I’m Back by Frederick K. Foote
I’m Back by Frederick K. Foote
I’m back. I’m back in Mississippi again, and the hair’s rising on the nape of my neck and forearms. There’s a cold chill running down my spine as I walk through the Jackson, Mississippi airport, a portal to the repressive past that refuses to die.
In my mind, I hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”
Walking to my four-wheel-drive rental truck, I pick up the hint of burning black flesh on the humid breeze.
I feel a Trump-inspired resentment growing in the white vendors and service people. I sense in them a longing for the resurgence of the Klan and the White Citizens’ Council.
Just looking at the state of Mississippi on a map sets my teeth on edge. Being down here, drowning, in the humidity and acrimony, is taking an immediate toll on me.
I’m here because Uncle Amos August Lafayette, one-hundred-years-old, born blind as a bat, mean as a copperhead, and smart as a whip, is rumored to have died finally, at last.
I’m here against my will to confirm this alleged passing. Our Mother, June Washington, should be undertaking this journey, but her health will not allow it. At least, that’s what she tells the family. As the oldest, I get the responsibility to represent at Uncle Amos’ going-away celebration.
I was here once before with my mother and sister, Kizzy, when I was twelve years old. I distinctly remember the harsh leather taste of the back of Uncle Amos’ hand, when he lashed out and struck me across the face for rolling my eyes. “Boy, don’t be rollin’ them eyes when I talk. I can hear you. I’ll set you and your Mama straight. Go fetch my chewin’ tobacco, quick.”
I take refuge in the red Toyota Tacoma and turn the AC to its highest.
I’m driving up past Greenville on Highway 6 to a county road that leads to a dirt trail into a settlement of mixed black, white, and Indian people that has been here for hundreds of years. It’s not on any map except the map of my mind. I have written instructions from my mother for finding Oculto Maroon or QM or the Maroon as my mother refers to it. I have guidelines, rules of etiquette to follow while dealing with the citizens of this unmapped town. Her instructions include the odd behavior required of an outsider, that’s me, during the going home service.
I call my mother. Her line is busy. I leave messages letting her and Kizzy, know that I have arrived in Jackson.
I text Odetta, my significant other. I ask her to pray for me.
The landscape rolls by, aching of poverty, pain, repression, and despair, and seeping into me like an infection. I can smell the blood, sweat, piss, and tears that irrigate this fertile land.
Shit! There’s a murder of crows feasting on something big, larger than a fox or coon or doe on my side of the road. The festivities spread across my lane, and the revelers have no intention of vacating their party places.
I slow to a crawl and move over to the other lane. Their meals something bloody, brown, and furry. I imagine I hear the bloodied carcass moan.
The belligerent crows turn and stare at me as I crawl by. I’m sweating, soaking my shirt. I wish I had bought water. I wish the hell I had never come.
I stop at a gas station right out of the 1940s. A skinny white man’s sitting on a wooden box on the right side of the door. A heavy-set white man’s sitting in a rocking chair on the left side of the door. They both give me, “Your days coming very quick, Nigger. You’ll see soon enough” looks.
I try to ignore them. As I pass between them, I get the overpowering sensation that the skinny one’s dying, drying up, giving up, and the fat one’s sucking up the thin man’s life, feasting on it like the crows on the carcass. The impression is so overwhelming that for a moment, I grow dizzy. I have to grab the door frame to support myself.
The store clerk must be ninety if she’s a day. Her left hands replaced with a hook, her right-hand looks like a bony claw. Her teeth are like mules’ teeth, too big, too yellow, too strong.
She never says a word or takes her eyes off of me as I find and pay for my bottles of water.
I escape the store, dash past the dying and feasting pair, and speed away.
I call my mother again. Her line is still busy.
I feel like I’m being followed. I check the rear-view mirror. There’s no vehicle behind me. The feeling grows oppressive. I roll the Toyota to a stop. I sit there for three, four, five minutes. Nothing appears on the horizon behind me. I step out into the muggy swamp that masquerades as air, look around. Finally, I look up, and there’s a black cloud almost directly above me. There’s not another cloud in the sky. I leap back into the truck. I push the Tacoma to sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety miles an hour. I slow and stop the truck. Lower my window, stick my head out, look up. Damn, the clouds right above me.
I check my mother’s directions. I must be about twenty miles from the dirt road turnoff to the maroon. I don’t check on the cloud again. What good would that do? Fuck the cloud.
I miss the turnoff, double back to the narrow track that’s dark as midnight in the tunnel of ancient trees.
I have the headlights on. I’m moving between five and ten miles-per-hour on the rutted, rock-strewn path. I feel as if I’m descending to a considerable depth, but the lands as flat as a tabletop.
I ford a sly, gurgling stream that sucks at the truck tires.
I try to call my mother. I can’t get a connection. Damn you, June Rene Washington.
I’m lost and cut off from the world.
I’m blinded for seconds by the transition from night to bright sunlight and fallow fields.
The road’s a single lane of chattering gravel.
I slam on the brakes, slide to a halt, jump out, check the sky. No cloud. No cloud, but there’s a bitter smell to the air, a hint of resentment and regret. It’s air I don’t want to draw down into my lungs.
I survey the barren landscape. Not a bird in the air or creature on the ground. I stand on unholy land.
I drive at ten miles-per-hour with the windows up, and the AC still on full.
Gray houses appear on the horizon like gravestones. I draw closer to the ramshackle, derelict properties. Every shack looks unfit for human habitation – sagging, leaning, collapsing, broken windows, missing doors, patched roofs – a sad collection of ghost houses.
The shotgun hovels are about twenty yards apart along the north-south and east-west crossroads.
There are sixteen homes in all at this crossroads. My instructions are to stop at the red house, three houses north of the east-west road on the east side of the street.
There’s only a hint of red on the weather-worn gray house with the collapsed front porch and boarded up front windows.
Man, oh, man, I hope this is an abandoned hut, and my Aunt May lives someplace else in a real house or a trailer or a tent or a cave. I hope.
I hope in vain. As I raise my fist to knock, the doors yanked open. Shit! What the Fuck! It’s my mother! My mother, as she looked twenty-eight years ago. The same tan, bony, gray-eyed face, thin lips, and thick brown hair in a single braid.
The same angry sounding voice.
I take two steps back, stop breathing, stop sweating.
“What… the… Mom? Aunt May… I—”
“Boy, have you lost your marbles? Nigger, get your ass in here for I close dis here door.”
“You, you, look like Mom. You two aren’t twins—”
She reaches out, grabs the front of my shirt. She effortlessly drags me across the threshold.
We’re almost nose to nose. I see that her eyes are a darker shade of gray and her eyebrows are black, not brown—”
“You need to lay down? You look sickly.”
“I’m, I’m, just shocked at how much—”
Wordlessly, she guides me down the rickety hallway with gaps in the floorboards that show the bare earth and squeak and shift underfoot. The hallway walls are missing boards and lean to the right, which reminds me that I should carry my black ass right back home.
Aunt May leads me to a room, three doors down on the right.
“You lay down for a minute. I have you somethin’ to eat soon.”
I’m about to refuse her offer, but the room, the room’s something out of the 1920s with a brass bed, braided rug, chifforobe, pink and red rose pattern wallpaper—the rooms spotless. The floors and walls are even. The furniture’s old but looks to be in excellent working order. How can this room exist in this shamble of a house? It’s impossible. I stagger to the bed. I sit. When I look back, Aunt May has disappeared. What the hell’s going on here? When did I cross into the Twilight Zone? Now that’s a question I can answer – the moment I stepped foot on Mississippi soil, I fell down the rabbit hole.
I don’t remember lying down, but I wake up with the feeling that there’s someone else on the bed with me.
She’s sitting on the side of the bed with her hand stroking my forehead. She’s a round-faced, red-eyed albino with a gigantic silver natural. She leans down, whispers in my ear, “You can fuck me later. We can’t let Joe find out. He’ll kill us both. But you got to come an eat now.” She leans over and gives me a quick peck on the lips. She stands, offers me her hand, helps me to my feet.
“Who are you?”
I don’t hear the answer. Once again, I’m in a state of shock. The hallway floors as perfect as if it were built yesterday. The walls are covered in blue and white wallpaper, pictures of family members grace the walls. “Shit! This is impossible? This shit is too crazy.”
“It’ll be okay. It will. I promise. Come on. Aunt May fixed you rabbit stew. You special, get waited on hand and foot.” She giggles.
The kitchen is another revelation, with a wood-burning stove, an icebox, and what appears to be a professional-looking hand-made table and six chairs.
I’m hungry, but I’m not ready for anybody’s rabbit stew. Still, I remember my mother’s explicit instructions, “Cool, if you offered food by May, eat but do not make a hog of yourself. Don’t ask for seconds. Foods hard to come by and hard work to prepare. You remember that. If anybody at all other than my sister asks you to eat, politely decline, and if they ask again, tell them you do not want to embarrass your Aunt. If they still insist that you eat, boy, you better get the hell out of there.”
Aunt May turns to the albino. “Luna quit making eyes at your cousin and get the tablecloth, set the table, don’t look as stupid as you is.”
Luna winks at me. “Yes, Ma’am. I know we got a special guest all the way from California.”
Luna pulls a red checkered oilcloth tablecloth from a drawer and adds a hand-carved wooden bowl and real polished silverware. She also provides an elaborately embroidered cotton napkin.
I’m overwhelmed. I just sit there looking from the woman that could be my mother’s twin to the moon-faced albino. I look down at the kitchen floor linoleum. I stomp my foot on the floor, rap my fingers on the table, examine the bowl closely. It all looks real to me.
I take a quick sip of the rabbit stew. It is not repulsive. I take a spoonful of broth and meat. I smile at Aunt May, and before I know it, I’m scraping the last bit of stew from the wooden bowl. It’s the best food I have tasted in weeks, no months, maybe years. I want more, but I’m not going to be a hog per mother’s instructions.
Luna giggles while she watches me devour my first rabbit stew ever.
Aunt May grabs Luna by the shoulder and shakes her hard. “Luna, he your cousin. He ain’t interested in your crazy albino ass. Don’t you be runnin’ around here like some little bitch in heat, hear me?”
Luna tries to look serious. “Yes, Auntie, I let him be unless he just can’t do without me. I don’t want my cousin to be all heartbroken and such.”
Aunt May’s about to say more, but the sound of a door toward the other end of the house closing and the clumping of feet on the wooden floor changes her tone.
Aunt May hisses to Luna, “That’s your Joe. If he catch you, God help you both. You and him be pushing up daisies with your Uncle Amos, hear?”
Joe marches into the kitchen, a black man about two inches shy of my six feet. He’s a stump of a man with broad shoulders, enormous hands. Joe’s the color of shiny mahogany.
“Cool. Cousin, Cool. Man, it’s excellent to see you, cousin, to see you again after all these years.”
Joe gives me a terrific smile and rushes around the table to crush me in his bear hug of an embrace.
I don’t remember this cousin that greets me so warmly. Why don’t I remember him?
Aunt May snaps a dish towel at Luna. “Get up off your lazy ass. Feed these men. Don’t let them leave this kitchen hungry, you hear me?” She turns to me. “I be back shortly. Joe take good care of you.” She gives Luna a genuinely evil look as she leaves the kitchen.
Joe and I laugh, joke, polish off the superb stew, while Luna sits hip to hip with her man and draws me into her pale red eyes, deep into her. I use every ounce of my concentration to focus on Joe.
I’m bumping fists with Joe when I look toward the back door, snarl, feel the small hairs all over my body rise. I grip the unused silver knife. My heart is thundering in my chest.
Joe is five shades lighter. His mighty fists are trembling.
Luna has lost all interest in me. She’s ready to bolt, stands, looks toward the front door, but it’s too late.
It’s too late for all of us.
He is a handsome, tall, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted white man with narrow lips, blue eyes full of starlight, and thick, dark brown hair.
He’s why I’m here. Not the funeral. Not the death confirmation. Him. I’m here to stop him or die trying.
And he ain’t white. He just looks like that now.
He or It strides into the room, locks eyes with me, stops about ten feet away.
I slowly release my grip on the knife, put it down on the table. I can’t stop it with this.
It smiles like a morning sunrise. “Hello, cousin Cool from Cali.” He laughs, shows strong white teeth. “I’m Seth. I’m—”
I stand. “That’s not your name. You keep your real name in a rattlesnake skin sack, buried under a hollow log, guarded by a cottonmouth and two coral snakes, a blue crow, and a blind panther.”
Now he really laughs, shakes the walls. Stops on a dime. Grabs Luna by her natural. “Were you runnin’ from me, bleached bitch?” He bangs her head face down on the table three times, each time harder than before. Luna grunts and grimaces but does not scream or cry. He smiles at me with each battering.
Joe, tears streaming down his face, pleads. “Se, Se Seth, pl, please—”
It releases bloody-faced Luna, a knot on her forehead and a split lip.
The Seth thing smiles at Joe. “Joe, Joe, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, man. I forgot she’s your woman, your whore that done fucked every living thing for miles around. You dumb son of a bitch. She be fucking the Cali kid there as soon as you turn your back.” It pats Joe on the shoulder. “Joe, I have her give me a blow job with my breakfast. She be under the table, so I don’t have to see her disgusting face. She race over to my place right after you go to the fields.” It grins at me.
Joe’s sobbing and holding Luna.
“Joe, shut your mouth. You and ghost girl drop your drawers and bend over that table. I want to show Cousin Cali how I take care of business down here. Move!”
Joe is fumbling with the straps of his overalls. Luna’s bare butt is up in the air in seconds.
I point at the thing calling itself Seth. “Your name’s your shame. I will name you in front of everyone. Shame you in front of all. Seth, I will give you to them.” I nod at Luna and Joe, “as a plaything forever and ever.”
It stops unzipping Its pants, licks Its lips. “I can crush you right now. Squash you like a bug. One more word, and I will. I will.”
I take a step closer to It – my turn to smile. “Do it and lose everything. You need us to keep your story alive. I think that was thirteen words.” I turn and walk out the front door to the sounds of Joe’s screams.
I walk into unbearable brightness – explosions of green and blue and bursts of red and yellow. I drop to my knees, eyes squeezed shut, reeling from a crushing headache. I gasp for air, and each breath accelerates the rampaging pain in my head.
I’m sinking into, racing into, blessed blackness when his voice cuts me like a red-hot saber. “Up! Get up, boy. You got work to do.”
I can’t speak, but I acknowledge in my mind the voice of my dead Uncle Amos Lafayette.
He responds with a jerk on the back of my shirt that lifts me off my knees and doubles my head pain. I scream.
“Cool, you got to stand up.”
In my mind, I respond, “I can’t. I hurt. I—”
“I know, but it won’t kill you, boy. Take my arm. Walk with me.”
I don’t know why I even try to stand on my own and take a step, but I take a slow and halting step. I cry unashamed tears from the agony, but I take step two, and my suffering diminishes with each new stride.
I open my eyes to darkness.
“Fuck! I’m blind! I’m fucking blind!”
“Cool, that’s on you. You bringin’ everything back – the fields and flowers and houses. And us. You bringin’ us back to full strength. That’s all on you. Amen.”
“Uncle, I’m blind, man. This is temporary? Right?”
“Naw, you blind for as long as you live. I lived that fact, boy.”
“I want to go home. I got to go home to Odetta. I’m going to give my mother some strong words – when I get—”
“Cool, you’re home. This is your home, boy. You makin’ it your home forever.”
I stop. I turn to Uncle Amos. “My home is in San Juan, California, 1246, Eastlake Road. That’s my home. I live there.”
Even as I say the words, I know they are no longer true.
“Uncle Amos, I can’t be here. I can’t be blind. This place is not right. You’re dead! This place and you are unreal, unnatural.”
“I’m dead, but I’m not gone – yet. You be blind long enough, and you start to see straight.”
I want to cry. I want to bawl like a baby.
I want my woman and my 60” TV and my family.
I want my fucking sight back.
I think. I’m as mad as hell.
“My Mother. My own self Mother set me up – sent me here. Why? Why would she do that?”
“She give us her only son. Your Mama ain’t no fool, boy. Maybe she tradin’ you in for the top of the line model.”
“Bullshit! I’m damaged goods – blind and lost.”
“Damn, you boy. Don’t you feel the power? You is bringing the maroon back to life. Life flows through you into us. You is blessed and cursed and remarkable.”
My Uncle pats me on the back.
“You, my replacement.”
“You keep Scratch at bay, and we live what life we can. We be the fountain and foundation for future maroons, boy.”
“I’m blind! I’m fucking blind! How can I even find his fucking name?”
“Yep, you blind. You clear on that. You got to step a little faster, blind boy. You got places to go, people to see—”
“Uncle, I don’t want to be your replacement. I don’t want any of this. I want—”
“Don’t matter what you want — it matter what you are. And you know his name already. Your Mama told you his name a long time ago. Think about it and step lively.”
I don’t move.
“Why the Maroon? Why are all of you here?”
“Good question, boy. Outside of here, it’s fallin’ apart, hate, disease, confusion, conflicts, war. We the future, Cool. We, the new Ark.”
“You’re the past. You are history.”
“And the future, boy. Your Mama out there right now startin’ a new maroon in New Mexico.”
“What? When did she—”
“Your sister doin’ the same in South Carolina. You just keep us strong here. They be back here. Mark my word.”
I don’t understand, but I start walking. I shake off my Uncle’s arm. I feel the power of the maroon in me. I’m marching to war. We are not an Ark, but maybe we can be lifeboats to save a few from racism and other virus and threats and help build anew.
I hear my Uncle’s voice from a distance behind me.
“Cool, boy, why you give The Wicked One to Joe and his woman. Why do that?”
I laugh, and it echoes everywhere.
“I can’t kill him – no one can, but I will give Joe and Luna his name. He’ll not escape them. They will have their revenge.”
He will not escape me. Just as I can’t avoid what I am.
“Rest well, Uncle, your work is done, and mine is begun.”
I hear Nina Simone, clear as day, singing, “Mississippi Goddam.”
I put some pep in my step. We got a lot of work to do in this God-forsaken land.
Copyright Frederick K. Foote 2020