In the summer of 1998, shortly after my girlfriend Valerie moved out of our Brooklyn apartment, using the excuse that I was too depressing to live with, Mom called me from her Harlem brownstone, sniffling into the phone.
“He’s gone, David,” she said, her voice cracking. “I knew as soon as they started cutting off limbs, he wouldn’t be around long.”
Although Mom hadn’t said a name, I knew she was talking about her father, my grandfather, James Ellison. Living in the small town of Peterson, W.Va., since the days when FDR was in the White House, Granddaddy was a diabetic who, a few months before, had his right foot amputated. At the time of his death, the doctors were considering taking the whole leg. A tall, quiet man with skin the color of copper, he was soft-spoken and stern as a preacher and handsome as a movie star.
Years before, the small town of Peterson, populated by a quaint assemblage of families whose small world revolved around church and community, had been as dull and charming as a Norman Rockwell painting. I first visited when I was 7. For a city boy born and raised in New York, going south in the summertime was a welcome reprieve from the hustle of Harlem. In Peterson, friendly neighbors greeted one another with toothy smiles, and the music of crickets replaced the wail of police sirens, while lightning bugs fluttered around the front yard flickering near the immaculate rose bushes. Back then, it was a thrill to meet so many relations who lived down the road, across the street or next door to one another.
Aunt Eva, who I thought was one of the sweetest women on the planet, was Granddaddy’s second wife. Closing my eyes, I imagined her standing over Granddaddy’s hospital bed as his small and shriveled body lay lifeless in the bed. Seeing her face, he tried to talk, but forming anything other than moans would’ve been impossible. “He couldn’t even work in his garden anymore,” Mom continued, laughing through her tears. “God knows he needed those roses more than those flowers needed him.”
An hour after Mom’s phone call, I turned on television and saw a report on ABC World News about thousands of crows that had settled in Peterson for the summer. Squawking loudly as they soared across the vast sky, the massive black birds were defecating on cars, destroying crops and making a constant racket. Years ago, I’d read that a group of crows was called “a murder.” While I hadn’t the slightest idea where the name came from, it seemed like the perfect moniker. According to one resident interviewed, as the wild birds screeched in the background, “It’s us against them,” he screamed. “These black-winged bastards are everywhere.”
It took two Greyhound buses and seven hours for Mom and me to get to Peterson. Dressed in a linen shirt, jeans and black sneakers, I sat next to Mom, who was also dressed casually for the long ride. Since there wasn’t a straight bus route from New York City, we rode for four hours to the tacky Baltimore terminal, laid over for an hour, then rode another two hours to West Virginia. In Peterson, the bus stop was in a different location than it was when we were last here 10 years ago. There wasn’t even a station anymore, merely an aluminum bench inside a bus shelter on the side of the highway.
Across the gravelly road, about 20 black birds were perched on the telephone wires. “Reminds me of that damn Alfred Hitchcock movie,” Mom said, staring at the squawking birds as we walked towards a waiting taxi. To me, thinking of the many times I’d seen cartoon crows that were supposed to represent black folks, the birds sounded like a bunch of brothers swilling wine and shooting dice on the corner. The taxi driver, a young brother in his mid-20s, put our suitcases in the trunk as we climbed inside his ride.
Leaning back against the leather seats, I took a deep breath and could damn near taste the country air on my tongue. Glancing out of the window, I was shocked to see how much the town had changed in a decade. Trash-strewn lots, boarded buildings and a few obvious crack spots tarnished the upwardly mobile sheen that once sparkled throughout the neighborhood. The candy store where I once bought Marvel Comics was now an XXX porn emporium where a few nothing-to-do, nowhere-to-go teenagers leaned against the doorway.
“I still don’t understand why your uncle couldn’t come pick us up,” Mom said, talking about her stepbrother Robert, Granddaddy’s only son, who once owned the neighborhood grocery store. During those childhood visits, when Mom and I rode into town sweaty and road weary after hours of traveling, I couldn’t wait to unpack my suitcase and run three blocks to his little shop. Inside the store, a long strip of yellowish-brown flypaper dangled from the ceiling, and dozens of small insects were stuck to the surface. On the counter, next to the candy and Topps baseball cards, was a jar of pickled pig feet submerged in vinegar.
The beat-up cab had a tiny plastic fan mounted to the dashboard that blew hot air. Looking out the window as we rode down Taylor Street, I noticed that a few homes and Uncle Robert’s store were boarded up. Leaning over, Mom glared angrily at the rusted lock that bolted the doors of the shop and the crumbling facade of the building. Red spray-painted gang graffiti was scrawled on the front of the building.
“Damn shame your uncle lost his store.”
“What’s he doing now?”
Mom sighed. “Last I heard, he was selling insurance, but that’s not your uncle’s passion. Working for somebody is nothing like having your own.”
“Looks like the entire town downward spiraled a long time ago,” I replied.
“Yeah, well, that’s been happening for years. When you were a kid, they opened the mall and that just killed what used to be downtown. Besides the mom-and-pop stores, there were two big industries in this town, the factory and the prison, and the factory closed a few years ago.”
“Yep, 1995,” the cab driver interjected. “I was working there at the time.”
“What kind of factory was it?” I asked.
“We made car parts for Ford and shipped them off to Detroit.” Glancing at us through the rearview mirror, he asked, “Y’all kin to Mr. James?”
“Yes. I’m his daughter, Jackie. We live in New York.” Mother smiled nervously and ran her plump fingers through her hair. At 50-something, with her shoulder-length permed hair and pretty smile, Mom was still beautiful.
“I saw the resemblance as soon as you stepped into the car, Miss Jackie. Your daddy was a good man. Everybody respected Mr. James. Even white folks called him sir.”
But besides my granddaddy’s passion for books, business and roses, I didn’t know much about him. He was good to me when I was a boy, but always so withdrawn. Men of his generation didn’t usually know how to talk to children, but I remembered him taking me to the county fair once, so proud to introduce me to his friends.
Although he was Mom’s real father, she hadn’t found out the truth until she was damn near grown. For the first 16 years of her life, Mom, reared in a neighboring small town, believed that her stepdaddy, Ralph, a man she often described in compassionate tones, was her one and only daddy.
However, soon after Ralph’s death, she found out the truth about the “ladies’ man” who my grandma Mary claimed was “charming as a prince but would lay down with any girl; God only knows how many bastards that man got running around in the world.” A part of Mom, I knew, was still resentful that the truth had been kept from her for so long.
“Pardon my manners,” the cabbie said. “My name is Marvin Powell. I knowed Mr. James since I was a boy; gave me my first job and everything.” As the cab pulled in front of Aunt Eva’s house, my heart sank further when I noticed that the homes across the street had been replaced by seven connecting red brick housing project buildings that were each four stories high and stretched from corner to corner.
Outside the buildings, the ground was littered with cigarette butts, candy wrappers, broken glass, and whatever else was blown up from the gutters or thrown out of the windows. Small children loudly played while a few feet away, older black boys, looking like some kind of outlaw posse, shared a couple of 40-ounce brews as a trio of young girls danced to Brandy and Monica’s hit “The Boy Is Mine.” In contrast, Aunt Eva’s house, with its freshly clipped lawn and colorful roses in full bloom, looked strange on the now rundown street.
Turning around in his seat, the driver noticed me staring at the ugly buildings. “That’s where I grew up, right there in that corner building. I used to look out that window and see Miss Eva’s pretty place and your granddad proudly pruning his flowers.” The flowers were various colors, with full petals and green leaves. A sweet smell wafted from them, hanging in the air like a sticky perfume. Crawling across the soil, planting, pruning and fertilizing those roses, was his joy. As far as I knew, taking care of those roses was Granddad’s only hobby.
“Mr. James sure loved those flowers. Their house was just across the street from me, but it was like looking into a different world.” Before opening the cab door, Mom tried handed the driver a $10 bill, but he shook his head, refusing the cash. “Sorry, Miss Jackie, but I can’t take money from you in your time of mourning. Mr. James was a good man.” Stepping out the car, he retrieved our suitcases from the trunk.
Aunt Eva is a former domestic, and her house was spotless. Walking inside was like entering a time capsule of vintage furniture covered in plastic, with a reproduction of Blue Boy on the wall and the polished black upright piano stacked with framed photographs. On one of the dustless shelves, there was a black-and-white photograph of Granddad in his youth, dressed in a crisp Army uniform and wearing a dour expression. A few feet away, there was another picture, this one taken years later. Standing in front of the house, with the roses in full bloom, he wore a white shirt and tie, black pants and suspenders.
The smell of Southern soul food drifted from the kitchen. On the stereo turntable was a scratchy copy of Mahalia Jackson’s Greatest Hits and the song “Trouble of the World” played quietly. “My goodness, would you look at these two,” Aunt Eva said, her voice feather-soft. Hugging me tightly, her thin arms were strong, and the smell of red beans and rice, collard greens and fried chicken was in her gray hair.
“How you doing, Aunt Eva?”
“As can be expected, baby; as can be expected.” Letting go, she slowly walked over to my mother and they exchanged loving looks. “Eva,” Mom mumbled. Holding back their tears, they wrapped their arms around each other.
The living room, as well as the dining room and kitchen, was filled with various generations of family and friends. Even if they weren’t all blood relatives, we were all connected by Granddad’s legacy. “I’ll take our bags upstairs,” I told Mom, leaving her and the rest of the women to their chatter and tears.
Carrying our suitcases, I saw Uncle Robert sitting in the dining room surrounded by relatives I barely recognized. Erect in his chair, wearing thick glasses and a black suit, he looked the same way he did when he once stood behind the counter of his store. Noticing me, he smiled weakly and nodded a silent greeting as though he had just seen me the day before.
Upstairs in the television room, I was shocked to see my cousin Luther lounging in Granddad’s La-Z-Boy, flicking through the channels. “What the hell you doing here?” I said. “I thought your ass was still in jail.”
A few years younger, Luther was such a spoiled kid when we were growing up, but he had gone wild and exchanged his private school education to be a self-proclaimed “gangsta,” and for a life of petty crime. A charming con man and thief, he could steal the milk out of your coffee. After dropping out of school, instead of getting a regular job, Luther started robbing old white men on public golf courses in his hometown of Baltimore.
Turning to look at me, he smiled. “I became born again, went to rehab and got my sentence shortened.”
“From crack to Christ, huh?”
“Just because your punk ass never been locked up doesn’t make you better than me,” Luther said and laughed, giving me a brotherly hug. “Long as you stay black, that shit can happen at any time.” Smiling broadly, Luther was dressed in neatly pressed pants, black shoes and black Izod shirt. “Plus, I wasn’t smoking crack. I was smoking angel dust.” Looking at each other, we both laughed.
“You wanna go outside and smoke a joint?” he asked. Some things never change, I thought.
“You’re crazy. We going to come back smelling like weed.” Although I was 38, being in the house with so many relatives snatched me back to short pants and Buster Brown shoes.
“Man, we’re grown. We can smell any way we want.”
“If you so bad, why don’t you go by yourself?”
“You know if I go out by myself, everybody going to know I’m doing something bad,” Luther said, passing me the bag of potent pot. I smelled the sticky buds without even holding it to my nose. “Already got one rolled.”
“As long as there ain’t dust in it,” I replied. “Smoked that shit once and damn near lost my mind. Fuck a pink elephant, I was seeing rats and burning buildings. Felt like I was in that movie Ben.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, cuz,” Luther answered as we innocently strolled downstairs and out the back door. Walking up the block, we saw cawing crows in the trees and perched on rooftops as we passed the public pool where we used to swim. When I was 10, I had almost drowned in there. Though it was closed, the pool hadn’t been drained, and dead leaves floated on top of the bluish-green murky water.
Above us, thick black clouds hovered in the sky, looking as though they might explode at any moment. The temperature, too, had dropped, and a cool breeze blew a brown paper bag through the beat-down playground. Luther and I sat on a paint-peeling rusty spinning wheel. Overhead, crows were flying in circles, as though deciding if they wanted to land or keep on moving. Pulling a rolled joint out of his pocket, he passed it to me. After sniffing it, I sparked the reefer, inhaled deeply and exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“Man, you seen this damn town,” I said between puffs. “It sure looks different than it used to.” Luther laughed. Somewhere in the distance, a police siren wailed and lightning cracked the sky. “What happened to this place?”
“Same thing that happened to all these little down-South towns, man; crack happened. What you getting so excited about, anyway? At least after tomorrow you get to go back to New York. Some folks ain’t got that choice. Now, smoke the weed and shut the fuck up.” Minutes later, the sky exploded and heavy showers fell as we instantly got soaked. Running back to the house soaking wet, we reeked of weed and fresh rainwater. I was just happy that no crows pooped on me.
Since there wasn’t enough room at Aunt Eva’s house for us to spend the night, Mom and I were invited to stay at the home of one of Granddaddy’s Masonic brothers. It was a creepy old place, sparsely furnished and dusty. There was a weird, sticky odor that hung in the air like a specter. We were the only ones in the house that night, and it was hotter inside than out. We made our way up the steep stairs and checked out the bedrooms; I let Mom have the biggest one.
Although I opened the window in my room, I had trouble sleeping. I’d tuned the boxy radio on top of the scarred dresser to a local classic-rock station. Every time I was startled awake by the strange sounds outside, Eric Clapton’s melancholy anthem “Tears in Heaven” was playing. Lying naked, covered in a blanket of sweat, I climbed out of bed, put on my bathrobe and crept downstairs to the kitchen. Opening the vintage Frigidaire, the only items inside were cans of Diet Pepsi stacked on top of one another. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about 200 altogether.
Returning to the room, I sat on the side of the bed sipping a cold cola, smoking a cigarette and thinking about the funeral as Clapton continued to sing. Looking at my cheap wristwatch, I was surprised that it was only 11 o’clock. Minutes later, whooshing past my ear, a fat black crow blindly flew through the open window and smashed into the wall. “Holy shit!” I yelled as the bird fell on the bare floor, flapping its wings rapidly as though still trying to fly. The bright blood smeared on the wall looked like a crimson Rorschach test.
Completely freaked out, I grabbed my linen shirt, blue jeans and sneakers from the small closet and left the bird alone to die. “Was that you who screamed?” Mom asked sleepily when I emerged from the bathroom fully dressed. “What’s the matter?”
“A crow flew in my room, smashed into the wall and is now dying on the floor. To hell with this, I’m going out for a little while.”
“Going out where?” I don’t want you hung over or smelling like liquor at your grandfather’s funeral.”
“Give me a break, Ma.”
Laughing, she raised her hand as though ready to slap me. “I’ll give you a break all right, right over your head.” That joke was older than Fred Sanford. “Get new material, Ma,” I said, kissing her on the cheek. I thought about calling Luther but decided against it. Luther was cool, but continuously puffing dust since the age of 10 had made him goofier than a Disney character, and I wasn’t in the mood.
Walking under the weak streetlights, every few steps I heard gunshots in the distance and wondered what was going on. It was then that I saw a teenage boy riding a five-speed bicycle down the middle of the sidewalk. In the front of the bike was a blood-stained white basket, and inside were stuffed three dead crows. I realized that the random gunfire must’ve been people shooting sleeping birds from their roost.
A few blocks away, I chanced upon a bar called Red’s Tavern. After gazing at the ruby-hued neon sign out front, I climbed a flight of dirty stairs and opened the door. Clouds of cigarette smoke billowed through the air as Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” blared from the jukebox. Red’s decor looked like it hadn’t changed since Nixon was in the White House. Taking its name quite seriously, the bar was decorated in various shades of the namesake hue: There was blood-colored crushed-velveteen wallpaper, scarlet swivel seats and crimson light bulbs hanging over the bar and pool tables. With the exception of a few old-school dudes scattered about, the spot was filled with couples.
“What you drinking?” the man behind the bar asked. With his burnt-red complexion and dirty red hair, he was obviously the owner.
“Gin and tonic, please.” He placed a napkin and drink on the bar. I took a healthy swallow.
“You kin to Mr. James?”
I laughed. “I’m his grandson. How you figure that out?”
“I know everybody in this town. Young, old, whatever, I know them all. You, I don’t know.” Extending his hand, he said, “They call me Red.”
“Red, they call me a lot of things, but I prefer David.”
From the corner of my eye, I became aware of a man sitting in a booth. Turning around, I noticed that it was the taxi driver Marvin Powell. He looked like he hadn’t been sober since dropping me and Ma off hours ago.
“What’s his story?” I asked, nodding towards the driver.
“Who the hell knows? For the last few hours it’s just been about him and his best friend Jack Daniels.”
“Yeah, well, send some more drinks over to the table. I’m going to keep him company.” Walking across the room, I sat down and said nothing. There were two empty glasses on the table and a third in his hand. Marvin jiggled the ice cubes, staring at his hands as though he had no control over them. “Did you come over here to buy me a drink?” he slurred. The table was covered with a red plastic tablecloth. Next to Marvin’s empty glasses was a black ashtray overflowing with Kool cigarette butts.
After the bartender brought over the fresh drinks, we raised our glasses and toasted. He had sad eyes that looked like he could start crying at any minute.
“What are we drinking to?” I asked after gulping my cocktail.
“Let’s toast to the lies of mothers and fathers we never knew.” Nervously, I grinned. So it was going to be one of those nights, I thought. One of those drunken nights when intoxicated men told liquored-up tales about their sad childhoods and the various imperfections of their parents. Prepared for Marvin to start recalling harsh beatings or drunken behavior, I heard him slur, “I don’t know why she thought it was a good thing to tell me this shit tonight. I could’ve gone my whole live without knowing the truth.”
“Well, you know what they say, ‘The truth will set you free.’”
“Yeah, right. The truth can also kick you in the nuts and laugh while you’re gasping for air. To hell with the truth.”
“I wish I knew what you were talking about, buddy, but I’m lost.”
“I’m talking about my daddy, my real daddy, Mr. James. Big James, my daddy, your granddaddy, one and the same.”
“You’re drunk, man. You’re drunk.”
“I guess everybody in town knew except me. The church folks, the school folks, them spooky-ass Masons. Now, them some folks who know about keeping secrets.”
“You’re not making a whole lot of sense.”
“I told Mom about picking up you and your mother from the bus station, how y’all was in town for Big James’ funeral, and she got all quiet and shit. Got real quiet, looked at me, and then starts crying and telling me things I never wanted to know. Told me how, when she was younger, she used to walk past Mr. James’ house all the time. He’d be in that rose garden of his and saw her every day of her life. Saw her when her own momma used to push her in the stroller, saw her when she was skipping to school and saw her become a strutting teenager. Sometimes he’d cut her a rose and give it to her. Sometimes he’d say, ‘A rose for a rose,’ or some other corny shit that young girls think is cute.”
“Are you serious with this shit?”
“She said they only made love one time, but I guess that was one too many. She said she wasn’t a virgin, but he was still her first real man. She said it happened fast one night when she was 17 and Miss Eva was at choir practice. He cut her a rose and invited her inside for iced tea. She said they only made love one time, but I guess that was one too many.”
“You telling me my granddaddy raped some 17-year-old?”
“He didn’t rape her. I never said he raped her. She said they made love, they made love.”
Standing up suddenly, I stumbled over to the jukebox and peeped at the selections, unsurprised that it was filled with heavy soul, funk and a little bit of gospel. There were tracks by Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Vanity 6, Funkadelic, Betty Davis, James Brown, the Ohio Players and countless others. I stuffed it with dollar bills and invited Marvin over to help me select the songs. For the next few hours, I bought my new uncle drink after drink as we both got drunker and drunker. He showed me pictures of his mother, a pretty, dark-skinned woman named Betty who was a nurse at the free clinic.
“She’s always been a good mom, a hardworking woman. Never took welfare, never did drugs. As far as I know, I’m her only mistake.”
Despite myself, I laughed. “So do you get your sense of dramatics from her side of the family or ours?”
“I’m sure it’s yours,” he answered and then rested his head on the glass-cluttered table. At quarter to 2, “Purple Rain” came on and Marvin stood from his chair and played drunken air guitar while screaming the lyrics. I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain. When the song was over, he stumbled back to the chair and collapsed. By the time Red was ready to close, Marvin was snoring loudly. “Don’t worry about Marv; ain’t the first time he done slept in here overnight. He’ll be fine.”
Staggering down Taylor Street, I thought about my ex-girlfriend Valerie telling me that the reason she left was because I was just too cynical, too gloomy, too angst and angry. “When we walk down the street, you’re looking for rats and I’m trying to find the roses,” she said. Valerie had this goofy way of talking like a teenager scribbling in her secret diary.
Staring at her, I snickered. “Be careful of the thorns; you might get stuck and bleed to death,” I replied.
The scent from the flowers was strong as I stood in front of Aunt Eva’s house looking at Granddaddy’s roses and then noisily climbed over the fence. Standing in front of the bushes, I unzipped my pants, pulled out my penis and began pissing on the flowers. From the corner of my eye, I saw the upstairs light inside the house come on and my cousin Luther opened the window. For a minute he looked at me as though dreaming.
“What the hell are you doing?” he screamed.
“Watering the flowers, motherfucker,” I yelled back. When I finished peeing, I leaned against the fence for a few seconds. After snatching a few tea roses and floribundas, I finally staggered away.
Come morning, I was awakened by the sun crashing through the bedroom window with the force of a hammer. Outside, the crows were still in control. To my hungover ears, it sounded like a riot, and briefly, I imagined the birds rioting in the streets, crashing through windows and shooting pool in the backyard.
On the bed, beneath the palms of my hands, I felt something soft and squashy; a few seconds passed before I realized that I was lying on a bed covered with wilted rose petals. As I rose from the bed slowly, the rose petals fell gently to the floor. The scent of the dead roses was blended with another, fouler smell. Feeling the bile rise in my throat, I held my breath and swallowed the vomit.
I glanced across the room where the crow had flown into the room the night before. I stared into its glassy eyes. The dead bird was covered in squirming white maggots. Outside the door, I heard my mother knocking softly. “Hurry yourself, David, we have a funeral to attend.”
Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Essence, the Village Voice, Vibe, The Source and XXL. He has written music journalism for Soulhead.com, Complex, Mass Appeal and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and Crime Factory. Gonzales currently writes the book column The Blacklist for Catapult and is finishing his hip-hop novel Boom for Real.