At Mama’s funeral, the ghosts crowded around the casket, like see-through pallbearers.
“Go away,” I said. “She gone. She can’t talk to you no more.”
Miss Ruth, our neighbor, patted my arm. She thought I was talking to the mourners. “Oh honey,” she said, “I know you feel like that now. But you gonna need us. Hardest time is after the funeral.”
Miss Ruth was right, even though she was wrong about who I was talking to. After we buried Mama and the neighbors went away, the ghosts stayed, along with the doctors’ bills and the rent. When the stock market crashed two years ago, Mama and I hadn’t paid it no mind. “Seems like a problem for Rockefellers and Vanderbilts in New York, not Black folks in Evansville, Indiana.” I commented to Mama. But then the bank closed its doors with people’s money still in it, and the stores downtown started shuttering their windows, and the one doctor who’d treat you on credit moved to Indianapolis. The Depression hit Evansville like a boulder in a puddle and Mama and I were ants clinging to a leaf on the water. Now it was just me on that leaf.
I sat in the front room, where Mama and I used to play cards, and added up the numbers from the bills and Mama’s ledger. It was real quiet and I got up to turn on the radio, before I remembered that we sold it when Mama got sick. I sat down again. The ghosts just stared.
Mama used to come home and lie down on the sofa in the front room, smelling like hamburgers and bleach from closing up the restaurant. She’d look at a ladies’ magazine a customer left, it was full of pretty dresses and shoes with bows on the heels. Then Mama would lean her head back and close her eyes. She’d get ten, maybe twenty minutes of shut-eye before the ghosts and the people arrived and her second shift started.
When she was alive, people would come from all over to ask my mama to talk to their ghosts and the ghosts would drop in from all over too. Woman came to ask her brother ghost to tell where he stashed his pay after the banks went belly up. A grandaddy ghost wanted my mama to ask his granddaughter to forgive him for something so awful he wouldn’t even tell Mama. Last month, a white lady from the next county over drove up in a shiny Chevrolet, asking my Mama to check if the lady’s son was dead or just ran off.
Mama called it a gift, said women in our family was always spirit-talkers.
“Some gift,” I said, washing the coffee cups the people used. “If it’s so important, why don’t people pay you?” She just sighed.
“Some things you don’t charge for–they’re too important. You’ll understand someday, baby.”
“They could knock, at least.” I stacked the coffee cups up while she shooed the ghosts into the other room.
After her funeral, I add up the numbers three times but they never look better. I go to bed. The ghosts follow me, crowding around the bed like dogs in the kitchen–hoping you’ll get careless and drop a scrap.
“Go away,” I say, “I ain’t my mama.”
That night, I dream about her.I see my mother in the distance and run towards her, like when I was little and I thought I lost her downtown. “Mama!” I shout and bury my face in her shoulder.
“Oh.” She turns around and her eyes are so sad. “Oh baby, you got it too.” She wraps her arms around me and I smell her scent. “I thought maybe you’d just see ‘em like your Aunt Cassie, but if you’re speaking to me…” She holds me close, “I wanted so much…”
“What did you want, Mama?” She cups my jaw.
“Just wanted you be happy.”
When I wake up, Miss Ruth is in the kitchen, eating the funeral leftovers. She wipes her mouth with her hanky and starts talking when I come in. “I have a friend, he lost his daddy last month, they wasn’t speaking to each other at the end but he feels real bad now and I told him…”
One of the ghosts floats into the room, an old man ghost. He whooshes over to Miss Ruth, leans on her chair, and winks at me. I look over his shoulder. The sofa is all piled up with paper notices and envelopes with my sums all over them. Old man ghost opens his mouth but I raise my hand up, like when folks testify in church. He closes it. So does Miss Ruth.
“Tell your friend,” I start, then I stand up straighter. “Tell your friend that if he wants to talk to his daddy, I charge a dollar for every spirit I talk to.”
Miss Ruth and the old man ghost look at me like I grown two heads. “You have a gift,” she says.
“I got bills,” I says back. I go to my room and shut the door.
I hear the chair creak as Miss Ruth gets up. No one comes to the house for a while, when they come again, they’re hopping mad and shouting. When I still don’t answer the door, they start coming with pocketbooks and wallets. Folks pay with crumpled bills and mutter when they do, but they pay.
I take an envelope full of bills to the doctor. I pay the funeral parlor and the landlord. Then I buy myself a radio to keep me company and a new dress and shoes with red bows. I want to show Mama, but I’ve decided to let her rest for spell before I talk to her again.
They called my mother a saint, a holy woman, a seer.
They call me a witch.
But they knock now.