Tanner named the motel Star Motel because calling the place North Star Motel would’ve been asking for it. Colored folks recognized that “star” and the little lights Jessie insisted they burn in the windows. Most of their customers were hungry, travel-weary young men who did not believe the VACANCY sign as they approached the motel and did not believe that Tanner, round as a dishpan, wide as the door, was its owner. None of them had the nerve to ask her if she was a man or a woman, but she saw their longways looks anytime she entered a room. They never stayed more than a night or two and spent most of that time asleep. Tanner checked them in at $1.25 a night on weekdays and $2.00 on weekends. She never shamed anyone for not having the full fee and would accept three quarters and a “thank you kindly.”
“Get up, Tanner, sounds like the iceman is here. Last time he didn’t ring the bell and most of the ice melted all over the porch. We don’t have money to waste, and I can’t stretch half a block of ice for a whole week.” Jessie was sitting up in bed, her breasts and collarbone soaking in the day’s first light. “I said go on and get the ice. The Campbells are checking out this morning, and Flo needs to get breakfast out to them by nine.”
“If you run me out this bed one more time, woman, you’re going to know it.”
“Ain’t nobody running you, just go get the ice. You can come back to bed after. Oh, and feed Rinny!”
Tanner knew Jessie was lying, but she got out of the bed anyway. By the time Tanner got the ice into the icebox and came back to their bedroom, Jessie would be halfway dressed, talking about the ledgers and dividing the day’s work between them. Best to go get the ice and start the day.
The ice was melting by the time Tanner reached the porch, but not enough to make Jessie have a fit. The iceman slipped everybody’s blocks into their iceboxes. Except for colored people. He left their ice sitting outside, anywhere, in dirt or sand or on a dusty porch. Tanner poured hot water down the block and quickly lifted it inside of the wooden box. Didn’t make no sense to tip the iceman but Jessie tipped him every delivery. “He don’t have to come out here, Tanner. Ain’t like we can leave to go into town and get it,” she would say.
Tanner headed back into the house and to the bedroom she shared with Jessie. “Mr. Campbell say what time they’d be heading out?” Jessie stood wearing a white blouse and ankle length skirt, her brown leather ankle booties tied tightly. “He wants an early start on the road. Almost fifteen hundred miles between here and Seattle. He thinks they could be there by this time tomorrow.”
Tanner grunted. Could be. She tried to talk more sense into Mr. Campbell the night before, but he was determined to make it his way. Tanner thought it would be better for them to stop somewhere in California for a few days and then head back to the road. Maybe leave his wife and newborn in San Francisco for a week or two and then send for them later. But Campbell wouldn’t hear of it. Said he was driving straight through, driving even if his eyeballs went bloodshot and burst through his head. “Give me the rundown, baby,” Tanner said to Jessie as she pulled her work trousers over her belly and bent to cuff them.
“Did you feed Rinny?”
“Yes, I fed Rinny, now give me the rundown.”
“Well, Campbell’s checking out this morning. That’ll leave us empty for the weekend, which is good because we’re sure to fill up the singles.” Tanner nodded. Single people always ran off the job on Fridays, soon as the boss paid them. By Monday morning, they were long gone and so far on their way north or west it didn’t make sense to send Klan after their families. They were just gone. “Flo is getting started on the weekend menu, and I’m waiting for a cigarette delivery and the bread delivery. Me and Flo will get the parlor ready for this evening. I’ll air out the singles and Newt will sweep them. All you need to do is change the oil on the Campbells’ car and check the tires and whatnot. Maybe wash down the sides of the house.”
The house was peach-colored with a brown roof and sat a quarter of a mile from the highway. Travellers could see the Star’s marquee from the road whether on foot or automobile. The marquee was its own detached, two-pronged structure painted in mint green and white and lit up every night at 9:00 p.m. The house’s front room served as the motel’s lobby, stripped of all furniture save an upright and uncomfortable sofa, two wing chairs, a wall clock, and a small lobby desk with a silver bell. Tanner kept a wide black leather barstool behind the desk to sit on when her knee acted up. All other times, she preferred to greet her guests standing. The single rooms stood in a row of six to the left of the house. The doubles, another six, off to the right. The only formal place for colored folks to stay headed west on the lonely, desert highway.
It was Flo who came up with the idea of having jook nights on Fridays for the locals and travellers alike. Black folks were starting to stay in Phoenix to make a home and needed a place to go on the weekends. Friday nights at the Star Motel were for card playing, thigh slapping, and smoky mingling. Tanner hated the idea at first. She needed to keep her family safe and didn’t want all of colored Phoenix in their parlor room on Friday nights, but the women were lonely. Flo complained of never having company and Jessie didn’t have to open her mouth for Tanner to know she was cross about it all.
Flo was one of Tanner’s first guests. Flo arrived with a belly brimming over its due date. Tanner knew the kinds of things that would make a woman run, pregnant and all, out of the swamps of Florida. They never spoke about it or how Flo found the place. She was flat out with her intentions when she checked in that night. “I can cook. If you let me stay on until my baby big enough, I’ll be your cook. I used to cook lunches for the orange pickers and deliver them in my truck. I can cook anything, and I can kill anything.” After Flora went into labor, she named the boy Newt, half because Tanner slipped on birth water running over trying to catch him out of the birth canal and half because he kind of looked like one.
Jook night at Star Motel started at nine o’clock, but folks trickled in around ten thirty. It gave Flora and Jessie time to change, time to tuck Newt in, time to perfume behind the neck, time to cast their muscled legs in nylon. The women always wore all black, including Tanner. That was the rule, everybody in something bright. Other rule was no outside food and no outside liquor. Tanner played the doorman and Jessie worked the bar. Flo managed the kitchen, bringing plates out to the cards players and collecting tips in her bosom. Flo wore a deep, matte red lipstick but kept her fingernails short and bare. “Can’t cook with that shit on my hands,” she’d say and wink at whatever woman was questioning her manicure. The manicure-questioning woman always knew Flo’s reputation: She could outlast a man, she took her time, she could cook, and she didn’t lie. Flo was thickset, with an impressively square jaw and roundish eyes. She openly bedded other women; the few nights a month she spent with Tanner were in one of the single rooms.
Tanner stood at the front door of the house, on the porch, collecting the dollar fee it cost to get in. “Order your plates with Flo,” she said, “All plates from Miss Flora. All booze from Jessie.” The parlor was lit just enough to see a card hand but barely enough to see if you were putting your fork in meat or vegetables. As soon as the brass band started up, Jessie rattled her tambourine. She bounced it off of her hip and then smacked it into her open hand. Her feet moved in time, and her hair wagged back and forth on her head with every tambourine slap. They would bring in an easy three or four hundred dollars between the food and hootch and card games. They split the income evenly and saved for their future plans. Jessie was going to Los Angeles, Miss Flora was sending Newt to Howard, and Tanner would open another motel.
Hours of dancing passed on top of hours of drinking and the night winded down. Couples were filing out on foot, holding each other up. Tanner walked over to each spades and craps table and announced that it was closing time in ten minutes. “Last bets for the night. Make them count.” A hand reached out for Tanner’s and caught her at the wrist. Tanner looked down at her hand and over to the arm holding hers. “Can I help you with something, sir?” She was used to the belligerent drunk from time to time and escorted them to the front yard to sober up. Come morning, they’d be gone and ashamed. This man’s front tooth was as gold as his watch, and he smiled big as payday, not a whiff of alcohol on him. His suit was a butter yellow and his white shoes were unscuffed. There was no dust on them either. He was a good foot and a half taller than Tanner and his reach, she estimated, twice that of hers. “I think maybe you can help me, ma’am. I’m looking for a missing person. Any information you could fetch me would sure be a nice gesture on the part of you and yours. Name is Tanner Harris, wanted dead or alive. Ring any bells for you, ma’am?” The man’s grin faded as he whispered through his teeth, “Maybe you want to be clearing the party on out of here so we can settle this. You got a debt to pay, girl.”
Flora, never missing a thing, hit the lights. “All right now, y’all heard Tanner. Jook’s closed. Next week, same time, same place.” She moved from table to table, pointing folks to the way out. Some of the drunk ones begged a dance from her, and she chided them, “Go on, now. Go on, I said.” The last patrons bid farewell to Jessie and promised to be back. Jessie thanked them for coming and walked them to the front porch. Tanner stayed in the parlor with the gold-toothed man. When Jessie returned to the parlor, Flora headed in a quick scramble for the kitchen door. “Come on over here and take a seat,” the gold-toothed man said. He kept his hand wrapped tightly around Tanner’s wrist and had a smile on his face as she sat. Flora returned to the parlor with a gun pointed at the back of her head. The man had not come alone. His companion was thin, with a face slender as toilet plumbing. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nudged Flora forward with the gun. “This one here was reaching for this gun, boss.” The gold-toothed man looked over at Flora and smiled at Tanner. “Tanner love a talented woman, don’t you, Tanner? I’ll be damned. I come to talk to you and your girlfriend here want to shoot me down.”
The gold-toothed man let go of Tanner’s wrist and draped an arm around her shoulders. Tanner looked over to Flo, but she ignored the gaze. Flo pushed back on the mouth of the gun, putting weight on her captor’s arm. Jessie was still sitting at a table, weaponless and remote. Jessie was good at disappearing inside of herself. The gold-toothed man cleared his throat, making a show of himself. “Seems to me like we have us a problem here. See, I only need Tanner, but it don’t seem like you girls gonna let me leave here with what I need. Second problem is I know either one or two of you bitches helped this fat nigger kill off all my brothers. I’m no adding man, but that’s simple enough math to me.” Droplets of sweat populated his upper lip as he talked. “Except Maud can count and do. Eight dead boys divided by three living niggers ain’t enough change at all.”
“Speak plain, if you come to speak. Kill if you come to kill,” Jessie blurted at the man.
“I’ll be damned, Tanner. I thought that other one was a robust woman, but this one here, this one got some nerve, don’t she?” The man turned his full attention to Jessie. “You want it plain, country girl? I’ll give it to you plain, baby. Name’s Glenn, Maud’s baby boy, and I come to collect this here debt. You see, girl, dead don’t scare Maud because Maud been dead, but she lonely something awful. Now Tanner here, and you bitches, the two of you, end up killing every messenger she sends. That ain’t right. Maud took her time when she made her sons. Took her time when she found Tanner, too. You know what taking time is, country girl? Let me spell it out for you. Eight niggers minus three niggers is five and you going to pay that five out in lifetimes. With Maud. Maud’ll like you. She’ll like your big girlfriend over there, too.”
“I never did nothing to Maud,” Jessie said.
“You call killing eight grown children nothing? If that’s nothing, I sure would like to see what you call something,” Glenn said.
“Maud’s the one doing it. She already done cursed us. Why she keep sending her sons to kill us?”
“That don’t have much to do with me. I come for Tanner, and I come for Tanner’s women keep helping Tanner. That’s all.”
Peanuts shot into the air like fireworks following a parade. Flora had picked up a tray full of them and smashed it against the head of her captor. His face burned down to the bone and revealed rat’s teeth. Jessie ran toward Flora, and Tanner booted Maud’s boy with the flat of her shoe. “Salt, Jessie, Salt!” Tanner screamed out. Jessie hit Flora’s captor with another tray of bar nuts. Flora held the man’s head and snapping jaw in the crook of her arm as Jessie threw every salty thing she could find. The man’s arms and legs flailed about. He snapped his jaw at Jessie’s torso until he melted into the creases of Flora’s black dress, blue and red clumps of him exploding down her front, into her patent heels. The women were so busy they didn’t hear the shot. Didn’t see Glenn’s body slumped at Tanner’s feet or see the blood trickling from his nose and into the wood floor.
“Flora, how’d you know that wasn’t no real man?”
“When I went into the kitchen to get the gun, he was eating Rinny.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Only one, unless you know another.”
Tanner looked at the dead man on the floor, turning the bottle opener over in her hands. She listened to Jessie opening then slamming drawers for a sheet to wrap the body in and knew that, even in distress, Jessie would not waste a good sheet on a dead man. Tanner listened to the sound of the whiskey cabinet’s old latch and heard the shuffle of glasses sliding onto the bar. Jessie poured faster than usual and Tanner half-smiled when she gulped. Tanner liked to see Jessie throw her head back and down a drink. Jessie was no wine woman. “Want one?” Jessie asked. Tanner looked at the dead man again, figuring out how long it would take to strip him down, bleed him and bury him. “Set me up,” she whispered back, letting the back of her shaved head cool on the wall behind her.
Jessie came from behind the bar holding Tanner’s drink in her right hand and a ragged sheet draped across her left arm. Her hair, usually mussed about her shoulders, was braided into a single rope, doubled over itself and secured with a rubber band. “You can’t keep killing these boys and expecting they won’t come back bigger and badder,” Jessie said. His was the ninth body on the floor in almost five years.
“You’d think they’d stop coming after me by now, Jessie. I’m trying to live good on this place here. I didn’t send for them, they come for me. You’d think Maud’d be tired of sending her boys to slaughter by now.” Tanner held the drink in hand but didn’t sip from it. Maud only had nine boys, just nine of them. If she could get this one buried by nightfall, she would be rid of Maud for good. “We need to get a move on it, baby. You know sundown comes quicker than a fly to shit.”
Jessie fixed the sheet around the dead man’s body, tucking its ends beneath him. She stood up to get salt and licorice root for his ears and mouth and backside. “He’s stinking already. We got to plug him up.”
“Can’t plug him until he’s bled through and through,” Tanner said, “this ain’t a time to be skipping steps. You know the way it’s got to be done.”
Jessie stared at Tanner as if to cut her down. “I didn’t leave Georgia to get caught up in this mess you got yourself into with Maud. And now I’m trapped, just like Flo and just like Newt. You got me here plugging up dead bodies because you couldn’t tell your last woman goodbye the right way. Now I’ll never get to California. It ain’t no more safe for me here in Phoenix burying Maud’s sons than it was in Georgia. At least in Georgia I could walk off the land when I wanted to.”
Tanner didn’t shush her. Didn’t make sense to. It was all true. Tanner left Maud one morning without so much as packing a bag. She left on foot, the weight of travel and her body at times too much for her knee. She stopped every few days in a field or under a tree to wash herself and rest up. Sometimes she found a rabbit, other times she ate nothing. She laid her suit out in the sun to dry and napped, naked, through afternoons too hot to travel. She chewed leaves of mint and packed them under her arms to keep her dry. When she could hop a train car she did and shared liquor with the men aboard. Men with names like Willie and Richard and Bartholomew and with pasts as unspeakable as her own. Most of them were going north or west. Most of them had left women behind, too. And kids to send back for. No one was lucky enough to ride one train all the way out, but no one was willing to hop off before getting into Arkansas. Some piled out in northern Texas and others in New Mexico. None of the men bothered her because none of them knew she was a woman. Her breasts were no larger than the chest of a very stout man. She wore her hair shaved close to her scalp and carried a handkerchief to wipe sweat from it. She kept a pair of socks stuffed down her shorts and listened as the other men chortled through stories of close encounters with another man’s wife. She told her own stories of being ran out of a house and marked for death. When she spoke, the gap between her two front teeth seemed to grow and swallow her audience. The soft flap of gum that hung there was the most delicate thing about her. By the time she walked from New Mexico to Phoenix, her knee had doubled in size and her cane was about ready to give up the ghost. She settled on a little abandoned ranch and in a year converted it into a motel for colored people traveling west. Out of the south, Lord knows.
It took Maud almost as long to find her and send the first boy. That first one wasn’t sent over to kill Tanner so much as he was sent to tie her there. Maud’s juju kept Tanner bound to the place. She could go anywhere on the property, but she could not leave. The first time Tanner tried to leave the motel, she learned what it was to die and come back. The juju allowed her to walk off but every step took a little bit of her life force from her. Walking off the motel property meant dying. She couldn’t leave if she wanted to and, by extension, anyone she loved couldn’t leave either. That meant Jessie. It meant Flora. It meant Newt. Maud was holding them hostage until she was ready for them all. Most Tanner could do, the most she asked her family to do, was make the best life they could. “Ain’t no such thing as life with both feet tied,” Jessie would say, “no such thing.”
Flo came down the stairs with Newt in hand, not bothering to shield the child’s eyes in any way. “The two of you can keep the hollering down because some of us need to sleep before folks start ringing on the bell tonight,” Flo said, stepping over the dead man. “What’s taking y’all so long to get this one in the ground? He the last one, ain’t he?” Jessie waited for Tanner to answer and continued to work on the body.
“Well, Miss Flora, we need to get him outside and my knee is in no good condition today. Can’t bleed him in here, on the wood floor, but Jessie done washed him down with turpentine soap. If you could help get the body out back, I’d be mighty obliged, ma’am.” Tanner’s grin spread across her face when she said ma’am and tipped her head toward Flo.
Flora kicked up at Tanner, “Just shut the hell up and get the hell on before I change my damn mind. Least you could do is grab the stretcher out the back for me and Jessie, or we got to do that too?”
Newt ran from his mother’s side to follow behind Tanner and held the screen door open as Tanner came up the back steps with the canvas and wooden pole contraption. Tanner held out her hand to the boy, and he slapped her five. “Thought I told you not to come out on this back porch without any shoes on, boy. I gotta start repeating myself around here?”
“No, Uncle Tanner,” Newt said, running through the parlor, over the dead body and into the coat closet for his shoes.
Flo rolled the dead man on his side and slipped a new ragged sheet halfway under his body, then turned him back toward her so Jessie could get to the other side. With the sheet in place, they slid the body onto the stretcher and out into the yard. They left him atop a butcher block table like they had with his brothers. Tanner walked over with her knife in hand and made incisions in his neck, groin, and armpits. Newt placed buckets around the table where Tanner had made the cuts. They sat around the dead man and said nothing, Jessie sometimes looking at Tanner, Tanner sometimes looking at Jessie. “Maybe the bottom of his feet, too. This is taking too long,” Jessie said and Tanner walked over, knife and cane in hand, and bored a hole through the dead man’s arch.
“Ain’t nobody had breakfast yet,” Flo said, “no more courting the dead until we all eat. C’mon, Newt.”
Newt looked over to Tanner and waited for her to get up. “Mama said let’s eat, Uncle Tanner.”
Tanner smiled at the boy, “Tell Auntie Jessie that your mama said come and eat. I don’t think Auntie Jessie wants to come in the house. What you think, Newt?”
Newt shrugged his shoulders and smiled at Jessie. “Better come and eat before Mama gets mad at you, Aunt Jessie.” Newt pulled Jessie up off the ground playfully, making a show of his little muscles until Jessie laughed.
The three of them walked into the house as Flo set the table. “About time. Thought the dead man got up and walked away with all of you.”
They got on good together, but Tanner never wanted any juju, not even for her knee. Most Maud could do was offer a poultice of steamed herbs or strong tea. Wasn’t church that kept Tanner away from juju. Maud thought maybe she was raised in the Christian way, but that wasn’t it, wasn’t it at all. It scared her. Tanner was plain scared of juju. Scared of going to bed with a locked knee and waking up to throw out her cane. Scared of having split teeth then the next minute all the spaces gone. Scared to know the hair on her head didn’t gray as long as she was with Maud, and her skin didn’t grow slack. Because Maud told Tanner that the only reason why her knee still hurt was so she wouldn’t have to hear no mess about juju, because she told Tanner that as long as she lived so would Tanner, Tanner walked down the road. Because Tanner wanted a natural death, she kept walking. Carried a little salt with her for all she learned and kept on walking.
“I think the best thing to do is send Newt on up the road,” Tanner said to the women. “If he drops, one of us can go fetch him. If the juju is broke for sure, he’ll make it past the general store. Then we’ll know for sure.” All four of them were up early. “If one of you go out, I’m not sure I could get you back to the house before the juju took your soul altogether. If I go out, the two of you can’t drag me back, and I’m dead for sure. Best thing is to send our boy because he’s light enough to run with. Plus somebody has to perform the rights over Glenn.” Jessie looked at Flora and so did Tanner. Newt was everybody’s child, but he was Flo’s boy. She would have to make the say. “Newt big enough to walk down the highway by himself. He’s been wanting to since he started walking,” Flo said, not trying to conceal her smile. “This going to be the first time he walked down the road. Four years old and the boy never walked down the road leading to his own house.”
Newt made it a quarter of a mile off the grounds before his calves lost their way and he slipped into the couch grass. Tanner stood watching, the NO VACANCY sign alit behind her like a solitary headlight. Tanner, leading her body with her left foot and then stepping with her right foot, walked out toward the boy. Every step was lighter than the last, the marrow in her bones being pulled away from her heart and out of her skin. It did not hurt, this dying, it was more like wrestling a witch off your back—involuntary paralysis of body but total control of mind. When she reached Newt he was supine, tufts of couch grass in his hands. He was holding on. Tanner dragged Newt back to the motel by his left leg, her cane eating through the soil. She left his body at the bottom of the porch steps, having dragged it as far as she could before collapsing just steps away.
“Why didn’t Newt make it, Flo?” Jessie asked. Her eyes were tired but no water fell from them. “This was supposed to be all over, but it ain’t. We going to die here and Maud coming to collect our souls.” The two women were crouched over the bodies of Newt and Tanner, pressing cold rags against their foreheads.
“I don’t know what’s doing, Jessie, but we need to get to that grave and move that man on to where he got to go next.” Flo looked down at her child, his loose pants and plaid buttoned shirt, his eyes flickering every few minutes. The blood running from his nose. He was fighting it. Soon his heart would start beating again and his color would return. Harder for children to come back from the dead after their soul’s been snatched from them. First time Miss Flora tried to leave the grounds, it felt like a pebble found its way into her shoe, snaked up her leg, and then went straight through her lungs. Wasn’t so much pain as it was surprise. Like someone snatched a piece of fruit from a tree inside her and kept snatching and snatching and instead of taking the last piece of fruit or letting it drop to the ground for harvest, they stood on their tiptoes, opened their mouth to the branch, and ate her seed and stem and all. Even after she came out of it and understood she couldn’t leave the grounds, Flo would still try every now and again, checking her shoe for the elusive pebble when she came to.
“I don’t understand why we have to ask a dead man to move on,” Jessie said. “Every time Maud sends one of her boys out here I end up standing up for them in her place. Don’t make no kind of sense.”
“What don’t make sense is that they can come back. That don’t make sense. Feels like sense to make sure a dead man is really dead to me.”
Jessie thought on it. “Well, what if somebody pulls up for a room and sees the two of them spread out here like this?”
“Nobody stopping for a room with two dead-looking niggers out front. Let’s go.” Flo and Jessie walked around to the back of the motel where hours before they threw a warm body into a new grave. They held hands and repeated the same words at the same time again and again. Leave from here. It’s safe to go. Leave from here. It’s safe to go. Leave from here. It’s safe to go. Their clasped hands looked like prayer, but their heads weren’t bowed and neither dared to close their eyes.
Tanner ascended the porch steps as the women returned. She opened her mouth to greet them, but her voice had not returned from the other side of life. Miss Flora bent down to scoop up Newt’s body, his bare feet dirtying the front of her trousers. She cradled his neck with her right hand and kissed his small face. “I better get you washed and put to bed, little baby,” she said into her son’s neck. Jessie rubbed Newt’s back as soon as Miss Flora got him close enough to touch. Tanner watched the boy’s dangling feet and thought of him as an infant, before he could walk. “We thought we lost you, boy, out there in that couch grass like that. C’mon back and come see us. We waiting for you, hear me, Newt? Mama here. Auntie Jessie here. Uncle Tanner right here. We’ll be right here when you wake up.”
Tanner stuck her free hand into Jessie’s hair, her other hand gripped around the porch railing. She massaged Jessie’s scalp while looking out to the road at passing cars. “Nobody dying just yet. We gotta get this place ready for guests. No bookings since the Campbells left.” The three of them had scrubbed the parlor shortly after they took Glenn out to bleed him, so that was one less thing to be done, but there was still food to be made, linens to take out, the porch needed mopping with boiled water and salt.
Miss Flora headed upstairs with Newt, while Tanner went to the backyard after the mop bucket and Jessie moved pots and pans around in the kitchen. Today was the largest supper day of the week. Folks expected a family meal on a Sunday evening. Even the man who grew up eating nothing except corn mush and butter expected a decent Sunday dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Jessie stacked her ingredients all over the countertop, opening a cabinet door and reaching for everything by memory; Flora kept a well-run kitchen with everything in its place. Jessie rubbed birds down with salt, paprika, sage, and black pepper and stuck white onions, garlic, and several carrots into the hole where their hearts used to beat.
Flo came downstairs and washed her hands so she could help Jessie. “Where’s Tanner?”
Jessie kept her hands and eyes on the dough she was kneading, “Tanner mopping the front down with salt water. How’s Newt? Sleep yet?”
“Newt’s fine. I rubbed him all over with rum and laid him on his side until his nose stops bleeding.”
“What nose-bleeding you talking about, Miss Flora?” Tanner asked, coming into the kitchen for more water. “Newt ain’t been having nosebleeds.”
“I thought it might be peculiar but then I figured he was having a tough time getting back from the other side. No fever, no sweats, but his nose is bleeding.”
“Out the nose, hunh?”
“Where else you bleed from, Tanner? Yes, out his nose.”
“Let’s all go check him. Jessie wash your hands good and grab the salt.”
Jessie and Flo turned to Tanner with widened eyes but nothing to say. Flo retraced the morning in her head: the four of them up early, deciding to send Newt down the road, feeling happy, Newt laid out in the couch grass, Tanner gone to get him, Tanner’s cane tip covered in dust, Newt’s skinny feet, Newt in the bathtub cradled in her arm the way she used to nurse him. His heartbeat returned, shallow. Nothing was different about the boy except the blood coming from his nose. And who doesn’t bleed a little coming back to life?
Tanner wiped her brow with the back of her hand and wiped the sweat from it on her pant leg. “I used to know a boy whose nose bled all the time. Boy was bumped up and bruised up all over his body. Lost a tooth and bled for two gotdamn weeks. Couldn’t go to school, couldn’t go out to play. Those kids with it bad like that don’t live past eleven, twelve.”
“With what, Tanner?” Jessie asked.
“Doctors called it hemophilia. I known it to be called bleeding. Just bleeding.”
“Bleeding? I never heard of no children bleeding, Tanner, where you get this mess from?” Jessie demanded.
Miss Flora interrupted Jessie’s question, her arms folded. “But what happened to the boy? What happened to the little boy you knew?”
“He died, Miss Flora, he died and every time he died, his mama brought him right back.” Tanner didn’t wait for her women to piece the puzzle of it together. “Glenn was Maud’s favorite boy. And her last.”
Jessie grabbed onto Tanner and Flo just stared. “You trying to tell me there’s a haint in my boy, Tanner? You trying to tell me the boy upstairs ain’t my own? Like I didn’t spend the last half hour washing his ass, you going to tell me that ain’t Newt up there?”
“Miss Flora, I’m not saying you wrong, I’m saying we should go check. Can we go check on the boy?”
“You want to go check on my boy with salt in your hands? That’s what you want to do?”
“I’m afraid so, Miss Flora.”
“Jess, you hear this woman? This woman climb in your bed and mines the same and now she talking about killing my son.”
“I ain’t talking about killing, Flo, I said let’s check him.”
“Checking sounding a lot like killing. Ain’t nobody killing my child but me. You got that? Only shot’ll be fired is mine.”
Tanner opened Newt’s bedroom door and found the boy sitting up in bed putting on his shoes, trickles of blood hanging from his nostrils. Jessie and Flo flanked Tanner’s sides, Jessie with a fistful of salt, Flo carrying a musket.
“Glenn, you got to leave this place,” Tanner said. The boy did not look up from lacing his shoes. “I said Glenn, you got to leave this place now.”
The boy looked at the trio, stood and walked toward them. “That’s exactly what I intend to do, Uncle Tanner. I’m going to bring this body back to Maud like she told me.”
“What you say, haint?” Flora screamed at the boy, aiming the gun off-center.
Newt began to laugh. “So it is in life, so it is in death. Heard something you didn’t like, woman? I can’t call her Uncle Tanner no more? You didn’t like that?” The boy put one hand on his hip and continued, “Maud found a way to settle this here debt of Tanner’s. Nine sons for one. Nine boys for one boy. That’s the new math. All my brothers and me for Newt.”
Miss Flora let off a shot over the child’s shoulder. “You ain’t leaving here with my boy, haint.”
“I don’t think you got much of a choice, Flora, seeing as though your boy is dead. He died out there in the couch grass this morning. I’m just wearing him. He died a natural death. Tanner is a fan of that, those natural deaths. Your boy gone on, girl. You and your friend sent his soul off mighty right this morning. He dancing right now with the little colored niggers on the colored side of heaven. How you like that?”
The man-boy passed between Jessie and Tanner. Neither of them moved to stop him. The man-boy called out over his shoulder as he marched down the steps, “Your debt is clear. Nine sons and one son paid in full.” Then he twisted the door handle, walked off the porch, made it past the quarter of a mile mark where Newt had dropped dead that very morning and kept on going.
Miss Flora remained laid out on the floor like a pile of dirty clothes. Tanner sat on Newt’s bed. Jessie went downstairs first, salt in fist. The sun was high. She closed the front door hard, turned the VACANCY sign on and stood at the lobby desk, waiting.
Spread the word!