Ptolemy Grey is losing his mind, but, as he explains to his friend, Shirley, “Ain’t no way a man could be almost ninety-two and be OK at the same time.” He becomes, however, more OK when a grand niece (not really), seventeen-year-old Robyn Small, enters his life. When he meets Robyn, he is living in a filthy apartment where his only companions are memories. He is refusing to part with the detritus of nine decades of living poor, and he is experiencing senile dementia. Many of his thoughts are of his Uncle (not really) Coydog, who taught him all about life but who was lynched in Ptolemy's presence.
Coydog’s death was one of a long line of horrors Ptolemy’s family had endured, beginning in slavery days and going though Ptolemy‘s childhood as a sharecropper‘s son. But, when Robyn cleans him up and takes him to a doctor, he gets medicine to clear his mind so that he can function during the short time he has left.
Robyn, too, is all alone, but she refuses to give up on life and to give up on Ptolemy. Although she herself possesses nothing of earthly value, she can open up a world of possibilities to Ptolemy Grey.
The drug he takes is an experimental one with bizarre side effects, and Ptolemy regards the doctor as the devil to whom he has sold, not his soul, but also his body. Still, his head becomes clear enough to make his last days count. As Ptolemy explains, “ A man got to do only one thing to set him apart. A man got to do only one thing right.” That one thing is to provide for Robyn and for the small children of his great nephew, (really) Reggie, who was killed in a drive-by and whose wife is off with a former lover.
Ptolemy and Robyn have a symbiotic relationship; she takes care of him and he keeps her away from the family predator, Reggie‘s son, Hilly. Their mutual need becomes genuine love, and Robyn defends Ptolemy from anyone who would take advantage of him including Melinda Hogarth who, before Robyn, mugged Ptolemy with great regularity.
According to Ptolemy Grey, family is not defined by genetics but by love and mutual caring. By the end of this novel, the reader cares a great deal about Ptolemy Grey.
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