An Unfaded Black
Caleb Michael Sarvis
named a “Distinguished Story” In Best American Short Stories 2018 (Roxanne Gay, Ed.)
Grandpa Sly’s tooth fell out. The left incisor, Miles thought, whichever was the vampire one. It fell out of his mouth and into his coffee as he explained clichés to Miles. While Miles didn’t need the help, he’d been assigned guardian duty by his mother. They sat at the low wooden table, a corner between them. Grandpa Sly held the essay flat on the table, and drooped his head forward so he could make out the words, following the lines as if they were Braille. “Dark as night,” he was saying, and coffee splashed onto the line about the vast emptiness of outer space.
Miles stared at the newborn space in his grandpa’s mouth.
“Try something like dark as wet coffee grounds instead,” he said, and took another sip from his mug. “Or dark as the essence of a life looked back on.”
“Dark as your hair?”
“Nobody knows who I am. I've no hair left.”
Grandpa Sly smoked cigarettes well before he shot his sixteen-year-old son Bobby dead in 1973, but Miles’ mother said he was up to three packs a day after that. He’d cut it down since starting chemotherapy but still smoked a handful daily.
Years of D.A.R.E. and Tobacco Free campaigns taught Miles a lot about the consequences of smoking cigarettes, but it was awareness akin to walking on the moon. He believed it existed, but not within his realm of experience. At least, not until Grandpa Sly moved in with them to die. He might have avoided the brunt of it had it not been for his poor history grade and the convenience of his grandpa having been a successful copywriter in 1969.
“All of it’s online,” he told his mother.
“Yes, but your grandfather is not,” she said.
Of course he wasn’t online! When Miles told his grandpa he’d like a cell phone for his birthday, his grandpa scoffed at the idea and said, “You need to learn how to be alone.” But that was the point, Miles had thought. With a cell phone, the internet, he could always be alone. Instead, he was stuck at the dining room table with “Dying Sly,” as he called himself, learning about clichés instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Miles searched the rest of his paper for other pieces of "recycled nonsense" while his Grandpa Sly, mouth open, stared through the doorway into the family room where a large flat-screen television was mounted on the wall. Saliva bridged his lips like the webs in their attic. Though the television was muted, Miles recognized the orange scheme and the intrusive megaphone of the Tobacco Free campaign. His grandpa furrowed his brow; his eyes glossed in a reminiscence Miles was learning to recognize. A thin hose rested atop his lip, doing the work his lungs couldn’t these days. “I used to be the best. I could sell anything. Now they want to destroy my life’s work,” Sly said.
“Your ad work?”
“Don’t let anyone ruin you, Bobby.”
"I'm Miles, Grandpa. Bobby died."
"Not you, dammit. Him!"
Miles looked to the family room but saw nothing and returned his eyes to the space where his grandpa’s tooth used to be. Maybe the tooth had been a valve and now he was slowly losing his mind, too.
Grandpa Sly shot Bobby dead because he’d just taken a small hatchet to his sister’s forearm. Miles’s mother told him that her father’s biggest regret had always been raising his children in Brooklyn, rather than getting them out when his wife was still alive. “He spoke fondly of the Poconos,” she said to him, trailing at the end as if she didn’t believe it herself.
His mother was too young and shocked to remember the details, other than Grandpa Sly telling her the doctors found a “landfill of dope” in his system. They amputated the front of her arm, right above the elbow, and when she was in a particularly sour mood, Miles’ mother would scold him without her prosthetic, pointing her doughy stump for emphasis. Only recently had Miles considered what kind of terror she might be holding in. On a couple of occasions he heard her awake from a bad dream, repeating “No, no” forcefully before settling into the night.
“Black as a nightmare?” Miles asked his grandpa, snapping him to attention. He didn’t want his grandpa to die before his mother returned home. He wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility.
“What?” Grandpa Sly swung around and knocked the mug over. Coffee spilled across the table, covering the history paper and into the middle of the puddle rolled the stained, dead tooth. The top half, once rooted in the gum, faced Miles and briefly swallowed his sight.
His grandpa pushed himself away from the table. “It was shit. Nobody would’ve bought it anyway.”
Miles wanted to tell him it was a school paper and not a piece of merchandise. This was a kitchen in suburban Maryland and not his office in 1960s Manhattan. He wanted to go up to his room, open his laptop and find everything he needed in a matter of seconds because this was 2017 and why couldn’t everyone just let it be 2017?
Grandpa Sly shuffled into the family room, dragging his oxygen behind him. Miles grabbed the roll of paper towels from the kitchen and watched the coffee spread across the white, a slow and irreversible growth. When everything was wiped clean and his paper in the trash, he grabbed his grandpa’s tooth, dropped it in a plastic bag and stuck it to the fridge with the magnet shaped like the Empire State building. At first glance, it looked like a souvenir awaiting the Tooth Fairy’s arrival, but as he hung it, Miles knew if anyone came for it, they’d be taking Sly with them. Maybe he and Bobby would find each other. Maybe Bobby would be cloaked, wound still fresh, wielding a scythe. Black as the reaper’s face?
“Bring me my glass,” his grandpa called from the family room. “Two cubes. Not three.”
Miles grabbed the short rounded glass, the only one Sly would drink out of, dropped two ice cubes and brought it into the family room.
“It’s early. Mom wouldn’t like this.”
“Abigail? What does she know? She knows better, that’s what.”
Exactly, Miles thought. He glanced at their front door. His mother would be home with groceries soon enough. He wondered if his grandpa would drink quickly as he walked into the kitchen. Miles grabbed the only dark bottle from the shelf and filled his grandpa’s glass.
“Bobby, reach under that cushion there and grab the small carton.”
Miles turned to correct him but his grandpa wasn’t looking at him. He set the glass on the end table. “Which cushion?”
“No, I want him to get it.”
“I don’t think he can.”
“Fine, the middle one.” He waved at the couch across the family room. “But I don’t understand why he’s acting like this.”
Miles didn’t believe in ghosts, but walking across the family room, he was on guard and didn’t know what for. He was wary of what he couldn’t see, of what he couldn’t feel, the weight of a whispering presence. Faces of strangers flashed from the television. Black as a tarred lung? Cicadas roared as one outside of the window. He lifted the middle cushion of the couch, grabbed the small cigarette carton and as his grandpa worked the lighter, Miles wondered why he didn’t smoke the marijuana the doctor prescribed him. From what he’d heard from friends, it wasn’t nearly as bad as cigarettes, and it was supposed to make the pain go away.
“Isn’t there a chance you could blow us up?”
“I’m the reason you’re here at all.” His grandpa blew smoke from his chair, skin loose and dry, a dragon guarding a throne, and sipped from his glass. “This is the life, Bobby.”
Afraid of getting sick himself, Miles disappeared into his bedroom. He left the door open, his compromise with his grandpa, his mother. Sly wasn’t supposed to be alone, but from what Miles could tell, he wasn’t.
He opened his laptop with the intention of writing his paper, but when he typed “Apollo 11” into the search bar, the predictive text offered “Apollo 11 hoax.” Up until that point, landing on the moon had been matter of fact, its legitimacy completely intact. This crack in the establishment was new to Miles. There were YouTube videos analyzing the discrepancies in lighting and shadows. Yahoo! was littered with questions and arguments, and Reddit featured debates with picture by picture analysis. The flag was waving, some people said, moved by something that wasn’t supposed to be there. Some theorists believed that not only was Apollo 11 filmed on a movie set, but that 12 through 14 were staged as well. One link led to another and he fell into a rabbit hole of PDF files and blog posts, but the more he read, the less likely it seemed. The more ambiguous things became, the more he wondered what his grandpa saw in the family room. Miles searched “proof of ghosts” and fell into an additional search that included message boards, apocalyptic warnings, and a video performance by a hologram rapper. He searched and searched and couldn’t find an answer for anything. Miles’ bedroom floor seemed a few degrees off, the world was no longer definite. Everything could be reexamined.
When his mother returned home to find a full ashtray and an empty glass, save for a few drops of bourbon, she stormed into his bedroom and demanded an explanation. When Miles offered that the moon landing might be fake, that some things weren’t as they seemed, she, with her one good arm, scooped his laptop and tossed it to the side. Frays of her blonde hair barely concealed the vein in her forehead and her cheeks blushed as if she’d been cut under the skin, blood pooling beneath a closed surface. The laptop lay on the side, screen still open, an image of a man in a sheet in full screen. Eyes closed, she whispered, “Do you not understand that he’s almost gone?”
“He’s got company,” Miles said. “Shouldn’t he be happy?”
Her hand was in her hair, her prosthetic limp at her side. “You savor the last of what you got. You don’t down it in one gulp.”
“Then let’s pour him another.” The words fell out of Miles, who was a blend of proud and ashamed. He wanted to take it back but never forget it.
His mother fell silent, her eyes shut. Miles waited for her to react, to see what his words meant. Instead, she scooped the laptop and returned to her bedroom. In his closet, Miles found an old black hoodie. It was a hand-me-down, the draw string missing from the hood. He slipped it over his shirt. The sleeves dangled over his hands, the hood almost covered his eyes. It smelled of a wooden box. There was a sharp crash behind the wall as Miles made his way to the kitchen, but he resisted the urge to press his ear to the door. Black as running mascara?
In the family room, the television remained on mute. Grandpa Sly was in the kitchen, sifting through the cabinets.
“What do you need?” Miles asked.
“That little brat put them somewhere. Who does she think she is?”
“She probably threw them away.”
Grandpa Sly tossed his hands into the air, though they only rose a little past his shoulders. His bald head drooped and he returned to his seat from earlier. He rested his eyes on the newly cloaked Miles, studied him for a bit, and shut them. “She means good,” he said.
Miles agreed but he didn’t do anything about it just yet. He was too concerned about his paper, and too concerned about his uncle’s ghost. “Was the moon-landing staged?”
“Was it fake?”
“Where’s my glass? She took that, too.”
Miles grabbed a new glass and dropped two ice cubes in it. He poured more bourbon and set the glass on the table. He pulled a chair out for his grandpa and took the seat to the left of it. “Some people think it was fake.”
“Only hopeless believe that shit.”
“What about ghosts?”
Grandpa Sly sat in the chair and pinched the loose skin on the top of his head. His teeth were otherwise a complete and yellow set, making the dark gap all the more noticeable. It seemed to project a shadow onto the table, a simultaneous reminder of what had been and what was coming. Miles looked to the bagged tooth on the fridge and was reassured to see nobody had taken it. “Ghosts,” his grandpa said. “Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts.” He grabbed the glass and traced the creases along the sides that cut into the bottom, creases that contrasted with the unaltered smoothness of his normal glass. “Ghosts are just reminders we didn’t set for ourselves.” He slid the wrong-glass away.
“Is Bobby a ghost?”
“Bobby,” he said and nothing more. He eyed the glass and licked the sides of the teeth that bordered his lost one. “Where’s my glass?”
Miles didn’t have an answer his grandpa would like but he wanted to know more. “Why did Bobby chop off Mom’s arm?”
“But what did the drugs do?”
“He thought she was going to take him away.”
Miles hadn’t heard this before. He wanted to press his Grandpa further, but not his luck. “Do you remember the first time we landed on the moon?”
Grandpa Sly picked up the glass, sniffed it, but replaced it on the table. “I was in my thirties, I think. We sat around this box with all the lights turned off. Abigail was just in high school, Bobby a few years younger. Greatest moment in advertising. It was so easy to sell when everyone was caught up in wonder. That’s the trick, kid. Distract everyone.”
Miles thought about something he’d read earlier regarding the government’s desire to distract the country from Vietnam. The kitchen fell silent, lending his attention to the hum of the refrigerator. Black as smoke blowing out an old exhaust? It roared gently like an engine in the distance, the cicadas sang in beat outside. His eyes fell onto the glass his grandpa refused to drink out of. Miles reached for it, pulled it close, and took a whiff. It reminded him of elementary school, when he’d walk from the bus into the garage, and find his grandpa draped over the hood of his green Impala, gun holstered to his waist. The bourbon had a little less dirt, but gas all the same. Miles took a slow sip. It struggled to go down, gripping at his throat and esophagus until in thrashed in his stomach. After a few breaths, he took another.
Miles’ mother joined them in the kitchen, her prosthetic gone now. Miles finished the glass quickly, clenched his teeth and smiled at his mother. The scars, just above where her elbow should’ve been, crossed like marks he made in Play-Doh as a kid. “What are you two talking about?” she asked and fingered the sleeves of his hoodie.
His grandpa smiled and wheezed out a laugh. “Bobby, go find my glass,” he said. He peered over Miles’s head, and nodded toward the hallway that joined all of their bedrooms.
“You have another one in your room?” Miles asked.
“No. She took it. Bobby’s going to find it.”
Miles knew his dead uncle wasn’t busting doors down, demanding a glass his mother probably hid, but concern kneaded his gut. His mother looked wounded by his grandpa’s words. She put her arm on Sly’s shoulder and kissed his lunar head. Miles had only recently begun to understand what it meant to respond to something, but he didn’t understand why his mother reacted the way she did sometimes. What made her tick? He hated when people said “itching” when they meant “scratching,” or when the girls at his school called hair-ties “pony tails.” What did his mother hate, besides his own disobedience? Why wasn’t she scared of Bobby?
He kicked his feet as they dangled from his chair. They were heavier than he’d remembered, the kitchen a little wider. “Last year I liked watching cartoons and this year I like reading stuff on the internet,” he said. “What will happen next year?”
His mother found a blackhead on his nose and squeezed until a skin larva nestled on her thumb. At the sink she washed her hand by rubbing it against a sponge she kept in the sink. Before she returned to the table, she caught sight of the dead tooth in the bag.
Sly’s eyes squeezed tight as he found the long, rectangular light of the kitchen. “In that drawer, the one with the batteries, is a pencil box. Grab it.”
Miles found the box and brought it to his grandpa, who opened and pulled out what looked like a cigarette crumpled on both ends. He closed the box, pulled out a lighter, and lit up as he’d done earlier in the day, except when he inhaled, he held it in for a few seconds longer, blowing out of his nose, his shoulders surrendering as he did so. This new smoke was thicker and creamy compared to the wispy, ghost-like smoke of the cigarette. It reeked of something his mother may have cooked on a Thursday, only a few days too late, the ingredients already expired. Sly took another puff and passed the joint to Miles.
Miles looked to his mother, who dangled the bagged tooth in front of her and didn’t take the joint away from him. He held it in his fingers, too scared to try anything with it.
“I don’t know what to do,” Miles said.
“You got to breathe it in, otherwise it doesn’t do anything.”
“Please, be careful,” his mother said.
“I’m tired and I’d like to see this one become a man,” Sly said.
Miles put the joint in his mouth, watched the paper shine like the backside of a rocket. He inhaled too much, and coughed the joint onto the floor. He tried to hold it in but he coughed and coughed while his Grandpa Sly laughed and laughed. Miles’ mother grabbed his hand and squeezed, and he could feel every bit of helplessness she was sending his way. This was his grandpa’s time. They weren’t in a position to say no. Miles’ chest burned and his eyes grew heavy and he asked, “Why do people like this?”
“Sometimes it’s easier to hide,” Grandpa Sly said.
“It seems like it’d be easier to die.”
“Miles!” his mother said.
Grandpa Sly pushed himself from the table, fumbled with his footing. He took the joint from Miles and pinched it until it crumpled, bits of marijuana sprinkled the floor. “Like the Challenger,” he said.
Miles’ mother placed her hand on his Grandpa’s elbow. His skin draped across her palm. Her stump hung at an angle, an unfeathered wing. Miles realized this must’ve been what death looked like. He closed his eyes, afraid to look, but the backs of his eyelids were a variegated static. The pulse too menacing to avoid. Miles opened his eyes to an empty kitchen. The bag remained on the table, no dead tooth inside. Black as a quiet room?
In the family room, Grandpa Sly sat alone in his chair. A purple neck pillow hung below his jaw like the rings of Saturn. His eyes waved like the northern lights. Miles pointed at his grandpa, closed one eye, and twirled his finger as if winding a clock older than himself.
His mother returned with a large blanket and tucked Sly into his chair. Miles reflected on his own bed-making skills, how he struggled to lay a blanket evenly with two arms, and cherished the ease with which his mother fit the blanket snug around his grandpa. The cicadas roared with twice the cavalry. Sly seemingly asleep, Miles’ mother turned to him. He raised his hand as if holding a hatchet, sleeve dark and loose, and mimed a chop.
“Explain this,” she said, palm outstretched in front of her. The dead tooth rested in the center.
“Preservation,” Miles said. “I think.” He stopped chopping and grabbed the tooth with his thumb and forefinger. Miles caressed his own vampire teeth with his tongue. In his mouth they felt heavy, but his grandfather’s tooth weighed halfway-imagined. “He sees Bobby,” Miles said. “He’s probably close, right?”
His mother scratched the end of her stump too hard and blood peeked from the center of the doughy crease. She raised it to stop the blood from dripping on the floor and Miles thought of Vesuvius.
He followed her to the sink where she wiped the blood with a damp cloth.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I never had a dad, so.” Miles didn’t want to finish the thought. It wasn’t either of their fault. Growing up was learning what was worth saying.
His mother took the tooth from his hand and grabbed the bottle of bourbon he’d poured earlier. “Come with me,” she said. From her bedroom, they grabbed Grandpa Sly’s glass and walked out onto the back patio.
“Remember that thing we did long time ago?” his mother said. She set the glass down on their patio table. “We put one of your teeth in some Coke, let it rot.”
It was a bright memory and one of the first things he’d done with his grandpa. His baby tooth sat in the Coke overnight, and in the morning was a nugget of decay. Miles remembered Grandpa Sly’s smile as he pulled the tooth out the glass, his own teeth a yellow horizon. “Be careful what you let in,” he’d said. “Plenty of poison in this world.”
Miles’ mother filled the glass with bourbon, lifted it for a whiff, and returned it to the table. “No sugar in the hard stuff, that’s how you know it’s for adults,” she said and dropped the tooth in the bourbon. “At least that’s what he always told me.”
The ripple from the drop extended outside the glass and to the edge of Miles’ peripheral. His tongue stuck to his teeth like cheap school glue. “What for?” he said.
“Preservation,” she said. “I think.” She stared at the tooth. Too hard, Miles thought.
Miles pulled the hood off his head and kissed his mother’s stump, something he’d never done before. His mother ran her fingers through his hair, scratched the back of his head. “I’m not ready for the silence,” she said. “But I’ll be okay.”
He’d always imagined death to be bigger, something out of orbit. Through the patio window, Miles watched Grandpa Sly sit with his head back and mouth agape. His chest rose and deflated with a shudder. Everything felt quick, like danger in a dream. Behind his grandpa, through the doorway, there was a soft flicker, as if someone had slipped past the hallway light, and Miles understood it was no giant leap.