No one on this earth deserves to die more than Mister J.P. Combs.
Mister Combs is the vice president of the Green Ridge Union Bank, and the nastiest man in all of Georgia. He robs from the old, the poor, the sick, and the weak. Granny and I been working for the Combs family for as long as I can remember. Granny taught me how to wash their silver and fancy china so it comes out shiny, how to iron the tablecloths, and how to fold the napkins just how Missus Combs likes it done.
Missus is a nice woman. She treats Granny and me right. On Sunday she takes her coffee into the kitchen to visit with us after church. But not Mister. He hates colored folks. He says we don’t know our place.
Mister never takes his eyes off of me. It’s like he’s making sure I don’t stop to take an extra breath while I’m working, so he’s getting his money’s worth. Granny and I tend the Combs’ house for just sixty-nine cents an hour. That’s a lot less than most maids. The trouble is that Granny is old, tired and slow. Her feet don’t work so good no more. We got to take what work we can get.
Mister comes home early every Friday. He likes to lean against the stove while he peels an apple with a buck knife. He chews the pieces and leers at me while I polish the silver. I’d love to stuff that apple in his mouth and stick him in the stove. I gotta learn to control my temper, sometimes it’s hard, especially when Mister’s at me. Don’t know from one day to the next what’s gonna happen. Somedays I wish I could explode and blow up the whole world.
Granny knows I got a bad temper. It worries her. She takes me into Mister’s parlor and stares at me with her brow all crinkled up. “Gussie child, you keep outta Mister’s way,” she whispers. “I don’t like how he looks at you.” Granny shakes her head in disgust. “You’re only sixteen years old. Don’t you let him get close. You stay by me—you hear?”
I can’t look at Granny. My cheeks burn with shame.
Granny takes hold of my hands. “You listening to me, child?”
I nod. She leans in real close, her bottom lip quivers in a two-tone brown. I stare at the wrinkles around her mouth, and at her bottom row of teeth all worn down. I worry about how much longer she’ll live. I don’t want her to leave me. “I see the way he’s been looking at you,” Granny says. “Like you the hottest thing on the lunch menu.” Granny lifts my chin so that our eyes meet. “If he comes round, and you alone—you tell him you got chores to do.” Granny squeezes my hands tighter. “His heart ain’t nothing but a thumpin’ gizzard. He’ll hurt you if he has a chance. You stay away from him. You understand me, child?”
I nod again. “Yes, Ma’am.”
The lines around Granny’s eyes soften. She cradles my head in her knobby hands. “You the only thing I got in this world, Gussie. I done lost my boy. I don’t plan on losing you too.”
My lips tremble. “I know Granny, I’ll be careful.” I cross my heart. “I promise.”
She hugs me round the waist, but I don’t hug her back too hard. She’s so frail, I worry that she’ll break. I press my face into her chest. Her heart pounds against my ear and I feel her shaking. All this worry isn’t good for her old body. I don’t want to let go of her. I bury my head into her shirt collar. She smells like shea butter and sweet ginger. Granny runs her hand over my head. Her fingers untangle the curls in my hair, the ones she makes with the pressing comb heated on the stove every morning. Granny pulls away from me and sits down. She never sits at Mister’s house. She looks so tired.
“Granny, you okay?”
She closes her eyes for a moment, placing a hand on her chest. “Take me home, child.”
I help her up, and hold tight to her thin hand as she walks unsteady beside me. My heart twists over Granny working so hard at her age. How she worries over me.
We head outside and make our way down the path through the pecan grove. The path is uneven and it’s hard for Granny to walk. Her toes are twisted like tree roots with arthritis. I wish I could carry her home so her feet don’t have to hurt. She holds onto my arm as I help her up the front steps of the shack we rent from Mister.
We go inside but Granny won’t rest. She puts supper on the stove, and waves me away when I try to help. She lowers herself onto her rocking chair while the beans boil on the back burner. Granny releases a heavy sigh, closes her eyes and stops rocking. I touch her hand and she don’t move. I can’t breathe. My soul dissolves into darkness. I know she’s gone but I can’t face it. I run to Mister’s house. Missus lets me use their telephone and I call for help.
Half an hour later, Granny’s church ladies come and take her away while my heart rips into pieces. I sit in the dark staring at her empty chair, at her shoes, at the knitting needles sticking in the ball of yarn. I close my eyes willing it all to be gone, for the day to start over with Granny alive. I wish life could be like a chalk board where you can erase the bad parts and start over. Hours pass with nothing but the ticking of the clock. I look out the window surprised to see the world still going on even though Granny isn’t.
After the funeral, I lay up in the bed and pray that God kills me so I can be with my Granny—the only mother I’ve ever known—the only person I ever loved. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I don’t go to work. I just don’t care about living anymore. When Granny died, something came apart and broke inside me. Fell off a shelf and shattered to the floor. And I just can’t put all the pieces back together.
A week passes and Mister comes looking for me. He’s mad that I haven’t been to work. He yells his fool head off, saying I gotta pay the rent or get out. I don’t got no money and nowhere to go. I don’t know why God don’t come down and take me to Granny. What kind of a life do I have to look forward to anyhow. I don’t want to be stuck in some white man’s kitchen the rest of my life.
Mister comes back the next day, but I already got my bags packed. He looks at me and frowns. “Where you think you’re going?”
I just shrug.
“You come on home with me. You can have a room in exchange for looking after the house. You got that, girl?”
I nod my head. I don’t know what else to do.
I don’t got no choice.
A lonesome sparrow hatches inside of me, flies out my mouth, and pulls out my insides as it leaves, taking all my happiness with it.
Missus shows me to my room. Mister follows and stands in the hallway, watching. Missus hands me a washrag and towel, shows me where to put my things, and then pulls back my bed sheets.
“I’m so sorry about your Granny. She was a good woman and I‘ll miss her,” Missus says.
“Try to get some sleep, child.”
She closes the door behind her, but I hear Mister breathing through the thin wood. I get undressed and slip my nightgown on as quickly as I can, wash my face and jump into bed, hoping he’ll go away. As I close my eyes I see Granny, smiling at me. Tears fill my eyes and roll down the sides of my face into my ears.
Later that night, the feeling of being watched startles me awake. In the moonlight, Mister stands in the doorway. Clamping my eyes tight, I try to shut him out. The wood floor groans as he creeps closer. The smell of whiskey and cheap cologne fill the room. His cigar breath comes in rapid, short bursts, followed by a wheezing rattle. My heart jumps like a cricket and blood pulses in my ears. The bed shifts under Mister’s heavy frame. I lay still as death, petrified, pretending to be asleep.
Mister leans over me, dripping sweat from his forehead onto my face. I fight to keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to look at him. He flips back the thin sheet. The bedsprings squeak like a flock of birds.
“J. P., are you coming to bed?” Missus yells.
Mister lets out a grunt and curses under his breath. The bed squeaks again as he moves away. The sounds of his heavy footsteps echo across the floor and the smell of whiskey grows fainter. Springing from the covers, I close the door, lock it and slip on my clothes. I climb back into bed, pull the blankets up under my chin and try to erase what just happened from my mind. I stare at the moonlit ceiling, praying that God will keep me safe or take me to heaven so I can be with Granny.
A few hours later, the grandfather clock in the hallway strikes midnight, waking me up. Heavy footsteps shuffle outside my door again. The doorknob moves slowly from left to right then rattles fast against the lock.
I don’t sleep the rest of the night.
The next day Mister slinks up behind me in the kitchen, grabs my shoulders and yanks me backward until his big gut presses against my backside. My legs tremble when his hot breath brushes my ear. “I can get into that room anytime I like, so you better be ready” he growls. His rough tongue flicks at the base of my neck. I swing my elbows back hard and pull away. I return to my chores, paying him no mind at all. I may be his house girl, but he don’t own me. I won’t give in without a fight.