Signed, Skye Harper
Nanny sat at the kitchen table when I wandered in at dusk from swimming, not a light in the house on, just a cigarette glowing.
“Hey, Winston girl,” she said. “You got a minute?”
She didn’t sound too happy. In fact, I’d say she sounded right miserable. I strained to see more than the glow of her ciggie but was hypnotized by the red burn.
Blinking, I said, “What’s wrong?” I slid onto the rattan chair, my behind almost not making it. My chlorine-smelling swimsuit made my shorts and T-shirt wet. I let out a sigh. Since turning fifteen, I’ve found myself sighing an awful lot. That’s my family’s fault.
I helped myself to one of the biscuits from breakfast, the pan covered with a cloth so they wouldn’t dry out hard as rocks. It was like biting into a brick. The cloth hadn’t helped at all. I sighed again. Then let out an “I’m starving.”
“Stop that damn sighing,” Nanny said. “You’re breathing up way more than your fair share of oxygen.” She drew long on her cigarette. Her face lit up in such a way she looked like a demon, shadowed eyes and all. But who’s allowed to tell their grandmother that kind of thing? “Dinner’s on the stove,
but wait it out a minute. I got to tell you something.”
“Tell then,” I said. “School starts in a couple of weeks and I got things to do before then.”
“Smart butt,” Nanny said, and ground out her cigarette.
I smiled. So she wasn’t too bad off. Nanny only uses the word “butt” if she’s talking about her Winstons-taste-good-like . . . You know what I’m saying. And yes, I was named after the cigarette, but I’ve told no one that fact, not even my very best friend, Patty Bailey, who is tall as an oak tree and gone to Louisiana for the summer. “Butt” is about her only swear. Nanny’s. Not Patty’s. That’s an almost truth.
“Nanny,” I said, “what’s got your goat? Sure I can’t fill a plate while I listen to you jaw?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Nanny slapped at the table, and Denny, our rooster, ruffled his feathers and clucked in his throat. I hadn’t even known he was there. I settled in my chair and waited—keeping the sigh tucked in tight—and pulled at my T-shirt to loosen it some.
Nanny took in a breath.
“I got a letter from your momma.”
So that’s why she was sitting in the dark. Nanny, not Momma.
“Tell me more.” I said those words, though I didn’t mean them.
Cold-water feeling covered me from my ankles up. It
was like the time I got baptized. That day, the water heater was broke, and no one knew till the preacher and me stepped into the font. Not a thing like the lakes around here, which can be warm as bath water. “Where is she this time?”
Momma’s been gone since I turned four. She travels all over the West Coast, sending us postcards. But she never mails a letter unless there’s an emergency. Sounded like something big had happened.
“She need money?”
I heard Nanny working at her pack of cigarettes. Heard her strike the match (saw her face go beastly in the sputter of light), then she started smoking again.
“That’s a bad habit,” I said. “You want me to take that up? And at almost fifty cents a pack?”
“Stunts your growth,” Nanny said. “And I’ll beat you with a stick if you start smoking. You know I’m trying to quit.”
This is true. Nanny is down from two packs a day to 1.3.
“Let me hear what she says,” I said. Then I closed my eyes tight, ’cause this couldn’t be anything good.