The True Death of Abel Paisley
Let’s say that you are a 69-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death. You have never used those words to describe what you did before. At the time you’d thought of it as seizing an opportunity placed before you by God, but today you have gathered all of your female descendants in one house, even the daughter who has thought you dead all these years, and decided that today is the day that you will tell them the truth: You have spent the last twenty years of your second life living in a brownstone in Harlem, running a West-Indian grocery store. Recently, your wife died so you shuttered the store. You’ve given up on fighting your arthritis pain and have finally begun using the wheelchair she picked out.
You are ready to be still and rot. You imagine the death of Stanford Solomon, unlike the abrupt end of Abel Paisley, will be achingly slow; already it feels like you are losing small pieces of yourself daily. To you, old age is the torture you deserve, a slow death, your matter dispersing into the air like dandelion seeds until the day there’s nothing left.
When you died the first time, you were still a young man in your thirties and had been working in England for less than six months. It wasn’t easy for an immigrant, especially a black man, to find a decent job back then, but through a boy you’d known back in primary school, Stanford, you’d gotten a room and a job on a ship. You had no idea it was just the beginning of your streak of good luck.
You and Stanford were the chosen wogs they allowed to work alongside the white men. Stanford complained often about London. He hated the cold. He missed his grandmother and his village. But you felt free. That sense of freedom and joy only dampened when you thought of the family you left behind. Your first wife, Vera, wrote you long letters weekly about how you’d abandoned her and left her to become a dried up old spinster. But you both knew perfectly well that it was her idea for you to go to England, where she thought you’d somehow become a better provider.
The day you died, you remember running along the dock because you were late for work while a container was being lowered onto the ship. Then you saw the container fall. You were close enough to hear the screaming.
“Who was it?” you heard someone shout.
“One of the wogs!” another answered. “It’s Abel!”
For a moment you were confused. For a moment, hearing your own name among the dead, you stopped in your tracks. It was like one of those movies where the dead person’s spirit stands by watching as a crowd gathers around his body. But no, you were certain, it wasn’t your body, so you boarded the ship. The captain approached you immediately and said, “I’m sorry, mate. No way Abel could have survived that.”
You almost laugh now when you think of it—the one time racism had worked in your favor. The captain had gotten his wogs confused, looked you right in the eye and mistook you for the other black guy. Abel was dead, crushed under the container. Unrecognizable. But you, Stanford now, could turn, and go home.
Perhaps it’s telling about your nature that you did not hesitate. You nodded and turned and walked away, quickly, before any of the others had a chance to recognize you. Back in your room at the boarding house, you rifled through your roommate’s things and learned what it really meant to be Stanford. You and Stanford actually did look alike, you see, which made it all the more confusing for them. You were the same height, the same high-yellow complexion, the same lanky build. You, Abel, did not arrive dressed for an English winter, so you had even taken to wearing his clothes.
Of course, you thought of your family. Your wife, Vera. You thought about the two life insurance policies you’d purchased. The one she’d made you take out before you left, and the one the company made mandatory. You decided that you were worth more to her dead. Your son, Vincent, was barely out of Vera’s womb when you sailed off. Your daughter, Irene, still a stumbling toddler. Vera was beautiful. She would find a new husband, a richer one, the children were young enough to embrace a new father, and they would finally live the life Vera thought that she deserved, the one she had no qualms about constantly asking you for.
Stanford had little family. No wife. No children. That was what clinched things for you. Stanford was raised by his grandmother, who was in her seventies and losing her eyesight. You could continue writing her letters, sending her money for the cousins she was caring for, and there was no bother there. What surprised you was how right it felt.
The daughter who thinks you are dead is under the impression that she has been called to your house to care for a wheelchair-bound old man. That old man is you. When she enters you see her mother. Her wide, obstinate mouth, her large, slightly bulbous hazel eyes, her nostrils flaring. You can tell she has her mother’s brutal tongue. You are intimidated. She has a look that says she is a frayed rope one tug away from snapping, and you wonder for the first time, if, when you tell her, she will kill you. In that moment, your death—your real death—flashes in your mind.
You have never had a premonition before, but now the certainty of it causes you to slump forward in your wheelchair. You have a vision of a woman supporting your weight as you make your way up the flight of stairs, bringing you all the way to the top, and just letting you go, as if she’d just remembered she was supposed to be somewhere else.
Your daughter, who moments before had introduced herself as Irene, the name you gave her, bends down and asks, “You all right, Mr. Solomon?” You sit up straight, or as straight as an old man with scoliosis and arthritis can, and say, “Call me Stanford.”
You think of that word, “fake,” and decide you were right to never use it to describe what you’ve done. You are a thief, pure and simple. It wasn’t Stanford’s life you had stolen, for he would have lost that regardless. It was his death. Where is his soul now? Circling the world, looking for a grave that does not yet exist? Isn’t it about time you give him his due?
Now let’s say you are a 37-year-old home health aide named Irene, whose father faked his own death, but you don’t know it yet. Today is the day he will tell you. You just know that he died when you were very young. You have no memory of him whatsoever. You recognize his face only as a young man in photographs. You don’t recognize that face as an old man when you walk into the home of your new client, for, as far you know, aging after death is impossible.
You do think it’s strange that this man called the agency and asked for you by name. He claimed another client recommended you. You find that unlikely. You do your job, but you don’t make much effort to be nice. You’ve lived in America for five years and the only reason you came, the only reason you agreed to do this miserable job in the U.S., was to get away from your family. Your brother and your mother. You have a husband and two children and you also knew you needed to keep them away from the cancer that raised you. She’s been dead for four years. Sometimes you regret not waiting. You would have at least have gotten her house.
You misunderstand the look the old man gives you when he opens the door. You worry that he’s another pervert, that he’ll sneak pinches when your back is turned or when you’re on your knees, bent over cleaning. You are grateful that he’s in a wheelchair, although it means you’ll probably have to help him to the toilet. You might have to pull down his pants for him, which can lead to all kinds of undesirable propositions.
For a second the picture you have of your father, dressed in a tweed suit, too hot for the Caribbean, that he had specially made for his journey away from you, flashes in your mind, but you don’t know why. He was standing under a mango tree. That tree became your favorite growing up. That tree became your father. Whenever you sat under that tree you asked for things, and even though you rarely got them, you still imagined he could hear you.
All you know is that his death became the dividing line between hell and heaven. You do not remember much about those early days, but you know you saw your mother smile. You remember being picked up and held, and that before you didn’t know what it meant to be mishandled, to be jerked, to be shoved, to be slapped, to be pinched or even choked by her. You know because you remember the first time she did each of these things to you. And afterwards you sat under the mango tree and asked the man in the picture who you thought was dead and therefore held some supernatural power to protect you. He never did. Today you will finally know why. Later, after he reveals his true identity to you, if you were to “accidentally” let him fall down the stairs, knowing the life you’ve lived, a life he caused, would anyone blame you?
Never mind. Instead, you are a 34-year-old heroin addict named Estelle Solomon whose father once faked his own death. He did it before he had you, but you don’t know it yet. Today is the day that he’ll tell you. Sometime in the late afternoon. You are laying on a daybed in the basement. The basement is underneath the garden apartment in your family’s brownstone. You had begged your father to let you live in the garden apartment because it has windows. But he screamed, “Is what you need windows fah? Why, when you spend fi yuh whole life asleep!” He seems determined to keep you alive, but just as eager to bury you.
You have been an addict for many years now. Before your mother died, you could still hustle. You were in and out of your father’s house, still an artist, taking and selling pictures. Occasionally, someone would put your photos on display in a cafe. Every once in a while you sold something, made a little money, and even came home and gave it to your father, telling him to buy something nice for your daughter with the money your art made you. He would never take it, always throwing it down on the floor in front of you, so both he and your mother would have to watch you gather the scattered bills from all over the room.
“After me nuh know where that money come from. Me nuh wan’ know what someone like you have fi do to come by it.”
Someone like you.
You weren’t always such an embarrassment. You worked very hard to become one. When he tells you his secret, that he is not really Stanford Solomon, and therefore you in turn cannot be Estelle Solomon, that your family does not even exist, will you be the one to end him? No, actually, it could never be you. After he tells you, you will exhale deeply, tears will form in your eyes. Then you will burst out laughing, and everyone in the room will turn and look at you. For the first time in your life, you will actually look at your father with gratitude. You will actually turn to the old man and say ‘thank you.’
You have always sensed the lie behind your parents’ words, have always suspected that their Jamaica was a place that did not exist. You have always wondered why they never chose, in all these years, to return to that island so perfect. Instead it was always the right weapon to throw in your face, always the only answer to their problems, their main problem always being you.
When you were younger, you would scream back at them that, if in Jamaica, the daughters were pure, saved themselves until marriage, stood by their mother’s side every day in the kitchen and watched them cook, brought their father his slippers when he got home from the store, went to church every Sunday, never refused to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the table before a meal, didn’t proclaim themselves agnostics, wanted to be wives instead of artists, always agreed to stack canned food on the shelves of their father’s store after school, didn’t stand under the streetlights at night talking to boys from the block, did their own laundry and their father’s too, did not jump between their parents and cuss their father out every time he raised his voice at their mother, did not promise to kill their father if he dared threaten–only threatened–to one day slap their mother in the face. If in Jamaica, daughters did not run away from home and return pregnant by a man twice their age, did not go out partying instead of staying home with their newborn child, did not walk down the street in skirts so short they barely covered their pum-pum, did not make their mother cry and waste away with worry, never did drugs and if they did, were never so weak that they would become addicted. If in Jamaica, daughters were churned out of factories without the slightest defect, why the fuck didn’t they just go back there and leave you alone? Today, after all these years, you’ll finally know why, and the reason will be perfect.
Say you are an eighteen-year-old girl named Caren who lives in a Harlem brownstone with your mother, who is a heroin addict, and your wheelchair-bound Jamaican grandfather. The latter of whom faked his own death, but you don’t know it yet. Later, he’ll tell you. Every morning when you wake up, you remember that your grandmother, the person you loved above everyone else in this world, is gone. She worked so hard to shield you from your mother. She loved you so deep, it almost rendered your mother’s love supplementary—a bonus—so that the times when Estelle was lucid enough to pay attention to you, felt like a holiday, a special occasion. Every child knows that holidays don’t last. By the time you were eight, you had stopped being disappointed.
You don’t begrudge your mother. Since your grandma died she has finally stayed in one place. For the first time in your life, with the exception of an hour a day when she sneaks outside to score, you know exactly where to find her. Knowing should comfort you, but on the rare occasion when you go to the basement and stare at her, passed out on the daybed, you can’t help but wish it had been her. You think, what a waste of a life. The same words your grandma always echoed whenever she talked about Estelle.
Later, when your grandfather tells you that he was born Abel Paisley and not Stanford Solomon, you will understand your grandmother’s disgust. A life does not belong exclusively to one person, you learn. It can be passed from one to the other until every bit of it is put to good use. You will wonder if there is someone out there who would wear your life better.
But before that, you notice that from the moment you wake up your grandpa is acting strange. You had been begging him to get a home health aide for the last year, and all of a sudden there is one sitting with him at the kitchen table that morning. He is giddy as he says her name to you, Irene, and you wonder if it has been too long since he’s seen a woman he wasn’t related to.
You are about to smile at Irene when you notice that she doesn’t bother to smile at you, barely tilts her head in your direction, before she returns to reading your grandpa’s newspaper. If your grandmother were here, you know the two of you would go upstairs and talk about this woman. For a moment, you imagine all of the things you would say about her, until you remember that your grandmother is gone. For a moment you contemplate going down to the basement and telling your mother about Irene, but that would be as exciting as talking to a corpse.
Since your grandmother left you, you’ve found it hard to think about anything else besides getting away from this family. So much so, you’ve started sleeping with one of your professors at City College. It helps the fantasy of running away. The irony that you might be following in your mother’s footsteps doesn’t escape you. Your father had been a professor, but your mother had been a high school girl who’d just had a bunch of college friends. You are actually going to get a degree one day. You are actually going to leave this house.
Sometimes you fantasize that the professor leaves his wife and four children and buys a condo for the two of you in downtown Brooklyn. You are not sure what you would say if he were actually to propose this to you. He hasn’t talked about leaving his wife, hasn’t said he loves you. You might think less of him if he did. You have no intention of trading your dysfunctional family for another, being the reluctant stepmother to four resentful white kids. In your family, you are known as the smart one for a reason.
Now let’s say that you are a dead woman, four years in the ground, whose husband faked his own death. When you were alive they called you Vera, but here there is no need for names. You did not know the truth about your husband until your own death, but the timing of the knowledge made it no less infuriating. You have rewatched all the years you spent mad with guilt, thinking you were the one who sent him to his grave.
Death is just one long therapy session. You have gone over every second of your life and divided them into the misery you caused and the misery others caused you. You have been waiting for four years for this motherfucker to die, and you know that the day has finally arrived.
You look at the elaborate theater that your former husband is producing and you laugh (or you imagine yourself laughing; you no longer have a mouth or a face). He has asked the women down to the brownstone’s parlor. He has seated himself in his favorite rocking chair which he thinks makes him appear wise. None of the women want to be there. The three of them are seated side by side on a crushed velvet settee barely listening, unaware of their blood connection.
You have decided to choose one person in his house to be the catalyst of his death, to be briefly possessed by you, long enough to get the deed done, but the answer has stumped you. Who will hurt him the most?
You look down at your own daughter, Irene, think she’s owed the revenge, but you can see both the past and the future and know that giving her guilt to carry is not doing her any favors. There is a cruel impulse inside her, one that you gave her, that you do not want to feed. You know that most of her misery was brought about by you. When she dies, you will face your own reckoning, but for now you have no plans to ruin her life any further.
You look at the other two women, the products of the weak woman he married after you. You have passed her in this place, for she’s dead now, too. You thought you’d have harsh words for her, that her day of reckoning would come, but you mostly feel sorry for her. You can feel her pining for Abel, pleading with you to spare him, until you’ve recently had no choice but to shut her out. You look at all of those girls in the room and reassure yourself that no matter who it is, it will actually be you. If you still had a body, you would be dancing.