By Samuel Autman
The house had other guests too. They were invisible in daylight…
The seats Grandma Ella Mae picked for us were near the back right side of the Continental Trailways bus. I fidgeted next to the window. Kids that small—I was four and Chung was two—aren’t built for sitting still for eight consecutive hours. We had never been anywhere without our parents. The bus stank and so did Grandma. I already wanted to go back.
“Where’s Mama? When we going home?”
“Keep still,” Grandma said putting her index finger in my face.
Although Grandma Ella Mae was in her early 50s, she looked like a l00-year-old witch with a lazy left eye and gray mice tail plaits dangling from her head rag.
Six hours into the trip, the bus careened south on US 65 through Grady, Arkansas. From the window I recognized two houses, a green and white wooden one belonging to my mother’s parents and our cousins’ new white brick one.
“Look!” I said bouncing. “That’s where Madea and Aunt Freddie ‘nem live! Can we stop?”
“We ain’t gonna stop,” she said, swatting my hand away from the window. “You need to forget about them people! Y’all going to Rayville to live wit me.”
“When we gonna see Mama and Daddy? Are they coming with us?”
“Shussh your mouth boy! Your daddy will be down to see y’all in a few weeks.”
As those familiar houses faded from view, sadness cloaked me. Without Daddy around, Grandma was a lot meaner. The only times we had been to her house was with our parents and those were short trips. The last time, Mama and Daddy had argued about it because Mama didn’t “want to go back to Miss Ella Mae’s nasty-ass house.” I began to understand on the bus that we weren’t just going to visit Grandma’s. Her house was going to be our new house. All our toys, bunk bed and house, everything Chung and I knew in suburban St. Louis was gone. I didn’t want to live with Grandma, but I had no choice. At two, Chung was clueless and even more helpless than me. We hadn’t seen Mama for almost a week, not since the day Daddy shot at her. Had it been up to Grandma, we would never see Mama again.
Two hours later, the bus stopped at a little filling station. We were in Rayville, which is considered northeastern Louisiana. Grandma scooped up Chung and squeezed my hand. Aunt Genie Mae and her son Derrick appeared and grabbed our luggage.
Rayville and Grady could have been twin towns. Both places were two square miles littered with cotton fields and cotton gins visible from the highway. If Grady was a one-horse town with a thousand people, then Rayville was a three-horse town with a small bank, five-and-dime store, furniture store, feed store and a post office. The elementary and high schools were “downtown” in both locations. As the Richland Parish seat, Rayville had a giant, brown, shoebox courthouse on the town square. Grady had all the same buildings, but no courthouse. The same town separated by 126 miles.
Grandma’s wooden house was covered with blue-gray shingles. The tiny kitchen had a table with four chairs and adjoined the living room, which had a fake brown leather sofa on wooden legs and a loveseat and matching chair. I had my own bedroom in the back corner, while Chung slept in Grandma’s bedroom. We all shared one bathroom. Some nights, cousin Derrick stayed over.
The house had other guests too. They were invisible in daylight and only the black pellets sprinkled across the floors and in the corners revealed their presence. As I lay in my bed alone at night with the door shut, I could hear them screeching, scratching and running across the floors. Then, one morning, I saw one.
Grandma stood at the stove pouring pancake batter into a frying pan while Chung and I awaited at the table on a school morning. A big brown rat ran and sat in the middle of the table, darting its eyes around. The food had brought it out.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!! Grandma!!!!” I screamed, jumped up, and ran into the living room jerking in fear.
Grandma rushed at it with a skillet. “Get on away from here!”
She didn’t kill it. Instead, the rat scurried off. That was the first of many encounters with rats at Grandma’s house over the next year. Back in Pine Lawn Preschool, the teacher had read a story to us about how the Pied Piper used music to trick all of Bremen’s mice into following him to their deaths in a river. I had also seen Mighty Mouse cartoons on TV, but these were not mice. Grandma’s house was filled with rats. Lord, there were so many. At times I wondered, if I opened my mouth the wrong way, if a rat might jump into it. The fear of rodents crawled into my head. I started looking for them everywhere. I’d see them underneath the couch and bed, brown, black, and gray ones running in circles playing with their young. The black and gray ones were the scariest. They were the biggest and they didn’t move away when they saw us.
Living in a house with rats didn’t phase Grandma. She responded to them only after I ran around screaming. Then she’d beat them away with a broom. I ran and screamed a lot. Rayville Elementary School was my only refuge, the only place where I didn’t worry about them.
It turns out Grandma had more in common with rats than I knew. With her own litter of eight children, about half of them lived nearby, she was a mama rat. While male rats abandon their off spring at birth, the females, who are apparently excellent providers, care for them. By 1971 when Chung and I arrived in Rayville, Uncle Bill, who was Grandma’s husband, had long abandoned his litter. As an uneducated black woman in the South raising children in the 1950s and 1960s, Grandma had to make do. I never saw him nor heard anyone mention his name while I lived there. I didn’t even know he was still alive until years later.
Grandma left me alone with Chung on the weekends in front of the big television in the living room while she ran errands. I felt as protective of my little sister as I could, playing with her on the floor and holding her hand. She was the only reminder of our life in Missouri. The TV was a safe place. Rats didn’t come out much in the daytime unless they smelled food.
At the beginning of the month, Grandma took Chung and me with her to the grocery store where she stocked up on eggs and milk. Grandma bought a lot of canned soups, pancake mix, and macaroni, which she prepared with government cheese. Some nights we ate pancakes for dinner. But by the end of the month, we ran out of food again and went without. For a while Grandma operated a candy store out of her living room. In addition, she had people over to the house on Friday and Saturday nights. They smoked, drank, and cursed a lot. They laughed loudly, played cards, and put money down on the table. This only happened on weekends. Sometimes people fought and got taken away in handcuffs. After these times, though, Grandma had more money for food.
Chung stayed home during the day with Grandma after I woke up early to catch the yellow schoolbus. Rayville Elementary School was a fun place because I ran around the grassy playground with other the other kids. And, plus, I got a belly full from the lunchroom.
We sang every day in kindergarten. One day the teacher, who was black, like most kids in class, held up coloring book sketches of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy Jr. She said Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader and John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States of America. They all wanted good things for Negroes, who still grieved for King and Kennedy. The teacher implied that Dr. King, who had been the most recently shot and killed, was the greatest of these men. She then sat at her piano and taught us the lyrics to “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
Hopelessness permeated the room and our bodies as we stood singing that day.
When I got home from school, Grandma sat Chung and me in front of the TV where we watched “The Partridge Family,” “The Brady Bunch,” and “Family Affair,” perfect looking white families living in a fantasy we didn’t understand. “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” taught me about magic. Jeannie seemed as trapped in her house as I was at Grandma’s. Yeah, she blinked to manipulate things, but her master could order her back into the bottle. It was Samantha who could twitch her nose or wave her arms and make anything happen. Even her daughter, Tabitha, a kid about my age, had powers by rubbing her finger across her nose. There was no difference to me between the stories I heard on periodic visits to church about Noah living in an ark with every species and Samantha twitching her nose to do household chores. Not that Grandma took us to church, but I remember going to church with Mama. Samantha’s magic from TV and the biblical stories and prayer merged in my head. Casting a spell was no different than saying a prayer. I needed some kind of magic, prayer, like the Pied Piper, to make the rats disappear. I wanted for us to somehow go home.
Once, while I was watching TV, I poked a hole through Grandma’s brown chair. White cotton oozed out. She was angry.
“You get over here!” she ordered me, reaching for an electric chord.
“I’m so sorry, Grandma, I didn’t mean to do it!” I danced to dodge the electric chord’s licks.
Days after the whipping, Grandma saw me sitting alone at the dinner table crying.
“What’s wrong wit you? What you crying about?”
“Nobody here loves me.”
“I loves you,” she said, embracing me.
I didn’t believe her though. Nothing about that house felt like the love Chung and I knew back at home with Mama and Daddy, even when they were fighting.
At night I continued hearing rats crawling on the floor. Then one night, I felt something furry run across my chest. A rat had gotten into bed with me. I sat up and screamed. “Grandma Ella Mae! Help me! Help me! Help me!” She turned the light on and picked me up off the bed and embraced my shaking body. The rat ran away. After a few minutes, she told me to “be a big boy,” and put me back into the bed, shutting off the light switch. When she went back to her room, I got underneath the covers and kept my eyes opened for the rest of the night.
The next day, Grandma went to the store and bought d-CON rat poison. She put the brown boxes in the walls. “If you mix water with it that’ll get ‘em.” She was right. For weeks the putrid odor of dead rats oozed through the walls. One of my uncles had to come to the house and dig them out. Each day that went by, I hated Grandma’s house more and more.
I hated everything about being in Rayville. I hated the way Grandma sucked on white tubes for her “bad asthma.” I hated the way we barely saw Daddy. For the entire time we lived with Grandma, Daddy came as often as the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Then he was gone again. Grandma was getting sicker and sicker. In her mind, she saw herself as helping her son by keeping his kids. In Daddy’s mind, the monthly welfare check helped his mother get by, but it was at our expense. Grandma got more feeble and needed physical help, not more children to rear. I missed Mama.
Every time I’d ask about Mama, Grandma said, “Y’all ain’t gonna never see her no more!”
Our parents had escaped the South, but Daddy sent his children back to hurt Mama. Three times Mama and Grandchild (her daddy’s nickname) drove from Grady hoping to get us. Mama saw us playing in the yard, and was close to me. Years later, she told me she considered grabbing me but when she looked up, Grandma was holding a double-barreled shotgun.
“Y’all get away from here! You ain’t gonna never see these kids again. Get out of here!”
Mama cried. She and Grandchild climbed into his truck and drove back to Grady. Years later, Mama told me she sobbed all the way home.
After seeing the way Grandma treated Mama and Grandchild, I knew my Mama wanted us. I wanted to go home. I decided I hated Grandma. We were sometimes hungry, dirty, and in a house full of dodging rats.
I had heard that God and Jesus loved small children. So, I prayed to God, which in my mind meant to ask Him a question and I knew His answer would always be yes. The idea of God was a mystery. I wasn’t sure who or what God was but I hoped He existed. I couldn’t differentiate saying words to something invisible from the kind of words Samantha Stephens or Endora said on “Bewitched” before they cast a spell. One day after school, Grandma screamed at me again. I got mad. I stood outside her house, grabbed the collar on my shirt and looked up to the sky.
“God, please help us. I hate being in this house. We want to go home to be with Mama. Can you please make this house burn down? Amen.”
One night, about a week later, Grandma woke Chung and me from our sleep. The house was on fire. We stood in the yard watching as the Rayville Fire Department tried to save it. Oodles and oodles of smoke lifted to the night sky. Grandma said the house “burned down to the ground.” Although I didn’t set the fire with matches, I knew God answered my question and something powerful happened.
We stayed a few blocks away in Aunt Genie Mae’s house until Grandma found us another place to live. Meanwhile, two hours north in Arkansas, Mama moaned and cried herself to sleep each night at her parents’ house in Grady. She told me years later that she couldn’t have imagined that the handsome man who walked into the diner in Pine Bluff, where she worked as a waitress, was capable of such cruelty. The man she married had kidnapped her kids, taken them miles away to his mother.
A few hundred feet down the red dirt road from Madea, our maternal grandmother’s house, Aunt Freddie Mae, Mama’s oldest sister was a sanctified believer who organized daily prayer vigils. She believed that God would work a miracle and deliver us back to Mama.
“Y’all can fast and pray all y’all want to,” Grandchild had said to Mama. “Elizabeth, if you want your kids back, you need to do it the right way and get a lawyer.”
Mama agreed. After months of meeting with a lawyer and filling out forms, she won custody. Grandma Ella Mae had to have been surprised when the papers ordering our release arrived. Daddy, the holiday man, reappeared. He and Grandma packed up our things and drove us to the courthouse.
Daddy looked sad as he let us out of his car.
“Where we going Daddy?”
“Y’all going to stay with your Mother for a while in St. Louis.”
“We going to St. Louis? We going back to live with Mama?!!!”
“Yeah, y’all gonna stay with her for a while. I’ll be up there to see y’all. You take care of your sister, okay?”
Mama and Granddaddy waited in the hall with a white man holding a briefcase. We all went into a big room. Grandma and Daddy were on one side and Mama and Grandchild on the other. A man sitting up high on a chair said something. A white lady walked Chung and me by the hand over and to Mama. Daddy came with her, hugged us and whispered something into Mama’s ear. She shook her head and walked away from him. We screamed with joy and ran into Mama’s arms. Chung and I were so happy to see her.
On our way to Grady in Grandchild’s red truck, Mama was full of questions. “What did Ella Mae feed y’all?” “Did y’all take a bath every day?” “Was Sammy staying with y’all the whole time?” Her sharp eye could tell we had been neglected. Our clothes were sagging off our bodies because we hadn’t been eating everyday. We were unkempt, and our father hadn’t been living with us.
Cousins, aunts, and uncles flocked in the dirt road awaiting our return. As we got out, they began dancing, leaping, and praising God at the sight of me, Chung, and Mama. Everybody hugged us hard and asked how we were doing, and if we were hungry.
Rayville has written psychic scars onto my body that even I cannot erase, even now. Some nights I still wake up screaming, sure a rat has slithered into bed with me, feeling its warm, fetid body brush mine and then skitter away. A stray black sock can morph into something dark and predatory, and the tears I cry when that happens are for the boy inside me who worries he may never be free. I am at all times bound into a singular communion with rats, and can always tell when they are nearby; the black pellets of their waste signal me, and I recognize them. The creaky night sounds of rats scritch-scritch-scritching through lonely buildings can paralyze me, and I cannot ride New York City’s subways without acknowledging the silent traverse of rats on the tracks, in the dark tunnels, in the mechanical bellies of the train cars. But these visions are not the echoes of leftover trauma but the byproducts of a special insight into those night scavengers, who occupy a darker, more complex landscape than people who have lived mainly in the light. I know them, and they know me. My history is something that happened to me, that marked me, and while it hurt me very badly the wounds I carry are the pain of surviving, the small, mean cost the universe extracts for allowing you to build your own salvation. For years I ran from Rayville: the place, the people, and most of all, the memories. It would be nearly two decades before I returned to find it smaller and more run-down than I would have believed. The Rayville of my nightmares does not exist, or if it does, it lives within me, and it is mine to some day raze to the ground. The little boy inside me is waiting for me to do that, and I promise him that the morning is coming that I will be able to. A place in the sun is waiting for him. I will give that to him. Telling this story is the first step.