Tennessee Jones is a Brooklyn-based writer from southern Appalachia. Jones is the author of the short story collection Deliver Me From Nowhere, Soft Skull Press (2005). His work has received support from Lambda Literary Foundation (2016), Creative Capital On Our Radar (2016), The Christopher Isherwood Foundation (2009), and Jacob K. Javits Foundation (2008-2010). His residencies and awards include the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA (2013) and the George Bennet Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH (2010-2011). Jones holds a B.A in Religion from CUNY Graduate Center and an M.F.A in Fiction from Hunter College.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Artist
I did not learn haunting from any particular person. This was a collective endeavor. I could not see ghosts as my grandfather or my aunt Daisy did, or as my father, when he was drunk enough, would admit. The old people told these stories, and I did not know whether or not to believe them, just as I didn’t know whether or not to believe my mother’s allegation that my father had once tried to force her mother into having sex with him. All of these things seemed too outlandish to be true, but I couldn’t see any reason for them to lie about such things, especially within earshot of children. My father didn’t deny my mother’s charge. That particular fight had ended with his silence.
I didn’t love my mother’s mother as I loved Maw. Her name was Gertrude, and she lived with my mother’s brother Stevie—whom my father said was simple—in a little pink house around the mountain. My parents, Momma said when I asked how they’d met, had always known each other. This seemed to be the way of the mountains. Everyone— and their fathers and mothers—had always lived where they lived. I knew vaguely that my father had a brother who had gone to Texas, and that I had cousins I’d never met, but I never really thought people could live anywhere else until Aunt Daisy and Uncle Robbie came to stay with us the summer before I started kindergarten. Jo-Jo, the oldest of my three cousins, said there were no trees where they’d come from, that they’d spent afternoons in the sun, sledding down sand hills instead of snow. How big were the hills, I asked. He told me he’d once gone swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and that there was much sand in Texas as water in the ocean.
Jo-Jo was old enough that he doesn’t really figure into this story, but I loved him in the same helpless way that I loved all of them. He was dark-skinned and had long thumbs that stuck out like big toes. My father said he was probably queer because he had hair that fell almost to his shoulders, but Jo-Jo got married later on and had two kids. I’ve never met them, and I doubt I ever will. His younger brother Dean was even darker skinned than him, but when the winter came he grew almost as pale as me. He had the only green eyes in the family, just as dark as shadowed summer grass. Dean was four years older than me, but we were exactly the same size. Their sister Baby, a year older than Dean, was the color of skim milk, and had a curly nest of dark red hair. Her elbows were double-jointed. Before they came back I had spent my days mostly alone, and when I’d grown tired of looking at the sun shining off the hills and the snow or rain falling, I liked to close my eyes and stare at the shapes on the backs of my eyelids. Jo-Jo caught me sitting like this and asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he laughed. They’re called imagination colors, he said, all them little lines and floaters. Baby says hers looks like amoebas under a microscope. I wonder if Jo-Jo remembers telling me this. He probably doesn’t, but this is the moment I first realized that I loved him.
My father was not happy to see his brother, and he did not like his wife Daisy. Neither did my mother. Long ago, Daisy had done something so shameful that my parents would only speak around the edges of it. There were very few things in my family that were talked about in this way. A subject was spoken of bluntly, or not at all. Daisy’s transgression had been so egregious that my father considered Rob’s marriage to her to be proof of his complicity in whatever she had done. Momma had more pedestrian reasons for disliking Daisy. She said the woman talked too much. But she loved my uncle Rob—this drove my father crazy—with the platonic intensity of a woman who has never had any friends.
I don’t think my cousins saw ghosts either, but they repeated the tales of Daisy’s clairvoyance as if they were their own. Baby was the worst to do this, and it would often be that I didn’t know she’d told me one of her mother’s stories until I heard Daisy tell it herself. They lived with Maw and Paw for two months, the June and July of 1983. Jo-Jo and Dean slept in my father’s old Army tent in the backyard, and Baby shared Maw’s bed, which was so tall I had to stand on a chair to get into it. My cousins had been home just a few days when Paw put Jo-Jo and Baby to work in the tobacco. Dean and I, still too little for this, watched them come back from the fields so tired and hungry that they looked like the old people. We were left mostly to ourselves, and though he was only nine, Dean was charged with taking care of me.
There was a great grapevine growing at the bottom edge of Maw and Paw’s yard, held up by sections of splintered gray wood. In August, the grapes would turn fat and purple, and Dean and I sucked out the meat and left the skins in the pocket of our jaws like chewing tobacco. A little path ran under the vine, which fed into a larger stone-rutted road that led into Paw’s great woods. This road ran along a creek that fed the spring our water came from, and on the other side of the creek was a steep foothill that I’d never been to the top of because a barbed wire fence stood at the bottom of it. The first time I saw what lay at the top of the hill was with Dean. He said he would hold the barbed wire apart for me, and then broke his promise. A barb bit into my back, another streaked a sizzling line down the back of my thigh. I made as if this didn’t hurt, but the blood ran down my leg as we went up the hill, so steep we had to lean forward and grab the brush and dirt to keep from sliding back down. At the top, there was another country, a valley I had never seen, where our neighbor Charlie Vance’s yellow cows stood eating grass and the thistles grew high. On the far border of this cupped meadow were pale trees that stood like prehistoric teeth, marking the dark edge of another forest. The boy in the book I mentioned earlier—the one meant to be a warrior—he roamed a field like this, towards oceans gray and stormy as the ones of JMW Turner. When I was twenty, I saw Turner’s paintings for the first time in a museum in Philadelphia. There, I was sleeping on a lover’s floor, and splitting my time between the plasma center and the day labor place. A week later, I went to an exhibit by an unknown artist who had procured tackings Turner had used behind some of his canvases, and one of these was imprinted, like Christ on his shroud, with the shallow valley where the yellow cows lived, and the purple thistles that bloomed within it.
Dean and I stood on the ridge looking at this country for a long time. He asked if he could touch the cut on my leg, and I said yes. We went home the way we’d come, Dean taking leaps down the hill that left long gauge marks in the old leaves, and crossed again the creek to go get whatever dinner Maw had left out for us. I flinched when Dean held the fence open for me, but he didn’t let go until I’d gone through. Beneath the grapevine, Dean put his arm out like a bar and stopped me from walking. Shhh, he said, and pointed. Across the grassy path lay a smoothly uncoiled snake, perhaps three feet long. Dean pulled me backwards, and led me to the side of the springhouse, where there was a pile of old, crumbling bricks. Together, we carried a small arsenal near to where the snake lay. What if it gits us, I said. Dean shook his head. He picked up a brick, and put another one into my hands. Be ready, he said. Dean threw his brick, and it smashed into the back of the snake’s head. He ran closer and dropped another brick on its sickening tail. Roma Jean! he shouted. The brick I held left my hands with appalling
grace, and I heard something in the snake’s back break. Dean crushed its head beneath his shoe, and we stood dropping bricks on the snake’s body long after it was dead. Its guts smelled like hot cucumbers.
We left this strange cairn in the yard, already slowly buzzing with flies, and went inside to eat. After, we sat on the cool porch and drank pop. When Paw came back from the field he saw the snake. He got Dean and I together and told us that creature hadn’t deserved what we’d done to it. That it was one of God’s creations just like anything else. Then he told us to go clean the mess out from under his grapevine. What should we do with it, Dean asked. What ye do with anything that’s died, Paw said. Dig a hole and bury it.
Dean and I spent our long days hunting for snakes after that. Despite what Paw had said, I did not think they were like God’s other creatures. We had been taught to be afraid of them, and this I think is part of why we hunted them. They were everywhere. You would find them sometimes in the driveway, little thread-like things that dried to nothing after Dean stepped on them. Garden snakes crawled in the shade beneath the strawberries and between the corn, and great blacksnakes, some of them five and six feet long, dropped from tree branches. We did not need to hunt to find them, but we enjoyed the hunting. Children have within them incredible darkness, a morbidity that is part of their innocence. I was young enough then that if Dean had cut his leg on the barbed wire I would have also asked to touch the blood.