Fannie, who knew everything and never stinted on sharing what she knew, turned her dusty green Suburban left off the rutted dirt road and up the lane behind her sister Baby Ruth’s new gold Maxima. The lane was two paths worn through thickets of cat-claw briars, bamboo and vines, and volunteer scrub trees dooming the old two-acre home place as wasteland in the prime timber country of Southeast Georgia. It was as if the very taint of Negro ownership had rendered the land valueless, in spite of the background view of tall hardy pines whose tops stood in tiers against the fading blue sky along the bottomland of the Alapaha River.
Yellowflies darted at the mirror and window on the side where Fannie’s baby, twenty-one year old Zeke, was sitting, and now and then he could hear the shriek of rank chinkypin branches like somebody keying a new paintjob on an enemy’s car. Zeke had done that before so he would know.
Already Fannie’s sisters, twelve all told, had parked or were parking before the never-painted cracker house of their mother whose funeral they had attended that afternoon. Middle of the week funeral, and the old lady really belonged to a place and time when the family waited a decent week and held the service on the following Sunday, complete with purple-prosy obit, fancy white limos and showy fake flowers resulting from a lifetime of premiums paid on “the insurance.” But this was today and that was back-when and most of her daughters worked at jobs as far away as they could get from the fields and woods of Mayday, Georgia, where they had been born dragging on a tit and raised eating grits.
Take Aunt Florida, for instance, who was sitting forward in the back seat of Fannie’s car. She lived in Long Beach, California, and went to “school” part-time and had taken up Karate and kick-boxing. Big-boned and tall as she was, she didn’t look like the type to kick at a dog, much less a human. It was her still face—no, her slow way of smiling. She was shy, intelligent, humble and content to simply listen, the opposite of her older sister Fannie; or maybe Flora, as she liked to be called now, simply wasn’t quick enough to speak before one of the sisters began over-speaking her. Flora had flown in for the funeral, which said it all: she still valued family and place in spite of belonging to that other time and place, California, as far away and different as the divide between earth and heaven. This was a new day and age and the old lady whose funeral they had just been to hadn’t belonged anywhere, anymore, so God had called her home to that cabin in Gloryland she always talked about. Everybody else, her many children and grandchildren, wanted their Gloryland cabins on earth. Preferably, with wheels.
Colorful cars—even the older models—were waxed, bright and in rows before the sinking, brittle shack surrounded by woods. Two had those spinning chrome rims that continue to spin like pinwheels in wind even after the wheels have come to a stand-still. Little girls in pastel dresses with matching bows on their many stubby braids, and little boys in white shirts with bow ties, were chasing about the clean dirt yard bound by acres of green and home of the chirring locusts. And of course the yellow flies. The sisters hugging necks and crying on the porch looked mad, slapping yellow flies on one another’s arms and faces.
Hey! Zeke could vouch that they weren’t above a fight or two. They were here to take stock of and divvy up their mother’s meager belongings, then get the hell out of these woods. To be done with one another, you might say, till next year’s family reunion. Depending on the matter in dispute, it could take six months to a year between get-togethers for heads to cool down and hearts to heat up. All week they’d been on the phone, arguing about funeral arrangements, arguing about whether or not to sell the old home place or hang onto it as a keepsake, all except for Flora who spoke little and mumbled through her gold-trimmed teeth. She was the silent type, given to traveling light. Younger and more modern that the other sisters. Zeke could stomach her but his mother Fannie and the others were making him sick with their greed and loud overlapping talk and breakthrough wailing.
Zeke had been his grandmother’s pick of the grands and he’d known and loved her best. When he got in trouble with the law—not all that serious but often—the grandmother had been the one to bail him out (and help secret the news from Fannie). But even Zeke, fair-brown, tall, lean and clean-cut, was eager for Fannie and her sisters to settle up on their share of the old lady’s cracked bowls, burnt baking pans and stained pictures and get back to the apartment he shared with a buddy in Valdosta, twenty miles away. To bury the memories with his grandmother, so to speak.
Really, he wouldn’t have come if not for paying his last respects to his grandmother, plus the fact that he was in debt to Fannie, who drove a school bus and cleaned houses, to the tune of four hundred and some-odd dollars a week. Which often put him in the position of having to help her clean houses and she could clean four a day, she boasted, with his help. His part of the money was supposed to be saved for next semester of college; Fannie never grasped that that little dab of money he made wouldn’t pay for one week, much less a whole semester. Still, he was good at cleaning, though he often felt ashamed to be seen with his squat, frisky mother, doing women’s work.
Even on this foray into memory-land he was the only grown male. His daddy and his uncles had somehow managed to escape after the funeral—gone to Fannie’s doublewide to watch the stockcar races on her wide-screen and drink beer. Most of the aunts were divorced, or had been divorced; some were on marriages number two or three.
Out of the Suburban he followed Fannie and Flora up the dirt path, with side by side patches of leached purple petunias now being trampled by the patent leather shoes of the children. Their shrilling laughter and shouts almost deafened him, not to mention the hen-clucking of the sisters already on the porch and inside the house.
Fannie was dressed in black. For everyday, she wore overlarge tee shirts with writing on them denying that she minded being bigger around than she was high. Jokey stuff that she thought was cute. The black dress was short and showed the pale creases on the backs of her knees like parts in risen dough. Flora was all in black too, but her knit tailored pantsuit looked somber, suited to her, with those whippets of fake braids flipping on her shoulders the only decoration. Mostly she only smiled. Was smiling now as up the lye-scrubbed wooden steps she followed Fannie onto the porch. A yellow fly was feeding on her left cheek. Another sister, older and stouter, walked right up and slapped her face and she hardly flinched. Fannie, on the other hand, was raking the flies off her arms and face, talking loud and pushing through the crowd in the doorway.
It was hot as hell, and the sisters were whispering behind their hands about Fannie bad-mouthing their dead mother for siding with Baby Ruth on some earlier argument between the two sisters. Anyway, Fannie assumed, one and the same, that that’s what they were whispering about.
“That the thanks I get for raising you-all.” She flounced inside, snatching round so that her back was to the grouped sisters in Mama’s living room, while she faced the others on the porch.
“Mama raise me, what I say,” Baby Ruth said low. “What y’all say?” Crowlike, in black lace, fanning with a hand fan from church, she stepped out of the grumbling crowd, past Fannie taking up half the doorway without touching a hair on her head, then out on the porch where she kept going till she reached the south end.
“Mama be at work half the time.” Fannie bellowed from the doorway, for the benefit of those in the room and on the porch. “Cooking for Mr. Troy and them.”
Zeke couldn’t make out what was going on exactly. But from past experience he knew that Fannie was always claiming she had raised her sisters, despite the fact that she was younger than Baby Ruth and three or four more of the others. Who could keep track? For a fact too, Fannie was the one they always looked to for advice and money when they got in a tight. Fannie always had money even when she didn’t have much cash. That’s how she kept control.
Baby Ruth stood with her back to all of them, staring out into a staked tangle of red match-stem vine. She was tall but stooped, gray hair done up in a loose bun. Fannie claimed that Baby Ruth’s nine-year-old son belonged to Zeke’s daddy. Only a few months ago, when Fannie had accidentally-on-purpose opened a letter sent to her husband Snead from the child welfare agency stating that he was behind on his child support, Fannie had learned of the decade-old affair between her own sister and husband. She’d been fighting mad, had brought the whole family into the fray. Days on end she called her sisters and mother, munching up the minutes on her cell phone; even told the preacher at the church where Snead was a deacon. Somehow Fannie and Baby Ruth had reached a kind of tolerance of each other, not to be confused with a truce, though Fannie had claimed that she would never speak to Baby Ruth again. Actually, the way Zeke had summed it up, Fannie gloried in having gained yet another weapon to maintain control.
“Just cause my boy going to college and Baby Ruth’s oldest be in the pen, ain’t no call for y’all to go ganging up on me.” Fannie waited for what she’d said to sink in. Then, “Ain’t I busted my butt for you-all, same as I done for him?”
Fannie had this uncanny talent for switching non-sensical subjects, for turning things around to make sense, or at least confuse to the point that whether or not she made sense, nobody could keep track to question it. Even if they dared. Next breath, carrying the confusion another step, she might start cursing her only son for a sorry ungrateful so-and-so.
Already two of the sisters had their dead mother’s cigar boxes of pictures on their laps, seated in the close hot living room on the old sofa with a threadbare yellow chenille spread covering springs and horsehair. Holding the pinking-sheared snapshots a distance from their faces, to better see, they were arguing about who was in the picture, who the two girls were with the sickly ring-straked goat between them.
Fannie immediately informed them that the chubby girl in the boxy white dress on the left was her—it was her goat. The sister on the right, seated on the couch, called her a “story,” meaning “liar,” which was less apt to stir Fannie up. It was Flora, the other seated sister said, and passed the snapshot to Flora for verification. She only smiled, shining her gold trimmed teeth.
To Zeke the house still smelled of the old lady’s cigarettes and the oily kerosene from the stove, but also of vanilla. Something baked or baking. Made him think of the bread pudding his grandmother used to create from leftover biscuits, nutmeg and raisins. The ghost of tobacco smoke was equally as haunting. Dwarfed in her doll-size rocker on the front porch, after her work had been done for the day, she would go through the paces of her practiced smoking ritual like some women crocheted or sewed tiny tucks on baby dresses. She was a neat smoker, with her little green ashtray, her box of matches, and soft pack of unfiltered Camels. Fannie would buy them for the old lady after the price went up and she could no longer afford the company of her smokes. There too, Fannie was in control. Her mother was indebted to her. Fannie called the shots, be it whether the old lady went to church or stayed home on Sundays, or whether one of Fannie’s “feelings” had turned out to be fact. If Fannie was out with one of the sisters, it was understood that her mother would take her side. Really there were no limits to Fannie’s bribery, when of course Fannie stood to gain from the old lady’s habit because it kept her from making more major requests.
He followed the scent of vanilla and nutmeg to the neat dim kitchen on the left at the back of the two-room-wide house. There, four more of Fannie’s sisters were going through pots and pans in a drawer under the old but scoured white kerosene stove and shelves of bowls and other dishes Zeke recalled having eaten from. He traced the scent to the screened pie safe in the southeast corner of the kitchen.
A two by four inch smooth wood scrap, which turned on a single nail in the center, secured the twin screen panels to the oak frame of the safe. As he twisted the latch, two of the aunts rattling pots crowded in, pilfering among the small square cans of aged spices and red-checked dish clothes and old cake tins. They were talking so loud his ears rang. He crossed the kitchen to the screen door leading out to the back and a narrow, sloped porch and watched the children playing under the grapevine arbor. The slat wood crossmembers overhead bowed with the weight of the vines and the dangling pods of rich purple grapes. Rather than eat the grapes, the children were plucking them and throwing them at each other and the panicking chickens. Even the mean black rooster with the red cone and cowboy spurs was on the run toward the east woods and the dusk gathering there. The clean sandy gray dirt, save for chicken droppings and an occasional staked tree or bush, had been carved out of the encroaching woods with a hoe. One of Zeke’s chores when he’d lived with the old lady after his grandfather died and Fannie was on the outs with him over something he could no longer recall.
The children scattered, squealing, as Zeke stepped out the doorsteps and across the yard, ducking under the grapevine. Cool under the shelter of green leaves, but assailed by yellow flies, Zeke stooped, picking and eating grapes from the pods caressing his head. The chickens had come back, clucking at his feet on the soft loam and pecking at spat seeds and grape skins. The gelled pulp on his tongue went from tart to sweet the more he ate. Peering up through the woven vines and heart leaves, he could see the blanching sky and an airplane way up high. The sun going down behind the west woods struck the plane and it looked like a silver sewing needle drawing a line of white thread through silk.
In the kitchen, the aunts had discovered something that brought the others running, tramping through the house, then all twelve huddling around the pie safe. Through the open window, he could hear them fussing. Something about a dollar bill one of them had found under a pie plate. Something written on it. What did it mean? they all asked. Fannie of course read it aloud—“Save all my children and grandchildren.”
Being real religious, an usher at her church, she claimed it was a prayer written by her mother on the finest and possibly the only paper in the house.
Baby Ruth and a couple of the others disagreed. Likely the dollar was the old lady’s measly savings intended for her children and grandchildren at her death. What she’d meant to write, they claimed, was “Save for all my children and grandchildren.”
“Ain’t what it say,” Fannie shouted. She read it again: “`Save all my children and grandchildren,’ what it say and ain’t no for in it best I can see.”
“Mama wadn’t never no hand to write,” Baby Ruth pointed out. “Couldn’t hardly write her own name.” On the last part her rawk voice dwindled to a grind.
And on it went, Fannie even going so far as to venture that the word ‘save’ had been meant in a religious vein, and they should leave it at that. Plus, some she could name in that very room ought to take it as a sign and turn to Jesus, else they would wind up in hell.
Baby Ruth stepped out on the back porch. Leaning against one of the leaning wood posts and pouting. Once a smoker, the first two fingers of her right hand found her full creased lips, close and then away.
Inside, the sisters had toned down, talking about the good old bad times and what a dollar would buy back then but wouldn’t buy today. Not even a loaf of bread.
Unable to resist such sisterly reminiscing Baby Ruth tossed out her imaginary cigarette, turned and went back through the screen door, slamming it.
The slam reverberated over the darkening yard and darker woods. Zeke stepped out from under the grapevine. Through the window a yellow light shined and he could see the sisters gathered round the square white table in the middle of the kitchen. Half seated, half standing, they were crying again, sniffling, hugging necks. Then Fannie’s familiar heavy pounding feet in one room and then the other as if she was everywhere at once. The others rose from the table, all except for Flora, and soon they were carting boxes of dishes and pots and pans and crochet pieces from the house to their cars. More doors slamming and all of them calling out to the children that it was time to go.
“ZEEK-YALL!” From the front yard, Fannie yelled through a megaphone of hands, sounded like. “You Zeke!?” Fannie listening. “Go in the house there and help carry these boxes out, will you?” she added.
He watched Flora still seated at the table, reading and rereading the message on the dollar bill. She folded it. Unfolded it, stood and put it the pocket of her black pants, then turned, looking back at the kitchen.
Zeke started toward the porch, to go inside, when he saw Flora return and place the dollar bill flat on the table, then leave again.
He didn’t know what to make of it. Had Flora decided that the dollar was as worthless as all the others apparently had? Was one of them coming back for it? Maybe Flora had wanted it for a keepsake, one of the few worthless items in the house with the old lady’s handwriting on it, but changed her mind.
Were they leaving it? Did nobody want it?
Bedraggled with untied sashes and dangling bowties, the children dashed up the doorsteps and through the back door and out the front. Was the dollar bill so worthless, this day and age, that even the children who had wasted the grapes wouldn’t bother with it?
Zeke went through the door to the quiet kitchen—not even a clock tick, the clock was gone—all sounds reverberating from the collective racket of the family in the front yard, saying goodbyes and children whining about who had to sit in back and they were hungry, starving. Mothers scolding. Peepers shrill as whistles, a thousand strong, cordoning the slew behind the house, joined in the ruckus.
Picking up the dollar bill, he folded it and placed it in his pants pocket. For no special reason, other than to acknowledge his Grandmother’s gesture. He knew she had saved it for her family during the hard times she always talked about, back when a dollar was a dollar, and in good times nobody wanted it. Besides, he couldn’t just leave it there.
He had only moments before wrestled himself out of the narrow bed of his darkened bedroom; last night, he’d drunk beer and watched TV till 2 AM. The taste rose up in his throat, followed by a sour belch, and he needed to brush his teeth at least. A shower was out of the question now.
Next, she tooted the horn three quick ones. Waited, then lay down on the horn like a car alarm set off by a burglar.
In the damp, littered bathroom, he reached for his toothbrush—or was it his buddy Fud’s? No time to try to figure it out. He squirted a grubworm of toothpaste on the worn bristles—it was Fud’s, he realized too late. Still, he scrubbed his tongue like the rim of a toilet in one of the houses he cleaned for pizza and beer money.
Now, Fannie was slapping on the hollow front door. Not knocking like anybody else would, but slapping with the flat of her hand. “ZEEK-YALL!”
On the way to the door, he saw Fud sleeping undisturbed in the bedroom across the hall from his own room. On his back and arms pinning the orange and green striped sheet covering his slight body, he looked dead. His tiny silver cell phone lay clapped shut on his chest like a device for jumpstarting his stalled heart.
Fannie was still framming on the front door; Zeke started to walk away, then backed up. What if Fud was dead? He was always getting into fights, barely healed before he got into another one. No time to check, and besides if Fud was actually sleeping and Zeke woke him he would set in motion that rapping jabber-mouth. He had a huge square head and tight cocked body; everybody said he could double for Sammy Davis Jr. Eyes blared and grinning, he was the coolest dude in town.
The coolest dude in town, he and his latest girlfriend, had eaten all the popcorn, and the night before all that had been left in the kitchen was a half-pack of stale saltines, suspiciously webby. Needing something to nibble on, to go with his beer, Zeke had placed the crackers in the mircrowave to blast the bugs, or maybe worms, and when he’d taken them out, each cracker had a charred hole shot through the center, as if used for target practice.
The whole apartment smelled of scorch.
Zeke had girlfriends, himself, lots of girlfriend, but none serious since Sara, a high-classed, petite, light-skinned girl from Albany, who he had met in ENG 101. He had made the mistake of taking her to the last family reunion, where the sisters of Fannie had spooked her with their catty ways. Sara had looked like a mouse among cats. Fannie was the one though who eventually scared Sara away by calling her at her dorm and telling her what from what, laying down the family rules: no drinking, no smoking, no dope. Forget sex. “My son is going off to be a doctor and I don’t want him getting some girl in the family way and having to marry her.”
Well, as usual, Fannie had it all wrong. Backwards—waaaay back. High-classed girls these days, in Zeke’s expert opinion, weren’t out to snag a guy by getting knocked up. For the most part, one guy was about like another and they spent so much time trying to find that successful hunk with the perfect body, brain and background, they would wind up marrying nobody. They didn’t have to. They made their own way. Their choices were so plentiful they had trouble picking. Good-looking Zeke with no money and no other detectable natural assets—what he called his DNA—was not in the running and likely never would be. He was the plaything and not the other way around.
Fannie was at this point twisting the doorknob, threatening to break the door down.
No time for him to change from his slept-in jeans, but he did manage to locate a tee shirt, red with the white letters VSU on front, slung across a chair in the living room. It was a bit snug, the lettering enlarged by the breadth of his chest. Maybe Fud’s girlfriend’s shirt. Neither Fud nor Zeke had ever bought one of the shirts from the university bookstore; Zeke could barely afford the books, and it was all Fud could do to support his cell phone.
Zeke was never going back to school, though he had told Fannie that he was taking off for the summertime to make tuition money for fall semester. She did know that he had lost his HOPE Scholarship because of a dip in his Grade Point Average; she had guessed that it was from messing around, as she put it. Well, at least he’d given her some excuse for his “sabbatical” from school to tell all her sisters and save face. It was the word, sabbatical, that cinched it, gave her something that sounded respectable and legit at least. She told everybody that he was going to be a doctor, when really all he wanted to be was left alone.
Flora, staying on with Fannie for a few days before heading back to California, was seated up front with Fannie doing the driving with one hand, running her mouth with the other hand helping out, preacher-fashion. During summer she didn’t drive her bus route, but that didn’t stop her from pointing out the grassy curbed median of Bemis Road where any fool could see there was no turn entrance for two whole miles. “Don’t know their heads from a hole in the ground, that bunch of commissioners.”
The Calvary jingle of her cell phone sounded off. She flipped it open, stuck it to her ear, said, “Booked up,” then slapped it shut. One of her customers had given her number to a friend looking for somebody to clean, she relayed to Flora, and resumed talking about the county commissioners.
When she had to stop for breath, Flora turned in the seat and said, “VSU?”
Zeke looked down at the stretched white lettering on Fud’s girlfriend’s shirt. “Yeah. Valdosta State University.”
“Taking summer off,” Fannie butted in. “Sabakital.” She adjusted the rear mirror to flash her black eyes at him. “Few more years and we have us a bona fide doctor in the family. First ever go to college.”
Flora started to speak but Fannie began talking about cleaning houses, maybe to cover for her lie, about who was who and what they asked her to do and what she didn’t do. “Ain’t sweeping no garages, no ma’am. Not me. Not less they pay me extra. Ain’t included, I say.”
“I don’t blame you,” Flora said.
Then, “Don’t make no never-mind though. Cause know what I do?”
Flora, surprised that her sister has asked her a question and was waiting for an answer, looked at Fannie and started to speak.
But…”Tell Florida here what I do, Zeke?”
“I forget, Ma.”
Fannie clacked her tongue, both hands wringing the steering wheel in exasperation. “What I do, I windek they light bubs for em.”
Zeke interpreted. “Windex. She means she windexes their light bulbs.”
“Make em shine,” added Fannie, not to be undone by Zeke’s unwanted assistance.
He watched the whips of braids on the back of Flora’s nodding head, then stared out the window at the sliding Wal-mart parking lot, jammed with automobiles at nine-fifteen in the morning. Fannie was now foaming at the mouth about bargains she got at Wal-mart on cleaning supplies which somehow led into cheaper prices at Top Dollar and missed her chance at the Valdosta Mall with no bargains at all as the Suburban whizzed past, on over the Interstate bridge and the traffic below which usually would set off some monologue about people on the go and Snead being laid off from his job hauling freight. But she caught up, picking up there and naturally leading into Snead’s long-ago affair with her own sister Baby Ruth, who had one son in the pen already, doing time, and here her own son was going to college to be a doctor, even though Snead was against college and thought Zeze should be like him, holding down a real job and not cleaning houses. Of course, she, Fannie, wasn’t sleeping with Snead any more. “Anyway…” She held out one hand and let her pointer finger drop down, then cast her eyes back in the mirror be sure her innocent baby boy hadn’t seen any such.
To undercut his embarrassment of Fannie’s bragging on herself by bragging on him Zeke got out of the Suburban in front of the big white frame house they would be cleaning on this heating up summer morning, and made a beeline for the rope swing hanging from a branch of the dinosaur oak on the south side of the house.
Shoving at the foot-dug trench of dirt with his gray Nikes he swung high, looking down at Fannie and Flora unloading and hauling cleaning supplies and equipment from the back of the car to the doorsteps, then into the screened porch. Fannie’s tongue doing ninety to nothing, and Flora smiling from the porch before passing through the door to the kitchen.
All that Zeke could hear was the way-off roar of traffic on the Interstate, the wind of his own making in his ears, and the rote calls of a mocking bird; he listened for the actual bobwhite that the bird was mocking, but didn’t hear it and thought that that bird was pretty smart to be able to recall a sound that had been heard no telling how long ago. Never kill a mockingbird.
At the height of his soaring, Zeke could see the blue sky above the peak of the pitched black roof and the mocking bird’s flight after it had used up all its songs.
It was Zeke’s job to clean the kitchen. He listened to Fannie talking to Flora over the vroom of the vacuum cleaner at the back of the house, while he moved everything from the long white counter to the oak table, middle of the kitchen: toaster, coffeemaker, antique green vase used to store cooking utensils, blender, chopping board, even the microwave. Then he set in scrubbing the counter tops, sink and stove, with straight Clorox on a rag. Fumes rising like methane gas, almost choking him.
The vacuum cleaner cut off.
“I can tell you like orange too,” said Flora to Fannie.
“Orange everything.” Fannie began naming off the brands of furniture polish, bathroom cleaner, on and on. All she could think of that was orange scented, except for the real thing—an orange. When she broke off to name the next on her list, Flora said, “Baby Ruth’s a fool about orange too.”
Suddenly all Fannie’s slamming and banging around went silent. “How you know that?”
“I went to stay with her in Florida a little while last year.”
“Huh!” The vacuum cleaner revved into action again, sucking up bobby pins and dirt and anything else that got in its way.
Flora wandered into the kitchen. Her gold-trimmed teeth peeking from her smile.
Zeke wiped his bleach-burned eyes on the sleeves of Fud’s girlfriend’s tee shirt. There was a white line on the bottom of it where the bleach from the sparkling counters had rubbed off.
“Boy, you in for it now.” Zeke laughed. “You saying that about going to Aunt Baby Ruth’s.”
“I guess so.” She shrugged her shoulders where the braids rested. No change of expression on her face though. She did glance back as if Fannie might be standing in the doorway listening, leaving on the vacuum cleaner to make them think she was still in the back bedroom. Even though the vacuum cleaner was still sucking and spitting, traveling, bumping beds and dressers like a carnival bumper car.
“Worth it though, wadn’t it?” Zeke was replacing the appliances and stuff on the counter, exact spots as he recalled them.
Flora handed him the grouted wood chopping board. Smiling. Saying nothing.
“What gets her goat”—Zeke took the cutting board, placing it carefully between the bleached stove and sink. “What gets her goat is not knowing something. Not that she’s any fool about Aunt Baby Ruth, not now after what happened with her and Daddy. Man! He’s in the dog house.” He turned on the water in the sink, rinsing it with the sprayer nozzle next to the faucet set. “Nope. She just has to know.”
“She’s proud of you.”
“Okay. Yeah. But really all that backhanded bragging on me is bragging on herself. How she’s done better than her sisters at raising her one and only youngun. She needs to let up.”
“Did you know she’s been sending me money to go to nursing school on?”
No, Zeke didn’t know. He started to say something, something…
The vacuum cleaner shut off the very second Fannie shouted, “ZEEK-YALL!”
“Yeah, Ma.” He was resetting the coffeemaker in its corner, exactly, diagonally.
“What I tell you bout Miss Birdie hair falling out? Whole gob of it tangle round the vacuum roller.”
Flora smiled sadly but her large brown eyes twinkled with stifled laughter.
“See what I mean?” Zeke said.
Walking fast, frisky, lugging plastic bins of cleaning supplies and rags and the vacuum cleaner by its choked neck, she set out for the Suburban, loading it all up in the back. Today she was wearing black jersey pants whacked off at her bulging knees and a 3-X white tee that read, NO I’M NOT PG JUST WORKING ON IT. Last thing she did before leaving, was take her special Miss Birdie mop and swab down the kitchen floor where they had wrapped up for the day. She kept the string mop wet and clean and covered the strings with a grocery store plastic bag. She wouldn’t use her other customers’ mops, likewise covered with plastic bags, on other people’s floors. Claimed it spread germs. Another of Fannie’s tricks to wow them, to make up for the many jobs she didn’t do unless they paid extra.
Regardless, most of them loved her. Claimed they couldn’t do without her. One trying to outgive the others—those silly shirts, for one thing. Christmas presents, vacation souvenirs. She owned them. Even had their burglar alarm codes, their house keys. The keys she carried on a loaded ring with her own keys. She was always rattling the key ring to show her authority. Also, as a warning. Anybody who forgot her birthday, or anybody who complained, could wind up finding his or her house key left on the kitchen counter after Fannie had been there. No kiss-my-ass or nothing—just the key.
Zeke sat in the rear seat of the car with the door open, sweating, listening to the mocking bird, back again, trying to name off in his head each of the various imitations. One, he felt sure, was a recitation of a tree frog, recently named as the official state amphibian of Georgia. Did the mockingbird know that too? He wondered what the true song of the mocking bird was; he wondered if even the mockingbird knew.
Flora, in the passenger seat up front, was sitting still, patiently waiting, sweating with her door closed and the window up.
“Want me to crank up and turn on the air for you?” Zeke was fanning gnats from his face with his bleach-reeking hand. The gnats didn’t even notice the bleach, kept swarming.
“I’m okay,” Flora said.
“Did you tell her that, about going to Aunt Baby Ruth’s, for spite?”
“No. Well, maybe a little bit.”
“You think she’s hell on her sisters, you oughta hear her with Daddy. Man!”
He felt sorry for his daddy, but the truth was he felt sorrier for his mother: her reputation as happily married to a husband who wouldn’t dare stray had been ruptured, and mainly because of her mouth. His daddy had never even mentioned the blowup to Zeke, his having been caught by Fannie, but then Snead never really had talked all that much to Zeke before. Like Flora, maybe he couldn’t get a word in edgewise because of Fannie’s one-person conversations. But no, he’d never cared enough to talk to Zeke; it was as if he felt he was doing his duty by working and making a partial living for them and that was enough. His life away from home, which was most of the time, was his own and not to be messed with; much like his money for the most part. His pickup too was off-limits, his privacy on wheels, his mobile sanctuary. It was Fannie who Zeke was close to, choice or no choice. He felt sad suddenly because of all that got dumped on her, even though she encouraged everybody to go right on ahead and dump and she would sort it all out ASAP.
They watched as Fannie came frisking out the door with the mop, plastic hood over the string head and knotted around the handle, and the orange keg-size plastic thermos filled with water, which she drank along and along throughout the day to help her lose weight, as she said. She slapped the mop in back of the Suburban, slammed the hatch and in a flash opened the driver’s door and hauled herself up onto the high seat by hanging to the pull over the door.
“Hardee’s. What you say Zeke?” She jammed the thermos into the holder beneath the dash, then rattled the ring of many keys before stabbing the one that fit into the ignition.
“Whatever Aunt Flora wants suits me.”
She whipped out her cell phone, punching numbers with her right thumb, talking immediately in what sounded like some code.
Now that she was out with Flora, she was buddying with Zeke. Well, she had been heading to Hardee’s anyway, he knew that.
At the drive-through at Hardee’s she shot her order to the piped muffled voice of the woman on the speaker board. She ordered for herself two Thick Burgers, hold the pickles, with a large fry and an extra-large Coke.
If poor Flora thought one of the monster burgers was for her, she had another think coming. Fannie always ordered the same thing then fussed about her weight. Couldn’t understand why she couldn’t “reduce.” On and on she would talk to Zeke, or anybody else who would listen, about what she had eaten, how little, how much. Every meal for Fannie was either victory or defeat.
“Zeek-yall?” Fannie eyed him in the mirror.
“The same.” He would share his burgers with Flora whether Fannie liked it or not.
Fannie must have figured as much, because her light-palmed hand barely missed Flora’s head as she swung it round for Zeke’s money. Sometimes she would pay for Zeke’s order, sometimes she wouldn’t. All depended on her mood and the lesson she had in mind.
He stretched out his right leg and dug in his jeans pocket. Handed her a five and three ones.
Fannie slapped the bills on her lap and proceeded to dig in her stuffed John-Deere-print pocketbook—another gift from one of her customers—brought out a fake-looking new100 dollar bill and high-handed it to the girl in the window to show Flora how well she was doing, how much better in the money department she was compared to that lazy Baby Ruth who lived off child support from Fannie’s own husband. Or maybe, Zeke thought, she was showing Flora the money that she could no longer be looking for in her mail, the money going for Thick Burgers instead of nursing school.
While waiting, Fannie leaned her arm in the window and drummed with her fingers on the hot roof of the car. The cell phone in its holster on her waist was steady jingling—the Calvary was coming. She ignored it to show that she could.
Suddenly, she stopped drumming on the roof, staring down at Zeke’s bills on her lap like a snake.
She just sat there.
When her order came, along with her change, she took it mechanically, piece by piece, staring ahead while piling the white paper sacks on top of each other on the narrow compartment divide between her and Flora, even the extra-large cups of Cokes, one after the other, which slid into the back and popped open on the floor and dumped the fizzy brown drinks and ice on Zeke’s gray Nikes. Everything sliding to the floor, front and back, change rolling and clanging and Flora doing her best to retrieve, to prop up, to catch it all, while her eyes rolled over Fannie’s palsied wild face. A picture of a face frozen by some terrible act of nature caught on camera.
“Mama, what…!” Had she had a stroke?
She threw the car in gear and shot off from the drive-through window–an incoming car braking to avoid hitting her–and wheeled into a parking slot, facing the street and traffic passing as if it were any other day. Then she grabbed by the cuffed top the remaining sack of fries on the space between seats and wrenched round and started slinging it back and forth at Zeke in the rear, bawling with tears streaming down her cheeky brown face.
Flora opened the door and got out, then closed it and stood there, stunned. Pale around the mouth and for once not smiling.
“Mama.” Zeke got out, the red shirt shedding salt and fries to the blistering asphalt.
Now Fannie was holding up a dollar bill, fanning it for Zeke to see. “You steal my dead Mama’s dollar.”
So, that was it. He’d forgotten all about the bill in his pocket he’d put there yesterday.
“I didn’t steal nothing. I took it cause nobody else didn’t want it.”
Fannie buzzed down the window on Flora’s side, but her eyes stayed on Zeke. “You a theft and don’t make like you ain’t. Flora be my witness.”
“I ain’t nobody’s witness,” Flora said.
“You my witness, my son be a theft.”
“You make too much out of things,” said Flora, seeming to puff up like a turtle poking its head out of its shell.
“Yeah, Ma.” Zeke began stomping Coke from his shoes, crunching ice.
A man and woman on the way to their car, two cars over from Fannie’s, pretended not to see. But once inside their car, with the air on and the engine running, they simply sat watching. The man pretended to be adjusting the side mirrors of the blue Pontiac.
Fannie was still fanning the dollar bill with “Save all my children and grandchildren” written on it. “You, Zeke, you ain’t no son a mine.”
“All right. If that’s how you want it, Ma.” He started to walk off, feelings of resignation and relief pouring over him like the heat. He could sense a new beginning, a world without Fannie either bossing him or defending him.
“Git back in here!” she shouted out her open window. “You too, Florida.”
“No ma’am.” Flora followed after Zeke across the parking lot.
Zeke stopped. “Let’s get back in to shut her up before somebody calls the law.”
The Hardee’s manager, red faced and with a gut, and a few customers were standing outside the double glassed doors, cross-armed, spellbound.
Fannie kept shouting, Flora kept walking, taking the lead. Fannie’s cell was going crazy—the Calvary was on its way but she didn’t give a damn.
“Aunt Flora,” Zeke called out, “she’s liable to run over you if you don’t get back in the car.”
“She is not my mother.” She headed around the backside of the red brick building. “I’m sick of her saying she raised me.”
Zeke went back to the Suburban, to the window where Fannie was hanging her head out, silent now. She smelled of orange. He felt sorry for her, for his part in provoking her rages though he didn’t know exactly how. He felt sorry for having secretly mocked her speech, how she said “skroke” for stroke. The frisky way she walked and her so fat. None of it was funny now.
“Keep the money, Mama.”
“It ain’t money I’m talking bout.” Her fat arms were wrapped around the steering wheel, she was staring ahead, fat lips poked out. “It the principle of the thing.”
“Keep the principle then.” He stalked off, running to catch up with Flora around the back of the building. If only she’d said she was sorry for calling him a thief—a theft.
At the back of the building, Zeke and Flora trotting toward the heat-shimmering paved entrance to the Wal-mart Superstore, off Perimeter Road, sun beating down and them, and neither having any idea where they were going, only that they were going somewhere, Zeke could see out of the corner of his eye, the green Suburban pulling up alongside—he wouldn’t put it past Fannie to make like she was about to run over them. He got ready to hit the bushy shrubs at the exit to Hardee’s. Had Flora by the arm, set to pull her along with him.
Fannie stopped the car and got out, walking fast, catching up and swinging Flora round by one arm. Then hugging her tight, beating on her back, crying. “I love you, baby, you know that. Ast anybody if I don go on and on about my baby sister, the one I hep raise.
“Now come on, get back in the car and less us go eat.” Fannie had one arm about Flora’s shoulder, guiding her toward the Suburban, loping along and hopping on one foot to make up for their difference in height. The word “help” Fannie’s only concession to the matter of her controlling.
Zeke kept walking.