June Story of the Month: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

There are potato chips all over the rug, and I think about how brave Dad is not to care about the mess he’s making.

Crazy. I’m afraid to make Mom mad like that. She’d come and get at me behind my knees with a switch.

Dad’s not afraid. He’s taking his time on the Soul Express, that radio show he likes where the deejays yell and laugh and blow whistles all the time.

“It’s tiiiiiime for the Mighty Ten Ninety, Dee Dee!” And he just goes with it, dancing around the living room, stepping on anything in his way: that bag of chips, paper plates, comic books, the newspaper, his jacket. My sister’s cut-outs, too. She worked really hard to make those clothes for her paper dolls, but I see her smiling while Dad does his thing.

It’s like he’s in a dream.

Mom is at work. I watched her leave wearing the pink and gray uniform with her “stand all day” shoes. I don’t think she heard me yell goodbye to her from my bed because she didn’t say anything back.

Dad works at night as a janitor. He cleans the junior high school, and his picture is even in the school yearbook. He is the best-looking one of all those men who make that school shine. No one is better looking than my Dad. I checked all the pages of that yearbook. Nope. Not even the principal.

First weekend of Christmas vacation! Having Dad home and awake is my favorite thing. He plays cards with us and cooks really good breakfasts. And because it is Saturday, he won’t get drunk until later. He is wearing that brown V-neck pulled over his light-green turtleneck sweater. It’s my favorite thing for him to wear.

“Look out! Misto is comin’ and goin’!” He dances across the rug, his right arm out to the side, and his left hand across his belly, acting like he’s holding a fine woman real close.

Here he comes my way. I’m up against the side of the hi-fi with a cup of Kool-Aid, legs crossed, with my cat book open on my lap.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell start singing, and Dad says, “It’s my man! Turn it up!” He moves quickly to the hi-fi and fills the room with the song.

I begin to sing along. “Ain’t nu-thin’ like the real-thing-bay-beh.” Eyes closed, fingers snapping, rocking side to side.

“Stand up, girl!” I look up and he’s grinning. I love his mustache. It’s like those fuzzy black caterpillars that turn into pretty moths.

I jump up and take his hands. I place my feet upon his. He holds me up and stomps around as we sing the duet.

Dad makes silly faces when it’s my turn to sing, and I try not to laugh so I can do a good job.

“I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame.”

Dad looks right at me while he sings, and I just know he means it, every single word.

“I got some memories to look back on

And though they help me when you’re gone

I’m well aware nothing can take the place of being there.”

The song ends, and I step off his feet. “You are good, girl,” he says. I tell him his voice is better than Marvin Gaye’s, and he laughs. He goes off to the kitchen, his body moving to the radio’s beat. I go back to my spot and think about being a on TV.

When he returns, Dad has a can of beer in his hand. “Dee Dee, get something and clean up the rug before your mama gets home.” He turns, opens the door to the backyard, and I don’t see him again until dinnertime.

We’re having beans and cornbread again, but I don’t mind. Mom spices the beans just right and puts enough sugar in the bread to make it taste special.

Dad tells my brother to say the usual family blessing:

“Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Amen. Jesus wept.”

The TV set is close enough for us to see and hear the six o’clock news. My brothers are talking about this morning’s cartoons and what will happen on Sea Hunt tonight. Dad says he’s going to see a movie with our neighbor. His eyes are shiny, and I wonder if he hurt himself again. Mom looks mad.

One by one, we ask Dad to excuse us from the table after we’ve eaten everything on our plates. That is the rule in our home. Don’t even think about getting up from the table before Dad says you can.

I get my permission and join the others on the living room floor in front of the TV. My sister turns up the TV so we can hear the show and not the yelling going on in the kitchen. Dad comes through the living room, whistling and doing his dance steps. He grabs his jacket from the floor and almost trips over my brother on his way to the front door. He winks at me as he’s closing it.

Right then, I make up my mind to be a singer when I grow up. I tell Mom, and she says that Dad isn’t coming back.

That’s okay. I’ll tell him in the morning.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” © 1967 Jobete, BMI

STORY NOTE: One of the treasured memories I have of my Dad is this incident — singing a duet while I stood on his feet. Writing this story as creative nonfiction was a way for me to relive the memory, and also to roll a bit of my family life into one day. Ten-year-old “Dee Dee” — his nickname for me — adored her Dad despite the things he did or did not do. Whenever I hear “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” I think of my dance with him, how he moved away a few years later, and what a father’s presence and absence can bring out in his child. Three days before he died at age 73, I had a chance to tell Dad to his face, as he lay dying in his bed, that I loved him, I forgave him, God forgave him, and I would see him in heaven.

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