It is a such a poignant tale that I did not want it to end. I wanted to know such a man as Ptolemy Grey. He was a genuine gentleman, one who understood what was important in life and what wasn’t, that there are treasures in life that are more valuable than money, perhaps more valuable than life itself, who understood kindness and cruelty. This touching relationship between an old man and the young girl whose kindness and true concern for him reawakens his heart and mind, will stay with you. Her tenderness brings him back to life again so that he can spend his last days “alive” once more, with the memory of his youth, if not the body, so he could settle old scores and protect the ones who were closest to him when he takes his final leave. This sensitive tale of love and loss, humiliation and pride, violence and gentleness, devotion and betrayal, courage and fear, strength and weakness, will stay with you long after you turn the final page. If I had known Ptolemy Grey, he would have enriched my life.
Ironically, Ptolemy is a gentle soul, but toward the end of his life, he hopes he has not sold it to the devil. He has a simple but common sense approach to life. He has suffered many tragedies over the years and witnessed the brutality and abuse his race has been subjected to historically. His memories were the “stuff of nightmares.” At 91, with his memory and mind beginning to fray around the edges as dementia steals more and more of his thought processes, and with the weakness of age depriving him of his vitality, he easily became prey for those who were stronger and meaner. Not formally educated, he was still wiser than many of those who were more scholarly. He lived by simple truths and wished only to be surrounded by those that seemed sincere and wanted to give back more than they wished to take. He understood how the cruelty of some experiences could color a person’s decisions and he forgave them when they chose to do wrong, if they had good reasons for that behavior and really were good inside.
The book begins and ends with a tender love letter of sorts, and it sets the mood. The author illuminates the loneliness and frustration endured by the elderly as they lose their independence and must rely on others whom they cannot always trust. He presents his story with a prose using the dialect of the poor black community which at first may be hard to follow and may seem confused, but since the main character is confused, it is probably the author’s purpose and is deliberate. A rhythm soon develops and it is no longer a problem to follow the dialogue. Words are spelled phonetically to make it more effective, and it enhances the interaction of the characters as you can hear their conversations in your own mind because of it. He has depicted the black culture perfectly. The descriptions are so vivid that you are sitting in the apartment with Ptolemy as he struggles with his thoughts and as he entertains visitors, as he walks down the street with the fear of being attacked by assailants, and as he feels the strong emotional pull and impact of his love for those dear to him and those in his memories of love long gone. As he travels through his past through his dreams and thoughts, we learn about the highlights of his life. With brief anecdotes, we learn how he perceives the world and we witness the injustices and decline of morality coupled with the decay of societies infrastructure and principles.
His apartment, like his mind, is cluttered and unkempt. Until 17 year old Robyn enters his life, no one really cared about whether his environment was clean and safe, whether or not he had good hygiene, whether or not his diet was adequate. Her genuine concern when she first meets and engages him in conversation, manages to awaken his mind briefly. Later, drugs enable him to think more clearly, temporarily, but basically, most of the time, this 91 year old man had been left to languish in his apartment, all alone, as his mind degenerated, and he fell deeper and deeper into a state of senility.
We are with Ptolemy when he can’t turn the TV off for fear of not knowing how to turn it on again. We see how he only locks one door when he goes out although he has four locks on his door. He only uses all of them when he is inside the apartment because he is afraid that when he leaves, if they are all locked, he will not remember how to get back inside when he returns. We feel his fear when he leaves home because he is not sure he will be able to find his way back. It keeps him within a very small perimeter that he knows he can manage. We witness his confusion when someone knocks on his door. When he asks who it is, and they reply calling out his name, “Mr. Grey”, he thinks, “you have the same name!” not understanding that they are asking for him. We see the filthy bathroom that makes the apartment smell and watch as the bugs and rodents scurry when disturbed. We see the years of accumulated belongings, which serve as his memory, cluttering the apartment and we witness the vandals in the neighborhood who lie in wait for him. We see the strong prey upon the weak. We see the sense of entitlement the poor have, thinking if someone has more than they do, they are fair game: thinking, therefore, “what is theirs should be mine”. Then they demand it from their victims. The poor simply prey upon those they think are less poor and weaker. Sadly, they are all victims of their poverty, their environment and their warped sense of right and wrong.
All of the characters express themselves colorfully, like when Robyn is asked why she calls Ptolemy her uncle; she retorts, I call my boyfriend honey, but I don’t put him in my tea. Another example is when Ptolemy recalls what his friend Coydog said to him long ago: “when you young you think about tomorrow, but when you old you turn your eyes and ears to yesterday.“
The number of characters can get confusing and you might want to jot down some names as you read. Also, the lack of chapters makes it hard to decide where to take a break. None of these drawbacks are legitimate concerns that should prevent you from reading the book. It is a gift with a message that will remain with you.