A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I was working in the yard, raking out the sunny patch where I plant tomatoes and cucumbers, and feeling the pot gummy I’d eaten a half hour ago start to come on, announced by an uneasy self-consciousness and a brightening little buzz. I looked up from the dank, subtly colored leaves just as the two neighbor boys rode up on bikes. Their bikes were fancy Christmas presents, with iridescent paint, gleaming streamers on the handlebars, and silver pegs on the wheels. It had been a wet, icy winter, but it was mid-March now, a windy day but warm and dry enough for them to ride. I hadn’t planned to have to manage being high around anyone but myself. I was starting to feel anxious. Then I imagined my deceased wife in the kitchen, making the popsicles these boys used to come by for when she was alive a year ago, and that helped. They were nice boys. I let them follow me inside to the kitchen, where I got out some cherry popsicles I’d bought. We went back outside to the umbrella table to eat them.
“I’ll bet you miss Ms. Tina,” Owen said. They were twins, and Owen was the older, by six hours. Their poor mother, I sometimes thought. Probably had a rough time getting them born. They were good-looking boys and had moved with their parents, an interracial couple, into one of the tall new houses near the corner about two years earlier. The boys had brown skin and identical haircuts — shorn on the sides and around the back, blossoming into tinted yellow froth on top. One wore a green nylon jacket, and the other wore a gold one. Owen, in the green jacket, had a scar on his left eyebrow. That’s how I could tell them apart. They reminded me of my brother and me, who were close in age and sometimes got mistaken for twins, or mistaken for each other. We used to ride fancy bikes, too, with bottle caps on the spokes, and we liked to speed to the store to get popsicles on our mother’s credit or with dimes we’d collected from grown-ups.
“Yes, I miss her,” I said. “You do, too, I suspect.”
“Yes, sir,” Owen said. They were eleven now. Oscar, in the gold jacket, pulled a handheld video game from his pocket and laid it on the table. He pushed buttons with one hand while he held the popsicle with the other.
“Whatcha got there?” I asked.
“Harriet Tubman,” he said. “You have to get her and some slaves through the Underground Railroad.”
I laughed at the thought of a Harriet Tubman game. When I laughed a little too long, I knew my high was dawning steadily. I wondered when it would peak. I hoped I wasn’t acting too odd. It felt both good and strange to laugh. I’d gotten the gummy from the guy who cut my yard, and I’d eaten only half of it, so I wasn’t worried I’d overdosed. I’d just wanted a little lift from the gloom of grief and winter since Tina’s death, maybe a lighter heart while I worked in the yard, planted some vegetables, heralded spring. The birdsong from the trees sounded sweet. I decided I was OK to sit in the breeze and be sociable with these kids, who seemed to like me, who wanted nothing from me I couldn’t give. I said, “My grandmother was named Harriet. People called her Aunt Harriet. I think her mother and father might have been slaves once. Or her grandparents, no doubt. At least one.”
“For real?” Oscar asked.
“I think so. Maybe. The family tree is confusing. She wasn’t Harriet Tubman, though.”
They looked at me squinting, then Owen’s scarred eyebrow lifted, as if he weren’t so sure she wasn’t. To them I’m probably old enough for it to be true.
“My brother didn’t like her,” I said. Meaning my grandmother.
Then, because these boys reminded me so much of my childhood, and because they still came to visit me even after Tina died, I began telling them how mean my brother, Dutch, was to our grandmother Harriet, and how mean she was to him. It wasn’t the Harriet Tubman story, but it was a story just the same. Something to entertain them.
I told about the time my brother was feuding with Granny so bad he refused to go with my father and me to pick her up from my uncle Leon’s, where she was living, and bring her to our house. And my father refused to take him. He didn’t want the aggravation of Dutch’s aggravating Granny and Granny’s aggravating him back. Sometimes she would pinch Dutch or twist his ear. So my father just took me. I was nine, and Dutch was eleven. Granny, who had been eighty-something for as long as I could remember, was a very light-skinned woman who occasionally had spells, and she’d had another one. I never really knew what was wrong with her. My dad said she had lockjaw. I think now maybe she had epilepsy or suffered minor strokes. She had gray, curling plaits tied under a white cotton scarf; a sharp, lean face like an unwrapped mummy’s; and long, scattershot teeth. And she was tall. On this day my uncle had slaughtered a hog, my father said, and something about that made it necessary to get spellbound Granny out of his house.
Uncle Leon was my dad’s oldest brother. Granny had ten children, and only Uncle Leon and my daddy still lived near her. Three sons had died, and the four daughters had all moved to New Jersey. One son had been put in prison. Uncle Leon lived with Aunt Mary and Aunt Maggie, his wife and his sister-in-law, although I was never sure which was which. Their house sat deep in a field owned by a white doctor who lived farther up the road and for whom my uncle worked as groundskeeper. There was a yellow-brown cow in my uncle’s yard, or in that part of the field that served as my uncle’s yard. It nibbled on grass all day, and despite being unfenced and untethered, it never seemed to wander far.
Uncle Leon’s house smelled of old people, old rugs, old upholstery, old clothes. But an altogether different smell jolted me that morning as we entered through the unlocked front door: a rank, cloying pungence, sharp and disorienting. My father said, “Coming in, folks!” I couldn’t breathe and wondered how he could. As we walked along the dim hall toward the bright kitchen, I covered my nose with my arm and looked into the rooms we passed, as if I might escape into one. I saw a bedroom with two made-up iron beds and the neat living room, but the other doors were closed. Straight ahead, on a thick butcher’s-block table, was a split-open, headless hog. Uncle Leon blocked my view by stepping into the kitchen doorway, drying his hands on a thin towel. His bald scalp shone under the kitchen bulbs. He wore bib overalls over his wide, shirtless chest and a bloodstained apron around his waist.
“Morning, gentlemens,” he said, and he moved aside to let us through. The hog’s chest lay at my eye level, the eviscerated carcass all pink and pearlescent tissue and bone, with clots of deeper red. The sight and smell of raw meat and organs struck me as primitive. I felt outrage at being brought into this reality, plus angry envy of Dutch, home with our mother in our clean-smelling house just a fifteen-minute ride away.
Granny wasn’t in the kitchen. I guessed she was in one of the closed-off rooms, suffering from spells and lockjaw and hog stink, waiting for someone or something to rescue her. Maybe death. Aunt Mary and Aunt Maggie moved about in aprons and lace-up shoes. Aunt Mary ladled the contents of one of two large pots that were boiling on the stove, and Aunt Maggie stood at a counter, scraping the hog’s long gray intestines with a spoon. Aunt Maggie said to me, “You likes pig’s feet, don’t you, Danny?” She waved an ugly foot at me. “Good eating on this one, looks like.”
Aunt Mary said, “Where’s ol’ Dutch at?”
“At home,” I said through the hand covering my mouth.
“He’s missing it, then. You want to see the head, don’tcha?” She tapped the pot with the ladle. “Come on over here.”
One thing I had learned is that my father’s family did not mind death. When their younger brother had died, his body had been displayed in a casket in Uncle Leon’s living room. That, too, had been a strange, terrifying scene to encounter. But that Saturday the house had had a solemn mood. This Saturday they were festive about the corpse on display.
I went out the kitchen door into the backyard while Daddy talked. The grass was sprinkled with yellow chicken feed. There were chickens in a wire pen out there, two or three cats that ran under the house, a rotting outhouse leaning to one side, and a big tin tub under a mulberry tree. A long, thick chain dangled from a limb of the tree, threaded over a pulley. I’d seen the aunts wring the necks of chickens, seen the headless birds running around, flapping their wings, as if they, too, couldn’t believe they didn’t have a head anymore. I’d seen the aunts sink the bloody-necked bodies in the tub of scalding water to soften the skin before plucking the feathers. I’d smelled that sour stench. Now I stepped toward the tub and saw it was filled with hog’s blood. My stomach lurched, and I gagged. Through the screen door came the sound of mumbling from the aunts and chuckles from my uncle. My dad was probably leaning against a counter covered in hog guts, trying to learn more about Granny’s condition before going to her room to see her. I went around front to take deep breaths, recover, and look at the cow. Her speckled udder and long pink tongue always fascinated Dutch and me. We called her Elmer’s Glue and debated whether or not we could ride her. Not that she ever moved. Today I got as close as I dared, about ten feet away. She chewed grass and looked back at me with disinterest. I couldn’t imagine she had a thought in her head. It was a warm summer day, with horseflies zooming about and houseflies circling the cow’s rump. Her blond tail swished lazily. I tried to communicate telepathically with her, to learn why Daddy thought it was a good idea to let me see a butchered hog, its raw organs in a wet pile on a sheet of wax paper, and why I’d ever had to see chickens killed, and why the chickens still lived after their heads were gone.
On the drive over, Daddy had said Uncle Leon had bought the hog from a man who’d trucked it over in the cool of dawn to kill it. He’d said it would have been shot between the eyes, and that the shot had to be done right, or the hog would thrash around in distress and might hurt somebody. They would have hoisted it to drain its blood before it was butchered. In my mind I asked the cow if the hog had been killed right, or if it had run around like a headless chicken. The cow just chewed and blinked, and I imagined a bullet blasting into the space between her eyes.
My dad came out the front door and called for me to help with Granny’s bag, which he set down on the porch along with a cinched brown-paper bag before going back into the house. Hers was a faded-blue carpetbag with flying ducks embroidered on it. I carried the bags to the car, and Daddy came out again with Granny holding his arm. She looked chalky and wore a white cardigan over her lank green dress. She had on pink socks and brown leather slippers. Her gray hair was parted into sections with plaits held down by hairpins.
“Hey, Granny,” I said.
When they got down the steps, she reached out a veiny hand and touched my head. Her fingernails were filed to smooth points. She moved her lips but didn’t say anything, and I wondered if her jaw really was locked.
Daddy sat her beside her bag in the backseat of his Buick. This seemed wrong. Anytime another adult rode in the car, I had to sit in the back while the grown-ups rode up front. But we drove off that way, down the long gravel driveway onto the two-lane road, with me up front, Granny in back, quiet except for a few soft grunts, and Daddy checking on her in the rearview mirror.
“Did they shoot the hog right?” I asked him.
“Oh, I didn’t ask. I suspect they did it all right.”
“Why does it smell so bad, though?”
I turned to look at her. She had milky-brown irises around pinpoint pupils. Her lips were tucked inward, as if she were gnawing on them. I turned back around. “Is Granny going to live with us now?”
“Just for a while, Danny. She’ll sleep in Dutch’s room so she can get to the bathroom easy. Dutch will be in your room with you. It’ll all be OK.” He turned on the radio. Ray Charles sang, pleading with a mean old woman, while the Raelettes screamed at him to “hit the road, Jack,” because he just was no good. It was my favorite song. Daddy sang along softly, and I kept humming after it was over, through commercials for Geritol, BC headache powder, and a funeral home, until we pulled into our driveway.
I took Granny’s bag into Dutch’s room, where he was unplugging his clock radio. He had already moved out some of his clothes and comic books. He made a fierce face at me, and I ran back to the front room, where Mama held the door as Daddy led Granny inside.
“How are you feeling, Granny? Glad to have you here for a while,” Mama said.
Granny let go of Daddy’s arm, cleared her throat, and said, “Hey there, white folks.”
“Oh, Granny. Hey there, yourself.”
That’s what Granny always said when she came to our house. This confused me at first. Granny was the one who looked white. But Mama had explained that Granny was teasing because Daddy had a late-model Buick and Mama had an electric mixer, a vacuum cleaner, and wall-to-wall carpet in the living room. Granny was making fun of us for living like white people.
Dutch didn’t like Granny’s jokes. To him she was a bitter old woman who liked to make him squirm and suffer. She would ask what he’d learned in school, and he would say, “Nothing,” and she’d say, “You can read, can’t you? You ought to be reading all the words until there ain’t none left for nobody else.” Then she’d laugh. She liked to tell Uncle Leon, who read the newspaper aloud to her and the aunts, that he was reading all the words off the paper.
That Granny was taking Dutch’s room did nothing to soften his attitude about her. Before Daddy and Mama had added a third bedroom for themselves on the other side of the house, Dutch and I had shared what was now his room; it had been his alone for a year since I’d moved into our parents’ old, smaller one. Now he had to give it to Granny so she could easily get to the only bathroom in the middle of the night. It was a convenient bedroom to have until somebody else had to use the facilities, and they passed through and disturbed your privacy, interrupted whatever you were doing, woke you up if you were sleeping.
That night I shared my double bed with Dutch. I won the nickel flip, so Dutch slept against the wall. I told him about the hog, holding my nose against the memory as I described the stinking guts and splayed body and the head in the pot and the blood in the tub, and what Daddy had said about how they’d killed it. Then I lied and told him that after it was blasted in the head, the hog had run around the yard grunting and squealing, blood gushing from a hole between its bulging eyes. “Ugh!” he said on his side of the bed, but I suspected he wished he had been there so he could tell the story to his friends. Maybe he would tell it anyway. I told him the dead hog had run into the cow and knocked it down, then finally smashed into the mulberry tree. “That’s a lie,” he said, and reached over me to the nightstand to change the radio station. He complained when I lowered the volume, but I was closer to it. We listened to Jackie Wilson, Martha and the Vandellas, the Shirelles, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, and to the disc jockey’s talk. I kept waiting for my favorite Ray Charles song, but it didn’t play. When Dutch fell asleep with his back to me, I turned the radio off and stared at the door to Granny’s room, feeling the strange imbalance of a fifth presence in the house.
In the middle of the night I woke up paralyzed. I don’t know what woke me. Probably I’d tried to move in my sleep and couldn’t. This paralysis had happened before when I was seven, and again when I was eight. Now I lay on my side, still facing the closed door that led to where Granny slept. Only my eyelids worked. I couldn’t speak. I struggled to break out but couldn’t. I could only blink. I blinked and blinked. The room was dark except for the dials of Dutch’s radio. After a moment I remembered Dutch was next to me, and I hoped he would stir, kick my foot, or bump me in his sleep — do something to jar me out of the trap.
The first time this had happened, I’d eventually managed to shake my head. That was all it took to release me. The second time I just sank back into sleep and woke up again fine. I’d never told anyone about those episodes. I doubted they would believe me or be able to do anything about it. It seemed just a glitch in reality, like an electrical short that momentarily dimmed a light bulb. I hoped it was just a nightmare. Back then I had a lot of nightmares. I’d be lost in the woods or unable to find my classroom because I was on the wrong hall or at the wrong school, or I’d be alone in a room with my dead uncle dressed up in his coffin. I blinked and wondered if this was what Granny’s spells were like. I tried to move my head, my arms, a leg. I didn’t want to be like Granny.
I didn’t think I was dreaming. I thought about a cow jumping over the moon, and it was Uncle Leon’s cow, Elmer’s Glue. I tried to bite my lip. Next I knew I was gnawing the meat off my pig’s-feet hands. I was sitting at the dining table while Granny looked across at me with boiling eyes. The hog stood up from the butcher’s-block table, and it was Uncle Leon without a head, wearing overalls over his split chest, and the aunts were taking turns poking at me with big spoons.
Then Dutch was standing over the bed, pushing my shoulder. “Go look,” he said. I kicked the covers. I could move. I wiggled my fingers in front of my face.
“I think she’s dead,” Dutch said.
His clock radio on the nightstand said 4:13. My head was cleared of dreams.
“Go look!” he whispered again.
“No. Tell Daddy.”
“You’re always scared. Just go look. We need to be sure before I tell Daddy.” He pulled my arm until I was out of bed, standing at the door to the room where Granny was maybe dead.
Dutch eased the door open and pushed me through. I passed quickly to the bathroom without looking too hard at Granny. In the dark I couldn’t see much anyway. I closed the bathroom door behind me, turned on the light, and peed, scared to go back out and see Granny. The bathroom was so small you had to stand to the side of the commode to use the sink. I flushed and opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. Daddy kept his shaving razor and brush there, and Mama kept her lipsticks, among the Bayer aspirin, Mercurochrome, Vicks VapoRub, Listerine mouthwash, Tussy deodorant cream, and Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids. Sometimes I entertained myself by memorizing the labels. That night I was just stalling. Dutch opened the door and jammed himself in beside me.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I couldn’t see,” I whispered.
“Chicken.” He opened the door to let the bathroom light fall onto Granny.
She lay on her back, eyes closed, covers up to her chin, thin lipped, thin faced, thin boned, her hair covered by a scarf. She didn’t snore or snort or whistle. Her chest didn’t seem to rise or fall.
Dutch closed the door. “She’s dead.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Dutch took the Vicks from the cabinet, unscrewed the top, and held it to my face. “We’ll put this under her nose,” he said. The strong eucalyptus scent made me dizzy, and I pushed his hand away. He sniggered.
“You do it,” I said.
He sniffed it and frowned. He grabbed a tube of red lipstick and sniffed that. He closed the medicine cabinet so that we could look at each other in the mirror.
“Let’s use this instead. We’ll paint her lips. If she wakes up in the morning, she’ll be surprised and think she’s Cinderella. If she doesn’t wake up, either way she’ll look better, won’t she? She won’t look so dead.”
I nodded. Then Dutch’s eyes got big. He had another idea. He wrote on the mirror with the lipstick, You’re dead Granny. He could barely contain his laughter. “If she ain’t dead, she’ll think she is,” he said.
This war between them had begun anew the previous Sunday. Granny had gone to church with us, and we’d brought her to our house for dinner. Our dining table was small and wedged into a nook off the kitchen, with bench seats along the sides and chairs at both ends. Dutch and I sat on one bench, Granny on the other, and Mama and Daddy in the chairs. As soon as we sat down, Dutch ate a slice of cucumber from a plate in the center of the table, and Granny predicted he’d sweat in hell for starting to eat before Daddy said grace. As Daddy did say grace, Dutch nonchalantly swung his legs until his hard shoes connected with Granny’s shins. I had my head bowed and saw it. Granny’s pale lips trembled, and tears formed in her eyes, which narrowed in anger and pain. When Daddy said, “Amen,” Granny said, “Devilish!” She turned to Mama. “He kicks, Jeanie! This boy needs some learning bad. He gone wind up on the chain gang long before Jesus slams the hell door on him. Reform school,” she said, pointing a finger at Dutch.
Dutch stuck his tongue out at her. “You go,” he said.
“That’s enough, Dutch,” Daddy said. “Now, you need to watch that lip.” He made Dutch go out back to get a switch. Granny sneered at the size of the switch, said it wouldn’t tickle a gnat, but Daddy used it on Dutch’s legs in the kitchen. Dutch wore long pants, yet he cried, and Daddy sent him to his room with only that cucumber slice for dinner. He stayed there for hours, sniffling facedown in his pillow. It was a big embarrassment for Dutch and awkward for the rest of us.
That night he told me, “I’ll get that old witch.”
Now, in the bathroom, he underlined the harsh red words on the mirror twice and drew an exclamation point. I tiptoed out of the bathroom behind him, leaving the door cracked, so that a line of light fell across Granny, enough to pull her pale face from the darkness. She looked like a corpse. I stayed back as Dutch leaned in and lightly drew red onto her mouth, first the top lip, then the bottom. She didn’t stir. Then her lips reflexively mashed together the way Mama did hers when she put on lipstick in the mirror. But Granny didn’t open her eyes.
Dutch slipped into the bathroom to replace the lipstick and turn off the light before we hurried back to my room. By then it was 4:25 AM. We lay in silence a long time, listening. There was no sound from the other room. Her lips had moved, so she wasn’t dead, but maybe she was paralyzed and couldn’t get up to see the mirror. I didn’t want to go back to sleep, afraid I’d wake up paralyzed again. I felt sorry for Granny, if she saw what Dutch had written, and guilty for my part in the prank, and afraid of the punishment I’d face once Mama and Daddy knew what we had done. I couldn’t think of a way to explain it to them. It didn’t make sense to say we’d thought she was dead. I hoped Dutch would fall asleep so I could sneak back and clean the words off the mirror, but then I heard Granny moving about. I heard her slippers sliding across the linoleum floor. I heard the bathroom door close. After a while I heard it open again and her shuffle back to bed. Then nothing. Maybe she had cleaned the mirror. If so, we could deny everything. Maybe she’d wiped her lips, too.
I woke to the smell of bacon from the kitchen. I could move, but I hesitated to get up. I heard Daddy humming a church song in the living room, which was next to mine. I imagined him sitting in his lounger and turning the pages of the Sunday paper. Dutch was still asleep, or pretending to be. It was well after nine, maybe too late for us to make ten o’clock Sunday school. I wondered if we’d be going to the eleven o’clock church service or if we’d get to stay home because we were taking care of Granny. I dreaded everything to do with Granny. I stared at a brown water stain on the ceiling until Mama stuck her head in to tell us breakfast was ready.
When I went to the bathroom, Granny was not in bed. The mirror was clean except for a few red specks, which I wiped off with toilet paper. I washed my face, and when I came out, Dutch was standing there. I shrugged at him and went into the kitchen, where Granny sat at her place and Daddy sat at his, wearing a white shirt and tie. Mama was at the stove putting pancakes on a platter. She wore a yellow shirt, dark-yellow pants, and sneakers. I guessed Daddy was going to church and Mama was not. We all said good morning, even Granny, whose lips were redder than usual from our early-morning attack, some of the lipstick still smeared above her lip. The wrinkles there made it look as if a tiny rake had been at work around her mouth.
Dutch slid onto the bench beside me and said, “Don’t Granny look pretty this morning?”
“She sure does,” Mama said. “It’s sweet of you to say that, Dutch.”
Granny grunted and looked at him. Mama set the pancakes and bacon on the table, and Daddy said grace.
Granny, wearing the same dress she’d had on yesterday, lifted a pancake with her fork just as Dutch reached for it. He pulled back and politely waited for her. Then he put a pancake on my plate before his. I poured syrup, feeling a little regret that Mama no longer cut mine into bite-size squares for me. She set a plate of scrambled eggs and two pig’s feet in front of Daddy.
“We know these are fresh, don’t we, Danny?” He winked at me.
“I don’t know how you can eat that,” I said, making a face.
He chuckled. “You enjoy your bacon, and I’ll enjoy these trotters.”
“He ate the squeal before you got up,” Granny said.
Mama laughed and sat down at her end of the table. “How did you sleep last night, Granny?” she asked.
“Slept good, dear. Dreamed I was Miss America.”
“That is good,” Mama said. “And you boys, just like old times sharing a bed, wasn’t it?”
Dutch and I didn’t say anything, only nodded. I thought about telling everyone how I’d woken up paralyzed, afraid something was wrong with me, like it was with Granny. But Granny didn’t seem sick now. Maybe everybody woke up paralyzed sometimes, the way everybody had to pee. I decided to ask Dutch about it later. Or I’d just keep it to myself. I kept almost everything to myself, ashamed to be somehow defective.
“Anybody read anything good lately?” Dutch said, as if he wanted another switching.
“Funny you should ask that, Dutch,” Daddy said. “I don’t know if it’s good or not.” He said he’d just seen in the paper that a new school was going to be built, and Dutch and I would maybe attend it when it was completed, in about a year. It would be a junior high, an integrated school. Dutch, being older, would be the first of us to go, if either of us did.
As it was, we went to the same school where Mama taught high-school English. It was a consolidated school, first through twelfth grade. But right now we were in the midst of summer vacation, and I didn’t want to think about school. I certainly didn’t want to go to a new school. I wanted to go to junior and senior high where I was. Daddy said our current school might close, and we might be bused to the new school instead of getting to ride with Mama. But it wasn’t clear yet what would happen to the elementary and high-school kids, or where Mama would work.
“White folks,” Granny said.
“We’ll see,” Mama said. “It’s progress.” She sighed. “What we’ve been striving for.” Then she smiled. “Right now, you boys eat your breakfast and hurry and get dressed for church. I’m staying home with Granny. We’re going to read the paper. Right, Granny?”
It seemed we had gotten away with Dutch’s mean joke on the mirror. At most, Mama might see her lipstick was blunted and assume Granny had used it to make her worm-colored lips look redder. Apparently Granny was the one who’d erased the glass, and she was keeping it to herself, maybe planning some revenge on Dutch. Sometimes she would call us both to her, fingering the knot in the flowered handkerchief where she kept nickels and dimes tied up in a tight pouch. She’d tell us about heaven’s streets being paved with gold and fountains gushing out vanilla milkshakes. She’d say good people went to heaven, and good boys got money for ice cream, but bad boys got nothing but hellfire and eternal hunger. She’d put the handkerchief back in the pocket of her dress and close her eyes as if praying for us to be good. This enraged Dutch. Sometimes he’d storm off to his room and drip hot candle wax onto the back of his hand just to prove he could withstand the heat. Other times he’d rush outside to kick the football as high as he could. Once he was gone, Granny would untie the knot in the handkerchief and give me a dime.
I liked being good. I wanted to be good enough for both me and Dutch, because I didn’t know if he could stop being bad.
In church that day it was Children’s Day. We had missed Sunday school, but Dutch and I still had to sit with our class on a hard, dark pew to the left of the pulpit, and before the sermon each kid had to recite a Bible verse of his or her choosing. One by one kids stood and said, “Jesus wept,” or, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or, “Honor thy father and mother.” I chose the latter, while Dutch picked “Do unto others.” We sat snugly at the end of the pew, and I contemplated what our verses meant as Daddy did deacon duties — collected and counted the money, said amen to the preacher — and the choir sang hymns, and the preacher performed a lengthy drama from the Scriptures. This time it was about Lazarus.
I thought about what we had done to Granny. I knew I didn’t want that done unto me, a mean trick in the night. If we should honor our father and mother, then we should probably honor our grandmother, too, I thought. Still, I didn’t really know what it meant to honor somebody. Maybe it meant to be honest to them.
I worried that I was sometimes paralyzed because I was somehow bad. But what had I done to have that done unto me? It was confusing. Granny shouldn’t pinch Dutch. Dutch shouldn’t kick her shins. Chickens shouldn’t run around after their heads were wrung off. I shouldn’t have had to see a hog’s head boiling in a pot. People shouldn’t die. And what if we had to go to a new school, or if Dutch and Mama went to a new school and I went someplace else? Why did our schools have to change? Why weren’t they already integrated so everything could stay the same? I felt close to crying.
In a pew behind us Miss Ruby got happy and started waving her flappy arms, jumping up and down so that her large bosom and backside bounced. Reverend Waters was saying, “He woke up! He got up! He walked! He was alive!” She looked to the white-plank ceiling of the church and shouted, “Amen! Yes, Lord! Help me, Lord! Yes!” She moved into the narrow aisle and danced beside our pew. As always, when she got happy, I was afraid she would pull me up and make me the center of attention. I missed sitting with Mama. I would have clung to her. I was afraid Miss Ruby would somehow make me shout and dance, too. I feared she would do unto me as had been done unto her. But, as usual, ushers in white dresses and white gloves and white shoes took her by her puffy elbows and walked her out of the sanctuary. Dutch whispered, “Scared you, didn’t she?” I elbowed him in the ribs. He elbowed me back. Nobody had ever explained to me what came over Miss Ruby when she acted like that. It was a spell, I guessed. But not like what happened to Granny, and not like what locked me up at night. Maybe, I thought, the Lord took hold of Miss Ruby, but the devil took hold of Granny and me. Granny claimed the devil had Dutch. Only Mama and Daddy seemed untouched by either awful force. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to honor them.
When we got home, I hurriedly changed clothes and found Mama alone in the kitchen cooking dinner. She was frying chicken in the iron skillet while pole beans and white potatoes simmered in a pot. Macaroni and cheese was in the oven. She had me butter the raw rolls before she put them in the oven, too. Dutch had gone out in his good clothes to throw knives with his friend next door. Daddy was getting out of his suit, and Granny was lying down in Dutch’s bed.
I told Mama what we had done: about the lipstick on Granny’s face, the writing on the mirror, and how bad I felt. I told her we’d thought Granny was dead. I was almost to the part about my paralysis, and my fear that Dutch’s bad behavior might get him sent to reform school and the chain gang and hell, when Mama started laughing. She was so pretty when she laughed. I didn’t know what was funny, but I didn’t say anything for fear she’d stop.
“Oh, Danny,” she said, “I’m glad you know that was wrong, and you are a good boy for telling me. I will certainly speak to Dutch. But, honey, Granny wouldn’t care about the message on the mirror. She can’t read.”
Oscar and Owen hadn’t interrupted me once. Maybe I was mistaken, but they seemed mesmerized by my story, their eyes innocent and bright. Maybe it was the weed that made me think I was entertaining them instead of scaring them. Anyway, after I got started, I felt comfortable spilling out all that past. It felt good to talk after having nothing much to say to anyone for so long. I could sense them trying to process it all, maybe trying to decide if any of the story was true. They were urban boys, maybe even vegetarians, probably never seen a cow up close or smelled a butchered pig. I didn’t know all that much about them, though. I knew they went to the charter school nearby. It was fairly new, and families moved near it just to have their kids in the same district. The boys were always polite and seemed sweet and smart. I worried my tale of death and nightmares was inappropriate for them, even though I’d been a kid myself when it had all happened to me. Of course, I had thought it was inappropriate for me then.
“What happened to Granny?” Owen asked.
I told them she died two years later, in her sleep in her own room at Uncle Leon’s house. She was not laid out for viewing at the house. “All that was done at a funeral home,” I said. “But I didn’t see her. And I didn’t have to go to the funeral. I made my parents understand that I was afraid of dead people and should be allowed to skip it. Dutch went, though, and he said it wasn’t scary at all. He said Miss Ruby got happy, and Granny looked the best she’d ever looked.”
“That’s good,” Owen said. “That she looked good.”
Oscar thanked me for the popsicles, and they got back on their bicycles. As Owen pocketed the Harriet Tubman game, I suddenly wanted to see it. Before I could ask, Oscar asked if I still got paralyzed. “I grew out of it,” I said. Then Owen asked if we ever got another bathroom, and I laughed and said no. Oscar asked if Dutch had gone to the chain gang, and I told them no, but the next time I saw them, I would tell them more about my brother. I could tell them how he dropped out of college, got drafted to fight in Vietnam, then wound up in Colorado, became a federal marshal, married, and had a daughter, who had three children of her own. Another time I’d tell them how I met Tina when we were graduate students in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then I’d moved here to her hometown to marry her; that our house had been nearly new when we’d bought it, just like their house; that practically everything was different now than it was in the past.
If they wanted to know even more about me — like how I became a bald man in baggy khaki pants who planted vegetables in his front yard, a retired dietician who kept old popsicles in the freezer — they had only to ask. At their age I’d never thought to ask what Granny had experienced that made her grow sardonic and end up in the care of her sons. When I’d first learned about Harriet Tubman, from a picture book my mother brought into the house, I used to imagine Granny — Aunt Harriet to anybody outside of the family — marching through the woods carrying babies on her back to freedom, even though Granny and Harriet Tubman looked nothing alike. It’s just that they had the same name, and both wore long dresses and shawls and scarves on their head. I couldn’t imagine the game Owen played, what the screen showed, how many points you earned for getting away from dogs and men on horses with guns, whether children were worth more or fewer points than grown-ups when you rescued them. I wondered if the game gave points for overcoming particular traumas. I was glad Owen and Oscar could learn about those traumas from a safe distance. Glad Dutch and I had, too. Glad I had no worse story from my childhood to tell them.
They left their sucked-clean popsicle sticks on the table. As they pedaled down the street, their bikes and streamers glittered in the sunny wind, and then they were gone. I looked to the window where Tina would have stood watching us, and I wondered if she watched anyway, from the past or from the future. I wondered who watched with her. I felt a shiver, as if I really were being watched by ghosts, and maybe touched by them. Trick of the drug, I decided. Maybe. I gathered the popsicle sticks, stained red and still damp, and went inside.
John Holman’s “White Folks” [September 2020] was a welcome lighter touch among The Sun’s usual short stories, which do not often make me smile. Despite some sadness, his entertaining and engaging story did make me smile. I really enjoyed it.