- How to Kill Gra' Coleman and Live to Tell about It(Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949)
1. With her own braids
Two pairs of brown fingers fly down Gra' Coleman's head, weaving the long gray strands that dangle to her waist. All that good hair, the two sisters think. Not like theirs. [End Page 126]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 127] They wonder how someone so evil could have such nice long hair, but they dare not tug on it or even speak. At least, if they want to live.
Ginger and Nancy eye each other, both eager to finish first, even though Gra' Coleman will grant each of them fifty cents for the braiding. It's that brief moment when she seems like the nice grandma on the radio shows or like their other grandma, Lucy Grimes, whom they don't see enough for their liking. That brief moment when she smiles, reaching into the pocket of her housedress for the money. Gra' Coleman tends to reserve smiles for strangers and neighbors, like now on the porch, when she calls a happy Sunday to Mrs. Kazlauskas in her yard across the street. If she were to say "Thank you" for the girls' work, that would complete their fantasy. But just the fact that she lives up to her promise to pay—it's the best they can hope for.
Nancy is halfway done, far ahead. Ginger gets caught up in how much the hair looks like cloth when you put it between your eyes and the sun. She imagines hands smaller than hers braiding the millions of threads to make her dress, her bobby socks.
She stiffens when Gra' Coleman says, "They better be straight."
Gra' Coleman spits out a stream of snuff. Ginger's shoulders rise higher at the ping inside the rusted coffee tin at their feet on the porch. Her fingers shake as she resumes.
She wastes precious seconds watching her grandmother chewing. The girl's blank face masks her insides, where she glowers. At nine years old, she's learned to control herself around Gra' Coleman. Control anything that won't drive the woman crazier, like talking back or laughing. Even sneezing. She can brace her whole body and hold everything inside until she grows hot and thinks she'll explode just like those grenades their Uncle Luke said he handled during the war.
Nancy, on the other hand, tries to empty her head when she's that close to Gra' Coleman. At that distance, she half believes their grandma can see her hateful thoughts. She pretends she's styling the hair of a big doll, not a real-flesh person. Especially not one who, minutes before they stepped onto the porch for the braiding, smashed their sister Marlene's head against the wall. Bang, bang, bang, like the Lone Ranger's gun. Nancy concentrates on the Lone Ranger to avoid thinking about her family. Her loony family. Whenever she listens to The Lone Ranger on the radio, she imagines the hero to be a big ol' white man—the type they say would lynch a nigger, even an eleven-year-old girl like her all the way up north in New Jersey. He'd be tough enough to stand up to Gra' [End Page 128] Coleman. Not like their daddy, Gra' Coleman's beloved son (but, truth be told, not like most men in Vauxhall, who seem to fear this barely five-foot lady as much as the Coleman kids do).
Sometimes, those Indians the Lone Ranger chases have two long braids. They're dressed in what men Indians wear, but when Nancy envisions them turning their heads, they have her grandma's face. She forgets herself and giggles.
"What's so goddamn funny?"
"Nothin, Gra' Coleman," Nancy and Ginger say in sync.
Ginger raises curious eyes to her older sister, who rolls her lips between her teeth to stop any more laughter. As Nancy's fingers near the end of the braid, she remembers the time the Lone Ranger threw a lasso. She sees the circle of it above his head, just...