John Coltrane is my father. The jazz saxophonist, yes, who many say was the greatest musician of the twentieth century. I’ve known this all my life. Or that’s not true, not all my life, really only since I first heard his music, which was in college. Before that, I’d always wondered who my father was. My first boyfriend, Brian, used to sneak recording equipment into the library in his messenger bag and bootleg jazz albums onto cassettes. He would play them for me later, and that’s where I heard them all: Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Lester Young and Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins and Max Roach. (Why do jazz musicians have such interstellar names? Who else that you know has had the last name Mingus? The first name Thelonious? The middle name Sphere? Uncle Ornette, Uncle Thelonious, that nice Mr. Strayhorn who drives the school bus.) And my father. My mother was the last woman he made love to before he died in the summer of 1967. He was her first, her only for years to come. Let me tell you about him. He was born in a crook of the southern end of North Carolina, in a town called Hamlet. He was raised Methodist. He loved to roller skate as a boy. He joined the Navy at the age of nineteen and became a sailor. He had three other children, all boys: John, Ravi, and Oran.
You know nothing about me, and yet I can feel your skepticism. Is it because I’m from the southern Caribbean, where he never traveled? Is it because he died in 1967 and I wasn’t born until 1968? I did the arithmetic; it’s entirely plausible. In fact, it’s the most plausible possible thing, that making me was his last creative act. It’s because he didn’t live until 1977 or 1987 that I know it’s the truth.
This other man, Kenneth, the one who married my mother when I was two, I don’t know much about him. I didn’t actually share a roof with him until I was seven, when he and my mother took me from my grandmother’s house to live with them. I know that he believed in corporal punishment, was a good cook and a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, that he liked Johnnie Walker Black and tennis matches on TV. I know he smoked pipes of cherry tobacco, preferred his meals spicy, found Foghorn Leghorn hilarious, had children by other women behind my mother’s back. He and I both have brown eyes, but then so did John Coltrane, and so does pretty much everyone in Trinidad. My chin is shaped like Kenneth’s, with a little cleft, but that proves nothing.
I’ll tell you two stories about Kenneth, and then you tell me. The first is a bicycle story. I received one for my eighth birthday—bright turquoise, with a white basket and daisy decals along the metal frame. Kenneth said he would of course teach me to ride, as fathers do, but only after I learned the necessary preliminary step of balancing on the bike while stationary. That seemed logical enough to me. So every day after school for weeks I would perch on it in the living room, wobbling and toppling over and righting myself and wobbling again, while Kenneth sat nearby in a striped recliner, his back to me, smoking his pipe and watching Eric Sevareid on the CBS Evening News. Finally my mother, who to this day cannot ride herself, uttered an exasperated, “Oh good LORD,” took me and my bike outside and trotted alongside me with her hand on the seat until I could manage it myself. It’s a funny story when I look back on it. It was funny even then, the thumping sounds coming from the living room as I keeled over, over and over again, with the faint strains of Walter Cronkite and perhaps the sound of the turning pages of Kenneth’s newspaper as accompaniment. It’s funny when I tell it to friends at parties. It’s funny when I tell it now.
Before he died my father said, “I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain.” I saw Sonny Rollins, his old rival, play once, at an outdoor concert in Connecticut. I was with the man I loved then, who broke my heart fifty-two times, once for every fortnight of the two years we tried to be together. The audience sat on white plastic folding chairs in the grass under a white open-sided tent. The weather had been fair as we drove to Litchfield, but as we sat waiting clouds began to posset and curd over the smooth blue sky. As he started to play they slung lower and more intent, and as he hit his first solo they let loose gorgeous and merciless roils of water, making rivers of the grassy aisles as we watched, astonished, blinking like tortoises, feet drawn up on the rungs of our chairs. He played on. A warlock. My father could do this too, I know he figured out how. Though more gently. He took “My Favorite Things,” a song by Rodgers and Hammerstein from a play about an Austrian nun, and turned it into a lullaby for me—and I didn’t even exist yet, was years away from existing—a lullaby that sounds like rain washing the surface of the ocean clean, with Uncle McCoy and Uncle Steve and Uncle Elvin rocking and teetering the waves. He said it was his favorite. He would have played it over my crib every night, had he lived.
What? Right, the other story. This story is of a picnic. It’s actually quite short: my mother would harangue Kenneth to spend more family time with us, so one day he said Fine. He had to run an errand but would meet us at the park. She packed a lunch and took us in her little tan Pacer to the playground where my brother and sisters could bounce on small metal horses, the kind that have big metal springs under them instead of legs. I looked for box turtles in the tall grass, which I had read about in a library book once and was always fruitlessly hoping to find and befriend. When we got hungry we ate cold baked chicken and lemon cake from a mix that I loved because it came with its own little foil-and-paper pan, and a foil packet of yellow icing. We cleaned up, and my mother wiped their faces and hands with a damp washrag from a baggie in her purse while I took the trash to the bin. The tangerine-colored summer afternoon flowed on, and the cicadas finished up their set. Finally we heard a horn. Kenneth drove slowly by on the road that skirted the park in his big burgundy Thunderbird, smiling and waving. Like the Queen, my mother said. He never stopped the car, and we watched him round a corner near the baseball diamond and glide out of sight. That was his picnic with us. I was kind of relieved. He was good at neither bouncy horses nor box turtles nor sitting on plaid blankets on the grass. He was no good at fireflies. He would have just made us nervous.
It’s difficult to listen to my father’s music in the summertime. It has winter in its bones, even the lighthearted ballads. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way. When people write about his work, they put on all their most erudite plumage. Sometimes it’s hard to know just what they’re feeling below all the talk of minor modes and pentatonic scales, at the level of the goosefleshed skin. To me, sitting on the floor cross-legged, looking at his picture on an album cover, it sounds wintry, not because the music is cold, but the opposite, because it’s generating heat as mightily as it can against the dark and the seeping frost. It flares and roars to keep December’s predators at bay. And then it hushes, opens its arms and welcomes in the first bitter drops of the coming storm. Either way I am safe behind him, peeping over his shoulder at the weather, as his heat meets the cold of the hard world and they clash and mix and resolve into pounding hail, into drumbeats on the roof, into dew.
One more story, for the unconvinced. One day when I was fourteen Kenneth declared that I would jheri-curl my hair. In case you’re not familiar with it, this is and was a harsh, unappealing, and profoundly wet chemical perming process. It was what Michael Jackson was doing with his hair at the time, and I suppose Kenneth thought—you know, I have no idea what he thought. He just said that I would do it, or rather that it would be done to me. I then said, in the small voice that good Trinidadian girls use when addressing formidable adults, that I didn’t want to.
His reply was, I didn’t ask you what you want. I didn’t ask you what you want. He said that, and I heard a splintering and a sundering coming up through the floor. No other sentence could have cloven my world as neatly as that one did, as if he had used a diamond saw rather than a splitting maul. I know, because I have diagrammed it. Not I don’t care what you want, the cry of exasperated parents everywhere. Not even No one cares what you want. I didn’t ask you what you want is what a bearded Old Testament God says over His shoulder as He walks away from you. As if it were beyond the realms of conception that He might ask. As if your burning city, your rejected sacrifice, your wife turned to salt were leaves on a sidewalk on a street he’s never found time to go down. That is not a sentence a father says. My real father would never have said that. His works are called by names like “Om,” like “A Love Supreme,” like “Ascension.” He wrote poems to a better god than that, and he played them on the tenor, on the soprano, wordless, syllable by syllable. He tried to put the world back together. There is a church in San Francisco where he is a saint, my father, a real live saint. Gilded on the wall with a halo and everything, and holy flames crouched in the throat of his horn. Look it up.
It could have been true. My mother tells me little about her life. If I ask how much childbirth hurts, she says, “Eh! You push, the baby comes out, what’s the big deal?” If I ask whether she would like to ever get married again, she says, “What, do I look too happy now?” I asked her once if there was any chance, any chance at all that Kenneth wasn’t my father, and she sighed and said Nope. But then, so she would. She eludes; that is her way. So maybe she got her first passport at twenty, for her honeymoon trip to Barbados with Kenneth in 1970. But maybe it was 1967. She would keep that to herself, like all important things. I can see it: she would get off the British West Indies Airways 727 at JFK International Airport, on an April day when the rainy season was just getting into swing at home, on the way to visit relatives who had relocated to Brooklyn. Out from under my grandmother’s iron house rules, she would wear frosted lipstick and a short green dress—green is her favorite color. She was such a pretty girl. I know this from the honeymoon photos: doe eyes, buttery skin, a demure but deeply amused smile. She would have caught his eye, sitting at a corner table at a club on 125th Street that she was dragged to by a beatnik cousin, sipping something sweet and nonalcoholic through a straw, cold in her short green dress because it was cold that day, April 23rd. He would have played “Angelica” or “Psalm” or “Crescent,” or maybe a standard like “You Say You Care,” in her direction. There would have been a lot of smoke in the air, and still in the seams of their clothes in the morning.
Back home, where she had started teaching primary school, she would wear her girdles tighter and tighter so as not to scandalize the school board with my imminence. By then my father was dead. When Kenneth married her two years later, he would take me on as ballast. Why not. I’m not much trouble. A skinny girl walking around in your house, doing homework, making needlepoint squares, watching the Four O’clock Movie, staying out of the path of your cigarette smoke. How should he have known my fears of tall balconies and flying cockroaches and the deep end of the pool in swim class, my love of the shiny plastic covers on new library books, of roasted field corn bought from a street vendor, the way the hard sweet kernels stick to the molars?
My father would have known. He would never have let Kenneth, or any other man, break my heart fifty-two times. Kenneth, I think. He taught me how to tie a tie when I started Catholic school. I wonder if he thinks about any of it now, the bicycle, the lemon icing. I call him on his birthday and he sounds so happy to hear it’s me. I tell him inconsequential things that I don’t mind him knowing. Kenneth Sebastian Martin, I think. That’s a pretty name, a rhythmic name. No one ever learns anything until it’s too late. I wonder what it would be like to be your child.
Of course, it isn’t true. This isn’t being written by a wishful naif. John Coltrane was sick by the spring of 1967, because of liver cancer, because of hepatitis maybe, because of the aftermath of heroin. He was married, to Alice, and he was no tomcat, sleeping with seventeen-year-olds behind his wife’s back. He is an actual motherfucking SAINT. It would be good to be the daughter of a saint, but he had no daughters. My mother doesn’t listen to jazz: she likes doo-wop and Sam Cooke and sentimental classical music. It’s a little joke with myself that I’ve made for years, listening to “Naima” or “Greensleeves” or “I’ll Wait and Pray.” This gentle man, this man who lost his own father at twelve and played his instrument from then on as if trying to call him back from the dead, this man with his mournful face and elegant sloping walk, could have been the reason you’re here. Like a small child sitting on a curb with her worldly possessions, fig newtons and peeled crayons and defunct but still shiny subway tokens, bundled in a red and white spotted handkerchief, like a small child who only exists in children’s books, I wait for him to come claim me. Every impatient traffic sound in the distance could be him in one of his more avant garde moods. The sun glinting off the side mirror of an old Impala parked down the street could be his shining raiment. That’s what saints wear: raiment. That’s how I’ll know him when I see him.