EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 8: MR JIMMY

AUNT G
Aunt G, Young

Aunt G and her husband G ran a prosperous Funeral Home in a section of Philadelphia called Germantown. Aunt G was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister. She and G were in their seventies.  I moved in with them, taking an apartment on the top floor of one of their two little mansions. I brought an antique trunk full of books and a duffel bag with clothes in it. From Penn Station to the Funeral Home was a seven dollar cab ride that Aunt G had paid for in advance.

The ground floor of the place housed a large chapel and a little morgue and each room had a powerful identifying odor, formaldehyde, flowers, or G’s Old Spice. Living in the Funeral Home with G and G, I became familiar with certain properties of the elderly. Certain properties also of their not-too-distant cousins, the dead. These old folks, G and G’s circle, were not opaque to me.

G and G’s friends were bourgeois light-skinned blacks. They were thin-lipped and straight-haired and they sunburned easily and had come of age during a monstrous era that had bluntly preferred them to blacks endowed with too much Africa (the very endowment I believe explains my relentless health, my unnatural apparent youth and the one stereotypical bonus I don’t mind claiming because in claiming it I’m not obliged to put on public display). Frantz Fanon would probably have been more amused than disgusted by them. In a sense they were his subject.

They kept to themselves as a group, avoiding, whenever possible, the company of blacker blacks and whites as well. There was practically a periodic table for classifying the  increments between varying degrees of Negro. They were masters of it. The oddball of this group was Mr. Jimmy, who was chocolate brown but found himself in the company of these colored racists under the provisional aegis of his yellow wife.

Mr. Jimmy lived just down the street, in a typical Germantown row-home. Every stone building on the block, except for the tatty mansion, was tall and narrow and pressed in a contiguous row, each with its ersatz yard. On warm evenings, strolling along our street, you’d find the people of these row-homes out on their porches fanning themselves, or on their knees snipping the weeds in their gardens, or watering rose bushes with indolent flicks of their garden hoses, husbanding the meditative flicker of a cigarette in the haze. I would be out there too, under the chilly beacon of the G and G Funeral Home sign, which towered on a pillar in the front yard.

Those were sweet evenings for me. I’d sit on the porch steps and water the lawn. Neighborhood kids would march by on their way to the corner store, unnaturally quiet for half a block, mesmerized by the Funeral Home.

I loved the wet metal sound of the crickets chirping, and then, on the quarter hour, the clatter of a trolley on Wayne Avenue, showering sparks. I’d take it all in, along with the gorgeous misery implicit in every night, the babies and soul music and living room battles and Gospel from deep in those open windows.  I would sit there and think how sad the Gospel music sounded, the unrequited passion for some blue-eyed blond alien pin-up named Jesus.

Sitting there on the stoop, I could judge the entire population of the block, except for Mr. Jimmy, because Mr. Jimmy was never out there, snipping and raking. Mr. Jimmy’s garden was forsaken and brown because Mr. Jimmy spent all his time in the cellar with Mr. Jimmy’s electric model railroad. He’d put half of his working and all of his retired life into it. It was so enormous that his cellar was too small for it.

I first saw it as a child. I saw it years before I actually came to Philly to live, on a Christmas visit, spending every day of that snowed-in week in Jimmy’s dank cellar with his train set. At the age of eight I considered Mr. Jimmy a visionary.

By the age of fifteen, I was deep in the addictive tortures of puberty. When I came back to live in Philadelphia, seven years later, at fifteen, Aunt G and Uncle G were under the absurd impression that I might still be interested in Mr. Jimmy’s pathetic fucking model trains. They sent me over there when one would rather have spent that precious time in mint-new ecstasies of abusing one’s self.

The first month, I  obeyed.  Aunt G and Uncle G were rich, after all. As I relaxed into a groove, however, I began winnowing the schedule with Mr. Jimmy from three visits a week down to two, then down to one and soon enough I only touched his doorbell monthly and even that was too much.

Jimmy was always thrilled to receive me and I did enjoy his company. He smelled pleasantly of talc. It occurred to me later that he may in fact have been some kind of pederast (it’s hard to imagine sincerely wanting to spend so much time with someone else’s prepubescent grand-nephew); being a light-skinned kid with ambiguous facial features, I’d detected the kind of attention, the kind of attention I thought belonged entirely to girls, coming my way from older dark-skinned gentlemen, before. For example,  I remember a retired acquaintance of my father’s wanting to take me to a ballgame and my mother putting a stop to it. It could well be that the raging Eurocentrism of 20th century American life had bred a kind of sexualized self-hatred in some of its dark-skinned citizens. All I knew when I was young was that Jimmy bored me as I was growing up but that it touched me how his head would wobble and his eyes were always wet as a beagle’s. He had tales to tell and no local audience. He only had to open his mouth and that bug-eyed, dour wife of his, Tilly, could aim a glance that knocked the guts out of him.

Jimmy and Tilly didn’t have kids. It was hard to imagine that there existed the mechanism between them sufficient to have produced offspring. But there must have been a time, before Jim’s t-shirt belly, before the years his teeth would go into a glass every night, when Jimmy had looked at that frowzy old snake and seen bounty.

There must have been swinging nights that he jumped on her. There must have been lazy nights he diddled her yellow breasts by electric light in the parlor. Her mother fixing iced tea in a frosted glass pitcher for them while the wireless broadcast swing bands from a ballroom downtown. There must have been grinding jukebox dances on Fridays and furtive hand-jobs in sycamore shadow and moonlight. Jimmy must have courted and wooed her. He must have thought, there’s nothing I can’t do with this yellow gal by my side.

How could he have known that the time would come? That the time would  come when she’d curse their marital bed with masculine farts and sit around concocting lethal ironies all day, the wall paper smelling of her hair-straightening chemicals, her four-minute eggs, her rotten ovaries?

She scared me. Sometimes I’d happen to glance out of my third-story bedroom window  overlooking the street and see her ambling down the sidewalk, jaundiced face a tilted sagging birthday cake and I’d duck behind the blinds like she might possibly spot me, fifty feet above her and pierce me with a witchy scat and make me a bed-wetter or sensitize me  to the small talk of the dead.

Poor old Jimmy, backed into a corner of the cellar with a switch in his hand.

***

I completed high school and left Philly for college. Offered generous scholarships to several Ivy League schools, I ended up choosing the institution that happened to be the furthest away from any living relative, a tricky calculation. I visited Philly, which I considered home, only twice a year, for Christmas and Easter, electing to live on campus during the summer. I brought Mr. Jimmy a fruitcake every Christmas and a basket of chocolate eggs every Easter, keeping the deliveries short and sweet. I would even leave gifts on Jimmy’s stoop sometimes, with a dashed-off note, when I could get away with it, hurrying down the walkway through the neglected lawn and dead garden.

Uncle G had his mild heart attack during my first year of college. I met a girl and shared a dormitory bed with her for three months and then met others and shared beds with them and got better and better at figuring out what all that was for, or what it could do, at least, but not how to control it.  I took a writing class and the first thing I wrote, or tried to write, was a short story called Mr. Jimmy.

I came back to Philly for a longish stay in 1979.

The furniture was not only unchanged, it was arranged exactly as I had left it years before, the feet of the infuriating antiques all still grinding the same divots out of the eroded plush of the carpeting. The same old quaking blue-veined spinsters rattled their cups in the living room on Sundays, talking about people long dead even when I had first moved to Philly.  I was the only item in the picture that seemed in any way changed . But not entirely.

I was careful to creep in and out of the house at such times that Jimmy was unlikely to be outside, washing windows or retrieving the morning paper. I hadn’t phoned or visited him once since returning to the Funeral Home to live as an adult, and as I postponed the inevitable, the inevitable became impossible. Aunt G would sometimes mention rather sheepishly that Mr. Jimmy had asked about me.

For almost a year I managed to maintain zero contact with Mr. Jimmy until one morning when his wife called to inform G and G that Jimmy was dead, that he’d died overnight and was lying so peacefully on the fold-out bed in the living room you wouldn’t think he was gone. It was Tilly’s responsibility now to take a train into Center City and file the proper papers and call on relatives who might help. She wondered if it was possible for G to send me over to keep an eye on Jimmy while she ran her errands…?

When she let me into the house she fixed me with those bulging eyes and pecked me on a cheek and fuck if she didn’t stand back and appraise me with perfectly-judged sarcasm,  the phenomenal sarcasm that probably hastened Jimmy’s own end, drawling that I’d grown since the last time she’d seen me.

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