I knew Gran was gone right away, but I didn’t want to be the one to say it. Billy wanted to leave her body for a viewing so the cousins and relations could pay their respects. He said it was proper. Tom said there were things other than proper that we had to think about. I agreed. What did Billy think, that we would lay Gran’s body out on the kitchen table and family would come round like they do in the movies? I’d looked at the house a hundred times like I imagined others would see it, the front porch steps propped up on cinderblocks and the screen door missing its screen. I didn’t want to think about that many people coming over.
We were standing in Gran’s room two weeks ago. When it was time for Gran’s pills, and she didn’t move, I’d called in Tom and Billy. The room smelled of hot, airless sick. Also lavender from one of those plastic air fresheners with the twist-up top. Tom was hung over. Billy was off work that day. We crowded the small room, towering over Gran’s frail body with the sheets tucked up to her armpits. In the dim, her skin looked sheer and shot through with a web of thin, blue veins. The veins on her hands were larger and angled. You could see the one that disappeared into her arm past the knob of her bony wrist. I wished she’d been wearing a nightgown with a high neck and ruffles when she passed. Instead, she was in my tenth-grade gym shirt, the only thing I kept when I dropped out last year. It was easier to get her in and out of t-shirts when I had to change her clothes. A wooden crucifix hung from a nail over her bed. There was a gold-plated Jesus on it and a little plaque with the letters INRI attached on top with tiny nails. I glanced at it, half expecting to see Jesus with his head bent down to look at Gran. He was not.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound—” I let my voice trail off when neither of them joined me. I don’t know why I pictured the three of us singing that song over Gran’s body. She’d gone deaf a year ago but kept singing Amazing Grace every night before bed until she couldn’t sing. The deafness changed it from a melody to something that pained us to hear.
For some reason, I thought of the songbirds. They’d been the only thing to light up her eyes after she had her stroke. Back when she could hear, I’d push her chair onto the porch so she could listen to them. There were hardly any people around but the woods were always alive with birds and critters. If you sat still and listened you could pick out the individual chirps. Sometimes an acorn or a stick would clatter to the ground from the treetops. Mostly, you could hear songbirds. When I was young, she taught me to tell them apart: chickadees, sparrows, the titmouse, and mourning doves which I liked to pretend were owls back then. After she lost her hearing, she didn’t want to go outside. I never saw her face light up again.
One of the littles shrieked from the living room, breaking the spell. I walked out first. Billy and Tom followed me closely like none of us wanted to stay in Gran’s room alone. We’d all three of us seen dead bodies as kids, both people and animals. You can’t help that living out here. I guess we just didn’t want to see it in our own house. Tom shut Gran’s door behind him. I broke up a squabble with all three of the littles fighting over the TV clicker. The screen had gone to static. I adjusted the antenna and Sesame Street came back into view.
Billy started in on the viewing thing, insisting it was proper. Tom said no, we’ve got to bury her now. Tom was private. He didn’t want our business spread around. He could get a backhoe from work where he dug wells and septics. Billy and Tom got to talking. They weren’t hardly men but I knew they were talking men’s business. Tom, fair-haired and freckled, is older and stronger. Billy, with mouse-brown hair and a scar on his jaw, thinks he’s smarter because he graduated high school. Tom only did up to eleventh grade and then went to work straight away. I was quiet mostly. I’d be in eleventh grade right now if I still went. I wanted to say something about a funeral, but only to put my two cents in, which I didn’t do too often. I knew as well as they did that we didn’t have the money for it. Besides, Tom says, you bring in the Bennett kin, and it’s gonna be all over town. Daddy got into it with his brothers years ago. We’ve been on the outs with the rest of them ever since. It was mostly men’s business I knew enough to stay out of. Sometimes I can count on a few of the aunts to come through when I got no one else.
Our aunt Addie married a Campbell, which Bennetts didn’t mix much with. We knew the Campbells would be the first to start gossiping about Gran passing at home without much in the way of medical care. The Campbells all put their elders in the nursing home in town, or something called hospice which in my opinion is worse than dying at home. People said Addie married up. The Campbells have money coming in from the cell tower that got erected on their property on account of they own land on the mountain. With free money coming in every month, they think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. I didn’t much care about them, but Tom and Billy usually see some of the Campbells when they go to Zeek’s to shoot pool. At Zeek’s, Billy’s the one who bets on pool. Tom says he’d rather lose money at the poker table. It isn’t gambling, he says, because a good player can outsmart a gambler. After a few beers and pool, poker, or whatever, people’s jaws can get real loose about family business and who’s better than who. Our town was the kind where almost everyone had a bail bondsman’s number on the fridge. The judgy ones just didn’t need to use it as often.
I said listen, nobody’s even gonna know about Gran. I didn’t want a viewing. I thought about the Campbells and all their prideful talk, plus there’d even be Bennetts who’d come with their judgment. I pictured all of them standing in the living room, Bennets and Campbells alike, the lumpy green carpet beneath their feet with the shag ground flat with age. A plaid throw on the couch hid a long, jagged tear on one of the cushions. I kept meaning to tape it up, but I only remembered when I didn’t have the time to do it.
The women would pay their respects with a casserole or a plastic tub of macaroni salad from SaveMore’s deli counter. One of them might tell the story about Gran running off her second husband with a shotgun. The cousins and aunts would follow me into the kitchen when I put the food into the fridge. I don’t know why but women always congregate in kitchens. We had a few linoleum tiles missing with the floor beneath gone to a brownish gray. Dirt and grit seemed to collect in those squares no matter how much I swept, which was less than I should’ve. The sink was always full of dishes. The tap dripped. The ceiling sagged pretty bad in the corner over the stove. Grease had splattered the wall next to the stove for so long that the paint was permanently yellowed.
I asked Tom and Billy how long they thought it’d been since a doctor came out here. None of us knew. We probably owed for the last visit and no town doctor’s gonna bend over backward to come all the way out here when he’s owed money. Plus, I said, Gran was sick for so long that probably nobody’d notice if none of us said anything. The littles wouldn’t notice. They’re all under six with three daddies gone to who knows where along with our mama none of us have seen in a year. The littles hadn’t known Gran as anything but sick. They wouldn’t know if she never came out of her room again.
Tom came with the backhoe. Billy carried Gran out. I fixed Kraft and canned peaches for the littles and turned up the TV to drown out the digging noise that carried across the field. I haven’t been that far back on our land since. I don’t think Tom or Billy have either.
Tom and Billy and me made an agreement when it got to be that we knew Mama wasn’t coming back. I didn’t want to be a mother, especially not to three of them that weren’t even mine. I thought I was going to graduate and leave Kaymoor and do I don’t know what, just do it somewhere else. Instead, I dropped out to take care of the littles. I know Billy is gonna say I’m too old for school when the littles don’t need me and I want to go back. I probably won’t, but it’s something to think about. I keep the GED in mind, which most girls from school end up getting if they do anything. You can get most jobs in town without a diploma. You can’t bring a baby to school. Most girls don’t see a reason to graduate when their belly starts growing.
We can’t get assistance. You get on the county’s radar and the first thing they’d do is put the littles in foster homes. We’d say Tom was all of our guardians if someone asked, even though we didn’t have it down on paper. I thought things through when Mama didn’t come back, what with being the only grown female in the house. The stove and its years of splatters and grease, things had got so bad when Mama left– she wasn’t a housekeeper. Her pills came before cleaning, working, even us. When she left I put away what little of her things she’d forgotten in the bedroom: a pair of jeans too tight for her that’d probably fit me but I can’t bring myself to try on, a pair of high heels with one heel broken off and gone missing, and a plastic hairbrush with her long, dark hairs still trailing from the bristles. When the household fell on me, we were pretty much used to the way things were. I can get by with mostly ignoring it. I clean up the messes we currently make, but cleaning up the past is too much for me. It’s enough feeding the littles and the diapers and trying to teach them letters and numbers and keep things out of their mouths that shouldn’t be there. Putting on their shoes is one thing but two of them will have both shoes off before I can wrestle one shoe on the third. It’s a lot.
Sometimes I wake up in a panic. It feels like I’m late for first period. I missed the bus. I didn’t do my homework. I always come-to when I see the littles on their mattress pushed against the opposite wall. Other times in the middle of the night when I’m sleeping, one of them might cry out. I wait for Mama to soothe them until she doesn’t come. The crying doesn’t stop, and I remember Mama’s not coming home.
Tom lets me take his truck into town a few times a month. He stays with the littles. It’s women’s work shopping for groceries and toilet paper. Staying home, he can turn on the TV and keep them corralled in the living room in the pack-and-play. They’re getting too big for all three of them to stay in there. I’ll worry about that when I have to.
The arrangement we didn’t talk about but just fell into is that I made sure the bills were paid. I signed the checks with a scribble. I imagine a rich woman in town with a housekeeper signs things with a flourish. I do the same, but not with a name you can read. The power company doesn’t care as long as the check doesn’t bounce. I check the mail, but not every day. We only get two things. One is bills.
The other is Gran’s SSI check which comes once a month. I take it to the Savings & Loan. Mama used to manage this. By the time it fell on me, Gran couldn’t hold a pen. I signed her name with my left hand. The first time I signed Gran’s check, I told Maybelle, the teller I knew from going to school with her daughter, that Gran took a turn for the worst. I passed the signed check over the counter with my ID and a deposit slip. I was worried she’d know Gran didn’t sign it. She didn’t even look at it for more than a second to see that it was signed. She ran the check through a little machine, stamped it, and passed me back the receipt. Thank you kindly, Raylene, and you say hi to your gran for me, she always says.
I have Gran’s latest check stuffed in a Tampax box in the back of my closet. What with her gone, I don’t know what to do with it. One thing I do know is that the light bill and taxes are due. We own our place free and clear, but the county wants their cut. If I didn’t deposit the check, personally I could go without. Tom and Billy would figure out their own things, but it was up to me to keep the house running and keep us all fed. There were the littles to think about first. SSI was good money, and I stretched it until it was paper thin. I felt that way a lot, too. I’d been depositing it for months, but this one was different. I thought about talking to Tom, giving him the burden of saying yes or no, but I didn’t want him to know things might be falling apart. I was old enough to handle things. Besides, I didn’t trust him to take over. Men don’t know anything about keeping house.
He’d used a backhoe from work to bury Gran. There’s no law against a home burial, which everyone out this way knows but you’ve at least got to file the paperwork. He and Billy buried her body. She was already gone, but who’s to say when there’s no proof? I knew about it and didn’t report it. We were on the right side of the law, what with the county law mostly made up of Smiths and Millers whose kin never had a thing with Bennetts. I wanted to keep it that way.
I thought we were in over our heads. Gran passed almost three weeks ago, long enough for me or Tom to have called someone. We wouldn’t have trusted Billy with that. I wondered if you could tell the sheriff everything after the fact: Gran passed and we mourned and kept it all private and there’s nothing more to be done. Someone would tell the state. The checks would stop. Where would that leave me? Us. Things spun around in my head, like the littles in foster care with me too young to get them out and no money to do it even if they let me. I could get a job but who would watch them? It was like the snake eating its own tail that you always hear about in a bad situation that goes round and round.
Tom’s truck wouldn’t start. The light bill was due. The milk was low. I’d been watering it down but I kept thinking about the little’s bones and teeth and the calcium they were missing. It was five miles into town. It was a nice day. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d walked there and back lugging an armful of groceries. Other times, the truck wouldn’t start or Tom hadn’t been home in a few days and I had to leave Billy with the pack-and-play in front of the TV. Gran’s check was in my pocket. They’d send me upstate for this if Maybelle looked too hard. If she didn’t, I’d go to SaveMore for milk and cereal, rice, white bread, and the cheap hamburger meat that comes in a tube with the sell-by date coming up. If there was enough change, maybe I’d get a small bag of barbeque pork rinds to eat on the way home.
In town, the sidewalk started by the pawn shop and kept on through until you were heading back out. A feral cat darted toward the back of the building as I passed. I went to the bank first. I didn’t want to go in. I wanted to keep walking straight out of town. I didn’t know where but it wasn’t home, except I knew Billy would be feeding the littles the cheese puffs that would leave them smeared with orange powder. I needed to get back.
Maybelle slid the check into the little machine. My heart was beating too fast. I stood there waiting for the machine to start beeping and the manager to come over. Maybelle said to say hi to Gran, stamped the check, and passed me back the receipt and my ID. The machine was silent. I inhaled. Then, I smiled at her like a person who wasn’t passing bad checks and wasn’t heading to prison. I stuffed the receipt into my pocket and walked out as fast as I could. The receipt felt like a beacon someone was going to notice. I did groceries the same way, which was as fast as I could. I smiled at the cashier and bag boy.
Walking home, I imagined Gran’s body compressed beneath the muddy backhoe tracks all the way out behind the barn. We didn’t have a road going back there. The backhoe had left tracks in the overgrown field but the weeds had already begun to spring back to hide them.
I thought of being arrested for check fraud. I had a flash of myself in a prison jumpsuit. They wouldn’t have told me where the littles got packed off to. Billy would disappear. Tom might visit me on my first Christmas, but probably not after. At the end of the sidewalk where it blends into the pawn shop’s dirt and gravel lot, I saw a small songbird’s head on the sidewalk, severed clean from the body. I saw Gran’s face in my mind, first deaf to birdsong and then still and silent in her bed. The bird’s dirty yellow beak and black seed eyes were open. The tiny brown and tan feathers along its skull were ruffled. The world, maybe nature or something bigger than us, had taken a fragile thing and destroyed it. I knew how it felt; one day things are one way. The next day, they’re changed in ways you couldn’t imagine.
The sheriff didn’t stop by after the first check. Nobody came to pile the littles into a county minivan and take them away. Tom and Billy bickered about money but that was nothing new. Tom got his truck working, and I went into town once more. We kept Gran’s door closed. The days passed slowly because I didn’t have to watch the clock and keep track of when it was time for her pills. Everything was the same. Nothing was the same. I didn’t wake up thinking I was late for school. Instead, I kept hearing a car coming up our drive. I’d go to the window, but nobody’d be there. I tried to recall how long ago it was that Mama left. A year, I guessed until I realized I couldn’t remember what season it was when we realized she wasn’t coming back.
If I could point a finger at what got me into this situation with Gran’s checks, it would start with Mama having three more babies when I was old enough to have one of my own. I wouldn’t point the finger at their daddies because nobody expected men like that to stick around. I couldn’t point a finger at Billy or Tom, except I wanted to because they were both older. Maybe at Tom for bringing the backhoe and not wanting to tell anyone on account of how much he disliked the Campbells. Maybe it was my fault for picturing people looking at the sagging ceiling above the stove and being glad Tom didn’t want a viewing. My finger was getting awfully long pointing by then. No matter how I turned it over in my head, there wasn’t anyone to blame but myself for cashing the check and smiling at Maybelle and knowing full well I was probably going upstate for it.
Those were the things I thought about until the next SSI check arrived. I signed it because I didn’t know what else to do. We were low on milk and bread, and out of eggs and hamburger. Tom was outside by the shed with his head under his truck’s hood. I just put the littles down, I said. Can you go on in and watch them when you’re done? He nodded without looking up. His arm pumped back and forth as he unscrewed something with an oil-stained wrench.
I walked into town. I cashed the check. I took the receipt with shaking hands. Virgie Miller, whose brother was the magistrate, came into the bank as I was walking out. Virgie said hello, Raylene, and I froze. What if the sheriff sent her in to get me so we didn’t make a scene inside the bank? Maybe I’d only go to juvie on a count of my age. Some lady who wanted to be a mother would take care of the littles. I bet they’d even find Mama. I was so relieved it was over that my knees felt weak.
Virgie nodded as she walked past me to the counter, hardly even looking at me. I heard Maybelle ask about her grandbaby. Virgie said something I couldn’t hear, and they both laughed. I left without looking back. I was ashamed for thinking it would be over that easy. I whispered don’t be so stupid to nobody in particular. Well, mostly to myself.
I imagined Gran glad of the money. She’d been frail for so long, then too sick to speak in more than a whisper and a groan for many months. There was no coroner or death certificate filed at the courthouse. There was a big muddy patch behind the barn and a motive. I didn’t know if sickness had aged her or how old she really was. She’d had Mama real young and Mama had me real young, too. One thing I knew for sure was that the SSI office knows how old people can get before the next of kin is supposed to notify someone and stop the checks. If not Maybelle, SSI would know. If Virgie Miller didn’t come for me this time, it could be the sheriff or Maybelle with the next check or the one after that, or many checks later when I believed nobody would catch me. I thought I’d talk to Tom when I got home, but I didn’t know what to say. This had been dropped in my lap and I didn’t see a way out. I needed someone else’s lap to drop it in. I got groceries, in and out without bothering to scan my savings card.
I put up a birdfeeder on the porch that I’d found in the shed. It would be nice for the littles to hear the mourning doves and pretend they were owls. Stale bread was the only thing we had to fill it with, but that attracted more squirrels than songbirds. Sometimes the littles and I sat on the porch at night and listened to the whippoorwills in the trees. They say if you hear one, it means someone’s gonna die. I guess they’re a little late in that regard. I cashed more checks. Sometimes Tom’s truck worked. Sometimes not. Billy stopped coming home as often. I got the biggest of the littles a new coat and shoes at the end of summer. Handmedowns would work for the other two. They always did.
Tom was tinkering under his truck’s hood on the first chilly fall day. I didn’t bother to ask him when he’d be done. Watch the littles for me? I asked. He nodded. Five miles was fine until it got to be too cold. I’d worry about that when I had to. On these walks lately, I thought about Mama and Gran more than about going upstate. Every month was a chance to get caught but nobody seemed to care except me. I was trying to keep the family together. Surely a judge would understand.
As I’d been doing these past months, I got in and out of the bank and the SaveMore as fast as I could. I saw a streak of black cross the road as I passed the liquor store. I turned to see a feral cat dashing into the woods. At the pawn shop where concrete blended into dirt and gravel, I saw another songbird’s head on the sidewalk. I had a flash of listening to Gran’s songbirds as a child. There I was, pretending the mourning doves were owls in the trees. There was Gran’s face lit up in her chair on the porch listening to them, then dull and sad when she couldn’t hear them anymore. I looked down at the bird. Its beak and spine were held together by a feathery neck. Its skull and body had been ripped away. The small tan and black feathers were ruffled along the delicate inch of backbone. I could not think of a worse way for a tiny creature to go.
I remembered the first forged check. I remembered seeing the first songbird’s head and dirty yellow beak in nearly the same spot. Everything crashed around inside me, from Mama leaving to feeding the littles Kraft and canned peaches while Tom and Billy used the backhoe behind the barn. Mama wasn’t coming home. The sheriff wasn’t coming for me. I knew I would keep cashing the checks. Maybe I was done growing up. I’d keep growing up the littles until they were done, too. I was not my mother. I would not leave them until they were old enough to leave me first.
TJ Butler divides her time between a sailboat on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and a tiny house in Virginia. She writes fiction and essays that are not all fun and games. Her work has been featured in a variety of literary and media outlets. She is the author of the short story collection Dating Silky Maxell (ELJ Editions 2023). Connect with her at TJButlerAuthor.com.