Brothers and Keepers

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers
(New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)
First published: 1984

He waited till Mom went grocery shopping, then dialed Penn Hills. Everything was beautiful. He was rapping hard and heavy; the lady was coming on strong. In just a few minutes she’d squeeze through the telephone wire. He’d have that fine thing curled lovey-dovey on his lap. The conversation got so good to him he missed the clatter of Mom returning through the front door.
What do you think you’re doing? Hang up and get down off those steps. You know you’re not supposed to touch the phone. […]
Just a minute, Mom. I’m almost through now. She’d have to knock down the barrier of his outstretched leg and fight through his body before she got to the phone. […]
He hunched over, cradling, protecting his love. It was difficult to keep his voice soft, insinuating, cool, and still drown out his mother’s screeching. He cupped the receiver with his palm.

Wideman’s memoir examines the varied factors which led the American author and his brother to such different fates—one as an acclaimed writer, the other serving a life sentence in prison. The above episode draws light comedy from the posturing a young man must engage in to negotiate powers within his family, in order to secure his social prowess outside the home. The episode functions as something of a turning-point in the narrative, where Robby’s chastisement by his mother and father leads him to have ‘wished I never been born’. It signals a point which in many people’s youth may have been relatively insignificant, but which in a situation of growing up poor and black in America, with few career options presented as attractive or realistic in comparison with the temptations of petty crime, is decisive. The telephone serves not only as a lifeline here but as some confirmation of an area where Robby feels his power as a man—in his seduction of young women. Ironically enough, in this and other of Wideman’s works, the telephone continues to serve as a symbol of privilege, access, and functional relationships, particularly when it provides the only link between people living inside and outside of prison walls.

by Leila Kamali