By Ellen Nicole Usher
“Come on and help yo’ grandmother,” the old woman said as she used her wrinkled hands to push the child’s head towards the room.
The little girl slowly moved to get things read for the visitor. She grabbed a handful of dingy white sheets and rags from a brown trunk in the corner of the room. It was where her granny put the “visitor linens.” Two logs and pieces of old newspaper were dropped into the brewing fire of the wooden oven that dominated the small kitchen.
Why did they have to come so late at night she thought? She had become used to the late night visitors to the small hack where she and her grandmother lived.
Iris and her grandmother lived on the edge of the small town of Biscoe, Arkansas. The ten miles that separated the two from the town seemed much farther to Iris. The only people she saw were the ones who dropped off their linens and drapes for her grandmother to wash--and the ones who came late at night.
The family had lived in the shack for generations. Its age was visible in the cracked walls and its slight lean to the left. The wood floors, old and decaying, creaked with even the slightest move.
“I tired Granny. Do I haf to?” she asked as she wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“Now hush up and don’t give me no lip,” her grandmother said, pushing her forward.
Iris noticed how serious her grandmother would get when they were expecting visitors. She watched as her grandmother hastily began moving the furniture around in the kitchen. The two kitchen chairs were placed in Iris’s room. A thick, patch-work quilt was placed over the table for cushion.
With a pipe nestled securely in the corner of her mouth, her grandmother began dropping metal utensils in the boiling water and peroxide on the stove. She would always smoke her pipe before a visitor. The faint mixture of tobacco and mint began to fill the air. It was her grandmother’s own blend.
“Git that pot there for yo’ grandmother, ya hear,” she said, as she pointed to the kettle in the corner of the kitchen.
The kitchen was the center of the shack. It was where she and her grandmother ate their meals, discussed Iris’s school work, and had their nightly Bible readings. Iris’s small room took up the back while the bathroom, built by her grandfather, was next to her room.
Iris heard the car as it dragged across the rock-covered path that led to their shack. She walked towards the window to get a closer look and noticed that the car’s lights had been dimmed. Iris knew all too well what to expect. The visitors were always the same. They were always girls—some just a little older than herself. She wondered why they only wanted to see her grandmother so late at night.
The two girls got out of the car. The driver held the other girl’s hand as they walked towards the house. Iris’s grandmother walked to the door and opened it slightly. With her head peeping slightly out the door, she began asking the two girls a series of questions. Which one needed her help? Were they sure no one was following them? Did they have the money? When she was satisfied with the answers, she opened the door just enough for them to slide their bodies through. Iris saw tears running down one of the girl’s face as she walked through the door. Why were they so scared she thought.
Without being told what to do, Iris instinctively went to her post. Her grandmother had been explaining to her all week what her duty was. As her grandmother coaxed the girls into the kitchen, Iris carefully slipped out the front door. She was looking out for her grandmother. For what, she didn’t know, but she knew it had to be important. Granny told her so. Granny was gonna let her help tonight. She had never let her help before.
“Now I need ya to look out fo’ yo’ grandmother,” her grandmother said. “Don’t want ya granny to git in trouble do ya? Then you’ll be all alone.”
Iris didn’t want her granny to leave. She couldn’t let the bad people take her granny away. She couldn’t let them find her.
More than the unexpected interruption from her sleep, more than the smell of the mint pipe that made her stomach turn, Iris hated the crying. She had heard the sobs before. While she lay in bed, she heard the moans that came from the kitchen. She would cover her ears with her pillow and hum herself to sleep.
“Granny, why do they haf to cry,” she would ask the next morning.
“Those people--why do they have to cry all the time?”
“They sick and when I make ‘em better they cry a little.”
“Like when I had the sickness in my stomach and that medicine you gave me made me cry, ’cause it hurt?”
“Um-hum,” her grandmother grunted as she drew a pipe from the pocket of her apron.
That was all Iris needed. She knew better than to push things. Iris still didn’t understand. No matter how much the medicine her grandmother gave her made her feel, she never cried the way those girls did. This girl was no different. She couldn’t stand the sounds that were coming from the house. Iris covered her ears with her hands and began to sing her favorite song.
Darling you send me… I know you send me… Honest you do honest you do. . .
Sam Cooke was her favorite singer. Granny didn’t like her singing any kind of music that wasn’t for the Lord.
“That music’s a sin. Don’t let me catch you listening to it ya hear!” Her grandmother would scold her every time she caught her singing or dancing.
Iris would listen to it whenever she got away. Granny had given her a red transistor radio for her birthday and she took it with her wherever she went. Iris knew it was used, but she didn’t care, it was hers. Iris told her that they had to do weekly new report for her Social Studies class, and that she needed the radio to listen to the news or she’d fail school. Iris knew school was important to her granny.
The fact that there was no music playing didn’t stop Iris from dancing. She wanted to forget what was going on in the cabin. She wished her Granny would hurry up. She was tired and wanted to go to bed. Iris was sorry that Granny had promised to let her help this time.
Iris didn’t notice the door of their cabin open. The two girls, one leaning on the other, crept out of the house and down the steps. Iris noticed this time that the girl was clamping her stomach. Immediately, Iris walked towards the cabin. She wanted to hurry up. The sooner she was done, the sooner she’d be able to go back to bed.
When Iris walked in, her eyes focused on the pile of blood stained sheets on the floor.
“What’s da matta with you? You movin’ slow as molasses. Come on,” her grandmother said, pulling Iris next to her and the pile of blood stained sheets.
Iris began to feel the little nudges coming from her chest. She tried to hold it, but she gagged at the sight. She placed her hands over her mouth to try to keep it inside.
“We ain’t got time for bein’ sick. Now git them up and follow me outside,” her grandmother said and gathered the sheets in her arms.
There was an old pot that her grandmother used when she washed the laundry in the back yard. Iris could barely see her grandmother through the smoke that came from the boiling water. Her grandmother began stuffing the sheets into the pot. Iris had never seen her grandmother move so fast.
“Now hand me that box of lye right there,” her grandmother said, and pointed to a box of white powder at the end of the steps.
“Come on girl. Gotta git this done.”
Iris wished her grandmother had never promised her that she could help. This wasn’t fun. She knew from that moment on that her grandmother would always want her to help. As Iris climbed into her bed, she prayed to God that they wouldn’t have any more visitors.
“Ya did good. Granny’s proud of you. Gonna be a lot of help now that ya Granny’s gettin’ old,” her grandmother mumbled and stuck the wooden pipe in her mouth.
“Come on now, get up. Gotta hurry,” her grandmother said for what seemed like the hundredth time to Iris. Somehow Iris couldn’t get her body to move. She knew she would have to get up eventually.
It had been five years ago, the first time that Iris’s grandmother had her to help get ready for one of their many visitors. At fifteen, Iris didn’t need anymore explanations. She knew what to do.
Iris had learned over the years what her grandmother did. She knew why she had to look out, why the visitors only came late at night and why the drivers purposely dimmed their lights as they reached their cabin. She and Granny never talked about it. Iris knew that her grandmother could get in a lot of trouble. Granny was really careful about it, always making sure that there were no signs, no clues. Iris wasn’t quite sure how the girls knew about her grandmother. They’d get a call one day and then the visitors would arrive a few days later. Iris never new who called her grandmother. There were rumors of course, but no one could prove a thing. Granny was too smart for them.
Some of the girls at school had been visitors too. Most stopped talking to Iris after a visit. She couldn’t tell if it was embarrassment or fear that made them stop speaking to her. School was always awkward for Iris.
“So is it true?”
“You know, is it?”
“Is what true?” Iris said, not flinching as she applied a fresh coat of lipstick.
Iris was used to the spontaneous questions in the bathroom; she knew better than to talk about it at school. A few days later, the same girls would make a trip to her grandmother.
At times Iris hated her grandmother for it. Throughout the years she began to understand why she did it. The money from washing linens, drapes, and tablecloths wasn’t enough. It was all her grandmother had. It was all she knew. Granny’s mother had done it too.
Iris was a loner most of the time. She always felt uncomfortable around the other students. She would never be able to invite them over or be allowed to stay in town with her classmates. Kenneth was her only friend. She had known him for years. He was a lot like her. His father’s farm was a few miles away from her grandmother’s shack. He and Iris had been walking home from school together since the fourth grade.
The Shirelle’s Baby It’s You streamed from the radio as Iris and Kenneth kissed in the front seat of his father’s truck. She wasn’t really interested, but it seemed to make him happy. Iris was thinking about the history test she had the next day when she felt Kenneth’s hand slip under her sweater.
“Not today. I don’t feel like it,” she said as she pushed him away.
“Come on Iris,” he pleaded. “It’s been a whole month.”
“I don’t care if it’s been a year!” she said, pushing him away.
“Ah, come on,” he said moving closer. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“What?” Iris said, snatching her arm away from him. She began buttoning her sweater.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I was just joking.”
“Take me home.”
“What?” Kenny looked confused.
“Take me home.”
Iris hoped her grandmother would be sleep when she got home. She was in no mood to hear her preaching. For years her grandmother had used the girls as examples of what sinning would get you. Iris didn’t know if her grandmother wanted her to help because she needed her or if she wanted to show Iris the consequences of sinning. Somehow Iris just couldn’t imagine herself as one of those girls. They seemed too pathetic and helpless. Iris knew she was smarter than they were.
“Back kinda late,” Granny said as Iris walked passed her.
“You know Kenneth’s pretty slow in math,” Iris said, hoping it would keep her grandmother’s questioning to a minimum.
Iris walked passed her granny and slammed the door.
“Why ya slammin’ doors ‘round here,” Granny asked.
“Sorry, must have been the wind,” Iris yelled from her room. She hoped her grandmother didn’t hear the crack in her voice.
“That boy make you mad? You gotta be careful ‘round them bo-“
“Granny, I’m really tired and I got a big test tomorrow. May I go to bed?”
“All right. All right. Jest warning ya. Gotta always be careful, ya never know what--”
“Good night,” Iris said, knowing that her grandmother wouldn’t get the hint.
As her grandmother walked out the door, Iris locked it behind her. The lock was her sixteenth birthday present to herself. She was tired of her granny walking in whenever she felt like it. She had Kenny put it in when her grandmother was in town.
“Well, ‘pose ya thinkin’ ya need some kinda privacy or somethin’. Ain’t got nothin’ I ain’t seen befo’,” her grandmother said with a shrug. She never said anything else about it.
Iris could feel her eyes beginning to itch from the tears. She purposely didn’t want to blink. She didn’t want to aid them in anyway. She wouldn’t.
She was one of them--- helpless and pathetic. Iris had known for about six weeks. She was hoping that it was a mistake, but inside she knew. She was glad that her grandmother was a heavy sleeper. Granny never heard her sneaking out of their shack into the back yard in the morning. She would never do it in their bathroom. She didn’t know how long she could keep it from Granny.
What Kenny said made her sick. He didn’t understand, she thought. If he had seen the things she’d seen over the years, he wouldn’t have said it.
Iris turned on the radio that was placed on her nightstand. The music helped to muffle her crying. It always did.
Iris didn’t remember falling asleep. The shrill of her alarm caused her to jump out of her bed. The room began spinning and she sat back down. She hated when she forgot to turn off her clock.
Granny never failed to ask that question. Iris wondered why her Granny didn’t think the alarm clock was enough to wake her.
“Um-hm,” she moaned.
“I got ya breakfas on the table.”
“Um, that’s okay. I’m not really hungry,” she said. “I just want to sleep in.”
Iris thanked God that she had gotten the lock put on the door. Granny was smart--if she saw her she’d know.
“Well, I gots tah pick up the linens from Mrs. Hayden.”
“Kay Granny. Love you.”
Although her granny never said she loved Iris, Iris knew she did. Her granny had done nothing but love her ever the day her mother dropped her off for good. Iris didn’t want to disappoint her the way her mother had.
“You a smart girl Iris. Granny only gonna do this ‘til I get my baby through college. My baby ain’t gone deal with other folks dirty laundry.”
Every time Iris thought about how stupid she’d been with Kenny how disappointed her granny would be, she knew she had to do something. She wasn’t going to disappoint her granny. She remembered hearing some of the girls at school talking about taking care of things. She listened, but never offered her grandmother’s services. If Granny didn’t get a call, then she wouldn’t take a visitor.
Iris knew she what she had to do. Soon after her grandmother left she got dressed and walked to Tyson’s Drug Store. When she got to the store, she tried to remember what the girls said. It had to be strong, she remembered. She picked up a basket and frantically searched the aisles of the store. . . .Peroxide, alcohol, sheets--those were all things she’d seen her grandmother use, but she wasn’t sure what she needed to do it herself.
She methodically searched the various chemicals until something clicked. When she saw the The blue box of lye, she anxiously picked it up.
“How’s your granny,” Mr. Tyson asked as she placed the items on the counter.
“She’s fine,” she said, hoping Mr. Tyson was in a less talkative mood. Any other day she wouldn’t mind his attempts at flirting, but today she was in no mood. She thought she saw a look of concern on Mr. Tyson’s face as he rang up her items, and nervously offered, “My boyfriend’s conking his hair.”
Immediately-- she felt stupid.
“Don’t know why our young men feel the need to do that,” Mr. Tyson said and shook his head.
“Style I guess,” she said, relieved when he handed her the bag.
When she got home she was glad to see that her grandmother wasn’t there. Saturdays meant the two of them would spend the day cleaning and doing their own chores. She decided she would treat her grandmother. Despite her nausea, she cleaned the house and started dinner. Soon, things would be the way they had been. Granny being Granny and her making sure she’d never disappoint her again.
“What’s gotten into ya,” her grandmother asked when she return. “House clean, stove goin’ and I ain’t even asked you.”
“Can’t I just do something nice for my granny,” Iris asked and kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
Iris spent the entire weekend indulging her grandmother. Although she had heard the stories of how Granny’s mother and grandmother had done the same thing, Iris indulged her grandmother with questions, knowing she’d be eager to answer.How she had to make sure they had a way to make it in the world, but how she was going to break the mole with Iris. Iris had heard it time and time again. In the past she rolled her eyes and tried to get out of listening to her stories, but now she relished in them. Listening intently, remembering why her granny did she the things she did.