Jupiter et Moi

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Jupiter et Moi
The history of African-Americans can be read between the lines of this family history of the author and his Jupiter of a father, tyrannical and terrifying - yet lovable, funny and whimsical. It is the story of spectacular and bloody outbursts of racist ideology, as well as its everyday humiliations. Through formative events and pivotal scenes, Eddy Harris here becomes the spokesperson of his father's generation, born at a time when, "fifty years after abolition, you could still smell the stagnant stench of slavery".
Presently only available in French

First Chapter (Excerpt)

The life of a father and the life of his son merge softly like the branches of trees that rise side by side in a forest. The acorn falls, a young tree grows, their roots are intertwined. If they are close enough, you sometimes cannot tell where branches of the one tree end and the other tree begins, until you step away and have the longer look, or until the younger tree has overtaken and overshadows the older one, continuing upward where the old one stopped.
     When my father was a little boy, his mother used to place him upon her knee and whisper to him while she kissed his cheeks and forehead that he was destined for some great thing. What it was, she had no idea; he alone would have to figure it out. She never even tried to guess. But her words of impending greatness left a lasting impression on him. My father has carried them singing in his ear for nearly ninety years.
     Mothers say similar things all the time to their little boys. Growing up when and where my father did, however, and after all they and the family and black people in general had been through, he must have thought my grandmother some kind of strange visionary or crazy -- to predict great things for him. Even though he looked white, he was still only a little black child. As far as he knew, little black children didn�t grow up to do great things. But he took her words to heart and he heard them as a kind of blessing. They would be for him the permission he needed to search the world until he found his destiny, his one great thing.
     What she said must have likewise been a burden to him, becoming in time something heavy for him to bear, something always to be conscious of, to live up to and strive for, something to pass on. Like a family heirloom. Like shoes to fill. Or like a name. My father always told me that names were like magic. Untold secrets loomed like legacies inside each one.
     When my father was in third grade there were three boys named Samuel Harris with him in the same class. They were all cousins, all about the same age, and all named for my father�s grandfather who was held in such high regard by his children that each one named his first son Samuel. But none of the boys had been given a second name, or none of them knew what it was, and eventually the teacher or the school would need a way to distinguish among the children. So the three boys were sent home one day after school to find what their middle names were. They were to report back the next day.
     On his way home from school that afternoon my father passed through a gangway that ran between two brick houses. What he encountered there put a permanent mark on him and therefore the same mark on me. That's how it is with fathers and their sons: what marks the one, marks the other; what weighs on the one, good and bad, in time the other must also bear.

Last Chapter

     My father disappeared one morning while I was on stage at the festival. I had invited him to come sit in the audience, to watch me do my thing so he could see the little fuss people might make over me. But he declined. He said he was tired and that he'd wait for me to get back. Then we could go get lunch. When I returned, the housekeeper was in the room making the beds, but my father was gone.
     "Excuse me," I said. "Was there an old man in this room when you got here?"
     "Yes, there was," she said. "Red sweater, red hat? He left when I came in to do the room."
     "How long ago was that?"
     "I've been here about ten minutes," she said.
     "Did he say where he was going?"
     "He only said that he was hungry," she told me.
     Ninety years old and moving slow; I figured I could catch him. I hurried back to the elevator and down to the lobby. He wasn't there. I asked the doorman.
     "Excuse me," I said. "Did you see that old man I was with?"
     "You mean your father?" he said, then answered the question I never asked. "He told me who you were."
     I couldn't tell if my father had said only that I was his son, or if he had told him more. It didn't matter. A huge smile broke across my face, just the same.
     "Yeah," I said. "My father."
     "He said he was hungry, so I sent him around to Minna's Palace. It's just around the corner."
     I thanked him and went off to find Pop.
     Minna's Palace was packed. Every table was taken and people were standing at the entrance waiting to get in. I could barely squeeze past to see that the old man was not there.
     Now what?
     True, he was an old man and moving slow. And I could catch him easily if I knew which way he had gone. But which way was that? And what if something had happened to him? When you're dealing with a ninety-odd year old man, the imagination runs wild. You never know if the last time you saw him is going to be the last time you will ever see him.
     I hustled over to Canal Street. He had a ten minute head start, but even if I had to double back, criss-cross twice and cover every street in the area, I would find him.
     The street was crowded. Tourists were everywhere. I searched up the street and down. I was tall enough to see over the swell of people, especially in the distance, but in truth it was the red hat and sweater that gave him away. It had taken a few minutes, but I spotted him far off several streets away. He was tottering up the road as casually as you please, heading toward the river, as if he knew where he was going. I walked up to him and for a while followed him like a parent lurking behind a child about to cross a big street for the first time alone. I just wanted to watch a little while.
     He took his steps gingerly. Each time he stepped down from the curb to cross the street, he reached out carefully with his foot, like a cat with whiskers feeling the distance to solid ground. Then he leaned forward and took the leap of faith, landing every time with a little jolt. Then he hustled as quickly as he could on unsteady legs to the other side of the street.
     He looked up and down and all around as he walked, as if everything were new and interesting and exciting, taking it all in like a bumpkin on his first visit to the big city. But he never looked behind. He never knew I was following him.
     In the end I couldn't walk slowly enough to keep from overtaking him. Even then, I walked beside him a few minutes before he realized I was there.
     "Hey buddy," he said, not surprised at all. "Where'd you come from?"
     "Just looking for you, Pop. Where are you going?"
     "To get something to eat."
     "Why didn't you wait for me?"
     "Just wanted to get out," he said. "I wanted to see what was going on."
     As an afterthought he asked, "How you'd know where to find me?"
     "I asked your friend at the hotel. He said he sent you to Minna's Palace."
     He thought for a second, as if he had already forgotten.
     "Oh yeah, right, right," he said.
     "What happened?" I asked. "Why didn't you go in?"
     "Oh, it was too crowded," he said. "And I just wanted a hamburger or something, anyway. Something quick."
     We walked along a few more blocks until he got winded and had to stop. There were benches along Canal Street and I told him to sit down. I'd go find him something to eat.
     "You wait here, old man. I'll be right back."
     He started to protest, but I was already gone.
     I looked back once before I turned the corner. He was facing the other way and couldn't see me.

     Before my mother died I whispered to her that I had been privileged to be her son, that it was an honor for me to be able to take care of her. I don't know if she heard me; she was in a coma. It wouldn't have mattered anyway; she already knew. But I wondered, as I looked after that old man, if he knew.
     During my first year at university I phoned home to tell them both that I loved them. I told my mother often and she told me. But I couldn't ever remember telling my father. So I called to tell them. I was eighteen or nineteen years old, but by then I was a hardened traveler. I had spent three summers on my own, had traveled Europe, Canada, Mexico and all over the USA. I wasn't homesick and I wasn't missing them. Perhaps for some reason I had fallen under the spell of a sudden appreciation of them.
     When my mother answered, I asked her to get Pop to pick up the extension so I could tell them both at once. And I did.
     �That�s all I called for,� I said. I just wanted you to know.
     When I hung up the phone, I lay on the bed and I cried for what must have been five minutes. I don�t know why.
     Nor do I have any idea what the response was on the other end of the line. We never talked about it.
     To my mother, I�m sure it was no big deal. She was always making the kind of fuss that mothers make, and over the years she had gotten used to my brother and me, after some incident or other, calling her to thank her for being our mother. But my father had never heard such things. He wasn�t the type to get caught up in such emotional aspects of life.
     It was no real surprise to me, then, he never went to see me at the festival, never went to any of the parties or functions, never saw his son glorified. When we got home he said the strangest thing to me.
     We were still sitting in the car, parked in the driveway in front of the house, rehashing the trip. I was glad to know he had enjoyed himself.
     "I should do that more often," he said.
     "Yes, you should," I replied. "We can keep going right now, go up to Connecticut and see Tommy."
     "Nope," he said. "For now that trip was enough."
     He reached for the handle and opened the car door.
     "You know, Pop, it's too bad you didn't come to some of those events to see me," I said. "It would have been nice."

He stopped just before he got out and without looking at me said:
     "Do you think I need other people telling me about you to know?"
     Then he got out of the car.
     "When I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me I was going to do something really great," he said. "My whole life I've been wondering what it would be. Now I know."
     I followed him inside and asked him if he wanted me to move back home and keep him company. The last time I asked, he answered with a swift, discourteous �Shit no! You've got better things to do�.
     I knew he was lying then. I knew he liked having me close by. But this time, I expected the same lie. This time, I swear there were tears in his eyes. This time I think he finally understood that this was not an expression of obligation or filial guilt. This time I think he grasped that if he wanted it, he could have it. I was boundless and free. And he had made it possible.
     Whatever you want, he said. You can do whatever you want.
     And he was absolutely right.

picture by Stephan Perry

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bulletJupiter et Moi, French Edition, Hardcover, Liana Levi, Sept. 2, 2005, ISBN 2867463882