The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
A major literary event-nothing short of a "tour de force" (New York Times) by the acclaimed and beloved author.
Marooned in an apartment that overflows with mementos from the past, 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey is all but forgotten by his family and the world. But when an unexpected opportunity arrives, everything changes for Ptolemy in ways as shocking and unanticipated as they are poignant and profound.
Hello?” the very, very old black man said into the receiver.
The phone had not rung for more than a week and a half by his reckoning but really it had only been a little more than three days. Somebody had called, a woman. She seemed sad. He remembered that she’d called more than once.
Classical piano played softly from a radio in the background. A console television prattled away, set on a twenty-four-hour news station.
“Is somebody there?” the old man asked before his caller could speak.
“Papa Grey?” a male voice said. It was a young man’s voice, free from the strain and gravel of age.
“Is that you, Reggie? Where you been, boy? I been waitin’ for you to come by for a week. No, no, two weeks. I don’t know exactly but it’s been a long time.”
“No, Papa Grey, no, it’s me, Hilly.”
“Who? Where’s Reggie?”
Hilly went silent for two seconds and the old man said, “Is anybody there?”
“I’m here, Papa Grey,” the voice assured. “I’m here.”
He was certainly there, on the other end of the line, but who was it? the old man wondered. He looked around the room for a clue to his caller’s identity but all he saw were piles of newspapers, boxes of every size and shape, and furniture. There were at least a dozen chairs and a big bureau that was tilted over on a broken leg; two dining tables were flush up against the south and east walls. His tattered mattress under its thin army blanket lay beneath the southern table.
“That was Etude no. 2 in A-flat Major by Chopin,” the radio announcer was saying. “Now we’re going to hear from . . .”
“Papa Grey?” a voice said.
“. . . half a dozen bombs went off in and around Baghdad today. Sixty-four people were killed . . .”
Was the voice coming from the radio or the TV? No. It was in his ear. The telephone —
“Who is this?” Ptolemy Grey asked, remembering that he was having a phone conversation.
“It’s Hilly, Papa. Your great-nephew. June’s daughter’s son.”
“Hilly,” the young man said, raising his voice slightly. “Your nephew.”
“Where’s Reggie?” Ptolemy asked. “Where’s my son?”
“He can’t come today, Uncle,” Hilly said. “Mama asked me to call you to see if you needed anything.”
“Heck yeah,” Ptolemy said, wondering what anything the call and the caller meant.
“Do I what?”
“Do you need anything?”
“Sure I do. I need all kinds of things. Reggie haven’t called me in, in a week, maybe, maybe it’s only three days. I still got four cans of sardines and he always buy me a box of fourteen. I eat one every day for lunch. But he haven’t called and I don’t know what I’m gonna eat when the fish an’, an’, an’ cornflakes run out.”
A piano sonata began.
“What do you want me to get you?” Hilly asked.
“Get me? Yeah, yeah. Come get me and we can go shoppin’. I mean me and Reggie.”
“I can go with you, I guess, Uncle,” Hilly said unenthusiastically.
“Do you know where the store is?” his great-uncle asked.
“Sure I do.”
“I don’t know. I never seen you there.”
“But I do know.”
“Is Reggie coming?”
“Why? No . . . no, don’t tell me why. Don’t do that. Are you comin’, um, uh, Hilly?” Ptolemy smiled that he could remember the name.
“Yes, Papa Grey.”
Ptolemy peered at the clock on top of his staggering bureau.
“My clock says quarter past four,” Ptolemy told his great-nephew Hilly Brown.
“It’s ten to twelve, Uncle, not four-fifteen.”
“If you add forty-five minutes to that,” the old man said. “I should be lookin’ for you before too much after five. Anyway, it have to be before six.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
Ptolemy could hear fire engines blaring in the distance. There were floods down south and Beethoven was deaf. Dentifrice toothpaste was best for those hard-to-get places.
Maude Petit died in fire. Ptolemy could hear her screams along with the sirens that cried down the street outside and also in the fire bells that clanged way back then in Breland, Mississippi, when he was five and she was his best friend.
Ptolemy started to rock on his solid maple chair. One of the legs had lost its rubber stopper and so made a knocking sound on the parquet floor. He felt like he needed to do something. What? Save his little playmate, that’s what. He was bigger now. He could make it through the fire, if only he could get there.
He could smell the tar roof burning and feel the heat against his face. He rubbed the tears away and then looked at his old weathered hand with its paper-thin, wrinkled skin. Black as that hot tar, black as Maude’s happy little face.
Where was Reggie? Where was he?
The clock still said 4:15. It was just like when he used to work for the undertaker and he had to wait for six o’clock to come on the big black-and-silver wall clock that hovered in the hall outside from where he swept the floors around the tables that held the bodies of Maude and her whole family. They smelled like gamey meat cooking in his mother’s father’s deep-pit barbecue. The firemen threw Maude’s dog in the garbage. Maude loved that dog and so Ptolemy snuck around the back of the big green cans they used to throw away everything that the Petit family owned and he stole Floppy’s body and buried her down by the river, where Ptolemy had shown Maude his but she was too shy to show him hers.
They were a match for each other, Earline Petit had said.
It was probably a match that started the fire that burned down the house, the fire captain said.
A woman was singing opera in a voice that made Ptolemy think of strawberry jam. He tried to get to his feet by leaning forward and pushing against the arms of the chair. He failed on the first and second tries. He made it on the third. Standing up hurt in three places: his elbow, his knee, and ankle. One, two, three places.
The short refrigerator was humming but empty.
The clock said 4:15.
The lady news announcer was talking about a white girl in Miami who was taken away by somebody that nobody knew. Ptolemy thought about the . . . what did Mama call it . . . the inferno of the Petit’s tarpaper home; the yellow fire that waved like tall grass in the wind and the dark shadows that looked like the silhouette of a tall man moving through the rooms, searching for Maude like Ptolemy wanted to do, like he should have done.
The clock must have run down, Ptolemy thought. So how would Reggie know when to come if time had stopped? Ptolemy could be stuck there forever. But even if there was no clock, clock-time, he would still be hungry and thirsty, and how could he find the right bus to take him to the tar pit park if Reggie didn’t come?
The knock on the door surprised Ptolemy. He was resting his eyes, listening to a man talk about the money people have to pay for war and school while a trumpet played, a jazz trumpet that carried the sound of black men laughing down the hall in the whorehouse Coydog brought him to when they were supposed to be at the park playing on the swing.
While Coy played poker, or was with his girl, Deena Andrews would bathe Pity, that’s what they called him, they called him Pity because Ptolemy seemed like blasphemy, though no one could say why. Deena would give Pity a bath and comb his hair and say, “I wish you were my little boy, Pity Grey. You just so sweet.”
The knocking startled him again.
Ptolemy went to the door and touched it with both hands. He couldn’t feel anything but hard wood.
“Who is it?”
“Hilly. Sorry I’m late. The bus got stuck in a traffic jam.”
“Reggie couldn’t come, Papa Grey. Mama sent me to help you go to the store . . . You know, June’s daughter.”
June was a young woman who went out in hussy clothes on Friday nights when she should have been home with her children. And Esther . . . his sister took care of Hilda, George, and Jason.
“Whose boy are you?” Ptolemy asked the door.
“Marley and Hilda’s son,” the voice on the other side of the door replied.
Ptolemy heard the words and he knew that they meant something, though he could not conjure up the pictures in his mind. He wanted to ask another question to make sure that this wasn’t that woman who came in his house and stole his money out of his coffee can.
Ptolemy strained his mind trying to remember another thing that only a friend of Reggie would know. But every time his mind caught on something—it was a broad rise in Mississippi that had blue mist and white clouds all around. The sun was going down and the heat of the day was giving up to a mild breeze. There were birds singing and something about a man that died. A good man who gave everything so that his people could sing, no, not sing but live life like they were singing . . .
“Papa Grey, are you all right?” the voice beyond the door asked.
Ptolemy remembered that he was trying to recall something about Reggie that the young man through the door should know. He was, Reggie was, Ptolemy’s son, or his grandson, or something like that. He was tall and dark, not handsome or slender, but people liked him and he was always nice unless he was drinking and then he got rough.
Don’t drink, boy, Ptolemy would tell him. Drinkin’ is the Devil’s homework for souls lost on the road after dark.
“What did I used to tell Reggie about liquor?” the old man asked.
“What did I tell him about liquor?”
“Not to drink it?” the voice replied.
“But what did I say?” Ptolemy asked.
“That drinkin’ was bad?”
“But what did I say?”
“I don’t know exactly. That was a long time ago,” Hilly said.
“But what did I say? To him,” Ptolemy added to help the young man answer the question.
“Uncle Grey, if you don’t open up I can’t help you go shoppin’.”
Ptolemy slapped his hands together and backed away from the door. He laid his palms upon the stack of ancient, disintegrating cardboard boxes piled next to the entrance of his one-bedroom apartment. He brought his hand to his bald head and pressed down hard, feeling the arthritic pain in the first joint of three fingers. One, two, three. Then he reached for the doorknob, gripped it.
Just the feel of the cold green glass on his hand brought back that crazy woman into his mind. The woman who came into his house was named Melinda Hogarth, somebody said. She knocked Ptolemy down and made off with his coffee-can bank. She was fifty. “Too old to be a drug addict,” Ptolemy remembered saying.
“Get outta my way, niggah,” she’d said when Ptolemy got to his feet and tried to pull his bank back from her. “I will cut you like a dog if you try an’ stop me.”
Ptolemy hated how he cringed and cowered before the fat, deep-brown addict. He hated her, hated her, hated her.
And then she did it again.
“Don’t open the door unless it’s for me or someone I send,” Reggie had told him. And he had not opened that door for anyone but Reggie in three and a half, maybe five years, and nobody had stolen his coffee-can money since. And he never went in the streets except if Reggie was with him because one time he met Melinda down on St. Peters Avenue and she had robbed him in broad daylight.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: