At the wake he realized he had never seen her move, never even saw her get up to go to the bathroom. He had only ever encountered her already enthroned, frightful dewlaps unfolding as she reached out and drew him into the goblin luxuriance of her enormous bosom. Her dry lips forcing a horrified kiss. The beige rolls of pantyhose slipped and fallen about her splotched and marble-veined ankles. The dog piss smell of her house, and the rolled-up newspaper with which she swatted at the pissing dog, always just out of reach, a miniature black-and-tan jester, mocking her rule, biting the paper, pulling it out of her hand and tearing it to shreds.
She didn’t even look like the same woman with her features flattened out in repose and puffed up by the mortician’s hidden scaffoldings. He knew nothing of how she died, stroked out and drowned in her body’s own fluids, choking on her dying words. Not for years yet. They told him nothing, so he concluded he murdered her, himself, guilty. He was shoved into a friend’s mother’s car and sat in the back seat next to a suitcase. She had died, conveniently enough, on a Thursday morning. By Sunday afternoon, they had filled in her grave. Monday came and there was only the legal work and the wrangling over the estate, the little house on a square of dirt, like all the houses on her street too small and too close to the houses beside it, a litter of broken bottles along the curb, a ramshackle garage honeycombed with dirt dauber nests, and honeysuckle and blackberry vines engulfing the fence in back. The house was empty except for her enormous ghost. They had ransacked her closets and emptied her drawers of their clutter. Empty, the house was stuffed with brooding shadows. For possession of this his mother and aunts threw hysteric fits on the front lawn and were dragged by reluctant apologetic husbands across the sidewalk to a pair of waiting black Mercedes–he didn’t watch as he stood at the window holding GI Joe by one well-muscled plastic arm.
He dug a wrinkled stick of Juicy Fruit gum from the back pocket of his jeans. He had a shoebox-full of Juicy Fruit at home underneath his bed, looted from drawers all over the house after she died–his only legacy. He peeled the foil from the warm stick of biscuit-colored candy and folded it into his mouth. It tasted best warmed by his body and already soft, filling his mouth with sweet spit. The flavor reminded him of her, conjured up her ghost like a bell in the dark.
He wasn’t afraid of her ghost, but he was afraid of her. She had been an enormous woman, body and presence, bigger than the house that contained her. There never seemed enough room for anyone else. She crowded the den she perpetually occupied, never moving from her chair that he ever witnessed, and her voice, raked by two packs of Winstons a day, penetrated into every corner of the house, back to its dustiest, spider-haunted cracks and mouse holes.
He wandered away from the window, kicking his heels against the loose floor tiles, until he found himself before the hall to Ruby’s room. It was long and unlit, and for a moment he stood at its entrance, breathing Juicy Fruit fumes through his nose and wadding his hands into fists. Ruby lived in a room attached to the house behind the garage. His grandmother was the last of that last generation of old cotton families who couldn’t imagine a house without a Negro servant in it, even though the servant was too old to serve. Some years before, Ruby had been bitten on the knee by a water moccasin. Its venom had turned her kneecap to sponge and left her crippled. She was nearly as old and immobile as his grandmother.
Ruby had vacated the house upon his grandmother’s death, bundled away to live with a daughter he had never seen until that day. She said his grandmother would still be walking. He didn’t know what that meant at the time.
Ruby’s door was brown like the rest of the house. Light escaped beneath it into the dark hall, pooling across the linoleum squares on the floor. He placed his hand against it and smelled the warm lacquered wood, felt the waxy, slightly sticky surface beneath his fingers. He had always knocked before entering. Now there was no reason to knock, but he felt guilty anyway as he turned the crystal doorknob.
Ruby’s room was the brightest room in the house. He breathed in the enduring odor of the woman who once lived there. Her walls were painted a dull, smoked-stained gold, while the rest of the house dwelt in paneled gloom. Brighter, unfaded rectangles lingered on her walls where her relics had hung above her bed – the framed portraits of Jesus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn’t know who they were, except for the flaxen-haired Jesus, but they were Ruby’s holy trinity. She had always kept little red cloth dolls lying about her shelves and pinned to her walls–another thing he never questioned and she never explained. And now, that also was gone, waiting to be remembered.
Ruby’s room, like the rest of the house, was empty, but this was the one room in the house where she could not come. The Negro door was an impassible barrier, even in death. As he entered Ruby’s room, he flicked the small hook and eye latch on the door frame. Ruby had locked herself in at night.
Where the rest of the house was forever dark and always a little damp, here was freedom and light and safety, in the quarters of a black woman who was not his blood, warmth in her generous lap and in the quilts that covered her bed. He could still smell the oranges she chewed, spitting out the pulp into a newspaper spread on her lap, the spicy smell of the dirt snuff tipped liberally from the tin can into the scarlet, outstretched hollow of her full bottom lip, and the big strong bracing odor of her body.
He walked to the window and looked out at the tiny back yard. Her window was at the back of the house, on the south side, the only south-facing window not stuffed with an air conditioner. It looked beyond the yard toward the railroad tracks and the arena where they had wrestling on Monday nights. Sunlight streamed through the greasy, dusty glass, filling the room with golden light. Looking out this window was like looking out of an entirely different house. From here, he couldn’t see or hear his family in the front yard, making the break that would endure until the next funeral, twelve years from now.
He noticed his own reflection in the window, the movement of his jaw as he chewed, the reflection of the the open door behind him, and the long dark hall where his grandmother leaned with one hand against the wall to catch her breath. He closed his eyes for a moment and clung to the window sill, not afraid, merely condemning himself because, in a moment of smothering horror gripped to her sagging breasts, he had secretly wished she would die.
Terrified by his own power and purpose, he was now afraid to wish her dreadful ghost away. Her wrath and her hoard of Juicy Fruit were all he had left of her. Her house had been stripped bare like the passing of locusts. Ruby’s closet was empty, her bed taken away. Jesus and Doctor King had left their own ghosts upon her wall.
Gathering his courage, he looked once more at the reflection of the hall in the window. His grandmother had withdrawn, granting him another shot at forgiveness or escape. He departed, daring the long bleak darkness.
He entered the kitchen, paused to look into her empty windowless bedroom where he had never played because of the sewery old woman smell. Then he examined the square of matted, oily dust on the floor where the refrigerator once stood. The dishwasher, which had to be rolled out from the cabinet and a hose screwed to the faucet above the sink, stood in the middle of the kitchen in a puddle of water – the only appliance they couldn’t sell.
He opened all the cabinets and found them empty and greasy, all the drawers and the empty pantry stinking of cold grease, but in the enameled metal sink he discovered a dinted pot with the handle broken off. He picked it up and let it drop. At the loud bang, the house seemed to draw up like a snake. Without looking back, he trotted through the den, through the dog piss smell and the air squeezing his lungs, hearing the slap slap slap of her slippers behind him, feeling the touch of her papery fingernails caress his neck, seeking one last kiss upon her bruised and vengeful lips.
The back door opened into a weed-strangled yard surrounded by a hog fence. Stacked concrete bricks made leaning steps down to a muddy patch where dozens of feral cats lay heaped in the afternoon shadows. As he jumped down among them, they exploded across the yard and vanished into the honeysuckle and blackberry margins.
The screen door slapped shut behind him. The house seemed to swell with the enormity of her malice. He imagined her in the ground, her dead face in the dark, cold and angry at being dead and no longer the center of everything, all her things auctioned off by her daughters, and her grandson’s bitter death wish the cause of it all.
Across the yard, chained to a stump and caked with dried mud and shit, her dog, her bereft jester, strained at its knotted chain, barking hoarsely at her ghost. He picked up a disk of ham bone that he found half-buried in the mud beside the fence. It was a ring of sun-bleached bone as big as a half-dollar, the center packed hard with sandy mud. He considered throwing it at the dog, but at the last second, turned and flung it with an angry shout at the house. It cracked against the wall a few inches from the window where she sat glaring from the ghost of her recliner, her goblin face as gray as the ham bone and the paintless clapboards of her derelict abode.
“Leave me alone,” he whispered fiercely, but he was glad he had missed the window and the whipping he would have gotten had he broken it. He turned and walked along the fence, breathing the guilty sweetness of honeysuckle and plucking blossoms to suck their drops of nectar. “I wish…” he said a little louder, but stopped himself from condemning her soul to hell. And for a moment, he felt her withdraw. For a moment, it was just an empty house. He lowered his head and walked on.
The hard little ball of Juicy Fruit in his mouth had lost its flavor. He swallowed it, heedless of the seven years it would take to digest. He searched the overgrown margins of the garden for blackberries, finding only red ones, red as blood and bitter in the mouth.
Jeff Crook is the author of four novels and dozens of short stories. He lives in Olive Branch, MS with his wife, kids, and cats, but fortunately no ghosts. He has never been published in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler or Juggs, but not from lack of trying, heaven knows.