The living and the dead are not always easy to distinguish. If you ever watched the series Dead Like Me, and saw the Day of the Dead episode, it could really be something like that: your loved ones just show up, because they haven’t really gone anywhere. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved and in Malidoma Patrice Some’s Of Water and Spirit the dead get up, walk, even live among us because that’s just what they do.
White people’s spirits do it, too, but given that we breed denial deeper than any other population on this planet, we sure as hell won’t admit it. I never stay in denial very long. I can’t. The filter that helps me ignore the dead people is off, and it also doesn’t let me ignore other stuff that goes on around me.
At some point in childhood I did slowly figure out that I was seeing people my family members couldn’t. Some of it got dismissed as “imaginary friends,” and to be fair, I actually concocted really imaginary friends when I could tell my mother was getting uncomfortable with some of the raw stuff the not-imagined imaginary friends were saying and doing. Then, at the age when my classmate’s imaginary friends went away both in their consciousness and from their presence – mine didn’t.
I didn’t really think much of this, and I wasn’t consciously hiding that I could see more activity. It didn’t disrupt my ability to live, and I wasn’t feeling any particular fear. It was just some of the stuff that went on around me, but didn’t really involve me because I was a child and my family’s attitude that I was insignificant in many ways protected me from all the stuff that surrounded me.
So when my sister got on the Tilt-a-Whirl with me at the county fair one summer, I hadn’t given any thought to the cowboy that had wandered up and stood just watching us spin ourselves into dizzy glee. I saw someone walk through him; otherwise I wouldn’t have known myself. I was too young to think what I would as an adult about a man in a Stetson and tight jeans, so to me it was more an impersonal interest: Oh, you’re obviously dead.
The rodeos at those fairgrounds were real, and rough – and sometimes men died. I’m now surprised I didn’t see more ghostly cowboys treading the dusty walks.
My sister was prone to motion sickness, and she also kept trying to make me suffer the way she did. She never did accept that we were made different with purpose, that my experience was meant to differ from hers, that the suffering we experienced in our lives was one of those rare legitimate cases of separate but equal. On this day, she shifted her weight around and got the tilt-a-whirl to rock wildly; she was sick to her stomach afterwards while I got the pleasant high I did from spinning around as fast as I could until I fell over.
She noticed as she rocked the little tin soldier around that my eyes kept fixing on one point, that to her was nothing but an empty dirt road space with blue sky above it. I kept looking because I wondered why the cowboy was staring at me: carnies were always checking out my sister, but this one seemed to be specifically staring at me. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just strange.
At last my sister leaned over and asked me what I was staring at. “Oh, a dead guy,” I told her. I didn’t elaborate on his behavior. I was used to being ignored by the living and dead except when they wanted something, and it seemed like all this guy wanted to do was get a good long look at me.
When the ride ended, he was at the end of the line, and looked down into my face the way someone does when they want to get a good look at you. Then, in a blink – his or mine – he was gone.
I never did know what that was about, just some cowboy wanted to get a good hard look at an 8 year old girl.