What Papa Want

by Michael C. Keith


There is something about poverty that smells like death.
Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in the dry
season and rotting around the feet.

                                                             – Zora Neale Hurston


Papa git most da beans at suppatime.

“He be a hard workin’ man,” Mama say. “So he need da most food.”

Dat sho be true, I knows.

“He don’t eat, he don’t work, and if he don’t work, den we don’t eat,” she say.

Papa don’t talk much at da table. He juz gulp his vittles whiles I watches him.

I be hungry as he be, but he bigga and got mo space to fill in his gut.

‘Sides, “He be in dem cold mines twelve hour a day,” Mama say.

She worry that he die down dare in da holes.

If he do, Mama say, “We gots ta go up to Detroit ta live wit Aunt Brandy.”

Really don’t want no bad come on ta Papa, but if it do, I be happy ta move from dis ol’ place.

We don’t got no school here, ‘cause dey only got one fir white folks.

Where Aunt Brandy live, they got a colored school. I ain’t never been to no school ‘fore, and I be 9-year-old next month.

If I gits me learnin,’ I wants ta be a teacha and have nice clothes and lives in a pretty house dat got water insides.

Make me sad sometime wishin’ Papa not come up from dem cold mines soze I can go ta school. But he sho don’t seem too happy ‘bout livin’ anyways.

When he come home sometimes, he say, “I beez better off dead than alive the way I be.”

He say dat too when his ritus be all actin’ up bad. He rub his hands and make awful hurt sounds.

I don’t say no prayers dat he die . . . no sah, I don’t. But weez might be better off if he do. Den we git what we bote be wantin.’

Maybe ain’t bad if I just pray dat Papa gits what he want.

Dear Lord, I gots a ‘special prayer fo’ ya dis time. My Papa be hurtin,’ and he say he be better off dead. Sure wishin’ you can help him wid dat. Amen.”


Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com

Category: Fiction, Short Story