The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
By Walter Mosley
Paperback, 288 pages
List Price: $25.95
"Is that you, Reggie? Where you been, boy? I been waitin' for you to come by for a week. No, no, two weeks. I don't know exactly but it's been a long time."
"No, Papa Grey, no, it's me, Hilly."
"Who? Where's Reggie?"
Hilly went silent for two seconds and the old man said, "Is anybody there?"
"I'm here, Papa Grey," the voice assured. "I'm here."
He was certainly there, on the other end of the line, but who was it? the old man wondered. He looked around the room for a clue to his caller's identity but all he saw were piles of newspapers, boxes of every size and shape, and furniture. There were at least a dozen chairs and a big bureau that was tilted over on a broken leg; two dining tables were flush up against the south and east walls. His tattered mattress under its thin army blanket lay beneath the southern table.
"That was Etude no. 2 in A-flat Major by Chopin," the radio announcer was saying. "Now we're going to hear from . . ." "Papa Grey?" a voice said.
". . . half a dozen bombs went off in and around Baghdad today. Sixty-four people were killed . . ."
Was the voice coming from the radio or the TV? No. It was in his ear. The telephone —
"Who is this?" Ptolemy Grey asked, remembering that he was having a phone conversation.
"It's Hilly, Papa. Your great-nephew. June's daughter's son." "Who?"
"Hilly," the young man said, raising his voice slightly. "Your nephew."
"Where's Reggie?" Ptolemy asked. "Where's my son?"
"He can't come today, Uncle," Hilly said. "Mama asked me to call you to see if you needed anything."
"Heck yeah," Ptolemy said, wondering what anything the call and the caller meant.
"Do I what?"
"Do you need anything?"
"Sure I do. I need all kinds of things. Reggie haven't called me in, in a week, maybe, maybe it's only three days. I still got four cans of sardines and he always buy me a box of fourteen. I eat one every day for lunch. But he haven't called and I don't know what I'm gonna eat when the fish an', an', an' cornflakes run out."
A piano sonata began.
"What do you want me to get you?" Hilly asked.
"Get me? Yeah, yeah. Come get me and we can go shoppin'. I mean me and Reggie."
"I can go with you, I guess, Uncle," Hilly said unenthusiastically.
"Do you know where the store is?" his great-uncle asked. "Sure I do."
"I don't know. I never seen you there."
"But I do know."
"Is Reggie coming?"
"Why? No . . . no, don't tell me why. Don't do that. Are you comin', um, uh, Hilly?" Ptolemy smiled that he could remember the name.
"Yes, Papa Grey."
Ptolemy peered at the clock on top of his staggering bureau.
"My clock says quarter past four," Ptolemy told his great-nephew Hilly Brown.
"It's ten to twelve, Uncle, not four-fifteen."
"If you add forty-five minutes to that," the old man said. "I should be lookin' for you before too much after five. Anyway, it have to be before six."
"Uh, yeah, I guess."
Ptolemy could hear fire engines blaring in the distance. There were floods down south and Beethoven was deaf. Dentifrice toothpaste was best for those hard-to-get places.
Maude Petit died in fire. Ptolemy could hear her screams along with the sirens that cried down the street outside and also in the fire bells that clanged way back then in Breland, Mississippi, when he was five and she was his best friend.
Ptolemy started to rock on his solid maple chair. One of the legs had lost its rubber stopper and so made a knocking sound on the parquet floor. He felt like he needed to do something. What? Save his little playmate, that's what. He was bigger now. He could make it through the fire, if only he could get there.
He could smell the tar roof burning and feel the heat against his face. He rubbed the tears away and then looked at his old weathered hand with its paper-thin, wrinkled skin. Black as that hot tar, black as Maude's happy little face.
Where was Reggie? Where was he?
The clock still said 4:15. It was just like when he used to work for the undertaker and he had to wait for six o'clock to come on the big black-and-silver wall clock that hovered in the hall outside from where he swept the floors around the tables that held the bodies of Maude and her whole family. They smelled like gamey meat cooking in his mother's father's deep-pit barbecue. The firemen threw Maude's dog in the garbage. Maude loved that dog and so Ptolemy snuck around the back of the big green cans they used to throw away everything that the Petit family owned and he stole Floppy's body and buried her down by the river, where Ptolemy had shown Maude his but she was too shy to show him hers.
They were a match for each other, Earline Petit had said.
It was probably a match that started the fire that burned down the house, the fire captain said.
A woman was singing opera in a voice that made Ptolemy think of strawberry jam. He tried to get to his feet by leaning forward and pushing against the arms of the chair. He failed on the first and second tries. He made it on the third. Standing up hurt in three places: his elbow, his knee, and ankle. One, two, three places.
The short refrigerator was humming but empty.
The clock said 4:15.
The lady news announcer was talking about a white girl in Miami who was taken away by somebody that nobody knew. Ptolemy thought about the . . . what did Mama call it . . . the inferno of the Petit's tarpaper home; the yellow fire that waved like tall grass in the wind and the dark shadows that looked like the silhouette of a tall man moving through the rooms, searching for Maude like Ptolemy wanted to do, like he should have done.
The clock must have run down, Ptolemy thought. So how would Reggie know when to come if time had stopped? Ptolemy could be stuck there forever. But even if there was no clock, clock-time, he would still be hungry and thirsty, and how could he find the right bus to take him to the tar pit park if Reggie didn't come?
Reprinted from The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley with permission from Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2010 by Walter Mosley.