Smith come around to the house. She didn’t have no use
for Macon even when things was going right, and when
Grandpa Jeremiah was fixing to die I just knowed she
wasn’t gonna be liking him hanging around. Grandpa Jeremiah
raised Ellie after her folks died and they used to be
real close. Then she got to go on to college and when she
come back the first year she was different. She didn’t want
to hear all them stories he used to tell her anymore. Ellie
said the stories wasn’t true, and that’s why she didn’t want
to hear them.
I didn’t know if they was true or not. Tell the truth I
didn’t think much on it either way, but I liked to hear them
stories. Grandpa Jeremiah said they wasn’t stories anyway,
they was songs.
“They the songs of my people,” he used to say.
I didn’t see how they was songs, not regular songs anyway.
Every little thing we did down in Curry seemed to matter
to Ellie that first summer she come home from college.
You couldn’t do nothin’ that was gonna please her. She
didn’t even come to church much. ’Course she come on
Sunday or everybody would have had a regular fit, but she
didn’t come on Thursday nights and she didn’t come on
Saturday even though she used to sing in the gospel choir.
“I guess they teachin’ her somethin’ worthwhile up there
at Greensboro,” Grandpa Jeremiah said to Sister Todd. “I
sure don’t see what it is, though.”
“You ain’t never had no book learning, Jeremiah,” Sister
Todd shot back. She wiped at where a trickle of sweat made
a little path through the white dusting powder she put on
her chest to keep cool. “Them old ways you got ain’t got
nothing for these young folks.”
“I guess you right,” Grandpa Jeremiah said.
He said it but I could see he didn’t like it none. He was a
big man with a big head and had most all his hair even if it
was white. All that summer, instead of sitting on the porch
telling stories like he used to when I was real little, he
would sit out there by himself while Ellie stayed in the
house and watched the television or read a book. Sometimes
I would think about asking him to tell me one of them
stories he used to tell but they was too scary now that I
didn’t have nobody to sleep with but myself. I asked Ellie to
sleep with me but she wouldn’t.
“You’re nine years old,” she said, sounding real proper.
“You’re old enough to sleep alone.”
I knew that. I just wanted her to sleep with me because I
liked sleeping with her. Before she went off to college she
used to put cocoa butter on her arms and face and it would
smell real nice. When she come back from college she put
something else on, but that smelled nice too.
It was right after Ellie went back to school that Grandpa
Jeremiah had him a stroke and Macon started coming
around. I think his mama
probably made him come
at first, but you could see
he liked it. Macon had
always been around, sitting
over near the stuck
window at church or going
on the blueberry truck
when we went picking
down at Mister Gregory’s
place. For a long time he
was just another kid, even
though he was older’n me,
but then, all of a sudden,
he growed something
fierce. I used to be up to
his shoulder one time and
then, before I could turn around good, I was only up to his
shirt pocket. He changed too. When he used to just hang
around with the other boys and play ball or shoot at birds
he would laugh a lot. He didn’t laugh so much anymore
and I figured he was just about grown. When Grandpa got
sick he used to come around and help out with things
around the house that was too hard for me to do. I mean,
I could have done all the chores, but it would just take
When the work for the day was finished and the sows fed,
Grandpa would kind of ease into one of his stories and
Macon, he would sit and listen to them and be real interested.
I didn’t mind listening to the stories when Grandpa
told them to Macon because he would be telling them in the
middle of the afternoon and they would be past my mind by
the time I had to go to bed.
Macon had an old guitar he used to mess with, too. He
wasn’t too bad on it, and sometimes Grandpa would tell
him to play us a tune. He could play something he called
“the Delta Blues” real good, but when Sister Todd or somebody
from the church come around he’d play “Precious
Lord” or “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”
Grandpa Jeremiah had been feeling poorly from that
stroke, and one of his legs got a little drag to it. Just about
the time Ellie come from school the next
summer he was real sick. He was breathing
loud so you could hear it even in the next
room and he would stay in bed a lot even
when there was something that needed
doing or fixing.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it much
longer,” Dr. Crawford said. “The only thing I
can do is to give him something for the
“Are you sure of your diagnosis?” Ellie
asked. She was sitting around the table
with Sister Todd, Deacon Turner, and his
little skinny yellow wife.
Dr. Crawford looked at Ellie like he was
surprised to hear her talking. “Yes, I’m
sure,” he said. “He had tests a few weeks
ago and his condition was bad then.”
“How much time he got?” Sister Todd
“Maybe a week or two at best,” Dr. Crawford
When he said that, Deacon Turner’s wife
started crying and goin’ on and I give her a
hard look but she just went on. I was the one who loved
Grandpa Jeremiah the most and she didn’t hardly even
know him so I didn’t see why she was crying.
Everybody started tiptoeing around the house after that.
They would go in and ask Grandpa Jeremiah if he was
comfortable and stuff like that or take him some food or a
cold glass of lemonade. Sister Todd come over and stayed
with us. Mostly what she did is make supper and do a lot of
praying, which was good because I figured that maybe God
would do something to make Grandpa Jeremiah well. When
she wasn’t doing that she was piecing on a fancy quilt she
was making for some white people in Wilmington.
Ellie, she went around asking everybody how they felt
about Dr. Crawford and then she went into town and asked
about the tests and things. Sister Jenkins asked her if she
thought she knowed more than Dr. Crawford, and Ellie
rolled her eyes at her, but Sister Jenkins was reading out
her Bible and didn’t make no notice of it.
Then Macon come over.
He had been away on what he called “a little piece of a
job” and hadn’t heard how bad off Grandpa Jeremiah was.
When he come over he talked to Ellie and she told him
what was going on and then he got him a soft drink from
the refrigerator and sat out on the porch and before you
know it he was crying.
You could look at his face and tell the difference between
him sweating and the tears. The sweat was close against
his skin and shiny and the tears come down fatter and
Macon sat on the porch, without saying a word, until the
sun went down and the crickets started chirping and carrying
on. Then he went in to where Grandpa Jeremiah was
and stayed in there for a long time.
Sister Todd was saying that Grandpa Jeremiah needed
his rest and Ellie went in to see what Macon was doing.
Then she come out real mad.
“He got Grandpa telling those old stories again,” Ellie
said. “I told him Grandpa needed his rest and for him not
to be staying all night.”
He did leave soon, but bright and early the next morning
Macon was back again. This time he brought his guitar
with him and he went on in to Grandpa Jeremiah’s room. I
went in, too.
Grandpa Jeremiah’s room smelled terrible. It was all
closed up so no drafts could get on him and the whole room
was smelled down with disinfect1 and medicine. Grandpa
Jeremiah lay propped up on the bed and he was so gray he
looked scary. His hair wasn’t combed down and his head
on the pillow with his white hair sticking out was enough to
send me flying if Macon hadn’t been there. He was skinny,
too. He looked like his skin got loose on his bones, and
when he lifted his arms, it hung down like he was just
wearing it instead of it being a part of him.
Macon sat slant-shouldered with his guitar across his
lap. He was messin’ with the guitar, not making any music,
but just going over the strings as Grandpa talked.
“Old Carrie went around out back to where they kept the
pigs penned up and she felt a cold wind across her
face. . . .” Grandpa Jeremiah was telling the story about
how a old woman out-tricked the Devil and got her son
back. I had heard the story before, and I knew it was pretty
scary. “When she felt the cold breeze she didn’t blink nary
an eye, but looked straight ahead. . . .”
All the time Grandpa Jeremiah was talking I could see
Macon fingering his guitar. I tried to imagine what it would
be like if he was actually plucking the strings. I tried to fix
my mind on that because I didn’t like the way the story
went with the old woman wrestling with the Devil.
We sat there for nearly all the afternoon until Ellie and
Sister Todd come in and said that supper was ready. Me
and Macon went out and ate some collard greens, ham
hocks, and rice. Then Macon he went back in and listened
to some more of Grandpa’s stories until it was time for him
to go home. I wasn’t about to go in there and listen to no
stories at night.
Dr. Crawford come around a few days later and said that
Grandpa Jeremiah was doing a little better.
“You think the Good Lord gonna pull him through?” Sister
“I don’t tell the Good Lord what He should or should not
be doing,” Dr. Crawford said, looking over at Sister Todd
and at Ellie. “I just said that my patient seems to be doing
okay for his condition.”
“He been telling Macon all his stories,” I said.
“Macon doesn’t seem to understand that Grandpa
Jeremiah needs his strength,” Ellie said. “Now that
he’s improving, we don’t want him to have a setback.”
“No use in stopping him from telling his stories,”
Dr. Crawford said. “If it makes him feel
good it’s as good as any medicine I can give
when Dr. Crawford had left I asked her why.
“Dr. Crawford means well,” she said, “but we have to get
away from the kind of life that keeps us in the past.”
She didn’t say why we should be trying to get away from
the stories and I really didn’t care too much. All I knew was
that when Macon was sitting in the room with Grandpa
Jeremiah I wasn’t nearly as scared as I used to be when it
was just me and Ellie listening. I told that to Macon.
“You getting to be a big man, that’s all,” he said.
That was true. Me and Macon was getting to be good
friends, too. I didn’t even mind so much when he started
being friends with Ellie later. It seemed kind of natural,
almost like Macon was supposed to be there with us
instead of just visiting.
Grandpa wasn’t getting no better, but he wasn’t getting
no worse, either.
“You liking Macon now?” I asked Ellie when we got to the
middle of July. She was dishing out a plate of smothered
chops for him and I hadn’t even heard him ask for anything
“Macon’s funny,” Ellie said, not answering my question.
really interested in them. It’s almost as if he and Grandpa
Jeremiah are talking about something more than the stories,
a secret language.”
I didn’t think I was supposed to say anything about that
to Macon, but once, when Ellie, Sister Todd, and Macon
were out on the porch shelling butter beans after Grandpa
got tired and was resting, I went into his room and told him
what Ellie had said.
“She said that?” Grandpa Jeremiah’s face was skinny
and old looking but his eyes looked like a baby’s, they was
“Right there in the kitchen is where she said it,” I said.
“And I don’t know what it mean but I was wondering about
“I didn’t think she had any feeling for them stories,”
maybe she don’t.”
“I think she getting a feeling for Macon,” I said,
“That’s okay, too,” Grandpa Jeremiah said. “They both
“Yeah, but them stories you be telling, Grandpa, they
“Well, those the folks you got to know about,” Grandpa
Jeremiah said. “You think on what those folks been
through, and what they was feeling, and you add it up with
what you been through and what you been feeling, then
you got you something.”
“What you got Grandpa?”
“You got you a bridge,” Grandpa said. “And a meaning.
Then when things get so hard you about to break, you can
sneak across that bridge and see some folks who went
before you and see how they didn’t break. Some got bent
and some got twisted and a few fell along the way, but they
“Am I going to break, Grandpa?”
“You? As strong as you is?” Grandpa Jeremiah pushed
himself up on his elbow and give me a look. “No way you
going to break, boy. You gonna be strong as they come.
One day you gonna tell all them stories I told you to your
young’uns and they’ll be as strong as you.”
“Suppose I ain’t got no stories, can I make some up?”
“Sure you can, boy. You make ’em up and twist ’em
around. Don’t make no mind. Long as you got ’em.”
“Is that what Macon is doing?” I asked. “Making up stories
to play on his guitar?”
“He’ll do with ’em what he see fit, I suppose,” Grandpa
Jeremiah said. “Can’t ask more than that from a man.”
It rained the first three days of August. It wasn’t a hard
rain but it rained anyway. The mailman said it was good for
the crops over East but I didn’t care about that so I didn’t
pay him no mind. What I did mind was when it rain like
that the field mice come in and get in things like the flour
bin and I always got the blame for leaving it open.
When the rain stopped I was pretty glad. Macon come
over and sat with Grandpa and had something to eat with
us. Sister Todd come over, too.
“How Grandpa doing?” Sister Todd asked. “They been
asking about him in the church.”
“He’s doing all right,” Ellie said.
“He’s kind of quiet today,” Macon said. “He was just talking
about how the hogs needed breeding.”
“He must have run out of stories to tell,” Sister Todd said.
“He’ll be repeating on himself like my father used to do.
That’s the way I hear old folks get.”
Everybody laughed at that because Sister Todd was
pretty old, too. Maybe we was all happy because the sun
was out after so much rain. When Sister Todd went in to
take Grandpa Jeremiah a plate of potato salad with no
mayonnaise like he liked it, she told him about how people
was asking for him and he told her to tell them he was
doing okay and to remember him in their prayers.
Sister Todd came over the next afternoon, too, with some
rhubarb pie with cheese on it, which is my favorite pie.
When she took a piece into Grandpa Jeremiah’s room she
come right out again and told Ellie to go fetch the Bible.
It was a hot day when they had the funeral. Mostly everybody
was there. The church was hot as anything, even
though they had the window open. Some yellowjacks flew in
and buzzed around Sister Todd’s niece and then around
Deacon Turner’s wife and settled right on her hat and stayed
there until we all stood and sang “Soon-a Will Be Done.”
At the graveyard Macon played “Precious Lord” and I
cried hard even though I told myself that I wasn’t going to
cry the way Ellie and Sister Todd was, but it was such a
sad thing when we left and Grandpa Jeremiah was still out
to the grave that I couldn’t help it.
During the funeral and all, Macon kind of told everybody
where to go and where to sit and which of the three cars to
ride in. After it was over he come by the house and sat on
the front porch and played on his guitar. Ellie was standing
leaning against the rail and she was crying but it wasn’t a
hard crying. It was a soft crying, the kind that last inside of
you for a long time.
Macon was playing a tune I hadn’t heard before. I
thought it might have been what he was working at when
Grandpa Jeremiah was telling him those stories and I
watched his fingers but I couldn’t tell if it was or not. It
wasn’t nothing special, that tune Macon was playing,
maybe halfway between them Delta blues he would do
when Sister Todd wasn’t around and something you would
play at church. It was something different and something
the same at the same time. I watched his fingers go over
that guitar and figured I could learn that tune one day if I