G race opens the door the next morning when Momma drops me off. Grace isn’t a nurse, but she’s almost like a nurse, Momma says. She’s just here to check in on Gramma and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself again. Grace’s eyes are as green as grass. Her hair is long and black, but she wears it in a ball at the top of her head with a chopstick stuck through it.
“Hi, pretty girl,” is the first thing she says to me. I’m not pretty. My hair is plain yellow. My face is still baby-fat, but I’m too skinny everywhere else.
“You must be Michelle,” she says. “Mish. I like that. Do you like that? That’s a nice dress you have on.”
“Thank you.” I stand at the doorway with my backpack in my hands. My stomach does flip-flops and I might throw up. I don’t want to hear Gramma screaming again and I don’t want to be alone with a stranger who’s this nice to me.
Grace doesn’t move. She just holds the door open and gazes down past me. The door-frame is pocked and rusted. I kick my foot on the stair.
“Well, are you going to come in?” She has teeth the color of pearls. “Or did you want to stay outside in the sunshine?”
“I’m gonna come in.” I take a step. I don’t want to hear that scream again.
Grace leaves the door open and walks away from it. I peek into the house. She’s at the kitchen sink, filling a glass with water. She takes a long drink and, without looking back to me, says, “It’s already 90 degrees out. It’s gonna break 100 today, I bet.”
“I bet,” slips out of my mouth. I pull my head back out of the trailer. I take a deep breath of the fresh air to get ready for the smells of Gramma’s house. Holding my breath, I walk into the house and over to a rocking-chair. I set my backpack next to me as I pull my legs up and sit cross-legged on the wicker. My dress catches on the broken twigs of the chair.
Grace faces me with that glass of water in her hands, watching me.
“You want something to drink or eat, Mish?” she says. She sings when she talks. Like she’s talking to a baby.
“I’m not allowed to eat until lunchtime,” I say.
“Do you want a glass of water? There’s no soda here or anything else. I’ll get some when I go to the store.”
If she’s trying to get me in trouble, that would be a good way. If Gramma knew I was drinking soda in her house, she’d be praying with me all day. “I can’t have soda.”
“That’s probably better, anyway,” Grace says. “It rots your teeth.” She shines those pearls at me. “Are you thirsty? Want some water?”
I pull my backpack up from the floor and start digging in it. A drawing book, notebook, colored pencils, a little stuffed owl. “I can’t have water.”
Grace doesn’t answer right away. I pull the owl out and put it on the coffee table. It falls over. Tap water flows from the faucet, filling a glass. My mouth waters. Grace is so lucky. She can drink water whenever she feels like it. I push the owl back onto its cloth feet, but it falls back over.
I reach for the owl again, but instead, Grace’s hand takes it. She sets it up. Her fingers are long and thin, dirt beneath her sharp fingernails. The owl teeters, but Grace doesn’t release the brown bird, she just patiently holds it in place and then backs her hand away.
“You can have as much water as you want.” Grace crouches next to me. The owl stays upright.
“Gramma says I can only drink water when I eat bread,” I say. The owl’s small, black eyes catch a glimmer of light peeking through a curtain and sparkle. “Gramma says it’s from the Bible.”
Grace takes my hand. Callused skin that could scrub my flesh right off my fingers. Grace pries my fingers open and puts a cool glass in my hand. I swallow saliva and desire.
The glass is one of Gramma’s drinking glasses. She doesn’t let me use these. These are for her gin. “I’m only allowed plastic cups.”
“Not right now, Mish. Right now, you’re allowed to drink as much water as you want and you can drink it from the glass.”
My hand shakes. “What if I break it?”
“Then it breaks.” Grace reaches behind her head and pulls out the chopstick. Hair falls around her shoulders like raven wings when she shakes her head. “And we clean it up. And we move on.”
I nod. I don’t drink. Grace gets up and walks back to the kitchen.
Gramma shrieks Grace’s name. “I need a sweet, Grace,” she yells. “Bring Marie a Snickers.”
Grace takes a candy bar from the kitchen drawer where the spoons should be. She walks back to the dark room, rocking her head from side to side like she’s listening to music.
The second she disappears, I drink the water as quickly as I can. The copper taste spreads a cool tingle in my belly. Another gulp and I’m full with only half the glass empty. I keep drinking.
The muffle of soft voices drift down the hallway, faint and kind. I take a last swallow of water and choke it up a little. Water sprays into my nose and squirts between my lips. I make a small puddle on the clean floor. The bags and wrappers and twist tops from the bottles of gin are gone. I wipe the puddle with my foot and creep down the hall.
“No, Marie, it’s fine,” Grace says. “If I put a pillow right here, it’ll take the pressure off your hips.”
“Sweetie, don’t go to so much trouble,” Gramma says. Her voice is kind. I haven’t heard this voice for a long time. The slurring is there, but the bite at the end of each word isn’t. She says “sweetie” like she means it.
“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” Grace says.
“You’re an angel,” Gramma says. “Can you hand me my drink and my Bible?”
“Here’s your drink, Marie. Finish that and get some sleep, if you can. We have some exercises to do later, and it’ll be better if you’re well rested.”
Grace steps out of the room and walks past me, patting me on the head as she does.
Grace left at five and said she’d be back in the morning, but not all day probably. She only has so-many hours per week to spend on each client, and she doesn’t want to not be useful. The house is clean. I helped her scrub the floor and take out the garbage. There are five big, black bags of garbage lining the side of the house. Grace says she’ll bring a pick-up tomorrow and haul it away.
She woke up Gramma and made her do exercises with her legs that had Gramma howling for Jesus’ help. But Grace only said nice things back while I sat in the living room and colored. The living room smelled better. Like bleach.
I’m alone from five to seven, but Grace left me her home number and I’ve got Momma’s work number. Gramma is drunk, again. Momma gets here at seven and tells me I have to stay all night because it’s not safe to leave Gramma alone.
“Why can’t you stay, too?” I say.
“This place looks really nice.” Momma puts down a sleeping bag in the corner of the living room. Gramma has a spare bedroom, but I’m not allowed in there. I don’t think anyone has ever been in there.
“Grace showed me how to clean.” I start walking in a circle. “You do little circles that get bigger and bigger and pick up garbage along the way. Same thing with scrubbing.”
Momma puts a pillow in my sleepingbag. “I’m going to work a double the next couple of nights. We’ll get caught up on bills and you’ll be helping your Gramma. You don’t mind, do you?”
I stop pacing and sit in a chair. I’ve had three glasses of water since Grace left, but I ran the water real quiet and didn’t use Gramma’s glass again.
“I brought you some pajamas and some pads,” she says.
“Pads for what?” I ask, but then I remember what for. I didn’t even think about running out.
“And I brought you a cheeseburger for dinner,” Momma says. “It’s out in the car. Go get it while I finish setting you up a bed.”
In the car, there’s not only a cheeseburger. A man leans back in the passenger seat, smoking an ugly, brown cigar. I open the driver’s side door and rock the seat forward so I can reach in the back. The man doesn’t look over at me. He just stares at the ceiling and out the window. My fingers sink into the leaking Styrofoam container. My mouth starts watering, but the yellow smoke makes me almost choke.
The man doesn’t move, like the man is in some kind of trance. I put the seat back in place. His skin is pockmarked and yellow. His nose looks like it’s missing the tip. He takes another draw off his cigar and doesn’t blow it out. I shut the door wondering if the smoke just leaks out his pores.
I stop on the steps to the door and sit down. My Grampa made these steps, Gramma always says. They’re uneven and creaky. Gramma said he wasn’t good for much carpentry. “He weren’t no Jesus,” is how she says it.
The hamburger is cold and the ketchup has soaked through the bun. I take a bite and the relief of eating makes me even hungrier. I chew quick, swallow big chunks, and the cheeseburger is gone. I pick at the lettuce that had fallen off before I crumple up the container and take it over to a garbage bag, undo the knot, and slip it in. All done, all clean.
“Michelle, darling, are you out there?” Momma calls from the doorway.
“I’m just cleaning up.” I retie the garbage bag. “There’s some guy in your car, Momma.”
“Yup, I know. He needed a ride from work,” Momma says as she ushers me into the trailer. “But I need to run. Do you think you can do this for me? Can you stay with your Gramma so she isn’t alone?”
I don’t want to say yes. I want to tell her about the screaming again. I can smell the bleach, and that makes my eyes burn and brings a bit of a smile to my face.
“I knew you could. You’re such a good girl,” Momma says. She hugs me and kisses me on the forehead. “Gramma’s got sleeping pills and pain pills so she shouldn’t wake up. You’ll be fine and I’ll stop by before my morning shift to see you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say. The sleeping bag is just a lumpy roll in the corner.
“I love you,” Momma says.
“I love you,” I say.
The house makes no sounds. I keep thinking about frogs croaking and crickets chirping, but there’s nothing. At Momma’s apartment, we have the sounds of cars going by and people going into other rooms and TVs we can’t see. I like to lie in the dark and put faces and stories to the sounds coming through the wall until I fall asleep. Gramma has a TV in her bedroom, but won’t sleep with the TV on. She says that the devil can get into you if you do that.
I toss and turn, wondering what time it is. Momma was here at seven. It was dark a couple hours later. It must be ten, maybe. I wrestle under the covers a little, trying to get comfortable, and stare out the window. Sweat prickles my forehead. Just a little of the light of the moon and stars shines on a blue-black world. Tips of trees make circle-eights in the sky. The stars twinkle. But there isn’t a sound. I close my eyes and picture Grace. The freckles that run down across her nose and her slim neck. The way her hair fell in thick strands down from her bun and she kept pulling them behind her little ears. Ears so small, tiny white hairs shining on swirling folds twisting down into a dark place. And those bright green eyes. So clear and open.
I open my eyes and for just a second the reflection of her face is in the window just in-front of her real face. Shining green eyes, a kindness in the darkness, lit by something inside her instead of outside her. I close my eyes again and put my hands together like in prayer, forming a wedge. I slide my hands between thighs, outside of my pajamas.
I rock forward, warmth spreading in waves through my stomach. I roll over on my stomach and push down against my folded hands. Grace’s small breasts loose under a tight t-shirt. When she sweats, her wetted nipples push against the blue fabric, making them look purple. She crouches in front of garbage and I can see down the back of her pants and see not only that she’s not wearing any underwear, but that she has a black tattoo above her left butt cheek of a tree with a snake wrapped around it. I peer over her shoulder and see down the stretched neck of her shirt to the—
“What are you doing, you little bitch?” Gramma’s hisses. “What are you doing in my house? I knew I heard a sinner.”
My eyes snap open and I roll over on my back. Gramma is standing over me, a pink housecoat open, exposing her baby-blue nightgown. She has a cane in her hand. “You sinner.”
“I was just trying to get to sleep, Gramma.”
“I know what you were doing. You sleep with your hands outside of the cover, you little slut.” She smacks my sleeping bag with the cane, all of her weight shifting into each swing.
I try to free my arms from the twisted bag. Gramma hits me again, harder. And again. I can’t get my elbows free from twisting around twice in the bag. She hits me again, aiming for my upper arms.
“Just wait, I can’t get out with you hitting me,” I say. “I’m trying.”
She hits me three or four more times before I get my hands out of the bag, and then she jabs the cane down right in my stomach with all her weight behind it.
My breath hits hot against the back of my throat and I choke in tears. “Gramma,” I wail, grabbing at my stomach. Before I can even curl up in pain, Gramma brings the cane down hard on both of my hands.
“I catch you filthing yourself up in my house again, the Lord won’t save you until he meets you at the gates,” she says. “If he even cares to.”
I roll over and sob, my back turned to her, waiting for another series of blows to rain down on me. I gulp breaths with a dry mouth and a wet face. “Please leave me alone. Don’t hit me. Please.”
The next hit doesn’t come, and I stay curled up and crying, eyes shut tight. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. Is Gramma still there, waiting? My lungs ache, my arms are numb, and my wrists feel broken. Three Mississippi. I see the bright lights and little flashes of squeezing my eyes shut, but as I cry myself to sleep I see angry, green eyes flashing in the dark.