Kiese Laymon | Excerpt adapted from Heavy: An American Memoir | Scribner | October 2018 | 20 minutes (4,158 words)

You were in Grandmama’s living room delicately placing a blinking black angel with a fluorescent mink coat on top of her Christmas tree while Uncle Jimmy and I were examining each other’s bodies in a one-bedroom apartment in Bloomington, Indiana. I was in my final year of graduate school. Uncle Jimmy and I were having a contest to see who could make their forearms veinier. “Shit, sport,” Uncle Jimmy said as he hugged me. “You eating a lot of spinach in grad school or what? You look like you training for the league.”

I was twenty-six years old, 183 pounds. My body fat was 8 percent.

Uncle Jimmy was six-three and so skinny that his eyes, which were nearly always yolk yellow, looked like they wanted to pop out of his head. He wore the same Chicago Bears sweatshirt, same gray church slacks, same church shoes he wore when he was forty pounds heavier.

When I asked him if anything was wrong, Uncle Jimmy said, “This blood pressure medicine the doctor got me on, it make it hard for a nigga to keep weight on. That’s all. Is it okay for me to say ‘nigga’ around you now? I know you’re a professor like your mama and shit now.”

I told Uncle Jimmy I was a graduate instructor and a graduate student. “That’s a long way from a professor. I think I wanna teach high school. But regardless, you can always say ‘nigga’ and any other word you want around me. I’m not my mama.”

On the way to Mississippi, we stopped at gas station after gas station. Uncle Jimmy went to the bathroom for ten minutes each time. I cranked up Aquemini and did push-ups and jumping jacks outside the van while he did whatever he needed to do. He eventually came back with pints of butter pecan ice cream and big bags of Lay’s Salt & Vinegar.

“Want some, nephew?” he asked.

“Naw,” I said over and over again. “I’m good.”

“You good?”

“I’m good,” I told him. I didn’t tell him I was running eleven miles, playing two hours of ball, and eating eight hundred calories a day. I didn’t tell him I gleefully passed out the previous week in the checkout line at Kroger. I didn’t tell him a cashier named Laurie asked if I was “diabetic or a dope fiend” when I woke up. I didn’t tell him the skinnier my body got, the more it knew what was going to happen, just as much as it remembered where it had been.

Uncle Jimmy looked at me, with Lay’s Salt & Vinegar grease all over his mouth, like my nose was a fitted hat. “Let me find out you went from fucking a white girl to eating like a white girl.”

“I just love losing weight,” I told him. “That’s really all it is. I just love losing weight.”

“You just love losing weight?” Uncle Jimmy was dying laughing. “My nephew went to grad school and now he turning into a white girl. You just love losing weight? That’s damn near the craziest shit I heard in thirty years, Kie. Who say shit like that? You just love losing weight?”

Somewhere around Little Rock, Arkansas, we stopped at a truck stop. Uncle Jimmy started telling me a story about one of his friends he worked with at the Caterpillar plant. He said he and this friend served the same tour in Vietnam and had been to Alcoholics Anonymous three times each.

“So yeah, he always talking big about all the Martell he drank over the weekend and all the pussy he be getting,” Uncle Jimmy said. “Always talking about how the white man’ll do anything to keep a nigga down. And he start talking about spoiled-ass Bush. I told him we been known there ain’t nothing the white man won’t do. He said he agreed. But soon as the white boss man come around, this nigga tuck his head into his shoulders like a gotdamn turtle. Steady grinning and jiving them white folk to death.”

I asked Uncle Jimmy why his friend acted one way around him and another way around the white boss man. “Shit,” he said, nervously tapping his foot under the table, “you know how some niggas are, addicted to giving the white man whatever he want whenever he want it. Not me, though. You know that.”

Uncle Jimmy was right. I’d spent the last four years of my life reading and creating art invested in who we were, what we knew, how we remembered, and what we imagined when white folk weren’t around. For me, that vision had everything to do with Grandmama’s porch. Every time I sat down to write, I imagined sitting on that porch with layers of black Mississippi in front of and behind me.

While Uncle Jimmy was in the bathroom, I called Grandmama on the pay phone to let her know we were going to be home later than we expected.

You picked up.

“Hey,” I said. “What y’all doing?”

“Hey, Kie, we’re on our way to the hospital. Tell Jimmy to meet us there. Is he drunk?”

“Naw,” I said. “He’s not drunk. He’s in the bathroom right now. Is Grandmama okay?”

You told me Grandmama had fallen asleep in her chair after complaining of dizziness. When you went to take her wig off, you saw blood on the inside of the wig. You told me you looked at the back of Grandmama’s head and saw this infected hole oozing with puss.

“Please don’t tell Jimmy,” you said. “If he gets even a little stressed, he’ll start drinking like a dolphin.”

“I don’t think dolphins drink, though.”

“Just bring your ass directly to the hospital, Kie.”

When Uncle Jimmy finally made it back to the car, he was flying on something more than Hennessy or weed. He handed me a Black Ice air freshener he bought and told me to make the world smell this good. When I asked him what he meant, he said, “Drive this van, nephew. Drive this shit. Make the world smell this good.” Uncle Jimmy could barely open his eyes or close his mouth. “Don’t use the brakes like you did last time, nephew. Drive this shit all the way home.”

‘Please don’t tell Jimmy,’ you said. ‘If he gets even a little stressed, he’ll start drinking like a dolphin.’

* * *

I’d heard Grandmama whimper over the loss of her best friend and her sisters. I’d heard Grandmama yell at Uncle Jimmy for daring to disrespect her in her house. I’d never heard Grandmama scream while begging the Lord to have mercy on her until that night in the hospital.

Uncle Jimmy wasn’t as high anymore. He and HaLester Myers, Grandmama’s new husband, were sitting in the waiting room, avoiding each other’s eyes, watching news about Bush and the Supreme Court. You, Aunt Linda, and Aunt Sue were down the hall talking shit about Uncle Jimmy. You blamed whatever he was going through on what he saw and did in Vietnam. Aunt Linda blamed alcohol. Aunt Sue blamed all of us for not praying for him more.

I walked away from y’all and went to Grandmama’s room.

With one hand in the pockets of my mesh shorts, and one hand holding hers, I told Grandmama it was going to be okay. Grandmama said she had faith in the white doctor who was taking care of her. She kept calling him “the white-man doctor,” though he was really a short, light-complexioned black man with a dry, red Afro.

“The white-man doctor got my best interest at heart,” she said. “Grandmama will be fine directly.”

The black doctor with the dry red Afro asked me to leave the room because they had to do a small procedure. He said the infection was deeper than he thought. It started in the middle of her head and went down the back of her neck. “We’re gonna help her with this pain,” he told me. “The infection is seeping into her bloodstream.”

I walked out of the room but he didn’t close the door behind me. “Lord Jesus,” Grandmama kept saying before she screamed. “Please have mercy. Please have mercy.” I knew, but didn’t want to admit, why Grandmama was screaming, why the black doctor with the dry red Afro didn’t give her enough anesthetic, why he thought cutting a full inch and a half deep into the back of her scalp was for her own good.

Folk always assumed black women would recover but never really cared if black women recovered. I knew Grandmama would act like she recovered before thanking Jesus for keeping her alive. She would never publicly reckon with damage done to her insides and outsides at the hands of people who claimed to have her best interest at heart. She would just thank Jesus for getting through the other side of suffering. Thanking Jesus for getting us through situations we should have never been in was one of our family’s superpowers.

I spent the night in the room sitting in a chair next to Grandmama’s bed and holding her hand. Grandmama didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window of the room, with her cheek pressed into the thin mattress until the sun came up.

The next morning, after I went for an early morning jog, Uncle Jimmy walked into Grandmama’s room. “These folk got me looking like a mummy, Jimmy Earl,” Grandmama said, before hugging Uncle Jimmy’s neck and talking about how skinny we’d both gotten since the last time she’d seen us. I told her she needed to do a better job of taking care of herself.

“You need to mind your business, Kie,” she said, “and don’t lose no more weight or your head liable to bop on down the road.”

“How can a head bop down a road, Grandmama?”

“You know what I mean, Kie,” she said, laughing at herself before directing her attention to Uncle Jimmy. “Why you ain’t eating, Jimmy Earl? You hear me?”

Grandmama looked at Uncle Jimmy and me standing side by side. She kept blinking her eyes in slow motion. The slow blinking was even worse than the eye twitching. Everyone in the family knew the slow blinking meant Grandmama was double disgusted with whatever she was looking at.

“I’m eating, Mama,” Uncle Jimmy said all of a sudden.

“What you eating, Jimmy Earl?”

Uncle Jimmy looked at me. “Gizzards,” he said. “Lots of spinach, too. All the spinach and gizzards I can eat.”

“Boy, you ain’t seen a leaf of no spinach. Why you ain’t eating, Jimmy Earl? Don’t get to lying off in this hospital.”

“I ate spinach the whole trip down,” Uncle Jimmy told Grandmama, while looking at me. “The whole trip down. Didn’t I eat spinach, Kie?”

Grandmama’s slow-blinking eyes dared me to lie so I kept my mouth shut and nodded up and down until I said, “Grandmama, what you think of Bush and them stealing that election?”

“Ain’t nothing the white man is too shamed to do, except do right by us. And it’s always some ol’ big-head black man who should know better trying to help the white man harm us.”

“Talking about Clarence Thomas?”

“Yeah, that ol’ big-head man know good and well these folk been stealing everything from us that ain’t nailed down since before I was born. I knew that man wasn’t right from when he sat on TV talking about a high-tech lynching when he got caught harassing that black woman. What her name is, Kie?”

“Anita Hill.”

“Right. Right. Anita Hill. All the education you got and you surprised they stole that election?” Grandmama asked me. “All that schooling, and you didn’t know what they was planning with all that gerrymandering? Kie, did Jimmy Earl eat spinach when y’all drove up here?”

I got up, stretched my calves, and weighed myself on the scale beside Grandmama’s bed. “I slept most of the way down here, but maybe,” I told her, and walked out of the room so Uncle Jimmy could tell all the lies he wanted to with no shame.

Stepping on the scale in Grandmama’s hospital room was the first time I’d stepped on a scale since leaving Indiana. The scale on the bottom floor of the gym at Indiana was the sleekest, sturdiest, most precise scale I’d ever stepped on. If I weighed myself, then took just a half sip of water or spit a few times, I could see a change in my weight. I weighed myself in the bottom of that gym before and after every workout, before and after every meal. I also got a tape measure to measure my waist every morning when I woke up. I came to Indiana with a thirty-three-inch waist and I managed to get it down to twenty-eight inches in two and a half years. Twenty- eight inches was good, and it was so far from forty- eight inches at my heaviest, but I knew I could get my waist even smaller if I worked harder.

If I weighed myself, then took just a half sip of water or spit a few times, I could see a change in my weight. I weighed myself in the bottom of that gym before and after every workout, before and after every meal. I also got a tape measure to measure my waist every morning when I woke up.

* * *

Grandmama was released from the hospital three days later. When I got to her house late Saturday night, Grandmama, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, and you were sitting around the TV watching The Color Purple in silence. Every time y’all watched it, it seemed like the first time. Y’all didn’t cry. Y’all didn’t move. Y’all just breathed deeply and made sure part of your body was touching the body of the woman next to you.

After the movie, while everyone in the living room was talking about how no good Clarence Thomas was for helping George Bush steal the election, you asked Aunt Linda and me if we wanted to go to the casino in Philadelphia. Aunt Linda, who lived in Vegas, swore that the Mississippi casinos were too country to hit, but she loved how reverential folk in those country casinos were to her.

“Vegas, honey,” she loved to say when folk asked about her elaborate wigs and her two-inch fingernails layered in ruby-red nail polish and studded diamonds. “I’m from Vegas, honey.”

I went in the bathroom to weigh myself before getting in the car, but Grandmama’s scale was gone.

Aunt Linda talked from Forest to Philadelphia about this video poker game and what she’d have to hit to get off the machine. When Aunt Linda asked you how much you’d have to hit, you didn’t answer her question.

The Golden Moon Casino in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was a windowless space of smoke, free alcohol, emergency lights, and ding-ding-dings. You didn’t have to play to hear the ding- ding-dings and see the emergency lights. I didn’t understand why anyone would put a dollar in a machine you’d probably lose when you could just watch folk, drink all you wanted, and listen to ding-ding-dings all night for free.

I sat in front of the machine across the casino floor from you, sipping diet pop, watching you spend every dollar you had in your pocket. I watched you rummage through your purse for enough quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies to take to the casino cage and get a few dollar bills. I watched you take those dollar bills and slide the money in the machine you were sitting at a few minutes earlier.

When you saw me watching you, I walked over and gave you the forty dollars Grandmama had given me for Christmas and the sixty dollars I had in my wallet. I watched you slide the five twenties in the same machine. In less than a minute, you walked over to Aunt Linda and sat next to her as she played. Neither one of you said a word. Aunt Linda eventually gave you what looked like another twenty and turned her back to you.

You went back to the same machine. When the money was gone, you looked over both shoulders and watched me watch you again. You walked over to me and asked if I brought my credit card. I told you I hadn’t had a credit card since somebody stole mine at Millsaps a few years ago.

“You need a credit card, Kie,” you said. “That’s how you build up your credit.”

I wanted to say so much, but we’d made it through Christmas without fighting and I didn’t know what I would do or feel if you slapped the taste out of my mouth after I’d given you my last money at a casino.

When we got home, you walked in Grandmama’s room, spread out across the foot of the bed, and told me to close the bedroom door.

“I don’t feel good, Ma,” you said to Grandmama.

“What you reckon it is?” Grandmama asked.

“Kie,” you said, “close the damn door.”

“Okay,” I said. “But why?”

“Because I said so, Kie. Just close the damn door.”

Grandmama looked at Uncle Jimmy and me standing side by side. She kept blinking her eyes in slow motion. The slow blinking was even worse than the eye twitching.

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Before I left for Indiana the next morning, Grandmama asked if I would go outside on the porch. Everyone else was either watching Tiger Woods beat white men in golf or they were in the kitchen assembling two-pound plates of food and slicing up German chocolate cake and sweet potato pie to take home. I sat in the same yellow peeling chair I sat in fifteen years earlier. I told Grandmama I couldn’t believe how full and green the woods looked when I was a kid. She told me no part of the world stops changing just because you leave it. “Why you tapping your foot like Jimmy Earl, Kie?”

I didn’t even notice I was tapping my toes on the porch.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “I probably need to go for a run. I want you to take better care of yourself, Grandmama. For real. Don’t wait until the last minute if something is wrong with your body. And don’t try to fix your body if you know someone else can fix it better. You getting enough exercise?”

“You gone exercise crazy,” Grandmama said. “You lost all that little fat and now you trying to coach folk? The worst kinds of teachers be the teachers that teach other folk how to be like them. We all got ears. We all know when folk talking down to us. My whole life, I been exercising. You seen them big ol’ bags of cans in the backyard? I walk up and down this twice a day picking up cans to take to the can man. Them nice Mexican folk off in the trailer park next door, they brang me some of they cans after seeing me walk up and down this road. So I get my exercise. Worry about yourself.” I laughed off Grandmama’s comment. “Listen, Kie. Something in the milk ain’t clean. I want you to call your mama and Jimmy Earl more.”

“I talk to Mama every few days, Grandmama.”

“Well, talk every day then,” she said. “Twice a day. Call your uncle Jimmy Earl more, too.” I looked at Grandmama, who was now playing with the bandages wrapped around her head. “Do you hear me? It ain’t but about one or maybe two ways to get a blessing. But it’s a million ways to give a blessing away. And some folk, they be so good at giving away blessings. You give away your blessings enough, one day the Lord will up and take whatever blessing you need and leave you with nan blessing at all.”

“Nan blessing, Grandmama?” I asked, bent over laughing. “You need your own show.”

“Nan blessing, Kie. I’m telling you what I know. And I ain’t just talking about no money. I’m talking about anything the Lord seen fit to bless you with.”

“I hear you, Grandmama,” I said. “Can I ask you something?”

“What is it, Kie? I’m not trying to talk about nothing crazy out here on this porch now.”

“I hear everything you’re saying about blessings and talking to Mama. I’m just wondering what happened to your scale?”

“Lord have mercy,” Grandmama said, and started slow- blinking her eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if your bread is all the way done.”

“My bread is so done, Grandmama,” I told her. “I just really love losing weight.”

Grandmama’s eyes slowly and steadily blinked out on that porch that day.

On our way up to Indiana, I did not eat or drink. I had no way of knowing how much I weighed until I paid the dollar to weigh myself on the raggedy bathroom scale at a rest stop in Tennessee. According to the scale, I was 186 pounds, up two pounds from when I weighed myself at the hospital.

When we crossed the Arkansas state line, Uncle Jimmy stopped at a KFC and ordered some gizzards to go. A few miles down the road, we stopped at a grocery store that sold hot food. Uncle Jimmy told me to wait in the van. He came out with nothing and headed to another grocery store that served hot food. This time, he came out with two beige Styrofoam containers filled with greens and corn bread. He was trying to right his wrong.

“Want some, nephew?”

“Naw,” I told him. “I’m good.”

Uncle Jimmy sat in the parking lot of that grocery store eating what must have been a pound of greens and corn bread. When he was done with both containers, he told me Grandmama complained to the rest of the family that I’d been in school long enough. According to Uncle Jimmy, Grandmama said it was time for me to get a real job so I could help the family with money. Uncle Jimmy lied a lot, but I knew it was Grandmama’s style to tell the truth about whoever wasn’t in the room.

I told Uncle Jimmy I made about twelve thousand dollars a year at Indiana. After paying my rent and my bills, I had about two hundred and twenty dollars left every month. A hundred went to the student loans from Millsaps I defaulted on when you left all the notices in the mailbox. Forty went to Grandmama. Twenty went to savings. Sixty went to food.

“Mama said she want you to get a real job,” he said again. “So you should go ahead and get on that directly. Make some real money.”

I decided in Uncle Jimmy’s van that instead of working toward my PhD, I’d take my MFA and apply for a fellowship that placed grad students of color in liberal arts colleges to teach for two years. If I could get the fellowship, I’d revise the books I was working on while teaching, then I’d try to sell them and get a decent paying job somewhere else.

When Uncle Jimmy dropped me off, he didn’t hug my neck. He didn’t dap me up. He thanked me for not telling on him and told me he’d see me next year.

“Sometimes I wonder if maybe we could talk on the phone?” I asked him from outside the van.

Uncle Jimmy took off without responding to my question. I didn’t know exactly what Uncle Jimmy was putting in his body during our trip down to Mississippi. I knew on our trip back up to Indiana he’d eaten more greens than I’d ever seen a human eat in one sitting. After he dropped me off, I knew he was going to get back to flying and crashing because flying and crashing were what people in our family did when we were alone, ashamed, and scared to death.

After jogging up the stairs to my apartment, I got on my knees and thanked God I wasn’t flying and crashing like Uncle Jimmy, or crying and scratching crusted scabs out of my head like Grandmama, or moping and regretting all the money I lost in a casino like you. I rubbed my palms up and down my abs, searching for new muscles. I ran my fingers over my pecs, flexed both to see which one was more defined. I slid my hands into the gap between my hard thighs and squeezed as hard as I could. I traced the veins in my calves down to my ankles and back up behind my knees. Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, I still saw a 319-pound fat black boy from Jackson. When I touched myself or saw how much I weighed or my percentage of body fat, I knew I’d created a body. I knew I’d made a body disappear.

I got off my knees and asked God to help y’all confront the memories you were running from. I asked God to help all of y’all lose your weight. I planned to do everything I could not to give my blessings away and provide for y’all. The first thing I had to do was sprint down to the gym before it closed. I wanted to know exactly how much I weighed so I could decide if it was okay for me to eat or drink before going to bed.

* * *

From Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon. Copyright © 2018 by Kiese Laymon. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

* * *

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kiese Laymon, Ottilie Schillig Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi, is the author of the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He is also the author of the memoir Heavy.