Gohegan Man came back from the dead and told Ezekiel Applewood he was too old to lie across his bed boo hoo crying.
“What for you cry now, Zekie Boy? Who you know come in this world to stay? Who you know got the power of everlasting eternal life clutched fist ball in his hand? Even Christ set free his human form.”
But Ezekiel Applewood, preternaturally small in stature for a fourteen-year-old boy, would not look up from his sleigh bed. A bed that he had always suspected was too low to the ground. A bed made of native satinwood, a relic from America’s baby-teething Federal days in a style his father referred to as Hepplewhite. The bed, a curving, narrow thing, along with nearly every piece of furniture in the Applewood house, had once belonged to someone else until Ezekiel’s father had seen fit to swindle it away from an “Everyday Sucker.”
Ezekiel had learned at a young age that Everyday Suckers weren’t meant to have or keep anything, even their most precious possessions. You were doing Everyday Suckers a favor when you stole their possessions or bought them for next to nothing because Everyday Suckers were bound to lose the things they loved anyway.
Yesterday Gohegan Man was swindled out of life with a clean shot to the back of the head and a dirty shot to the front of his face. Ezekiel had watched his father put two bullets in Gohegan Man, rendering him an Everyday Sucker in a matter of seconds.
But now, here was Gohegan Man, sitting on the edge of Ezekiel’s bed smiling like they were still the best of friends. And now, here was Gohegan Man asking Ezekiel what for he cry? Yes, Lord, now here was Gohegan Man running his finger along the string quilt made by the Geechee Gullah women, strips and straps of all God’s colors, brash bold colors to captivate the eyes, telling Zekie Boy he was glad he’d told Sarah Applewood to have one of the Geechee Gullah women make Zekie Boy a plush string quilt.
“Will come a time I tell you when the young ones won’t know how to string these quilts so. When they will take the shortcut and the string quilt will fall to the wayside. Get Zekie Boy his quilt now and his children will always know the way.”
Zeke’s mother, Sarah Applewood, never asked Gohegan Man why he thought what he thought or said what he said. Zeke’s mother, Sarah Applewood, pale but black and sterling at thirty-five, trusted Gohegan Man in all things, which was why her husband took a small .22-caliber gun, a Saturday Night Special, that could do serious damage with its teeny-tiny round-nosed copper-tinted bullets if you aimed straight for the heart or the back of the head or between the eyes. Horatio Applewood shot Gohegan Man dead on a Saturday evening, close to midnight, because Gohegan Man had signed the bulk of his property over to Sarah Applewood. Horatio could think of no sane reason his friend would do such a thing other than backsliding trickery or lust. If Gohegan Man had not just whetted his appetite on a third drink, he might have known Death had a certificate with his name on it, because The Snake’s Haven Social Club was quiet when it should have been loud and the jukebox was off when it should have been on and Horatio Applewood wasn’t on the one subject that ruled his life: big money. Horatio was content to sit up in his bar and play pinochle and laugh about the good old times he’d had as a boy growing up with Gohegan Man, who had taken Horatio under his wing and taught him how to catch mullet and croaker with a handwoven fishing net.
“Gohegan Man,” said Horatio Applewood. “You the only father I ever knew.”
But talk is cheap. Talk is dung beetle shit. Horatio had winked at his son, Ezekiel. Told him he could stay up past midnight. Told him that to kill Gohegan Man without someone who loved the old fool unconditionally as a witness seemed neither Christian nor right. Ezekiel, nervous and thin though he never wanted for a solitary meal, caught between a rock and a hard place, between two folding chairs and an unsteady table of cards, between the father who was Horatio Applewood and Gohegan Man, who was better than the best grandfather, tried to utter a word on the old man’s behalf, but found his tongue struck dumb like his deaf mother’s. Yes, yes, how dreadful to be struck dumb like prim and pretty Sarah Applewood, whom silence had befallen at twelve years old. Ezekiel did not want to go deaf. The prospect of deafness terrified him so much that he stood silent with his small hands quaking in his linen pants while his father jumped up and stretched his long, lanky body after losing pinochle five times to Gohegan Man and cussed and slapped Gohegan Man congenially on the back and said it was time for another round of drinks. Time to bring out a few shots of the scrap iron liquor for which the bar was famous to toast this evening’s winner. Little Ezekiel tried to warn Gohegan Man but his feet were like cement and the only thing more muted than Ezekiel’s voice was his courage.
“Godammit, Gohegan Man. This Saturday. It’s your night.” Horatio moved past Gohegan Man and swung his taut body around swiftly and swept the .22-caliber gun out of his pocket and told Gohegan Man, who had his shoulders slumped in his ill-fitting polyester suit and one arm propped on the card table, that he’d been planning to kill him for the longest time. Gohegan Man was to be murdered in the very bar he had given Horatio the down payment to purchase. The title to the bar was in both of their names and the deed possessed both of their signatures, one in neat cursive and the other with letters slanted large and missing a dot over the lowercase i. The deed to the property said Gohegan Man’s Christian name: Goliath McCullough.
On the Saturday night when Horatio Applewood put the gun to the nape of Gohegan Man’s neck and grazed along the back of Gohegan Man’s bumpy, snow-gray head, the old man sat relaxed with a glass of rum in his callused hands. Gohegan Man was determined that before he died he would finish his drink.
“You know how it goes, Old Soldier,” said Horatio. “We all got to pay our debts.”
“How much I owe you, Horatio?”
“A traitor’s fortune. Nothing you can pay for in this lifetime.”
“I help you build this place.”
“Yes, you did. And I loved you for it. But, listen here, Gohegan Man, you not just Geechee, you got the raw nerve to be greedy too. It’s a sin to covet your best friend’s wife.”
Goliath McCullough didn’t want to leave this world. On one hand, he didn’t think that Horatio Applewood, despite being the richest colored man in Snake’s Haven, was doing right by his son or his wife. Goliath McCullough (who wanted to die with his birth name on the soft tip of his tongue because it reminded him of the island on which he was born) liked the taste of sweet rum over whiskey and the daze of blood orange sunsets and he liked sometimes when the residents of Snake’s Haven were dozing in their twilight to walk around the town in his birth suit, which was a dangerous thing for a black man in the Jim Crow South of 1931 to do, unless draped in enchantment or mystery. But for another thing, Goliath still believed in his deep dark and soon-to-be dead heart that there was still some goodness in the soul of Horatio Applewood, whom he had loved, if the truth be told, more than little Ezekiel as a boy.
Gohegan Man sipped his last bit of rum dainty, which is to say slow. “You oughtn’t to let your son see you do this.”
“You might be the first man Zekie’s seen die but you won’t be the last.”
“Remember now, Horatio, you Geechee too.”
This insult was so great that Horatio Applewood kicked the sideways chair from underneath Gohegan Man’s flat ass and after he’d pumped the first short, roundnosed, copper-tinted bullet into the back of Gohegan Man’s head, he pumped a second bullet in the old man’s face and this is why the residents of Snake’s Haven said that Gohegan Man came back from the dead. There would be no open casket for Gohegan Man, who had loved the water and the great outdoors and falling asleep in the late afternoon on the riverboat he had made and called home. By dismantling Gohegan Man’s face, Horatio Applewood had deprived the residents of Snake’s Haven the pleasure of saying how alive Gohegan Man looked in his mahogany coffin. Since they could not view the old man’s body, they wondered when they saw Gohegan Man walking around town in the days and weeks following his funeral if he was truly one of the bonafide dead. They would see him ambling down the road and the sight of him was enough to make them puzzle over the meaning of life and death. When they tried to ask Gohegan Man about his situation, he’d shake his dead head and say: “I’m in no mood to talk right now.” And this was especially disconcerting to the Snake’s Haven residents because now they questioned if there was a Heaven or a Hell or if hell was a joyous place or if heaven was tedious and boring and it put them in a surly, sour state of mind when they went to church so that they couldn’t concentrate on the Sunday sermon or what the good reverend had to say. Wouldn’t life be better if they let it all hang out and embraced sin readily?
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There are forty-two species of snakes in the Carolinas and Low Country Georgia. The residents of Snake’s Haven have, at one time or another, been acquainted with all of them. Goliath McCullough was nineteen years old when he canoed away from McCullough Island and settled in Snake’s Haven, where it is said that he and all the Geechee Gullah preceding him were greeted by ancestors in the form of snakes and these ancestors were hurt and outraged because the Geechee Gullah were foolish enough to think they could pack up their belongings and leave them behind for the mainland. Still, others among them said the snakes were not ancestors or relatives at all, but demons who hissed and crawled belly first and were sent by God or the Devil to dole out punishment for the defiant residents of Snake’s Haven, colored and Scotch Irish, still inclined to mix and mingle in the daylight or at night and who sometimes shucked the law to marry and live together as man and wife and were contrary enough to believe that nobody knew what they were doing even though their miscegenation was illegal and a black man could be strung up or lit up or quartered or flayed or boiled alive for just musing about mixed marriage. Goliath McCullough had wanted to get away from McCullough Island because there was too much history there and history though it may be beautiful is often a heavy, burdensome thing that no one, least of all the oppressed, wants to headache themselves about, but when he arrived at Snake’s Haven, he realized the river town was as far as his mind and body would permit him to go from home. He was good at building canals and ditches and not the least bit deterred by snakes or the forces of nature and he could work on the water and craft a boat for rich men and poor men alike.
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The buzzards might get him, Ezekiel signed to Horatio Applewood after his father insisted they abandon Gohegan Man’s body in a ditch. Ezekiel knew sign language well because of Sarah Applewood . It did not occur to Horatio Applewood to wonder why his son wasn’t manipulating his vocal cords, which made Ezekiel think perhaps his father had put a hex on him so he would temporarily obey his will.
“What’s that got to do with us, Ezekiel? He won’t care if the buzzards eat him. He’s dead,” Horatio Applewood said.
Ezekiel signed to his father that he hated him, and Horatio Applewood told Ezekiel that he didn’t know what real hate was, that he would one day be a rich man and that rich men held the power of dominion over most men. Rich men did not succumb to liquor or gambling or worldly women. His father’s lecture struck Ezekiel as flat-out false because these were the very vices that unfurled themselves in The Snake’s Haven Social Club from Monday to Saturday evening. The club was closed every Sunday in honor of the Sabbath.
Ezekiel Applewood ran up the hill toward home after depositing Gohegan Man’s body in the ditch and cried on Sarah Applewood’s high-chested bosom. It is amazing what a few stray tears will do because the tears shed on his mother’s bosom brought Ezekiel back to language but set Sarah Applewood to screaming when he told her that Goliath McCullough was shot and dead in an open ditch. It is not a pretty thing, a mute woman screaming. It sounds like a trash truck trying to back its way out of a muddy lane. It is an unforgiving sound, especially coming from a dignified deaf woman like Sarah Applewood, who had not cried or screamed in years but could feel the scream vibrate throughout her body and remember the lovely voice she had possessed. The old man had been her best friend and then later Ezekiel’s best friend. Like nearly all killings, this killing struck her as premature, unwarranted, senseless. A conversation came back to her from the previous day, just yesterday, the morning before, when Horatio Applewood had brushed her lips with a stingy kiss. “You act like he’s your husband and you’re his wife,” he had said.
Who? Sarah signed. She was counting her ledger at the time, tracking the accounts of the students she taught piano. Some of the students paid for their lessons with sweet potato pies or homemade jams or green zucchini squash from their parents’ gardens.
“Gohegan Man,” Horatio said. And Sarah, who could not take her husband seriously in order to love him, had not bothered to sign back. She concentrated on the ledger. She had twelve students who came regularly, four or five who came occasionally, and one or two who came twice a year. She kept a separate ledger for her three deaf students.
On that same Saturday night that Gohegan Man lay stone-cold dead in a ditch, Ezekiel Applewood continued to wail against his mother’s bosom. She could feel his wet tears on her chest and feel the angry thumping of his heart. She understood now that her husband’s yesterday question had been as loaded as the gun he used to kill Goliath McCullough, who had traveled north in the colored car of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad alongside her mother when Sarah had gone to study at Columbia School for the Deaf & Dumb in Washington, DC. In order to attend, she had to pass for white. (Columbia School of the Deaf & Dumb would become Gallaudet University in 1950—the same year it would admit its first African-American student.) Sarah’s biological father, Noah Baranski of Baranski’s Fine Apparel, arranged for his illegitimate daughter to reside with relatives. She let a room on the third floor of the Top Hat Delicatessen, owned by Noah’s second cousins just off Connecticut Avenue.
Her cousins were astonished by how much she resembled their great-aunt Judith, a woman renowned for her exquisite beauty. Sarah was a regular guest for family meals as well as an attendee at the synagogue where the Baranskis worshipped. It would have been easy for her to fold into a permanent District of Columbia lifestyle, which is to say, pass forever and not look back. Sarah would have made the right man, Jewish or Gentile, a fetching wife, but she could not forgo her cravings for fried pork chops and ham and scrapple and pigs’ feet and chitlins and she cried for her black mother, Valene, who was a seamstress in her father’s store, and the boisterous town of Snake’s Haven, where she had once known and felt the true meaning of sound. After receiving her degree, she returned to Snake’s Haven. There were no schools for deaf children in Snake’s Haven. And the schools that did exist for deaf colored children down South taught their own method of sign language. The signing was so different, corresponded with a segregated way of living so thoroughly, that when Sarah Applewood encountered her first deaf colored students she had difficulty signing with them. It broke her heart and sparked her imagination to see the ways the two sign languages diverged and converged. During her piano lessons, she taught her students the formal signing she had learned as a white student at Columbia School for the Deaf & Dumb.
Perhaps, Sarah thought, if she had looked Horatio in the eye yesterday, signed to her husband that she still loved him, made some sweet gesture to dissuade whatever poisonous crop had taken root in his half heart, then Goliath McCullough might be alive today. The realization that Horatio had all but told her he was going to kill the old man and she hadn’t heard him made Sarah Applewood keen all over again. It stunned her that Horatio would corrupt their son’s innocence by making him toss Gohegan Man’s body into a ditch. Sarah screamed and the houses on her block and two blocks over shook like there was an earthquake and people ran into their cellars or hid in their closets or slid under their beds. At least, until word spread and someone told someone else that Gohegan Man was fast dead in an open ditch already visited by flies and someone told everyone else that Horatio Applewood had desecrated the body of Gohegan Man. And they took pity on kindly Sarah Applewood because a good scream can save you or cause you to lose your sane mind. A deaf woman screaming was unnatural and living proof that Gohegan Man had died under shady circumstance.
Sarah Applewood signed to Ezekiel and together they called the police precinct to report there was a dead man in a ditch on River Lane. The police asked if the man was colored or white.
“I can only say that he is dead,” Ezekiel told them, with some forceful help from his mother’s signs.
“Was he colored before he died or was he white?” asked the officer.
“I don’t know,” Horatio said, signing the officer’s questions to Sarah.
“Then how do you know he’s dead?”
“He smells,” Ezekiel lied. “And his body is rotting, sir. Rot travels fast. Out in the open air.” The boy felt better with his mother signing what to say to him.
The policemen came with the coroner to collect Gohegan Man’s remains, and since you had to pay money for an autopsy and no one cared much one way or another about a dead colored man in a ditch, they sent the body to the colored funeral home, which was also the colored morgue. There were no questions asked, other than did anyone see anything, but the colored residents of Snake’s Haven were not inclined to answer the policemen’s questions. The policemen were on the take from Horatio Applewood, anyway.
The Snake’s Haven Social Club was a regular convenience store during the day and a scrap iron/whorehouse/card-playing establishment at night. During the day, you could buy wax candles and toilet paper and tissue and South Carolina rice and lye soap and butter beans and okra and whole milk or lard and farm-fresh eggs and coal for coal-burning stoves and ice for ice boxes and matches. You could buy these things on credit with dire interest because two years after the stock market crash Southerners were still in a bad way and colored Southerners most of all. In 1931, a loaf of bread was eight cents, and an alarm clock would set you back $3.50. The standard wage that year was $1,850.00, if you were lucky. The Empire State Building had opened that May, two months before the July evening when Horatio Applewood shot Goliath McCullough in the face and head and seven months before Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the fanged count, opened at Snake’s Haven One Room Cinema. The entire Applewood clan had gone to see the film and set up in the colored balcony. When Bela Lugosi first appeared on-screen, Horatio Applewood reached involuntarily for Goliath McCullough’s hand, as he had done when he was a small child prone to fear the dark.
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The policemen entered the bar that Saturday evening through a separate back entrance. The irony was not lost on Horatio. White men had to take a back entrance in his establishment and this tickled him pink, though he was lush brown. His reversal of fortune was what Horatio loved most about the Snake’s Haven Social Club.
“Tell us something when you know something, good citizen,” Captain Paulson said to Horatio. You would not have guessed how much Horatio hated policemen from the smile on his sly face, how much his return home from the First World War had left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. He had done active duty in the 92nd Infantry Division. He had fought valiantly with other colored soldiers alongside the French, only to return to a South where he couldn’t walk down Main Street in his army uniform. The Applewood men had been fighting in wars beside white men since George Washington took his slave with him to defeat the British. And yet two days after arriving home, Horatio Applewood had been forced to strip and beaten by the same Captain Paulson who enjoyed small talk with him now. He had been charged with public indecency and worked the chain gang for six months. But who had the last laugh now?
“When I know something, you’ll know something too,” Horatio said and offered his false friends a round of drinks.
The police captain winked and said, “We’re on duty, but later if we want a nightcap.” And Horatio Applewood took their meaning. After that, he cycled home on his dandy bike. He was the wealthiest black man in town, but he did not believe in wasting gas and would not drive his Motel T except for weekend excursions. He cycled the half mile from the Snake’s Haven Social Club to his house on Oak Hill and rode right past Gohegan Man’s troubled ghost, which was bent on beating Horatio to the house, where Ezekiel Applewood lay sobbing on his Hepplewhite bed.
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A good three hours—it took Ezekiel Applewood a good three hours before he dared to look up from his pillow at Gohegan Man’s ghost. He was relieved to see that Gohegan Man’s clothes were not all sullied with blood, and that his shirt and trousers had not picked up the dirt and grime that had corroded his body when Horatio Applewood had ordered Ezekiel to help drag Gohegan Man outside the bar and deposit his body two blocks away in a ditch. Ezekiel tried to convince himself that the entire night had been a miserable dream, but in death Gohegan Man’s midnight skin was shiny as a black water moccasin. His dead face was still intact. No bullet played tricks or opened it.
“Are you a ghost?” Zekie Boy asked Gohegan Man.
“Are you a boy?” Gohegan Man said.
“I think I am.” Like most children of privilege, Ezekiel Applewood was sharp of mind but profoundly immature for his years.
“Tell me what a boy knows so that a ghost might understand?”
“A boy knows,” Zeke said, “that a ghost can’t hurt him.”
“Tell me, Zekie Boy. But how does a boy know such things?”
“A boy knows,” Zeke said, “that a ghost can make a boy hurt himself.”
Gohegan Man nodded. “If he be too scared. If he jump-nervous at his own shadow and run. Maybe he run into a tree or wall and break his neck.”
“A boy knows—” Ezekiel started.
“What boy, Zekie, now? I only see one boy here. Less you a ghost too?”
“Me, I know. That a ghost lingers ‘til he forgets.”
“Linger where?” Gohegan Man insisted. “Where he slip off to? Tell a ghost who wants to know?”
“Hell, First. Then earth. Again. Briefly. Then heaven if he gets there.”
“I’m ripe for hell, Zekie Boy.”
“What happens when you get there?”
“No one who’s gone has ever come back and talked straight. That part is not for us to know.”
“I’m sorry, Gohegan Man. I didn’t want Pa to kill you.”
Gohegan Man understood that when the first light of day came, he would never be able to talk with Zekie Boy in the same way again, though he would see him often. And so, he had hurried up the hill, sprinted, and then flew past Horatio Applewood’s bicycle to put some comfort in the boy’s mind.
“Zekie Boy, keen your ears. Some people will hate you for the things you show them about themselves. Some will shift and turn tilt toward the ugliness in their own hearts and shout false, call their hate yours. Some will hate you for reasons they don’t understand and cannot pin a name to and spend the whole day long and tomorrow afternoon and the middle of next year and four days from last week justifying their glee hate. These some people come into this world knowing their way, crying ’cause there is a way, and finding in every other soul they bump into an obstacle to pass. But they build the forts.”
“Well, that’s all fine and well,” Ezekiel Applewood said, his slight shoulders leaning forward toward Gohegan Man, his hands balled fist tight on his lap, “but I’m going to kill my pa one day.”
Ezekiel waited for Gohegan Man to dispute him, to argue him round to another tack, but Gohegan Man, now that he was newly dead, could not lie to the boy. The words Ezekiel Applewood had spoken were rooted in feeling as well as fact. Ezekiel would grow into a fine young man and go off and do battle in the Second World War. He would come home, sire two sons, and raise the son of his illegitimate sister like the boy was his own. And one day, Ezekiel Applewood would kill Horatio Applewood. The mere thought of it made Gohegan Man mourn while he still had the chance.
Regina Porter‘s novel The Travelers is forthcoming in 2019. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a Rae Armour West postgraduate scholar.