Side by side at their grandmother’s casket, Samuel and Philemon bowed their heads.
Preacher Whitcomb’s words flowed along a fickle stream of summer air . . . do not fear, for I AM with you; do not be dismayed, for I AM YOUR GOD!
No matter how he punctuated the words, Zina’s attention remained upon her brothers, processing changes, filling in gaps. The gaps that had been forged fifteen years earlier in the summer of ’82, when Samuel was seventeen, Philemon fifteen, and Zina ten.
Those evenings, so humid, their grandmother would take them for drives in their aged but air-conditioned station wagon. Before heading home to East Trenton, they’d cross the Delaware River on the Trenton Bridge. The message along its rafters had been restored using immense amounts of steel and neon. TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES, it read.
Zina’s grandmother snorted every time they crossed it. Trenton don’t make nothin’, she’d say. It’s the Lo’ad what provides, and the Lo’ad what takes. Whether we gots a lot or we gots nothin’, we be blessed by Him.
While every other grandmother in their neighborhood preached religion, education, and getting ahead, Zina’s grandmother concentrated on God. As long as her grandchildren read their Bibles and acted accordingly, that was good enough for her. God don’t require no degrees, she’d say.
That was the summer Samuel and Philemon went into business together. “God Grows It—We Mows It” had earned almost five hundred dollars by August. The money was stored in two Yuban Coffee cans kept in the boys’ room.
Zina was outside watching from the corner of their saltbox house the day one of those cans came up missing. Brother accused brother before fists hit flesh. Zina screamed, running around into the house, calling her grandmother. Seconds later, the screen door flew open, tufts of the old woman’s steel-wool hair flaring, matching her stride.
What you boys think you doin’! I ain’t never seen such a thing!
That’s all it took for Samuel to break free from his brother’s grip. Philemon, though younger, had twenty pounds on him. Blood dripped from Samuel’s nose, but his chest puffed.
“He took our money, Grammy. I seen him spending extra last week, but I didn’t say nothing. Now I knows how he had it.”
“You got no proof,” yelled Philemon.
“I don’t care if’n he took a million of yo dollars, son. You gots to get a hold of yo’self. Who you two trying to impress anyhow? It cain’t be me. Always trying to fill them pockets. I told you once, I told you thousands a times. It don’t make me no difference how you builds yo house, what kind of stone gets used, but you best be careful what goes in them empty spaces ‘tween. What kinda mortar you gonna have fillin’ it, holdin’ it together?”
That was the summer Zina’s brothers picked the stones to build their houses. Samuel decided on seminary. Philemon on law school.
Looking at them now, praying over their grandmother, Zina wanted to laugh. Grammy hadn’t cared a lick about success, yet her boys had found it, earned it—professionally, personally. For Zina it was different. She couldn’t make the best job, the best man work. Somehow she found a way to spoil every good thing that came to her.
A GOOD name is better than fine perfume, and the day of DEATH better than the day of birth. Let us lift our sister Dorothy . . .
Preacher Whitcomb’s words were coming to a close. Zina moved toward the casket, laying her cheek upon its smoothness. The rosewood felt warm, the way her Grammy’s sun-soaked skin felt after hanging out the wash. Samuel patted Zina’s perspiring forehead with his handkerchief. Philemon took her hand. “It’s time to go.”
Back at the house, Zina slipped away to the far side of their old home, to the crumbling steps of the root cellar. Inside, she pulled a chain, but the light didn’t quite reach the corner where the potatoes used to be stored. Behind a crate and under a rock, she found the can just where she’d buried it, the money still inside. She wished with all her heart she had confessed, come clean. That day shame set within her bones, compact yet substantial—just like mortar.
She picked up the rusting can and noticed paper taped to the lid. Underneath the light of the bare bulb, she read the faded lettering: You is forgiven, always was.
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