“Are you finished? I’ve got homework.”
“I’m sure you do, Miss Perfect.” She sucks on the cigarette, exhales. “Do you think I’m stupid? She had money. She had the first nickel she ever made.”
“Hell, yeah. Her first penny, too. I’ll bet she never had to make a mortgage payment or buy shoes.” The temptation to mention Black Gram’s many examples of largess nearly pops out. Instead, I add, “Of course, food is free.”
“Stop playing the smart ass. You look like a nun trying to talk gutter. Stick to your Miss Prim routine.”
There’s no refuting the observation and so I say, “It’s late, Mom. I have to dig into homework. Can we go into this later?”
She rolls her shoulders, and I pray for a reprieve. The prospect of this interrogation, more than anything else, has kept me drifting from one friend’s house to another. Black Gram did leave me a boatload of cash. I still can’t believe how much.
Seventeen thousand dollars. More, actually.
She’d stuffed the bills, mostly hundreds, into a large manila envelope. On the front, in violet ink, she’d written Zobie in buoyant cursive.
The weird part? Something that important, I’d expect to get the knowing beforehand. A vision of sitting bedside at The Cleveland Clinic with machines whirring and Black Gram trying to cheer me up with stories about her childhood in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the soft dampness of pluff mud surrounding her toes as she watched the shrimp boats sputter out of Shem Creek with nets at the ready. How she missed the camellias blooming at Christmas and the salty tang of the Atlantic on her tongue, even after all these years. How she made me promise to visit the city of her birth. Founded on slave blood and avarice, Charleston is rooted in my genealogy like tarnished royalty, a great lady battered by war then reborn again, in Gram’s lifetime.
Snot-nosed, I was crying rivers when she asked me to fetch her purse. She’d rolled the envelope like a tube, banding it tightly with three sparkly ribbons tied with floppy bows.
The hard edge of Mom’s voice splinters the memory. “Stop zoning out. You know how it pisses me off.”
“Well? Did the bitch have a mattress stuffed with cash? Stacks of greenbacks for her perfect granddaughter?”
The taunts fly like wasps, stinging and cruel. “Don’t call her a bitch.” I channel an Arctic stare. The flimsy defense doesn’t soothe the throbbing mass of my heart. “She’s the best person I know.”
My mother barks out a laugh. “Not anymore. She’s six feet under. I should throw a party.”
“You could’ve at least gone to the funeral. She was good to us.”
“What? To show my respect? I’d rather eat glass.” She exhales a plume of smoke in my face. “You haven’t answered the question. Don’t make me ask again.”
The lie sticks to my tongue, but I force it out. “I didn’t get an inheritance.”
“I got my paycheck from Vintage Rags.” I dig tomorrow’s lunch money from my jeans and place it on the counter. “That’s all I can spare.”
Dodging further interrogation, I yank open the fridge. There’s nothing inside but the chicken I made last week, a greening casserole on its way to becoming sludge. Mom’s gaze burrows into my back. She’s determined and relentless in her pursuit of what’s rightfully mine. How quickly would she run through the money, wasting it on hooker-wear and nights out? She’d replace her prehistoric Honda with something nice; maybe she’d take Gus on a cruise. They’d duke it out on the high seas with pit stops in Jamaica and the Bahamas for bar hopping and weed.
An edgy feeling climbs my spine. Not a premonition—a vision of the universe signals the onslaught of knowing—but I heed the sensation just the same. A dizzy sort of desperation amps my pulse as I shut the fridge. Stick around the kitchen much longer, and my mother will ferret out the truth.
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