By Edward A. Farmer
Charm is not southern. It is all one’s own, grown like the matter that holds them together. Uncle had it. Three wives and six children, a mistress in Charlotte said to be his lady friend, and the man was still smooth as ever, could woo a tornado with only his smile—that whirling devil blushing as it turned around.
Uncle wore it like high tops, his approach to our home just like those storms, bringing trouble as he shuffled his feet, scooting the dirt until the porch was large before him.
“You there,” he said, standing in the dust cloud.
I watched him beam.
He had been that way since he was little, when he got Grandpa to put down his bottle and turn to God. Grandma said Uncle just had to look at Grandpa, and the old man saw all the angels in Uncle’s eyes and never took another sip. Mama said Uncle blackmailed Grandpa, but it was Uncle’s word against hers, and we all knew not to doubt him.
Uncle and I were both like this, Grandma said, because we were both the youngest, and Uncle insisted that made us closer. That of all his nieces and nephews, I was by far his favorite and would turn out to be just like him because we were cut from the same cloth. We were special.
Uncle’s chuckles arrived before he did, bringing my eyes to meet that wafting sound. The road vanished when I spotted him, the puppy tucked neatly in his arms.
“You got it!” I said, turning to Mama who shook her head disapprovingly.
Uncle handed me the dog as Mama touched him all over to ensure he was in one piece.
“God knows you don’t know what to do with yourself,” Mama said, “bringing that animal in here.”
Uncle shrugged, and she hugged him, keeping him together.
“If Mama could see you now,” she said, letting out a relieved moan. “Daddy, too.”
Mama pulled him inside as I trailed, watching the dog follow. Mama patted Uncle’s shoulder to which Uncle swatted her hand away. He found a corner chair then plopped down.
“You might as well stick that bottom lip in,” Mama said. “I ain’t bothered you yet.”
Uncle kicked his feet, just missing a rogue beetle that had mapped its way from the sink to the trashcan. The puppy rushed for it, and I grabbed him, pleased Mama had focused on Uncle and forgotten that a dog was inside the house. Whenever Uncle was home, Mama ignored me completely, her hand constantly adjusting Uncle’s limp collar or gripping his shrinking waist.
Mama jostled a pot then looked into Uncle’s eyes.
“Just hush,” Mama said, stopping his objection. “You’re here with me now. That’s all that matters.”
Mama placed a lid on the pot then transferred steaming platters to the dining room table. Uncle’s black eye must have worried her, but she kept quiet. Instead, she counted the open spaces before surveying items she’d move next.
Shining as if wet, the street glistened under eager moonlight while Uncle watched it glow—long and steady streams that seeped in through the open window and dragged loose shadows with it.
“It’s only dinner,” Mama said. “You do remember how to eat?”
Mama stood firm with her palms on her hips as Uncle surrendered his hands, and she confiscated them.
“We’re family,” she said, wetting his hands by her touch. “We’re all in it together.”
Uncle scrunched his face, and she pinched it. He only lived two hours from us, but it seemed like a hundred-year journey with how little we saw him. When he rode into town, family from all over dusted off their scuffed penny loafers and double-buckled sandals. They put a few curls in their hair and steam to those Sunday dresses. They creased their slacks and button-ups. Even cousins, who were prone to rolling in the mud, put hems in their dress shorts and combed the lint from their nappy dreads.
Mama snatched me from the puppy, dipping my head in the sink then slicking my hair with a palmful of grease.
“You get changed,” she said, looking to Uncle, who nodded his agreement.
The house was rocking yet, like when Daddy was alive, Uncle, too, could find a hiding place in a kettle of hawks. It was well into the meal when I discovered him. He stood by the outhouse, leaving everyone indoors. His eyes were red like swimmers without goggles, his nose wet like the puppy that bumped my knee. Uncle reminded me of that broken man we’d visited at the penitentiary, Mama gassing up the van whenever she could afford the journey, as she and I made the drive to the countryside on Sunday evenings when our own church service was over and we attended services at the Penal Farm, seated in our secluded corner far from the men and Uncle.
“I thought you was inside,” Uncle said, whispering as if one of those mean guards could hear. “No fun out here. Just the gnats and mosquitoes.”
Uncle smiled a hard-fought grin.
“Then why you out here?” I asked.
“Because I’m grown,” he said.
“You ain’t grown,” I yelled. “You just like me—the baby. Plus, you still like fruit-flavored gum and not mint. And you eat fruity cereal, too!”
Uncle laughed, peering with a watery look in his eyes that matched the street.
“Well, I’m older than you,” he said, pointing out his grays.
He stood before me, nothing like the man in the visitor’s room of the penitentiary, clear of the frost-windowed door that held the bad people inside, his eyes like the hunch Mama had when I’d done something wrong, Uncle’s glint that failed attempt to make us forget where we were—inside a prison while he was on the other side of the law. For how hard he fought to ensure we never stopped laughing for fear we’d know and, out of love or shame or desperation, we never did.
“Mama brought out the cake,” I said. “She made it chocolate the way you like. She was gonna do lemon, but I told her you’d never eat it.”
“Wee doggie!” he said. “A chocolate cake, just for me. You go on and get a slice.”
“No,” I said, “they want you to come.”
Uncle stared blankly, having lost that brief exuberance.
“It’s a long walk,” he said laughing, reaching his hands out to me.
“It’s just the kitchen,” I said. I touched the kitchen door.
“Malik, a footstep is forever when you’re tired,” he said.
Uncle, indeed, appeared exhausted as his smile sputtered until it seemed to sputter out.
“Tell them I’m on my way,” he said, conceding though still unmoving.
“You ain’t got but to walk over here,” I said. “And you done already spent most of your time out here anyway. We barely seen you.”
“You done seen me twelve years, boy,” he said. “Without cell phones and tablets, I swear your generation scared you’ll actually get a thought in your head.”
He winked, though his playfulness was lost in the growing darkness.
“You don’t need me to entertain you.”
“But you don’t ever come around no more,” I said, poking out my lip. “It’s like you don’t even like us.”
Somehow, my words hovered in the space and seemed to repeat, neither of us moving while they swarmed.
“Sometimes, I wish you was back inside that prison,” I said. “At least then we’d get to see you.”
He waited, seemingly prepared for what I’d said, though I wasn’t. Each second raised me inches, stacked under my feet until I was a giant. I towered before him, unable to hide. I wished I was smaller, younger—that I could disappear by my imagination alone. But I was older, and my words no longer small.
“You do, you say.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We just miss you.”
He squeezed my shoulder like Daddy would, reminding me I hadn’t disappeared. He then looked at me, saying softly like Daddy, “You can’t miss what ain’t gone, Malik. And if you miss it, then you probably just overlooked it.”
“No!” I yelled, viewing this man who was Uncle in image alone, as I knew no other part of him. “I see you right there.”
Uncle laughed in oblivion, saying, “Your mama done good by you. She taught you her stubbornness, I see.”
He shook my shoulders, which made my body quake.
“You be a good boy and do what I say,” he said.
I folded my arms, pulling my weight from him. “Where’s my uncle?” I said, watching the imposter smile.
“You got him right here,” he said warmly, continuing his ruse. “You just overlooked me. Can’t see what you don’t want to, Malik. Now, the whole family is in there, and that includes you.”
“You, too,” I said, hugging him. “Mama made this whole meal for you. She don’t ever cook like this unless you coming. And she gonna be mad if you don’t eat it and we got all them leftovers.”
I was crying as he held me.
“She ain’t been happy since you left,” I said, peering up at him. “And you go and make her mad all over again. And she gonna blame me for it, too, and she gonna be yelling at me and never at you.”
I was shouting, and I could feel the vibrations through my warm fingers. Uncle didn’t budge. He was always this calm, like when the guards would release him and he’d stroll to our table, lackluster and steady. He had patience to read the entire Bible inside prison, whereas I could never touch the thing, though I knew his reading was only part of his punishment and that he’d spend a lifetime alone with the most boring book on the planet.
“You go inside, Malik,” he said, no longer my uncle or a friend, but an authoritarian. “I ain’t gonna be long. Let them know. Just gotta catch my breath, get some fresh air in these lungs. You’ll see when you’re my age.”
People were always saying this, but never Uncle. We’d been the same person my whole life with the same likes and dislikes, the same fuss over Mama and her futzing, yet now he was different—a twin who’d undergone surgical changes on the inside.
I walked where Uncle couldn’t see me like those times when Mama and I skipped the visiting room and instead met Uncle inside the prison chapel where I’d give a long-distance wave that he never saw. The preacher would shout from the pulpit, and the men would holler right back as their hearts lifted to heaven, though stopping just shy of its pearly gates because they were supposed to be in prison, after all.
Uncle walked within a swarm of fireflies until he reached the back door. He sighed. The family was loud, but Uncle seemed to hear none of their noise. He, instead, heard foreign sounds that lowered his head and peppered his eyes, those tears burning like kettle water as they boiled down his face. He looked older, not as old as Mama but still old. Mama said he never aged. That for each of his birthdays, he lost a year until he was no older than me.
Uncle even worked young folk jobs, my favorite being his route as an ice cream man when he was first released and came to live with us—all of us crammed inside of our pink, shotgun house. He had kept his extra supply in our deep freezer and, each day when Mama wasn’t looking, he’d sneak two pieces into my begging hands. When he quit that job and moved to Jackson, he left the remaining supply in our possession, said it was just for me.
I’d slept with Mama that night before his departure for J-town, before Uncle Dwayne drove up from Natchez to take him away. It was well after midnight when a woman came beating on Mama’s window.
“Come quick,” the woman had said. “It’s your brother.”
I’d pushed through the crowd, but they wouldn’t let me see him. Uncle Dwayne packed the truck and drove off before I could turn my head, leading Uncle out the back way. People said they couldn’t even recognize him—Uncle was that bad off.
When Uncle returned for his things a few weeks later, I caught glimpses of his ghost, bandaged in white cloth over his entire body. I remembered what Uncle had told me of those men in prison and how at night they’d tap the walls of their cells to announce the number of the inmate who’d get it the next day. Uncle said that tapping drove him mad, that he always feared the inevitable: one day it’d be his number they tapped.
I couldn’t tell who was worse—the guards or those men. There was something nerve-wracking about a person with a gun and the authority to use it. Like you never knew who they really were or what side they were truly on—what they actually thought about you on the inside—you know? If they got scared, like skunks, they’d spray.
Then, there were the men, and Uncle was now one of them. He was an inmate, a bad man, each of us visitors convincing ourselves that our inmate was different. That he was better than the man seated beside him and surely could not commit those same atrocities the other men did, that there was always someone worse.
Watching Uncle, I wondered if I, too, would become one of those men. Would I wear the same bandaged cloth as Uncle, considering we were both cut from it?
Mama had stopped Uncle outside of Uncle Dwayne’s truck and held him.
“This here is the last time,” she’d said.
Though I didn’t know what she meant, Uncle’s tears signaled he did.
“This is the same earth God built,” Mama said, “so none of this surprises Him.”
Mama felt her way along Uncle’s face, which dried his tears, his black skin shining like Vaseline on a hot day.
“Looks different to me,” he said, transporting my mind to Bible movies and TV shows Mama watched.
“It may be older, but it ain’t changed,” Mama said. “God still know it.”
“You’d know, big sis.”
Mama commandeered his wrists. “It’s like children,” she said firmly, “they grow up, but they’re still that part of us we’ve known for nine months. They’re still that beating we give them, and so mamas know them because we created them.”
Mama nodded her head, saying, “God does, too.”
Uncle’s hair was cut low like my own, though it sat longer now. His eyes were as tearful as mine as he watched the window, seeing the joy inside—aunts and uncles and cousins all glad he’d returned. He appeared stuck like that lonely beetle that had sat between us while the dog salivated. Mama had always said Uncle was as fast as the fastest insect, though some things he couldn’t outrun.
Uncle claimed it was “the man” or “the system” or some other circumstance I didn’t know that caused him to stammer.
“They’ll never stop chasing,” he’d said.
“Chasing what?” I’d asked.
“Look at your history books, Malik!”
He’d cried, though it was solely because he’d chosen to cry and not that anyone made him that he did.
“They wanna forget,” he’d said.
“But they can’t?” I’d said.
“Sure they can,” he’d replied. “We’re still not real. The black man is just a state of being, not a human being, nothing more than a shadow, a memory that haunts. But he is not real, Malik. He’s only real to us because we see the scars, and we know that our lives were and are still here. We feel our blood coursing through our veins, so we know we’re alive. But they won’t admit it. Like some cancer, they hope we’ll just go away—America’s sin swaying in remission— yet it never quite fades.”
“Because you have to work at it. It’s not just enough to say the world is alright. A thing that was never human does not suddenly become human. A property that was expendable is not abruptly vital. Blacks are still not vital. We have no vitals that make us real to them. But, by God, we’re still here. And by being here, we still exist. We have souls and heartbeats—materials that won’t just fade away. Our substance is heavy, stuck with them like roots. We made them grow, Malik. And that’s why they’re dead without us. Because they can’t grow, but they push and pull. Still, no matter how hard they fight, they can’t close their eyes and release us into the wind. We come back, holding on. They fear that. So, they try and kill us—these nonhumans they enslaved, that they put in cages and prisons, praying we’ll somehow disappear. But we won’t. We come back time and again to enslave them to their past, repeating an old adage.”
Uncle lifted his head as those reasons sprang to life and his heart beat stronger, reminding me he was a man, even if weaker—older. He entered Uncle Dwayne’s truck, rocking its door. There were still plenty of people who’d insist Uncle grow up, get a job, and be a man. But Uncle was a man, and his heartbeat and soul proved it.
I watched Uncle—my solemn twin—and wondered would I, too, like butterscotch when I was older? Would I sit on porches in chairs that swung, call to neighbors across a short divide my concerns of children’s feet ruining my grass? Would pencil skirts no longer turn my head excitedly and instead produce a frown, a sanctified disapproval of all things sexual?
Uncle’s eyes said yes, to just wait and see, and all those miseries I caused Mama would come rushing back. In fact, I’d be helpless to stop them like all children who grow up. But, as a black man, I’d have more—more weight, more heaviness; imprisoned—if only by their fear, their shackles a fate I was prone to bear, impossible to erase like the black souls that rushed back every time, coming to slay. To remind them, if we are slaves, then so are you. Just look at the roots.
Edward A. Farmer is the author of the debut novel PALE, published in May 2020 by Blackstone Publishing. His work has been compared to the late Ernest J. Gaines in a starred review by Library Journal and called “important” by Booklist.
He is a graduate of Amherst College and recipient of the MacArthur-Leithauser Travel Award for creative writing. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Edward journaled and cultivated stories his entire childhood. He now lives and writes in Pasadena, California.