by Ra'Niqua Lee
Jessa spent the morning thinking of her grandmother’s grave and the major creep factor of cemeteries. Rows of stones, old and new. It all bothered her, the dates that were too old to be more than abstraction and the ones so recent she could feel the time ticking in her colon. Stress gave her migraines. She felt fear in her gut.
The headache started around the same time as the thunder. It was the ocular kind that filled her vision with shimmering like lightning bolts, an illusion that darted across her vision. She filled a mug with earl grey and swallowed aspirin while rain pelted the windows. The ground shook somewhere far off. A gray morning cast was her only company. She had taken the day off from work. It was her mother’s idea.
“You crazy,” Lisa said after listening to her daughter brag about all of the PTO she had accumulated. “Who benefits from that?”
“I benefit from it,” Jessa explained, phone cradled between her shoulder and ear as she typed a quick email. “It rolls over, anyway. It’ll be there when I need it. Hopefully, I never will.”
“You won’t need it if you’re dead.”
After that, Jessa called her boss and told him she wasn’t coming in for her usual eight hours, nine hours if she wanted to get ahead of the perpetual paperwork that came with being an insurance underwriter. She faked a cough for no reason. Paid time off and sick leave were separate, but she forced a nasal tone anyway.
“You sound terrible,” her boss said. “Get better soon.”
Jessa would have apologized for the inconvenience if her boss hadn’t hung up first.
Now, mystical like karma, her head pounded. She sipped tea and let her mind drift to nowhere but her grandmother’s grave. This morning she was thinking hard. Remembering too hard. That sort of reminiscing could turn a thought into an apparition. Jessa had been to the cemetery only twice, and she still did not remember enough to find the grave on her own. A section of pine stakes marked new graves, and the winding paths ran through hills of marble and granite. Between the wood and the stone, Jessa did not move on until well into the afternoon.
At five years old, Jessa met a ghost in her grandmother’s backyard. She had been running with Flintstone feet in the red and yellow toy car she got for her birthday. The yard had too much grass and greenery to go smoothly. Tangled plants wedged in the plastic wheels and caught between her toes. She had been stuck in an imaginary intersection of her own making when a man stood under a tree, floating off the ground in between sunbeam and shade. He wore a suit like her father always did, but his feet were gone, and his smile made her want to cry.
Halfway into her day off, Jessa decided to abandon her apartment. The headache had gone, and the rain had paused. All that remained from the morning was the fear, the pressing in her bowels that no amount of bathroom breaks relieved.
Her original plan for the day had been to remain reclusive, stay in her pajamas, keep her hair tied down, and drown herself in a stream of sitcoms. The predictability brought comfort, and comfort seemed to be the only point in missing work. Unless the plan was to get fired. Her new plan was to avoid the northside of Atlanta, with its corporate buildings and luxury car dealerships, convenient for new transplants who went right from their shiny new tech positions to buy or rent shiny new cars. Jessa worried that a coworker out to lunch might spot her and report back to their boss, though the city was big enough to make this concern unnecessary.
She met her younger sister Pammy on the south side during lunch break hours. Pammy did not worry about losing her job. “Let them fire me,” Pammy always said, “I’ll have another job in a second.” Then she would snap in a way that might’ve caused her gel nails to break, but they never did. Her nails were always perfect.
Jessa found hourly parking and walked two blocks towards the café with a grotesque glow to all the surfaces, overly lacquered.
“I can’t believe you took the day off. You’ve been working nonstop since high school, but why do you look so miserable?” Pammy asked. She wore a patterned scarf that matched her shirt. Her hair was pitch black and straight.
“Why do you?” Jessa asked, already aware of the answer. Pammy had been frowning since the cashier messed up her order, giving her onion soup instead of tomato. She settled for the onion but demanded a refund.
“Chile, I got four more hours until I can go home,” Pammy said. “Then I have to put the dishes away, cook, do more dishes, put those away, make time for Reggie, the kids, and then find time to lotion my feet. But I’m not miserable. There are worse things. Like this soup.”
Pammy abandoned her spoon and removed the napkin from her lap. She waved it once and dabbed around her Ruby Woo lips in a dramatic way that made Jessa laugh.
“I’m not miserable,” Jessa said. “I’ve just been thinking about Grandma a lot. Her birthday is tomorrow.”
“I know,” said Pammy, arms in the air, full of theatrics. “Three years and I still put oil on my windowsills and keep the mirror clean above my doorbell. You know, crazy shit like that.”
Pammy walked a line between prim/proper and something else entirely, like silk with frayed edges. Jessa had been cut, hemmed, and ironed straight, but she had lied to get a day off. She checked her emails every hour and struggled not to type responses. The more she squeezed her fist to keep from checking her phone, she felt like one of her strings had come undone.
The superstition went that a mirror above the doorbell would keep out demons. Their grandmother had always spouted that sort of unsolicited advice. Do not breathe when near a graveyard. Get the salt if you pass a broom over your feet or you won’t ever get married. Smile at the mirror, or your reflection won’t love you. Pour the salt in the event of bad news, a broken heart, or a broken mirror. Pour the salt to keep yourself safe. As far as Jessa was concerned, ghosts and demons kept the same company, and she stayed clear of them all by refusing to believe in her grandmother’s “crazy shit.”
Before they left each other, Pammy reached up and drew an invisible cross on Jessa’s forehead the way that their grandmother had always done. “For good luck,” she’d said, and then they laughed at the joke.
Jessa went from lunch to one of the last decent malls within twenty miles. Shopping reduced stress. A price tag was a distraction. Luck had nothing to do with it. She bought a new belt and a pair of slacks for work. At the perfume counter, the woman spraying her wrist asked her if she was on holiday. Jessa immediately dropped her arm, tightened her grip on her shopping bags, and prepared to read off her full job title—I am the assistant lead underwriter of high-end personal assets—but a phone call came in from her mother. She hurried out of the store and walked toward an old fountain that had been turned into a planter, palm trees tilting toward the geometric skylights.
“Oh, I didn’t think you would answer. I was just calling to leave a message.”
“A text message works the same way,” Jessa explained to her mother, then she said, “I took the day off.”
Lisa continued as if she hadn’t heard either sentence.
“I was just calling all my little ones to see if y’all wanted to come over for ma’s birthday, you know. Gerald already said he’d come.”
“Three years,” Jessa said.
“Still can’t believe it sometimes.”
Jessa paced in front of the ex-fountain, thinking about how much she missed the water. Streams of it used to shoot as high as the palm trees now stood. She, Pammy, and Gerald used to drop pennies in where the water rippled most, hoping that the waves would somehow carry their wishes further. Pammy always wished for a rich husband. Gerald wished for whatever new video game was on the market. Jessa wished broadly, for happiness and stability, the things that her grandmother always told her were important as she passed on stories from her mother, Jessa’s great-grandmother. The women in their family spent centuries fighting for broad things, but nothing seemed as broad as death.
“I’ll be there,” Jessa said, knowing how much it would mean for her mother to have all of her “little ones” under one roof at the same time, rarer and rarer the older they all got. “But could you tell me again where to find grandmama’s grave?”
The worst story Jessa ever heard went like this.
When her grandmother was a young girl, she walked the west end of Atlanta for hours to get to the movies, the beauty supply store, her job. Her favorite cousin at the time was older than her by ten years. Miguel would talk her out of her bus fare if he got the chance, spend the money on candy or cigarillos, but she didn’t mind because he made her laugh and smiled like the princes did in movies. She had been walking the day she saw Miguel step into a crosswalk a second before the van struck him. He died in the street. She saw and she remembered the license plate number, a brief glimpse of the man behind the wheel. She remembered and she told. No arrests were ever made. There may have been questioning, but she couldn’t say for sure. All she could say for sure was that she believed in ghosts.
Thunder began rolling over the city again while Jessa was in the mall, but she hadn’t noticed until she returned to the parking lot. She sat behind the wheel for a long time, reviewing the information her mother had given her. “Take the east entrance, drive until you see the Virgin Mary. She’s buried a quarter mile north of there. It’s been a while since I visited, too.”
The clouds remained gray and thick as if stuffed full of their own waiting. Jessa parked at the bottom of a shadowy hill and proceeded through the cemetery on foot and empty-handed. She did not bring flowers or a card. It didn’t make sense to worry about such things once a person was dead and gone. Her grandmother always said that flowers were for the living. Salt was for the dead. Jessa had tried to honor her grandmother in better ways, by working hard and staying focused. It had been pestering her all day, though, the thought that there might be something in between dead and gone, between stable and unstable, between happy and not.
Jessa walked and tried to recall what a quarter mile felt like. Each new row, husbands and wives buried side by side, children with graves three feet long. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow… A weight had returned to her butt and no public restrooms in sight, just a pair of Porta potties in the distance where trees were being cleared for new graves—the red clay churned into hills. A fresh migraine kept Jessa from seeing straight, her brain performing pain in waves of light. She had walked too long and still had not found the grave, just the concrete angel of another. Roberta Terrell: We called her Maymie. Jessa couldn’t make out the years through the lightning.
Ra’Niqua Lee is a teacher and PhD student of English at Emory University, and earned her MFA in fiction from Georgia State University. She writes to share her particular visions of love and the South. Every word is in honor of her little sister, Nesha, who battled schizophrenia until the very end. For her always.