Himself, Guilty, fiction by Jeff Crook

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.

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