Gulf Coast Ghost by Regina McMenamin Lloyd

One thing was for sure. There was nothing hotter than Gautier, Mississippi in August of 2005. Momma said it was just like Granddaddy to die in the summer. She said if that old Coot had wanted her to come to his funeral he would have picked a better month to die in. It was oppressively hot; I knew I had lived through this heat as a child when we lived here in this old Plantation house. I remembered the heat, but not like this. As a kid, I would beg Momma in summer to take us to see Granddaddy and Willow Oak Manor, our family home.

“Honey, summer in Mississippi is like childbirth, if you could remember the heat. It was too soon to go back.”

This time though. I needed to go. Granddaddy was dead and they were going to need to list the house. It couldn’t wait for Momma to get over the heat and come down. Something needed to happen.  When I pulled up the house looked the same. I imagined Anne Utilie left a cobbler to cool by the big Kitchen Window.

The big white plantation house felt tired without Granddaddy. He would have said “come on girl give me a big squeeze.”

No one was there; Anne Utilie and Stevenson had gone looking for a new place to live now that Granddaddy was dead. Anne Utilie said she’d stay by the old man’s side until he died, though I never knew why. Granddaddy made the most awful racist jokes. Anne Utilie said she’d rather deal with the devil she knew than the unknown. She and her boyfriend Stevenson had served as caretakers and companions to Grandpa.  I remember Anne Utilie through my childhood as a Grandma. Although, I imagine she had been younger than I was now. Looking back Anne Utilie was probably not even in her forties for the majority of my childhood. Anne Utilie was softer than Momma, in a way Anne Utilie filled my needs for nurturing. Momma wasn’t a bad person she just was always more like a big sister. What I remember of Momma in Mississippi were the sandals and flowing flowered dresses, her hair with long braids.

I walked through the kitchen and smelled Anne Utilie there among all her old things. I walked through the grand dining room, out to the back door porch.

My eye caught the waterfront view of the Gulf of Mexico. And my eye searched to the place at the left of our property, where the boy behind the fence lived. I ran to the fence and crouched into my childhood. I saw him there as he had always been and in my mind I slipped back to the day he last appeared to me.

1964

I was 5. My long hair hung down my back. Momma never made me brush my hair. Anne Utilie would have called me up and made me sat on the porch while she combed my hair and pulled my hair into tight braids. Anne Utilie would talk the whole time about how it wasn’t right for a girl like me to be running free about getting muck in her hair and living in her own world. But Anne Utilie was off to the market with Stevenson and Momma was painting her toenails on the porch.

I saw him there, my friend, behind the fence. Momma said he was imaginary, but I knew he was real. On that day he called me over. I sat down facing him, he behind his fence and me behind mine.

“I need freedom” He said.

“Anne Utilie said I have too much freedom” I answered.

“No such thing as too much freedom, I am a man stuck as a boy in thick chains” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant.

“Come over here and play” I said.

“I’m not allowed” he said.

“Doesn’t your Mom like us?” I asked.

“I don’t know, she told me I needed to stay in our yard.”He said.

“Go ask her,” I said.

“I can’t” He said “She told me to stay in the yard.”

“But surely, you can’t stay in your yard forever,” I reasoned.

“I will be in the yard forever.” He paused to play with his shoe lace “Momma, told me to stay in the yard. A man came in; he hurt my Momma real bad. Then he came out and hurt me” he said.

“Awe, are you OK?” I asked.

“No, I’m stuck out here and she is stuck in there and I don’t hurt anymore but I just miss her. When we die, we follow the rules. Out there in the Gulf there are thousands of sailors and pirates bound to the water, they can only come to the water’s edge” He said.

“Oh yeah that’s a good one you are a ghost!” I said.

“You know, it is true your Momma said I was imaginary. Your Dead Daddy comes to the water’s edge sometimes to see you, he was a soldier, right” he said.

I let out a cry.

When I looked back he was gone and I never saw him, again.

August, 2005

I pulled myself from my memory and ran up to the porch swing. A white cat came to sit on my lap it had five fingers on each paw and I felt it curl up against me. When it purred I imagined this must be what it felt like to be pregnant. I touched my abdomen where nothing grew. The bee sting in my heart that reminded me- you had waited too long, children weren’t possible.  I imagined my sister, Rosa kicking me through Momma’s belly when the cat kneaded the padding my lap afforded her.

1965

Momma was full of sparkles when she went north to the Movements she mostly went in the summers.  Granddaddy said he went down to his own movement, he’d tell Momma she needed to stop getting among all that insanity. Grandaddy said he could take his Movements and still come home at night to his family. He’d take himself off to that building like an elementary school with all the K’s on it. Momma said his friends in their fool white costumes were spreading madness and melancholy.  Momma would throw a book of change at him and he would talk of integrity. Momma said she couldn’t take the cruelty anymore and ran off to the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1969, Momma came home from the Movement with Horace Taylor and a rounded belly.  Momma wore a Dashiki, Her hair hung like dead flowers wilted against to her faded face.  Horace’s skin was darker than Anne Utilie; Momma said he was a teacher in Harlem. Momma had a ring upon her finger and she told Granddaddy she’d come for me, that she brought me a new Daddy. Granddaddy said that they should stay a while and see how I took to Horace. Momma said that was just fine as long as Granddaddy was going to be cool. Granddaddy looked suspiciously at Horace and Momma.
I never got to spend much time with my new Daddy. The storm clouds came in. Hurricane Camille beat down on the Gulf Coast. She slaughtered the land. Momma sat eyes puffy clutching her bloated belly. We sat on the back porch in the aftermath of the storm looking at the wreckage on the lawn at Willow Oak Manor. Momma said the hurricane scared Horace away, I never saw him again.

Momma said she couldn’t stay in Mississippi anymore. She packed me a bag and we said goodbye to Granddaddy, Anne Utilie, Stevenson, Willow Oak Manor and Mississippi. We moved to New York City, because Momma had friends there.

Rosa and I went from time to time to Willow Oak Manor; Momma said Mississippi was only OK for Christmas or Easter. She sent us for a few weeks in the summers.

Rosa grew to love trouble. She was little and fierce. She would stare a big lion down and clamp its mouth shut. Rosa fought with men in bars and pushed girls twice her size. Momma could only make one of us the hero or the villain and we both took turns in capes and cuffs.

Rosa burst into Willow Oak Manor in a tangerine tank top. Momma would ask her what she had been eating; she would notice the thickening of Rosa’s middle and the pudginess of her ass. She would suggest exercise, a new diet, or insist Rosa give up the Doctor Pepper she had been nursing for the last 30 years. Momma would never glance from the curve of her belly to the glistening on her cheeks and see the sign. Momma wouldn’t notice the new limp to Rosa’s steps or the new silver scar in her hairline.  Momma wouldn’t notice the new way Rosa seemed to breathe in short breaths or the faded yellow bruise under her left eye that was so carefully concealed. I saw on my baby sister all kinds of signs.

I hugged my sister and said “how far along?”

“You are predictable” Rosa said.

“What should I say?” I asked.

“I’m in trouble, He is trouble. His name is Levon Wallace. I’m 5 months along.” Rosa said.

Her eyes plead with me to be the big sister and take care of her problems.

We stayed for a few days, lounging in our pajamas on the back porch. It was hot, but a breeze picked up now and then.  We hung about like teenagers drinking iced tea and eating blueberry cake straight from the bakery tin. Anne Utilie and Stevenson dropped in from time to time. They were staying now down in an Antebellum in Biloxi. Anne Utilie said it was closer to hospitals and they were getting old.  I asked Anne Utilie if she’d be leaving for Tropical Storm Katrina. She said that nothing was ever as bad as they reported and the storms always got down-graded.

“Except Camille” Stevenson said.

Anne Utilie and Stevenson shared glances.

“What happened in Camille?” I asked.

Anne Utilie looked from me to Rosa.

“That storm of hate took Rosa’s Daddy to Sea. He was a good man, Horace Taylor, but he was an impertinent man. I told your Momma not to be going to the sit-ins no good was coming out of them. Your Granddaddy wasn’t a bad man, but that daughter of his was running around talking about free love. Honeys, I’ll tell you now and you just better get used to the idea, there ain’t no such thing as free love.”

She paused cutting a hunk from the marbled cake she had brought with her.

“These fool your mother and Horace must have thought they were Sidney Poitier and that white girl coming home to dinner. This is Mississippi and they were damned fools. They thought New York was Mississippi and that they were unstoppable. Randy Rutter and the boys at your Granddaddy’s old KKK club taught Ole Horace a lesson. All it took was that trailer trash Randy Rutter to know that your Momma took up with a colored man instead of him. Stevenson and I woke to the sound of your Momma wailing we ran down. Your Granddaddy wasn’t a part of the lynching mob. A couple of those old boys thought to rough me and Stevenson up. Your Granddaddy stood real tall and said ‘Now, I ain’t going to have no more meetings at your club and my daughter ain’t going to go bringing in the law but if you touch Anne Utilie or Stevenson by the love of god, I will personally see all of you brought to the law and you all know, I know who you are.’ Your Granddaddy and Stevenson cut down Horace and he gasped his last dying breath in the Gulf of Mexico” Anne Utilie Said.

She sipped her coffee and continued “we just all said the storm swept up Horace and in a way it did.”

We sat in a quiet way all three of us thinking in our own way about Granddaddy and the horror of Hurricane Camille.

Granddaddy never left for a storm. In all of Willow Oak Manor history no one had ever left for a storm. Plus someone had to be on watch for vandals. We would stay on and see this through for Granddaddy.

On the morning of Katrina, while the ocean churned in a rumbling roar. I heard the roar of tires on the rocks outside Willow Oak Manor. My introduction to Levon Wallace is a grown man pleading at the front door.

“Let me in Baby, I came all this way. Please you got to know I’m sorry. I love you. I’m so sorry. You got to know, I just thought when a person feels a certain way and they don’t get any sign from you and I felt it. And I love you, God Baby you know I do and you always have something smart to say and I love that but you got to know I love you. I’m a good man and I get mad sometimes but I sorry now. Please you got to come back. Got to come back–Got to be a family. It’s a sin, a mortal sin for you to keep me from my baby.” Levon said.

“Don’t let him in” I said.

She let him in and the war began. They yelled and screamed and he chased her and she ran. She told him she wasn’t coming home to him and he went Ballistic, tearing through Willow Oak Manor to get her. I pulled Rosa into the bathroom and locked Levon out.

Katrina thrust upon the house in a wave of unparalleled vengeance. Like the big fisted punch of a prized fighter, like the hangman’s noose strangling the life out of Palmetto bushes, the murky water penetrated the porch like a prowler on his prey.

Rosa and I sat in the bathroom, feet pressed together, on either side of the big white claw foot tub. Rosa’s breast heaved and I heard and felt the blood thumping toil of my own panic.

The waves flooded in as Levon crashed against the door. The door made menacing creeks and groans. We heard Levon thrashing but Willow Oak Manor held out. Protecting us from the storm and the brutal brashness of a man unhinged. He begged and pleaded and pummeled the bathroom door.

Katrina was a gust of wind and a wall of waves that burst through the fence and the house and the neighborhood. She collected with her the souls of soldiers, fisherman, pirates, men hung on hate’s noose and men stuck under the white hoods they had built of their own hate.

They all rose together from the water, to surround Levon.

When the levy broke she crushed into the French Quarter and places like Maspero’s Slave Exchange. Katrina collected into her churning waters all the souls of saints, sinners and slaves. I heard the madman Levon screaming, Walt Whitman’s words:

“Let judges and criminals be transposed! Let the prison-keepers be put in prison! Let those that were prisoners take the keys!” He screamed down at Katrina or at God.

Katrina raged in a hurricane of abuse on the house, beating the pulp out of the landscape, chewing at the floorboards and assaulting windows. Katrina sent spirals of waved water down the swirly staircase.

In a fit of rage, Horace blackened the eye of Levon, the Mother whipped him, and the boy made him beg for his last breath. Pirates choked it out of him, little silver bubbles escaped out of his hateful mouth.

The spirits formed a circle of protection around the tub. They cradled Rosa and I in our tub, toes touching, baby nestled in Rosa’s salty womb. A radio played in the far off distance and I heard a somber voice say “Restoring New Orleans, Galveston, TX and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to what it had been before Hurricane Katrina battered the land, was like trying to smelt the blade of grass from the dinosaur who had once dined on it.”


Regina McMenamin Lloyd is a mother of two young children, a wife, and a Writing Arts Major at Rowan University. Regina recently was an honorable mention winner of the 2012 Denise Gess Literary Awards for poetry. Regina McMenamin Lloyd’s writing has been featured on Smithsonian.com, Your Kind of Town.