Madagascar by James Cagney

I never felt as lonely as the night I was standing in the Paramount lobby an hour before Morrissey. I wasn’t the only black person in the theater but I was certainly the only person to come alone. As even Morrissey himself later told us mid-set, “You came all this way, in the rain, just to see me. How sad.”

Wading through the human river, I thought to call my nephew, my heart’s white s.o.s., if only to hear someone smile speaking to me. I told him I was due in town for a publishing party at the college I used to attend and had no couch to sleep on. “That school is right around the corner from me,” he said.

He was my oldest sister’s son, though besides him, I hadn’t felt close to anyone in the family for years. Him I hadn’t seen in more than a year. He’d moved to Sacramento with a new girl who worked as a teacher. A girl he’d been dying for me to meet. “I’d love to just listen to yawl talk,” he said.

The publishing party was precious as warm milk until the Mohawked writer finished her reading by spontaneously dancing to the break music of the jazz duo and the books editor nudged me for a juicy photo op incanting: Go Down There And Dance With Her and I promptly did just the opposite, pirouetting behind the woman’s calves like an abused dog and shivering there unseen until the music mercifully stopped.

Beyond that, the reading went fine. Though there is no version of this story where nephew or his girlfriend show up to cheer me on like fools from the balcony nor sneak t-shirted in through the back out of curiosity. Instead, after the event, when there was just the cleaning up of crumbs and packing outgoing cars with boxes and leftover cupcakes, I called him and, as promised, in less than two minutes he pulled into the lot. He got out of the car, chest first and formal and heaved with muscle. We hugged, his arms a generational copy of my own. The crowd around us dispersed into the chirping night.

Without hyperbole, his apartment was around the corner from the school where I successfully avoided dancing. Between the night’s’ activity and reuniting with him, I was doubly energized. I fell out of the car thermodynamically heated with stories and anxious for his. But the apartment’s cool gravitational void immediately closed around me. Girlfriend sat on the sofa pajamaed and indifferent. Nephew dropped down next to her, parental. The television continued conversing with itself.

I sat hungered and would have taken ice, if offered. So many years had burned between us, memories I’m sure really happened, yet the ashes now blown away. I removed from my backpack one of the still warm journals where my poems appeared and handed it to him. He took the book, maybe having seen one before somewhere, thumbed through it, then quietly placed it on the table.

Without weed or food, I slept anyway. The room’s only art was the onyx billboard of the TV. No calendars, no corkboard of doodles and postcards, no velvet flea market portraits of Marley, Martin, and Mandela, no mirrored family collages, no nothing ‘cept enameled white walls, twin couches, and an altar worthy TV.

The next morning, Sunday, arrived mercifully. Girlfriend emerged first, zipped in a running suit, as if late for gym. But nephew appeared after at 10:05 and presented her a scoop of raisins on a paper towel, yogurt, and a glass of vodka with orange juice. He offered me a Drink and before saying anything I turned towards the clock as if needing its permission. I said yes.

They talked about birds and Smart and Final. The birds would wait. I took the option for the store what with being so hungry after the previous night’s cookies and carrot sticks. But nephew remained behind at the apartment while I rode alone with girlfriend, my heart’s conversation misplaced with he who lit a Newport on the front steps and watched us pull off.

Down the tree-lined avenues we talked, she talked, now properly lubricated.

“So you’re a teacher.” I said. “High school? College?”

“Preschool.” “I’m a teaching assistant with this great teacher, Miss MacDaniel. Do you teach?”

“No, not at all,” I said.

“It’s pretty easy. They’re an ideal age. Just busy bodies. Do you have any kids?”

“Sadly, no.”

“Not sad. Why?”

“Well, I just wish.”

“Careful what you be wishing,” she said. “I work with them all day. I love them. You just . . . patience, you know. Takes a lot.”

“I bet,” I said.

At the store, I felt encouraged and hopeful, yet still empty after the previous night. I followed her down the line of checkers towards the frozen food section. She picked up a bottle of orange juice then reached for a generic bottle of vodka. As a guest, I pointed her towards a slightly more expensive upgrade.

“Are you sure?” she said.

Long ago, my head learned the difference between cheap and more expensive booze. And I was willing to put in on brunch. She ignited, circling quickly back to the cashier holding two bottles by the neck like fresh killed game. I could barely keep up with her sprint back to the car.

But, but, but, I didn’t say.

“You’re already my favorite uncle,” she said over her shoulder.


We returned to an empty apartment. Nephew followed us in, having left to score some weed from a neighbor.

“How was yawl’s trip?” he said.

“Go look at the name on the bottle,” she said. “There’s a name on the bottle!”

Nephew admired it as if it were a visiting dignitary. He cracked it open.

After a while, he said, “Let’s go feed the birds.”

She asked “Why?” and asked again.

They circled round and around with his never providing an answer. He just kept motioning towards the light leaking in through the closed blinds. After several rounds of this, I jumped in.

“Please God, let’s go feed the birds,” I said.

She dressed for the park like a movie star in public disguise. She went to the door and opened it a candy bar’s width, but nephew and I just stood there improvising, laughing, playing while she stared at us.

“Let’s go feed the birds,” nephew said.

“Please, please, please, baby please let’s go.” I said.

He laughed. I laughed.

She stared from the doorway behind huge black sunglasses and a cheetah patterned head wrap swirling upwards in a crown. The afternoon was luminous behind her, polishing her aura golden white. I held him. We laughed and begged. No one moved. No one went to the light on the other side. She shut the door and sat down on the couch. He peeled out of my arms and paced the room, from kitchen to living room, then back.

“Why aren’t we going to feed the birds?” I said.

“Well, I was asking if yawl was trying to leave and yawl wouldn’t do nothing.”

Finally nephew stepped out of the kitchen with a half loaf of wheat bread dangling from his fingers. I laughed again. If we were the birds’ only help, the birds were good as dead.

She rose pouting and opened the door again. This time I ran out onto the balcony panting like a bad dog. From the narrow spine of cement steps down to the parking lot, I couldn’t see how the TV or sofa was maneuvered into their living space.

Nephew slid down into the backseat while she drove holding a huge tumbler of vodka, juice, and four ice cubes. She resembled a ghetto statue of liberty leaving what sloshed in her cup a light to some kind of freedom. She was aggressive behind the wheel, the key quality nephew finds most attractive in women.

She moved to hand me her tumbler, but I stared at it.

“Oh sorry,” she said. “Your nephew’s usually sitting there.”

She handled gravity-defying turns with the control of Danita Patrick. She light-sped through intersections, flipped preposterous u-turns, then smirked over the random appearance of police cars. She drove single handed, composing a rhythmic duet of shifting gears and ice clinking in her tumbler.

We entered the park near the Sacramento river while nephew directs from the backseat cuddling the loaf of bread. She drove to the end of the road to see who else was there. The only cars were 1950s and 60s antiques, polished within an inch of the showroom. Tattooed men in wife beaters stood with beer cans, stared into the motors, and talked with equally tattooed other men. I recognized the sacred, convertible red Chrysler. If I knew anything about cars I’d tell you what the others were. I expected nephew to want to stroll among the metal and men and talk their high math, but instead he directed her to pull over where we could be alone.

She clicked off the motor. “I don’t see no birds,” she said. “Where the birds? Ain’t no birds out here.”

The sky was birdless and so blue as to appear wet from fresh paint. Nothing in the park moved except the couple humping in the campsite a few hundred feet away. Girlfriend did not unhook her seatbelt. Her hesitation frightened me. I popped the door open and got out, drowning myself on deep breaths. They got out after me and followed, tentative. We crossed an acre of grass and took the incline down towards the river. From the parking lot, the grass appeared to end at a cliff. The cliff was a five foot jump to a manmade beach of huge smooth boulders. We stood at the edge and watched boats and jet skis slice the water frosty white. The first boat passed and the men on it waved. I stared at them curiously until I turned and saw nephew and girlfriend wave back.

One beat, then another. Finally, nephew turned to me and said, “Seems like my mom said something about you last week.”

I stepped closer to him, it sounding like he really wanted to Say Something.

“My mom said to me, it’s like there’s an elephant in the room no one is talking about.” He stopped.

I laughed.

Girlfriend stumbled slightly on the grassy slope, though she didn’t spill any of her clinking drink.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “Elephants? What’s that supposed to mean?”

There was no reason for her to get it and there seemed too much to explain. My adoption story, my coming back to a place I never knew I’d left. A home that was never quite home. Then:

“There was this documentary on elephants I saw on Nature last year,” I said. “They followed this herd of elephants across Africa. This one scene stayed with me. The herd came to a river, just like this one. And the camera showed all these elephants crossing from one side to the other. And when they were all on the other shore, you could see this smaller, I guess, adolescent elephant stayed where he was. Scared, intimidated by the water or something. Well, all the elephants waited for the smaller one to get it together and cross and when he didn’t — honest to goodness — the camera showed all the elephants coming back across the river and finding a different route, a longer way around.”

“I am that elephant,” I said. “And In my case, it’s like all the elephants crossed over, but none of them came back. They were complete without me.”

Silence. The girl shifted her weight. Turning up her tumbler, she dumped the remaining ice in the grass.

“The water ain’t even blue,” she said. “It ain’t like you can see anything in it. Ain’t nothing out here.”

For ten minutes on this green slope above the whispering water, none of us saw any traces of bird life. No stray ducks, no loose bird feathers in the acres of rolling grass. The loaf of bread nephew held by its tie had compressed into a flaking softball.

“All this time out here,” she started up again. “We could have been at home, watching ‘Madagascar.’ You ever seen it?” Her eyes hopeful. “You ever see ‘Madagascar’?”

“No,” I said. “No.”

“Oh it’s a great movie,” she beamed. “You want to? Want to go back and see it?”

“Right now?” I looked over the vacant water. “I don’t mind,” I said.

She turned to stomp back towards the car. Nephew tapped me to follow. He whispered, “stop staring at my woman.”

The grass was where my attention had fallen. Where were the birds when we needed them? When I needed them? We followed her to the car. Leaving the outdoors, the water, the grass, the trees, the air. We returned to the equally bird-less white room and its huge TV. While refilling my water glass at the sink, I shouted a reminder.

“Were we supposed to watch ‘Madagascar’ or something?”

“‘Madagascar’ is perfect!” she says. Happier than when we left Smart and Final cradling a bottle with a name. She squatted down beneath the TV and dug through her collection of videos.

“This is a great movie. You sure you haven’t seen it? Do you mind?”

I shook my head no. “No. Not at all,” I said.

She put the thing on then leaped onto the sofa, sitting up straight like a small child anxious to prove she could pay attention.

“It’s a kids’ movie,” she explained. “It’s about these animals in a zoo and they’re used to being in a zoo but they get out of the zoo and go back to the wild and they forgot how to be wild. You’ll see. It’s great. I can’t believe you never seen it.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said.

The movie started. “Watch this,” she said. “Just watch.” She bounced in her seat, satiated.

She talked through the movie in wordless breath-sentences. How you’d follow a song you like without knowing the lyrics. A character said something, like – When a zebra’s in his zone, leave him alone, – and she clumsily sung after them, listening and mumbling and mumbling and laughing. “Oh, I’m gonna be fresh! Straight out the ground fresh. Fresh-ilicious. Ziploc fresh!

“Wait wait wait, Look look look,” she said. “It’s a shame how you can have an entire movie memorized.”

She waited until there was a grunt, a noise, a sound, then she parroted after.

“Oooh, ooh — this my favorite part.”

She repeated it two minutes later, sitting even more erect. Another two minutes after: “No, THIS my favorite part . . . ”

She bounced, hummed, then shot over to me: “It’s important for me to know who’s talking.”

She pointed to a penguin.

“That’s the guy who played Norman on Seinfeld. “Remember him? You watch Seinfeld?”

“Yeah, I’ve watched it.”

“There’s too many good things in this movie.”

I looked at her, then back to the screen, then back to her. I hugged a throw pillow and pushed myself deeper into the sofa.

“Oh! You know who that is . . . ”

“Chris Rock,” I said.

“Heck yeah. You know his crazy voice anywhere. He crazy.”

I watched best I could, with her pulling my attention every other beat or two. Then, finally:

“Don’t you see how many ways you can see this movie?”

I looked at her, feather light and innocent. Her feet straight out across the sofa, not touching the ground. She appeared so small as to be nearly swallowed by the cushions, her head wrapped to the ceiling making her appear even smaller. Sub-compact.

It broke me. I exploded laughing. As if I’d been holding my breath thirty hours. The convulsions pushed me to the floor. I went face down between the coffee table and couch, humping the pillow, laughing so hard. While hysterical and vomiting noise into the floor, I heard girlfriend from somewhere behind me, self-serious and not laughing.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” she said.

The spigot slowed. I pushed myself up from the floor. As I returned to the couch, nephew appeared, my forgetting he was the reason I was here in the second place. He placed a bowl of rice and beans on the table before me. I wiped the tears in my eyes. Girlfriend stared into the tv, patient, unmoved. I grabbed the fork and put a heaping mound into my mouth. But I looked up as nephew appeared before me again, baring a teeth-shattering grimace. His eyebrows had crashed mid-forehead and hated one another, his face in rigor mortis down to his neck. I forgot. However much honor I held of our relationship from years before, whatever I’d recalled of our hikes and walks, our smoking and drinking . . . I forgot.

“Thank you, Father,” he growled.

I stopped chewing.

“Thank you, Father, for this food we’re about to receive.”

I moaned something like Amen.

“Thank you for blessing this day. Thank you for bringing my uncle back into the family, Lord. Thank you for bringing him back into my life.” Each word like you’d plunge an ice pick into a frozen block. At Amen, he reached over the table and the bowl, and hugged me. Our second embrace, this one nearly snapping my head back.

We ate. Finishing our food, not the movie. I said I needed to get back to the train station. I gathered my things while nephew waited on the front steps. I saw the book still on the table, felt sorry for it, yet I left it where it lay. Girlfriend sat quietly as Madagascar continued before her. I stood next to the couch and asked girlfriend to stand. She did, but like in a cartoon, in ready position to run. I asked her to stop and I hugged her. I embraced her, a fully formed angel emerging from my own heart. In my arms I told her she was precious and she wilted slightly. She squeezed back. “Madagascar,” very briefly, ceased to be so important. I let go and said goodbye.

Nephew sped through traffic, arrived at the train terminal then illegally maneuvered to let me out in a red zone at the train’s open door. The older female security guard leaned down to chastise him, though he had no time for her or her clipboard. There was no time left for me, either.

He told me he loved me and let me out. I said the same. We, neither of us, have said anything since.

James Cagney
Cave Canem fellow James Cagney is a poet and writer from Oakland, Ca. He has appeared as a featured poet and artist at venues in Sacramento, San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago and Mumbai. His work has been published on line and in print via Eleven Eleven, Lime Hawk, and Print Oriented Bastards among others. Visit his blog at