She called me up and said the boy pushed his sister. You don’t hit girls. Certainly not my little girl. So I get in my station wagon and drive from Edgewood to Garfield to spank my son.

Because I do the spankings. Pam has no stomach for it, and we agree that discipline is a father’s job. When it comes to teaching a lesson, you need a man’s physicality to make it stick, and Teddy stands near eye-to-eye with his mother these days.

Filthy rain pours almost horizontally under spiteful winds. I ascend deep-treed hills through Highland Park and then Garfield, former enclaves for mill hunkies with the stink of Ellis Island still on them; I remember the foreign bastards had no tolerance for darker complexions. Now black folks live in the postwar bungalows, the sleepy town houses. In the oaks I can see dilapidated Victorians rise like leviathans from weeds grown tall like elephant grass, their boarded windows like so many blinded eyes.

Parking in front of Pam’s town house, I see in the rearview three punks noticing me from the dead end of the street. Clowns in ski caps like dunce caps, they have the nerve to stare me down like those guineas and Polacks used to.

I think of real outlaws. As a boy I’d see them drive Lincolns past my cottage to the hooch—card sharks, number runners, knife hands—and knew it was they who inspired the murder ballads bluesmen sore-throat-croaked out the brass flower of Daddy’s 1907 RCA phonograph. They wore Stetson hats and high-ankle boots to hide their razors. Real deadly cats.

As a grown man who should probably know better, I style myself like them in dress shirts, slacks, suit coat, flat cap, and polished wingtips. Say what you will about their profession, they were men. Not little shits thrown in the street by moms too lazy to raise them, pants round their asses like prison bitches.

On the doorstep I shiver at the weirdness of coming over Pam’s on a weekday. I ring the security buzzer and my daughter answers. “Daggy?”

I smile into the machine. “Hello, mouse!”

It takes composure not to push down my wire-rim glasses and stare hot fuck-you at these teen shits eyeballing me. I am tall, heavyset, and light enough people tend to give me a second glance in hope I am what they are. I get Italian, mulatto, Filipino, Mexican. Even Thai one time. And as much as I want to call out these boys, it stands to reason the cowards might shoot me. So, trying my best to not look like a target, I mutter for Kimmy to hurry up.

It made the national news: wrestler plummets seventy feet in a stunt gone wrong and dies in the ring. Shocking, because I knew wrestling was theater. The sudden injection of realness shook me up, though I’d never call myself a fan.

Maybe it got to me because the kids loved wrestling. Theodore Jr. and Kimberly, eleven and nine. The year before Owen Hart died, I took them to the Civic Arena for a pay-per-view because that was the only activity they could agree on, and I’d never seen either so happy.

I’ll always remember that view from the nosebleeds when the Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the steel cage. Till that point the show had been pure vaudeville: some buffoonery, some impressive athleticism, even some big-titted women, then out of nowhere I had my heart in my throat, scared for a man’s life. Meanwhile, the Undertaker stood on top the cage like a black-garbed demon gloating over his infernal handiwork.

As they wheeled out Mankind on a stretcher, the chants started. “No-more-Man-kind!” “We-want-re-fund!” Disgraceful. What if he was really hurt? Or worse?

Mankind didn’t die. In fact, he ran back and kept fighting. One of the damnedest things I ever seen in my life. My heart kept racing the rest of the night till I found myself in the parking lot with a kid on either side, both crestfallen because Stone Cold lost the WWF Championship to Kane in the main event. The black foam middle fingers on their hands were pointed sorrowfully at the pavement.

Hearing the news of his death, I struggled to recall whether Owen had wrestled on that show.

“Can we give money to his charity?” Teddy asked me on the phone, Monday night after the accident.

“Charity?” I asked.

“Owen’s favorite charity. It’s in Canada.”

He was watching Raw Is Owen, a night of remembrances and matches in his honor. Owen had a wife and two children, and that seemed to hit Teddy the worst, knowing the wrestler had a family. The boy said he’d worn an Owen bracelet to school that day.

“I don’t know about charity,” I told him. “But ask your mother if you can help around the house. Charity starts at home.”

Monday through Friday I’m the associate at Jacob Maiselman, DDS & Associates in Monroeville. Mine is the face most patients see. Dr. Maiselman comes in three days a week: an old elf with a grievous air, he mostly stays in his lemon-smelling office, among plaques from innumerable local organizations and masculine brotherhoods he belongs to. He hired me nine years ago, after his son left to start a rival practice, and while some would call his employing a black dentist progressive, I doubt Dr. Maiselman had ever heard of affirmative action, let alone made it priority; it had been my military service that got me in the door. He calls it a national tragedy, how this country treated men like me when we came home. I see the patients he no longer bothers with as, nearing retirement, his clientele has narrowed to friends and their families, whose teeth are so familiar to him he can predict each new rugrat’s dental records while they’re nursing. A straightforward man. A boss. I work too much and my commission could be better, but starting my own practice had never seemed worth the trouble, and I’d long ago lost the right to be choosy.

On Tuesday, I found time after my morning patient to speak with the receptionist, Tilly. I’d grown curious about this person my boy was mourning, and she was the closest I had to an expert. A rotund woman from Nor’side with an eager smile and a taste for flower-print dresses, carroty hair moussed high in honor of her groupie days, she liked to reminisce about painting her face Italian flag colors to cheer Bruno Sammartino in Madison Square Garden. Billy Graham, Ric Flair, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes—she loved them all.

I told her the only one I knew was Dusty. After the war I went to Howard College of Dentistry, two hours from Richmond by Greyhound. Every Saturday, I came home to find my youngest brother on the shag rug watching Dusty cut promos. That white boy must have spent some time on the black side of town; close your eyes and you’d think a Shaft flick was on.

“My brothers love Dusty!” Tilly gushed. “They were always arguing with Dad because he was a WWF guy and they liked southern wrasslin’. Dad was like, ‘We’re Italian! We like Bruno!’”

I asked her, “You wouldn’t happen to have information about

Owen Hart?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, like an ace reporter.

The next day she came to work with a printed history of the Hart family she’d found on Yahoo. Born into Canadian wrestling royalty, the baby of a multitudinous brood, Owen trained under his father, Stu, in a school called “The Dungeon,” got his start in the family promotion Stampede Wrestling. After signing with the WWF he gained a reputation as a high-flying technical wrestler awarded many accolades in their fake sport. He often worked with his brother, Bret, which I imagine must have been fun for them. Eventually Bret left the company after getting screwed out the title (“One hundred percent shoot,” said Tilly seriously) but Owen stuck around. At the time of his death he was doing a superhero gimmick. He was thirty-four.

Just a tragedy. Over the day, I performed oral surgery, filled out insurance reports, stewed over the latest doughy white man to address me as “buddy” with my Doctor of Dental Medicine degree framed on the wall and my drill in his yellow mouth, unable to stop thinking of my siblings in Virginia. Counting all the halves and sibs, I have about a dozen like the Harts. It would kill me to lose any of them.

And I thought: What kind of carny company would let such an accident happen? Did they catch his death on camera? Should I let my son watch such things?

Wednesday night, Pam called. “He’s lost his mind, Theo. He’s mourning a white man.”

“Part of growing up,” I said to put her at ease. I grew thoughtful. “It’s his first taste of mortality. I don’t remember the first time I learned about death.”

She acted like I hadn’t spoken. “He wants to have a funeral for the wrestler.”

I tried not to say something smart at the fact she’d ignored me. Leave it to Teddy to find the creative side of things, the sensitive side. One time he threw a birthday party for a kid he’d never met—just a name on a calendar. Threw a Happy Birthday Gaia party for Earth Day. Dressed up as his original comic character for Halloween. I loved that about him.

“We need to put him in therapy,” said Pam.

Then on Thursday I got the call saying he pushed his sister down after she laughed at the memorial he made. And I wanted to tell Pam I’d seen them fist-pumping in unanimous exultation at the wrestling show just a year before. Now look at them fighting. All the Dr. Spock in the world and this woman wouldn’t know parenting if it chomped on her narrow ass.

But you don’t hit my little girl.

I hear three locks turn and Kimmy opens the door, embraces my waist. “Daggy!”

My baby girl is beautiful and charming, chubby, gingerbread brown, dressed in pink pajamas, large front teeth, her hair in that inexplicably popular style called afro puffs. I follow her up a short stairwell. In the living room, orisha idols stare me down from pupilless eyes. Lions snarl from quilted tapestries and other African art pieces. It all feels disturbingly like voodoo. Pam likes African men, too. All kinds of Kunta Kintes coming around my kids.

She’d wanted to give them crazy names, too, Ujima and Nia. My foot came down on that one, before every job app they ever filled got thrown in the trash because that woman was having an identity crisis. My kids have perfectly fine Anglo names and if, when they grow up, they want to ditch their slave names for a Kunta or an X then so be it.


From the story collection Weird Black Girls by Elwin Cotman. Used with permission of the publisher, Scribner. Copyright © 2024 by Elwin Cotman. 

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