His muh was barely a week in the ground when his phone rang with Verna on the line.
“Jebby, how soon can you come by the house?” she said in her sugary telephone voice. “I need you to remove your things from the yard.”
A sick feeling came to Jeb’s stomach. For the first time since they had moved into their childhood house, it was inhabited by a single person and she thought she owned it. Verna had paid the property taxes, but Jeb had helped their mother with household expenses since he was a teenager. And the deed was technically still in their mother’s name. That meant Jeb had a right to the place. He’d used the yard for storage for decades, so why should it bother Verna now? Not wanting to risk her winter mood, which could make her go off on you at the drop of a dime, he asked calmly if he could move some things to the basement.
“It’s full already.”
“What about the bedrooms, then?”
“I’m using them too.”
“Come on, Verna. Ain’t you sleepin in the parlor like Muh was? What you doin with both those rooms upstairs?”
“That’s my business.”
Hands starting to sweat, he scrambled for an alternative. Maybe build a fence? But it would take too long to collect wood. The pieces would be mismatched. That wouldn’t suit her either.
“When are you coming, Jeb?” Her words had taken on that ragged edge like their mother’s at her exploding point. “My girlfriends are joining me for tea next week and I don’t want them looking at all this junk.”
Jeb didn’t consider his things art. They were simply what people no longer wanted—what they thought was worthless.
Her friends had been by before and seen the yard, along with everybody else in Vauxhall. And their mother never called it junk. She didn’t exactly offer compliments, but she once compared it to artwork in a museum she visited over in New York with the family she kept house for. But the man who created the work in the museum was white, and an artist at that. Jeb didn’t consider his things art. They were simply what people no longer wanted—what they thought was worthless. When he started working as a trash man, he was shocked at what people threw away. The broken chairs and rusted doorknobs, patched tires and dented pots, scrap metal and auto parts, used cans and bottles. So much of it could be mended and resurrected, unlike people when they die.
“Muh didn’t mind my stuff,” he muttered.
“Mother didn’t mind nothin her baby Jebby did.”
There it was: the real reason she wanted his things gone. Jeb could acknowledge that their mother did beat and yell at him less, but he figured it was because their daddy had given him more than his fair share. Jeb had practically been the old man’s whipping post. And it was natural for their mother to defer to Jeb about matters after their daddy died. After all, Jeb became the man of the house.
He tried to get Verna off the subject by proposing the fence, but when she hissed the word “junk” again, and “eyesore,” their conversation dissolved into yelling and cussing, with Verna dropping more of her g’s. Before slamming the phone down, she said: “I’m gon get a dump truck over here tomorrow and I’m movin it all out, motherfucker.”
This coming from the queen of lies, Jeb didn’t believe it—who in God’s name did she know with a dump truck? But he never knew when to call her bluff. That afternoon, he rounded up his closest friend Booker, his hunting buddies, and a former coworker. As they congregated in the yard on Waldorf Place, surveying his life’s savings, Jeb noticed Verna peeking from the kitchen window at back. Glowering at her, he mumbled for the men to choose items as payment for helping him.
They made their selections and Jeb cringed, especially when his coworker, who also had an eye for the salvageable, indicated the brass bedframe, which had turned green. Jeb had found it last year before he retired and thought it would work well with his muh’s cot. He felt bruised when she refused it. He decided to use it himself, but his woman Faye didn’t like it either.
It distressed Jeb just as much to part with the porcelain sink with the roses on it, which Booker claimed. That sink marked the week his wife Bertha left him. It had been abandoned on the curb in front of a mansion in Maplewood, and he had imagined attaching it to the spigot in the basement. The spigot was still bare; Jeb had moved out of the house not long after Bertha to live with Faye and never got around to doing it. He comforted himself with the thought that there was no use installing the sink now. Verna didn’t deserve his belongings.
Within hours, they had everything loaded into several pickups, including Jeb’s. Jeb got in the lead, cussing Verna the three short blocks to the woods at Vauxhall’s southern boundary. It was the one place he could think to store his things, at least for the meantime.
Faye had made it clear long ago he couldn’t keep anything in their house. When they moved in together after Bertha split, he started stockpiling old newspapers and magazines, which vanished at wintertime. He confronted Faye, who told him she’d tossed them. Jeb raised his hand to smack the matter-of-factness off her face. She, half his size—the same height as his muh—put her hands on her hips and said, “You wanna hit me, Jebby Coleman? I ain’t that wife of yours. You hit me and you can pack the rest of your shit and hit the road.” She must have been drunk; she never cussed unless she was drunk. Jeb remained enraged but had to admire a woman who told him to leave the house he paid rent for. She was just like his muh in that way. Not at all like Bertha, who never put up a fight. Somehow that had always made him want to hit her harder.
When the caravan of pickups entered Bam’s Woods, Jeb guided them along the footpath the high schoolers—including his own children at some point—had made crossing to the bus stop. From there, he veered into the thicket, his truck bringing down saplings and scraping past maples and birches as he forged his own road. The caravan reached a spot where there were no trees carved with initials and hearts of teenagers in love, and the men got to digging.
As they placed his things into the shallow pit and covered them with tarps and branches and leaves, Jeb told himself it was temporary, but he felt discomfort in his chest.
As they placed his things into the shallow pit and covered them with tarps and branches and leaves, Jeb told himself it was temporary, but he felt discomfort in his chest. If he had to put a word to it, he would call it empty. It was like when Bertha gave birth to their first child. Booker and a few other buddies chipped in to buy cigars, and Jeb grinned as they said he must be proud, but when he looked into that fist-sized face that was already so much like his, so much like his daddy’s, he felt irrelevant.
A few days after clearing the yard, Verna phoned again. Jeb’s pressure shot up hearing her voice. He waited for her to say he’d made a mess, but she was in her summer mood. He preferred that mood, even if it frightened him somewhat, she talking so fast at times he could barely understand. Her lies also took on epic proportions.
This time, Verna was calling wanting to know if Jeb had bottles. The Maxwell House ones. Sure he did—now sitting in the woods. He wanted to berate her but refrained, telling her he’d stopped collecting (he hadn’t; the camper on his pickup was already filling). Neither did he ask why she wanted them. She had two years on him at sixty-three, and the older she got, the more she fixated on the oddest things. Her memory was going too: the next time she rang him, it was as if she’d forgotten their conversation, and she was asking for bottles again. He started to let Faye answer the phone, and she’d tell Verna that he was out, or on the john.
When Verna popped into the Vauxhall Diner, Jeb choked on his dinner. She knew where to find him—he’d eaten there every night since their mother died—but Verna had never visited him at the diner before. It was chilly outside, and all she had on was a short-sleeved housedress and gym shoes with no socks. Her gray edges peeped from beneath her kerchief. She scurried down the aisle, drawing stares, and slid opposite Jeb in his booth. Disregarding his frown, she rattled his arm with a surprisingly warm hand, grinning.
“Jebby, I’ve been thinking: we should go down South—you, me, Rosine, and Alma!” She rushed on about escaping the approaching winter, and seeing how Alabama and Florida had changed since Segregation ended, and visiting all the towns their family ever lived in, and finding their grandparents’ graves to put markers on them like they’d done for their mother, so they could officially pay their respects.
Jeb shook his head and cut into his smothered pork chop. Sometimes he didn’t know what planet she was living on. Nobody would be interested in her family field trip, and she should know it. Firstly, he was still upset over the yard. Their sister Rosine was seething too, about Verna taking over the house, even though Rosine had left when she married and only returned on Friday nights to brawl with their mother. As for Alma, the youngest, whenever she heard Verna blathering about the past, she would grumble that it was a foolish thing to dig up.
None of them clung to the olden days like Verna did. Perhaps it was because she was the oldest and remembered the most, she being eight when they left the South. Up in New Jersey, their granpop was the sole adult who used to share stories about bygones. Verna would listen, but the tall white-haired man scared Jeb and their other sisters, with his eyes glazing as he confused them for ghosts.
Furthermore, Verna knew how mention of the South could send Jeb on a tirade. During that Civil Rights mess, he was infuriated to see on television and in the papers the vicious way white folks treated Colored people. The lynchings, the bombings, the marches, the water hoses, the dogs—it was like something from another country. And then there was the reason their family came to New Jersey, if it was true at least, since Jeb overheard it from Verna talking to her husband: the sheriff of Dothan, Alabama, put out a hunt for a “tall nigger” who’d stolen bloomers from a white lady’s clothesline. Their daddy, uncle, granpop, and a cousin, all fitting that bare-boned description, caught a night train north to avoid getting killed.
Verna grabbed the ketchup bottle, pounding it against the tabletop with every word: “And we could search for Uncle Abe, see if he’s still living.”
Jeb shivered, finally feeling what she was radiating. His last encounter with their uncle was imprinted in his mind: that brick-cold day in December 1920 when their daddy’s casket was lowered into the ground at Hollywood Cemetery, a few minutes’ drive east, over in Union. No one had seen or heard from their uncle since. Jeb squirmed, remembering how he used to resent his uncle for abandoning him.
Verna twiddled the bottle cap, saying, “Mother and all the old folks are gone. Who do we have left up here, Jebby?”
He wanted to tell her to stop looking backwards all the damn time.
Her eyes had lost their shine and were welling. Never knowing how to respond to tears or her mood shifts, Jeb stared into his plate, pushing around the last of his food. He wanted to tell her to stop looking backwards all the damn time. She had her children and grandchildren, and more so than he. Her daughters lived a few blocks from Waldorf Place, whereas his children had left not only Vauxhall but the county, moving far away from him. He received visits from just two of the five. But then, he deserved it, didn’t he, after how he treated their mother?
Unnerved, Jeb was about to ask for the check when Verna sat up straighter, cleared her throat, and started laying out travel plans. Peeling at the bottle’s label, she suggested they stop in North Carolina to sleep overnight.
“Our first stop from there,” she said, “should be Campbellton.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jeb said between chews.
It was where their family lived for a spell in Florida, one of the towns she couldn’t resist mentioning in her stories. Jeb almost choked again, though, when she said she’d found a letter from Uncle Abe. It was postmarked from Campbellton just a few years ago. She’d found it when sorting their mother’s things.
Anger prickled at Jeb’s temples. Why hadn’t his muh told him? He used to ask every so often if she’d heard from his uncle, and it was always no. He’d started to believe his uncle must have died.
“Campbellton was no bigger than a minute,” Verna said, rolling the ketchup bottle in her hands. “You remember, don’t you, Jebby?”
He sighed and resumed chewing. She knew the answer.
“It could be an adventure trying to find him, and you know how you like to drive, Jebby.”
He stared at the tattered bottle label, at Verna’s eyes, which were glittering again. Even if their uncle was waiting for them alive, the idea of being sequestered in his truck with Verna didn’t thrill him. At all. He dipped the last piece of meat into his applesauce and told her he’d think about it.
Indeed, it was all he could do the next week. At card games with his buddies, they had to yell his name to make him follow the conversation. He would be lost in thought, reminiscing about his uncle, the memories coming sharper than ever.
He remembered Uncle Abe as a tall and quiet man like his daddy, except that Abe was prone to smiling. His wife was a healthy woman who liked to show all her teeth when she laughed. They would visit Vauxhall once a month from Orange on a horse-driven cart piled with their two kids, Jeb’s granpop, and the peaches, watermelons, and collards Uncle Abe bought wholesale for his restaurant.
Their kids were always laughing like their mother and running. Jeb and his sisters would stiffen, terrified their uncle would hit their cousins or shout like their own daddy did. One time, Jeb couldn’t resist racing against his cousin Henry, excited to have another boy around. And Jeb was winning, which felt good. He got picked on at school for being too slow at games and for having sisters with quicker fists.
When he and Henry rounded the house, Jeb stumbled against the coal chute, smearing black dust on his knickers. His daddy barreled over and raised his fist, but Uncle Abe’s shadow fell across them. “Lea that boy alone,” is all he said, and Jeb’s daddy—taller and older—moved on. Jeb paid for it later, his daddy lashing him with his shaving belt, but whenever Jeb was to think of how he skulked away, he smirked.
Then there was the day of his daddy’s burial. When Uncle Abe announced at the cemetery after the service that he was going back to Florida, Jeb started to cry. Uncle Abe said he’d witnessed too much death. In his less than two years in the North, the people closest to him died: first his father and wife, then his two children, then his daughter’s infant, then Jeb’s daddy. Jeb was eight, old enough to control his tears. His daddy would have backhanded him for it. Uncle Abe handed him a blue handkerchief and patted his shoulder, saying, “You gon get through this, Jebby. You the head of the house now. Gotta be strong for your mammy and them.” Jeb regretted not asking Uncle Abe to take him to Florida, to free him from that house of mule-headed women.
The memory drove Jeb to rummage for his fireproof box, which he hid from Faye. It housed the most personal of his belongings, such as his lucky fishhooks. His baby teeth. His muh’s cornhusk pipe. The Indian head pennies his granpop slipped him, telling him to keep them hidden from Massa Silas. Bunched in the corner was Uncle Abe’s handkerchief, now threadbare and gray. It was one of the earliest things Jeb saved.
Seeing that Segregation business in the news used to make Jeb think of his uncle. He’d wonder why a Colored man who’d known the so-called promised land would return to that. After the death of his muh, Jeb understood; without her presence, “home” felt like nowhere. It made him feel lost. He suspected the same for Verna, and he rang her up to tell her he’d go on her trip. Perhaps she had the right idea about getting away. And how was the South now, considering that Johnson signed away Segregation a decade ago?
He could also understand why his uncle said the North helped lots of Colored folks, but not enough. His daddy and other Colored men got factory jobs that paid far more than sharecropping, but Jeb could count on one hand the Colored women he knew who weren’t domestics for white folks, just like in slavery times. His muh did it practically to her dying day. His sisters were still doing it.
Within a few years, those fresh-off-the-boat crackers could afford a fleet of trucks to pass to their sons while Jeb could just give the Coleman name to his.
As for himself, his muh used to tell him to study hard so he could become a doctor. He loved math, and his white teachers in Vauxhall suggested he think about carpentry. Then came Black Tuesday. Jeb quit school to make money. The best he could get was the job collecting trash. And those Italian boys he worked alongside? Many were in the same situation schoolwise. Some were newly arrived from the mother country and could barely speak English to boot. But they made twice as much and got promoted to drivers. Mr. Fiorelli praised Jeb and the other Colored men for their work, but they stayed stuck on the back of the truck. Within a few years, those fresh-off-the-boat crackers could afford a fleet of trucks to pass to their sons while Jeb could just give the Coleman name to his.
The major things he owned, after working and saving money most of his life, were a pickup truck and a fishing boat. And things people considered garbage.
Verna’s next calls—he’d started answering them again—were to solidify travel plans. First she said they’d go around Christmastime. Then it was the first week of January. Just before New Year’s, she fell sick with something undiagnosed that put her in the hospital. A quick calculation told Jeb that Uncle Abe must be around ninety. If he was still alive, he might not be for much longer.
Jeb drove the few blocks to Waldorf Place to search for his uncle’s letter. He also hoped to find his muh’s wedding ring. It had disappeared long ago, probably thanks to Verna’s notoriously sticky fingers.
The house looked impossibly narrow with the yard vacant alongside it. The knee-high grass was flattened in the places where Jeb’s things had sat, and there were clods of dirt everywhere. The gnarly oak around back, which had shed its leaves, seemed even more naked without its skirt of spare tires. The whole place had the feel of a graveyard whose headstones had been ripped out.
Shuddering, Jeb rushed into the house. The stillness disoriented him. At its fullest, Verna’s and his children would be running in and out, and sometimes Rosine’s too. The television would be blaring a wrestling or baseball match from the parlor, which his muh used for her bedroom. The sweetish haze of her pipe smoke would fill the air. The smell was now gone, and Verna had bought new furniture since he last visited. Every windowsill and ledge was crammed with her ceramic and brass figurines, history books, and old greeting cards.
Jeb started his search in the parlor but had trouble staying for long. Verna had gotten rid of their mother’s cot and moved in her bed. It was almost as if their mother never existed. The upstairs bedrooms, unlike what Verna had told him, were empty. Thinking he could have very well used them, he fumed down the two flights of stairs to the basement. Crossing to the house’s only toilet, he banged his knee. A crash sounded. He fumbled to turn on the lightbulb above the toilet and gasped.
The dank space, with its familiar smell of coal dust, was crammed with boxes, bins, and crates. He’d knocked over one with baby-doll clothes and miniature furniture. They looked too expensive for Verna’s domestic’s salary. Jeb sucked his teeth and shook his head, remembering how their mother used to harangue Verna about her stealing. As he was replacing the items, he saw what he wanted: his muh’s old trunk. He hurried over, opened it, and jumped away. A ghost, is what he thought he saw. He chided himself for being a yellowbelly but his heart was pounding as he crept back. Seeing the pale unsmiling face inside, he forced a chuckle.
It was the large painted photograph of his daddy’s mother, Adelaide. It used to hang in the parlor next to those of his daddy and granpop, both of which he found at the bottom of the trunk. Jeb shivered to see how young his daddy now looked. Jeb had outlived him by more than three decades. His granpop’s face, on the other hand, used to strike him as ancient. Now, they had the same crevices in their cheeks and foreheads, the thick moustache, and white cottony hair.
Jeb hastily replaced the photos and hunted through the rest of the trunk. Neither Uncle Abe’s letter nor his muh’s wedding ring was there. The remaining personals were his muh’s old pairs of eyeglasses and medical bills. He slipped the glasses into his overcoat pocket. He was no thief like Verna; he considered them heirlooms. Why did Verna need them anyway, after claiming the house and now the yard too?
She must have been lying even back then. What would she, who frequented Harlem nightclubs like the Savoy, want with a self-described country boy?
In one of the boxes, Jeb was elated to find letters, but the first group, tied with a ribbon and thick as a dictionary, wasn’t from his uncle. It was from Verna’s husband, who’d written to her throughout his service during the second World War. Jeb’s chest tingled when he found more letters beneath, from Campbellton. There were four, postmarked in 1932. Jeb scanned them, quickly frowning. They were love letters to Verna, from a man also named Abe. “Speaking of marrying,” he wrote, “you said when you get ready, you are coming home.” She must have been lying even back then. What would she, who frequented Harlem nightclubs like the Savoy over Palladino’s Bar in Vauxhall, want with a self-described country boy?
Jeb sucked his teeth, wondering if in her summer mood, she’d confused those letters for Uncle Abe’s. Or perhaps it was her farmer Abe who she hoped to find in Florida now that her husband was dead, and she’d used their uncle’s name to lure Jeb.
Still, he kept searching. Several other boxes revealed items he could make no sense of and which frankly made him feel an odd sort of way. Like one marked “Important!” It was full of blue bottle caps of different shapes and sizes. Another, mason jars, each stuffed with what looked to be saran-wrapped packets of pillow feathers. When he found a box half full of ketchup bottles, including one with a ripped label reading “Vauxhall Diner,” it was time to leave.
Jeb was on I-95 headed south and he’d told no one, not even Faye or Booker. The news would surely have reached Verna in her hospital bed, and he didn’t want to upset her in her condition. He told everyone he was going to Connecticut to fish.
The highway became one lane when Jeb entered Alabama from Columbus, Georgia, and the gray Buick up ahead was going no more than thirty. Yet he started humming that “Country Roads” song. In all of Verna’s stories, she never mentioned the rust-colored dirt, which he’d found himself marveling at more than watching the bumpers ahead of him. The wide blue sky. The rolling green hills and endless pines. The Spanish moss dangling from furry oaks. The roadside signs advertising boiled peanuts and pigs’ feet. Such a welcome change from New Jersey. Verna didn’t mention the cotton fields either. Their family must have farmed them during slavery and after, but the plowed rows, where scattered white puffs stood defiant, captivated Jeb. There was also the intoxication of January heat and humidity, which he was experiencing for the first time. It soaked through his polyester shirt and forced him to lower his windows around South Carolina. The weather alone might have brought his uncle back.
Verna could have you hanging onto every wild word of her tales, but Jeb thought he might have connected more to where they came from if she mentioned those intimate details. Instead, she insisted on names, like the Alabama town where she claimed he was born. It shared the name of Spain’s capital, she said, though she pronounced it more like candid. It wasn’t on the roadmap—no surprise.
Jeb’s mouth stretched into a smile as he entered Campbellton, Florida—population 316, according to the sign. Upon seeing the lone palm tree at the roadside, he felt the childlike glee Verna had expressed in the diner. He’d never seen a palm tree in person. As random as that one looked, it was an in-his-face message that he’d arrived.
Next to the tree was a small one-story brick building. A hand-painted sign advertised it as both the post office and city hall. As Jeb pulled into the near-empty parking lot, an old white man in overalls who was walking by peered into the truck. Jeb waved with a nod. The man responded by glaring.
Jeb chuckled nervously, telling himself the man was just ornery, not a card-carrying member of the Klan, but his hand shook as he got his brush from the glove compartment. He flipped down the mirror and stared at the burnt-caramel skin speckled with moles, the more-pepper-than-salt hair that had kinked up. He hadn’t encountered a white Southerner before now. The gas station attendants along I-95 were all Colored. Would white folks see him as just another unwanted here?
He brushed his hair into something more presentable, the naps loosening and blending into waves. After straightening his shirt, he stepped out of the pickup. He could hardly breathe, and it wasn’t just the humidity. He glanced between the two doorways, uncertain which to enter. Finally he decided on the post office. If his uncle was alive, he must still receive mail.
After straightening his shirt, he stepped out of the pickup. He could hardly breathe, and it wasn’t just the humidity.
Inside, the white farmer-looking man was chatting and laughing with a postal clerk. Jeb was amazed that the clerk was a Colored girl with one of those Afros. She was dark and heavyset, reminding him of Bertha. Bertha—who he hadn’t seen in some three decades, who was still his wife on paper. His stomach curdled as he remembered that Bertha’s family was from Headland, about a half hour’s drive away in Alabama. He fidgeted with his pocket lint, wondering if Bertha had family left there, if she ever wrote to them about him or his muh.
The postal clerk smiled at him. As Jeb stepped to the counter, the white man remained there with his package. Jeb felt the man’s gaze crawl from his head to his shoes. Angling his back to him, Jeb hesitated, not wanting to mention the Coleman name. Somewhere in his mind, he knew that girl couldn’t be related to Bertha and that he was trying to delay the inevitable: hearing that his uncle no longer lived in Campbellton or that he was dead.
“Afternoon,” he mumbled. Recalling from the gas stations that Southern folks were extra polite, he added a “ma’am.” “I’m lookin for somebody. Maybe you knew—know him. His name was Abe.”
The white man grunted. “This Abe got a last name? Lots of Abes around.”
Was I askin you, cracker?
He removed the old gray handkerchief from his shirt pocket, glad he’d tamed the impulse to speak. This ain’t New Jersey, he reminded himself. Don’t go gettin yourself strung up on your first day down here.
Running his fingers across the frayed material, he squeezed out his uncle’s name. Stopped breathing as the white man told him he died.
The postal clerk shook her head. “Naw, Mr. Hinson, Abe Coleman live up around the old Mill Road.”
The white man jammed his thumb over his shoulder. “Laverne, I used to see that man every year on the highway with his peanut stand. Damn near hit him one time.” He slid his face into Jeb’s field of view. “He’d be about my age, wouldn’t you say?”
Jeb’s mouth gaped like the many fish he’d caught. His face had started to drip.
“He ain’t dead, I tell you! He just don’t get out much no more. He married to Doreen from my mama’s Bible study.” She glanced at Jeb and pointed to the left. “Two blocks up, take the road on your left. Three or four houses past the railroad tracks, you gon see a bright yellow house on the right. Can’t miss it.”
He thanked her and turned to leave.
“Sir, you kin to Mr. Coleman?”
He paused. “Just passin through, ma’am.”
A white woman entered with packages heaped onto a baby carriage, asking Laverne for help. Jeb slipped out and rushed to the pickup, his knees barking. As he backed out of the parking space, he almost collided with another pickup entering the lot.
The face that appeared in his rearview was white and scowling. That face leaned out of the truck, yelling, “Watch where you’re goin, nigger!”
So some things hadn’t changed.
“Yessir, can I help you?”
The woman’s voice was soft and sweet but she blocked the doorway with her stout frame. Her age was hard to discern, but she looked too young to be married to a ninety-year-old. She wore a patterned smock and cutoff dungarees.
The smell of fried chicken punched Jeb like a storm cloud, smelling as good as Faye’s. His stomach rumbled. He could see Faye in their kitchen, sulking as he put on his shoes to go to the diner. He missed her food.
As he started to speak, he nearly stuttered like his oldest boy.
“I was told a Abe Coleman live here.”
She didn’t budge. “Yes?”
He cleared his throat, even though it didn’t need clearing. “I’m his nephew. From New Jersey.”
Her hand flew to her mouth. She stepped onto the porch and pulled Jeb to her ample squishy bosom, pinning his arms. Her head barely came to his chest, like Faye’s, and her hair had that same thick smell of Dax grease. She released him, all smiles.
“My goodness gracious! I never realized he still had family up there. I’m Doreen, his wife. You come on in.”
She opened the door wide and Jeb raised his brows. He’d heard about Southern hospitality, and he grew up in a time when it was unheard of to lock doors, even on one’s car, but a stranger had never invited him in like that. He felt uncomfortable for Doreen. She should have questioned if he was who he said he was. Or perhaps she saw his resemblance to the man waiting inside.
He took a shaky step across the threshold. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Then Jeb saw him: a cinnamon-colored man dozing in a rocking chair, a trail of drool on his chin. He appeared to be drowning in his overalls and white long-sleeved shirt. Did all the men in Campbellton wear overalls?
That man looked too fragile to be his uncle. Maybe Campbellton had more than one Abe Coleman? But as Jeb’s gaze swept around the modestly furnished room, he saw the enormous framed photograph above the sofa. The unsmiling woman—skin pale enough to make her look white, or like a ghost.
“Nice picture, ain’t it?” Doreen said. “That’s his mama.”
“I know. Adelaide. She was my granma.”
Doreen’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Y’all really is kin.”
She walked over to the old man and roused him. He looked around, dazed, clutching the arms of the chair. His eyes were like those of a bird of prey. They homed in on Jeb.
“Who that, Reenie?”
Doreen shouted into his ear. “That’s your nephew, sugar.”
Doreen glanced at Jeb. “Son, what did you say your name was?”
The man was pushing her aside and standing up, squinting. Jeb could see plain over his head. Why had he thought his uncle would be taller after all that time? He took a step back, feeling winded.
“That you, Pappy?” the man was saying.
Jeb fumbled for words as Doreen flashed an apologetic look. “He think just ’bout every man he see these days is his daddy.”
She grabbed the man’s arm but he shook her off. “I know who my pappy is, Reenie.”
Jeb gasped as his heel made contact with the front door. He hadn’t realized he’d backed up that far. The old man moved in on him. Clasped Jeb’s clammy hand. Placed his head against his shoulder. The head had surprising weight and heat. Jeb’s eyes watered, and he told himself it was because of the Old Spice. He hated Old Spice.
A sharp pain came to the left side of his chest, just below his clavicle. Before he could worry if it was the first sign of a heart attack, Doreen jolted him again by ringing a bell. Just as fast, the old man released his hand and strode over to Doreen. She motioned for Jeb to stay put as she led her husband down the hall.
Jeb could see plain over his head. Why had he thought his uncle would be taller after all that time? He took a step back, feeling winded.
Jeb plopped onto the couch beneath Adelaide’s stony gaze and glanced at his shirt. There was a half-moon of sweat there, from the old man’s head. The pain in his chest had increased, and he felt his heart beating faster, causing him to sweat more. He pulled Uncle Abe’s handkerchief from his pocket and stared at it, wheezing. His uncle was nothing like he remembered. His uncle did not—could not, perhaps—remember him or anything about the past. He couldn’t tell Jeb how he’d fared with the burden of so much loss.
Doreen shuffled back into the room in her slippers and straightened the crocheted throw on the rocking chair, saying that her bell worked like a charm every time. It got Abe to settle down, reminding him that supper was ready. She glanced at Jeb and her mouth dropped open.
“You okay, son? What’s your name again?”
He mopped his face, avoiding eye contact. “Jeb.”
“Can I make you a plate, sugar?”
“I just ate.” He tried to slow his breathing. “How long he been like—” He twiddled a finger next to his head.
Doreen sighed and sat on the rocker, making it creak. “This thing started about ten years ago. But the doctor say he got good health besides. Still get up at the crack of dawn every day to check them peanuts out back.” She laughed, staring at her small hands. “You oughta see him go. That’s why he was sleep when you came.”
After a pause, Jeb said, “So, he never talked about us?”
Doreen looked away, shaking her head. “Naw. He never talked too much about New Jersey at all, and I ain’t wanna press him. He said he left a lotta death and sadness behind. I presumed everybody was gone.”
Jeb grimaced, folding and unfolding the handkerchief. Doreen honored the silence. Jeb struggled to put together his next question, thinking about what he’d experienced so far in Campbellton: the bigot in the parking lot, the Confederate flags, the way the town’s residents changed from white to black once he crossed the railroad tracks.
“What is it—what was it—about this place, do you think, that made him want to stay down here? I mean, we had it better up North in some ways, but . . . ”
A smile spread across her face, making her seem girlish. “Well, son, he found me.”
Something like guilt mixed with jealousy surged through him. He worked his jaw, thinking about Faye. Faye—who had shared a home with him for thirty years, and who was his woman on the side before that, for most of the seven he lived with Bertha. Faye, who continued to cook dinner for him even as he skipped out to the diner. He knew she suspected him of having a new woman on the side, and he hadn’t even thought to calm her worries by sharing his true travel plans.
And Bertha—she used to fill him with a lust that scared him. It made him place his wishes above his muh’s, and he wasn’t used to that. As hot-blooded as Bertha used to make him feel, though, he reunited with her just once after she left.
The only woman—the only person, really—who had had the power to keep him someplace was his muh, and now she was gone. He felt a stinging in his eyes and balled the handkerchief in his fists.
“I spose you must be tired, Jeb, drivin all this way. Wasn’t expectin guests, but you welcome to stay long as you need. We got us a spare room in the back. You’ll stay, won’t you, son?”
His insides screamed no. But he reminded himself of his age. If you didn’t count the knees, he felt no different than when he was sixteen, but he admitted to himself how tired he was. There couldn’t be a hotel or even motel for miles. He hadn’t thought that far in his travel plans.
“Yes, I’ll stay. Thank you, ma’am.”
He brought in his overnight bag from the truck and followed Doreen down the hall. He glanced around for a collection like his and Verna’s, but the house was spare. It had so few furnishings that there was an echo. The back room Doreen led him to contained a twin-size bed, wooden chair, and ironing board. The solitary wall decoration was a wooden cross.
Doreen apologized for the room being a mess, but the only thing out of order to Jeb was the lumberjack shirt tossed over the chair and the pile of folded clothes on the bed. Doreen transferred it to the ironing board. Before shutting the door softly behind her, she told Jeb the bathroom was up the hall next to the kitchen.
A musty smell rose from the crocheted quilt on the bed as Jeb sat on it. He held his head in his hands, thinking about his feeble-minded granpop. Perhaps his daddy would have gone senile too had he lived long enough. He wondered if the same would happen to him someday soon.
More questions that would never be answered ran through his mind. Why had his uncle lied about having no family left? How had he dealt with Segregation after New Jersey? What would Jeb’s life have looked like had his uncle taken him to Florida?
I wouldn’t have shacked up with Bertha.
Jeb did it because his muh didn’t like her, and he wanted to make his own decision for once. Because, while he might have been the sole man in the house on Waldorf before his sons were born, his muh never stopped presiding over it. His muh henpecked him over Bertha, and he took to yelling at her for the first time in his life. After Bertha ran off, Jeb couldn’t put up with the children crying and carrying on, asking when their mother was coming back. That’s why he moved in with Faye, he told his friends. The real reason was too shameful: without Bertha between him and his muh, he might have turned his fists on her, just like his daddy did.
Uncle Abe probably never hit a woman.
But, he told himself, without Bertha, his children wouldn’t exist. And even though few of them kept in touch, their visits reminded him he hadn’t done such a bad job as a daddy. He’d kept them clothed and fed, and two had finished high school. They were all employed, and none of his daughters was cleaning houses.
And I’d prolly be wearin overalls right now.
He snickered, wiping his eyes. He would also probably have a farm. He wouldn’t have become a trash man. Wouldn’t have learned to see the value in unwanted things.
The thought of it made him itch to get back home. He could see his collection rotting there in the woods. His stomach growled, and he thought of the Hungry Man Special at the Vauxhall Diner. What he really wanted, though, was Faye’s fried chicken. His knees ached for the down-home ointment she made, which cooled and soothed his joints without that Ben-Gay smell.
He grabbed his bag, heaved himself off the bed, then paused. A feeling of unsettlement came over him—the same as when he saw the bare yard on Waldorf. He was about to stuff the lumberjack shirt into his bag when he visualized Verna doing likewise with her baby-doll furniture, the ketchup bottle, his muh’s wedding ring. He fingered the soft red material, which had the slightest scent of aftershave, suddenly understanding why Verna stole. And he was no thief.
Remembering his camera, he tossed the shirt back onto the chair and dug through his bag. He told himself that as soon as he got back home, he would fabricate a story for Verna. He would say that their uncle never wrote because he had difficulty establishing himself in Florida, that he wanted no more visits because he was ill, and that he had a good woman looking after him. If Jeb told the truth, Verna might think he was hiding some historical detail their uncle had shared. She might try to come see him herself. Jeb wanted to spare her the disappointment. And who knew what she might try to pilfer?
He fingered the soft red material, which had the slightest scent of aftershave, suddenly understanding why Verna stole. And he was no thief.
He’d give Faye and his friends the real version, though, focusing on the heat and how hospitable everyone was, the red dirt, the lone bolls of cotton, and the overalls everywhere. A surge passed through him as he considered sharing the story of the trip with his children too. When they next visited, Faye wouldn’t have to prompt him to mention the latest trout he’d caught or the bears and deer he’d felled. Those stories made his children look like they were sleeping with their eyes open. Jeb even considered telling all of his children, whoever was willing to listen, about Uncle Abe. The man was, after all, their uncle too.
He left the room and found Doreen in the kitchen eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes opposite her husband. The old man was slumped over, snoring softly. Spotting Jeb, Doreen put a finger to her lips. She tiptoed out of the room and Jeb followed into the living room.
“Everything okay, son?”
Jeb cleared his throat, which had started burning. “I’m gonna get goin.” He ignored her widened eyes. “Best to hit the road before the sun go all the way down. Before I leave, though, can I take a picture of him?”
“You sure? It’s so dark out already.”
“Yeah, I got a flash.”
He pointed at the framed photograph of his granma, knowing Verna would demand hard evidence, which she expected from everybody’s stories but hers.
“And I want her in it, too.”
Doreen gave him a funny look but consented. He removed the photograph and carried it outside. Like his childhood home, the yard sat alongside the house, but the similarities stopped there. There was white sand, not grass. A vat stood near the back of the house, along with a signboard reading “Peanuts for sale.” A hedgerow divided the yard and the field beyond.
Jeb placed Adelaide’s photograph atop a chair Doreen brought. She returned inside and led out a sleepy-looking Abe. She motioned for Jeb’s Polaroid but Abe scowled, asking why she wouldn’t join them. After she left to get a neighbor, Jeb glanced at the old man, who was brushing crumbs from the bib of his overalls. Jeb felt the unanswered questions at the back of his throat. He pulled the gray handkerchief from his pocket and got Abe’s attention with it.
“Say, man,” he said, his voice hoarse, “you don’t remember—”
The old man’s brows furrowed but he looked up and smiled at the commotion from next door. Doreen was coming across the yard with a dark-skinned teenage boy as short as she was.
“Reenie! What you doin there with my pappy?”
The pain returned to Jeb’s chest. Doreen gently reminded Abe that they were taking a photograph. She positioned him closer to the chair, which she took her place behind. Jeb stood on the other side. The boy told them to cheese but Jeb couldn’t bring himself to lift his lips. The three photos the camera spat out, dark despite the flash, revealed that none of them had smiled. Their expressions were just as sober as Adelaide’s.
Jeb gave one of the Polaroids to Doreen, who walked him to his truck, saying, “Wish you coulda stayed longer, son. But I understand. You got a wife and kids?”
He nudged a pebble with his shoe and nodded. Yeah, but . . .
“That’s good. I got a son from my first husband who passed, bless his soul. I wish Abe ain’t have to bury the both of his so young. Wish I coulda gave him some more, but we was too old for that.” Jeb glanced in time to see her eyes water. He thrust the handkerchief at her but she shook her head and smiled up at him. “Treasure them, mm?”
His throat was on fire. Unable to look at her, he got into the truck, saying, “I never found out why they went up north in the first place. Did he ever tell you?”
“Well, well. I don’t quite remember, now. You know, back in those days, with the boll weevils destroyin crops and everythang . . . actually, you know what? I think he said somethin ’bout . . . was it somebody accused him and his daddy of stealin clothes from a white person’s yard? Somethin like that.”
Jeb’s eyes bulged. Verna wasn’t lying, for a change? He bellowed a laugh that made his own eyes wet. Doreen looked confused, even more so as his laughter morphed into hacking sobs. Tears were everywhere. Running from his eyes. Slipping into the corners of his mouth. Pooling in his goatee. He scrambled to start the engine so he could hightail it, but he dropped his keys. By the time his frantic fingers located them, Uncle Abe stood at the window with Doreen, holding out a blue striped handkerchief.
Open-mouthed, chest still heaving, Jeb took it.
“It’s gon be alright,” his uncle said, his eyes starting to well.
Chills ran down Jeb’s neck. Perhaps his uncle’s mind had flashed back, after all the loss of memory. But then Abe looked over at Adelaide’s photo, saying, “Mama gone now, but you gon be alright, Pappy.”
Jeb felt his lips pulling down. The old man hunched his shoulders and started crying himself. Doreen pulled Abe gently away from the truck, motioning for Jeb to get going. Jeb tore out of the yard, one hand on the wheel, the other swiping at his face. When his sobs had turned to sniffles, he glanced at his hands on the wheel and saw he had a handkerchief in each, one old and one new. He stared so long that he almost swerved across the divider line.
He considered saving them to add to his fireproof box. On second thought, seeing them later would only remind him of what he already wanted to forget: the uncle who didn’t rescue him as a boy and can’t rescue him now. He considered tossing them out of the window and leaving the past in the South, for good, when he remembered Verna. The handkerchiefs would be worth something to her.
Soon after crossing into Alabama, he was tucking the handkerchiefs into his shirt pocket when he slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. The car behind him swiveled around him, honking. His heart was racing as he squinted in the rearview, scanning the roadside for what he thought he’d seen. He pulled sharply to the shoulder, then stumbled out of the truck and rooted through his bag. Camera in hand, he jogged back a few paces.
His eyes hadn’t fooled him. There it was: a signpost at the roadside with a teeny metal plaque: Madrid, pop. 202. He aimed the Polaroid and snapped a photo but the flash refused to work. Jeb shook the camera, pressed the shutter again and again until he’d used up the last of his film pack. Still no flash. Every photo came out nearly black