The first time Poky Jernigan told me about his levitating grandma, I thought he was full of shit. He mentioned it so casually. I figured it was some gag he played on kids he invited home. It was one of those warm Oklahoma nights in late June when the lightning bugs lend the entire state an eerie hue, and Poky had erected his father’s old canvas military tent in the backyard. We were sitting outside, smoking and watching the bugs flicker. I can’t forget the smell of that tent, even still, an overpowering odor, like the inside of a neglected duffel bag.
We’d bought a pack of Lucky’s from the diner on Yale Avenue during our walk home from school and been trying to finish them off before Poky’s mom got home. We were talking, as usual, about Mickey Mantle, the Yankee’s rookie phenom, and a fellow Oklahoman. As we smoked, Poky squinted up at the second-story windows. I asked what he was staring at.
I’m watching, he said, in case the old lady makes a break for it.
I knew his grandma lived with him. I’d heard him talk about her at school. But this seemed an extremely odd thing to say, given the window opened onto a sheer twenty-five-foot drop. I’m not sure I take your meaning, I replied. I had a ton of phrases like this, stuff that sounded very adult. I’d stolen this one from a Jimmy Stewart movie.
The old lady can float, said Poky, in the same tone he might have used to explain that his grandma was an expert at cribbage. As he talked, white mist puffed from his mouth. He was really good at smoking. He was good at everything.
Float? I said.
You know, levitate.
He passed the cig over, and I inhaled a lungful of Lucky Strike, nearly puked into the hydrangeas, then leveled a serious gaze at Poky. Would you, I intoned, kindly tell me what in God’s name you’re talking about? I’d stolen this sentence from William Holden.
I’ve seen her, he said. He took the smoke from me, dragged on it, then pointed the smoldering cherry at the window. Couple times now. Floating a foot or two over the floor in her room.
The rule among thirteen-year-olds of the day was, no matter what anyone said, play it cool.
Neat, I said.
I didn’t stay long that night, had to flee before I barfed all over my Levi’s. After a week, I forgot about Poky’s weird statement. The following Friday, Poky asked me to spend the night at his house, and I was reminded in stunning fashion of what he’d said about his grandmother.
Poky Jernigan and I weren’t natural companions. I was a slightly rumpled boy, short of stature, with my hair perpetually sticking up. Poky, on the other hand, was lean, long, and always appointed with military precision. His hair was flat-topped and squared off in the back, and when you glanced down at his black shoes, you saw your reflection looking back. I remember once, a clear memory, Poky discovering a stray thread dangling from my collar and snapping it away with a sharp flick of his fingers. It won’t do, he said. It won’t do.
In any place besides Tulsa, Poky and I wouldn’t have been friends. We shared only one quality: We were both born in the wrong place. In a school full of future farmers and ranchers and oilmen, we were the outliers. My head was stuffed with Hollywood dreams, and Poky was... well, Poky was different. Before I came along, Poky didn’t have any friends at all—by choice, it would seem. But he endured my presence, and I rewarded his attention by entertaining him with quotes from The Asphalt Jungle and Call Northside 777. I imagined he liked me, but the truth is I have no idea. Our friendship was born of necessity rather than mutual admiration.
I should clarify: I did admire him. But my esteem wasn’t reciprocated; Poky looked up to no one but his dead father.
The following Friday, I arrived at Poky’s locker after school, hoping he would invite me over, and my wish was granted. I was doubly surprised when he asked me to stay the night. I’d asked him over to my house before, but he’d always declined. He had to look after his grandmother, he always said.
We rode our bikes around town that afternoon, drank some milkshakes, smoked a pack of Chesterfields, then went to Poky’s house, where his mother served us a pot roast. Poky had one of the few unmarried mothers in our neighborhood. His dad had been shot down in ’44, piloting a B-29 off the coast of Saipan, and Poky’s ma never recovered. Their living room was a shrine, with a tri-folded flag over the mantle below a photo of Major Richard Jernigan in his Officer’s Service Dress, arms crossed over his broad chest and eyes gazing sternly into the distance. Poky did everything he could to resemble his father, even striding down our school’s hallways in his father’s drab olive overcoat, though the Melton wool was far too warm for the Oklahoma weather.
At dinner that night, Poky’s mom still wore her turquoise uniform from the diner where she waited tables. The meal was a stifled affair with Poky and his mother on one side of the table and myself seated next to his glassy-eyed grandmother on the other. As I took my chair next to the ancient woman, I watched her through my peripheral vision, eyeing her splotchy, shaking hands and knobbed knuckles. Her eyes reminded me of the ventriloquist’s dummy in the window of the costume shop downtown.
Poky served his grandmother a small hunk of roast and some boiled carrot, and she pushed the food around on her plate. During the meal, I never saw Poky’s mom look at the old lady. Not once. I would later learn that the ghostly woman wasn’t Poky’s maternal grandma but was, in fact, his father’s mother. They’d taken her in after her son’s death, a loss that provoked the old woman’s descent into dementia.
We dined in silence, the four of us, except for a few perfunctory questions from Poky’s mother about my schoolwork. Poky and his mother were like a married couple who’d let the spark of love burn out. They moved in choreographed rhythm, passing food and salt across the table, never acknowledging the other’s presence. I deduced that she and Poky traded shifts watching his grandmother, which explained why Poky had to be at home so often. The most exciting moment came when Poky’s mom asked about my favorite movie. I told her it was Key Largo. Never seen it, she said. I didn’t eat much of the roast due to post-cigarette-and-milkshake queasiness.
After dinner, Poky’s mom disappeared into her bedroom off the kitchen. Poky and his grandmother and I went into the living room and tuned into an episode of Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Poky’s house hadn’t entered the Age of Television yet, so the radio was the best he could offer. We listened to Mr. Keen solve the mystery of a murder involving a poisoned sandwich. I figured out the culprit long before Keen and spent the last thirty minutes rolling my eyes at the corny dialogue. Poky leaned languidly back on the couch with one leg flung over the other, his arms crossed, his eyes closed. Poky’s grandmother maintained an expression of profound seriousness as if she were listening to news of Hitler invading Poland.
After the episode, Poky made a pallet for me on the floor of his room upstairs. His bedroom had a military efficiency about it, like his haircut and his ever-polished boots. A USAAF poster on the wall showed a leather-jacketed airman standing among clouds. O’er the ramparts we watch, the poster announced. Apart from the twin bed and poster, the room held only a wooden table with a lamp and a green footlocker on the floor. When Poky went to use the bathroom, I glanced inside the locker. White t-shirts, boxer shorts, jeans, socks, all folded with perfect exactitude.
When Poky came out of the bathroom, I could hear him moving around in the room next door—his grandmother’s room. I heard her voice for the first time then, like the groan of waterlogged wood. When is the morning coming? she said. And again: When is morning? Under the pretext of taking a leak, I went out into the hall and glanced through her doorway. Poky was bent over her bed, pulling the covers tight over the tiny woman’s shoulders. Her room, too, was bare but for a bed, a nightstand with a lamp, and a wooden chair. Good night, Grandma, said Poky.
When is the morning coming? asked Poky’s grandmother.
I’d spent the night at other boys’ houses before. Not recently, and not frequently, but enough to know that the best part was staying up late talking. However, there was very little of that with Poky. When he came back into the room, he simply stripped to his boxers and lay on his back, his skinny, grim lips turned downward, staring into the darkness.
I brought up a movie we’d seen the previous week, The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I asked how he thought the Yankees would do in the World Series. We were both rooting for the Yanks pretty hard because of the Mick’s heroics. Allie Reynolds had thrown a no-hitter to clinch the American League pennant earlier that month, and Poky was excited about the Yanks’ prospects. But that night, he was quiet, and I fell silent, too, folding my hands behind my head and looking out the window at the papery moon. Soon Poky began to snore. Not long after, I drifted into a light sleep.
I was awakened by a thump. With the late-September full moon shining through the window, everything seemed fuzzy, like looking through a spiderweb. I thought I’d dreamed the sound and was drifting away again when I heard it once more. I whispered Poky’s name. He responded with a heavy snore. Then it came again, louder this time. Very loud.
The sound was coming from Poky’s grandmother’s room. I stood and waited, my ears perked. Poky, I said. The black hole of his snoring mouth yawned up into the darkness. Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was real concern, but something drew me into the hallway. I pressed my ear against the old woman’s closed door, waiting to hear it again. And I did, a heavy thud like someone punching a wall.
I turned the knob, pushed the door open, peeked inside. The bed was empty; I could just make out the rumpled sheets in the moonlight. I shoved the door further ajar. Poky’s grandmother was nowhere to be seen. The wooden chair I’d noticed earlier was gone, too.
Then I saw her, lit by the moon outside the window. The ancient woman hovered in the chair near the peaked ceiling, naked, her wrinkled breasts and legs swinging like pendulums, her hands gripping the sides of the chair, her glossy eyes reflecting the darkness. While I gaped at her, the chair lifted further, and she conked her skull against the plaster ceiling.
She turned her attention to me, and I saw—or felt—her eyes focus.
Richard, she said.
I didn’t know whether I should try to pull her down or if I should answer her. I was rooted to the floor.
I’m sorry, I whispered. I’m not Richard.
Is it morning yet?
Not yet, I said. The chair walloped her against the ceiling.
Next door, Poky hadn’t moved; his snores rumbled like a freight train. When I shook him, his eyes snapped open. What’s wrong?
It’s your grandmother. She’s—
Wait here. He padded into the other room, and I listened to various bumps and whispers through the wall. He came back and climbed under his blanket. It’s okay now.
What do you mean, it’s okay? She was, I mean, did you see her?
She does that every night. She’s asleep now.
A long silence. Shouldn’t you wake your mom or something?
My mother doesn’t know.
Doesn’t know what?
About her. About that.
Okay, I said dumbly.
I don’t want to bother her with it, he added. It only happens at night, when Mom’s sleeping.
A moth appeared in the room, tinked against the window, then fluttered up to the ceiling and beat its wings against the smooth white surface.
She called me Richard, I said.
She calls me Richard, too.
Can’t anything be done?
He rustled on his bed, turning his back to me. I’ll have to do something, yeah.
I wanted to help him so badly then. We have to do something, I whispered. She’s going to hurt herself. My mind whirled like a carnival ride.
We can’t do anything right now. Go to sleep.
Of course, I didn’t sleep. I lay awake watching that moth, listening for movement through the wall, thinking, thinking, until at last, dawn crept through the window and I drifted off.
I woke to the sound of hammering. My watch said it was eleven; I rarely slept past nine. Scratching my hair, I went out into the hall, following the clatter, and found Poky in his grandmother’s room with a couple of nails jutting from between his thin lips. He held one down against the bottom of the window frame and pounded it home with a few solid whacks. He was shirtless, and the ropy muscles of his back rippled as he hammered. I saw no sign of the old woman.
She’s stronger than she looks, he said, taking the last nail from his lips. Window was open when I woke up.
Where is she?
Downstairs, having some graham crackers.
And your mom?
With three heavy cracks, he knocked the final nail into the wood then turned to me, holding the hammer by his side. Promise you won’t tell anyone about this.
Shifting nervously on my feet, I gave him my word. I leaned against the door jamb, hugging my arms close though I wasn’t cold.
Can I ask you something?
I had a hundred questions, but I’d settle for being allowed one. He opened his mouth to protest, then stopped.