He sat on an upturned milk crate, to the side of the subway entrance, smoking his last cigarette. As he glanced down, the ash tumbled to the ground and he was shocked to see how old his hands had become. Seeing the lines, the cracks, the wrinkles, he thought of his grandfather, and as it so often did on those cold days of sitting, he found his mind wandering back to home.
Robinson had been a young boy of around 9 the day he asked his grandfather why he had the hands of a dead person. His grandfather, a tall and imposing man, had cracked and calloused hands that showed a lifetime of hard work. These hands had always disturbed Robinson, but he never told anyone of this fear. But on that day when Robison had fallen from the mango tree, the shock of the fall had caused the question to come blurting out. With a burst of laughter that Robinson felt through his sore bones, his grandfather shook his head and assured him that his hands were very much alive. As Robinson slipped back into unconsciousness, images of his grandfather’s hands running around the room like tarantulas filled his head.
Spending his hours sat on the milk crate, Robinson often found himself thinking of home. He had left as a young, ambitious man of 22, with all he owned packed into one suitcase. When he sat on those winter days, wrapped in all the clothes he owned, he allowed his memories of dancing in the sunshine and fishing in the lake to keep him warm. But he never let them distract him; it was important that he was always looking.
He had become a familiar sight to the buzz of the streets. Men and women, their eyes cast down to their phones, would rush past him on their way to something. Some would say hello, some would give him money, but most would just step around and continue on their way. Over the months he had been sitting there, he’d seen people arguing and he’d seen people laughing; he’d seen the holding of hands and passionate goodbyes of starting relationships and he’d seen the deadened expressions and awkward stances of ending relationships. But never had he seen what he was looking for.
When the nights would draw in and the rush of the evening commute would start to lessen, he’d pick himself up, slowly stretch his legs, and walk down to the platform below. It was a long journey back to the Bronx, but he would always stand and allow the warmth of the train to seep into his body. After getting out of the subway at the other end, he’d make a short detour to the local church every day. There, he would take the money out of his pocket that had been handed to him throughout the day, and slide it under the door. Then finally, he was ready to walk the additional blocks to his apartment.
It was a small, empty space with a single mattress, a wooden chair and a kitchen with a broken light. But it contained his most prized possession – a framed photograph of his son – the person he was looking for.
The photo was of Joseph during his middle school graduation ceremony. He wore the cap and gown with this big, wide grin, and Robinson remembered the pride he felt that day. He had gone straight from his night shift at the warehouse to the ceremony, but never had he felt so energized. After the ceremony, they got Joseph to reluctantly line up to have his photo taken. He waited with his head low and his familiar adolescent scowl. When it came to his turn, Joseph stood in front of the camera, and Robinson tipped his hat and ceremoniously bowed, “Ladies and gentlemen, my son, my man”. Despite Joseph’s reluctance to find any enjoyment in the day, that comment and action caught him off guard and he inadvertently allowed a big, wide grin to escape his usually closed face. The photographer captured it perfectly.
That happy memory of teenage Joseph had joined only a handful of others, and only amplified Robinson’s feelings of failure as a father. Working night shifts, and sometimes day shifts back to back too, he had not been at home much. He’d get home after Joseph had gone to school and would be at work before he returned. His wife, Agnes, would complain that Joseph had these awful mood swings, wasn’t coming home after school and was hanging out on the streets until late at night. But Robinson, holding her in his arms, would say words like ‘teenager’ ‘normal’ and ‘phase’. With the worry of Agnes’s developing cancer and the ever-growing pile of medical bills, Robinson simply did not have the ability to be concerned about anything else.
Only two years after that happy photo was taken, Robinson looked upon his son for the first time and was scared. It was at Agnes’s funeral, and Joseph stood at the back of the church. Even from the front where Robinson was standing, he could see each and every muscle in Joseph’s body, tensed tight with fury.
On particularly cold days by the subway entrance, when Robinson’s shoulders would knot up, he would think back to that image of his son. He would re-imagine that scene and instead of turning his back to Joseph, as he had done to stare at Agnes’s coffin, Robinson would picture himself striding to the back of the church and holding his arms out to Joseph. Robinson spent too many hours wondering if that simple action might have changed things; if that would have allowed him to find solace in Joseph, and for Joseph to find solace in him. But the truth that gnawed away at Robinson was that he had found the grief of losing his wife so encompassing, he could not focus on being a father, and so he turned his back.
It took Robinson many years, and many bottles, to realize that always turning his mind to sorrow was destroying him. He could not stop his constant introspection, but to avoid the grief, he would try and think back to his home, his childhood, his Zambia. He had so desperately wanted to take Joseph back to his roots, to smell the warm scent of home, but had never been able to make it happen. Instead, as Robinson passed the hours on the milk crate, he would list all the memories and stories he wanted to share with Joseph about home. Like that time when Martha, his youngest sister, had fallen into a puddle on their way to church. Robinson did not have enough time to take her home and get changed, but Martha was too embarrassed to walk into church covered in dirt and water. He still remembered Martha’s mouth, two front teeth missing, falling open as he knelt down and covered his shirt in mud too. They had then walked into church, holding hands, both soaking wet and filthy. Robinson wanted Joseph to know about that.
It was Robinson’s reverie that ultimately led him to decide to stop drinking and find his son. He had again, been walking near his apartment, thinking about home, when he saw a man, with wide, heavy shoulders and a slow familiar gait and for a second he thought he saw his grandfather. Robinson was transported back to being a child, back in the hammering sun, and back to being scared of those incredible hands. But as a sharp burst of wind snapped him back to the gray New York day, he realized with a shudder that he himself could be a grandfather, yet he had no idea.
So the following day, having poured all his alcohol down the sink, Robinson took the subway to the streets where he had last known Joseph to be. He hadn’t expected to find him on the first day, or the first week, nor had he expected the withdrawal symptoms from the drink to be so strong. But after many months of aimlessly walking, looking and searching, he did not give up hope. The walking became too much for him, so instead he found the busiest corner of the neighborhood, and sat. He let the people walk by him instead; he let the faces melt into one face that wasn’t Joseph’s. And it was there that he stayed, watching, waiting, looking.