Granddaddy Zoby visited us exactly one time each year. It was always at the end of summer, he and my grandmother driving fifteen miles an hour below the speed limit, backing up the Hampton Roads Tunnel, leaving a path of stalling traffic in their wake. He came to walk in the last strips of woods and to drink from one of his jars of water, which he brought over from Norfolk. We loved the visits, and we dreaded them too, for the end of August was a melancholy time, marking the end of summer vacation. Soon all play would cease; even the cicadas, which had chimed all summer, would burn out one by one in their invisible posts in the high pines. My grandparents would appear on our porch laden with packages of figs, eggplants and frozen [End Page 121] fish my grandfather had caught in the Elizabeth River—things we did not really need. Their faces expressed the fatigue and awe of dark-eyed immigrants as they marveled at the dishwasher (the microwave was just too much for them, so they shunned it and never brought it up in conversation).
One summer, when I was twelve and about to start middle school downtown, my grandfather arrived unexpectedly and alone. This was the same summer that my brother had finally saved enough money to buy a nine-piece drum kit, with red reflective patterns on the drum sides and cymbals that gleamed and made their noise even if you just brushed by. The drums were assembled in the room we shared—our sisters lived down the hall—and occupied virtually the whole of our bedroom space. I took the drums in stride because my grandfather was visiting and had offered to take us to the community pool, where he'd toss coins in the deep end and sit in a chair, fully clothed, sunning himself like a lizard, sipping from his jar.
I did tricks for him—went off the high dive, cannonballed, demonstrated the flip-turn—all for his coins. I remember wanting to ask where my grand-mother was this time, but I figured that they had just had another of their famous disagreements. Probably he had cleaned fish in the kitchen sink again without cleaning up afterward. Other boys were floating in their inner tubes, and I went off with them, leaving my little sister to watch over Granddaddy.
"Where's your granddad from, anyway?" one boy asked. "He's so dark. Looks half nigger."
I'd never considered it before, but it was true. I looked him over, sitting in the shade, dark as liver, uneducated, weary. He did not look like anyone else around. Neither did he show any particular interest in trying to fit in. My friends were fair-skinned, blue-eyed boys from the exclusively white neighborhood where we lived. Though I held most of my tan all year, I fit in well with my companions. I wore hip bathing trunks and had no accent to weigh me down. Somehow I had escaped the awful depth of darkness. My grandfather, on the other hand, seemed ancient, a bronze statue that had worn out its welcome. He sat at the edge of sunlight like a potentate who had purchased this one moment of solace with a fistful of gold. He seemed exhausted by something. He was there for the sun, by the sun. It struck me then how Arabian he looked, like one of the lesser bogeymen in Sinbad and the Seven Seas. I found myself furious with his skin color, and this left me confused and irritated. I joined the other boys, joking, out of earshot of course, about how dark he was. Too bad for you, Grandpa, you're as black as tar. [End Page 122]
Later that afternoon my grandfather led my sister and me into a wedge of woods between the new housing developments. His habit was to find the old storm-damaged saplings...