Collect by Starr Davis

My mom would not accept collect calls from prison. She would not accept collections of any kind. To her, collect calls was like the clutter of junk mail on the kitchen table. It was time consuming to read bills you knew you could not pay or speak to someone you knew you could not help. And she would not take us for visits, either. The only thing she would allow were letters. I learned early that words are expensive. Especially words from someone who has no contact with the outside world. So, I wrote. I wrote until it stopped feeling beautiful and started feeling pious. I wrote until I got bored and angry with time—until I could not write to a man I could not see—until it started to feel like church on a weekday. Years later, I would ask Mama why she never allowed his calls and why she never took us to see him. “I didn’t want you girls falling for a man’s promises. Even if that man is your daddy.” 

I wrote my first poem to my father in prison when I was 7 years old. The green crayon smeared and gathered inside the folds, so he never could make out any of the wording. “But it was still beautiful,” he said, the last time I was with him in 2016. I was 25 years old then. My dad was 50 years old and more sociable since he was released 8 years prior. 

“What did I say?” I asked him. His laugh vibrated through the room.

“Something,” he said, staring out the window, “Something important.” 

I nodded, not quite satisfied with his vague response. Then a string of smoke came out his nose as he exhaled from his cigar. “I had it hung up,” he breathed. “It got me through some of my worst days.” He lowered his voice, “Days when I wanted to end my life.” 

My dad was sent away when I was 5 years old. I remember the feel of his sanded hands, rubbing Vaseline on my face. I remember the two pairs of socks he rolled over my feet so the new air Jordan’s, he bought us, would not crease. I remember his dark brown eyes, low and pink. I remember the sprinkle of gold chained around his neck. His bald head. But I do not remember his smell. Or his embrace. My body only remembers the memory of locked fingers around crayons, the foul taste of sealing envelopes with the tip of my tongue, and the rusted creak of the mailbox lid slamming shut.

What do you say to a man you cannot see? It is all prayer. When are you getting out? What are you going to do when you get home? Can you tell me how I was when I was a baby? What did you do? How much longer till you come home? Mama says I have your laugh, what’s your laugh sound like again? I collect pennies, books, and old mail that Mama calls junk. Do you collect anything? My dad humored me in his letters. He told me about himself. His hobbies of working out, drawing, and cooking. He told me how he loved to read books cover to cover. Yeah, I collect things, he wrote me back. I collect pictures, so please send more next time. I love you, and I will see you soon.

In a shoebox are all the photos my dad collected in prison. In that shoebox was a world. I looked at the printed photos I sent him years ago. Pictures of my sisters and me—the ink from the city library printer had faded the lines from our teeth. I laughed at the one of me standing in a white skirt and green shirt. I was 13 years old and old enough to be fingered by my boyfriend in the movie theatre. My mom would not let me shave my legs, so I went behind her back and bought Nair. I left the cream on my legs so long it burned right through the flesh of my knees. My dad could not see the discoloration in the pixels. No. He could only see the fake smile on my face. That smile wasn’t for him. It was for Myspace. But he wanted pictures. He wanted a world. I gave him one.

I had a shoebox, too. A box full of my dad’s letters, love notes from boys in school, condoms from planned parenthood, and all the pennies I had found on the ground or on the floor of Mama’s car. My grandma kept old letters in a Bible. So, when I was 9 years old, I figured I needed a place too, to hide my Gods. Mama thought it was cute. I was a little girl who liked to fold papers like origami and tuck them inside a small box under my bed. Little did she know, those paper birds held my father’s promises. 

When I was 14, my boyfriend had told me he loved me. I gave him my tongue. Then I gave him the rest of myself. I wrote to my dad. I told him I was in love. He is a nice boy, he has brown eyes, I met his mama, he wants to be with me forever, we want to go to college and move into an apartment together, we talk for hours, he understands me. It was the summer of 2006. Usher had just confessed his infidelity. Pretty Rickey was singing about phone sex. And I was collecting Zane and Terry McMillian books from the erotic section at the library. I was hoarding fantasies. 

Boys aren’t going anywhere, focus on school. My eyes scanned over the letter my dad sent me when I was fifteen years old. After years of writing my dad, and believing we held something in those pages, something that made him real, I finally felt it. The absence. Don’t get too serious with this guy, I don’t like hearing that you are in love and you are so young. You should be worried about other things. What happened to reading? Are you still writing? What does your mother say about your new boyfriend? Are you being safe? I hope you are. My eyes stung as I read the next line, I am your dad and don’t want to hear that you have a boyfriend. I want to hear about you. Please send more pictures. And lastly, I’ll see you soon.

I did not know who I was. I was everything I collected. I collected words. Words I folded into the letter until it was a small square and tucked into a shoebox. I had a world too. I kept every letter my dad wrote to me, even that one, because I collect things. No matter how painful, he was a part of my collection. 

My boyfriend broke up with me in an AIM instant message. He had fallen in love with the white girl who lived next door to his house in East Columbus. He took my picture down from his Myspace page and replaced it with hers. He removed me from his Top 10 friends. That type of rejection is downloadable. You store it somewhere, and it syncs later when you least expect it, like a virus. By then, I had stopped writing to my dad. He had found a way to silence me in his last letter. Those words, “I am your dad,” were like bullets blasting through the walls I had built around us, around our world. He was my dad. But he was in prison. He had no right to tell me what he wanted. Or what I should be doing. He had no control over me, and if I stopped writing to him, he would know that. 

He sent me a birthday card that summer. A sketched rose on the front. His sorry words inside, “I love you and I will never forget your birthday. Write me, soon. I love you very much.

I was the only one who wrote my dad. My sisters were realists. In their minds, it was a waste of time writing someone who could do nothing for them inside a jail cell. It was not romantic. Nor devotion. To them, writing letters to Dad felt too much like school—too forced. I was the middleman. How are your sisters? What are they up to? Why don’t they write me? I would show them his letters, and they would ask me to report back to Dad that they loved him and would write him soon. More lies to collect. 

My older sister was dating a boy in jail. She wrote to him, but never wrote to our father. It was a ritual. She sprayed perfume on the letters. She shook the furry purple gel pen from the dresser and sat quietly on her bed, writing nasty things to him about what she wanted to do to him when he got out and how she was going to wait for him. She folded the letter slowly. Then she kissed the folds with cherry lip gloss. 

At 16 years old, she stopped following all the rules. She smoked. She drank. She dated men twice her age. Mama beat her for accepting her boyfriend’s collect calls from jail, but mainly, for being the girl she had tried to stop her from becoming. The girl waiting by the phone and mailbox. “You think you grown enough to talk to a nigga in jail? Then get out my house!” Mama screamed. She did not move out. She just got a cellphone.

That year, my sister showed me how to go online and look up men in prison. “Look up, Dad.” I asked. She typed in Dad’s name, and there he was, all eyes and no smile. I looked at his charge. Assault with a deadly weapon. Robbery. Armed Robbery. He was sentenced 28 years. Expected release 2024.

Soon. It was biblical. No one would know the hour or time. A word that could not commit. My teenage mind was triggered. Like God, my dad just expected me to be here. Waiting. Soon always felt like tomorrow. But tomorrow was years away. I stopped writing to my dad. I collected red hickies around my neck. I collected numbers in my new cellphone from boys who collected bodies like baseball cards. I collected voices in my ears, sweet curses—I love you; I’ll never leave you; No other girl has ever made me feel this way. I collected whatever felt urgent, from whoever felt present.

The conviction of not writing would haunt me. What if he dies in prison? What if he thinks I died because I stopped writing? But then I thought, what was he doing for me after all? He never answered my questions about when he was getting out. All he would say was that he was getting out soon and begged for pictures. But I wrote. I sent pictures. I licked stamps. I caved in eventually, telling my dad exactly what he wanted to hear. Sorry I haven’t written in a while; I have been busy—I lied. I am doing good in school. I just finished reading 2 books by Maya Angelou. I passed my state tests. My boyfriend broke up with me, you were right, I should stay focused on school. I love you. Will write and send more pictures soon. Our last few exchanges grew systematic. They lacked interest, and intimacy. They felt empty. But it was all we had. 

My dad called in the middle of the night. My mother described it to me like this: “I answered, and he said my name, and my heart smiled, and it was like time had not moved. I knew that voice. I will always know it.” 

I know my mom loved my dad. She just loved herself more. Not accepting his calls from prison or responding to any of his letters for over 10 years was how she protected herself. Maybe it is how my sisters protected themselves too. 

A week later, my dad was in Ohio and looking at us, like we were still the three Black little baby girls he had left behind. He did not hug us. Not because he did not want too, but because he did not know how. 

When my dad got out, we stopped talking. There were times when I thought we had said all we had to say inside those letters. But then I realized, time in prison had disabled the both of us. They don’t tell you what happens after they come home. They don’t tell you how to talk to them. They don’t tell you how to pick up parenting the children you abandoned. Or to the children, how to pick up daughtering the father you missed.

Words are cheaper over the phone. They do not hold a world inside them the way a written letter does. The calls were quick. How you doing? Oh, okay that’s nice. Is it snowing there? Did you get that job on campus? Sorry to hear that. Money for books? Wait, $300 for 1 book? Yeah, I’m sorry, I don’t got it. Well, guess I’ll catch up with you later. I lov—call ends. 

Years later, when I was 21 years old, I dated a boy who went to prison for 3 years. He sent me a letter. It was the first letter from prison I had received since my dad’s. I read the letter during my morning class. I was in college—a new world that I felt had removed me from my past. But the past is an organ. It does not just leave you. It functions like a lung. It lets you breathe. It lets you live on with the memory of your filth. I met him in a blizzard while I was visiting my dad in Michigan for Christmas. I had no idea how he made me out in the winded snow, but he would tell me later that when he saw me get out the car I looked like an angel. He was the boy next door with soft lips. My dad met him and agreed to let him hold my hand whenever he was not looking. This is what it must be like, I thought to myself that night, to be a daughter with a father who scares all the boys away.

He was all wrong for me. He was a man with a child and a baby mama. He was a hustler who did not see any other ways out of the street life. I think I only dated him because of the oily acceptance of my father’s blessing. The acceptance he did not give me when I was 14. 

I was in college in Ohio. I wanted a life the boy could not even taste in a postcard. All he knew was what he knew. So, when I scanned his letter and read the words: I wish I could have a life with you. Can you tell me about what you think might have happened, if I moved to Ohio, started a life with you? I think I could of made you very happy. And then, I can’t stop thinking about you. Can you send me some pictures?

The pages grew moist in my hands. The smell of ink seduced me into considering sending him the pictures. Even my dad insisted. “I know how hard it is to be in there, just send the guy a picture.” 

I was already seeing someone else. A boy who played football, who only knew the soft feel of turf and not the hard-bitten slap of a prison cell. Like my mother, I knew how to move on when a man goes away. I knew how to love and leave. It is survival. It is all I knew. 

I sent a photo of myself in my stained bathroom mirror. I wanted it to be full of blemishes and mess. I did not want him to see me clearly. I did not want him to really see me at all. But I remembered what my dad said about looking at my picture when he was having bad days, suicidally on edge. 

When I stuffed the photo and letter into the envelope, I got a papercut. A droplet of blood fell on the back flap of the covering. It took the shape of a cherry.

I am not sure if he ever got out. But I like to believe that my picture is somewhere holding a small world together. 

Starr Davis is a poet and essayist whose work has been featured in multiple literary venues such as the Kenyon Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Rumpus, So to Speak and Transition. She is a 2021–2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow and the creative nonfiction editor for TriQuarterly. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York and a BA in journalism and creative writing from the University of Akron. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry and creative nonfiction, Best of the Net and Best American Essays. She works as a poetry mentor and workshop facilitator in Ohio, where she currently lives.

Margriet Hogue's mixed media work Deep Memories is featured above.