I never knew my dad growing up. Ray Brown. He and Momma never married, that’s why I have her last name, Young.
Momma usually had some kind of dude hanging around the house, so at first I didn’t know any better. But when I did figure out that the guy at the dinner table wasn’t my real father, and I asked her about it, the first time, she just looked away and said, —He gone.
Later when I asked again, she said he was dead. No hint of emotion when she said it either. That hurt.
—How’d he die, Momma?
—Stop asking so many questions!
But then, not much later, one of my aunts, my momma’s sister Donnette, told me while she was babysitting us. —Your daddy’s in prison. He got busted right before you was born. Him and your momma were already broken up by then, he wasn’t around. A dead beat dad and all that.
—What was he arrested for?
—What else? Drugs.
I processed that for a while. Then, —What was he like?
—Anthony, I barely knew him. Your momma never brought him around much. Or else he was keeping her from us. Either way. he was a charmer though. Ladies man. All that. He had a smile. I liked him.
She laughed. —That’s probably why she kept him away!
I asked my mom about him as soon as she got back from work. I waited up for her, way past my bed time. —Momma, Aunt Donnette says Daddy’s in prison.
—Oh Lord, Anthony, you go to sleep and don’t talk about that silliness.
—What was my daddy like? Where he at now?
She sat next to me on my bed and stroked my head. —I don’t know, child. I don’t know. He didn’t treat me right, was always getting in trouble, and I just didn’t want him messing up your life. He didn’t want to be there neither.
—How you know?
She sighed. —Anthony. If he’d loved you, he would have made an effort to clean up his act and show he wanted to stick around. He didn’t.
—And then he went to prison?
She nodded. —And then he went to prison.
—When he getting out?
She shrugged. —I don’t know. I only found out what happened through friends. I don’t see those friends no more.
I started to cry. Only a little. Just sad, not sobbing all over the place. —I want to see my daddy.
She leaned over and hugged me. —I know. I understand. I just don’t know if that will happen. It’s up to him.
—When he gets out, can I see him?
She nodded. —Maybe. If he gets out. If he wants to see you, he’ll come find you.
After she said goodnight I heard her yelling at Aunt Donnette downstairs. —Donnette! What you doing telling my boy about that low life excuse for a man?
—He gonna find out sometime, Lorraine. You should’ve told him already, instead of making up tall tales about him being dead. You messing with his head!
—Well, won’t be the first time, and now you doing it too! I just want him to grow up in peace and not have all that history dragging him down. That’s why I got out of Detroit in the first place!
Many many years later, back in Michigan visiting over the Christmas holidays, after being on tour in Europe, I was in Ann Arbor, shopping and hanging out, getting a dose of civilization before going back to Momma’s place in Jackson. I got a call on my cellphone. The number on the screen wasn’t familiar, but had a Detroit 313 area code. I answered. —Hello?
A low male voice. Older. —Who is this?
—This is your father.
I went kind of numb. I didn’t know what to say.
I breathed. —Yeah.
—Where you at?
—Well I’m in Plymouth. Why don’t we meet up somewhere.
—I thought you was in prison.
—I was. Now I ain’t.
—For twenty years?
—Aw, you know. I been in and out. The War on Drugs and Black People and all that.
—How’d you get my number?
—Tracked down your aunt Donnette. She gave it to me. What, you don’t want to see me? Your own father?
I wasn’t sure, but I also wasn’t sure whether I wanted to tell him that or not. So I said nothing.
—I hear you quite the musician now. You a bass player, huh?
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. —Yeah.
—What you play? Jazz? Rock?
—I used to play a bit of guitar. Your momma ever tell you that?
—No, she never told me that.
My mind was screaming, Why not? Why wouldn’t she had told me something basic like that?
—Well, maybe we could play some time. Your old man could probably show you a thing or two.
It was Thursday. There used to be a blues open mic on Thursdays at a place out in Ypsilanti, east of Ann Arbor a little ways, that I used to go to. I told him about it. —We could meet there.
He laughed. —God damn! Alright son, that sounds fine to me. I’ll see you there!
That was late afternoon, so I had a few hours to think and be scared to death. I cancelled the plans I had, wandered around town some more, then drove over to Ypsi. The bar was still there, the open mic still going on, hosted by the owner, a guitar player himself. I don’t think he made money hosting a blues open mic, most guys that show up for those things are either poor, alcoholics, or middle class white guys who don’t really drink. He just liked the chance to play. Still, there were enough people to fill up most of the tables in room with the stage, off from the main bar.
I came early, but as soon as I walked in the front door I heard, —Anthony!
And there he was, sitting at the bar, smiling at me. I walked over.
He was thin. Skinny. My height, but I probably weighed thirty pounds more than him. His hair was cut real short, he was wearing old jeans with holes ripped in the knees, and a faded black sweatshirt with the arms cut out, and some dirty white Converse High-Tops. Just like I used to wear. His face was skeletal though. I mean, just gaunt, with high cheekbones and his teeth, he was missing a few, were yellow and tobacco-stained.
He stood up off the bar stool when I came over, grinning. —Goddamn, I knew it was you when walked in. Look at them dreadlocks, boy, you look like Bob Marley or something. You doing good, boy, you look strong and healthy. Your momma must of raised you right!
We hovered across from each other, about two feet apart, looking at each other. He turned and introduced the woman sitting next to him. —Tika, this here’s my son, Anthony. Long lost but now found.
She was about half his age. My age. Short black hair parted on the side. Slender. Little black dress. Long brown legs. High heels. Eye-liner and dark red lipstick and hoop earrings. I wondered what the hell she was doing with my father, but she put out her hand and smiled, and I shook it and said hello.
—Let me buy my son a drink. What you having Anthony?
We got our drinks and went into the next room to get a table, a booth against the far wall with a good view of the stage. The house band was just setting up. My father walked over and talked to the owner, putting on the charm. When he came back he pointed at me and then himself. —You and me, boy. We gonna jam and show these people how to play some real music! How’s that sound?
I smiled. Genuinely. —Yeah, that sounds good.
When it was our turn, the owner introduced us. —Coming up, we got Anthony and Ray, a father and son team to entertain you!
We got up on the stage with the house drummer and this guy on keys. I used the house bass player’s bass, a Fender P like mine. My father played the owner’s Strat. He took a while figuring out the pedals and tweaking the amplifier knobs, and we were all waiting on him. We hadn’t even talked about what we were going to play. He turned to face us, counting the beat with his left foot and head, and played the intro to “Red House.” When I played the bump bump bump bass part along with the drums, he smiled, turned, and as we came into the main section, he turned and played Hendrix’s solo, note for note, and when we came around to the start of the 12 Bar, he sang. —There’s a red house over yonder / that’s where my baby stays....
We played two more Hendrix songs, “Fire” and “Hey Joe” and had people dancing out on the floor. One of those magic moments at an open mic when the musicians are good and the audience is ready and appreciative. The whole time my father looking over at me and smiling and winking. I’ve played halls in Tokyo and London and Radio City Music Hall but that night at that little Ypsi club was one of my favorites ever.
After our three songs we returned the guitars and climbed down off the stage. My father was glowing, sweating a bit like me. He put out his hands for me to shake. —Sounded good, son. You played right in the pocket. Solid.
Then he hugged me.
We sat back in the booth and Tika was beaming. She smiled at me, all proud. —Y’all were great!
We hung out a while longer. My father got up and danced with Tika and every dude in there was watching her. My father had some moves too. All kinds of things I was learning about him.
We eventually left the bar and said goodbye out on the street. The number he’d called me from was Tika’s home number. He said to give him a call soon, so we could get together for a ‘man to man’ talk sometime over the holidays. I left him walking down Michigan Avenue, his right arm around Tika’s shoulders, singing softly.
I didn’t say anything to Momma. I waited two days then called the number. Tika answered.
—Anthony. Ray’s son.
—Is my father there?
Her voice sad. —No. He gone.
She sighed. —Back to jail. Back to prison probably. He got arrested yesterday. I wasn’t with him. Broke parole though.
—What else? Drugs.
—What kind of drugs?
She hesitated again. —Don’t matter.
That spear in the gut feeling. I’d thought only a woman could make me feel that way. —Alright, thanks.
—How bout you? Can you get some?
—No. I don’t do that.
She paused. —Well, you want to come get his stuff? It ain’t much, but I don’t want it. Just some clothes and shit.
I got her address and told her I’d think about it. Later that day I decided fuck it, and gave her a call, telling her I was coming over.
She had an apartment right off of I-69, at the east part of Plymouth, which was like an hour drive from Jackson. She was just back from work as some kind of secretary at Washtenaw Community College. My father’s things were in a couple drawers in the bedroom, a cardboard box and some shirts hanging in her closest. I’m not sure what I was expecting, or looking for, maybe long lost baby pictures of me, that he’d kept with him all this time. Bullshit like that. But it was mostly just clothes. Shirts and jeans. Tika took a leather jacket out of the closet. —Here, this might fit you.
I tried it on. Smelled a little like smoke and perfume mixed in with the leather. She smiled. —You look good in that.
I grabbed her and kissed her, pulling her head back and forcing my tongue in her mouth. She made a surprised grunt and tensed, but then relaxed. I turned her around and pushed her face-down on the bed.
—What you doing?
I didn’t say anything, just pulled up her skirt, yanked down her pantyhose and panties, undid my jeans, and shoved it home. She moaned, clawing the covers. —Oh lord, what you doing?
I shoved it in, laying down on top of her, pinning her, pulling her head back and kissing her neck and ears. —You like that, bitch?
While I fucked her she just kept saying, Oh shit oh shit, over and over and then I came in that tight pussy.
I lay on top of her, both of us breathing heavy. When I pulled out and rolled off of her, she stood up, pulling up her panties and torn pantyhose and pulling down her skirt. Not even looking at me, just going in the bathroom and closing the door. The shower came on.
I left. Didn’t take nothing but the jacket, which I still have.