At Jitney Jungle, you filled our cart with cream of mushroom soup, tuna, name-brand wheat bread, and a big bottle of off-brand cranberry juice. I asked you if I could get the latest issue of Right On! magazine because Salt-N-Pepa were on the cover. You told me you’d get me a subscription to the magazine in a few months when I turned 13, so I just read it while we waited in line. When we walked up to the checkout, I put all the food on the conveyor belt and watched it glide away from us. Behind the cashier, pinned to a board, were a number of checks and Xeroxes of licenses, with the words DO NOT ACCEPT NAN CHECK FROM THESE CUSTOMERS in all caps. A Xerox of your license and one of your checks from Trustmark was in the middle of the board. Your check looked like the undisputed champion of bounced checks at Jitney Jungle.
I wondered what it felt like to have a face like yours plastered on the wall at the biggest grocery store in North Jackson.
“Let’s go,” I said as I watched you go in your purse and pull out your checkbook. “I ain’t even hungry.”
“Kie, do not say ‘ain’t.’”
“Okay. I won’t say ‘ain’t’ again,” I told you. “Can we just go?”
You looked in the direction of the older black woman cashier. She looked like a black version of Vera from the TV show Alice, but she had thicker lips and smaller teeth. “These folk don’t even know when to use ‘nan’ or when to use ‘any,’” you said. I wasn’t sure if you saw your picture or not, but I watched your shoulders dip as air left your chest. “You’re right, Kie,” you said. “Let’s just go. There’s tuna and crackers at home.”
I told you I thought the person who wrote the sign, just like Grandmama, used “nan” to mean “not any” or “not one.”
“Don’t excuse mediocrity,” you told me.
“So Grandmama is mediocre?”
“Grandmama had to work for white folk instead of going to high school, and she finished high school through correspondence classes. She has an excuse to use the language she uses. What are these people’s excuse?”
“I don’t know. We don’t even know them.”
“Don’t excuse mediocrity, Kie,” you told me again as we walked out of the store hand in hand. You looked toward the sky. “I hope Grandmama is out on her porch looking at the stars tonight. The sky is so clear.”
Every now and then, Grandmama sent these mason jars of pickles and pear preserves. Or she gave us pounds of government cheese, peanut butter, and crackers near the middle of the month. Grandmama laughed and laughed until she didn’t when I called the cheese Gourmet African American cheese. You tried to act too good to eat Gourmet African American cheese, but sometimes I caught you making these buttery grilled Gourmet African American cheese sandwiches with something ultrabougie like pumpernickel bread. I couldn’t understand why you were so ashamed of eating like we didn’t have much money, so ashamed of demanding my father pay his child support.
On the walk to the car, I wondered what it felt like to have a face like yours, one of the most beautiful recognizable faces in our world, plastered on the wall at the biggest grocery store in North Jackson because you claimed you had money in the bank you didn’t really have. You were the only local black political scientist on TV during election season talking about politics. The way you overpronounced your words, defended poor black communities in the face of white resentment, and insisted on correcting everyone whose subjects and verbs didn’t agree made black folk in Jackson think we had plenty of lunch money, gas money, rent money, and light-bill money.
“Why’d they put a picture of your license up there, like you robbed a bank?” I asked you in the parking lot. “Can you tell me?”
“I’m just tired, Kie,” you said. “You know how hard Grandmama had to fight to get line work in that chicken plant?”
“I think I do,” I told you. “Want me to drive?”
We were two miles from the house, and you weren’t making a drop of sense. You talked like this a few years earlier before collapsing.
“I’m just so tired,” you kept saying, now from the passenger seat. “I work hard, Kie. I really do. I work so hard. They never pay us what we’re worth. I try to tell Mama the same thing. Drive slowly, Kie.” I reached over and held the warm fold underneath the curve of your knee. That’s what you did for me when I was sad.
By the time we made it home, you were snoring. I didn’t want to wake you, so I turned off the Nova in the driveway and pushed the driver’s seat back. I sat there watching you breathe with your chin tucked into your left shoulder.
I watched you sleep and thought about how a few weeks earlier, you had this party for your students at the house. You played a mix of Anita Baker, Sade, Patrice Rushen, and Phil Collins all night long. Malachi Hunter, a dude you were dating at the time, was there, but he didn’t do much other than drink bourbon and watch you. The house was filled with students who’d fallen in love with you. Shareece wanted to watch you laugh. Cornell wanted to watch you dance. Carlton wanted to watch you talk. Judy wanted to watch you listen.
Near the end of the night, you sat at a table with Beulah Beauford. You said something about how “infinitely finer” Denzel was than Bryant Gumbel or Dr. J, and everyone around the table burst out laughing. I watched you look up at Malachi Hunter, who was grinning ear to ear in the kitchen. Malachi Hunter knew, whether he deserved it or not, he’d been chosen by the freshest woman in our world.
Sitting in the Nova, I took out my wallet, got your old license, and placed it on the dashboard. That summer day, you and I held onto each other like we were the first people in the world to float over, under, and around all the orange-red stars in the galaxy.