The question was did Janelle fuck Old Ray Taylor so they got the house. Grace drew a quick picture mental picture of herself, the sticks and circles of her that moment. On her knees next to the bathtub, kneecaps aching where they touched the tile floor. Washing Meadow’s hair because something was wrong with her granddaughter, Meadow always forgot where she was so forgot what came next, for example rinse the soap out. On the toilet seat, Grace’s pocketbook. In the pocketbook, a pack of L&M.
Against Grace’s better judgment it was December, but so far she was keeping November’s promise not to smoke inside. She was asking herself did her daughter fuck the owner of the house Grace was living but now not smoking in. And how come it mattered so goddamn much. Ha! If she could answer that one, she’d be one up on Meadow and know what she was supposed to do next.
It was a pretty good house, with white aluminum siding and blue trim. The littlest one on the block, sure, and stuffed to the rafters with Fillkins. But the neighborhood was a definite notch up from what they could expect, being who they were. People looked them up on the internet, Grace was sure they did. “Child enslavement.” The internet made everything sound worse than it really was.
In the tub, Meadow’s slow fingers moved to her miniature pussy, exploring a little, then forgetting to explore. You want to feel something, Grace told her, wait a few years. It gets better, it gets worse. Both at the same time sometimes and the bastard’ll break your heart in the bargain.
Grace’s back always went up when Janelle accused her of loving Meadow more because she was her only white grandchild. Five kids, five fathers, five skin tones. Five complicated stories. Was Mexican a color? Everything in Janelle’s life—every last fact and feeling—was a weapon. The only question was would she use it against you or against herself.
Okay, Grace did feel a tenderness for Meadow that maybe it was sometimes harder to feel for the other kids, but not because her daddy was white. Anyway wasn’t Janelle’s own daddy black? Which made Janelle approximately half the same as him, him being Eddie Rawlins, who was no longer in the picture because he happened not to be on the premises when the cops raided. Grace herself was white as a pot of Uncle Ben’s. The truth about Meadow was she needed protecting. Nobody said slow any more, but that was what she was. Not retarded, though. What Meadow needed was a push, and Grace intended to give her one.
“Grace’s back always went up when Janelle accused her of loving Meadow more because she was her only white grandchild.”
Gimme, Grace whispered. It was like overhearing somebody thinking out loud. Gimme what did not become clear. Safe to say she wanted something that was not available.
She wasn’t sure how old Ray Taylor was. Old enough his balls must be shriveled to dinosaur eggs. Petrified. One of the smaller dinosaurs. Guy in his shoes and situation, he’d sign on the dotted line for half a piece of what Janelle had. Men were always crazy for Grace’s headstrong daughter. Moony sweet face, hair you couldn’t say who it came from, hardly any frizz. Skin like the white gold in the ring Skunk used to wear until Rawlins pawned it and shot up the proceeds. How Janelle learned to flaunt and peddle was a mystery to her mother. Not. Grace in her day knew something about flaunting, about peddling. You passed that kind of thing down whether you tried to or not.
Time to get out, sweetie, she told Meadow. Otherwise the girl would sit there until the water went cold. Grace got her dressed. Winter in Buffalo. It sucked. When they ploughed the streets the city piled the snow high into burial mounds. You weren’t careful, you fell into a drift, wound up being the unlucky Indian the tribe killed to keep the gods happy.
Anything could happen.
Meadow forgot to put her slippers on so Grace guided her little feet into them telling her, Come on, you little ball of wax. You and me got a job to do. Her secret weapon. She took the girl by the hand down the hall to the room Grace shared with Skunk. Skunk was Grace’s mother. She was old old old now and generally on strike, staying in her robe in the chair by the window expecting everybody to wait on her.
In a different family it would be a picture suitable for framing: old lady in a plush purple robe, hair piled high, sunlight pouring through the window giving her a dignified look like somebody’s whistling mother. She had been known to pleasure herself, sitting there. Age didn’t matter. Her mother, her daugher, her granddaughter, Grace herself: they all belonged to the pussy fun club, although Grace figured what her mother felt must be about the same level as what Meadow felt in the tub.
At the door, to be on the safe side, Grace hollered, Look who came to say hello I love you. With Lily—that was her real name—you had to holler. Lily had hearing aids but hid them when temper took her over. Then they had to turn the whole house upside down to find the clever spot she’d chosen, never the same one twice.
Grace’s mother scared her sometimes. Not physically, it was just a way she had of being gigantic while calling you to account. She could still do this even though she was definitely going senile. Of course there was history, things you did not forget. First time Janelle called her Skunk to her face, because of the funny black and white of her hair at that time, Lily picked up her granddaughter and heaved her across the room. Janelle hit the wall and howled. That had been a tough one for Grace, trapped between her mother and her daughter, not able to do either of them any good.
Lily held her arms open, and Meadow went into the straitjacket of them obediently. She was a placid child. While the old lady was distracted Grace hollered at her, Mama, where’s that social security check of yours? All we got in the kitchen is a box of Kix and some coffee filters. It worked. Her mother pointed at the dresser. It sat nestled in old-lady underwear. Wonder of wonders, it was signed. That saved Grace half an hour of trickery. Or forgery. That day was coming; she felt it in the bones of her mind.
This one, Lily said abruptly, thrusting Meadow from her, they left out the brains.
Like that, every day was like that for Grace now that she had quit smoking in the house and was thinking ahead, blocking out time to decide what the best course of action for the family was.
She parked Meadow on the couch watching TV with a bowl of dry Kix. Better than coffee filters. She stepped out onto the porch for a smoke. Across the street, two houses down, Up Yours was stringing Christmas lights on an unleafed tree in his front yard. He wore a red jacket and had his holiday face on. It was cold enough to see his breath, which came out in musical notes. Christmas carols. Janelle was the one came up with the name. It was what Grace yelled across the street when they first moved in and he was giving her lip. Easy to remember, anyway.
Maybe he noticed her, maybe he didn’t. He did not wave or otherwise admit she was there. He was one of the ones that looked up Fillkins on the internet and thought past sins disqualified them from the neighborhood. Grace felt a longing for a place where sturdy men in holiday outerwear honored her for the effort of raising a slutty daughter’s bastard brood.
Standing there in the cold, inhaling death smoke, she admitted to herself that she should have sent Meadow to school. Keeping her home was today’s wrong decision. The principal wanted her tested. But testing was the first step toward all the rotten miserable things lying in wait for the kid. All Grace wanted was to stave them off, as many as she could which was admittedly not many.
Up Yours clapped his gloved hands together to knock off the cold and stood there congratulating himself. Grace hoped Santa Claus had a heart attack coming down his chimney. She went back inside carrying the rewarding image of a bunch of happy-faced kids tearing downstairs Christmas morning to find Santa dead in the chimney. No presents.
She needed to send Ray Taylor a rent check. Before the end of the day, no excuses. On time every time, that was her new motto. Already she was a week late with it. Never again. She had no idea where it came from, this new leaf she was turning over.
She hoped Case was not in Janelle’s room. Grace had mostly good things to say about the guy. He was hardly ever drunk, and he was good with kids, including Meadow. Not to mention his super-sexy ass. Case was night manager at Pies & Slices, where Janelle was lately waiting tables and getting okay tips. Wouldn’t hurt if he stayed involved with the family. Right this moment, though, it’d be easier to get money out of her daughter if she wasn’t distracted. Now that she had her own bank account, her government money was direct-deposited and had to be coaxed out.
Once, Grace had fantasized grabbing that amazing ass of Case’s, having sex with him. Something he said, a way he looked at her, brought on the idea. What held her back was picturing the holy hell that would break loose with Janelle if she figured it out.
It scared her, thinking she could wind up like Skunk, poking her own lonely self in the morning sun in somebody else’s upstairs.
When Grace opened the bedroom door Janelle put the pillow over her head and turned away. No Case, anyway. Smart guy like him, he’d think twice about being permanent. Even if he had the stomach for it, he couldn’t take on five kids night-managing a pizza joint. Not to mention their stormy mommy who melted down in rage any time her will was thwarted.
“If Rawlins knocked on the front door this very minute would she shoot him or fuck him? The answer, which she did not have, would reveal what kind of person she was. You could not say both; saying both was against the rules.”
Grace sat on the edge of the bed. She shook her daughter. Her daughter ignored her. A meltdown in the making, but Janelle was too tired to bring it on. Sometimes she stopped at the tavern for a drink after her shift and did not get home until getting enough sleep was impossible. Grace was cagey. If she said she needed money for the rent, Janelle would blow her off. In the girl’s mind, there was never any hurry to pay. Run short and maybe you took it out in trade. A bad picture, that was all it was: her daughter on top of Ray Taylor’s naked white body giving the geezer the ride of his sorry life.
She brushed away the picture and whispered, Macaroni and cheese. Janelle’s favorite meal.
Go the fuck away, Ma. I’m sleeping.
We need food.
So that’s my problem? You can’t feed the family and it’s my problem?
Grace did not point out it was Janelle’s five kids she was concerned about feeding. Write me out a withdrawal slip, I’ll go to the bank and get some cash.
Later, Ma. I’ll do it later.
Later was never going to come because with Janelle it never did. Grace gave up. Temporarily. Janelle was dead to the world or pretending to be. Her keys were lying on the floor in plain sight. Grace scooped them up.
She got dressed. Did the right thing and took Meadow with her. She made the girl sit in the back seat, out of sight, because the kid safety seat was broken and it would be more dangerous to sit her inside it and pretend she was securely strapped in. Suppose Grace had to hit the brakes? When she turned the key the engine made its terrible unmufflered roar, enough to bring Up Yours out on his porch shaking his fist. She had no doubt he’d call the cops on her. She waved. In their sign language, hello was the same as fuck you.
She cashed her mother’s Social Security and took Meadow to the McDonald’s. What child in America didn’t like French fries? It was a satisfying feeling, sitting there watching the girl stick fry after fry into her mouth, hypnotized by grease and licking her fingers. She might be slow, but Meadow knew how to eat. Grace drank a coffee. Some of the mistakes she had made in her life popped into her mind, one after another, like sad stories waiting their turn to be told. She saw their tight unhappy mouths.
It was too soon to bring groceries into the house. If she did, Janelle would never hand over any cash. She needed a plan. She found part one of the plan back home when she noticed Janelle’s phone in a mixing bowl in the cupboard. Case’s number was in that phone.
This was dangerous, but it wasn’t like Grace was spilling any secrets. Case knew what he was getting with Janelle. He had been around for some major meltdowns. Shit, half the time he was the one provoking her, doing his best to bring one on because he got a kick out of watching.
It wasn’t going to happen, but if Rawlins knocked on the front door this very minute would she shoot him or fuck him? The answer, which she did not have, would reveal what kind of person she was. You could not say both; saying both was against the rules. It was true that Rawlins used to smoke L&Ms.
Case was asleep when she called. There was fuzz in his voice. He was divorced with no kids to worry about so had a nice life, which Grace sometimes envied. She started off wrong, telling him, We’re late on our rent. Why wouldn’t he expect to be hit up for a loan? She undialed, explained she only wanted his help in prying loose some money from Janelle. This was not treachery. Janelle’s sexual hold on the guy was stronger than any personality shortcomings her mother might, by accident, reveal. Case told her to meet him at the pizza restaurant. It was closed, but he had the key.
They said every person was like an animal. In your daily life you ran into bears and weasels, rabbits and roosters. In the human zoo, Case was designed to be the gamekeeper. Tall, muscular but thin, he had a soul patch threaded with early gray and wise green eyes. Because they were wise they were sad.
It could not help feeling a little bit like a date, him throwing a clean cloth on a table for her, bringing out fresh coffee and a couple pieces of toast he buttered himself. She had worked her way through half a dozen scenarios to get his help. Waste of time. He pulled up a chair across from hers, took a seat, poured himself coffee. Lit a cigarette.
You ever wonder, Grace, why it is every tablecloth in every pizza joint across the country is checked, and the checks are always red and white?
It’s the law, I guess.
He nodded. I’ll do what I can about that rent money. The girl is selfish on a stick.
Was this a trap? Should she go along with him, or make excuses? She was thinking she should have changed the channel before she left the house, there was nothing good to say about the skanky talk show Meadow was watching. Grace had no idea what the child’s mysterious mind took in and kept.
Janelle’s life, she said. Our life. Hasn’t been easy.
He nodded. His smile was thinner than she would have liked it to be.
I’m curious about one thing, Grace.
What’s that? she said, although she knew exactly what he was curious about. He had looked them up on the internet.
Either that, or Janelle had been blabbing.
Grace told him, There was a lot of bad shit going on back then. Dude named Rawlins. That’s Janelle’s daddy. Black man. Used to play saxophone, had his own R&B band. That was in the good days. When I say shit I mean dope. I mean smack. I mean if I’m honest we were addicted, all three of us.
Me, Rawlins, my mother. Things got out hand.
He wanted to know what things.
Grace shrugged, looked away. She was good at blocking those things out. She still liked pretending to herself that everything was Rawlins’ fault.
My shift starts at six, Case told her.
That don’t give us much time.
Two ways he could take that. One was they needed to work Janelle in a hurry. The other one was, if they were going to have a quickie in the kitchen they had better get at it.
She did not feel all that much guilt over fucking her daughter’s boyfriend up against a stainless steel table in a kitchen that smelled like oregano. For Case, maybe it was a curiosity. One time and one time only, learn how the daughter’s power came down through the mother? For Grace, it was more, and less. She hadn’t known how badly she wanted some loving. And then it was over, and her mind was moving on.
Let’s go home, she told him. Not what he wanted to hear. Would have liked a compliment about how good he was as a sex machine. But he went with her. In some respects he was a decent guy.
Grace saw it coming, the unbelievable confusion that came down on the little white house with blue trim in a pretty neighborhood beyond her expectations. In the blink of a bleary eye they were all jammed into the living room: her and Case and Janelle’s five-toned kids. Lily in jeans and a Bills sweatshirt turned inside out. And Janelle, also in jeans. Not to mention a sports bra that answered the question could the tits and upper body of a woman after five pregnancies look good as new. Yes they could. Kind of amazing, really.
Cheyenne, whose father was black, had everything Meadow didn’t. She was beautiful and quick-witted, good at school, good at every damn thing she set her hand to, including now bossing around Gabriela who was Janelle’s Mexican, and Roy who was her Tuscarora, and Anthony whose father Janelle never once brought home so his family background was unknown although Grace guessed from his features there was some black in it. That was another thing Grace had passed down to her daughter, being drawn to black men. Meadow was unbossable. Grace admired that. The kid was going to need all the stubbornness her body could manufacture. On her way home Grace had stopped for milk, bananas, and three boxes of Pop-Tarts. It was Cheyenne’s scientific opinion that everybody had to eat a bowl of cereal and milk before they could have a Pop-Tart. Kix was nutritional.
When the noise level went up, Meadow turned up the television. That made everybody in the room talk still louder until she turned it up again. This was why nuclear weapons ought to be banned.
“He had done Janelle a dirty and was trying to figure out how to get through the day. Tomorrow, for both of them, the forgetting would start.”
Getting up to leave the room because her family freaked her out, Meadow spilled her bowl of Kix on the floor. Stood there staring at a spray of milk and cereal across the rug like it was somebody else’s accident. Nobody jumped up to clean up the mess.
You better cover your bare chest, young lady, Lily snapped at Janelle. Her way of saying it was somebody else’s job to keep up with Meadow. Some countries, what you’re showing off right now they’d put you in chains.
What came now was classic Janelle, pure Janelle, genius Janelle. To demonstrate her rage and contempt she took off her sports bra. Stood there with her hands on her hips cursing Skunk left, right, and upside down while being sure Case had a delicious look at those exceptional tits. At Pies & Slices, in the kitchen, he had paid a lot of attention to Grace’s breasts, which were the breasts you found on a woman of her age, no more no less. She liked him for that and had let herself go even though she half thought he was only being a gentleman.
None of that did anything to ward off the rush of shame that came down on her now. She had fucked her daughter’s man. How nasty was that? Did Janelle suspect something? Nah. She slammed out of the living room and locked the bedroom door after her, wailing. On the television, squads of mean police were piling out of their vehicles with guns pointing at the screen. Not real but still too close for comfort. Grace shivered. It took everything she had not to close her eyes, stick her fingers in her ears, perform her own meltdown dance.
Sometimes when Lily complained of chest pains it was real. But not always. Grace for the life of her never knew when it was real and when it was just her reasonable desire for love and attention. Cheyenne, who seemed to have more virtues than all the rest of the kids put together, had a way of knowing. This time it was real. She guided her great-grandmother to a chair. She ordered Roy to turn down the TV. She told Gabby to bring a glass of water from the kitchen, Anthony to stop whining. She gave no order to Meadow, knowing that was hopeless. Suddenly the house went quiet. They could all hear Lily’s labored breathing.
Do you want me to call 911? Cheyenne asked her calmly.
Lily shook her head. The pain was real but not worth the cost of the co-pay. She knew the difference.
In the bedroom, Janelle was raving but using fewer swear words, tapering down. Case knew that was the signal for him to go knock on the door, tell her let him in. Which naturally she did. Grace got just enough of a glimpse to see she had covered her chest with a T-shirt. Most women, they carried on the way Janelle did, their faces turned red and ugly. Janelle’s only got sexier. So. Maybe that was all there was to it, there was no mystery about why Case stuck around. His predictability disappointed Grace.
Once, she and Rawlins had gotten stuck in a snowstorm while moving their stuff from an apartment they were kicked out of to a basement some friend of his offered them. They sat in the car smoking joints until the storm let up. Grace rolled the window down and lack of wind made the quiet momentous. It was like that in her house now, the kids munching Pop-Tarts, Case’s steady low voice speaking reason to Janelle, Lily in a chair knocking her chest with a balled fist the way Catholics used to do in church and mean it. Whatever happened next, they needed groceries. Grace went out to buy them.
When she came back home, Cheyenne organized the sibling squad to carry the bags into the kitchen and unpack. Not the first time she had done this, so there was little resistance. Even Meadow helped, carrying a bag of potato chips the way flower girls in weddings carried rings on white velvet cushions up the sacred aisle.
Case was sitting on the porch steps, smoking. Grace sat next to him.
It’s too damn cold to sit out here, she said.
Thought we weren’t supposed to smoke in the house.
This was mysterious. His pack of Marlboro was on the step next to him. She picked it up, and he lit one for her.
You’re a gentleman.
If you mean that’s how come I fucked you, wrong. It happened because we both wanted it to happen. Rawlins, she said.
The sax player.
Mostly he was the doper. He came up with this scheme.
What kind of scheme?
Janelle was just a kid. He borrowed three other kids.
That’s what he called it. Set the four of them to doing jobs.
What kind of jobs?
Rawlins should have been a businessman, he had the head for it. He’d buy boxes of things, plastic gizmos and whatnot. The kids would put them together, and he’d go out and sell them for a profit. The problem was, we were all high six ways to the weekend. My mother, too. She had herself a greedy little habit going. The point is, we forgot stuff.
Like taking care of the kids.
She exhaled smoke, nodded. The whole thing was Rawlins’s fault. Wasn’t it? Believing that was what had kept her going. Now, Case was one sentence away from calling bullshit. He’d gotten what he wanted from her at Pies & Slices. Now he wanted more.
One of the kids got sick, she told him. Janie. It was me that noticed, finally. I took her to the emergency room. She was dehydrated, so of course that made the nurses suspicious. Next thing you know there’s seventeen cops with guns surrounding the house and me and Lily get hauled away in handcuffs.
Son of a bitch was out hawking his gizmos in Amherst. Somehow he got wind of the raid and made himself scarce. I never saw the man again. I’d put money on him being in Detroit because he had friends there. Including by the way a girlfriend that was ready to forgive him everything, every time. Not that I ever said word one to the cops. Or would.
Well, so Lily and I got convicted of child enslavement.
What about Janelle?
While I did my bit she stayed with Rawlins’s people. I collected her when I got out. She was pissed off the day I picked her up, she’s been pissed off ever since. Do you believe me?
You mean that you weren’t making those kids do anything horrible? Give me a fucking break, Grace.
Not mine, she wanted to say. If they were anybody’s slaves it was Rawlins. But she couldn’t force out the words.
There was a wall. Behind the wall lurked her long-lasting lie. She felt this sexy-ass pizza manager drilling through the bricks. The only reason he could do that was she had let her guard down with him. They sat there smoking a while even though it was cold.
The things people say, Grace said eventually, they’re not always true.
It was quarter after five. He’d leave for work soon. She felt a certain amount of desire to say thanks, she was actually glad the wall was down, glad her lie was shriveled up naked, even half glad her bad truth was out there in plain sight. After all these years. But she wouldn’t give herself away; not that much left to give.
Instead she told him, They say you never quit wanting to do dope, but in my case that’s not true. I quit while I was in the calaboose, and I don’t much feel the urge. Haven’t for a long while now.
He nodded. She said more.
Took me a while to figure out what I want. But I know now. I want to keep this house. Make sure the kids eat good.
Do their homework. I want them to tell my mother they love her even if it’s a lie. I want Meadow to find her way.
How ‘bout a major orgasm, while you’re at it?
That should have pissed her off, but he only said it because he was feeling bad. Not about sex with her, which turned out to be a nice thing for both of them. But he had done Janelle a dirty and was trying to figure out how to get through the day. Tomorrow, for both of them, the forgetting would start.
One more cigarette each and five minutes later here came Janelle, her loud car announcing her to the neighborhood. Up Yours came out on the porch but just stood there gawking with his hands jammed in his jacket pockets. They were coming up on the holiday season. Maybe that affected him.
Janelle slammed the car door and came flouncing toward the porch. She held out a piece of paper. There was drama in the gesture. There was drama in every thought, word, and deed that came out of the girl, always had been.
What’s that? said Grace.
She knew, though. It was a receipt. Signed by Ray Taylor. Janelle had paid the rent. The paper was proof because otherwise nobody would believe her.
Grace knew, from the defiant way Janelle stood on the bottom step looking up at them, that she had fucked Ray Taylor. Case might know it, too. He stood up, dug his car key from the pocket of his jeans. I gotta go to work.
Janelle said, Text me later?
Sure, he said, meaning probably not.
After which suddenly, no warning, Grace found herself out on the cold porch alone with her fervent mind. Many parts of many stories that would never get told came to her like little commercials for a life not all that well lived. Still, when it came to the one big thing, she had quit lying. Across the way, Up Yours made a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave. Grace nodded but left her hands in her lap.
A former foreign service officer, Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80) has published 129 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review . His story “How Birds Communicate”won The Iowa Review fiction prize. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His story “Dream State” won the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Kafka Prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at www.markjacobsauthor.com. His story, “Old School,” appears in the 2018 issue of Evergreen. The Autumn 2019 issue of The Hudson Review has Mark’s short story Death Eve.
Art by Caroline Caldwell
Caroline Caldwell is a Brooklyn based artist, writer and curator who co-founded Art in Ad Places, a guerilla project that replaces public advertisements with artwork. Caroline has assisted some of the world’s top street artists, including Swoon, Faile, Martha Cooper, Beau Stanton, and many more. She made her curatorial debut last summer with “Blood Money,” a show that showcased visual art by sex workers hung through bondage on their actual clients.