The old lady gives me the creeps.
It something about the way she stares at you when she’s talking to you. I swear, she doesn’t blink, she just keeps looking at you. And sometimes, for no reason, she just goes quiet, and she doesn’t care how long she stays quiet, either. I mean, most people say something—anything—to fill a silence. But she seems to grow bigger, in those silences, while you feel yourself sinking into the ground.
No, that’s not it: you feel like an eagle has swooped down, clasped you in her talons, and is carrying you off to be devoured.
“We don’t allow smoking on this farm! How dare you! How dare you bring your filthy habits here, to the very place where the Virgin chose to make her appearance, and bring her message to the world!”
I had figured out behind the barn was a time-honored place to light up, and I was dying for a smoke, since I’d been carefully rationing them out. My grandma, she kept a pretty good eye on me, and cigarettes weren’t easy to steal—not like other stuff. So I’d kept one pack going for a couple weeks, now, and I was down to two or three left. So I took a long drag, looked away, and held the smoke in.
She struck me.
“Listen to me, boy. You think I can’t see? You think I didn’t know you were trash the moment I lay eyes on you? Yes, you and that grandmother of yours—nothing but trash. Come here with nothin’ and expect three square meals a day? Chocolate cake after dinner? Listen, boy, this is a farm, and we got plenty to do, here. So starting tomorrow, you’re seeing brother Edwin. He’ll start you on your chores for the day, and he’ll damn sure make sure you do ‘em. See that whip?”
She had led me into the barn, and now pointed to the central beam. There was a riding crop hung on a nail.
It wasn’t that she was strong, though she still had me by the forearm. No, there was something in that gaze that made you unable to resist: she could have led me into fire, if she had wanted to.
“Ain’t never done a lick of work in yer life, have you? No, you grew up easy—watching TV instead of going to school, out on the streets when you should have been studying. Stealing food for your supper, since your momma wasn’t nowhere. Nobody to make you pay any mind! Grew up with a common whore for a mother, stealing for your food, lying down every night in your filthy clothes! Well, none of that here! You’ll put in a day’s work, and get a hot meal, and you’ll be glad of it!”
“My mother wasn’t no whore,” I told her.
“Oh she wasn’t, was she? Nah, she just believed in “free” love, which meant that she fucked for food or more likely drugs. Huh—a respectable whore does better than that. Woman may be on the streets, but that don’t mean she can’t look after a child, see that he gets three square meals, and goes to school. No, but your momma didn’t do none of that, did she? Oh, I seen it all the time! Kids who needed a good spanking and somebody to tell ‘em what to do, and never had nothing. Who’s your poppa, kid?”
“Disappeared before I was born.”
“Bet he did! Bet he disappeared just as soon as his seed lodged in your mother’s womb! Hah—maybe before! So some man knocked up your momma, and she never had nothing to do but keep whoring around! Some women get some sense in ‘em when the child comes along. Pity yours didn’t!”
Suddenly, she got under my skin.
“You SHUT UP about my momma,” I shouted. “I didn’t come here to get this kinda flak. You don’t know nothin’ about her!”
“Yeah? I know she ain’t here, and I know she ain’t takin’ care of either her son or her mother. So where is she, punk? She still alive? She in prison? She on the streets, turning tricks and violatin’ every commandment put by God? Filling her veins with junk and waking up in her own puke on the street?”
She was pacing in front of me, speaking real fast, and getting louder by the minute. I realized, I was terrified of what she’d do next.
“I don’t think you know, do you, boy? Don’t think you have the faintest idea, where your mamma is. And you don’t care, do you? ‘Cause nobody never gave a damn about you—not even your granny, who you dumped here and ran out for a smoke. Oh, you make a fine pair—old woman one-step away from the grave, and a smart-aleck brat like you, don’t care about nothin’ or nobody!”
She stopped, now, and got within an inch of my face. Her eyes narrowed, and seemed to get darker as they got smaller. I could feel her breath on my lips.
“No reason I should bother myself with such trash,” she muttered, as if seeing me for the first time. “The old lady don’t have no work in her, and it’ll take brother Edwin all his day to make sure you do a thing! Out! Get offa my property! Just because the Virgin has chosen to make herself known to me, don’t mean I have to put up with every piece of trash the wind blows into my yard. Get away, both of you, and go somewhere else. Don’t have no time for every bum in the country!”
“We ain’t no bums,” I told her. “We don’t have no money, but we ain’t bums. And my momma, she made sure I went to school, every day. Sure, sometimes I played hooky, but she’da skinned me alive if she found out. Don’t you call my momma a whore!”
“Oh, so now I’ve offended little lord Fauntleroy! Yes, yes—grew up in a Christian home! Probably was an altar boy! You said your prayers every night, boy? Got down on your knees and begged God for forgiveness for all your sinning ways? Your momma teach you how to pray?”
“She wasn’t real religious,” I said. “She kinda had it, since her momma was such a nut about it! But don’t you go calling her a whore!”
“I ain’t calling her a whore—I’m calling her a plain damn fool, who gave it away instead of charging for it. And I know how she died, boy, and who was with her when she done it, and who covered up the evidence, and who took you, in the middle of the night, back to your grandma’s house, and rang the bell. Stood there until the door opened, then ran like hell before the old lady could say a word. ‘Cause there was still a lot to do, that night, and he didn’t have no time to spare with an old lady. ‘Specially one that might ask questions. Questions that man didn’t feel like answering!”
We’d been here less than an hour—had the old lady wormed it out of my grandma? Didn’t seem so, but…
…how did she know?