G ramma says the people that are your friends are little angels sent from heaven. On the day I get my first period, Gramma sits me down and tells me, “You’re a woman now. And women created sin.”
This is in her big, empty living room. She has no couch, only chairs surrounding a low coffee table. She won’t have television in her house, at least not where people might see. “Momma told me all about having periods, Gramma. I know what happens.” The chairs are wicker and scratch the back of my knees when I swing my feet. “Besides, didn’t the devil create sin?”
On the center of the coffee table rests the Bible. It’s always spread open with a black lace bookmark. Large print Bible, notes in the margin, Jesus’ words in red. The golden gilt edges worn off where Gramma’s fingers rest.
I stay at Gramma’s during the summer because Momma has to work all the time. Gramma has a double-wide trailer, but she only uses two rooms. She’s either in the living room or the bedroom. Gramma doesn’t cook.
Momma’s a waitress and a bartender and the summer season is busy. Gramma says those are the places where Momma sins every day, but she never tells me what sins Momma does.
Gramma leans over and thumps a finger on the page. “Here,” she says, thumping. “Original sin. Woman was a gift from God and that gift ruined everything. That’s why we bleed.”
“Mom says it’s because I’m shedding blood from my insides and that it’s a good thing.” I have cramps in my stomach, but not like the ones I was crying about the night before. I thought I was going to die and I was actually relieved when the blood came. I know about periods, so it wasn’t so scary.
“Your mom doesn’t know everything. God says you’ll bleed for a week.” She takes her glass of gin and ice and has a swallow. “Because of that forbidden fruit that woman couldn’t resist. Because of sin.” The scent of pine trees fills her breath. “You have the stain of sin on you now.”
I keep my head low, looking at her through a veil of bangs. She hates this, but the smell of her breath is overpowering. She takes a drag from her hand-rolled cigarette. It’s dirty brown and thick, made from the same tobacco Grampa used to smoke in his pipe. She breathes out the smoke and gin-smell. “Only the angels are without sin, because them that were sinful were cast out of heaven.”
“You say I’m your little angel.” My fingers twine through the weaving of the chair, finding little slivers of paint to peel off. Gramma hates when I do this, too.
“Not anymore. You’ve got the stain on you, and you can’t just wash it off. But we can try.” She takes another drink, hangs a cigarette from her wrinkled lips, and crosses herself. She puts the drink down on the coffee table and leans back up with great effort. The weight of her breasts are too much for her old back. “Now we’ve got time to pray.”
This is my cue. I kneel at her feet. She whispers into her hands. “Close your eyes and pray.”
I close my eyes and wait. In my head, I count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. Just before I get to twenty, the first lash of the willow branch whips across my back. Not too hard. Just a little sting like when Gramma brushes the tangles out of my hair. I don’t flinch anymore.
“God, cast out the sin,” Gramma says, and thwack. “Look down on your servant and purify her. Chase these sins away.”
“God, please bless this child so that she does not sin like her mother.” Thwack.
“Jesus, come to this poor wretched child and show her the way to the gates of heaven.”
Gramma’s trailer is covered in empty bags of chips and candy bar wrappers. Gramma loves sweets.
“Keep your eyes shut,” she says. This time she hits me on the head with the flat of her hand. I don’t know how she knows my eyes are open, but I close them tight enough to squeeze out a tear.
“God, show mercy on this child.” Gramma whips me against the bottom of my feet. I yipe. She thwacks me again and I keep quiet this time.
Ten more Mississippis and then Gramma says, “Now, go make Grammy a drink.”
My legs are cramped from kneeling, but I get up and go into the kitchen. There are no utensils in the house. Gramma hardly eats anything anymore. My mouth is dry, but I’m not allowed to drink anything except water with lunch. I take five ice cubes from the freezer and clunk them into the glass. Then I pour in the gin up to almost the top. I’m not to spill any of her gin.
I walk the drink back into the room and replace her drink.
“Don’t be talking about the Lord to anyone else,” she says.
“I know, Gramma.” I take the empty glass into the kitchen to wash it and place it upside-down on the drying rack.
Gramma broke her hip last week. She says she was praying and fell down. Momma says that Gramma can’t drink and walk. Today, she’s back from the hospital because she can’t afford to stay in a private room.
“Government won’t pay for a sick woman to stay in the hospital,” she says. I sit next to her bed in a haze of the smell of pee and gin and pipe smoke. Gramma scowls at everything. “God will get them for their sins, you mark me. God keeps track.”
“Yes, Gramma,” I say.
Gramma keeps the sheets pulled back from her legs. She says it’s too hot with it on them. There’s a foam pillow between her thighs to keep her hips in the right position. When she has a coughing fit from her cigarettes, she pees her pants a little. There’s a tube that drains her pee into a bag at the side of the bed, but that tube isn’t getting it all.
“And they want me to pay for physical therapy. The only therapy I need is prayer. Can’t afford those doctors, anyhow. What they want to do is take my house from me because I’m old.”
I have the Bible on my lap, because Gramma wants it close. The curtains are open but the windows are closed. Sweat rolls down my face and drips off the tip of my chin and onto the Bible. I wipe it away before Gramma sees.
“You’ll be a good girl for Grammy, won’t you?” She holds out her empty glass, shakes it in the air at my face. “You’re not Grammy’s little angel anymore, but you can be a good girl, can’t you?”
“Yes, Gramma.” I take the glass with me to the kitchen.
Momma says that I’m not to listen to anything Gramma says. Don’t let it get to me. Don’t pay it any attention. Momma says this is just for the summer and then I’ll be back in school and she’ll shuffle her schedule around. It’s not gonna kill me, Momma says.
When Gramma screams, I almost drop her drink. She shrieks and cries out, “I hurt. I hurt.”
I walk down the short hallway, my feet touching toe first, then heel. I peek around the door. Gramma is draped sideways over the bed. She has one hand out to the Bible. “You little bitch.”
“You did that on purpose. Left the Lord’s book where I couldn’t reach it.” Her face is red and fingers claw at me from across the room. “You aren’t a good girl. You’re just a little bitch.”
My feet carry me out of the room without my permission. Then the phone is in my hands and I’m dialing Momma’s work number and telling the man who answers, “Gramma’s in pain. I don’t know what to do. What should I do? I don’t know what to do.”
The words choke out of my throat. I don’t realize I’m crying until Momma’s voice says, “Michelle, what the hell is your problem? I’m at work. Take a breath. Slow down. What’s the matter?”
And the screams echoing must get the message across to her because she says, “Just stay where you are. Don’t go back there. I’ll be there in a minute.”
I drop the phone on its cradle and crawl to the living room. My legs shake. Gramma screams for help while I curl up on the floor and wait. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.