NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 1 - Winter 2018 - Page 98

FICTION By Marsha Cann Dead But Not Gone Uncle James was dead. Was supposed to be dead anyway. Born May 26, 1934, Died November 11, 1966. That’s what the obituary said. We had just come home from his funeral earlier that evening. I’d seen him in his steel gray casket. He was lying stiff as a board dressed in a dark blue suit, the same suit he was wearing now, sitting in the rocking chair. I’ll never forget the day he took me and my cousins for a ride. He told us not to let our feet touch the gold medallion-crested car mats in his ride. No, unh, unh, child. So we rode the entire time with our legs extended and feet in the air. We didn’t care; that made it more fun for us. We giggled and grinned, and I felt like I was rich, riding around with my cousins that day. Uncle James was hip, the proverbial life-of-the-party, and could dance on a dime. When the music played, he danced like no other down the Madison line. We’d all run to see. Didn’t nobody want to follow him. His feet sure, quick and light; his lanky body moved easily to the beat ‘cross the floor, down the line, then a step… sliiiiide…into some serious mashed potatoes. You could see the music moving him. It was all up in his back, neck rolling, oooo, child, in rhythm, like it was nothing but magical. Made me wish I could dance like that. I lived for the next time I would see Uncle James and be in his world. The lightning struck again. I was too scared to look over at the rocking chair, scared his ghost would still be sitting there. I wasn’t afraid of Uncle James. I loved him, and I really didn’t want him to be dead, but I also didn’t want to be seeing his ghost. Though his face was still handsome, he looked tired, sad. His skin seemed bluish instead of chocolate brown. He stared straight ahead and didn’t have the usual loving twinkle in his eye. He was calm, but I was so scared I couldn’t move. Uncle James’ shop, Bella Mel’s, was on Sarah and Cook near Gaslight Square. It was the go-to place for everything from the sportiest process, marcel do, press and curl, or haircut, of course, to the best hot gossip, clothes, shoes, or anything else a person might want. The conversations and negotiations would get a little rowdy sometimes, but Uncle James didn’t allow no bullshit. He was cool as a cucumber, a diplomat, and would calm things down in a heartbeat. He was known for his motto, “Everything’s copacetic.” His swagger was smooth, and he was sharp as a tack. He lived big, was generous to a fault, and drove a gold Cadillac. He kept that car sparkling. First, the storm woke me, and when the lightning struck, the rocking chair got lit up bright. Real bright. And I could see Uncle James sitting there. It was sudden. They say he had had a heart attack. He was only twenty-eight, had a beautiful wife and a baby girl who looked just like him. Everybody was shocked. “Gone too soon…way before his time…had his whole life before him… too young to die … umph umph umph.” — is what people were saying. Uncle James was special. He was the only one of the Ellis family in his generation to own his own business — a beauty and barbershop. So far, he was the only one to follow in the footsteps of Uncle Bill, the patriarch of our family who, after the war, had begun his entrepreneurship repairing shoes: first in a small storefront in downtown St. Louis near Union Station, then on Franklin Avenue, where he opened the Neighborhood Shoe Repair Shop. Okay, so he also worked the policy game with his brother-in-law to make ends meet, but everybody loved Uncle Bill. Just like Uncle James, he was our inspiration.