Where should I begin?
With my too-white-looking cousin hanging feet first from my great-grandmother’s doorway?
Or with that great-grandmother at 102, her dry white hair shooting up from her head in a twisted flame, pacing through the halls of her old house thinking of that too-white-looking grandson strung up by his ankles in her door?
I don’t remember much about her, just her houseshoes scraping the halls. Most of what I learned came from Pops: the ghost stories she picked up from her slave parents, ones she’d tell to her grandchildren, keeping them up all night, to my grandmother’s dismay. She’s the one who told her too-blond and too-blue-eyed grandson to leave the white women alone, lest he end up feet fo’muss—slave talk for feet foremost. And that’s exactly what happened.
Couldn’t leave the white girls alone. Couldn’t leave the black ones alone, either, and everyone hated him for it. If he was that stupid for pussy, he deserved to end up hanging upside down.
I can see my grandmother, though, just as ancient as I remember her, when I know she wasn’t really that old back then, coming home to find her favorite grandson. Maybe he’s her favorite cause he looks so much like that blond and blue-eyed Irishman she was never allowed to marry, or she can’t get rid of her soft spot for him despite the fact he’s an idiot who can’t quit screwing around.
I can see her standing there with the white hair shot up from the top of her head, and she lets out a shriek so loud the whole neighborhood hears it. Nobody has to look out their doors to know the inevitable. That boy is finally dead.
But I can’t start here.
I gotta hole in me. It’s somewhere around my chest. I first noticed it when I was eleven. It ain’t an obvious thing where most people can stare me through. The hole pulls me backwards. It tugs sometimes when I’m standing still. Recently, that hole’s gotten bigger, and more of me’s coming out. Little pieces of me smaller than dust mites get sucked through my back and float away, dissolve somewhere on the air. Not my skin, or my bones, mind you. It’s the real me fading.
“You ever feel like something’s eating you from behind and spitting you out, Pops?” I asked when I first noticed it. I never asked Mom. I figured she wouldn’t understand. Well, that ain’t really true. My worst fear was she’d know exactly what it meant and could explain it simple.
But I know Pops, too. “Virgil, stop that craziness. You sound like your uncle.”
The hole bothered me, but I got used to it. When I feel those bits slipping out my back, I know I’m still really here. I’m not completely evaporated just yet.
Pops’s got a hole, too. It’s so small I can’t see it less I’m thinking about it. Not even bigger than a puncture from a needle. Every now and then, I’ll see a tiny brown blip shoot from his back.
But it didn’t begin when I discovered our holes, either.
Where it really begins is with the kind of shit you wish you’d never found out about. Shit worse than what happened to your stupid cousin, or a hole through your middle letting your essence leak out. You might be ignorant for not knowing, but at least you have your peace. At least you wouldn’t be fading away.
After the third kitten fell through the ceiling and landed in the tub, we all knew where the cat went to drop her litter: the attic my grandparents and father never knew existed til then. They moved into this house forty-something years ago. And my great-grandmother had been here seventy years and would never know about that attic. My grandparents raised four kids. By the time I started living here, closets had been stuffed with old toys, shoes, and books. With them needing to stash so much shit away, you’d think somebody could’ve discovered the attic. But not until the kittens came crying through the bathroom ceiling in splinters and dust.
“Virgil, get your daddy, and don’t make a mess.” Grandma coughed, her lungs full of asthma. She called me to the bathroom door. The kittens cried, covered in grime and rotted wood. Bits from the attic and ceiling covered the floor, spread across the sink and toilet. I couldn’t step without them poking through my socks.
Grandma waved me off again, and I saw her for the first time. Standing right behind me. I didn’t have to turn around. I saw her in a vision, just her face. Now, I had visions before, mostly in Mom’s church. I think God let me have them so I wouldn’t get bored. But what I usually saw when the sermon went on and on was spirits pacing in the back or the shape of somebody who was about to die wandering around. I never told Pops the sorts of things I saw. He didn’t believe in that stuff, said God didn’t have prophets like that no more.
The woman behind me was young, younger than my mom, with high cheekbones and a blunt chin. Her skin was waxy, melting coffee candy.
She leaned towards me, peered in. Tried to bring me into focus. Her eyelids flinched, I gasped, and that melty-girl face took on the solid features of a boy.
“Virgil. . . ”
“Yes, Grandma.” I stepped back, right where the face would have been, but that melty girl was gone.
Right now I’m waiting for Pops to get back from the store and watching her at the end of the couch. I decided to lie here, take a nap, so I didn’t get bored. And here she appeared again in a white cotton dress with lace all around the collar and cuffs. The skin in her cheeks and forehead has sunk in and creased, and her youth has run away. When she sees me, she covers her face with her hands and cries. I can’t believe I was so mad at her last night.
I wonder if she ever lay in her death bed alone, mouthing to her visions, seeing me here like this. Seeing my cousin just before he got strung up, or Granddad without his legs. She musta known what happens to Pops and my uncle, too. She musta seen it.
Men die hard and violent in this family.
The women go peaceful. My great-grandmother slipped off quiet in her sleep. Grandma died sick, but she went without pain. My aunts all seem in good health, and they don’t have a history of tragedies to keep them watching their back.
The men, though?
There’s my stupid cousin who ended up feet fo’muss. Me and Pops wait for somebody to call and tell us they found Uncle Walt dead. Uncle Walt hardly ever visits. Once you become an attorney in Chicago, you don’t bother slummin’ in Nashville too much. But he paid his dues one summer, between my grandparents’ deaths. Came in back unannounced one morning. Handed my father a carton of Benson & Hedges and me, all of seven years old, some damn Drakkar Noir cologne. Cologne.
Wasn’t long before he settled himself right in. Granddad was napping. Uncle Walt was simmering something on the stove. I looked down in the pot at this milky liquid. Uncle Walt snapped at me. “Virgil, get your nose out of that!” Twirled a glass pipe between the fingers of his left hand. Eight years later, he’s still doing the shit. He manages to practice law (we think), but he pisses a lot of people off, too. Pops hears about that down the grapevine. So we wait for that call telling us they found Walter in a dumpster in a secluded alley, or under a car in a parking garage. When I’m with my mom, sometimes I’m scared to answer the phone cause I know it’s gonna be Pops with the bad news.
Granddad got ulcers all over his legs when I was nine. They amputated the left, and the right soon followed. Granddad would grab around Pops’ shoulders. Stubby thighs and a bit of leg past the knee hung over Pops’ arm when he carried Granddad. At first it was like watching my father carry half a man around. He’d put that half-a-man in the tub and bathe him. Prop him up in front of the cable TV in the den, or his big chair in the living room so he could read the paper in the morning with his thick glasses. After a while, I got used to the bandages and the stumps, and the half-a-man just became Granddad again.
When the rest of his body started going down, Granddad didn’t leave the bed. He liked to lie there next to where Grandma used to sleep, her side of the bed all made. As soon as I got up in the morning, I couldn’t find him with his newspaper in the big chair no more, sit on the floor in front of him listening to his stories of army training while waiting to be shipped off to Europe.
Instead, when Pops spent the day looking for construction work, I sat at the end of Granddad’s bed and read him the paper, not that he listened. He didn’t wear his glasses, and he’d just be on his back with his eyes closed, mouthing. I didn’t ask him what he said. I didn’t want to hear.
So I went in the den and played Super Mario Bros.
“Granddad’s acting weird,” I said as soon as Pops came home and followed him into Granddad’s room.
“You okay, Daddy?”
Granddad opened his eyes and raised up, just enough to see Pops. “You think ghosts’re in this house?”
“I don’t know, Daddy. It’s a pretty old house. You think it’s them ghosts Grandma used to talk about?”
Granddad blinked and lay back down. “Hmmm,” was all he said.
Pops didn’t mention it the rest of the night. He fixed us dinner, and after we ate, we watched the Braves in the den. Pops smoked a cigarette and sipped a beer. He didn’t look at me once. Just stared at the TV.
Him frying hot dogs filled with cheddar cheese woke me the next morning. I sat down at the kitchen table. Pops gave me two dogs and an oven-heated chocolate croissant. Then he sat. He didn’t eat.
“You know your grandfather’s dying, Virgil?”
Yeah, I knew that. Knew it for a while, but that didn’t make it easier for Pops to tell me. I stabbed a hot dog with my fork and stuffed it in my mouth.
“People see ghosts like that right before they die.” He lit a cigarette. “They see their loved ones. Things like that.”
It musta really bothered Pops, the idea of Granddad seeing Grandma. He took her death hard. First time I’ve seen him cry. Ain’t seen him cry since.
Pops had to put Granddad in the hospital. In a few months, Granddad’s mind retreated. His body jolted in the bed. His crotch shot up in the air, and he almost stood on his stumps. He’d bend in a backwards “C” before his body came crashing back to the mattress. Something about his brain firing mixed messages, the reason for it. Pops took me a couple of times to see him. I could only stand in the doorway. I didn’t want to look at that great big hole in his chest. Every time Graddad’s body jerked up, the confetti inside him leaped out, all tiny and shimmering golden gnats.
I wanted to ask Granddad if he could feel all that. I hoped he stopped feeling it a long time ago.
The call came when I was with Mom. Not for Uncle Walt, but Granddad.
I’m still waiting for Uncle Walt, though. I’m waiting for Pops. I’m waiting for me, too.
I’m almost glad Granddad died before Pops climbed to the attic. Part of me wishes Granddad knew what was up there.
Finding the way in wasn’t a top priority with both of my grandparents sick. It was a year after my grandfather died—in the middle of the summer—that my father figured the tiny window in the gable wasn’t just for decoration.
“Might as well see what’s up there,” he said.
“Might as well.”
“You coming, Virgil?”
Hell no. I’ve never liked heat. I’ve never liked grime or dirt, and I don’t care if that’s not manly enough or if I get called a fag for it. Plus, Pops weighed more than the four kittens who ended up in the tub, but I didn’t tell him he was crazy.
He was skinny enough to crawl through the window, and I didn’t see him again for a couple hours. When he came back down, he brought a tin can full of gold dust, a large picture frame with swirls like shells carved in it, and some rolled-up, browned paper.
I followed him to the back porch where he left the thick, gold frame and rolled-up paper propped against several of Grandma’s dried-up plants.
The paper unrolled and fanned out, the top page a drawing of a diagram. At the bottom in the center was a sketch of our house. Above it several men in old-fashioned suits stood in a line from one end of the page to the other. Something like a ribbon ran through their chests one way and looped back through their bellies in the opposite direction. Except for the figure at the beginning of the line, three or four dots were next to the men around their left shoulders. Dots outlined the entire right side of the man in front. The men were numbered “Fig. 1,” “Fig. 2,” on and on and on.
“All that was up there?”
“Yeah,” Pops said, and smiled. Construction prospects were slow, and he’d taken to looking for coins, the real reason I suspected he finally went up in the attic. A vending machine gave him a three-legged buffalo nickel. Pops figured there was money in the stuff if he could find it. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the cat who owned this house before Grandma was a goldsmith?”
That was beyond me, really. Finding expensive shit in nooks and crannies didn’t happen to people like us. But Pops was optimistic.
“The one who made the frame? He built this house,” Pops said over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage.
I didn’t show him how pissed off I was for going up that morning without me. He could’ve fallen down the ladder without me holding it. He could’ve come through the ceiling and broken his neck in the tub.
“Built this whole house,” Pops said again. “He’s got several journals up there. He was a freed slave. Come here.” We went out on the back porch. Pops lit a cigarette.
He’d brought down more frames and loose photographs of black people. They smelled like the dirt holding up Grandma’s dead plants. Most of the pictures were of families, we guessed. The artiest of the bunch, a young woman stood behind a chair with her hands resting on the back. Her face was real soft, even with high, sharp cheekbones.
The only photograph still in its frame looked like a bad photocopy. Two men in dark jackets and white shirts. The one on the right was younger, maybe Pops’ age. He posed real stiff. The geezer slouched over, and his eyes bugged out.
“The old cat, he looks kind of horsey, don’t he, Pops?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. There’s something funny about his face. . . I figure the younger one built the house. Maybe he dabbled in photography to go with making his frames. There’s a lot more gold dust up there, too.”
That bit about the freed slave building our house and working antique cameras struck me harder than the gold Pops found. People in our neighborhood were dying off like my grandparents, or they were just getting by. We didn’t manage to start new lives and build our own homes.
“When you going back up?”
“Finish your breakfast. You can man the ladder for me.”
A long butt fell off his cigarette. Pops dropped the stub and ground it in the porch, held the back door open for me.
But I couldn’t move. The younger man from the big photo stood in front of me. The soft-faced woman in the arty one was behind me. She put her hand on my back, right between my ribcage. His was on my chest, like they tried to hold hands, but I got in the way. They felt like sheets touching my skin. A hole in me opened a little. It didn’t hurt. Their hands were warm. Just enough of me came out that her tits flattened, and her shoulders squared.
I smiled at her. She smiled back.
“Virgil, c’mon,” Pops said.
And they were gone.
Pops retrieved more junk from the attic. That treasure hunt ended, however, when everything turned up fool’s gold at the appraiser’s. The most important stuff? My father left it in the attic.
He’d tell me what he’d read in the journals, but he never brought them down.
“That woman behind the chair in that picture? She’s Mr. Horsey. The cat who built the place disguised her to hide her. She was a runaway. He dressed her up like an old cat and told everybody she was a relative up from Alabama. Every time she came out the house, he paraded her around like that.”
“Can’t be the same person, Pops.”
“It’s in his journal. The photos of her and them together were taken around the same time. What’s weird, though, is every time he talks about her, he writes this,” and Pops scribbled it out:
Over the end,
and over again,
and over the end
“Pops, you telling me they had Hollywood makeup back then? That’s the only way that woman could look like that wrinkled old dude.” But since Pops never let me see what was written, I had to take him at his word.
Back when I was eleven, it didn’t dawn on me. Didn’t dawn on Pops, either. He should have taken those journals and the photos to a museum, or something. The journals of a freed man making a pretty decent life for himself suckering everybody by hiding away his girlfriend would make a better exhibit than the one they got of runaway slaves Kumbayaing through the woods. At the least, I figured some historian could have told us what “Over the end,/and over again,/ and over the end” meant, cause we sure as hell couldn’t figure that one out.
Instead, the photographs and papers stayed out on the porch with the junk. When it rained and the winds blew in, the diagram turned to mush. After I came back from being with Mom, Pops had dumped the frames and the photographs. I never saw them again. The diagram I found in clumps along the porch, dented under Pops’ boot prints.
I can’t think about the mess Pops left too much. I don’t want to think about my father like that.
I wish that’s the way it had happened, that Pops had taken everything to somebody with five degrees and a professorship who could tell me the meaning of that poem, why he would bring it up every time he mentioned his woman. But I wouldn’t need anybody’s help. Now I know for myself.
No, they weren’t ghosts Granddad saw. If he hadn’t been so sick, he’d have known. They woke me up late last night. My room turned gold—not a pretty gold. Flashy brass light wavered all over the walls. I thought I was having a vision—the kind you can almost touch when you’re still half asleep, and a picture jumps at you out of the clouds.
But I was too awake watching the light wiggle. Those little pieces flowed out the back of me. They drifted, thin as dandruff flakes, collected in the gold light. That stuff coming out of me and filling the room, it was the light.
Two ribbons floated on the air. They came at me in opposite directions and curled around themselves. On one strand, moving pictures in full color of the man and the woman he hid free from her disguise. They’d share a smile, then laugh. Or he’d take her hand, and they’d dance around the room.
On the other strand, the pictures were just now coming into focus. The first was the photograph Pops brought down from the attic. Him and her, with her as a man. Except she didn’t look like a man. She wore men’s clothes, but that was the end of the charade.
We appeared next to them, all in a line. An old cat I didn’t know, Granddad, a blond boy, Pops, Uncle Walter, me, and several shadows after me. We were numbered “Fig. 2,” “Fig. 3,” and on down the line. A ribbon looped through us, connected us to that man and woman. I watched the woman turn into a man. Face wrinkling up, shoulders rounding, until she was as horsey as I remembered.
But the writing smeared. Holes burst through us until we disintegrated. And now a new picture came into focus. A young man, upside down. He wasn’t in color, but I could tell he was blond. The curls fell away from his forehead and pointed at the ground. His eyelids parted a little. A string of blood hung like a rope from his bottom gums. For a moment, I was scared I was going to see my great-grandmother and hear her scream. But it was only my cousin’s face. Pieces of him flooded through that gaping hole in his chest.
Over the end,
and over again,
and over the end
I pulled my sheet over my head, but I could still see the too-flashy gold through the fabric. I wanted my great-grandmother to pass through with her flame of white hair and put us all back together again.
Me and Pops eat grape jelly and bacon sandwiches out on the front porch for lunch.
I want to know if Uncle Walt has ever seen them. But not so smart to ask a drug addict what he has and hasn’t seen, I guess.
I’m not telling Pops what I’ve seen, though. I’m never telling him. I don’t think he’d tell me, either.
“It’s like the infinity symbol, Pops. You know, eight-on-its-side?”
“That poem in the journal.”
“Oh, yeah, that,” Pop says. “Forgotten about it.”
“It can represent all points in time, and they can touch each other. The infinity symbol.”
“Mmmm hmmm,” Pops said. “They have infinity symbols back then? Why you thinking about it?”
This is what I don’t believe no more: those po’ li’l ole slaves, jess woikin’ so hard fo’ Massah. And when dey woiked so hard fo’ sooooo long, and dey take dey lashin’s wit’out a mumblin’ woid, ole Massah has pity on dem, de good ones, and gives dem dey’s freedom.
They weren’t dumb-ass bashful and coonin’ around. Suppose I’m the idiot for not knowing that. They made do with what they had. The cat who built this house had ink and paper and some kind of slave roots or science to draw the essence out the men in my family. Could dude have drawn what he needed from the people living around him? Maybe they were more hip to the mojo. I was kind of pissed at him last night. But I don’t blame him now. If he needed his lady to have a convincing old-man suit, then that’s what she was gonna get. Pops is the one who blew the loop to hell four summers back.
If only the ceiling over the bathroom had held up. The attic could have stayed hidden, everything left undisturbed. The loop in its diagram wouldn’t be broken, and just the tiniest, fewest parts of us would have drifted back to the past. Just the parts she needed.
“What’s the matter, Virgil?”
I bite into some bacon.
“You look like this,” Pops says. He hunches his shoulders and screws up his face.
“Just thinking. . . What you do with those journals?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You leave them out on the porch?”
“I don’t remember, Virgil. Why?”
“Don’t know.” It didn’t matter, anyway. It was too late.
Pops’s running to the store for cigarettes and milk, and a pack of Hubba Bubba for me. I’m lying on the couch, watching her cry at the other end with her face in her old-lady hands, a free woman now. Maybe I’ll be here when he comes back. I could be dead. I could run away. Uncle Walt left the house, but he’s still messed up, still washed away with the infinity riddle. After Granddad saw them in his room, he lasted six months. Maybe I’ve got that long. Maybe I don’t.
I close my eyes. The cat rumbles in the attic. A car turns the corner and heads down our street. They might come to rob us, smash through the front door with semiautomatics and me defenseless. It could happen with a rainstorm, and a lightning bolt striking down a tree that crashes down on me. It could happen. . .
I want my great-grandmother. I want to hear her shuffling down the hallway to come and comfort me. I feel close to my cousin, knowing what it’s like to have my eyes burned with gold, waiting to be snatched up and faded away.
But I’ll never let Pops know I’m waiting on me. If he has to find me hanging with the blood dripping from my gums—or otherwise—I don’t want him wasting every moment imagining how hard my death will be.
He’ll discover soon enough.
Spread the word!