Some stories cut so close you can only tell them in shards. Try getting at it directly and the thing—call it some kind of unspeakable personal tragedy—breaks apart on the page. You can’t talk about it, you’ve got to talk about it, you can’t talk about it.
John Edgar Wideman’s story “Welcome” confronts the throbbing sorrows of one family. A sister and a brother, both are grieving. The sister, Sis, has a lost daughter, Njeri, dead at three weeks old. Her brother, Tom (who has moved away), has lost his son, Will, to life in prison. But in this family separate griefs become one.
You could lose a child like that, once and for always in an instant and walk around forever with a lump in your throat, with the question of what might have been weighing you down every time you measure the happiness in someone else’s face. Or you could lose a child and have him at the same time and how did this other way of losing a child in prison for life change her brother.
One of the things I have always admired about Wideman’s work is the way people talk to each other, I mean really talk to each other. This is Sis talking to her mother about Tom.
After all that’s happened these past few years, it’s a wonder he’s not crazy. Wonder we’re not all stone crazy.
Sometimes I believe we’re being tested.
Well, I wish whoever’s conducting the damn test would get it the hell over with. Enough’s enough.
You sound like him now.
He’s my brother.
At its starkest “Welcome” is about coping with absence. It’s the holidays. Nothing is more painful in a family gathering than when someone who should be there, isn’t. It’s like there’s a hole in the room. You can dance around the hole all you want but that won’t make it go away. Get too close and you’ll fall in.
Christmastime, Pittsburgh. Sis walks the slushed winter streets. As she passes a convenient store where a line of people wait to buy lottery tickets, she sees her dead grandfather’s face, and then her brother’s, in the face of the legless old man panhandling on the sidewalk.
The story seamlessly weaves the present and the past, sometimes even within the same sentence. As Sis walks the winter sidewalk the faces and voices of her family—the living, the dead, the gone—flood her mind. The story moves forward with hardly a noticeable transition. Time will not be linear. It won’t be tamed. It bobs and flows like the unpredictable current of memory itself.
Her brother Tom arrives. The family is reunited for a brief time and all the love and all the absence crowds together.
He asks my whole life as I ask about his in singsong questions. If he stays long enough to catch him a second time when he’s alone, then’s when I’ll ask about my nephew, his son, who’s not dead and gone in an instant, but who’s lost to him, to us in ways none of us knows words for.
It’s then that story takes a turn, one that I have returned to again and again for the simple pleasure of re-reading and re-visiting the moment. You know how you can know someone so well that his or her voice literally becomes yours? It happens sometimes, doesn’t it, with siblings? (I can, if pressed, put on my brother’s voice, think like him, sound like him, be him.)
But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this happen before my eyes in fiction.
Sis’s voice merges into Tom’s voice as he talks to her about how hard it is to come home, how hard it is to face these familiar streets. And he tells her how last night, after his flight got in, he drove over to his old favorite place, the Woodside Barbeque, for some chicken wings. “…You know how I love them salty and greasy as they are I slap on extra sauce and pop a cold Iron City…” On the way, he sees a man and his little boy waiting for a bus in the cold. It’s a Sunday night in December and the bus isn’t coming for days. But the music of Wideman’s language can’t be paraphrased. You have to hear it for yourself. “Welcome” widens out to encompass—not just his own pain but also the suffering of a couple of strangers on a street corner. This is Tom talking via Sis:
…and I think Damn why are they out there in this arctic-ass weather, the kid shivering and crying in a skimpy K Mart snowsuit, the man not dressed for winter either, a hooded sweatshirt under his shiny baseball jacket and I see a woman somewhere, the mother, another kid really, already split from this young guy, a broken home, the guy’s returning the boy to his mother, or her mother or his and this is the only way, the best he can do and the wind howls the night gets blacker and blacker…
What follows in the story is a moment of rare such grace it aches. As I say, I’ve returned to it many times just to watch it happen again, and to listen. A brother’s voice speaks through a sister. Our losses are collective, this story seems to say. If we can’t overcome them ourselves, the very least we can do is recognize that we aren’t the only ones out here trying to endure.
Postscript: You could raise, and many have, Wideman’s own history in a discussion of his work. The fact that Wideman himself has endured considerable personal tragedy is often mentioned in feature stories, not to mention Wideman’s own non-fiction. But here I’m talking about fiction. I’m talking about making things up to get at something beyond biography. So when I say personal, I’m talking about personal to his characters, not personal to the writer. That Wideman can make us feel what it’s like to lose a child to death or to life in prison—a loss that could be described as more profoundly confusing and terrible than death itself (gone but not gone)—by comparing such losses to the ordinary day to day pain of a father and son at a bus stop is the unique magnificence of this story.
“Welcome” appears in All Stories Are True (Vintage Contemporaries, 1993).
Illustration by Elizabeth and Richard Parks.