Excerpt from James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother

When I was fourteen my mother took up two new hobbies:1 riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker2, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow3. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my stepfather found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

I don’t know whether it was his decision to pull out or not, but I think not. He was seventy-two when he died, trim, strong, easygoing, seemingly infallible, and though he was my stepfather, I always thought of him as Daddy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken4man who wore old-timey clothes, fedoras, button-down wool coats, suspenders, and dressed neatly at all times, regardless of how dirty his work made him. He did everything slowly and carefully, but beneath his tractor-like slowness and outward gentleness was a crossbreed of quiet Indian and country black man, surefooted, hard, bold, and quick. He took no guff and gave none. He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children to make it an even twelve and he cared for all of us as if we were his own. “I got enough for a baseball team,” he joked.5 One day he was there, the next—6stroke, and he was gone.

I virtually dropped out of high school after he died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends. “James is going through his revolution,” my siblings snickered. Still, my sisters were concerned,7 older brothers angry. I ignored them. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible.8 I snatched purses. I shoplifted.9I even robbed a petty drug dealer once. And then in the afternoons, coming home after a day of cutting school, smoking reefer, waving razors, and riding the subway,10 I would see my mother pedaling her blue bicycle.

“Flying Carpets” by Steven Millhauser

In the long summers of my childhood, games flared up suddenly, burned to brightness, and vanished forever. The summers were so long that they gradually grew longer than the whole year,11 they stretched out slowly beyond the edges of our lives, but at every moment of their vastness they were drawing to an end, for that’s what summers mostly did: they taunted us with endings, marched always into the long shadow thrown backward by the end of vacation.2And because our summers were always ending in games, we sought new and more intense ones; and as the crickets of August grew louder, and a single red leaf appeared on branches green with summer,3 we threw ourselves as if desperately into new adventures, while the long days, never changing,4 grew heavy with boredom and longing.

 

I first saw the carpets in the back yards of other neighborhoods.5 Glimpses of them came to me from behind garages, flickers of color at the corners of two-family houses where clotheslines on pulleys stretched from upper porches to high gray poles, and old Italian men in straw hats stood hoeing between rows of tomatoes and waist-high corn. I saw one once at the far end of a narrow strip of grass between two stucco houses, skimming lightly over the ground at the level of the garbage cans.6 Although I took note of them, they were of no more interest to me than games of jump rope I idly watched on the school playground, or dangerous games with jackknives I saw the older boys playing at the back of the candy store. One morning I noticed one in a back yard in my neighborhood; four boys stood tensely watching. I was not surprised a few days later when my father came home from work with a long package under his arm, wrapped in heavy brown paper, tied with straw-colored twine from which little prickly hairs stuck up.7

 

Millhauser, Steven. “Flying Carpets.” The Knife Thrower and Other Stories.” Crown Publishers Inc., 1998.