It was late the other night and, if I remember correctly, the day had been unconscionably hot. The heat had given me leaden arms and legs. I lay face down on my couch blinking my dusty eyes and drifting between sleep and wake when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I looked up and swore I was hallucinating. There in my living room stood an old man, brown-skinned with creases on his forehead and beneath his eyes. He wore a crumpled brown suit straight out of faded sepia-toned pictures from the late 1800′s. The hair on his face and his head was silver and the light behind him, I thought, made him glow like an apparition.
â€œBoy, just what do you think youâ€™re doing?â€ he asked.
â€œHuh?â€ I sputtered in reply, confused and barely able to make a coherent statement.
â€œI know what you doing. Youâ€™re planking, huh? You think lying face down, stiff as a plank, with your arms at your side is all fun and games. Donâ€™t you know where this lying down game came from? â€˜Plankingâ€™ is how they used to stack your ancestors during the middle passage. Now, 152 years after the last recorded slave ship brought slaves onto U.S. soil, somehow this thing has returned as a fad.â€
â€œPlanking? I was just trying to go to sleeâ€” Say, who are you? What are you doing in my house?â€
â€œWho am I? Ainâ€™t that something? Boy, donâ€™t be ignorant. Iâ€™m one of your ancestors, Rebus Scott. Most of us ancestors, weâ€™re tired of seeing you people disrespect us with your lying face down and photographing it.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ I said, somewhat embarrassed. â€œI didn’t know.Â Can I make it up to you with a cup of tea?â€
The old man nodded, proud he had taught me an important lesson. We made small talk in the kitchen while the water heated on the stove. He regaled me with tales of his friends Frederick Douglass, Tupac Shakur and Gary Coleman. When the kettle sang out, I poured two cups of black tea and began spooning sugar when my ancestor bawled as if in pain.
â€œThis boy is just about as ignorant as a ratâ€™s tit,â€ Rebus said. â€œNow Rion, your parents are from the Caribbean, yes?â€
â€œThen you must assume that your ancestors were too. Just some basic common sense, right?â€
Again, I nodded.
â€œHow you gonna disrespect the folks who spent their life on a plantation chopping down sugar cane by putting sugar in your tea? First you planking and now this? Use your head young negro.â€
We downed bitter black tea, which he seemed to enjoy. The drink annoyed me and I grimaced at every sip. This is the sort of tea that springs to life with two or three spoonfuls of sugar, but I drank without complaining as to not further offend my long dead ancestors.
Though I had learned a lot for the night, I found this whole situation stressful. I grabbed a box of Newports and invited the ghost to my balcony. He chattered briskly, but I wasnâ€™t really listening to him. I took a deep breath of the fresh air and then lit a cigarette, sullying the air for the calming buzz of tobacco.
â€œYou are just the ignorantest, ain’t you?â€ my ancestor said.
â€œWhat this time?â€
â€œWe used to pick it now they want us to smoke it?â€
I sighed and dashed the cigarette over the balcony. I was still exhausted and I couldnâ€™t take anymore of this manâ€™s chastisement so I figured announcing my intentions to go to sleep would make Rebus leave.
â€œLook,â€ I said. â€œI appreciate you showing up like the Ghost of Christmas Past to educate me. Each one teach one and all, but Iâ€™m tired and Iâ€™ve got a pretty long day ahead of me. Iâ€™m going to get ready for sleep. I’ll lie face up; I promise.â€
The man nodded and I went into my room and changed into my pajamas, hoping that when I returned, he would have crossed back over to the other side. I had no such luck, however. When I came back into the living room he crumpled his face and sneered as he looked at me. Then he covered his face in embarrassment.
â€œCotton pajamas?â€ he yelled. â€œCotton pajamas? Cotton, Rion? Cotton? Wearing the cotton your ancestors used to pick is just as bad as lying face down. Why donâ€™t you just whip me right now? Come on. Whip me. Go ahead. Whip me.â€
I hung my head. I had let down the ancestors again. I quickly stripped down to my draws to prove that I in no way meant to disrespect the dead and it was a lucky thing that I had put on silk draws that morning or I would have been downright bareassed. Still, I felt plenty foolish even though Rebus was just a ghost. I slunk into the couch and flicked on the television.
Rebus must have realized how silly I felt because he said: â€œDonâ€™t be embarrassed. We ancestors watch you living people all the time when you think no one is looking. When youâ€™re using the toilet, having sex, taking the shower. Itâ€™s entertainment to us.â€
His reassurance offered me no comfort.
â€œSo,â€ he said. â€œWhatcha doing tomorrow?â€
â€œProbably a little exercise in the morningâ€”â€œ
â€œHope you ainâ€™t planning on skipping no rope?â€
â€œYeah, a little to get me warmed up.â€
â€œAs many black men been hung with ropes?â€
That was all I could stand. Something in me snapped. Ancestor or not, Rebus had finally taken it a step too far. I snatched the old man by his collar and escorted him to the front door as he hollered, calling me ignorant and complaining about my shabby treatment of those who came before me. I opened the door and shoved him into the hallway, letting the swinging door slam in Rebusâ€™s face as he turned to protest. It was the best I had felt all night and I fell asleep easily, sleeping well past noon the next day.
Later, I found out that Rebus wasnâ€™t my ancestor at all, just some crazy old man from next door.