Death sat coolly behind the wheel of a pearl white Caddy. The sun glinted on the windshield, and at first, I couldn’t make out his face from where I stood shoeless in the middle of a hot Indiana street. But then I tilted my head, like my old mutt, Lady, and I saw Death full on. He sported a white fedora, a white suit jacket, a fine, laundered white shirt, and a gold Star of David hanging on a gaudy chain—an oddly beautiful sight, like he was going to Diddy’s White Party, or like Denzel in Devil in a Blue Dress. He had the dignity of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, or a dignitary from the Sudan or Israel. Death was a man I could never be when I got older, a man unlike one I’d ever seen. This was the man most women dreamed about—Mr. Fantasy. His emerald eyes were luminous against his chocolate skin, his teeth beautiful and white. I had goose bumps. His engine revved again. He bit down on a toothpick, splitting his lips into a disturbed grin—his twisted face made me twist my face, and let loose the butterflies inside my guts. I faced south on Fillmore Street, while Death in the Cadillac faced north.
It was a scorching summer, and I thought, “He must be hot as hell in a suit jacket and hat,” but Death was not sweating. Not one bead of perspiration rolled down his face. He smiled at my inclination, amused at how so truly wrong we all were. He was a handsome brown specimen of a man, wrapped up in an odd sad-ugly, and covered in white. My feet accepted the heat of the street.
One week ago, my grandmother, Marie Mary Blakely, who the family calls Mary-Mary, fell out of my mother’s bed onto the cold tile floor. I couldn’t get that damn thud out of my head. It was like some bad Poe obsession. Was “the thud” a precursor? Through the crack of the threshold, I saw my Aunt Lucy put Mary-Mary back onto the bed.
“Go back to bed, Bug,” Aunt Lucy said, without taking her eyes off of her mother. She tucked the invalid back in. Everyone in the family called me Bug, maybe because I was a pest. But it was better than Samuel Blakely. I didn’t feel like Samuel fit my skin. I always felt like a Mark, Derrick, or William were more vibrant than plain ole Samuel.
My mother, Charlotte Blakely, had taken my little sister, Shelley, with her to visit relatives in Arkansas. Aunt Lucy, Mary-Mary, and I stayed behind. I hated going out of town, leaving my comfort zone: my house, my street, my little paradise called the Delaney Projects. Especially since a week before, Nana Jo (Josephine Blakely and Mary-Mary’s grandmother) had passed—“went on to glory” the family said. I missed her. Nana Jo was some crazy-evil wit, and could cook like all-git-out. Little, with silver hair, she was the one who made me believe that I had a chance at life, even when I didn’t know it was life I was looking for. She had that way about her. Tried to implant her will in me, but I was just too stubborn, I guess. This was hard on Mary-Mary, who for the two weeks after Nana Jo’s passing slipped into a void and disappeared from us. I had lost how Mary-Mary was before the thud, like my entire set of memories had been scanned and cleared. All that was left behind—a thud.
At seven years old, I knew Death a bit too well. I knew all about “Life and Death,” the biblical references, the morbidity of our ageless accounts to the ancestors, and just the silly idioms we store in our repertoire: “We can’t live forever; it’s not in the Lord’s plan.” “When someone dies, another is born.” Or, “They’re with the angels now, baby.” And “God’s taking care of them.”
We all know Death is a bastard child to the Lord, a pain in the ass to say the least. Death took Nana Jo by stroke, and Doug, a friend of the family, who also lived in the Delaney Projects. Some whispers at home, and in the neighborhood had Doug “almost” hitting someone’s dog. “That’s why he was shot in the head.” Other whispers in the neighborhood said it had something to do with drugs. It didn’t matter, Doug was dead. Doug would never come by the apartment anymore, smile that cool smile he had anymore, or ever say, “What’s happnin’, little man?” The last time I saw him was in a casket, dressed to the tee in a black three-piece suit, with a red carnation in his lapel. It was an open casket, and I looked for the bullet hole, but I couldn’t find one. The funeral home had a damn good reconstruction artist working on the dead.
The last time I saw Nana Jo, she was in a casket, dressed to the tee in a beautiful white chiffon gown, like the one she wore in the picture above her fireplace when she lived in Jackson, Mississippi. I wanted to touch her, to see if she was just sleep. Death took my dog, Lady, a couple of years before. I didn’t get to see Mama bury her. I never knew what happened to our mutt. For some reason I’ve heard people say it’s a dog’s life. I have always wondered. Death also had the audacity to take little Tito, the son of Cassandra, my mother’s best-friend. He was an infant—beautiful, had not one chance for foul up. Dead. For too long, Death had been a burr in my ass; it always took.
In Delaney, we learned fast that things weren’t permanent. Back then, I knew nothing about listening to my body: the intuitiveness in my bones, the way the wind carried sulfur by my nose in the night from the steel mills. I knew little of how a “voice cracks and flattens” when tired of going on—living—as the old folks say.
Mary-Mary told me time and time again about Death, how she learned about Death from Nana Jo. Nana told her that the ancestors who came from the Caribbean brought with them ie chi pleu—itchy ploo—“death stories.” In Nana Jo’s stories, Death was unveiled: not the Angel of Death, a rider on the white horse, not pulling tow in Tartarus, or a grim cryptic image in a dark cloak with a sickle and boney white digits, or even Papa Legba. Death was much more than that because Death had been around since time began, Death, by association, became all of them. But Death was more, much more than our sorry legends and mythologies.
She’d say, in her raspy voice, “The way Nana Jo tells it, Death was quite appealing on the eye.
Mary-Mary would go on for hours about how Death had no real form; Death could change—be a he or she or an animal. The only thing that gave Death away was its emerald eyes. No matter what form it took, those eyes were always the same—relevant—always present.
Mary-Mary said, “When Death arrived somebody had to leave. It was sacrosanct. See, Death was on a rampage once, for sure. Death, at first, would just swoop down on a multitude, taking all with it, like in old Egyptian times. God put an end to Death’s frivolity. It’s complicated,” she said before switching me to her left thigh.
“So Death, scorned, learned to prolong suffering instead of killing myriads of people in one blow. The way I was told, and what I believe, is Death wanted to be a king over all men, cut down all the kings of the world. So Death made worldly kings suffer, most by taking away their family members—tragically, hauntingly, and in the vilest of ways, just to spite the families. This was the cruelest of hurts and disrespect, Sam. The cruelest.”
I was mesmerized by each word that came out her mouth. She was comical, arms flailing all about, but she was serious too.
“Nana Jo told me God made a deal with Death. Did I tell you it was complicated, Sam? Nana Jo told me to remember the only way I could escape Death was to look it square in the eyes. If I had the guts to do that, I would be spared, for a while at least. And Death couldn’t take me in any crazy demented way, but only while I slept, naturally.”
Okay, I thought. Mary-Mary’s a little bit left of right. This wasn’t strange in my family. But it didn’t matter. I had always listened to folk who were off their rocker. They had the best stories, and drank the most. It seemed that they were the only truthful people to listen too, like those fools in Shakespeare—those harlequin-suit-wearing fairies who garnered all kinds of sense.
Mary-Mary was big-eyed and joyous, hair styled in a little brown afro, with a cigarette blazing in between two fingers. She wore the biggest smile. She was small, light-skinned, with full lips, and the Blakely nose, and had small inklings of some type of Native American heritage peeking out of her round face. Mama was a younger replica of Mary-Mary—“like Mary-Mary spit her out,” the family would say.
“I ain’t scared of no damn Death. You don’t be either, here me. ‘Cause if you lost two people close to you, and Death is in your face, you suppose to look Death dead in those pretty green eyes. And guess what?”
“You get a reprieve, Sam. Death can’t touch you.”
“What’s reprieve mean?”
“It means you get more time, baby.”
“What about Jesus, the King of Kings?” I said.
“Jesus was always there, baby, in the beginning and in the end. You need to read your Bible more.”
I was stumped at that revelation. She had too much in her head. She rubbed my skull like a sculptor would a bust, and told me, “That’s why bad things always happen in threes to a family, Sam. Always in threes—I don’t want to get too complicated. But if you are blessed, not lucky but blessed, and you got common sense, you can catch a break. That’s the deal, at least when it comes to people close to you, Sam.”
Mary-Mary always called me Sam. She didn’t really take to my nickname, Bug. I was a boy in a world full of women—women who made the best out of any circumstance. If they lived in Hell, it would at least have to be tidy. There were men in Delaney sometimes, mostly on the periphery. The men I knew wanted to leave. To make it out of Delaney meant you were scarred by affliction and life, meant you turned your back on your family and decided to breathe some air. Or it meant you were shot, stabbed, alcoholic, junkie, molested, broken of all hope, dead and living. Or dead in a pine box. If a man had hope, he didn’t live in Delaney. If a man got old in Delaney, he got old by hook-or-crook—somehow he stole some time, and paid the price for it. It’s like a poet who believes in what he writes, and wants to believe in what his words say, but can’t because they carry too much weight.
I didn’t want to end up like the men I grew up with, working two shifts at Inland, thirty years old but looking like fifty. They were broken down like so many of the cars on our block—cars that were unmoved and raggedy, cars around longer than I’ve been on the earth. Deep down, I’d always had an inkling that I’d die young. And I’d leave a beautiful corpse. We never thought we would make it to forty. Most men in Delaney worked to the bone, had some type of hustle, worked to bone dry, and huffed hot for reprieve. And since that was the men’s case, what was the ominous case for the women of Delaney?
Grandma Mary-Mary always told me I wasn’t going to die in Delaney. Or, “She’d sit me on her lap, ask what I’d been doing on the playground, what I wanted to become in the future, my interests: ice cream, the Silver Surfer, football, Argo starch, and my sketches. She’d talk to me like grown people talked to each other—with laughter—the smacking of her knee, her hearty overt hand motions. I loved it, ate it up—loved her skin and face touching mine. I wanted to marry her. What could I have done without her? Who would bring Aunt Lucy and me Marvel and DC comics? Who would dangle a cigarette in her mouth and still chat it up like Aristotle with me? Only Grandma Mary-Mary could satisfy my satiation. But things changed. She grew into a prostrated lump, a reclusive ball. She would fall asleep with her cigarette in her mouth, sometimes burning the covers, sometimes her clothes. Her smile moved to another place on her face—furrowed brows—something forced. She didn’t want me to notice her down, but I did nothing to notice. She was there. I saw her, always before me, until she wasn’t.
Flashing lights of an ambulance in Delaney. All the neighbors gathered like it was a magnet pulling them to its center. My best friend, Eric Mosley and I viewed the commotion and ran towards the gathering crowd. We loved to run. Running made us feel like we couldn’t be touched by anyone or anything—exuberance, pure adrenaline, and power. Especially since nobody in our neighborhood had any power. Running to the scene of a crime, where the ambulance parked, made it more a stellar impetus for our virile energy. But suddenly we stopped.
“It’s your house Sam.”
I took off, passed Eric and ran across Fillmore Street, to my apartment. After fighting my way through the crowd, I saw Grandma Mary-Mary strapped to a stretcher with Aunt Lucy alongside of her, with two male paramedics.
“Give us some room, please,” one of the paramedics demanded. The crowd didn’t move. The crowd never moved. If the paramedic wasn’t careful he could be on the stretcher.
“Stay with Eric-and-them. I’ll call you later, from the hospital,” Lucy said in a voice I had never heard before. Her beautiful tight face had an added weight. The petite runner with the family nose—who occasionally dressed like a guy because of her tomboyishness—was a young woman men craved to do grown up things too. But at that moment, she looked so old.
Aunt Lucy was more of a man than any of Mama’s brothers: Uncle Bobby who loved to wrestle with me, Uncle Little Mike who took Shelley and me for rides on his motorcycle, or Uncle T-Bone, who was in the army and lived in the Philippines, who took me to see Bruce Lee flicks when he came to town. Other than that, Aunt Lucy would slap-box and wrestle with me, beat me in foot races and play with me until she got tired of my crap. She even taught him how to draw superheroes. We collected comic books and loved to read and draw from them all night long. Or we would stay up all night and watch old movies that come on The Late Late Show on our black and white television. There were other men who tried to maintain some status in my life, but I knew they wanted to get in Mama’s pants. But I didn’t need indignation from Aunt Lucy; I needed to be with Mary-Mary.
“I want to go, too! I don’t want to…”
“Stay here, Sam, please,” she said. “Mary-Mary has to go to the hospital for some test. I’ll call you when I know something. Okay?”
I looked at Mary-Mary as they put her in the belly of the ambulance. She was unconscious. The doors closed. The lights bounced off the apartment buildings on Fillmore Street, and as the ambulance moved away from the apartments, it created a beautiful play of red and blue on brick and green. The sun was setting. The ambulance turned right onto 21st Avenue, the siren fading, fading, fading. The voices around me got louder, louder, louder. . .
“Man, I think she’s dead.”
“Man, she ain’t dead. She was still breathing, fool.”
“How you know?”
“Sam, you okay?” “He just lost his Nana Jo ‘bout a couple of week ago. Po’ baby.” I didn’t need this—not now. Someone touched my shoulder. “I hope Mary-Mary’s alright.” “That’s what happened to my sister’s mother—died in her house and no one was there to watch her. It stank for a week.” “She’s probably silly drunk,” someone said. I turned quickly to see who had said it, to only meet stares.
“Hey, let’s play piggie,” a kid yelled out. “Piggie-one!” “Piggie-two!” “Piggie-three!” The children from the block ran back out onto Fillmore Street to set up for Piggie.
“Look at that little fool, don’t know what to do,” an older male voice said.
Funny, he’s right.
“Come on, Sam. Let’s go over to my house,” Eric said, and grabbed my arm.
I pulled away from Eric’s grip. I looked in the direction where the ambulance disappeared out of Delaney. Everyone and everything I knew was gone.
“Brother, she’s gone. How long you gon’ stay there looking at nothing?”
“Shut up, Bobby! Leave him alone, that’s Mary-Mary, his grandmamma stupid!”
“Lynelle, I know that. But all he’s doing is standing there, crying. Look at him. Sam? Sam?”
I looked up at Bobby, my next door neighbor. He was chewing tobacco between his bulbous dark lips, that’s all he ever did, no matter how the world shifted, tobacco kept him grounded.
“Go on ‘cross the street with Eric, so you can be there when ya Aunt Lucy calls, okay? I’ll lock the door for ya.”
I nodded. All I could do was nod. The concrete looked cold under the coming of night, but couldn’t have been in the summer heat.
“Gon’ now,” Bobby said.
I walked stiffly across the street, across the concrete. Eric held the screen door open for me to go into his apartment. Simultaneously, the body of the crowd dispersed into the amber glow of the coming night.
I hated the hospital. It smelt like unwrapped, clean, syringes—clinical. I hated seeing Mary-Mary in that plastic tent. I hated watching Shelley in the lobby full of art deco chairs and tables. She always had so many questions, and I didn’t own one damn answer. I hated feeling sick to my stomach, everything slowing down, and the antiseptic air—the cold antiseptic air of Methodist Hospital. For goodness sake, it was summer. I hated seeing Mary-Mary in her casket, two weeks after Nana Jo’s funeral. I hated Aunt Loretta’s scream; she was my Mama’s youngest sister. My Lord, she screamed so loud, and never even made it through the funeral parlor doorway. I still hear Aunt Loretta’s scream, still hear Mary-Mary’s thud. I still get queasy when I think about the ride in the black limousine. It was excessive. Mary-Mary wasn’t about shiny big cars, she was real. The flowers, music, tears, and people—some I had never seen; it was all too much. The horrifying scream Aunt Loretta made, that was real. The thud—real. The rest—bull.
When I got back home I went straight to Eric’s. I told him what happened at the funeral: the crying, the people, the limo, and Aunt Loretta. Eric just looked at me, like I was his dog and had a limp leg. He wanted to say something but had nothing to say. He was silent. I got silent. The day moved by in inches.
From Eric’s bedroom window, we watched a flock of people go in and out of the screen door to my apartment, we could hear the music of Motown feed their souls, and we saw the bottles of liquor turned up so the liquid could slide down to their livers, and ride into oblivion.
As I left Eric’s family gave me head rubs, hugs, and sorrowful looks. Mr. Mosley told me to bring him a plate before he went to work. Mary-Mary had recently said, “Nothing like dead folk, food, and music all cramped up together.” That was after Nana Jo’s funeral. Somehow I left with a half smile on my face, ran outside with no shoes on, felt the hot asphalt under my feet. When crossing the street, I turned to the noise that reminded me of Aunt Loretta, earlier, at the funeral parlor—screeching tires from a car, like her scream.
I was in the middle of the street with Death, when Mama came out of our apartment, she must have been looking out the window because she ran out to the street where I was.
“Watch were you going, don’t you see children outside crossing the damn street!” She yelled at the car.
“Sam, baby. Come on. Get out of this street.”
“No Mama.” I could feel the heat under my feet, the sweat on my big naked forehead. “I’m not moving.”
“I’m not playing with you, you better get yo’ narrow ass out this street boy! Come on Sam!” Mama tugged at me.
I didn’t move.
“You have to look at him, Mama. Nana Jo and Mary-Mary said so.”
“Come on here, boy, before I…”
“Look at him, Mama! Look at him! Dead on!” I didn’t take my eyes off of Death. Her grip loosened from around my arm, she looked towards the car, back at me, back to the car. The engine revved and revved and revved as white smoke filled the air. In my periphery I could see her tilt her head.
“Look at his eyes. They not natural.”
“It’s Death, Mama. Just like Mary-Mary told me.”
“Oh, it is, huh? Well…let me go get some chairs so we can just sit and watch this son-of-a-bitch, straight on!”
We both stared through the windshield. I know I looked him dead in his eyes. Mama must have too because the engine stopped revving, and it got quiet. For a second, I forgot it was hot.
He took his toothpick out of his mouth, and like a gentleman, tipped his white hat to Mama, and then me. He looked at me a few seconds longer. I heard music so luminous; I heard words come out of nowhere—lyrics—out of the mouth of babes, but like a chorus of angels. For a second, everything turned totally white. My heart beat fiercely, what I thought a heart attack felt like. Then, I felt so calm. I saw the faces of Nana Jo and Mary-Mary.
Mama looked at me—bent down and touched my face—smiled.
I thought, “Mary-Mary must have spit you out.”
“Come on Sam, baby. Let’s celebrate this family.” Mama took me towards our apartment, out of the street, her arms tight around my torso.
A blue jay spoke to me from the lone elm tree in front of our apartment. It chirped a melodious tune. It said, “Good day my boy.” I had never seen a blue jay before, other than in a book. And the blue of its body was so blue. I had never seen a cardinal either. And then a cardinal landed on a tree branch not far away from the blue jay. It said to me, “How’s it going, son?” They both started talking to each other, resting before continuing on their journey. The cardinal had come from the west and had been drawn to this elm tree. The blue jay had been drawn from the east to this spot. They both looked at me. The red and blue against the brown and green of the elm, under the sun’s yellowing of life, was so vibrant and clear. I inhaled, and I could smell the world, every bit of it. As we entered our apartment, one of them said, “The child has the heart of a brave one.”
My mother said aloud, “Yes, he does.” She looked down at me, and I, up at her. I saw her for the first time, as we entered the apartment overtaken by raucous voices and Motown.
~ ~ ~
Curtis L. Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, and currently is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). His forthcoming poetry book, “This” Ameri-can-ah, will be released in 2015 (Cherry Castle Publishing). His other books are Pulling Scabs (nominated for a Pushcart), Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel (YA), and Tough Boy Sonatas. He has two chapbooks: Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy, and Spill. He is the recipient of fellowships from the VCCA, Soul Mountain, a guest resident at Hamline University, the recipient of the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, the recipient of two Indiana Arts Commission Grants, the Eric Hoffer Award, and was nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Award. He is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Contributing Editor for Aquarius Press. His poetry has been adapted to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he has published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies. His fiction piece, “The Gift” (first published in The New Sound: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Arts and Literature. Volume I, Number I Spring, 2012: 84-98. Print.) is currently being adapted into a short film of the same name by the independent filmmaker, Timeca Seretti (Austin, Texas).