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nostalgia for ghosts
As a small boy, I suffered from extremefevers. They came like phantoms,burning through me, blurring my vision. Theycovered me in cold sweat, ridding me of food andliquid and waste until I was aware—without thereserves of language or the ability to name my fearsand feelings—of a new kind of existence, an emptinessand lightness of body.
The fevers always began accompanied by fearand anxiety—the same dread that animates dreamsof falling—at times so forceful that I thought Iwould suffocate, dying on an old, worn-out couchor on the cold bathroom tile. Once my temperaturesettled, though, topping out at 103 or 104 degrees,there was a sickly ease holding me, as if I'dstepped into another world.
High temperatures came first from the croup:deep, painful coughs like lightning strikes at thesolar plexus, threatening to split me in half. Laterthere were middle-ear infections: buzzings in myhead, the outside world muffled through antihistaminesand painkillers. Then came bronchitis: atightening in the chest, a lack of oxygen, mucusrising like an organic sludge from the bottom ofmy lungs until every sound from me camewrapped in a bubbling wetness.
Some of my clearest memories, existing with anear-photographic clarity untrammeled by the erosivenature of time, are of my mother holding methrough long winter nights over a steaming sink orbathtub as I stared blankly, dreamily, crazily at thedirt- and mold-spotted mortar between the tiles oftheroom. She would drape a towel over both ourheads so that I would breathe only steam. In asonorous, calming voice she would síng and shushas we rocked, until, miraculously it seemed to me,she had saved me from dying again—a thirty-year-oldheroine in a tattered robe and shaggy slippers,the purple half-moons of exhaustion, of completeparental depletion, weighing down her eyes—openingup my bronchi so that I could breathe,maybe even sleep.
In the morning we would be at the doctor'soffice again, where both the horror and the strangemagic of sickness would be temporarily destroyed.
I routinely saw ghosts during the heights of illnessand fever. I stop on this memory. Surely it isfalse. But perhaps that is not the point—truth orfalsity. Whether the ghosts were figments or not,my visions of them, and my steadfast belief as aboy in the reality of these visions, were real, astruthful as anything I can think of, perhaps moreso because of their force, the space they take up inmy memory.
When the fevers came, I would lie nearly paralyzedby fatigue and a sort of slow-motion hysteriain my dark room in our small, brick house inTidewater, Virginia. Crickets and frogs complainedthrough the open windows. And I waited for shadowsin the shape of the dead to walk through mybedroom door. Ghosts would stop, three paces in—alwaysthree paces: one, two, three—then vanish,each dark phantom becoming the next, like imagesbleeding together in a kaleidoscope.
On Sundays, my family would go to the MethodistChurch near our home, often walking therealong the edges of cornfields, through a path in thewoods, across vacant, overgrown lots. I didn'tmind going to church then (though I stopped attendingcompletely as a teenager, when I discoveredalcohol and marijuana and what I thought ofas the liberating sounds of the Sex Pistols and X,among others), because the stories of Christ andthe apostles, of miracles and magic and the inexplicable,were usually interesting and well told.
One Sunday, after a long week of illness andfevers, during the season of Lent, when the churchwas filled with purple cloth and white flowers, Ifirst heard, or first really listened to, the story ofChrist rising from the dead. Though this was certainlythe most intriguing story thus far at church,beating out even Job and his boils, or Moses partingthe Red Sea or the burning bush, or Christconjuring food and drink from virtually nothing tosate the hungry masses, what made it profound tome was that it explained the ghosts that I saw withevery high fever. People, people who lived on theearth long ago or shortly ago, died, and were buried;but then, because Christ made it so, they rosefrom the dead and continued living, many of themfor some reason stopping by my room.
To my mother sitting beside me in the pew Isaid, —I can see people like Jesus.
She looked at me. —What? she whispered.
—In my bedroom sometimes. There are peoplelike Jesus.
—Sshh, she said, her hand resting heavily on myleg. —Don't say things like that.
A young girlfriend, Debra, the person I spentmost of my time with on the weekends and in thesummer, lived three doors down in a brick one-storyon a quarter-acre grass lot identical, almost,to my family's. She was adopted, as was herbrother. Her father went jogging one day. He wasforty, overweight. It was one of those heat wavesyou expect in the South—steaming asphalt, aweight to the sunlight, midday silences, mirages ofwater receding on the highways where the smellof melting rubber lingered. He had a massive heartattack on the sidewalk near my home. People cameout, tried to help; paramedics were called. But itwas too late. In a neighborhood where he hadlived for nearly fifteen years, a neighborhood inwhich real estate values were plummeting becauseof enforced busing, racial unrest, and spiking crimerates against person and property, his heart hadclenched tight as a locked jaw and quit.
I saw it happen. Or I think I saw it happen. Inmy memory there is a space reserved for the imageof his collapsing: he is tying his shoe, then puttinghis ear to the root-cracked concrete to listenclosely to a faint rumbling underground, then lyingdown to rest, to sleep.
Weeks later, after the funeral and the still silenceof mourning that engulfed their house, I told Debranot to worry, that death was a door. Peoplewere still around, and mostly fine, and sometimes,when I was sick, I could see them. I buttressed mystory with talk of God and Jesus, of Mary Magdalene,of the giant stone rolled away, of the emptytomb, the triumphant light of holiness and salvation.I now knew a story that could make everythingbetter. I believed that somehow made mepowerful, impervious to life's ultimate tragedies.
Getting off the bus one day—I was seven—Iwatched as a girl in a wheelchair, with a miniaturebody and a normal, adult-sized head, made as if tocross the busy highway just outside of our subdivision,where the bus dropped off the neighborhoodkids on the wide sidewalks. The day washazy, steamed up around the edges like a televiseddream. The girl couldn't see around the bus—awall of yellow, the roar of cars. Probably she wasmentally as well as physically impaired.
When the car hit her, she was thrown high intothe air, coming down, lifeless, on the street's grassmedian. The bluntness of the moment was a shock,like a hammer to the face. There was somethingfalse about it. It lacked narrative, lacked the simpledecency of making sense. It was nothing like TV.No swelling of triumphant or tragic music. No fogeffects, or noirish shadows around the body, nocommentators spouting irony or melodrama orsome sophisticated mixture of both. No chalk linesto be drawn. No dissonant guitar chords, or quickcuts toward overly weighted symbols, or a darkeningscreen to pull it all together. I'd gotten usedto death as it was presented by the experts, peoplewho'd studied the science of human perceptions,who knew about narrative formulas and the mathematicsof audience emotions. Now Debra's fatherand this—what?—midget? Dwarf?. Death happenedin the blink of an eye; then it was over, alife expelled—so simple as to seem degrading, thedegradation so venal as to almost necessitate an afterlife.
The bus driver, a large woman with strange configurationsof moles like stellar constellations onher face, sent all the kids away. Then there werecops, paramedics, a quickly forming crowd. Someonewas shouting and shouting and shouting, butyou couldn't understand any of it because the languagewas bent by panic, embroidered with loss,rising up and up and dissipating like factory smokeover our replicated houses.
At home, feeling numb and tingly, jarred andelectrified, my spine fairly humming from adrenaline,still not quite believing what I saw to be real,I vomited. I couldn't tell my mother what happened.I couldn't find the breath, the right words.She heard about it from Debra's mother. She triedto cheer me up, to make me forget, with sweettalk and rubbing and promises of treats and cartoons.
I didn't go to school for the rest of the week,complaining, falsely, of an intense stomachache,staring blankly at cartoons all morning (Wile E.Coyote dying and coming back, dying and comingback), running errands in the afternoon with mymother—the beauty salon, the drugstore, the postoffice—seeing, on the periphery of my vision, thedead girl rising up in shop windows. I noticed peoplein wheelchairs everywhere. I suddenly lived ina city of deformities—something wrong with theair here, the water. I had a strange feeling that if Iwent back on the bus I would be sentenced to seesomething like that every day. I wondered if duringthe next fever the little girl—or tiny adult—wouldroll through my darkened doorway, thebent wheels of her chair squeaking and clanking.
But I did go back to school. Eventually I had to.
My best friend there was a black boy namedBarry Fox. He was the funniest, smartest kid Iknew, a true comedian with timing well beyondhis elementary years. He said things to kids like:Your momma's so fat she leaves a ring around the pool.Your momma's so fat she has to butter the bathtub toturn over. Your momma's ass got its own zip code.
One Monday, early in the spring, Barry didn'tcome to school. He didn't come on Tuesday orWednesday either. On Thursday he showed upagain but didn't say anything. Finally, at lunch, hetold me that his nineteen-year-old uncle, wholived with him and his mother and sisters in thePine Chapel "projects," had been stabbed to deathin a fight. I could tell he was about cry.
Again, in an effort to console, I told the storyabout my power to see the dead when I was sick.I tried to reassure him by telling him about Christ'sresurrection.
—What the hell you sayin', he almost shouted.He was suddenly furious, telling me that I didn'tknow a thing about his uncle, or about Jesus, orabout his family, or about black people, or aboutanything at all. He said that his dead-ass unclewouldn't be let into my white-ass house anyway,dead or alive.
He was right.
Then he told me he hated me. Then he did cry,right into his open hands.
I needed a fever to prove to myself that this wasreal, that I could see what I thought, what I believed,I could see.
But it was spring, harder to get truly, deathly illwhen the weather was beautiful and warm. And—bothblessing and curse, I thought—I seemed tobe getting heartier, healthier; I was getting biggerand stronger, even good at sports.
I did have some close calls with fevers thatspring, though.
I would often go over to the Drabble's house.They were strict Southern Baptists. The father wasa mechanic, as mean and quick to violence as anyman I have ever been around; the mother stayedhome with the nine children, ranging in age fromfour to eighteen. The children were not allowedto swim; the boys could not wear short sleeves orshort pants; the girls wore floor-length handmadedresses and were not allowed to cut their hair,ever, their astounding manes cascading down belowtheir waists. My family lived cramped in oursmall house with only four. They lived in a houseconsiderably smaller than ours with eleven, whichmeant things tended to spill outside.
What spilled out of the house were the beatings.The father would take the boys out and beat themwith his fists, rubbing their faces down into thedirt of the yard. The gifts he would beat with aleather belt as he swung them around the yard bytheir hair or shirt or arm, each girl screaming at aslightly different pitch.
Usually, though, Mr. Drabble was not homeweekdays.
I went to the Drabble's because they were, dueto the pressures of their strict upbringing, I imagine,the worst kids I'd ever known—a whole newspecies of bad. The boys had pornographic magazinesand shot BB guns at neighboring houses; theysmoked cigarettes and drank stolen liquor in thewoods. The oldest boy, who recently had a bulletshot into the door of his primer-colored El Camino"by a motherfucking spook," always had potand an assortment of pills.
The other thing that spilled out of their existenceinto the yard, piling up in the backyard, wasjunk. A paradise of junk. Because the father was amechanic, a poor mechanic, a do-it-yourselfer, afixer-upper, he brought home old engines andminibikes and motorcycle parts and steering wheelsand hood ornaments and tires and bent rims andsmashed-in doors and washing machines and refrigeratorsand forklift parts.
One day, Rodney, the youngest boy, a boy whohad learned much from his father, began throwingheavy hubcaps into the air, seeing if he could accidentallysmash one of his sisters' skulls. One camedown onto my head and knocked me nearly unconscious.It sounded like an alarm went off in mybrain.
Later, with my mother again tending to me, Ifelt nauseated, with a mild concussion, and Ithought that perhaps a fever would follow. But,disappointingly, it didn't.
A few weeks after this, on a blustery afternoonafter a large northeaster had brushed the East Coast,taking out trees and light poles and local fishingpiers, some kids and I were playing during a churchsocial and cookout with an army parachute, the originof which escapes me, but I imagine it had madeits way from Vietnam into some kid's attic.
We devised a game. The wind was thunderous.The wind was an angry scream. You could let theparachute fill and it would tug several childrenholding onto the ropes along through a field,laughing and screaming.
The game was who could hold on the longestbefore the old parachute came to rest in a copse oftrees. Being the winner of this game meant that Ifloated up over the field, up over the world, seeingbroken bottles and abandoned tires and dog feceswhizzing by beneath me, until, at a speed of tenor fifteen miles per hour, I went slamming throughsaplings and ultimately into a large pine tree.
For a moment, the wind knocked out of me,I felt close to death, nearly smiling to myselfthrough my grimace and tears because I felt thatnausea and vomiting, sure signs of a fever, wereon their way. But I was seven, strangely able toshake off even the harshest physical traumas withnothing more than a good cry. I was eating Brunswickstew within the hour, singing Good NewsBible hymns.
When my mother was out of the kitchen I begansticking my head in the refrigerator, havingheard that cold air on your head brought onsickness. I ate soap; I ate a whole can of years-oldliverwurst I found in the back of my grandmother'spantry because I'd once thrown up afterdoing so on a dare. I tried eating my grandmother'schitlins (pig's large intestines, fried).Nothing, nothing, nothing. I feared I'd never seethe ghosts again.
Summer evaporated. Fall arrived, with the sadnews that we would be moving to a much nicerplace, where only solidly middle-class white peoplelived. My father was going to stretch himself financiallyto get us out of this neighborhood, thiscity, and this school district that he believed werecrumbling all around us.
Our impending move, our moving up in theworld, was devastating news. I needed the feversto see the ghosts; I also, I believed, needed theexactly perfect darkness of my bedroom in the hissingsilence of night.
The first cold snap came with rain and wind. Iwas down the street at Debra's, who often asked meif I had seen her father. It wasn't for her, really, butfor her mother, who no longer left the house, whojust sat at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, drinkinginstant coffee, staring at the chipped Formica.
Rain tapped on the windows of Debra's room.Grayness coated everything.
I left their house and, through pouring rain andcold wind, walked across the fields near thechurch, out into the woods. I stayed there for severalhours, praying. I didn't know how to praythen, not really, not in the way I would learn yearslater, when I was angry and unmoored and broken,but I gave it my best, most earnest try. I leanedagainst a tree in the weird bright darkness, shiveringand soaked, asking God to make me sick, tomake me almost dead, to show me one more timethat life was not just this, not just simply this. Iprayed until I heard my mother and father shouting,a bit frantic-sounding, from our backyard.
Within forty-eight hours, I had the flu, amiddle-ear ache, and the beginnings of the mostvirulent case of bronchitis I have ever sufferedthrough.
My fever spiked at nearly 105 degrees beforedropping back to 102. I slept in an icy tub for anhour, dreaming of carousels and lawn ornamentsand ladders and wild cats and my mother's voicemiles and miles and miles away.
Then it was night again. I remained still in mybed. My head throbbed with every heartbeat. Mymouth held the corroding taste of sickness. Thedarkness was perfect. I waited for Debra's father,or Barry's uncle, or the miniature, deformed girlin the squeaking and clanking wheelchair, orsomeone, anyone who had died, ever. I stared intothe blackness. I leaned forward. Out my window,out in the real world, a car horn was bleating, anda dog was barking, and someone, somewhere, wasfalling asleep.
Excerpted from sentimental, heartbroken rednecks by Greg Bottoms. Copyright © 2001 by Greg Bottoms. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2001 A. Poulin, Jr.. All rights reserved.
|Nostalgia for Ghosts||3|
|Secret History of Home Cinema||43|
|A Seat for the Coming Savior||81|
|Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks||99|
|A Stupid Story||123|
|LSD in Raleigh||135|
Posted August 31, 2001
This is one of the best books I've read this year. I just got it and read it in two days. It was very moving very often. A lot of it seemed like memoir, but I really liked that because I was a fan of Bottoms' first book Angelhead. The best stories, to me, were Secret History of Home Cinema and 1967, which made me cry--no kidding. If you've been hoping to find a great new writer and have been disappointed, try Greg Bottoms. He'll be winning awards soon.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.