Malcolm Morley, The Sky Above, The Mud Below, 1984, oil on canvas, 85 × 60 inches. Courtesy of Xavier Fourcade, Inc.
Grandfather’s house creaks with ghosts at night. On soft carpeted floors the low legs of old people pass by heat vents in house shoe, heavy sock and sandal. Cigar ashes and ancient cracked nutshells lie in an orange ceramic ashtray. Flannel gowns brush past table cloths and in the kitchen dishwater runs late, little black pots are scrubbed clean of beef and saltpork and thick chicken grease is poured into a small jar on top of the stove. Cooked greens are covered and set in the icebox. The shades to the windows have been pulled down for hours, since dusk, and after the soapy water has been rinsed from the last dinner dish way after midnight the light in the kitchen goes off and the ghosts go to bed.
In the morning the windows are very clean the grass and the grapevines and the pearl pear and apple trees in the backyard are long loose free and yellowing it is autumn. Mother and I leave Grandfather’s house early, looking for nursing homes. In the winter we will not be able to get to this nursing home very often because it is way out on Big Beaver and 16 Mile Road and the snow will fill up Woodward Avenue and we won’t be able to make all the slick curves and turns and the hills and delleys and the thin two lane highway and we ask the lady if he comes here can we hang pictures or bring a favorite chair you know something from home? The lady nods all knowing all understanding outlining to us the costs the haircuts, laundry, and oxygen. Are they diapered Mother asks? Do you have other blacks? Well no the lady says, but would do everything in our power to make your father feel comfortable. (Make him feel like one of us). Mother, the lady and I walk the aisles. I feel weird looking into people’s rooms, them laying in there sleep or watching TV. Clean cold linoleum. Heads hung over in a wheelchair. In one double room there is an empty bed and the lady walks right in and throws open a man’s clothes closet to show us the space. “See we have lots of closet space,” she says, “and a hydraulic lift to help get ’em into the bathtub.” Old people watch mother and I going through the wings. Old white men sniff our skin. Detect who we may bring. And the black people we see in white uniforms work quietly without radios at six o’clock honey, they go home.
There is another nursing home on our list. It is across the street from the hospital and we can go visit him later. We wait in the lobby. A white lady with a wig sat sideways on her head comes out and we are in her office taking church applications and medicaid forms then we are in the wards of lysol/urine/social activity boards. Black women in white uniforms white stockings and white garter tops bend over rags and wheeling mops gather for a talk and a smoke in the lounge and when they see the lady coming they separate and scatter lilt rags dreening hot water into a pail. The lady says we have four well really five blacks here we have an 85-year-old woman who’s very lightskinned and refuses to admit she’s black she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it we know she’s black but everytime we say something to her about being black she says she don’t want nothing to do with it I guess she doesn’t know who she is I think its a shame at 85 not to know who you are don’t you?
Don’t worry. My grandfather knows who he is. He knows who he is and where he wants to get out of (the hospital). He just gets mixed up with the days and who’s living or dead. He asks why grandmother has not come to visit him. He says he heard she got shot. Or killed in a car crash in North Carolina. We know that uncle Elmer has been by because pop is shaved and his hair combed. “Naw I ain’t seed Elmer nor William all day,” he says. “Bought them boys a coupla mackinaws a gypsy was selling outside the plant. Good red plaid lined mackinaws, they looks warm but Ardie Mac says they gon be too small so I been waiting all day for them boys t’come from school so’s they kin try ’em on.”
A red plaid jacket hangs from the antlers of a deerhead mounted on the basement wall. Red plaid wool and two deers Pop had hunted and killed way up near Mackinaw in the Upper Peninsula a four hundred mile drive alone to a wild forest with bear, deer, and Indian lodgings. Deerheads mounted with glassy eyes and the deer meat called venizun that my mother and her brothers didn’t want to eat when they were small cause they said it tasted too wild and salty and Grandfather if he had been drinking whisky would get mad and everyone would be scared he storming round the old pot bellied stove house on Orleans swearing and a cussing and sayin, “Ain’t no use a me going huntin n’mo if’n I kills it and brings it home and won’t nobody eat it but me. Down south that’s all we did have t’eat what my Daddy caught and killed and brought home and y’all get up there and say y’all cain’t eat no caught meats y’all just want hamburger and what come outen the sto but I ain’t got money t’get sto meats all the time.” And soon he would pass out. Go to sleep and get up at 4:00 and wash up and eat him some lil breakfast of beef and saltpork and a lil few green out the black pot in the icebox and heat him up a roll and if it was winter he would go outside and turn on his car and sit in it and let it heat up for a while then drive along Dequindre and if it was summer he would drive with his window rolled down and one arm hanging out it, a dark green Ford, and he would be on the road like other black men up from the south sitting in their cars early in the morning on the wrong side of the long train waiting lining up trying to get out to the Ford Rouge plant and make that 50 cents a day to put food on the table and whiskey in his belly and beat up grandmother a little on Friday nights and after 41 years out there the factory he retired and quit drinking and that’s when I knew him. We watched baseball games together, I took up smoking and he told me to quit before I got hooked. “If you make your bed hard you gonna have to lie on it.” But you smoke a ceega Pop but thats me and a ceega that’s different
And grandmother would send us to Jackolax Party Store for Pop’s ceega and our popsicles. there was a non-liquor selling grocery store two blocks away but if we went to Jackolax we only had to cross the street once and we would go along Dequindre which was a big street and we liked to go that way cause we got to walk by a vacant lot full of yellow and green weeds and catch hoppergrassers. The cars were not zooming but rolling fast along Dequindre and we would count them and their colors blue and red and fender and silver side stripes and cousins Paul and Calvin would jump and shout and slap hands and say “Whoa that was bad” when they saw a Mark IV. People waited for the Dequindre bus in white uniforms or blue work clothes but we were just going to the store. And Grandmother had already told us so we weren’t afraid to walk fast and beware of the men and the bad boys and the kings of the cool jerk who hung out in front of party stores. And Pop would say, “Y’all don’t be afraid a no bad boys ain’t nobody gon bother you do I’ll come over there with my shot gun and see who’s gonna bother you then?”
His legs, slightly paralyzed, bother him now. He asks me to move them around a little bit and I work ’em right then left. Circular motion, up and down at the knee. work his legs move ’em. vigorously. “Thank you gail,” he says, slow and long and voice phlegm filled from the pillow, “That’s worth a million dollars to me.” We tell him Sparky Anderson’s gonna be at Oakland Mall on Friday and we’re gonna buy his autobiography and get him to sign it and bring it to the hospital. “What I want with a baseball book in here” he says, “y’all know I cain’t hardly see nuthin.” “Can you see me pop” “yeah I can see you pretty good gail” he says, “just move my legs around a lil bit. I know y’all gots to go but work ’em round a lil beforehand, if you can, gail, that’s worth a million dollars to me.”