about the new family. The young man with the crying wife was new to the farm. He wasn’t Daddy’s friend because of a tattoo. Many of the Farmers had tattoos, but it wouldn’t be until my tenth grade social studies class that I discovered Hitler and swastikas, and learned why Daddy and the new Farmer with the big black spider shaped tattoo across the back of his neck couldn’t be friends. My entire emotional understanding of the Holocaust would amount to me thinking of my father every time I saw a Nazi flag.

From what our father told us, he was friends with a lot of the Farmers in the visiting area but wasn’t allowed to speak to them or sit next to them until they got back to their own rooms. If he did, the farm guards who slowly patrolled around the room would make him sit in a hole. So I only got to know his friends when he pointed to them and said their names, immediately followed by why they had to live on the farm. Carmichael; grand theft auto. Nelson; fraud. Davis; manslaughter. Daddy said that he was guilty of being a part of the White Man’s system. Every time he said this, Cassandra huffed and rolled her eyes. If Daddy heard her he pretended not to.

It was Cassandra who began the trend toward deserting our father. She began spending weekends on the phone, at middle school basketball games, and at the food court in the mall. When Erica turned eleven, she was next. She discovered how to man-up and filled her weekends with sports; it became easy for her to take a hit without crying. Practice and competition for soccer, track, and softball were a part of Erica’s life without Daddy. My mother and I became his only visitors. We would have rambling conversations about Cassandra and Erica to take the focus away from me and all of my issues. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about being cut from football try-outs, my changing voice–that only seemed to squeak when I was talking to Deanna Brown, the only girl I knew with cleavage–my sprouting body hair that grew in unevenly and curled oddly in several different directions, or my wet dreams and need to masturbate three times a day.

It felt weird to confide in my father–he was a stranger–and through this I realized I was sad for him. Not because I couldn’t ask him about beating the wood or that, sadly, beating the wood was my biggest concern, but because I was embarrassed of him. How could he have the answers to my confusion when he never left the farm? He only knew life from what he saw on the television or the exaggerated stories the guards told him. He was becoming more and more real to me as I was coming to understand that he was not coming home, even though I always found him to be innocent. He was my father, and my father wasn’t capable of doing wrong.

As I rebuilt my Legos I was aware of a change. The sound of the visiting room, which I usually heard as a whir of indistinct noise, had become many small conversations about bills, release times, births, and deaths. My father’s eyes looked away from us and into his open hands more often. My mother chose to put a chair between her and my father after she stood for a brief moment to stretch her legs. With every visit before, I hoped that my father would come home or he would say I could stay. I always planned to ask, but the moment never seemed right. Instead, I would fall asleep in his lap and wake up when visiting time was nearly over. The change was the first time that asking seemed like the wrong thing to do, so it was inevitable that I would ask.

My opportunity came in the form of a father to son talk. My mother and sisters slid their chairs about a foot away while my father, in a low voice, told me I had to be the man of the house. He told me to take care of my sisters and help my mom. This posed an immediate challenge, something I would struggle to live up to for the remainder of my adolescence. As soon as we were back in the car, Cassandra and Erica would prove who the real bosses were. He looked me in the eyes, blinking rapidly, holding my chin with his wide hands when he used the word, man. That word, that burden of identity. He knew its power, he had to communicate something to me.

“So what does the man of the house do?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you think?”

“He washes the cars, and makes sure there is juice in the refrigerator and he has big muscles so he can beat people up if they try to mess with him. And he can drive a motorcycle.” 

Then in his effort to remain relevant he gave me the job he could not accomplish. “What’s the most important thing of all?” he asked, and with some hesitation I answered.

“The man of the house takes care of mommy and his sisters?”

“That’s what you have to do, and I’m going to call and make sure you’re being a man.” He gave me a squeeze, maybe to reassure me that I was capable of the job, or maybe to ease himself of the guilt he felt for trying to pass on his responsibility. With thirty minutes left in our visit my father finished our talk and asked Erica about her strange outfit.

As Erica tried to keep the tears at bay while she told her parking lot story, I let my mind drift over to the new family. The little boy who was about my age spent the entire time sleeping in his grandmother’s lap. The crying young woman rocked softly from side to side and moved her red, tear-exhausted eyes from the door, to the clock, to her husband, and back, in an unchanging nervous rhythm. She stopped for a moment, and I followed her gaze to the families taking last-minute photos. For a moment the crying young woman turned her head and caught eyes with mine. She attempted a smile, tried to fix her face as my mother used to say, but failed and looked back down to her baby as fresh tears appeared and dotted the single blanket she was allowed to bring inside. The new Farmer turned to her, cutting his mother off in mid-conversation. He took the baby from her arms and held it close, then put his free arm around the crying young woman and hugged her. Ten years later, he would meet his son at home after being released for good behavior with a charge of manslaughter. My father would meet his grandchildren and in-laws at the farm.

Cassandra tugged at my shirt and stopped me from staring at the new family. Our last fifteen minutes of visiting were always strangely silent. During this time of leaving and not leaving nothing was ever resolved. We would teach Daddy the games we knew and sometimes he would play with us. Today, he asked my mother what she planned to study in college. When she told him law, he pulled a long breath from the entire room and wiped feverishly at his forehead with the palm of his hand. 

He wanted to know who came up with the idea, but he didn’t ask out loud. His silence was envisioning our mother’s future. The silence was an attempt to piece everything together; her new career, her new education, and her new life–his lawyer. By the end of his deep breath, ten of our fifteen minutes were up and he understood.

He squatted low to hug me, to say goodbye and I asked, already knowing the answer, if I could stay. He stared at me, opening his eyes as wide as his slits would allow. To this day, I am sure he was afraid of me. His head dropped and he picked me up without answering. For a moment he held me in his arms rocking me silently, my face in his neck inhaling the detergent smell, and then he squatted to put me steadily on the floor again. He looked around at his family, rascals who looked just like him–Cassandra arms folded in forced indifference, Erica fighting tears and leaning over to give him a goodbye kiss, me wide-eyed and anticipating his answer. He saw that we would live our lives unaffected by his simple dreams; of waking sleeping children for school in the morning, watching us through peeks in the rear view mirror while driving, or hearing Daddy on a daily basis.

As my mother drew nearer I lowered my head to avoid seeing the ceremonial kiss goodbye, and busied myself with the buttons of my shirt. I saw Erica’s blue shoes move away from my side, and all around me the room filled with reluctant shuffling, Farmers in one direction, families in the other. When I looked up my mother was wiping tears from my father’s expressionless face. And even though I cried every time we left the farm, it was with the raw new understanding of loss, stretching out and unfolding in my stomach that I cried for my father.

PHOTO: Simon Brass

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