When I was twelve I got a blister from digging a hole in the woods behind our house. It was just up from the center of my hand, at the base of my middle finger. At first it was a sealed translucent bubble that squished when I poked it, but then I put my hand up to my mouth and bit through the skin with my front teeth, first ripping a small hole, then tearing all the skin off. It tasted like the warm salt water that my grandmother, Ma Ada, used to make me gargle when I had a sore throat. It was a liquid that my body made to heal me, but once I´d bitten off the skin all I was left with was an angry circle of raw, red meat.
That´s what I am, just flesh.
It’s what Ma Ada was, too. Miss Dixie, her nearest neighbor, came to visit one afternoon and found my grandmother doubled over, pallid and dazed, sitting on the ground near the garden. When my father asked why she´d let it go until then, she said, “When you’re as old as I am, you ’spect things to hurt.”
The doctor told us, “The tumors look like someone threw a handful of b-b’s into her abdominal cavity, they’re so small and pervasive.”
The last week of her life I saw her twice. I´d made her a Mother’s Day card, and on Sunday afternoon I held it in my sweaty hands all the way to the hospital. Then I opened and reread it--to the best grandmother in the world--as we rode the elevator up to her room on the fifth floor. As we walked into the room, a nurse in cat scrubs was wiping juice off of Ma Ada’s chin where it had dripped down from the straw of her hospital-issue cup. “Good as new,” the nurse said in a cheerful voice, and the grinning cats seemed to concur. Ma Ada looked weak, strained, swallowed up by the bed around her. The baggy white skin of her upper arm was bruised a vivid purple from the IVs. I held up the card so she could see the front of it, then opened it and let her read the inside.
“How purty,” she said softly, drawing in a long, weary breath. “Set it up here by me.”
The last time I saw her she didn’t say anything. In the movies, people always have some gem of wisdom to impart in their dying breath, some secret to share, some last wish to convey. They die wrenchingly, with one last force of will, or they give a final, meaningful look to their loved ones and then peacefully stop breathing, fade away. But Ma Ada, when I saw her last, was caught between life and death. Her body lay bloated and white in the hospital bed, her eyes partly open and moving, as though she were dreaming. Her breathing was shallow and fast and made a thick, gurgling sound. A foul-smelling gray liquid seeped out of the corner of her mouth onto a tissue a different nurse held in her latex-gloved hand. Every minute or two the nurse would take up a machine with an attachment that looked like a thick plastic straw and suction some of the liquid out of her mouth. The noise the machine made was startlingly loud.
I sat on Ma Ada’s bed beside her. There were several other people in the room: my mother sat closest to the door; my father stood, red-eyed, talking to Preacher Cassidy; and a couple of the old women from Ma Ada’s church sat with their heads bowed in silent prayer. But she didn’t seem to be aware of any of us. The nurse, seated across from me on a chair at the other side of the bed, told me softly, “Her body’s shutting down. But we believe that hearing is one of the last things to go. Tell her whatever you need to. She can still hear you.”
But I couldn’t, not in front of so many people and my mother. I just sat shaking, my tears making warm trails down my cheeks and dripping onto the white bedcovers. After a while my parents took me home.
Ma Ada died during the night with only a nurse beside her.
After the funeral I went to the edge of the woods behind my parents´ house. It had rained for two days, so the ground was soft and damp and everything smelled mossy. But it still wasn’t easy to dig as far down as I wanted to, to make a deep enough hole to bury it. It was a fossil, something valuable, something secret. Something that, years afterward, when the world had changed, a different person would come back to find.
* * *
“Damn it, Rich, I told you to find out what was going on, look at her will, something,” my mother said, crushing her cigarette into the ashtray beside her. “Why couldn’t you just do one simple thing for me? ‘She’s a grown woman. I guess she’s got sense enough to look after her own finances,’” she mimicked my father’s deep voice. “Now you see how it’s turned out.”
It was past my bedtime and my parents didn’t know that I was sitting at the top of the stairs in my pajamas listening to their conversation. The same conversation they’d had for the past three days, every night after I was supposed to be in bed. My mother would make a drink for each of them, then instead of watching the 11:00 news or the late night shows they´d talk about this catastrophe.
Smithton Fields, the family plantation, was lost.
Seventeen months before, Ma Ada had sold the house and nearly everything in it to Frank Howard on the stipulation that he let her live there and not reveal the transaction until after her death. She´d even made arrangements that ensured Robert, the hired hand, continued employment and lodging in the apartment above the outside kitchen until the time of his voluntary retirement or death. She’d sold the house for less than it was worth, but she must have thought it a fair price considering no one had any way of knowing how long she might live. My dad talked to a lawyer about bringing a suit against Mr. Howard, but he said my parents didn’t have much of a case. The contract was airtight and Ma Ada was by all accounts in her right mind at the time of the transaction.
My mother was fit to be tied. Ma Ada left them a trunkful of her personal items—jewelry, clothes, and photographs—but not only was the house sold out of the family, the money from the sale was missing. When she subtracted the money in her ledger, Ma Ada had simply written Good Works in her spidery hand beside the amount.
“It probably went to some televangelist,” my mother hissed through clenched teeth.
She went to Mr. Howard directly and pitched a fit. He planned to reopen Smithton Fields as a bed and breakfast and had already started renovations. He wore a ball cap and paint-spattered jeans, and came to the door with a paint roller in his hand. Behind him Robert stood against the far wall of the front parlor looking startled, blinking at my mother as she talked. She raised her voice to Mr. Howard, told him that he had taken advantage of an old woman who was unwell and insisted that Ma Ada had promised her several of the antiques in the house. Because she carried on the loudest about a tall grandfather clock that stood in the foyer—and probably because he was a decent person who hated to come between family—he let her take the clock, and even helped my father load it up in the back of his truck the following day.
I knew my mother didn´t care about the money, or any of the things in the house, beautiful as some of them were. What my mother wanted, had always wanted, was to replace Ma Ada and be the plantation mistress at last. Ma Ada knew it too.
That´s why I smiled to myself in the shadows at the top of the stairs.
* * *
Before she went into the hospital, Ma Ada had given me my inheritance. Late one afternoon, we’d walked slowly up the stairs to the room that had been hers since the 1940s, when as a teenager she first married and went to Smithton Fields to live. It was the last time she was ever up there, as far as I know; she’d already been sleeping in one of the downstairs bedrooms for several months. There was only one more thing she wanted.
We stopped once halfway up and again at the top of the stairs for her to catch her breath. The embroidered yellow flowers on the front of her dress trembled as she breathed, and the skin of her knuckles was white and thin on the banister. The sun had laid down a perfect image of the window, made of light, on the wood floor in the hall.
Inside the room, Ma Ada opened the top drawer of the roll-top desk that stood in front of the window and pulled out a tin Fossil watch box. She sat down beside me on the bed and looked into my face. Her wide, mahogany-colored eyes looked watery. “I’m gon´ give you somethin today that I don’t want you to ever once mention to another livin´ soul ‘til you’re grown, you understan´ me?” she said. “You hide this where it cain’t be found.”
“I didn’t have the first notion of how to do it, or if I even could do what I wanted to,” Ma Ada said. “But I just thank the Lord that I’ve got a good lawyer, one that knew an´ respected your granddaddy. I explained what I wanted done an´ he handled it all. I had a pretty good idea Mr. Howard would go along with my stipulations too, bad as he wanted this place.” She stopped and chuckled softly. “I love you to pieces, Laney, more than anything else in this world, you know that?”
“I love you too, Ma Ada.”
She opened the box. Inside it was a business card.
“I’m not gon´ tell you now what this for. Mr. Hamrick’s my lawyer. When you turn twenny-one, you contact his office and he’ll explain it all to you. If he’s not around anymore, then talk to somebody else there. But they’ll be no reason to call before you turn twenny-one. An the most important thing is not to say one word to anybody—not even your mama an´ daddy—bout any a this, do you understan´ me?”
* * *
After she sold Smithton Fields, Ma Ada had opened a trust at the Selby Savings Bank in my name. Her lawyer, Mr. Hamrick, was trustee until my twenty-first birthday. He and Ma Ada were the only two people on Earth who knew about the arrangement.
When I walked into the law offices of Johnson, Hamrick, and Hill, a redheaded secretary showed me into a big corner office with a view of uptown Selby. Mr. Hamrick looked like exactly the person I’d expect to handle such a business. He was all gray—gray suit, salt-and-pepper hair, and a thin gray mustache perched on an ironic upper lip. He stood up from his desk when I came in and gave my hand a quick, decided shake.
“What can I help you with?” he asked pleasantly, his shrewd eyes never leaving my face.
“I’m Elaine Dellinger, Ada Dellinger’s granddaughter. She told me to come and see you when I turned twenty-one.”
“Ahhh…” he breathed. “Laney.” He nodded his head as he pronounced the word.
“Have a seat. Let me explain all this to you.” He called for the secretary and when she returned with the file, he demonstrated forms and contracts, numbers and interest rates, casually watching me all the while for my reaction.
“Are you surprised?” he asked at last, his smile making creases around his eyes. He looked as if he was glad Ma Ada got one over on everyone. As if he and I were co-conspirators.
“Yes,” I said softly.
“You’re a woman of means now, Laney.”
When I got to my car I whispered the words, Thank you, Ma Ada, thank you, thank you
. I laid my forehead against the cool leather of the steering wheel. Tears rolled down my face and dripped off my chin. I sat in the parking lot behind the law offices for a long time before I could see to drive.
Then I set my mind to all kinds of plans, how never to see my mother again.