Fiction by Stuart Phillips
“Did you bring me out here to kill me?” My grandmother filled the Buick with her thin, old woman voice; it ricocheted off the headliner as we slewed back and forth in the loose gravel. She was partly right: we were going to help an old woman die. Just not her.
Now that I was ten, my father decreed me old enough to pass my summer fetching files from the Circuit Clerk’s office and running deposits over to the Bank of Mississippi at lunchtime. I spent my downtime working through The Three Musketeers while sitting on the orange vinyl couch just outside his office.
Early Thursday, Tanesha Roberts came by. My father had represented her family since before I was born. “My grandmama needs a will, Mr. Luckman. She’s about to die.” She raised her voice as she got to the meat. “She don’t want my momma to get the house ‘cause I got babies to take care of. Plus, my momma, she goes to Robinsonville too much. She’d be done losing it all at the casinos.”
My father nodded at this song reprised throughout the Delta, daily. “Can she come in to sign it?”
A slow shake. “She’s too feeble to get out the house.”
My father agreed to drive out to her house on Saturday and do the will ceremony. He promoted my mother to wife just before I was born; she still did his books and came in to notarize documents. But, for the next week my father’s secretary was on a Carnival cruise drinking fancy drinks and listening to Jimmy Buffet, so he was short one witness.
My grandmother, Mrs. Jackson, was the only backup. My father’s mother, she wasn’t Grandma; she surely wasn’t MeeMaw. She had driven off one husband and outlived two others. Time and work had whittled her down to sinews and quick movements, like the animated skeleton of a bird. She never looked directly at anyone, but eyed people sideways, like a hawk feigning inattention to a squirrel.
Time and work had whittled her down to sinews and quick movements, like the animated skeleton of a bird.
“She’s a sharp tack, Will. Made herself a pile of money after Mr. Jackson died,” my father said to me one day after he had been over to cut her grass. I was too young to know more than the scraps I overheard when my parents spoke low, but I knew she had somehow turned egg money into twenty acres by the river on the outskirts of town. Instead of grubbing about farming the soggy acreage, she backfilled it and built a subdivision that sold out in two years. My father got a street named after him when he graduated law school.
She agreed to come with us after he promised to buy her lunch. Ten o’clock Saturday morning, we drove over to her trim yellow house on Pecan Street. Our tires crunched the pea gravel. She was standing by a gardenia bush next to the steps holding a purse big enough to contain all her belongings, dressed in a lace collar like she was going to church. She walked around to the passenger side where my mother sat and just stood there. She didn’t say anything, didn’t even look in the car; she gazed blandly across the top of the roof as if waiting for an elevator.
My father’s fingers flexed on the steering wheel and the lines in his face seemed to deepen. My mother sighed so softly it sounded like a slow exhale; then she got out and moved to the back seat with me.
Mrs. Jackson settled in the front, stowing her purse under her legs. She refused to wear a seatbelt. “Rumples my dress,” she always said, then referenced some 1960s myth about being safer thrown clear of collisions. The smell of tea rose filled the car.
“Morning, Mrs. Jackson, you sure look nice,” I said.
She turned to my father. “I didn’t know this was a family outing.”
He shrugged. “Two witnesses and a notary.”
She looked straight ahead. “Long as I get lunch.”
My friends talked easily about time with their grandmothers: shelling purple-hulled peas, going bream fishing out at Moon Lake, even listening to stories of working in the General Electric plant in Memphis during the war. They complained about bony hugs, dinners of vegetable mush, and single dollars stuffed into birthday cards. I got long silences; there were times I wasn’t sure Mrs. Jackson even knew my name.
I got long silences; there were times I wasn’t sure Mrs. Jackson even knew my name.
Fifteen minutes took us out to Jonestown, a wide spot just off Highway 49 that had started as a farm commissary and clung to its existence through memory and inertia. My father treated us to bottles of Coke from a machine with a metal rack that made them rattle and chunk. The day was already warm enough to send rivulets down the sides of the bottles. The smell of dead roses filled the car. My father rolled down the windows.
Once we left Jonestown, cracked blacktop turned to unmarked gravel. We drove between fields of sprouting soybeans, six-inch stalks just beginning their journey to September. My father knew the country roads like a Bible salesman. Just as soon as you started to suspect he was lost, he’d make two quick turns and you’d be in Dublin or Coahoma, safe again on asphalt.
“It’s hot.” Mrs. Jackson fanned herself.
“Maybe we need the air conditioner?” I knew old people liked air conditioning.
My father’s shoulders tightened underneath his blazer.
“It’s dusty with the windows down.” Mrs. Jackson took out a handkerchief and wiped a brown smear on the windowsill where her arm had rested.
“We’re practically there.” Just as my father turned his head to look at her, a new Ford pickup whipped past, scattering gravel and roiling up a cloud of dust. Dirt sifted onto the windshield and formed fine dunes on the backs of the wipers, which slid back and forth leaving long streaks like a muddy blur of bugs at twilight.
Mrs. Jackson’s shriek bounced through the car. She braced herself against the dashboard, nails digging into vinyl.
My father’s lips thinned, but he ignored his mother as he fought to stay in the ruts worn by a summer’s worth of tractors, combines, and farm trucks. He hit a mound of gravel and lurched toward the ditch then pulled it back into the unseen hollows.
“Nobody’s trying to kill you, Mama.” My father’s voice was calm and slow.
My mother leaned over and whispered to me. “Maybe if she wore a seatbelt like a regular person.”
Mrs. Jackson got still. I could tell from the angle of her head that she was pretending not to hear. The smell of hot dirt permeated the car and sank into the carpet like fine ash. I felt the moment stretch into discomfort.
“That was scarier than the Pippen,” I said. The roller coaster in Memphis was the apex of terror for a ten-year-old. My mother squeezed my hand. My father’s lips stayed thin as he put up the windows and turned left onto another unmarked road.
I remembered last summer when I spent the night at her house while my parents went to a conference in Memphis. She didn’t want to mess up the unused guest room, so I camped out with a pillow and blanket in the armchair by the TV, watching monster movies until the middle of the night. The next morning, I sat at a table of gold-veined Formica while she made me a plate of watery scrambled eggs peppered with black flakes from her cast-iron frying pan.
Driving slower now, my father read DayGlo numbers off mailboxes. About a quarter mile down, he spotted a rusted box sagging under a mound of sweet pea blossoms. He pulled into a dirt driveway that curled around an oak tree older than him.
Annie Lou Roberts lived in old sharecropper’s quarters one room wide and three rooms deep. The boards were shades of gray with an occasional strip of faded red where paint resisted the years. The roof was a multi-colored patchwork of tar paper remnants. An electric blue couch in cracked Naugahyde listed on the porch, its missing two legs almost offsetting the dip and sway of the warped floorboards.
I got out of the car. Cicadas chirred in the oak, cattails rustled in the ditch, boards creaked.
My mother moved next to me. “Do you want to carry my seal, Will?” She kissed me on top of my head. I held the small black leather pouch and felt the weight of its authority.
“Come in.” The voice was old, but strong. Opening the sagging screen door, we walked into the living room.
“In here,” the old woman called from the next room.
Annie Lou had propped herself up on a large pillow, a faded quilt pulled up to her chin despite the heat. Her eyes were fixed on a small color television in the corner. She was in her eighties and carried every minute in her face.
Excess furniture crowded the walls, every flat surface packed with rows of photographs. One large photo on the bedside table showed a prosperous-looking white family throwing a birthday party for Annie Lou.
“I took care of them Johnson babies for almost twenty years.” She nodded. “They was real nice. The girls still come out and visit.” The old woman was full of memories, the riches of the poor. I wondered if Annie Lou’s eggs had flakes of unwashed skillet in them.
The old woman was full of memories, the riches of the poor.
Mrs. Jackson moved the frame aside and set her large purse on top of the dresser.
“I hear you’re not feeling well, Annie Lou.” My father opened his briefcase and pulled out her will.
“I must look a haint.” She pulled the quilt up a tad. She was fully dressed beneath the covers.
“No, ma’am. You look ready to go to town.”
She motioned me over to her bed. “You Lawyer Luckman’s boy?”
I nodded my head. “Yes, Ma’am. I sure am.” Family shadows were long enough to reach out past Jonestown.
My father went into his will spiel, making sure that she understood what she was signing, then swearing in himself and Mrs. Jackson as witnesses. I sat down in an armchair next to the bed. My pants rode up, exposing an inch of leg to the warm air being pushed by an ancient fan. All I could think about was the feeling of the circulating air as it hit the rivulets of sweat above my sock. Rose attar crept through the heat into every corner.
The ceremony concluded with my mother crimping the last page with her seal, then placing the newly executed will into a pale blue envelope. My father slipped it in the inside pocket of his sports coat.
“I’ll have this when Tanesha . . . needs it.”
Annie Lou’s eyes drifted back to the game show in the corner. I sat quietly, imagining her passing weeks lost in the television, broken only by occasional visits from Meals on Wheels and the white girls she helped raise.
Mrs. Jackson suddenly stood up. “Thomas, I need to get paid for this miserable ride out here.”
Thomas, I need to get paid for this miserable ride out here.
He frowned. “I told you I’m going to take you to the buffet at Holiday Inn.”
“No. I want money. Cash money.”
My mother’s eyes darted to my father.
“I don’t have any on me. I’ll catch you when we get back to town.”
“Now. I want to get paid now.” The papery skin in the corners of her eyes crinkled like used wrapping paper.
Annie Lou watched the exchange. She leaned back again, shaking her head. The old woman slid her feet out of the bed and stood up into her slippers. She shuffled across the room to the dresser and tugged open the top drawer. Pulling out a tight wad of bills, Annie Lou peeled one off, then set it down on top of the dresser. The edges fluttered in the fan.
“Here’s five dollar.” She closed the drawer with an old person’s grunt, then slippered back to bed. She lay down and stared at the television as Mrs. Jackson picked up the money and put it into her bag. My mother kept her eyes down and her lips pressed into a slit.
Everyone was quiet on the ride back to town. When we got to the Holiday Inn, Mrs. Jackson got out first and went straight into the restaurant. My father left the blue envelope sitting on the front seat of the car.
“Party of four?”
“No. Two tables.” Mrs. Jackson’s reedy voice crackled with energy. The young host shrugged, then led her to a spot an arm’s length from the buffet. She slung her purse onto the tabletop, pushing aside the rack of sugar packets.
The host came back and ushered the three of us to the very next table. My father hesitated, touched the back of a chair for a moment, then went and sat with Mrs. Jackson. He pressed his lips together.
My mother looked at the menu.
“Mom, why are they sitting over there?”
“She won’t eat with me.” Her voice was as matter-of-fact as a report on sorghum futures.
I remembered when Mrs. Jackson sent her handyman over to our house. She had him cutting back all our hydrangeas because she didn’t like the blue ones. My mother screamed him off the property. “But why is he over there?”
She shrugged as she squeezed a slice of lemon into her tea. She fished out a seed with her spoon.
“I guess he feels obliged. Family can be like that.” She looked at me with a passing smile. “But we can have a nice lunch together.”
I stared at the old woman jabbing at her glazed carrots. My father fixed his eyes on her purse and tried to ignore us across the six feet. Under the yellow fluorescent lights I saw Mrs. Jackson in his face, the hard furrows around her eyes flowing into his like a ditch cutting across a property line. I felt the weight of my mother’s notary seal in my pocket. I smiled back at my mother and picked up my iced tea.