I heard him before I felt his presence or saw him. A panting, a mild groaning as if from pain. I seem to remember a smell, a smell like an animal when in extreme fear—or perhaps that is simply something I filled in after thinking back upon that morning so many times. I do vividly remember the way the light poured in. The windows were all new and gleaming; the room a bone-white I’d admired and copied from certain museums I’d visited in the countryside of France. He was not hiding in the curtains, but rather on the floor, crouched, the gossamer fabric poorly hiding his dark skin. And he was so very dark. I could see him panting, his body not quite heaving but rising and falling as if in distress. A quilt, made by my mother, was folded at the foot of my bed. That is what I used to cover his nakedness and urge him into bed. He relented, eyeing me somewhat panicked, yet soothed by and by. I petted him, cradled him. After a spell I went down to make coffee and to think what to do.
When I returned with two steaming mugs he was gone.
I’ve never had a problem sleeping in bright sunlight. Upon awakening the only evidence of his having been there was the two mugs of cold coffee.
“It was a dream, brother.”
I doubt it.
When the real estate agent first drove us up the gravel driveway, I felt I’d been to this place before. I wasn’t sure at first, for I’d first been there at night. Over fifteen years before. A dinner of academics after a lecture at UNC on Southern food. I was still living in New York then, and found the idea of owning a two-hundred-four-year-old restored farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cornfields to be the height of fancy. Nothing in my future. Much too Town & Country for my tastes. Back then I fully expected to die on the twenty-first floor of a high-rise in the middle of some urban engine. How odd.
The two-story structure was still full of charm, not in the worst of shape but needed some serious love. That’s how the agent put it.
My boyfriend, who had never visited the American South, fell in love with it before I realized I was ready to come back. “It looks like something out of a movie, like Night of the Hunter. Right?”
Even though so much of the space was preordained back when John Adams or Thomas Jefferson was president, I was able to create a place I was more than happy to live and cook in. Especially the kitchen. Something in me feels immodest about falling in love with a kitchen I designed, but there it is. The deep, stainless-steel counters, the tall, glass fronted cabinets, the Sub-Zero fridge, the six-burner gas range, the oven big enough for two large birds at once.
“I will never understand why you care so much about what other people think of you,” Siddiq said.
“At this point I guess neither will I.”
“Your light Egyptian.”
We met at the Harlem Settlement House, where I volunteered on Saturday mornings. He volunteered there as well. I taught a class in computer literacy to mildly interested brown and black girls whose parents had higher hopes for their futures. He taught a course on Islam. Fresh out of Brown University and full of socially conscious spirit. He invited me to coffee and we wound up at a rather bohemian place on the Upper West Side off Amsterdam, after a pleasant walk.
“Do you miss North Carolina?” Siddiq asked.
“Only when I’m there.”
When Lena Horne first went to Hollywood to make motion pictures the studio hired Max Factor to create a makeup to make her appear darker on screen. He called the cosmetic, “Light Egyptian.”
Siddiq wore a halo of curly, rebellious long dark hair, and a rather piratical goatee. I wore one then myself, inspired by an Indian publisher.
He had a willowy build and large feet. His dark eyes shimmered in a playful way, and I could not help but imagine him in traditional Egyptian dress, and feel guilty for the fetishizing. He had perfected these long, long stares, held as if by a Pharaoh. Some would find them imperious, rude, unsettling. I found them sexy, forward. He had the energy of a squirrel on amphetamines and I imagined his love-making to be a fitful thing.
He allowed as how James Baldwin was his favorite writer. I allowed as how M.F.K. Fisher and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor were mine. He then subjected me to an overlong disquisition on Giovanni’s Room (he’d written his honor’s thesis on the novel). I took this as his signal to me that he was a same-sex-loving man.
I told him about the house I grew up in on a farm in Eastern North Carolina. I told him about my mother’s career as a cook and then a domestic and then a schoolteacher, and how she ignited my interest in food and language. I told him about her gigantic garden. About Duplin County and school politics and altercations in the years just after forced integration. I had been in the first grade. About growing up poor, but well loved. And never ever hungry.
“Wow,” he said. “You must be really angry.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” I said.
He grinned, reached out his hand and put it over mine. “Is that why you volunteer at the Settlement House?”
“It is a way to keep connected,” I said.
“Do you feel disconnected?”
“So you’re a psychoanalyst, are you? Doesn’t everyone?”
“No, I’m not an analyst. But you are really, really guarded. I wonder what you are trying to hide.”
Later that afternoon, we wound up down at the Public Theater, one of my Saturday rituals. They showed foreign films in those days. Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1978 Molière. Susan Sontag walked into the theater before us. It impressed him even more than it impressed me. It isn’t a celebrity thing, he said, it’s a respect thing.
Giuliani was mayor then. Clinton still in the White House. New York was experiencing a new type of hope and promise.
We had drinks afterward, in a quiet village bistro-type café (he told me he did not feel comfortable in gay bars).
He took me to a tiny Haitian restaurant on 10th Avenue. The waiter/owner, greeting him by name, seemed happy to see him. She gave us a short list of specials for the day. He ordered pork as did I. We launched into a delicious meal and a discussion of religion. His and mine.
His Egypt was not the boyhood of Anwar Sadat I had romanticized from having read the late president’s autobiography, In Search of Identity, while in high school. No, that was his father’s Egypt. Nasser was to Siddiq what Kennedy and Dr. King were to me. Myth. Sadat, a benevolent dictator who smoked a pipe. Siddiq was only eight when he was assassinated. He had grown up, not in a dusty village by the Nile, like his father, but in the steel and glass towers of Manhattan, had been educated at private American schools, summered in Sharm El Sheikh, had been friendly with Mubarak’s grandkids.
He had moved back to New York after his Ivy League adventure and still lived with his father and his two younger brothers in Carnegie Towers on East 87th Street. The first time I met his father—a rather good-looking man, smartly dressed—he was rushing to a meeting at the Saudi embassy. He had been a journalist, and was now the press secretary to a Saudi sheikh, the one who happened to be the minister to OPEC. He fussed with his cufflinks and paid me little attention. Siddiq had been keen on my seeing the view from their imposing bank of glass walls. “The sunset here. There is nothing like it. You can see Queens and Brooklyn and New Jersey.”
“And Cape Verde if you squint.”
When a thirty-six-year-old dates a twenty-four-year-old, the older man must learn to swallow his pride, and to discover he is proud in places he never knew he harbored it.
Sean McGillicuddy was a big-boned, heavy-footed fellow of Scots-Irish extraction with hands like something made in a machine shop. His contractor business was based in Greensboro and he came recommended as a man who had experience with ancient dwellings. He roared with laughter when I told him what I was thinking for my budget.
“That might cover the kitchen,” he said. “But you really want to redo all the wiring. That plumbing dates back to the early seventies. Just not up to code. And that roof. The windows. You’ll freeze come November if you don’t add more insulation, plus that’s code now too.”
Mr. McGillicuddy allowed Siddiq to help out with small tasks at first, and then to join in with the other workers. They were simpatico. To my surprise—for I had been nervous about how this place would receive my Middle Eastern man—McGillicuddy seemed fond of him. Though he tended to call him “Siddiqi.” Praised his way with a hammer. Taught him how to cut Sheetrock. Siddiq always fancied himself much handier than he actually was. It tickled me to watch him in action, his brow furrowed in serious contemplation, becoming “one of the guys.”
Alexa, my old friend and new boss, put us up in her guest house while mine was being finished. She had come back to North Carolina a few years before I had, and established her two children in an old lumber baron’s estate just outside Durham. She’d begged me to join her back here ever since, to come work at the new magazine, and she was overjoyed when I announced we’d found the place. She would visit my house renovation site on her own, interjecting her strong opinions. Alexa dictated all the furniture choices, as was her style. I dutifully obeyed. Six months turned into a year. We moved in on a bright spring day. All during the move, Siddiq wouldn’t stop listening to The College Dropout, which at first I hated, but came to enjoy.
“Well these sorts of things are never really complete, are they?”
He sat on the front porch in my new gleaming white rocking chair. I had seen him before. Before Siddiq left.
I had been headed to the store and he sat there, eyeing me like a black snake. Calm. Unmoving. Wearing what I took for home-spun, but dingy. The weather had been warm so I thought nothing of his bare feet.
“Can I help you?”
“You live here?”
“Can I help you?”
“You live here?”
“Yes. I’m going into town. Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
He looked up, toward the cornfield, not too very far away. There stood a white man, dressed in black, save for a white shirt, with a black hat and a large and quite brilliant white beard. He waved to the man sitting on my porch. It was a casual wave. The black man in white rose slowly and without apprehension and walked toward the cornfield. They did not run, but simply walked away.
Peculiar, I thought. I went inside and told Siddiq. Told him to keep his eyes peeled.
“Just be careful. I need to go to the store. I’ll be back in under an hour.”
“But who is he?”
“I have no clue, baby.”
“You remember that guy from Sneads Ferry? He says he can take me on next week. One of the guys on his boat hurt himself. I can find a place on Topsail Island and commute.”
“Are you really going to work on a shrimp boat?”
“Why not? It’s just for a few months, or weeks if I hate it.”
“I don’t know, baby. I just think—”
“You love this image of me as a spoiled privileged kid. I can work.”
“So you’re leaving,” I said.
“It’s just ’til the end of the season. I’ll be back.”
“So you are leaving.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“What other way is there to say it? Don’t worry. I don’t blame you. You’ll have fun. Forget this old man and his old house. I wouldn’t want you to be ‘uncomfortable.’ So are you running away from me or from the house? You know I wouldn’t let anything hurt you.”
He gave me a look a few shades darker than pity. “Please stop being the martyr,” he finally said. “You don’t do that well. It looks bad on you. Trust me. I’ll be back.”
“I think you’re romanticizing shrimp fishing.”
“My people were fishermen!”
“When’s the last time your daddy was on a boat that wasn’t a yacht?”
OF COURSE, he’d seen the Atlantic Ocean before, but something about the North Carolina coast spoke to him, seemed to beckon him.
Duck. Ocracoke. Hatteras Island. Bodie Island. Topsail Beach. Beaufort. Wrightsville Beach. Carolina Beach. Calabash. We took three weeks that summer. A car tour. Small hotels and motels. And I could see then that I’d lost him. How can you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen the Hatteras Lighthouse?
A friend of mine likes to quote Isak Dinesen: “I know a cure for everything. Salt water.”
For me it was the shrimp, the oysters, the mullet and the flounder and the Red Drum. Siddiq balked when he saw dolphin on the menu; I settled on the shark steak and he suggested I was a barbarian. I’m just hungry, I said.
Siddiq left for Topsail in August.
Inder’s email arrived in late September.
The dinner happened in October.
Alexa: “Come on. You know you’ve always wanted to do this, Randall. It will be fun. You’ll have freedom. It’s not like it was down here when you were a kid. I mean, my realtor is gay. Not your type . . . well, I mean he’s pushing seventy, and white, but really. Bring your light Egyptian. Come home, booboo. I need you.”
The house had gone through so much over the centuries, from the outside you would think it a modern edifice. Not so the barn. To look upon it was to think 1790. The logs had achieved that muddy gray color. They were practically petrified now. The structure was preternaturally solid. I only had to replace the roof. Even the stairs inside were firm, probably because they had been overbuilt to begin with. Initially I had planned to make a work-study and studio out there, but I got overwhelmed by the reality of such a large renovation. So we only used it for minor storage. It loomed significantly on the horizon of the property. It seemed to grin at me sometimes.
gnes van Horne. Agnes never stopped using a manual typewriter. She typed only on canary yellow paper, triple-spaced everything, and used a soft-lead pencil to edit with bold heavy marks. She went over every line with the intensity of a gemologist. She taught me more about writing and editing than anyone.
“Darling, ‘contend’ is such a namby-pamby word. Never use it again.”
I retyped all her copy, printed it out, and we’d go through the entire process again.
Alexa started at Tout va Bien a year after I did. The hundred-fifty-year-old glossy journal of culture and lifestyle and the arts had undergone a makeover, circulation was up, and Agnes remained in high spirits. I was still her assistant, long before I became food editor. Alexa had just finished her MFA, had hated Iowa. During the interview, Agnes spent a lot of time talking about Alexa’s shoes. They got on famously from the start. Alexa began in the design department the next day.
ALEXANDER WAS a rude Princeton boy, straight out of central casting with his large hands and Clark Gable mien. Ten years our senior, I thought he was the quintessence of self-importance and entitlement. Though he did dress well. Who knows they want to become an arbitrageur at age fifteen? And who tells people that?
It was still the go-go eighties and Alexander was riding high. If you squinted at him sideways you might mistake him for Gordon Gekko. And though I never once heard him say, “Greed is good,” deep in his heart, I know he believed it.
“I thought you’d like him.” Alexa frowned at me with a little pout.
“Why? Because he’s hunky?” I asked. “The Savile Row suit, or that dashing splash of gray in his temple?”
“Oh, give me some credit.”
“I do when you deserve it.”
“You think I’m shallow when it comes to men.”
“Everyone is, girl. It is a vocational hazard.”
“You’re just jealous. You want to bang him.”
“I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”
After two fitful years of off-and-on dating, a trip to London, a trip to Greece, Alexa and Alexander were married. A surprisingly modest affair at the United Nations Chapel of the Church Center, a reception in the West Village, not far from his brownstone. (“It’s not a real brownstone, you know. Not like the ones uptown.”)
Their marriage lasted seven years and seven months. Uncontested. All his fault.
Nobody knows how much she got in the divorce. I do. But the newspapers and gossip magazines only speculated. Most guesses I read were way off. A few added too many zeroes. Most low-balled it.
She moved back down South.
Lard & Promises. Her mother wanted to call it Vittles and pouted when Alexa said, “Hell no, too straight-up folksy. People will laugh. Think it’s a joke.”
We had both admired Frances Lear’s short-lived magazine. She had taken her multimillion-dollar divorce settlement from Norman Lear, back in 1988, and decided to go into business for herself by starting a women’s magazine. I always thought Lear’s was beautiful and significant. So did Alexa. And we were equally fascinated by her and her elegance and intelligence and courage. We’d both accompanied Agnes to the launch party. We both had hoped to write for it one day and were both sad when it closed down in 1994.
Alexa found one of those Victorian brick former tobacco warehouses owned by the university, newly renovated, very near Brightleaf Square. Whenever I visited I felt like I’d landed in an episode of Thirtysomething, surrounded by bright young, eager communication graduates, Brooklynites newly landed in tobacco row, not exactly bewildered, but stunned by Durham’s heart and history.
SENIOR EDITOR. A house out in the pines. My commute from Graham to Durham down Highway 70 charmed me, especially in spring, lined by redbud trees, dogwoods, and the occasional roadside vegetable stand.
I hope this finds you well. Ken and I are planning to come to Chapel Hill next month. He hasn’t been back since he graduated, and I have heard so much about it from you two that I am dying to see it. Ron will be coming in from Charlotte to join us, and a few of Ken’s friends from back in the day will be coming too. Will you be free to join us for a drink, maybe even dinner? I understand that you are busy these days with the magazine and all. But would love to see you, and this new house you’ve been telling me about.
Give me a call when you get a chance.
Agnes once told me a story about working for MacArthur in Japan after the war. “Of course he was a Southern boy, like you. Well not like you, but you know what I mean. From Arkansas. Little Rock. Margaret and I would go out for sushi. There was a charming little place not far from the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Building where we worked. This one had managed to stay open throughout the war, despite the rice rationing. Sushi wasn’t as big a thing then, even in Japan, as it is today. But he loved his steak and he had discovered Wagyu beef, Mishima and Kobe, and he thought we were mad. ‘Raw fish!’ Threatened to tell our parents. I tempted him to try a nigiri once. He admitted it wasn’t half bad. He fed me a slice of his steak from his fork. Imagine that: the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers feeding me from his fork like a little girl. ‘Always bet on the beef, girl. Always bet on the beef.’”
The Alamance County Historical Museum. Burlington. The Holt House dated back to 1790, but now is more Victorian in appearance. The out-building done up charmingly, as if no food had ever been cooked in the kitchen, no corn ever stored in the corn-crib. I had called ahead, wondering about the history of my place.
I don’t know what I had expected. Maybe someone like my fourth-grade teacher, a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the Confederacy with a thick, rich South Carolina accent, a bright print dress, and shoes too tight. But not this woman, this Mrs. Parker, who could pass for the Duchess of Marlborough, transplanted but fiercely dedicated to the Southern past.
“So you bought the old place. I had heard the professor died.”
“Yes, didn’t they tell you?” she asked in her minted Oxbridge accent. “Who sold the place to you? Probably that Ann Baxter, did she not? Yes, I should have guessed. She views local history as a nuisance. Only interested in McMansions and her fee.”
The docent had come to the states as a military bride, back in the sixties. Her husband died in 1979, she told me.
“Yes, William Gaddins. He taught at Carolina. History, of all things. He came here from Ann Arbor back in the seventies with three little girls. All grown-ups now. I don’t know where they live. Well, Betsy, I do . . . Regardless all that. He raised the girls all alone, while restoring the old inn—”
“Inn? My house was an inn?”
“So she didn’t tell you that either, I see. She probably has no clue. Yes, Mr. Kenan, that place was built in 1799. Did she tell you that? It was an inn run by Quakers. You see, a man-made canal snaked its way very near your backdoor. By the mid-nineteenth century, a great deal of traffic came by there, down from Greensboro and Old Salem en route to Fayetteville and below. The canal was built to avoid the rocks of the Haw. People came to refer to it as a creek.
“A Quaker family ran the inn from the turn of the century until a few years before the Civil War. They seemed to vanish around 1860. No record of where they went or why or how. I have my theories, of course, but no evidence. You know Quakers were staunch abolitionists. Many were persecuted because of it. A great many were run off the land here.”
No one else was there that day but the two of us, so after I strolled about the house and the property, we could sit in the parlor as if we were having tea.
“Again, I have no evidence. But I strongly believe that inn was used to smuggle slaves to freedom.”
I thanked her and had begun to retreat to my car when she said: “You know they exterminated them.”
“The slaves?” I asked.
“No,” she shot me a sly grin. “Not by a long shot. The Quakers. You know they once owned most of this area. Daniel Boone’s people. After the war—what my colleagues euphemistically refer to as ‘The War of Northern Aggression.’ They were practically all wiped out just before all that. Exterminated.”
“Come look at this.”
Once upon a time I imagine there had been a door. But then again perhaps not. A false wall. A panel. A compartment smaller than a closet. I imagined a body or two cramped in there. I wondered for how long.
After finding this room, the noises and lights started. Outside. Voices really, and the sounds of feet trudging around in the yard. Murmurings each to each, and the lights flickered as if by flame. I did not rush out to discover who it might be, and when I peeked out the window the lights were doused.
Siddiq regarded me with the look a teenager gives to an older person they do not respect. “These things do not happen in Egypt.”
“Oh, quit lying.”
“They do not.”
“You’re cooking a what?” Alexa was fascinated by the “reunion.” “A goose? Are you mental?”
“How long have you known me?”
“Are you getting it from Stone Creek?”
“No, a place called Elena’s Farm in Thomasville.”
“Of course! A Thomasville goose.”
“So will you come?”
“I have to be in Asheville that day. Maybe I’ll stop by on the way back. What kind of sauce?”
“I was thinking port, cherries, and ginger. Potatoes. Brussels sprouts—roasted, too, of course. Sweet-potato tarts.” I intended to show Inder and his new husband the house and cook them a good meal, just as I originally promised.
“You are such a fool.”
“That is why you love me, bitch.”
Inderpreet. I had met Inder through an old-school, truly primitive computer dating service, back in the late eighties. I was assistant food editor by then. My best buddy at the time suggested we go in on it together. We were both single, both somewhat on the make, both lusty and able, both spending too many fruitless weekends in the bars and clubs.
He showed me the ads in the Village Voice. “Let’s try it. What have we got to lose?”
“Don’t be so damn negative. You spend that on drinks at Uncle Charlie’s in two hours.”
We filled out the forms and waited.
Six weeks later my results arrived in a thick packet, spooled computer paper, dot-matrix print-outs, seventeen or so matches; only a handful seemed even remotely promising. I went through with it and contacted three.
I met the first two guys and was sorely disappointed. (Perhaps they were equally so.) But the third, as they say, was the charm.
Inder was a Punjabi Sikh, a twentysomething medical intern working at Kings County Hospital, where I had been born. At the time, he was preparing to be in his sister’s wedding and sported a long, dramatic beard, as was the custom in Sikh weddings. Though by 1988 the hospital was a sprawling complex including dormitories, I could not help but reflect upon the idea of making love in the place where I had been born.
I ended the thing rather abruptly after a season. For no other reason than I was quixotic then—as I am now—and felt too hemmed in. And yet some of my favorite memories ever:
Cooking alongside his mother in their Brooklyn flat, my first home-cooked Indian food.
Attending this sister’s wedding, also a first. It felt more like a festival than a wedding reception. Music, dancing, food galore.
We are made by the things we regret.
My first year of college, I lived on North Campus in Chapel Hill surrounded by prep-school boys drunk on ska, punk, and reggae. Alexa had grown up on Florida’s Space Coast with a prepper father, long before survivalist lifestyles were a fad or even a word. She lived on South Campus and happily only associated with black folks. I made a beeline to New York when she went off to Iowa. On fall and spring breaks she would come visit, and amid walks on the Promenade, across the Brooklyn Bridge, or ambling about Prospect Park is when she fell in love with Brooklyn. “Guess what, Alexa? I met Alfred Kazin.”
“Of course you did.”
I found a patch of periwinkle at the edge of my property where the cornfield meets the wooded area. It was close to a fourth of an acre, I would guess.
I remembered having read that the graves of the enslaved were often marked only with periwinkle to keep the ground free from all else.
Ken. Ken was the one I feared meeting. I did not remember him at all and wondered if I ever truly had met him as an undergrad. He had been a cheerleader, and I never went to home games. Pictures aplenty of him abounded, of him in the cheerleader outfits, of him and his gals and guys making the classic human pyramid. Standing on the yard line at the football stadium, a sea of sky-blue-and-white-clad humanity, an improbable grin upon his face. The only black male in the crew, two black women, in a team of twenty.
While I was getting coffee for Agnes van Horne and sleeping with his future husband, Ken was getting his Master’s from Harvard’s vaunted Kennedy School, going on to a fast-track career in telecommunications. He became a vice-president for what was still Pacific Bell.
The thing you want to know, the thing you don’t want to know.
And then there was Ron. Ron and Ken had remained close over the years, apparently. Ron was only one of two men I tried to seduce via poetry while an undergraduate. Though the poems were embarrassingly earnest (I should quote some here, but I am mortified by them now), he spoke to me nicely after reading my Shakespearean efforts, and told me he thought I had talent. The fact that he had absolutely positively no romantic interest in me was as plain as a dick on a donkey. He was now the principal of a large high school in Charlotte. In college, rumor had it he was dating a tall white leatherman, and that he had developed a penchant for S/M and kink.
He was still a beautiful man.
“Just be sure to keep it niche,” Sidney kept saying to me and Alexa. Sidney was the business manager. He remained in New York where he ran a small crew of marketing and sales people. Alexa decided she would be her own art director, having done it professionally for so many years, photography and design being her main passions. So she left the niche-ifying to me. My goal was to land the thing somewhere between Southern Living and McSweeney’s. To be sure, all the folk we were able to hire and who got what we were trying to do fell into a certain type: extremely arch sensibilities when it came to cultural artifacts, mixed with a nostalgia for a time predating their births; hirsute, largely; stylized manners and clothing; self-conscious about anything commercial or “corporate.” To be homegrown was to be Holy. We all got along just swell. And yet each of them had forgotten more about craft beer than I would ever learn.
I had big fun assigning and developing stories. There were the requisite interviews with those young chefs reclaiming Southern food in places like Miami and New Orleans, but one of my favorite things was a series of interviews with non-cook cooks. An Atlanta deejay’s choice of comfort foods; a Jacksonville truck driver’s go-to self-packed lunch; a Parris Island drill instructor’s best home-cooked meal.
I had just completed an oral history of the white women who worked at the Greensboro Woolworth’s counter at the time of the 1960 sit-ins. When I told them I worked for Lard & Promises they wouldn’t stop talking.
We started at a bar on Henderson Street. A place, when we were undergraduates, known to have gay Thursday nights. Chapel Hill having no real gay bars, then or now. It was damn-near empty that night when I met the three of them standing there at the bar.
“You look good, man,” Ron said, and asked what I would have to drink.
Inder hugged me and introduced me to his husband. Ken hugged me, too, and acted as if he remembered me. I followed suit, knowing it was a lie.
The night droned on, a night at moments threatening to be boring, but Ron and his allegro spirit always managed to lift the dark rum to tequila lemonade, which was perhaps one of the reasons I’d become infatuated with him from the start. The bar deejay—or whoever—played a mix of tunes from gold to old, Chaka Khan met OutKast met Stevie Nicks met James Taylor met Missy Elliott. And after a few beers I felt myself silly, wondering what I had set myself up for. Remembering a short story by John Updike about a fifty-year high school reunion, I thought: They are never what we build them up to be. We expect some grand revelation. Revelations work on their own time, not ours. The beats beat on. The night beat on.
“You writing any poems these days?” Ron had a wonderful way of dominating a conversation, a gathering. Not in an obnoxious way, but in a reassuring avuncular, fun way.
“Not in fifteen years, I think.”
“That’s a pity. You got the soul of a poet.”
“Yeah? Tell that to my boyfriend.”
“He ain’t a poet?”
“What is he?”
“Pretty. Smart. Egyptian.”
“He was born a Muslim, silly.”
“Oh.” Mischief danced in his brown eyes.
I took a deep quaff of a Guinness I had no business drinking. “Look, there is some weird shit going on at this house I bought, and—”
“Let’s go, guys!” Ken announced rather loudly with the authority of a senior executive vice-president. “Let’s take a walk.”
Ken wanted Inder to see the Old Well. They’d already toured South Campus and the Dean Dome. Now it was the Bell Tower, Wilson Library. Silent Sam. Talk about ghosts.
We ended the evening at the Carolina Inn, where they were staying, drinking prosecco and arguing about the “death tax.” Ken had a quantity of suspiciously complimentary things to say about George W. Bush, though we all lamented the war.
“Okay, guys,” I said when I noticed how late it was getting. “See you tomorrow. About seven p.m., right?”
“I’m sure I can find it,” Ken said.
“Be sure you have my number. My place is out in the boonies.”
“Someone’s knocking at the door / Somebody ringing the bell.”
Three days after we first moved in: three a.m. Someone violently banging at the backdoor. Can the heart beat any harder? I have read that our reactions in such moments are completely involuntary. Sounds bypass the brain and go directly to our spines.
“Who the hell is it?”
The banging stopped. I cursed myself for not ordering a backdoor with a window. I found the old one too charming, too intact, too vintage to replace. I could see through the window that the motion-activated floodlight was on. Should I open the door?
I had a gun, but kept forgetting to get buckshot for it. So I picked up the machete I kept behind the door. Perhaps knowing Siddiq was upstairs emboldened me; perhaps I’d drunk too much scotch.
There was no correct way to open the door, other than to yell and swing it open at the same time. No one was there. I could hear Siddiq’s bare feet coming downstairs. I saw the barn door was open, a faint light within.
Machete in hand I marched barefoot across the gravel and grass to the ancient barn. I imagined I looked like some figure from a 1950s zombie movie.
As a student of modern Russian history, I have always conjured up an image of what the tsar’s family looked like the moment after their ignoble assassination. Of course we don’t have to imagine it—we have photographs. The sight in my barn was akin to that. White folk all. Dressed rather formally. The man in black, a woman in a black dress, three girls all askew, and a boy-soon-to-be-a-man. All expired, all teetotaciously exflunctified.
Siddiq’s wail came up from behind me, incredulous. Horrified. I know he saw it too. I heard him running back to the house.
I closed and bolted the barn door before even thinking to call the police, which I did not. Knowing the scene would be gone by daylight. Which it was.
“Who is it? What do you want?”
The phone woke me up.
It was Siddiq. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I’m just fine.”
“Are you ready for tonight?”
“Everything is ready. They’ll be here at seven.”
“And the house?”
“Mr. McGillicuddy finished up on the windows last week.”
“You know what I mean . . . anything . . . ?”
I was silent. Then let out a long, dismissive sigh.
“So what was it like, seeing those guys again?”
I narrated the evening. He stayed silent.
“Okay. I just thought I’d check in.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
The goose came out just fine—succulent, flavorful, the fat a thing of pure joy. My sauce, not too sweet yet tangy. I was happy with my decision to use so much ginger. The potatoes were overdone, but an over-cooked potato is not the end of civilization. The Brussels sprouts made me proudest, which is silly. But their consistency, their texture, the crunch, the amount of doneness made me exceedingly happy.
“This turkey is weird,” said Ron.
“I think Randall said it’s goose,” Ken said.
“Oh, that’s why. That makes sense. Kinda greasy, ain’t it?”
“I think it’s delicious,” Inder said, and gave me the look he gave me when he beheld me cooking in the kitchen with his mother back in Brooklyn.
“Where’s your light Egyptian, man? Inder told me you were living with this pretty boy. Where he at?”
“What the hell he doing down there? Why ain’t he here?”
“It just be like that sometimes, don’t it?”
“He’s missing some good vittles. Damn! Pass me some more of them potatoes, son.”
Before dessert Ron excused himself to the bathroom. I cleared the table, poured more wine and began setting out the sweet-potato tarts. Ron returned. “Why is there a naked man in the bathroom?”
“Ron? Are you—”
“I’m serious, man.”
I knew he had seen him. I knew he was telling the truth, but I was distracted by how calm he was, supernatural phenomenon or not. But that was so Ron.
A knock at the door. Timing, as the man said, is everything.
Alexa rushed in like a subway into the station. “Sorry I’m late. Already on to dessert, huh? Good. Where’s the goose? I know you saved some for me. I want me some goose. I’ve been thinking about goose all damn day. I’m thinking we can do a piece about goose farming. What do you think?”
All the men stood around the table, which had been made from one of those planks found in the house, no doubt from a tree planted back in the seventeenth century. Their eyes told a story seemingly as old.
“Okay. What the hell happened? Why are you all looking at me like I just walked into an orgy uninvited?”
“Naked Negro. Bathroom,” Ron said, and shrugged and picked up a dried cherry and commenced to chew. He motioned to the bathroom.
Alexa spun on her heels, in that imperious fashion that made her. I could see in her in that moment both Agnes Van Horne and Frances Lear. She marched to the bathroom and swung the door open.
“Okay. So what y’all been drinking?”
I inspected. Ron inspected. Inder and Ken inspected. Ron ate his tart, poured more wine.
Being a straight white woman in a party of gay black men was just Alexa’s style. She was right in the mix instantly, as if they’d all been old friends. Though we’d all gone to school together, she had run with a different crowd.
Ron gave me a look I sometimes got from my pastor when I was a boy asking stupid questions like, Who is God’s mother? “So let me get this right: You moved back home with this pretty boy intending to play house in this old place out in the middle of nowhere and live happily after ever. Is that the idea?”
“I reckon,” I said.
“You can’t always get what you want, brother.”
“Wasn’t it Frederick Douglass who said: ‘You may not get what you pay for in this world, but you will certainly pay for what you get,’” I replied.
“Yeah, he said that and a whole lot of other shit.”
“I’m okay. Really. Truly. I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, just haunted.” He kicked back another glass of wine.
Do ghosts eat? I make breakfast for two. Perhaps from sheer force of habit. Yet another day without Siddiq.
My visitor, my new friend, sits at the table with me. He seems to admire his plate of food but does not eat.
I hear a bell in the distance.
Opening the door: It is fall, but outside is spring. I see a completely different landscape. The trees all full of leaves. Abundant green, blindingly bright sunshine, butterflies, flowers. All that buzzing. I see the creek so much closer than I expected. And there is a wooden dock. I see a different world.
I see a long flatboat approaching. The creek is not much more than a ditch, not much wider than the boat. I see a man, a white man, heavy and full-bearded, coming our way, moving the boat along with a long wooden pole. My friend seems to be both relaxed and eager. The boatman waves and calls out, “Oy!” I wave back, and my friend waves back. By and by, the flatboat docks, and the two of us go out, me in my pajamas, my friend totally nude. The boatman greets us, and I think of Greek mythology, until his warm hairy hand grasps mine and he says, “We need to get a-going. Seen two patrollers on horseback a few miles back, but past Greensboro, I reckon. Can’t be too careful now.”
My friend clambers aboard and looks upon me, expectantly. The boatman situates him among a number of wooden barrels, bids my friend to crouch among them, and then spreads a broad, rough canvas over him. “Get on in,” the boatman says to me, eager to shove off.
“I think I’m good where I am,” I say.
The boatman spits absently. “It’s your funeral, brother. Take your chances. I know they’re a-coming.”
“I will be fine.”
The boat launches and heads south. “Take care of yourself, brother. May Jesus and his angels bring you to safety.”
My friend pokes his arms and head up from the canvas. He waves to me. It is one of the most freehearted and brotherly waves I have ever witnessed, full-armed, vigorous. A form of communication surely only known to the first humans. I wave back, and I stand and watch them disappear around the bend of the channel. A dragonfly lands on the dock. The beating of its wings is loud to my ears.
I go back in and enjoy my ham and red-eye gravy, grits, and scrambled eggs. I think of my mother, I think of my lover, I think of home.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.