The following is from Tyriek White's We Are a Haunting. White is a writer, musician, and educator from Brooklyn, where he served at-risk and marginalized youth, artists, and scholars in the classroom. He is currently the media director of Lampblack Lit, a literary foundation which seeks to provide mutual aid and various resources to Black writers across the diaspora. He holds a degree in Creative Writing and Africana Studies from Pitzer College, and most recently earned an MFA from the University of Mississippi.
THE JUNE HEAT set the day in its lap and wrapped the city in its arms as proof. Audrey pulled a weed from the soft soil of the small garden and wondered whether the day had ever wanted room to grow. It sits all day and every day, the world in its lap, watching trees stretch toward its light. Audrey looked up, jealous of the day, wondering, Is it ever jealous of me?
As the sun hung over the trees, the mosquitoes would join, a song of blood. Audrey usually worked in the mornings, before the heat, planting green onion and cucumber. Today, she had to begin a little before noon. The soil was dark and rich between her fingers. The garden was a square plot behind her apartment building. When she had found it years ago, abandoned and littered with drug vials, soda cans, and other scraps, she had cleared the plot out and begun putting down a layer of topsoil. She then began working her tiny piece of land, despite her bad knees and lower back that flared up if she bent too long.
Audrey gathered some of what she had been growing. Sweet blueberries, tomatoes crossed with mustard greens, leeks, and a couple peaches from a slender tree. Being close to the soil cooled her skin under the noon sun. It took her mind away from the fact that it would be gone soon. Her home wouldn’t belong to her anymore, as if it ever had.
When she was a young girl, she would spend every summer on her grandfather’s farm. She hated it. It was the fifties, and Audrey was more interested in going to the cotillions, the debutante balls, drinking tea with fancy Southern women who offered their homes for plantation tours—than toiling over farmwork. She watched a carrot seed grow and milled around, doing a bunch of yard work when she’d rather just clean the house. You’ll thank me later, her father would say. He showed her how to plant the seeds, in rows along the furrows they made, measuring how deep into the earth, how far apart. His big hands kneaded hers into the cool, damp soil. She was more interested in the movie theater that offered tickets for ten cents, the diner so crowded at midnight that folk spilled out onto its back porch, the boys who were wide as the trees that lined her grandfather’s property.
Back then every boy in North Carolina had a car and no reasonable curfew. They spoke slowly, more to her body’s cadence. Not like Georgia boys or Mississippi boys, too fast with mouths full of rocks or gold. Virgil was no different, talking to her as sweet and slow as growing molasses. He was sundried and tall, blocking the sunrays from her eyes when she looked up at him. He was just a boy then, genuine, but with something unquenchable behind his eyes. He drove his car too fast and came home when the sun was just above the hills. Audrey hoped to beat the morning, before the dew set over the land like a spirit, before her grandfather—old as all hell—rolled out of bed to check the farm.
The sun climbing higher and higher, her grandfather would ride into town on the back of his wagon, tumbling among the canvas bags stuffed with the potatoes he’d harvested. He had been a sharecropper as a young man, on the same plantation he had worked as a boy. He always told the story of how he got the farm, how a slave ended up with a few acres for some crops and a mule. Her father forced them to sit around and listen, sprawled across the carpet of Grandpa’s den, warming their hands around mugs of lemon juice and honey in boiled water. At the end of one of those summers, as the sun rose later and later, one morning the carrot was fully bloomed. She stared in wonder, this orange stump with roots disappearing into the soil. It was the brightest thing she had ever seen.
Audrey looked up now, sweating, surrounded by fruit flies. Across the street were building fronts, lopsided and too close to one another, packed along the sidewalk like crooked teeth. Nina Simone’s live interpretation of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” played from her stereo, a cheap wireless speaker shoved into the soil, tucked somewhere between the greens and peaches. Key had bought it for her one Christmas, tired of her mother’s complaining about cheap earbuds. Above her hung a billboard advertising an old discount at Jack’s World from years ago. Car horns blared over the distant buzz of construction and busy halal carts. Her joints throbbed, her knees heavy with water.
“Rent controlled?” Joyce exclaimed, from behind the smoke of a cigarette. Her blood was hot and streaked her butterscotch skin, even in the winter. Despite the wrinkles around her eyes, she still looked like a little girl with two missing teeth and ponytail braids. “I’d give anything to hear you say that back in Warren County.”
They sat at the kitchen table of Joyce’s apartment on the eleventh floor, hollering over the running water and sirens below. The windows were wide open because she was cooking at least three pounds of pork shoulder for a baby shower. She catered; Joyce and her son would show up with a dozen aluminum pans, wire chafers, and some Sterno cans. She even made coquito in the winter and sold it around the neighborhood. “What poor Spanish woman did you scam out of her recipe?” Audrey would tease.
Joyce got up and moved to the stove. Joyce had worn her sureness in her shoulders since she was young, ambling through the world with an ease that may well have been just pure luck. Even though Audrey had looked after her when they were girls, she had always felt Joyce didn’t need much of anyone. Audrey had always been jealous of that, she herself an awkward thing tumbling through life, bumping its edges like finding your way through a dark room. It was like everyone else had the light on.
“Where do you even go after forty years?” Audrey asked no one. Her sister put the top back on some collards.
“Maybe we should put you in a home?” “If you don’t quit it,” said Audrey.
“You know I’ll put you up,” Joyce said through a grin. “It’ll be like when we used to sleep in the cellar during them hurricane warnings.”
“And Momma would let us eat all the sweets we could bring down there.”
They laughed, Audrey leaning back before rubbing her knees. Joyce checked the oven once more.
“Don’t nobody owe you anything,” Joyce was saying. “And you don’t owe nobody. If you were to up and leave, no one would complain.”
It was simple enough—she could just up and leave. It was so simple, it seemed foolish not to. But people mistake being poor for complacency. Audrey knew she couldn’t afford to stay. Even so, she could raise the money. She could go to her church; the pastor was happy raising impromptu offerings for members in need. They could have a fish fry and raffle, Audrey thought, invite the whole neighborhood. She imagined Joyce with some obscene amount of whiting, hands caked in flour and seasoning. Key, with her kids hanging at her hip, would serve folks who’d wandered by from the smell, the line snaking halfway down the block. When Audrey thought about it, her face grew hot with tears. If she did raise money from other poor people, she wouldn’t give it to some landlord. She had worked all her life in Brooklyn and deserved not to be kicked out of her own city. Deserved not be taken advantage of for the rest of her life. Normal people didn’t have to transcend their surroundings. Maybe something else was wrong and there was a reason women like her found themselves in courtrooms, in shelters, or on the streets, or dead. Why should she have to transcend a goddamn thing?
Audrey was in love with Virgil around the summer of 1969, when she had seen him one morning on her way to work. It was a new city, not on fire anymore but still full of smoke. The uprisings had changed the city—not toward a solution for the certain death Black folk felt around them, to which they responded with fire, but toward something maybe worse. The glass and debris would be cleaned from the streets. Virgil had moved north a few years ago—to make a real living, he’d told her. That’s just what folk did back then. He worked at the navy yard and smelled of seashell and burning metal. He lived with his wife and kid in a lopsided walk-up in Bushwick. He’d come by almost every weekend for Audrey, something she waited for all week. She had grown to be of this place, looked like she belonged in New York like subway tokens and Anthora cups. Big hair, gold hoops, and long, knee-length coats. She’d run out when he’d pulled up to her apartment, soca blasting out the windows of his white ’68 Corona. Joyce, who lived with her for a while, would kiss her cheek, waving from the front steps as the van pulled off.
Audrey had a studio in Flatbush, above a fish restaurant that left the room heavy and damp from the steam below. Sometimes she’d invite him
Virgil told her his dreams, how he wanted to tour with a band through a dozen cities. He had his eye on this Fender bass guitar. It had caught his eye through a shopwindow on his way to the docks.
“What about the yard? Ain’t you say you might get moved up to the main building?”
“I thought so, too,” he said, looking down at her wiry hands. “New shift leader. I could’ve stayed down south if I wanted to be somebody’s boy.”
His hair coiled, snapping at the teeth of her comb as she ran it through, black like the shell of a beetle gathering food in the moonlight. Bringing his face up to hers, she saw in his eyes what she’d already felt—an almost painful desire to be washed in some kind of infinite. She slept with him in the middle of her apartment, seeing only the lines of his skin under a silver half-moon and halogen street lamps.
Virgil reminded Audrey of Warren, the back of her grandfather’s wagon, the cool balm of morning before the day would break open and sunlight would heat the fields. Virgil had been brought to her because he ran errands with traders in town. Really, it was his eyes, Audrey thought—reflective pools that led down the same endless path she’d grown familiar with. “My mother always said if you were dropped into a well,” Virgil would tell her, “you don’t find your way out by looking down.” They spent that whole summer together, making their way through the city and everything it could offer. The matinees for less than a dollar on Tuesday mornings, sitting under the cherry blossoms in Prospect Park, getting pink sepals in the tight curls of their hair. One night, or a collection of days eased into twilight, she decided she had come to love Virgil. Maybe under the glow of a moving picture, the baroque innards of Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, latched on to some frequency tucked away deep inside them both. Maybe it happened as he became a part of her place; his must lingered in rooms, stopped her in the middle of doorframes, brought up memories of nights prior, and sent heartbeats to the floor of her belly. He made shelves for walls and nooks, fixed up the legs of coffee tables and a soft, rolled-arm sofa he bargained away from someone he knew leaving town. He built flower boxes out of plywood to satisfy Audrey’s green thumb until the apartment was filled with monsteras and umbrella trees; strings of nickels and English ivy tangled from high places and curled toward the light whenever the sun cut across the studio before noon. He bought groceries when he could, would spring up some days with pounds of rice and a few racks of beef, leave one out for Audrey to cook that night, and stack the rest in the freezer. One time, when trying to nail the base of a swing-arm wall lamp above a bookstand, Virgil hammered right through the plaster. Left a hole in the wall about the size of a fist.
“Oh shit,” he said, getting down from his stepladder to admire his work. “My landlord is gonna take my deposit,” Audrey scolded.
“We’ll get it fixed.”
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“It’s just a wall, that’s easy,” said Virgil. “Now, if it was this ceiling . . .” “I’d be in trouble.”
“We’d be in trouble.”
“Maybe we can get a house one day,” Audrey thought aloud, looking up at the foggy lamp stretched above them. “One of those fresh ones they’re building in Queens or Long Island. Maybe even move back south. Stretch out.”
“We got away from Warren,” Virgil said quietly. “Why would we ever go back?”
“Home is good for you,” she said, staring out the window. “Peace is good, too.”
Audrey would let herself be dragged to the Village or uptown, wherever Black folk could dance and scream in peace, a cavernous hall or backroom—couldn’t have been Half Note, maybe even smaller—hoping she looked as pretty and sensual as Eartha Kitt, or the women in Jet magazine under “Beauty of the Week.” Virgil would lug his bass guitar around in its leather case, sweating through his knit polo, shining like a cinnamon stick in whiskey under the bar lights. He rolled his own tobacco in two quick motions, whipping open an army knife and licking an envelope, kept drinks on the table before they were finished. He’d sneak glances at Audrey between pulls, lean in, and talk into her neck when the music settled, sugar at the bottom of sweet tea before it was stirred. And if the house band played “Jimmy Mack,” he’d dance with her in the aisle, let Audrey sing along in his ear, “When are you coming back?” She would stroke his cheekbones, high cliffs along the sea, play in his stubble until she wandered upon an ingrown, whisper how she would rub him in castor oil and ease it out. And when the band called him on to fill in around midnight, he’d play cool, hang his head bashfully as he rose to his feet. But Audrey knew just how nervous he was, his anxious heart, had felt its drumming, and counted the cigarettes, and felt his left foot tapping the sticky hardwood all night. Virgil would find his way with only his hands and ears. The bass would make the music a body, full and whole, could trouble the clouds for a rainstorm. He’d find his way blind on that stage, sweat and sweat.
Excerpted from We Are a Haunting by Tyriek White. Published by Astra House. Copyright © 2023 by Tyriek White. All rights reserved.