They’ve changed a lot in this town The Historian tells me. Before the Panera and the Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Borders this was farmland.
I know I say and pour another round of whiskey and peach tea. A lot of it belonged to my family remember?
We’re on the sweaty back porch of my grandparents’ old house. They’re long dead—five years? I think?—and now I’m here. The Historian’s midway through a pack of Pall Malls I bought in exchange for picking his brain. The sun is throwing fastballs at our chins but he insisted we sit on the porch and survey the land.
There’s a barren garden and an empty field. Beyond that is an outdoor mall.
You rip up one piece of wood and replace it The Historian says. You do that every day. Eventually the whole floor is replaced. Is it still your floor? Or is the pile of wood you set by the curb for the city to pick up your floor?
I don’t know man is that some sort of parable?
The Ship of Theseus The Historian says. What did he use his ship for? Of course I can’t remember. I wonder did he rename his boat after he finished replacing every part in such a long and arduous and painstaking process? And then there’s the guy who came along and took the old pieces of wood and rebuilt Theseus’s boat in a similar long and arduous and painstaking process. What’d he need a boat for? Maybe he just wanted the honest work of building his own. But is it his own or Theseus’s?
Who the fuck is Theseus? I ask.
Hell I don’t know he says. Some ancient Greek. Pass me them cigarettes.
The thing about school is you always know what you’re supposed to do. You finish kindergarten then first grade then second then before you know it high school and college. But then what. Then you’re supposed to figure something out. I haven’t.
I’m turning over packets of tomato seeds and corn seeds in my hands while watching robins and cardinals flit from the ground to the branches in unison. They briefly blot out the cloudless sky before disappearing. I turn and look at clumps of dirt that used to be a garden and wonder how much work these plants would really be.
Well what a lot of people don’t know is it was plantations before the mall The Historian says. Well one plantation. People don’t know that because they don’t like to talk about it. The ghosts don’t scream at them. They scream at me.
What do the ghosts say? I ask. I’m opening the porch door. It clangs. I’m picking up clumps of dirt. They tell me nothing.
They don’t say anything. They scream and in their screams I hear history. I hear the crack of the whippings and the harmony of the spirituals and the blast of the rifle and the scream of the rapes. I hear all that. Other people go get coffee or buy a Father’s Day tie. Pick out engagement rings. They are deaf but me I can’t go over there.
Back in college The Historian would walk around with a dog-eared copy of Noam Chomsky or Cornel West in the pocket of a tweed jacket. Completely insufferable. Somehow everywhere. He’d email columns to the paper and we’d always respond that he couldn’t write if he didn’t come to meetings and do editorial stuff too. It was annoying.
Then junior year I ended up in class with him. I couldn’t believe how arrestingly smart he was. Maybe it was the shit I had going on—the financial crisis had hit and my brother got laid off. Mom lost her retirement savings to pancreatic cancer treatments. All that Chomsky stuff started to make sense. Anyway we started hanging out. We’d pound some beers after class then go to the 24-hour library and lose ourselves in the rows making endless lists of titles we could only hope to get halfway through. Then he discovered Oxy and got fired from more jobs than I can remember and ten years later here we are sweating on porch at three in the afternoon talking about plantation ghosts.
Why do you come over if they scream at you? I ask.
You hired me to do honest work he says.
We plant the seeds. I spent the night researching yet am still convinced they’ll die before they see the sun. But my grandparents had a garden here so I why shouldn’t I?
Do you think there are bones buried in this yard? The Historian asks.
I don’t like to think about that stuff I say.
How many times have you ever done something without knowing why you’re doing it? The Historian asks. Why have eggs and coffee in the morning? Why do people keep those crocheted blankets over the arm of the sofa? It’s an itchy and uncomfortable blanket. Yet people will always wrap themselves up on a lonely night.
I don’t want to be in Tennessee. After college I worked bars and did freelance reporting. Various roommates and girlfriends bounced around apartment to apartment with me. In the meantime my grandparents died. Did we keep the farm for nostalgia or laziness? I’ve never known. Eventually I asked my dad if I could crash at grandparents’ place for a little while.
It’s a mess he said. But sure.
He wasn’t wrong. The place was a pile of boxes or things that should be in boxes. You could squint and see a wrought-iron fireplace or an antique footed bathtub somewhere but mostly it was a mess of junk mail and old kids’ toys and disintegrating newspapers. After a few months I had a bunch of whiskey and got sick of looking at the encyclopedias. So I threw them all in a box. Then I threw all the clothes in a box. Then I threw all the knickknacks and mantle decorations in a box. The next morning I called my dad and brother.
Do you care about any of grandparents’ stuff or can I chuck it? I said.
Do your thing they both said.
Anyway that was three months ago. A month ago YouTube taught me how to rip carpet up. A week after that The Historian was over here helping me put in new hardwood floors. A month after that we were painting—interior and exterior. A week after that we replaced the bathroom tile.
I don’t know why I’m doing this I said every time. I hate housework.
Jesus’s brother James was a carpenter he said every time. He did honest work. The only reason he has a book in the Bible is because they talked him into it.
Three days later I hear them. They’re not screaming. They’re asking questions. All their sentences have lilting endings. At first it seems to come from the fields. Then the barren garden. Then they seep in through the chimney. After an hour they’re all around the air. I sit and try to listen. It goes on like this for a week before I can sleep.
We’re in the woods behind the house surrounded by yellow dying leaves. The Historian is shooting a Colt pistol at a couple of dead cars under a collapsed log while I mix Jack and Cokes in plastic cups.
What people don’t understand he says is that honest work is intrinsically against capitalism. You work for resources you work because you need to you work because food needs to be put on the table but you do not work for money. Therefore capitalism is inherently antagonistic to honest work.
A bullet pierces the sideview mirror of an ’88 Chevy and some robins whine about it. I pass The Historian his cup. He fires another shot that shatters the passenger window. Then he goes full FBI-on-Bonnie-and-Clyde with the back door.
You haven’t read The Book of James yet have you? he asks me.
No but I was thinking maybe we could replace the stairs next week I say.
Capitalism necessitates the destruction of the workers’ body he says. It is a violence inherent in the system. The worker has no autonomy not even in their own bones. Capitalism demands slavery. People don’t like to talk about that.
I take a big gulp of whiskey coke and look at the sun peaking through the leaves until my eyes hurt. Another shot pings off the passenger side door.
I started hearing the ghosts I say.
The tomatoes are tiny. Instead of baseball-sized beefsteaks like look like mutated cherries. The corn is withered stalks. I’ve never grown anything in my life. Not sure why I started here. I guess they always grew corn and tomatoes here. My grandmother made excellent succotash. But they were the first occupants of the house. It was built as part of some GI Bill package but to me it’s always just been their house. What grew on the land before they made a garden?
In stories the hero always wants to go farm somewhere. When this war’s over I’ll go farm. When I retire I’ll go farm. When I beat this cancer I’ll go farm. Has anyone ever considered farming is fucking hard? I never wanted to go to war anyway. I don’t even shoot the dead cars.
Weep and wail you rich people because your misery is coming. The Historian is lying on the floor next to the fireplace. Arms splayed out with one knee in the air swinging. Your wealth is rot! The wages you have failed to pay your workers cry out against you!
I’m lying on the couch researching how to ombre paint a bedroom. There’s a bible sitting in my lap I haven’t opened. Who do you think is buying all this booze and weed? I ask.
Wasn’t talking to you my friend The Historian says. Read the book you got.
The Historian starts singing: O Death won’t you spare me over for another year. That one chorus line over and over. The ghosts begin singing with him. I mean really with him. They swell and fade and pause and harmonize. They build up and pull back and then hit a chord that makes the mantle shake.
I’ve never been able to sing. We weren’t a big musical family. Mom tried to make my brother and me take piano lessons. I lasted two weeks.
So I sit and listen.
Later The Historian is gone and the ghosts come again. There’s more clarity to their voices. There’s yelling. There’s lilting questions. There’s faint singing. I hear how bad their food tastes. I hear how cold their beds are at night. I hear what it feels like to know you will never see your own child again.
I turn on the TV. I turn on the record player. I turn on a podcast on my phone. I barely make it to the bathroom before I throw up.
I ask The Historian if maybe I have too much sawdust in my lungs. Or maybe my anxiety is making my stomach act up. Or maybe I’m eating too much fast food.
The sins of the past he says are inescapable and once you realize this simple yet crushing fact you cannot be the same again. When you walk out of the forest and into the field you see the sun differently and it is more bright but that does not mean trees stopped existing. When you wash up onto the beach from the ocean you can breathe and dry out but that does not mean water stopped existing. It is impossible to tell how the body will react to this statement from the mind. What can you do? Perhaps run for city council and perhaps propose a memorial statue be erected. Perhaps run for state senate and perhaps propose the school curriculum be changed. Perhaps run for President and perhaps propose reparations. Those are things you perhaps can do.
We’re rounding into shape on the lower level. It’s looking a little more up-to-date. No more floral wallpaper—instead I’ve got a smart maroon paintjob in the living room and a soothing baby blue in the dining room. No more rickety splintered furniture—instead I’ve got cozy couches with chaise lounges.
Sometimes at night I see the old things back in place. Carpet back over the hardwood. Rusted knobs back on the doors. The worn-out Victorian couch back in the sitting room.
Every meal I make starts to taste like ash. I vomit roughly twice a day. I donate the old dusty books to the library and go buy others. The ghosts get louder. They’re talking more and more when The Historian goes home. My grandmother’s china cabinet begins vibrating every night around 8 o’clock. At first I think it’s the AC shaking things but when I turn the AC off it still happens. I find a collector and sell off the china. The internet connection fritzes in and out. Three times a week I’m calling the company to check my account balance which is automatically paid off at the first of every month. One night the washing machine starts adding time before the spin cycle. The company’s website says that’ll happen with heavy soil levels and sure most of my clothes are covered in dust and dirt but it was stuck on seven minutes for a solid ten minutes I watched it happen.
Eventually my dad shows up. Wow he says. It looks incredible in here.
You sure? I ask. Upstairs is still intact if you need a memory lane walk.
I never cared for it he says. What you’ve done is much better.
I start crying. Slowly at first—like my face is just leaking a little.
I really appreciate you saying that I say. A lot of work I never saw myself doing—
Then there’s drool on the new hardwood. A line of snot hits the coffee table. I fall off the couch. The ghosts begin screaming. I become extremely certain that the roof will collapse and the birds will float in and chew up the new book collection I’ve filed away.
Dad rubs my back and then helps me up. You’re doing the right thing he says. Out with the old in with the new.
So why did we keep the house all this time? I ask.
I wanted to be able to give you something he says.
The Historian and I celebrate. We’ve finished the upstairs—turned it into a huge open floor loft with one of my grandfather’s old typewriters hung on the wall as decoration. There’s no furniture but I can figure that out later. We did it.
I’ll order some wings I say. Wings and pizza. And I’ll pick up some whiskey. You want some Pall Malls?
We’re sitting on the back porch. Chicken bones litter the garden and I tell myself it counts as compost. So what about the corn and tomatoes.
The ghosts are chattering. They’re not angry but they’re not happy either.
The ghosts never stop I say.
They’re everywhere he says.
But I can’t understand what they’re saying.
You’re not supposed to understand what they’re saying The Historian says. But you need to understand what they’re saying.
When The Historian goes home I sit on the couch and wonder if it’s going to be quiet tonight. I wonder if I’m any different the developers who put in the Dick’s Sporting Goods on what used to be a massive field growing who knows what. Every piece of the house has been removed and replaced.
So I ask the ghosts: do y’all like what I’ve done here?
There’s no answer. My leg muscles feel like they’re melding into the couch. Maybe the ghosts like the remodeling and maybe they don’t. But what if they don’t care?
I take another swig of whiskey and ask again: do y’all like this?
The house felt ancient but it was fifty years old. It feels new now but it’s still fifty years old. What were people trying to cover when they built here? What is the new shopping center supposed to cover? Am I trying to cover anything?
The walls start moving. A low humming starts. I fall on the floor. The new paintjob is swirling. The ghosts’s voices are swelling. Harmonies begin to form.
It stops feeling like my house. Like I don’t know where to go but I can’t be here. I’m nauseous. I’m suffocating. I walk outside and trip over a stick on the driveway.
I don’t know where I’m going to go. But I text The Historian: keys are on the porch. The house is yours.