Featured Prose | November 14, 2017
“How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell about It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)” by Kim Coleman Foote
Kim Coleman’ Foote’s short story loosely based on family history appeared in TMR 40:3 (fall 2017). In her commentary “On Coleman Hill,” she talks about mining fiction from family history.
How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tell about It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)
By Kim Coleman Foote
1. With her own braids
Two pairs of brown fingers fly down Gra’ Coleman’s head, weaving the long gray strands that dangle to her waist. All that good hair, the two sisters think. Not like theirs. They wonder how someone so evil could have such nice long hair, but they dare not tug on it or even speak. At least, if they want to live.
Ginger and Nancy eye each other, both eager to finish first, even though Gra’ Coleman will grant each of them fifty cents for the braiding. It’s that brief moment when she seems like the nice grandma on the radio shows or like their other grandma, Lucy Grimes, who they don’t see enough for their liking. That brief moment when she smiles, reaching into the pocket of her housedress for the money. Gra’ Coleman tends to reserve smiles for strangers and neighbors, like now on the porch, when she calls a happy Sunday to Mrs. Kazlauskas in her yard across the street. If she were to say “Thank you” for the girls’ work, that would complete their fantasy. But just the fact that she lives up to her promise to pay—it’s the best they can hope for.
Nancy is halfway done, far ahead. Ginger gets caught up in how much the hair looks like cloth when you put it between your eyes and the sun. She imagines hands smaller than hers braiding the millions of threads to make her dress, her bobby socks.
She stiffens when Gra’ Coleman says, “They better be straight.”
Gra’ Coleman spits out a stream of snuff. Ginger’s shoulders rise higher at the ping inside the rusted coffee tin at their feet on the porch. Her fingers shake as she resumes.
She wastes precious seconds watching her grandmother chewing. The girl’s blank face masks her insides, where she glowers. At nine years old, she’s learned to control herself around Gra’ Coleman. Control anything that won’t drive the woman crazier, like talking back or laughing. Even sneezing. She can brace her whole body and hold everything inside until she grows hot and thinks she’ll explode just like those grenades their Uncle William said he handled during the war.
Nancy, on the other hand, tries to empty her head when she’s that close to Gra’ Coleman. At that distance, she half believes their grandma can see her hateful thoughts. She pretends she’s styling the hair of a big doll, not a real-flesh person. Especially not one who, minutes before they stepped onto the porch for the braiding, smashed their sister Marlene’s head against the wall. Bang, bang, bang, like the Lone Ranger’s gun. Nancy concentrates on the Lone Ranger to avoid thinking about her family. Her loony family. Whenever she listens to The Lone Ranger on the radio, she imagines the hero to be a big ol’ white man—the type they say would lynch a nigger, even an eleven-year-old girl like her all the way up North in New Jersey. He’d be tough enough to stand up to Gra’ Coleman. Not like their daddy, Gra’ Coleman’s beloved son (but, truth be told, not like most men in Vauxhall, who seem to fear this barely five-foot lady as much as the Coleman kids do).
Sometimes, those Indians the Lone Ranger chases have two long braids. They’re dressed in what men Indians wear, but when Nancy envisions them turning their heads, they have her grandma’s face. She forgets herself and giggles.
“What’s so goddamn funny?”
“Nothin, Gra’ Coleman,” Nancy and Ginger say in sync.
Ginger raises curious eyes to her older sister, who rolls her lips between her teeth to stop any more laughter. As Nancy’s fingers near the end of the braid, she remembers the time the Lone Ranger threw a lasso. She sees the circle of it above his head, just before he catches one of those dirty Indians around the neck. Bang, bang, bang, goes the Lone Ranger’s gun, and the Indians are dead.
Seeing Nancy falter in her daydream, Ginger speeds up, trying to keep that braid nice and even. Her fingers are cramping, but she finishes before Nancy for once and lets the braid drop against Gra’ Coleman’s back.
“I’m finished,” she says in the meek-sounding voice she’s mastered.
Gra’ Coleman’s hand reaches over her back. Ginger holds her breath as the woman runs her yellow-brown fingers down the braid. Gra’ Coleman nods. Rotates her eyes to her other shoulder.
“You almost done back there, Nancy?”
“Yeah, Gra’ Coleman.”
“What you say?”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes, Gra’ Coleman.”
Ginger stares as Gra’ Coleman reaches into her pocket and pulls out two quarters. Not accustomed to finishing first, she jumps up and skips into the house, forgetting to keep herself composed. She almost trips when the scolding comes.
“Stop that runnin’ in my house, goddammit!”
That night, the girls’ whispers bounce off the walls of their narrow, hot bedroom. There are the three Coleman girls and their four cousins, lying head to toe in two beds like sardines, and feet stinking just as much.
They share the wonders they’ve seen that day. Nancy and Ginger rave about the oldest Peacock girl, who showed off her gymnastics routines in the middle of the street. She could bend over backward like she had no spine and do splits and perfect cartwheels. Ginger goes off on a tangent as usual to talk about the insect that looked exactly like a stick, which she saw on the side of the house near the coal chute. And it talked to her too.
That prompts laughter and poking.
“Ain’t no stick talk to you.”
“It did, too,” Ginger shoots back, tears already in her eyes.
“Shut up, crybaby.”
Nancy jumps in, telling them to leave Ginger alone. Her little sister is always seeing and hearing things nobody else can, like the old man with long braids who she says sits on the edge of their bed at night, just looking at them and smiling. Marlene, the oldest of all the girls, says Ginger can’t even tell a ghost story proper; what’s so scary about that? Nancy doesn’t understand Ginger’s imagination either but doesn’t like to see her teased.
The younger cousins, Maddie and Minnie, break Ginger from her melancholy. They start singing “Pattycake” in squeaky voices, sending Ginger into giggles. The older girls, having outgrown such rhymes, don’t join in. When Maddie and Minnie pause before the second stanza, Nancy calls out a line from The Lone Ranger, and suddenly all of them are talking at once: Who wants to be the Lone Ranger? Who wants to be the Indian? They push and claw at each other, making Indian hoots.
Though there really is no discussion. Marlene always plays the Lone Ranger. She’s dared to fight anybody who’ll challenge her. Tonight, however, she doesn’t say a word when Maddie claims the part. Nancy notices Marlene hasn’t spoken the whole evening and worries about the egg-shaped knot on Marlene’s forehead. It appeared after Gra’ Coleman banged her head this afternoon, and it hasn’t shrunk much since. Nancy has the guts to ask her what’s wrong.
“Just thinkin,” Marlene says after a moment of held breaths. “Thinkin ’bout ways to kill Gra’ Coleman.”
The silence is thick enough to step on. Marlene hasn’t even bothered to whisper. It awes Nancy and terrifies her just the same. She’s seen Gra’ Coleman whup Marlene so many times with whatever is in reach—fist, iron, pot, telephone receiver—just because she’s nearby, it seems. And of course, because she looks like their “goddamn mother.” But other times, Marlene does what no one else would dare, except for Gra’ Coleman’s daughters, their aunts: mouthing off, rolling eyes, yelling, and—God forbid—cussing back. And if their aunts, grown women, pay for it with pulled hair, scratches, and bruises, Marlene gets it worse. Sometimes Nancy wants to yell at her to shut up to stop Gra’ Coleman from hitting her. Marlene’s face seems to stay swollen. Kids at school call her “China eyes.”
The silence in the bedroom goes on so long they can hear each other’s breathing, including Minnie’s asthmatic-sounding whistles. Someone has started snoring. Nancy, closest to Marlene, raises her head and squints into the darkness. Marlene’s eyes are closed, her arms beneath her head.
“I got a idea, M’ween,” Nancy whispers, her face growing hot. She knows Marlene should take the lead since it was her idea, but she’s just plain tired of Gra’ Coleman hurting them.
Marlene springs up. The next girl over squeals as Marlene’s elbow digs into her ankle.
“I’ll tell y’all tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you tell it now?”
“’Cause I don’t want Gra’ Coleman to hear, that’s why.”
“You know her ass is dead drunk.”
The others giggle, tickled to hear a cussword. Nancy wants to kick her sister. They’ve all seen Gra’ Coleman sipping from her bottle of Four Roses whiskey before bed, but Nancy doesn’t trust liquor to put her out. Nancy suspects Gra’ Coleman can hear dangerous thoughts like that in her dream all the way downstairs in the parlor, where she sleeps.
Marlene threatens to hit Nancy if she won’t share her idea. When she rains punches on Nancy’s legs, Nancy cries out and leaps out of bed. Suddenly all the girls are up, fumbling to restrain Marlene—like taming a mustang in the dark. Six bodies of different heights, all bony elbows and knobby knees, take punches as they move in closer, knowing this is what can definitely wake their grandma. Knowing this is what can get them all get whupped, including the boys in their equally cramped bedroom across the hall, even though they’ve had nothing to do with it.
The girls have it down to a science. Nancy pinches Marlene’s nose, giving her the choice between yelling and breathing. Even in that mad-dog state of hers, she has sense to settle on the latter. The girls ride the storm, grunting and pushing, till they have Marlene against the wall. They’re all lost in their own thoughts. Nancy, wishing her big sister wasn’t so mean and batty. Ginger, wishing she could make herself a bird and fly from Vauxhall to Brooklyn, where their mother escaped to. Maddie, wishing her father would hurry back from wherever he’s been all her life and take her, Minnie, and their mother to live in their own house, far away from these crazy Colemans. The others, just wanting to go to sleep.
Nancy keeps her promise the next day after school on the Hill in the two or so hours before Gra’ Coleman returns from cleaning white folks’ homes. The three Coleman girls sit in a semicircle on the grass with their younger brother and all seven cousins who share their house.
From Coleman Hill—as the neighbors have dubbed the mound behind the kids’ house—they have the perfect vantage point. They can spot when Gra’ Coleman is on her way home, so they can be indoors when she arrives. If she were to catch anybody playing outside, it would guarantee a whupping, no matter how tired she might be from cooking, cleaning, and coddling other people’s kids all day.
From the Hill, the kids have full view of their house and its backyard, full of Vauxhall’s most embarrassing assortment of junk—property of the Coleman kids’ daddy, who salvages what he calls “collectibles” from his job as a trash man. The kids can also scope out the two-story shingled houses dotting their block and the adjacent one, and if they are lucky, snoop on grown folks’ business and have that rare chance of feeling grown. Even if much of it escapes their understanding. For instance, they’ve heard tell that the Coleman kids’ daddy lives with his lady friend in town, but they don’t know why he chooses to stay there and not with them.
As Nancy prepares to drop her secret that afternoon, the girls play jacks while the boys keep lookout. She lowers her voice to reveal the plot: the next time she and Ginger braid Gra’ Coleman’s hair, they’ll use the braids like ropes. They’ll wrap them around the front of her neck, pretending to admire her hair—and they all know how Gra’ Coleman likes to brag about her long Indian hair. While she’s still basking in the compliment, they’ll yank the braids. The others will be waiting nearby to help pull.
Nancy eyes Marlene, holding her breath. She isn’t accustomed to playing mastermind. It’s Marlene who comes up with ideas for mischief, like ordering them to steal from the candy store after school. But when Marlene nods, seeming impressed, Nancy’s cheeks hurt from her smile.
“Where we gone put her, M’ween?” Ginger says. “You know, when she. . . .”
“In the backyard,” Marlene says without hesitation, staring down at the house and the junk lot behind it. “We’ll dig a hole deep and put her next to the cat.”
They all glance at the fresh square of earth near the back stairs. The cat has been dead for a week. They all mourned her, except the oldest Coleman boy, Spencer, who caused it. He put the cat in the stove alongside Gra’ Coleman’s blackberry pie and turned up the heat. Acted innocent when they all smelled something burning. Said it must be the berry juice, touching.
That’s why they haven’t included him today. Anybody who could torture an animal to death like that—not one, but two, at least that they know of—if they put their idea in his head, he might just walk into the house with his BB gun and finish Gra’ Coleman off. No plan, no thinking about how to avoid going to jail.
The youngest of the kids stare wide-eyed at the cat’s grave. Nancy, always the practical one, glances at them, wondering if they’re too young to be involved in this. For one, they haven’t had to put up with Gra’ Coleman for as long. They’re small with big eyes, and smiles that could melt lard on a winter day. They make the older kids want to carry them on their shoulders. Make grownups want to give them candy and pennies, especially their young cousin, Buster. They even get a chuckle or two out of Gra’ Coleman. That is, when she isn’t busy wringing one of the older kids’ ears or yelling threats. Nancy herself has escaped much of the wrath, but she’s still had more years on this earth than the youngest kids. She has memories. Of Marlene crying. Of their mother tumbling down the stairs, the salt and pepper shakers flying. Gra’ Coleman kicking her out the front door.
But when Marlene says, “Who wanna start diggin?” the youngest ones raise their hands high.
“But she’ll see it,” Nancy says.
“Not if we cover it, she won’t,” Ginger says, remembering the radio show where kids hid treasures in the ground.
Marlene nods again. “Daddy got so much junk in the yard we can find somethin. Let’s get to work.”
2. Kick her when she down
The hole in the ground is a body wide and a forearm deep when the Coleman kids’ daddy discovers it. They’ve hid it with the rusted hood of a car, part of the collection. It was so big they could dig beneath without moving it. Jeb Coleman, wondering if it’s a sinkhole caused by the rain, starts filling it with his latest find: tin ceiling tiles from the burnt-out department store on Springfield Avenue.
The kids watch from the Hill, growing more upset as each tile lands in their grave. Most of them lose count after thirty.
“What’s your daddy gonna do with all them silver things?” Minnie asks, playing with the hem of her dress.
Marlene spits a long stream like it’s snuff. “Let it rot, like usual.”
They’re silent, eyes wandering over that yard. There’s everything including the kitchen sink—two, in fact, one of them porcelain with faded roses on its rim. The Coleman kids’ daddy keeps saying he’s going to attach it to the spigot in the basement. Just like he plans to use the four oiled tires. They’re too small for his old pickup truck, but he never seems ready to replace the thing, with its jerky startups and farts. Then there’s the set of upholstered chairs with missing rungs and legs, each more decrepit than the next, like a mouthful of bad teeth. And the dented pots and charred skillets he’s always planning to scrub up and sell. And the bottles. Not colorful and whole and balancing on the tips of tree branches, like next door to the Coleman kids’ Aunt Pearl on their mother’s side, who calls that sort of thing tacky and country. Their daddy’s bottles are chipped and cracked, scattered on the ground in crates and overflowing bags. Milk bottles with the scum still stuck on them. Gra’ Coleman’s Four Roses whiskey bottles. Canning bottles and mason jars. Because of course, they’re worth something, if he can get a good enough collection going. Which he never can, because Spencer sneaks a few away every so often for target practice with his BB gun in the woods.
Marlene, sitting restless on the Hill, doesn’t lose count of the tiles. There are fifty-two, completely filling what could have been the final resting place of the witch. She jams her fingers into the ground, thinking about it, not caring that it hurts her nails. She rips out a clump of grass and wants to stuff it into Ginger’s mouth when her whiny voice asks what they’ll do with the body now.
“We gotta make it look like a accident, dummy.”
Marlene gets an image of their mother on her knees at the bottom of the staircase. Salt and pepper on the floor around her. Gra’ Coleman’s tiny foot a spade. Aiming for their mother’s ribcage.
“We’ll kick her when she down,” Marlene says.
She sees the cast-iron skillet. The one Gra’ Coleman threatens to beat her with if she had strength to swing it. Marlene, at thirteen, is almost as tall as Gra’ Coleman now.
“And knock her upside the head with the skillet. Say it fell on her while she was gettin it from the cabinet.”
The kids are all silent, thinking. A few of them have trouble picturing that last part, since the skillet is kept low, beneath the sink.
“Who’s in favor?” Marlene asks, spitting again.
Nancy’s hand shoots the highest this time. She’s wanted to kick Gra’ Coleman too, ever since that day she put their mother out. The two women were arguing as usual upstairs, but it was their mother’s scream that sent Nancy running with Ginger in diapers in her arms. Just in time to see Gra’ Coleman shove their mother down the stairs. The salt and pepper shakers flying. Mother tumbling, surely not alive at the bottom of that tight staircase. But pushing herself to all fours. Kicked. Grabbed by the hair. Dragged outside. Nancy bawling like an infant, echoing Ginger, covering her baby sister’s eyes even though she was too young to make sense of it.
The older you get, as in the case of Marlene, the less you believe what grown folks say, like claiming to have eyes in the back of their heads. It’s usually enough to scare the little ones out of devilment. Especially when grown folks could slap you just as well from behind as they could from the front.
But the Coleman kids and their cousins all come to realize that with Gra’ Coleman, it isn’t a myth. Whenever she’s in the kitchen and stoops for something or scrubs the floor, they practice sneaking up on her. She looks up every time. Maybe it’s the Indian blood that Maddie and Minnie’s mother Verna keeps going on about. Those Indians on the radio shows can never outsmart the white man, but they have instincts to know when danger is approaching. Or maybe Gra’ Coleman really is a witch, like Marlene keeps saying.
Marlene suggests they stagger their attempts, but Gra’ Coleman starts to keep her back to the walls in the kitchen. Or at least it seems that way, because suddenly it’s like her head can spin in all directions without her body moving. Soon, she makes them do all the chores in the kitchen—washing, cooking, scrubbing—while she stands in the doorway with her arms folded across her flat chest.
Of course they could just as easily knock her out with the skillet after she’s gone to bed in the parlor. But no one’s bold enough to walk in there at night holding it. Not even Marlene. For all they know, her snores might be fake. And if she were to wake up, how could you explain away holding a skillet in the parlor when you should be upstairs and asleep? And then there is jail to think about. Even if one of them could hit her before she jumped out of bed, only a dunce would believe it was an accident.
3. Poison her whiskey
“Rat poison,” Ginger says one night in bed, sniffling through her tears. “Put it in her goddamn drink. That way she won’t taste nothin.”
The girls are silent as they lie there, listening to her stomach growl. She hasn’t eaten supper in two days. Last night, because she refused. Tonight, because Gra’ Coleman refused her, to teach her a lesson for being too proud to eat. Especially meat. But the meat came from the hen who’d become her friend.
She named it Mr. Henry. Her brother Spencer laughed at her and said couldn’t she see it was a hen—a she? But Ginger liked the name so it stuck. Since the cat had died, she’d tried to get the chickens in the yard to come close enough so she could pet them. But chickens aren’t like cats, even with the breadcrumbs she’d stolen from the kitchen to encourage them. The chickens swooped in, pecked, and dashed away.
Only Mr. Henry kept coming back. The hen had gumption, like a man. Not like Ginger’s daddy, who was so tall her neck hurt to look at him, but who walked with a stoop that made him seem somehow smaller than his “muh,” Gra’ Coleman. Mr. Henry’s feathers were brown like syrup, with a white streak down the side. She got closer to Ginger each day, cocking her head, eyes darting. Ginger was able to study the hen’s toes in a way she’d never done before. She was usually afraid of chicken feet, and it was Marlene’s fault. Whenever the kids prepared chicken for dinner, Marlene would cut off the feet and stick them in Ginger’s face and laugh as she burst into tears. Marlene liked a mess. Liked to hear Ginger’s shrieking, which would set off Gra’ Coleman’s barking. Ginger thought Marlene was just like Gra’ Coleman, which was why she beat her so much.
Chicken feet looked too much like babies’ hands to her. Chopped off, curled up babies’ hands. Ginger had dreams about them. Someone would be touching her shoulder, and there they would be, dangling in the air without a body attached.
Mr. Henry’s feet were different. Those toes were more wrinkled than Ginger’s fingers but the claws were like little fingernails. The feet lifted delicately from the ground, one sometimes pausing in air. It struck Ginger with the urge to dance. Only, her oversize shoes couldn’t make her graceful. The shoes, always hand-me-downs from her sisters and Spencer, had newspaper stuck in the toes, and were worn in places that made her wobble. She took them off and folded her socks neatly into them so they wouldn’t get dirty. She loved going barefoot, even with the sharp stones and dirt in the yard and the splinters inside the house. She loved feeling the different textures beneath her skin. Feet on the earth, she stared at Mr. Henry, who’d moved off a ways, watching. The other chickens had gone to gathering and clucking, but she could take an audience of one.
Ginger spread her arms wide like she’d seen the Peacock girl do with her gymnastics moves. She raised herself to her toes like Mr. Henry and did a twirl, but it sent all of the chickens scattering, flapping their wings. Then the sensation of cold water down her back as Gra’ Coleman’s voice shouted from the kitchen window, “What in God’s name is you doin? Get those shoes back on, goddammit. And what I tell you kids about playin in that dirt?”
A few days later, Ginger and Mr. Henry were finally buddies. Ginger had emptied one of her daddy’s crates of broken bottles and upturned it to make a tea table. Shards of glass became fine china—the kind Maddie and Minnie’s mother Verna brought home after cleaning her white folks’ place (Gra’ Coleman accused her of stealing it).
No one else wanted to come to the tea party. The older girls were too grown for make-believe games. Ginger could hear them on the street playing tag. She could never catch up in their games, despite her long legs. And the younger girls had decided to play jacks, which Ginger didn’t do so well. Not that she couldn’t coordinate. She just got caught up in the sparkles of light hitting the metal and could barely concentrate on grabbing the pieces before the ball dropped.
Mr. Henry hopped onto the tea table, pecking at the crumbs Ginger had left in her cup. She tried to talk proper like Maddie and Minnie’s mother Verna, figuring that’s how white folks did when they drank tea.
“Lovely day, ain’t it, Mr. Henry?” she said, reaching out a hand. Mr. Henry went to peck at it, so Ginger drew back. Chicken pecks hurt worse than she thought. She drew her hand forward again. The hen just stared. Ginger managed to brush her feathers, giggling at how they were one second silky, another sharp. Not at all like a cat.
And then the shadow engulfed them. Before Ginger realized what was happening, Gra’ Coleman’s hand was around Mr. Henry’s neck and yanking the hen from the crate. Ginger screamed as the hen’s body whirled.
Gra’ Coleman swung it harder, grunting, “I told y’all these ain’t no pets. Can’t be makin no friends with what little we got to eat around here.”
Ginger couldn’t move. She’d never screamed like that in her life, almost without taking breaths. Her face was wet. Her hands were frozen at her sides, one gripping the shard of glass.
Gra’ Coleman dumped Mr. Henry on the crate. The body was twitching. Legs kicking. Toes curled.
“Now go pluck it,” Gra’ Coleman said, wiping sweat from her brow.
Ginger had never before disobeyed her grandma. But that afternoon she was up and running, still screaming. She had an audience: her sisters, cousins, and friends in the street, mouths frozen wide. Neighbors peeked from their backyards and porches, shaking their heads—just another day on Coleman Hill.
Ginger ran straight to Nancy’s arms. Her sister was just a few inches taller and as skinny, but she was the closest thing she had to the memory of a mother. But Nancy had to soon let her go, because Gra’ Coleman was yelling for someone to pluck that chicken. Nancy passed Ginger to the younger girls, who took the glass from her bleeding hand, wrapping it with a handkerchief. They clapped and tried to get her to sing along with a hand game but she could now feel her palm, throbbing to the slowing beat of her heart.
Marlene likes this new poisoning plot the best. It’s so simple she wonders for a second why she didn’t think of it. But then again, most of the methods she’s imagined, which she hasn’t shared with the others, are more elaborate and involve prolonged suffering. Like burying the witch up to her neck in the woods on a hot humid day and leaving her there. Or dousing her with kerosene and throwing a match at her.
Then comes the question of who’ll do the poisoning. No one volunteers. The girls decide to pick straws the next day after school so the boys can have a shot too.
The whole crew except Spencer gathers on the Hill. Marlene cuts the straws for them. There are so many she’s had to use an old broom from their daddy’s heap in the yard. The kids swallow hard as they watch her bite one of the straws to make it shorter than the others. Marlene closes her eyes and shuffles them, then hides their bottoms with her hand. She holds them up to the kids.
As the first hand reaches, little big-head Buster says, “I don’t know ’bout this, y’all.”
“You don’t know about what?” Marlene growls.
“What if she don’t get dead?”
“Yeah, M’ween,” pipes up Buster’s older sister. “If she don’t die, she gon’ really put us away, then.”
Everyone is silent, thinking of how Buster and his four siblings appear at the house every few days. Their mother, Rosine, just leaves them like pets she no longer wants. When seeing the brood, Gra’ Coleman complains about having to raise all of her kids’ kids, but invariably she lets them in. Lets them sleep over, where they add to the already cramped beds upstairs. A few times when Rosine has remembered to come collect her brood, Gra’ Coleman has threatened to put them all in foster care. Rosine puts her hands on her hips and slurs, “Do what the fuck you want, Mama.” The Coleman kids know it’s not a question of if but when. They heard tell that even their other grandma—their nice grandma, Lucy Grimes—put away two of her kids because she was too poor to take care of them. And Gra’ Coleman is always griping about not having two pennies to her name, even with the Coleman kids’ daddy sharing his paycheck each week.
Marlene shrugs. “Fine. So y’all want out?”
Buster and his siblings nod, his older sister adding, “But she might think we was in on it, so make sure to do it when we not here.”
“When is y’all not here?”
The rest of the kids nod in agreement. Rosine usually leaves her brood no longer than a few days, but this time they’ve been there almost two weeks. Over the weekend, Gra’ Coleman went looking for Rosine at Palladino’s Bar and at her house a few blocks away, with no luck. The kids overheard her telling Maddie and Minnie’s mother Verna that Rosine was probably passed out in bed, drunk.
Marlene throws down the straws. She’s been clutching them so hard she has ridges in her palm.
“I’ll do it my goddamn self. And if the witch don’t die, I’ll take the blame. Tired of this shit.”
She stands and marches down to the house. The kids look at each other, awestruck, then run after her. By the time they all cram inside the house, Marlene is pounding up the stairs from the basement, a ball of newspaper in her hand. The kids follow her into the parlor, where they all hesitate, including Marlene.
Gra’ Coleman’s cot is neatly folded in the corner. The stench of her snuff can lingers like something living.
Marlene breaks the mood by getting to her knees and reaching beneath the parlor table. There is the Four Roses bottle, peeking out of its basket. Its very shape calls to Marlene. She touches it and shivers. Grabs it by the neck. Feels comforted by the weight of it, about half full. Tape marks where the witch finished drinking.
The others don’t know she’s handled these bottles before, taken sips, filled the bottle with water to bring it back to the line. She doesn’t want to end up like Gra’ Coleman, or a flat-out drunk like Rosine, but she likes the feeling the liquor gives her. The warmth that fills her. How the first time it made her feel something like joy—that thing she thought she’d lost when her mother left.
With so much whiskey left in the bottle, she hates that it will go to waste with the poison. She unscrews the cap and throws back a sip. Takes another for good measure. The kids gasp, but she doesn’t care.
She opens the newspaper ball. It’s full of poison pellets she found in the basement. She carefully drops several into the bottle, and screws on the cap and shakes, but the pellets remain whole. She shakes again, clenching her teeth and hearing her shoulder joint crack. The pellets fall to the bottom of the bottle, looking like rat turds.
“Keep shakin, M’ween,” someone urges.
But the pellets barely dissolve, and Gra’ Coleman will be home soon. Marlene rushes to the kitchen, calling out orders. Someone finds a strainer, another a pot. Someone holds the strainer while Marlene pours. Her hands are trembling. She cusses as some of the liquor misses the pot.
“Shouldna taken a sip,” Nancy mutters.
Marlene turns to frown at her and misses the pot again. The kids cry out. Finally, only the pellets remain. Marlene fishes them out with water and pours the whiskey back in. The liquid stops at the middle of the tape. Someone tells Marlene to add water, but she’s sure this is the same bottle she’s taken a few sips from in the past week, and she already added water to make that up. She just peels off the tape, scrapes away the residue with her fingernail, and lines it up with the liquid.
That night in the girls’ room, they whisper amongst themselves, their bodies rigid. Did enough poison get into the whiskey? How much would she drink, anyway? And most importantly, how long would it take her to die?
They reach for each other when the scream comes from downstairs. But it isn’t Gra’ Coleman’s. It’s high-pitched, girlish, followed by the frightening sound of Gra’ Coleman’s laughing. Then they hear footsteps running upstairs and tripping.
“Buster,” Marlene mutters. “Probably peed in bed again.”
They hear him enter the boy’s room on the other side of the house. The door shuts, but they can still hear his sobs and the rest of the boys’ complaints.
4. Give no warning
Gra’ Coleman is alive the next morning. And the next. And the next. There are no signs of sickness except that look in her eyes, like a hissing snake that could strike any moment. The usual.
Marlene checks the Four Roses bottle and finds a fresh one with tape up around its neck. She doesn’t dare sample any, lest it’s a trap. Marlene knows there must be an explanation for everything, but she can’t stop the rest of the kids from speculating, and it’s her fault. To them, this proves that Gra’ Coleman is not only a witch, like Marlene has insisted all this time, but the most powerful one on Earth, because even witches on the radio and in comic books don’t survive poisoning.
Those three days they all become little angels, doing whatever Gra’ Coleman says. No speaking back, looking sideways, rolling eyes. It doesn’t completely stop her yelling and cussing, but they all work together. If one makes an error, another steps in to help without having to be asked. They are like the worker ants they’ve seen during science lessons at school: not caring who gets the task—just making sure it gets done, to satisfy the queen.
On Wednesday, Gra’ Coleman’s day off from work, the three Coleman girls are the first to get home from school. They find Gra’ Coleman and their little cousin Minnie on the Hill with Mrs. Kazlauskas’s boy from across the street. He’s tall, wearing a brown suit, and holding something. Then Gra’ Coleman does something strange. She beckons to them, smiling.
“Get on up here, y’all.”
When they walk slowly, eyeing each other, she encourages them to run up. Mrs. Kazlauskas’s boy greets them with his funny accent. He shows off his brand-new Polaroid, beaming at them. It looks like a small version of the accordion Mr. Ciccone plays up the block. Gra’ Coleman tells the girls he wants to take a picture of them, to test out his camera.
“And you too, Missus Celia,” he says.
She pats the silky braids crisscrossing her head. “Oh, but my hair—”
“Hair is fine,” he says, positioning her.
The girls regard her, seeing what the photograph will capture: a short, stout woman with graying hair and glasses and a simple housedress. If you don’t know anything about her, you will think she is a sweet old lady, the giver of fond memories, who lives up to the stately name Maddie and Minnie’s mother Verna encouraged, which none of the kids could ever pronounce properly: Grandmother Coleman. The one who doesn’t kick your mother down the stairs and out of the house. The one who doesn’t bless out the Lord in the same sentence about not taking His name in vain. The one who doesn’t leave you with pain, bruises, and scars.
Mrs. Kazlauskas’s boy is arranging them by height when Minnie spots her sister Maddie and calls to her. Maddie is so excited to be in the photograph that she comes running up in her school gym uniform. All of them feel giddy as the man arranges them again—tallest at center, shortest on the sides.
“Get closer, girls!” he says.
They inch toward each other, careful not to touch Gra’ Coleman. She being nice and all—the girls suspect it won’t last after Mrs. Kazlauskas’s boy leaves. Gra’ Coleman and Marlene are in the middle, but the man doesn’t like that. He pulls Marlene out, saying it ruins the symmetry. Marlene shrugs. Just as better to not share a photograph with the witch, she thinks—could be bad luck. The man snaps a second photograph with Marlene in the middle, replacing Gra’ Coleman.
As Gra’ Coleman bids Mrs. Kazlauskas’s boy goodbye, the girls tense. But when she turns to look at them, she’s still smiling in that way they only get from their nice grandma, Lucy Grimes.
“Go on in the house,” Gra’ Coleman says, almost laughing. “I got a treat for y’all.”
Marlene lags behind, a nasty feeling in her stomach, as the rest of the girls rush off. True to Marlene’s suspicions, there are no sweet baking smells coming from the kitchen. No gifts on the table, not that they’ve ever gotten many in this house. Gra’ Coleman follows, calling all the boys, including Spencer, inside. She ushers them into the parlor.
Buster sits there at the table, head down, tears spotting his shorts. The Coleman kids’ daddy’s thick belt lies across his lap.
“I’m sorry, y’all,” he blubbers, then breaks into sobs. Some of the others have started crying too. Spencer just looks confused.
Later, after the worst communal whupping in the history of Coleman Hill, they will learn that Buster not only knocked the bottle of poisoned whiskey away from Gra’ Coleman that night. He also told her about the plots. To which she laughed, after slapping him, and said, “Motherfuckin fools. Can’t nobody kill me.”
She’s in a laughing mood now too. She takes the belt from Buster’s lap and snaps it hard. Her lips curl up.
Nancy shakes her head, frowning. Wishing she had spoken up against the little ones joining in. Wishing she had on more padding than her thin dress. But sending a quick thanks to God—He might exist after all. Because it could have been worse than this. Unlike their mother, they will still have this narrow roof to cover their heads, despite its leaks. And welts and bruises heal, eventually, but everybody knows you only get one life.
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