Mama squealed as she slammed the handset back onto the receiver of their wallphone and did a happy dance on the linoleum floor. “Thank you, Jesus!” She hopped about, her bathrobe sliding open and revealing ribs protruding beneath a loose, lacy bra, while satin panties hung on bony hips. The sleeves of her silk robe slid up on her arms, revealing mahogany skin stretched over sticks covered with scant human flesh.
Callie looked away, feeling ashamed. Mama used to be so pretty. She set a pot in the sink and filled it with water. “Good news, Mama?”
“Uncle Cleveland died.” Mama paused to light a cigarette, and Callie could just see that black smoke winding its way into Mama’s lungs, turning them black, like in that health film they’d had to watch in school.
LaTisha glanced up from the wobbly dining room table where she did her homework. Callie’s younger sister struggled with learning fractions, and Callie promised to help her after supper. DaWayne toddled over and wrapped pudgy arms about Callie’s knees. His soft, fuzzy hair shot out in all directions. “Cah Cah.”
She bent over and picked him up. “You hungry, little man?”
“Ungee.” DaWayne nodded, staring at her with those beautiful brown eyes. So darn cute Callie had to kiss him. He kissed her back, his mouth open, coating her lips with slobber. Callie laughed and wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her free hand. She transferred DaWayne onto her hip as she opened the cupboard. Six boxes of macaroni and cheese mix left. Just enough to tide them over until the first of the month when Mama got more food stamps. Callie opened a second cupboard and her heart swelled with pride as she regarded the contents there. Plenty of home-canned tomatoes, beans and other vegetables to last them until the first harvest. Callie had grown and preserved them herself, with just a little help from Granny. She already had tomato seeds planted, and come February she’d put the carrots and onions in. Granny promised Callie could have her whole back yard this year, if she was willing to share a few fresh things. Callie’s hard work last summer was the reason her family ate so well. Even Granny had been impressed by Callie’s green thumb.
“Well,” Mama demanded. “Ain’t you gonna ask why it’s such good news?”
With her free hand Callie set the pot filled with water on one of the stove’s two working burners. She rocked DaWayne and he rewarded her by cradling his head against her neck. Pure heaven. “I don’t know.”
Mama threw out those bony arms of hers, index fingers pointed inward. “Guess who his heir is?”
“How much you gonna get?” Callie reached for the salt.
“Last time I checked,” Mama paused for dramatic effect. “Four hundred thousand dollars.”
Callie nearly dropped the salt container. Four hundred thousand dollars? Her pulse quickened. They could get a car with that kind of money. Go to a real grocery store and buy food at a decent price instead of getting taken every week at that convenience store at the corner. Maybe even put a down payment on a house. Callie had no idea how much houses cost, but four hundred thousand had to help. She could just see the large back yard where she’d put in the biggest garden ever.
Mama brushed past her as she hustled through the kitchen toward the back bedroom. “I gotta get dressed.”
Callie watched her retreating back. “Supper will be ready soon.”
“Save me some for later.” Mama gave her a backward toss of her hand. “I’m gonna see Moon Shine.”
Callie’s heart sank. Mama was forever needing ‘something to help her sleep’ and that something cost money. Moon Shine gave out loans, but the interest was so steep it was near impossible to pay it all back. They already owed so much money.
Callie sprinkled salt into the water on the stove and turned up the heat. Still cradling DaWayne in her arms, she crossed over to Mama’s room at the end of the hallway. They lived in a squalid apartment with doors made of cheap, imitation wood. The fragile door dented easily, and one of Mama’s boyfriends had knocked a hole clean through. Callie peered through it now. Mama had already pulled on a pair of jeans and was buttoning a loose blouse. Callie called through the hole, “Let me run a bath for you. I’ll rub your neck too, with that scented oil.” It helped.
Mama glanced up, her eyes lit with that inward fire Callie knew too well. No way was Mama going to sleep tonight. Mama reached for her purse. “I just need a little something, to help me with my headache.”
Callie glanced at Mama’s handbag and thanked Jesus herself they had a few more days until the food stamps came in. Mama often sold the stamps at cut prices for cash, and Callie always had to steal a few and hide them to have enough food for her and her siblings. Mama slid the handbag up her arm as she stepped around Callie and DaWayne.
Callie followed her to the door. “You don’t got that money yet, Mama.”
Mama flipped a hand in Callie’s direction. “I Will soon enough. We’re gonna be rich.”
And then Mama was gone.