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August 15, 2022


DW McKinney

I ate collard greens at the kitchen table while my grandfather spoke about the possible haunting of our lives. He gobbled and slurped, juice spattering his plate, while he told me about The Ol’ White Woman who lived underneath my grandparents’ house. Her home was right below one of the guest bedrooms. Standing in the shade of my grandparents’ lone plantain tree, I would stare at the small door built into the house’s foundation.

The door hanged at an angle on its hinges as if slapped against the square hole of the threshold in a rush. It was made from the same rust red fencing that surrounded their property and was only two feet in height. For anyone to pass through the door, they had to get on their hands and knees, submit themselves at the entryway like a fattened calf on an altar, and then stick their head—exposing their neck—into the mouth of the dank cavernous black. But first, they had to be brave enough to go near the door. Next to the door was a small opening, as if one of the bricks in the foundation had been pushed outward. The opening was covered with mesh wire, serving as a window of sorts to anyone or anything peering out. Whatever was underneath the house would see you long before you saw it, long before you got on your knees.

“That Ol’ Woman, that White Woman, she only comes out at night,” my grandfather would drawl. “She just outchea in the yard. Moanin’ and such.”

“Why, Gran’pa?” I had asked him. It could’ve been the first or fiftieth time he told me about this haint. I always had questions. “Why does she bother us?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

I never thought to ask how she got there in the first place. What kept that woman pacing in circles, offering up her grievances to the land?

* * *

Right after my father and five other men carried my grandfather’s casket to the hearse waiting outside the cemetery chapel, an itch ran up my spine. Its tiny legs needled into my back. I wanted nothing more than to run into the chapel restroom and unzip myself from my skin. An ill-feeling was trying to take rest inside me, and I wanted as far away from it as possible.

My grandfather would’ve claimed that I had angered a haint in the Greenwood Cemetery that July afternoon. Or maybe some old spirit had it out for me. I had to be careful either way. I held my breath and watched where I stepped. No matter how much I wanted to see the casket going into the hearse—a visual reassurance that my grandfather’s death was real—I kept my distance from it. No part of me would latch onto the casket and be dragged down into the ground. But after a small contingent of us marched up the hillside to the gravesite, I thought it would be best if I jumped into the rectangular hole after all.

That morning, as we headed to meet my grandmother, my parents had mused if anyone would become hysterical at the funeral. They both laughed then chafed at the thought of some Black woman—it was never a man—throwing herself across the casket in her grief, all while screaming, “Take me, too, Jesus!” I’d never seen anyone actually do this before. I had been told by Black television sitcoms and eavesdropping on grown folks’ conversations as a child that this was a thing that only happened at Black funerals. I didn’t feel this way; I didn’t want to enter the afterlife with my grandfather. I simply wanted to jump into the grave six feet below and dwell in the darkness. Pull the stale shroud of shadow over me like one of my grandmother’s quilts in the winter. I wanted it to hold me and all my sorrow. There was no other place to safely put my grief because if I let it out at the gravesite, it would entomb us all.

Four wooden planks kept my grandfather’s casket, draped in an American flag, suspended above his body’s final resting home. I stepped up to the grave on the pretense of touching the casket, of saying, “Farewell. Till we meet again,” like my grandfather would remark at the end of our visits together. The tip of my patent leather boot bumped against one of the wooden planks. The casket rocked, and my anxiety startled a madness I hadn’t known was writhing inside me. The hole transformed into a gaping maw eager to chew me up and split my bones. I wanted to throw myself across the casket then to keep my grandfather from going down into the painful dark. To keep him from becoming nothing. I understood those grieving Black women of myth in that moment. How easy it was to become one of them.

* * *

After I dropped my children off at daycare, it was my habit to meditate while I walked a few laps around the nearby park. These moments were precious in the summers because the oppressive Nevada heat burst across the landscape soon after the sun began rising and I was loathe to venture outside my home once it became too hot. In the early quiet, I only heard birds flapping their wings overhead and the leaves rustling in the ash trees. The loudest noise was La Buena 101.9 crackling from the phone of one of the joggers looping around the field. I stuck to the shade, avoiding the middle of the field, which was already ablaze.

The first time I stepped onto the red dirt path winding around the park, I stepped into the memory of Saturday mornings as a child when I’d go walking with my grandfather. On these days, he’d slip his feet into his misshapen black Reeboks sagging from use, put on his flannel coat and a sweat-stained bucket hat, and grab his walking stick on his way out the door. We’d park his Datsun at the stadium behind a local elementary school. We snuck in through the locked gates, closed loosely with chains so that anyone from the neighborhood could slip through. My grandfather and I talked about life, the world, and biblical scripture as we looped around the track inside the stadium. Every time I walked the path around the park, the past and present blurred at the edges as I fell in and out of those moments with him.

The morning when autumn officially blew into the desert, I caught a reflection of my grandfather in my car window at the park. I jumped back and stared at the trees and road reflected in the glass. The dark interior of the car became a black mass eating away at their distorted images. A knot plugged my throat as I held my breath and stared at him. After a few seconds I realized I was only seeing myself. That morning I had shrugged on a coat from the closet in my haste to get my daughters out the door. The coat I’d chosen was my grandfather’s signature flannel, one of two belongings of his that I kept after the funeral. I stroked the dark browns, reds, and black patterned across the fabric. The sole pocket above the left breast was where my grandfather kept tissues and money and where I now kept tissues and my car keys. I pulled the coat tighter around me and shuffled toward the trail. I prayed and muttered scriptures, my eyes cast toward the rust red earth.

* * *

I didn’t believe my sister when she said our grandfather’s spirit had knocked her calendar off her living room wall. I should have believed the woman who knew I was pregnant before I even announced it. Her preternatural intuitions have been tried and proven multiple times, especially when it came to the dead. Spirits visited my sister on and around their birthdays and on the anniversaries of their deaths. They knocked over their pictures on her walls and dressers. They chased her in icy breezes on impossibly hot days with no wind. The dead had even visited my sister in her dreams, pleading with her to forgive people she was holding a grudge against. She knew when the dead were nearby and since her calendar flew off the wall a few days before our grandfather’s birthday, she knew he was walking among us.

Maybe I didn’t want to believe our grandfather had visited her simply because I was jealous. Why had he not visited me? But if he had that meant I’d also have to acknowledge he was gone, something I had only allowed myself to believe in part since his death in 2017. I didn’t respond to my sister’s pronouncement of our grandfather’s presence. I ended her video message and turned back to working on my laptop.

As I typed, a voice behind me said, “It’s time for a break.”

A hand rested on my shoulder and latched onto me, inside me. It pulled backward and a force simultaneously rose up out of my core. My body, not yet ready to part with whatever was coming out of me, leaped backward too, as if caught on a baited hook.

Stumbling into a bookshelf, I looked around. I was alone. I hugged my arms, brushing off the draft lingering in the room. There was an unfamiliar hollowness inside me. Something had been carved out when the hand reached into me. For a moment, I didn’t dare move. I sensed that I was exposed, the whole of me standing in a place where I shouldn’t be. It was like I had wandered into a room and a crowd of strangers was looking at me.

The moment passed and I waited for the voice again. It had been soft like a faint thought or a voice coming from a distant room. I believed if I stood still enough that maybe the voice would know that I was ready to listen and would speak once more. When it didn’t, I convinced myself that I misheard a noise from the street outside or from my spouse in his office below me.

“Hello?” I called.

There’s an instinctive foolishness in shouting into the empty. In horror movies, the soon-to-be dead characters, the hopelessly naïve and skeptics, run straight into malicious supernatural beings when they call out to the shadows and announce their mortal presence. But there I was, calling out. Hoping my words anchored onto something to keep me from drifting further away. From losing more of myself in that moment.

I leaned toward the bathroom. I tiptoed to my closet and looked inside. I peered down the hallway.

“Hello? Was that you, love?”

My spouse’s voice rose up to me from downstairs. It was muffled and directed at someone other than me. He was on a phone call. I brushed this off and chuckled as if foreboding wasn’t creeping up the back of my neck.

Acknowledging the supernatural presence was the only way to dispel the uneasiness gathering around me. I cleared my throat and focused my intention so that the spirit, or whatever was hanging in the ether, would know that I was talking to it.

“Maybe I need a wall calendar for you to knock around.”

My words were devoid of any real intent. Maybe the presence in the room had sensed that too because, like the moment of my hollowing moments ago, whatever had been there before was now gone. Emptiness hanged in the air. Even if it had been my grandfather, I hoped there would be a day when I knew it was him with an unwavering assuredness. I needed a sign greater than a calendar falling off the wall or a voice in the distance.

* * *

A year after I began visiting the park, it became a second home to me. In the winter, I hunted for the sun as I looped around the center field. Mumbling prayers to myself, my words caught in the thick air. Talking aloud drew curious stares, but I didn’t care.

The world could not hold my attention. My eyes would drift downward, scanning the trail around me. It took a while before I recognized that I was searching, a habit of my grandfather when he was alive. Over the years, he ventured from the elementary school’s stadium on his morning walks and into the adjacent neighborhoods and overgrown lots. There, he’d pick up broken toys he found half-buried in the dirt or discarded in the gutter. These were toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, little green army men missing a limb, or cheap dolls from the dollar store. My grandfather collected most of them in Folgers coffee cans in his workshop. The toys that were not too beat up, he’d give to me.

My Reeboks caught my attention as I searched the ground. I paused in the middle of the trail to examine them. The Reeboks were a pair I had purchased the previous year after my last pregnancy. The black was faded from wear and the once-white midsole was stained red-brown. The shoes were also a little loose around the mouth. Memories churned upward: a similar pair of Reeboks had sat underneath a dresser in my grandfather’s den, swollen with time. The same pair of shoes I stuck my feet in a few weeks before he died; his walking stick rested in a corner a few feet away from them. The memory slipped away when I noticed the bright spot of yellow in the grass beside me.

I bent over, parted the tufts, and plucked the yellow up from the grass. It was a discarded Bumblebee Transformer. There were no children playing at the park that morning, but I still craned my neck to look for its owner. Seeing no one, I nestled the plastic robot in my coat pocket among the unused tissues and resumed my walk.

Braced against the cold, I threw my head back and laughed. The sound echoed in the park, a haunting cackle that carried over the treetops. Then I kept moving forward, my eyes downward, ever searching, as I continued to walk in circles, at peace.