The first time I found out about her secret I was in her basement. That thing was a treasure for a 12-year-old kid. Old dusty Fedoras, hats with scraggly peacock feathers, old fox stoles with beady glass eyes staring at you and creepy doll babies with one leg missing. Then there was the tin cars and old cans and rusty nails. Boxes and old cans of stuff everywhere!
My Mom always wanted me to go out side to play in the fresh air with my cousins, but I was happy with that moldy old basement that smelled like wet shoes and dust. She worried but Granna always told her to leave me be. I was special, she said. Not "short bus" special but different. It didn’t matter, the cousins thought I was a retard anyways because I was not like them. I was bookish and shy and preferred things to people. I always felt bad about it and odd because my mom would get this worried look on her face like "What is going to become of him?" But Granna always came to my rescue. "You leave my boy alone. He's alright. He's got his own way, that’s all."
On Sunday everyone piled up in the green station wagon with the wood trim and went to church. I faked a stomach ache but one last look at Granna and I could see her wink at me. She knew her basement was so much better for my soul than any gyrating congregation wailing about how much they loved Jesus.
Knowing no one else was home and wouldn’t be for hours gave me plenty of time to explore each box of old clothes, or big orange lard can filled with Lincoln logs or Lego's. One can I opened was stuffed with candy! It was probably from the middle 70’s but candy is like gold…it never goes bad. It was mostly butter mints, and those red stripped mints you see at Christmas, but then Eureka! A whole tin of Red Hots and Atomic Fire Balls!
I think I have eaten them every single day since I was allowed such stuff. Granna gave them to me. This made Mom mad. She said I was too young for hot sweets, and plus all that sugar was bad for my teeth. But Granna said "Oh nonsense. It won’t hurt him." And it didn’t, not one cavity. But I had to admit, I think I was addicted like an old smoker. I had to have some right when I woke up and right after every meal and before I went to bed. And it had to be some kind of cinnamon candy, Red Hots, Fireballs, or Jolly Ranchers. Even getting braces didn’t get the fiery monkey off my back –I just learned the luxury of slowly melting them in my mouth.
What a great afternoon. There I was in the basement sucking on two Atomic Fire Balls (which was my only claim to fame in the school yard) and looking through Grannas basement. Not that I went around dumping contents on the cold, damp concrete floor. Granna respected me – probably the first one who ever did and so I respected her and her things. I went through each container carefully and organized it for her: boxes of clothes, toys, and well the candy-- I hid in a special container I labeled "nuts and bolts" so none of the cousins would have any interest going in there.
As I was sweeping the floor, my foot tripped over something. I bent down and touched a handle. I pulled and it gave a little and I saw it was a trap door. I opened it wide and saw it was a root cellar. The stairs looked like wood would creak but they were solid as petrified bark. Granna had a small bulb burning right next to jars of green beans, pickles and other things she put by. On the other side were shelves of books, and boxes of yellowing papers and dusty old pictures. Who knew Granna had such things. My heart started to race as I felt like I had just won a prize in school and it was my birthday! The books were old and some in language I didn’t recognize. Some had pictures and diagrams. Many of the old dusty volumes were in thick black ink written long hand with dates; but still in language I didn’t think was English. It could be Russian or Chinese? I didn’t know. It just wasn’t American letters. I got bored with the books that I couldn’t read and moved on to the pictures.
There were pictures of hills and buildings and people I didn’t know. On the back were numbers like 1778 or 1853--some kind of filing system maybe. Then I came across a envelope that had the faint scribble that said Presidents. When I opened the envelope I saw the most amazing color pictures that would put our current picture to shame. There they were, President after President in living color! Washington to present. My favorite was the smiling ones or the ones eating. I think there was one of John Adams smiling with food in his teeth.
I heard a car door slam and I nearly jumped two feet out of my skin. I climbed out of the root cellar and up out of the basement and raced up to my bed just fast enough to hear steps up coming the stairway. Mom came up first and I pretended to be asleep. Granna came up a few minutes later.
"You have fun in my basement?" she asked.
Nod was all I could do because of the candy in my mouth.
"You wash up now, lunch be ready shortly," she said.
I nodded again.
"And spit that fireball out or your Mama will have a fit!" She laughed and I smiled real big with my teeth clenched shut.
Trying to find a minute alone with Granna was hard because she was a machine. I mean, she was always moving and doing something. The doctors told my mom that’s why she was so healthy because she was always moving. Up at 4:30 A.M., and to bed at way past midnight. She cooked, baked, read BINGO balls at church and visited friends in the hospital, not to mention keeping her flower garden up in front and growing her vegetables in the back.
So as we sat down for lunch, I pretended to eat slow but I was really hungry. "Well, looks like you recovered quickly," my Aunt Sissy said. Aunt Sissy was my mother’s older sister and the biggest busy-body, know it all, in the world.
I just stuffed another sandwich in my face and nodded. Seeing she was getting no where with me directly, Aunt Sissy decided she would talk about me as if I wasn’t there—which was just the way I liked it. Let someone else get grilled on the coals.
Sissy looked at my mother and petted her son Jeremiah’s head like he was a cat. "My Jeremiah is going to military school and then to West Point," she said. "What trade school did you say, Danny is going to?"
"I never said he was going to trade school." My mother frowned. Before she could say anything more Granna spoke up and loud!
"Trade school? TRADE SCHOOL?" Granna looked Aunt Sissy right in the eye, which very few people ever did, not even her husband because she was so strong and fierce, but not that day. Granna stared her down until Aunt Sissy blinked and looked briefly away. "Oh no Sissy, this boy is going to work in the White House some day! Like I did and my Granddaddy before me."
"Maybe Danny doesn’t want to be a house servant in the White House, Granna. This is 1989," Sissy said.
Granna grabbed my hand and held it tight as if to tell me something important. And what she said was the most important thing I ever heard. "Danny, there are more ways to serve your country than just killing people to protect it. Selfless service is a prayer that floats up to God. It don’t matter what you do-- if you're a general in the field, or a maid at the White House. Always remember that, okay?" I nodded.
Then she turned and said, waving her bony finger right in Aunt Sissy’s face. "Whatever Danny is called to do for his country, he will do. Why? Because he is an honorable man, just like my Granddaddy." And that was that.
Granna got up from the table and started collecting dishes, humming her favorite hymn, Nearer My God To Thee. Nothing more was said about it because Aunt Sissy started talking about some outfit, old so and so was wearing at church. The cousins split out of there to the backyard to play, and I went into the kitchen to help Granna with the washing.
I was going to ask Granna about the pictures I saw in the basement, but I now was more concerned about what she said about me working in the White House. It kinda freaked me out because Granna hardly had an opinion or prediction but when she did, it was right on. "Granna, what did you mean about me working in the White House?" I asked, as she washed and I dried.
"Don’t you want to work in the White House like your Granna did?" she asked.
"I don’t know," I answered. "What would I do?"
"It don’t matter, you're just there to make sure everything is okay," Granna said. "Lots to look out for with the president, you know."
"You mean like secret service?" I asked, my heart jumping at the idea of it.
"Could be, or butler. Doesn’t really matter," she said. "You’ll find your place." She smiled at me and dried her hands. "Now give your Granna a hug and go get some fresh air." I kissed Granna on the check and hugged her hard—yep still there…metal.
Aunt Sissy took the cousins to spend the night at my house because Granna didn’t have cable. That meant it would be just us two. But every time I tried to bring up the pictures, Granna would change the subject to some chattery nothing or have me go pull weeds with her in the garden.
That night, I slept fitfully. I dreamt Granna was dead and her funeral was in the White House. I woke up not really remembering where I was. I called Granna but she didn’t answer. When I passed her room and saw her bed was still made, I got scared. I called Granna again. I walked into the kitchen because the light was on but she wasn’t there. Light shined toward the kitchen and the door to the basement was ajar. The root cellar. I carefully walked down the stairs, my voice a little shaky "Granna?" My heart was thundering a like a tiny frightened animal until I heard, "Yes, Danny, come on down. I’m here." Her voice was calm and soothing and I just wanted to see her face but her back was toward me and she was buttoning up her dress. Finally she turned around and smiled. The whole cellar reeked of metal. "Boy, what are you doing up at this hour? You should be asleep."
I usually answered her when she asked me a question but I had a burning question of my own, "Granna, what is all this stuff?"
"This is stuff my Grandaddy passed on to me when I was about your age, Danny. Just like I’m gonna pass it to you," she said.
"To me?" I asked wide-eyed.
"But this is secret stuff, you understand me?" Her face got serious and I got a little scared but I had to ask.
"Are you a spy, Granna?" I asked her point blank because I knew she wouldn’t lie. She laughed loudly, and it was as if invisible metal fumes escaped from her mouth. Granna took a couple of butter-mints from her pocket and chewed vigorously.
"No, child, I ain’t no spy but I ain’t just a wrinkly old black woman either," Granna said. "I’m special, like my Granddaddy was special and like you are special. But it’s a secret special, understand?"
"Like the Secret Service?" I asked.
"Yes. Kinda like that. Me and my granddaddy worked in the White House to protect the Presidents but in a special way. Just the same as you will do."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Take a big whiff. What do you smell?" Granna asked.
"Metal. You always smell like metal, Granna," I said finally, hoping I didn’t hurt her feelings.
"What do ya think that’s from?" she asked.
"Well, it’s either your false teeth or you’re a robot." I joked hoping to make her laugh. She didn’t. She looked serious as blood. I just stared at her and waited for her to do something other than look at me that way. Finally she broke the silence.
"Guess who took all those color pictures of the presidents?" she asked.
"Who?" I asked.
"Grandaddy and me," she said. "Wanna see how?" Before I could say yes, Granna’s eyes got real big and the whites of them flashed for a micro second and then returned to normal. Immediately I doubted I had seen anything but her eyes get wide, but then she turned her back on me. I saw that she unbuttoned her dress and turned around to face me. I closed my eyes. Who wants to see his Granna naked?
She must have read my thoughts because she said, "Open up your eyes, Boy, I'm not naked." Under her dress was a flesh colored corset that hooked in the front. Her fingers reached for those hooks and my eyes squeezed shut again. "Land’s sakes, Boy, open your eyes! This is important, hear?"
I slowly opened one eye to take a peek and the other one popped open as if it was on springs! Behind the corset was lights and buttons and slots like a computer! Granna pushed one of the buttons and a picture came out of the slot. It was a picture of me! Later they would call this a digital picture but to my 1989 eyes it was amazing. I became overcome by all this and started to feel weak, like I was going to puke. Granna could tell.
"Sit down, Danny. It’s going to be alright." She reached in my pocket and pulled out an Atomic Fireball and put it in my mouth. The hot sweet juices filled my mouth and immediately had its calming effect.
Then the realization hit me like a wave. "If your Grandaddy was a robot and you’re one does that mean…? My voice trailed off because I just didn’t want to finish the sentence.
"Yes it does but don’t you worry about it. I’m not goin’ no where fast. I’ll teach you little by little, bit by bit," she said.
Granna stayed with me another ten years until I was old enough to have her house in my name. "God forbid Sissy gets a hold of it!" Granna said one day close to the end. We were sitting on her porch talking about the recent election--hanging Chads and all, and I had to bring up the question.
"Granna, you think they’ll ever elect a black man to be president?" I asked. Granna laughed.
"Danny, probably not but you never know, maybe some day they’ll elect a robot." She said and winked at me. I just smiled back at her and popped another Atomic Fireball in my mouth.