Unsealing the Tomb
By John Michael Cummings
I sneaked Shani into our house the back way, through the high weeds and around the junk piles on the edge of our lot, then down the back hill and onto the third floor landing, and inside. When her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she glanced around at the unpainted walls, the rough floorboards, and the cracked ceiling. She gave a long look at my unmade cot in the corner, schoolbooks thrown on the floor, and bright orange Orioles pennant stuck crooked to the bare wall. There was not much else to see, except an old dresser and a few chairs Mom thought were antiques, and might have been, but looked more like Goodwill furniture.
“And you sleep in here, boy?” she said, looking afraid to step in. “It ain’t even painted.”
No electricity to speak of either, just an extension cord running up the stairs. But it was old, stapled down, and overloaded with a dangerous arrangement of plugs, so Mom made us use only one lamp at a time for the whole floor, and that one had a 40-watt bulb. Dad was supposed to fix it all up years ago, but never did.
“Damn, Jed Clampett,” she said, shaking her head, “no wonder you lonely.”
A laugh as sharp as nail popped out of me. I was Jesus Christ with a thousand of these nails to go.
As we stepped out into the hallway, she kept her head ducked. She had never seen ceilings so low, she said. Then she stopped and turned.
“Ain’t no one ever been in here before?”
I shook my head.
“Gregg? Perry?” she asked.
I shook my head again.
“Miss White Bitch?”
She meant Tammy Spates, the girl everyone thought I liked.
“No one,” I said.
“Ever?” she said, looking at me.
I shook my head once again. “Never.”
Dad’s rule. Supposedly it was his antique gun collection downstairs. He didn’t want anybody knowing about it. But he was ashamed of the house, pure and simple. And so were we.
As I went on ahead of Shani, I listened to my voice saying which room was my brother’s. It was as if I was trying to sound like a tour guide, but we were really in a kind of cave, exploring. She looked into Robbie’s room and asked why there was writing all over the walls.
“He’s like you,” I said. “You know, angry.”
“We all angry, Jed,” she said, stepping on past me.
At the stairs, I hurried down ahead of her as if to prepare the downstairs for her. It had never been seen by outside eyes before either.
“What’s that?” she said, coming down into another small room.
In the middle on the floor was a broken spinning wheel. Against the wall was a push-pedal sewing machine. My mother’s things, I said.
“And your mama let herself live like this?” she asked.
My mother, away from town hall, was to feel sorry for. She believed living in Harpers Ferry was our birthright. Yes, we had ancestors who had worked in the armory that produced the rifles the North and South fought over and relatives who had owned cafes wiped out in the flood of 1917, but what Mom never got through her head was that we weren’t well off like most were in the lower historic town today. My father wasn’t employed by the park, or a lawyer who commuted to the city. Mom didn’t have a college education. In her big, important position as town clerk, she barely earned more than the school janitor. In her own words, we were “lower-middle income.” Mr. Dean, our economics teacher, would call it a “socioeconomic disparity.” I called it salt in the wound.
I led Shani into the bathroom and over by the rotted plasterboard around the bathtub, to make sure she saw it. Then I leaned over and looked down through the hole clean through the floor to the top of the water heater in the kitchen below, to make sure she saw that, too. I even jumped up and down a little, letting her feel the loose boards, and pointed at the rotted floorboards around the commode, too. I expected her to say it was gross. I expected her to say our house was falling down. Instead, she said nothing, just stepped out of the room.
“Wait, you even have a phone?” she said, spinning around.
Looking as insulted as I could, I pointed at the old black rotary job on the table as proof. But she had to take a step toward it, had to make sure it wasn’t just junk plugged in. We had a phone all right. I was just the last kid in school not to have a cell phone or computer. DVD—not in a million years, which was about how old our VCR was. I mean, this was modern Harpers Ferry. Even John Brown had a website and renovated log cabin.
We headed downstairs. Near the bottom, she stopped, her foot in midair.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing.
This was the front of the house, facing historic High Street. Revolving past our windows like gray shapes in a lava lamp were the shadows of tourists rounding our house to get to shops next door.
“People,” I said.
She looked at me. “For real?” She went to the blinds and looked out. I watched her big brown eyeball line up with the razor-sharp edge of the Venetian blind. My father, mother, brother—we all peeped and peered out the same way. Made me think that whoever made Venetian blinds should put a warning label on them: Caution: looking out could be dangerous to your eyeballs. Then she turned and smiled at me as if having caught me in the lie of the lifetime.
“Damn, Jed,” she said, “they all black!”
Not all, but many, yes, on account of the new Black History exhibit down the street. The Frederick Douglass Museum across from us attracted them far and wide, too. They came into town on big sooty buses from Washington, D.C. Ten, fifteen, buses a day, all lined up along the river.
Shani took another look. “Damn,” she said, “they everywhere.”
According to the Park Service, half a million every year. You could tell they were from the city, too, because of how clumsily they walked up and down our hilly streets, as if they had never been off the concrete before.
“Now I know why,” she said, turning and smiling at me.
“Now you know why what?”
“Serves you right, boy.”
“This is why you hate us?”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Your mama do.” She shifted her hips. “You ever go out and talk to them?”
Talk to them? Was she kidding? Dad wanted to turn a water hose on them. Called them niggers a hundred times a day. I didn’t like the word, but could see why he got so upset with kids yelling and screaming in the street.
I plopped down on the sofa. Shani, arms crossed, stood looking at me sitting on the sunken-down, dingy thing, the dim, crowded room around me, and the black tourists all around that.
“So, what, you just hide in here all day?” she said.
Hide. That was the word for it. I felt a nail back out of me. Only 999 to go.
“You in a prison, boy.”
998. Everything she said hurt. If I survived her, I’d be a new person.
“Dang, I’d go crazy living here.”
I could hear my mother laughing her miserable laugh. She had been saying we all would for years. It was as simple as this: If this mile-long hill we were sitting on was a timeline of American history, then there was no spot between the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop of 1841 and the Senator Macon Randolph Monument of 1953 for our pseudo-Appalachian 1973 tarpaper shack with a rusted tin roof—Dad’s salvage yard of the unusual and strange.
Shani, looking away from me in disgust, caught sight of my father’s workbench in the corner. All over the surface of it, like cymbals in a tiny orchestra, was his array of shiny brass scales for weighing gunpowder. Around these, his delicate gunsmithing tools—hammers, files, punches, a whole dentistry-like assortment, along with magnifying glasses and dense technical manuals and shell casings scattered about.
“Damn, he a scientist?” she said, heading toward the bench. Then
she spun around. “A terrorist?”
I laughed out the hardest, ugliest laugh my throat would hold. Neither. My father could never be so good and thorough in either direction. If Shani looked in the corner, she’d see his metal detector. My father was a tinkerer and collector. Not even that. You couldn’t give him just one word. He was always “finding” things. Odd things. When the town flooded in ‘71, he found a toilet seat with the words “I, Grover Cleveland, sat here” carved into it. To this day he swore it was authentic. Why couldn’t the 22nd and 24th President, he asked, have had a secret fondness for the wood-burning pen? Packrat, packrat, packrat, was all Mom had to say about it.
When Shani backed up and sat down on the sofa with me, she got her first look at what had been surrounding her on the walls the whole time—guns, at least two dozen of them. Shotguns: 10- and 12-gauges, double-barreled, sawed-off, full-choke, modified choke. Rifles: Remington .22s and Winchester .30-30s. Meaner-looking guns: a Browning automatic and a M-1 carbine, with big clips. Lots of older guns, too, from a 1689 flintlock musket made somewhere in England to a 1921 Lansing fowling piece last owned by Howard Taft's granddaughter, supposedly. Even a black powder pistol. If they had been snakes, they’d have bitten her a hundred times, was how my father would have laughed about it.
She bolted up from the sofa.
“Damn, boy! They loaded?”
I laughed out hard, but felt all the sadder for it. Yes, but half of them didn’t fire, I said. My father just collected them. But she was skeptical and went on looking around warily.
“He hate black people that bad?” she asked.
It was a moment when I knew that half of me would be in trouble for the rest of my life, the fruit-never-falls-far-from-the-tree half.
“Dang, you all live in a fortress,” she said, her voice fading as she looked around warily.
Not me. I lived upstairs. That was simply a void.
Then she spotted my baby pictures on the mantel. There must have been twenty, nestled around more recent pictures of me. In the space they took up, Dad could put a miniature of a 100-pounder Civil War cannon. But Mom said no. It was her only place in the room for her things.
Shani stood and looked at them. She didn’t ooh and ash. She didn’t say I was cute.
“Guns and baby pictures?” she finally said, giving me a look that said all was wrong in the world.
She came over and sat down beside me, letting her shoulders droop.
“Why you all this way?” She glanced around the gun-crazy room. “Your father hate everyone. Your mother don’t know who she is. And you failing French and hiding in here from tourists.”
That was the $64,000 question. Why? Dad liked to say that because he had grown up in the town before the park and the tourists came, he had a right to live here—and moving because you were being forced to move went against principle. A man’s home was a man’s home, he said. Sometimes it sounded so good Mom didn’t know how to argue back.
But I knew better. Some people are born kings and queens. Most are born peasants. Our father, by birth, was ornery and wrongheaded.
Shani moved away from me, taking as many steps as this horrible little room would allow. It was her turn to keep her distance from me. As she did, her eyes caught sight of the view out the side window—what I had been waiting for her to see and why, ultimately, I had brought her here.
This was the famous view, the mountains and rivers of the Jeffersonian Watergap, pictured in all the history books, in every classroom in the country. In our classroom, in fact. Meriwether Lewis, Robert Harper, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, John Brown—all had come through this, nature’s door to the east. Just 68 miles in that direction, as impossible as it always seemed, was our Nation’s Capitol—all the world’s most recognizable, beautiful, and symbolic buildings, statues, and paintings. And this door sat open and waiting for me. Either that or to tease me to death every day for the rest of my life.
I stepped up beside her, and a long, silent moment passed. It wasn’t about black or white anymore, not about who snubbed who in school. It was about how bad I felt about myself and the fact that she was picking me up.
“And you never go out and talk to them?” she said, nodding over to the main window. “You wanna go to art school in D.C., and you never go out your front door?”
Before I could stop her, she stepped over to the door and started pulling on the knob.
My voice clapped against our low ceiling, spinning her around.
“What the hell you scared of?” she shouted back.
Nothing! Everything! The front door was never opened this late in the day. Only very early, for leaving, or very late, once the tourists had gone.
I was begging her with my eyes not to open it, but she smiled in my face and opened it anyway. It popped like a can of vacuum-sealed peanuts, and in came the chattering of kids. I could see their voices curling themselves around our gun barrels and trigger guards like party ribbons falling through the air. I wouldn’t call it a tomb opening—yes, I would.
With the toe of her sneaker, Shani kicked open the sticky screen door and stepped out onto the front porch. When I saw that she wasn’t coming back in, I followed. Sitting at the bottom of our front steps was a group of black kids in church uniforms.
“Hello,” she called down.
They turned to see Shani standing at the top of the steps. Their eyes peered up through the low-hanging limb that acted as a curtain over the front of our house. I watched they looked from the heaps of ornery-looking firewood to the flaking tan window trim.
“You live here?” one asked.
“He does,” Shani said, nodding back at me. “Say hello, Josh.”
I came out and stood beside her, nudging her to be quiet.
“Okay if we sit here?” another asked. “We thought no one lived here.”
Shani laughed, I made a swift nod, and the kids turned back around, sipping their Cokes and looking up and down the street.
“See,” she said, looking over at me. “That so hard?”
Yes, it was terribly hard. To know your house looked like the Hatfields and McCoy’s house was very, very hard.
We stood together on the top step for a while longer, looking out from the dark underworld of my house at the “one of the most visited towns in America,” as all the park brochures said. In a kind of out of body way, I felt like a giant fifty feet taller than the house. Then, for the first time ever, in the middle of the day, I left my house by the front door.