Inheritance – Cash Compson
May 19, 2023
My grandmother is so fucking drunk.
It’s always like this. I come sleep here between shifts sometimes—because she needs visitors once in a while, yes, but also because every time I sleep in the newsroom on the filthy couch in the editing bay there’s always some weird producer in the middle of the night “checking on me,” which really means popping his head in to watch me sleep, maybe fondle me in my comatose state.
I can’t go home, because it’s just too far, in the part of the state by the shore. I live in Mystic Pizza country. So, I’m all over the place, always driving and taking trains and waking up thinking that I should be somewhere else. I want to quit. I hate radio, partially because it’s dead, but more so because it’s a bunch of white men yelling about things that belong in history books and not in my ears.
“You can’t quit,” Mom said the other day while we ate pizza in front of reality TV, our primary activity when she’s not at the hospital and I’m not at the station. “You need the insurance.”
I could not argue, because she was right. I have health problems. They’re not worth talking about individually, but they’re greater than the sum of their parts and I must be insured. Plus, it’s the only job I’ve got. One-third of a comparative literature degree from a low-tier state college won’t net me much better. The only reason I got this job is because the manager wanted to sleep with me. He was very disappointed when I never made eye contact with him again after he rolled the dice on me.
So, I come here, with her, Gramma, in her mansion. This place is big enough for fifty people to live in, but it’s just her here. Every inch of the floor is carpeted on the main level, so there is an arresting lack of sound in the home. She drinks white wine with ice cubes out of disposable plastic tumblers and watches cable news all day, every day. MSNBC all the time, never Fox.
She thinks this makes her woke and informed, even though she treats the maids like prisoners of war and once told me that Black people were “better off” in the days of slavery.
She’s from northern Mississippi. One of the few rich parts. Her family enslaved African people. She missed that part, of course, but her grandparents remembered it fondly and raised her under a blanket of heavy dark sky in the thick air of a world filled with the ghosts of Rebels propped up by lore. She’s lived in Connecticut for fifty years and still speaks like a Confederate general’s wife. Her voice has seeped into me over the years, and when I think of the American South, the old dynasties withering on the vine after the fall of an evil empire, I think of her.
When I read Faulkner, I read it in her voice. I read As I Lay Dying in school, and every one of the fifteen narrators sang out to me in her sun-scorched, spitting drawl.
“Taylor,” she asks me after we finish an enchilada supper she ordered in. “Can you help me with the computer?”
She asks me the way a child asks for dessert, with her eyebrows slowly rising toward a look of anticipation. Her face is held upright with Botox, the way cream-colored bedsheets cover the windows in my bedroom at home, tacked up and clean-faced and rigid to stop the light from coming through, trapping it halfway in like a spider with a moth just leaving its web.
I know what she’s asking for. This is our ritual. I always say no, but I follow her to the computer, anyway. She can barely walk. She rises on one foot and drags the other. I follow behind, looking at my phone, the floor, anything but the grotesquerie of her arrhythmic shuffle.
At the computer, she pulls up Mozilla Firefox. She is patient while it loads. I look at her, standing there. I think about strangling her. I don’t want to. It just enters my mind.
I don’t hate her, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s not that. That would be so much easier.
“There are these websites where my friends go…” she begins, her consonants lilting with the humidity coming off her shitfaced lips as she trails off, but it’s a charade. I know this. She wants to be on a dating site. She wants to be on Bumble. She tells me this all the time, even though she doesn’t understand the fact that you don’t use Bumble on a computer, or the fact that she’s old and should be picking out a headstone instead of men.
“Yes,” I say. “I know what you mean.”
I fiddle around on the computer. She watches the way a baby watches an adult cook a meal. She looks at me like I’m God with a kind of disbelief washing over her face every time I click the mouse.
“Sorry, Gramma. It’s not connecting.”
That’s my way of avoiding a lot of the things she wants me to do on her computer, all the sites she wants to join to talk to other old men. I won’t help her. My grandfather was cold, a man who was somehow violent without ever raising his hands, but he raked it in. His fortune was immaculate, and she’s squandering it on maids and twenty-thousand-dollar-per-year yard maintenance. I will not help her find some monster to blow the fortune on, the fortune my mother and I will use to become separate from other humans. After all, isn’t that what money’s for?
“Oh, that’s okay,” she says, disappointed. Then she pauses. I know she’s forgotten where she is for a moment, standing in my grandfather’s old study next to the looming desktop that holds her dreams: dreams of twisted new love, of connection, of reversing years and being a young debutante instead of something old and forgotten. We stay that way for a while until she comes alive again, turning slowly with her walker, rising and falling as she moves like stubborn surf against something immovable. “Taylor,” she says, her sunglasses covering half of her face. “Do you like this man?”
She’s gesturing with her drink toward Rachel Maddow on the gargantuan eight-four inch 4k television mounted on the wood paneling of her living room, a little dark room with no windows that she prefers to the adjacent, elegantly manicured sunroom. It’s seven in the evening and she’s been drunk for hours. This is Maddow from the day before. She passes out a lot, and ends up rewinding her TiVo and watching news that has been dead for days, futile cries of liberal posturing long rendered useless by the developments that occur while she lays, zonked out, folded in the largesse of her overstuffed chair, hours and evenings and seasons and years slipping through her fingers.
I guess that’s what happens when your husband dies. That’s what Mom says, in her constant efforts to defend the mother who terrorizes her psychologically, the mother you can barely blame, since her mother and husband and father all did it to her, too. Who says the worst things when she’s drunk and finds the phone. Who blames Mom for not keeping Dad. You lose who you were and become something worse, Mom says.
Every day is the same. Gramma wakes up, yells at a few people who work for her, yells at my mother on the phone, threatens to withhold my mother’s inheritance (our inheritance, my inheritance) hangs up, eats a crude Pimento Cheese sandwich, which apparently is some fucked-up dish her own alcoholic mother used to whip up twice a day and chase down with martinis and a relentless burn of long, unfiltered cigarettes. My grandmother is her mother. My mother is neither, and so she is ostracized. My dad is a suit somewhere in the city, but we don’t talk anymore.
He’s the first man I cut out.
I stare at my grandmother. She is pathetic. I am repulsed by her, but I blame her for nothing. Her life has been filled with equal parts money and male-driven terror. Her father was a bootlegger who died when she was a child. She heard the shot. Apparently, it was his fault—he slept with another bootlegger’s daughter, or wife, or sister. As if it matters.
“Yes, Gramma,” I say, finally, during the next commercial break, my own wine glass untouched. “She’s fine.”
“She?” she asks, and she looks so small in her big easy chair that I almost feel bad for her for a moment.
“Yes, Mama,” I say. “That’s a woman. Rachel Maddow. You watch her every night.”
“Doesn’t look like any woman I’ve ever seen,” she huffs, drawing on her Virginia Slim. She’s shown me black and white photos of her mother toward the end. She is her, fully—swollen with booze, lips gnarled from smoking, her eyes cloaked in giant shades, always. She is marching toward that death. One day the photos of her will be indistinguishable from those of her mother, if she’s ever photographed again. I’m not holding my breath.
I don’t respond to her. I watch the TV. I look at my watch. It is time to go.
“So soon?” she says. She looks sad. Again, I get close to feeling bad, but not quite close enough. I nod.
“Yes,” I say. “I’ve got to work for a while.” This is a lie.
I walk a third of a mile to the Metro North train. It’s been dark for hours. The walk is strange, because even though I’m not going anywhere—I’ll be back, of course—it feels like the end of one thing and the beginning of another. I wait for the train out in the cold, my heavy coat wrapped tight. It’s cold, but not too cold. Halloween is next week, yet most of the lawns I pass are still green, probably thanks to the kinds of lawn care teams my grandmother unloads her cash upon. The train comes at 7:34. Most of the seats are empty, since this is the time everyone else is heading in. I sit alone on the left side, get my ticket clipped by the conductor, put my earphones far in my ears and rest my head against the cool window while I listen to Frank Ocean. I fall asleep.
I am woken up when a man sits down next to me.
“Hey,” he says after less than a minute. I lift my head and look at him. He’s close to my age. Racially ambiguous, muscular. He wears a very tight, cream-colored polo shirt, despite the cold. His arms are covered in gooseflesh. All of this makes him look like a bit of an idiot. He smiles.
“Where are you headed?”
I understand why he’s speaking to me. I really do. I’ve been told I’m very interesting to look at. I’m not beautiful, but I’m not run-of-the-mill, either. I look like one of those models with the good bodies but fucked-up faces who gets chosen to walk runways for designers who are looking for someone resembling an alien to model their clothes. Quality over quantity in models, sure, but sometimes pure, unfiltered asymmetry can outweigh even quality.
My eyes are both light blue, but the right one is greenish and wanders.
I was born a brunette but I dye my hair blonde, extremely blonde, white-blonde, and my roots have grown in again and I’ve done nothing about it, so I have dark real hair cascading into false, fried strands. Some days, I look kind of like the girl from that video The Killers made in the 2000s. Other days, I look like a scarecrow. I’m okay with it. It rarely matters.
I don’t say anything to my fellow straphanger.
“I’m Dave,” he says, offering his hand. I stare at him, hard. Really hard. I don’t look away. At the next stop, he mutters something and gets up, walks down the aisle toward a door that will take him to a different car.
I go back to sleep and I sleep all the way to Grand Central. Before I do, though, I check Bumble again, and I read Paul’s message. I let him pick the place. Might as well make him feel like he’s in charge of something.
When I wake up, the car is empty. I take the shuttle over to Times Square and the 1 train down to Houston Street.
“It’s pronounced How-ston,” my grandfather had told me the day before I started work, pronouncing it the correct way. “Not Hew-ston,” he’d said, saying it like you’d say the name of the city in Texas. He’d worked in the city for forty years. He knew it very well. He died when I was on the train coming home from my second day of work. It was sudden. I found it sad the way I find the deaths I write about for the radio to be sad—a loss, but a loss for someone else.
“Get her out of here,” my grandmother had been yelling in the background when I got the call. My mom was crying on the phone to me, and Gramma was in the back, hollering big and ugly from somewhere in her sea of Chardonnay, “she’s hysterical; get her out!”
Paul says to meet him at Houston Hall, so I do. It’s a beer hall located on West Houston near the corner of Varick. I come up from the train onto a sidewalk full of people who have completed another work week in the dozens of office buildings lining every street from here to the Hudson. The leaves on the ground came from trees I can’t see. I’m never sure how I feel about the city. I rarely come to Manhattan. The radio station is in the northern Bronx, and that’s as far as I go, for the most part. The Bronx is normal. It feels like a place where people live, a place of consistency, even-tempered in its dull throb of life.
Manhattan’s different. It’s a city of moods. Sometimes it feels magical and supremely adult, a place one would go to be made into something useful and complete, like the softness of my childhood in the woods by the Connecticut River made me just malleable enough to gain entrance into a city like this, one that makes you anew just by sheer osmosis and proximity to its sharp edges and dirty breath. Like it’s where people go to reach their final form.
Other times it just feels like an ugly place filled with too-rich people living in a fake world that is even worse than the rest of America.
The bar is packed. It’s a cavernous place that reeks of spilled beer. It’s so bright with loud lights all over that there is no mystery to the evening: it is all unspooled before me the moment I reach the door and go in. Top 40 music is playing. Everyone sits at long picnic tables, each group of people closed off from the next only by turned backs and heads leaning in towards one another. Sit, prattle, drink. Awaiting something. I think of factory farming. I think of the DMV, or what people say purgatory is like.
It’s a Friday, and ties are flipped over shoulders and a lot of people are making a lot of noise. A few look at me, but for the most part, I’m invisible. I get it: I’m cute, maybe, in my way, but I’m cheap. My clothes are very plain. My skirt and stockings were my mother’s, and my black turtleneck is from Target. I am a country bumpkin, which, again, is fine. Paul sends me a message.
C U. back table.
I find him sitting there at the long table drinking a beer. I come into his line of vision and he smiles, rising to give me a half-hug over the table. I pretend I don’t see it and sit down. He’s wearing a blue blazer with a white t-shirt under it and a Yankees cap. He is clean shaven, but his white neck is riddled with bumps from an old razor. I assume he didn’t wear this outfit to his office, since he claims to be an “executive, but I’m on the fast-track” at Viacom. I could be wrong, though. The women dress well at my office—I wear sweaters, tasteful jewelry, pencil skirts with my ballet skirts—but the men show up in Knicks hoodies and cartoonish sneakers daily, and they run the place, currying favor by merely arriving, talking about scores of ball games, the Yankees. Rating the sales girls using a very typical criteria in tones they think are quiet, but really, they bellow high over the sounds of my typing. My working.
“I love this spot,” he says as an introduction. He gestures at a full beer sitting in front of me. I don’t touch it.
Paul is handsome, of course. That’s why I swiped right, why I told him I work at a tech startup on Jay Street in Brooklyn, why I told him my name is Savannah, why I messaged him just enough to make him ask me out but not enough to make him think it’s easy. He’s handsome in the way that guys who play basketball are handsome. He clearly knows it, too. He asks me how I’m doing, if I’m looking forward to the holidays, but as he does it he’s scanning the room, finding something better.
He drains his beer without another word and gets up for another, glancing first and my full glass, then deciding against it. He comes back with shots along with this beer.
“Let’s take a shot,” he says, and raises the little glass.
I raise mine, too. He doesn’t toast anything, just gestures a bit upwards with the glass and knocks it back. I toss mine over my shoulder.
“How long have you been on Bumble?” I ask him, though I don’t care.
He makes a face like he’s sucking a lemon.
“Like…a year?” he guesses. “I’m on all the apps. I don’t like to just go on one.”
“Bumble sucks, I fucking hate it,” he adds in a tone that is both dismissive and decisive.
“Why?” I ask.
“The girls message first,” he says, taking a big swallow of his beer. He looks in my eyes for the first time all night. “What the fuck is that, right?”
I laugh, and he thinks I’m laughing with him. Enjoying his observational comedy. Respecting his plight. Paul is, miraculously, even worse than I thought he’d be, and his Bumble presence made him seem pretty horrific—pictures of him holding big dead fish, playing ultimate frisbee, wearing suits with his boys. Golfing. I suppress my grin. I can’t wait. He notices none of the changes coming over my face.
“Fuckin’ PC bullshit,” he concludes, and then he’s looking over my head, past me.
“YO!” he calls out. Three guys who look just like him walk up—white, Irish, wearing baseball caps. They dap each other up, and I can tell they really think it makes them look cool, like some kind of street toughs instead of bridge-and-tunnel boys whose mothers dry clean their suits and fathers subsidize their rent.
“I’m Josh,” one says, nodding at me. He looks like the Harry Potter actor, but with a crew cut and no glasses.
“I’m Dan,” says the next, his eyes dropping down my legs, back up my torso. Like a human X-ray.
“Waddup, I’m Trey.”
I get a glass of water from the bar. Paul doesn’t notice. Some other girls have joined the group and they all seem to know each other. One girl has very white teeth and the other is wearing a dress that looks like it’s from a thrift store but is probably not. I go to the bathroom to pee. While I’m in there, I hear a girl crying. I look at my phone and see a text from Mom and I think of Gramma. I don’t wonder what she’s doing while I’m out, because I already know: she’s in her chair, rollicking to the chug-chug-chug of the news, nothing in the big blackness of the home’s stagnant interior but the flash and glow of the TV. And she watches. And I’m out here, and Mom’s in some hospital room helping someone get better. I wonder how many dates they’ve been on in their lives. I wonder how life would be different if they’d had Bumble, if I’d even exist.
All of a sudden, I feel very ill, and very sad. I leave the bathroom.
I stand on the fringe of Paul’s discussion with Trey and Dan about a video game. The girl with the teeth is standing close to Paul. This is fine. She’s very young. Her dress and shoes all look as new as her teeth.
“It’s fuckin’ gay. You can’t even kill the guys on your team,” says Trey, exasperated, standing so close to Paul their faces are almost touching. He’s yelling. The bar is fuller, and much louder than before. People are drinking. A supremely male energy tucks into the crevices of the big bar and rises up like a heat.
“Yeah, but you can kill yourself,” Paul says, his tone one of reason.
“Who the fuck wants to do that?” yells Trey.
Dan steps up, almost touching noses with the others.
“The mods fucked the whole thing up. You can’t say shit anymore without getting suspended.”
The other girls watch them, standing close, rapt at attention.
“Fucking PC bullshit,” one of them chimes in. The boys nod.
I drink another glass of water, this time with lemon.
A boy who looks nicer than Paul walks up to me as I linger on the outside of the group. Paul isn’t paying me much attention, other than an occasional hand reaching back and lightly squeezing my torso, making sure I’m still there, breathing. I let him. I assume he’s doing the same thing to the other girl, the toothy one.
I say the boy looks nicer because he looks softer—his eyes are a quiet brown, and he approaches me timidly and with the affect of somebody who has been kicked a few times in his life and is treading lightly at all times. His hair is longer, curlier than the standard high-and-tight look of the kings of money populating the place. He is wearing a sweater and a beanie. He’s smiling, but not too much.
“Hi,” he says. His voice is gentler, too.
“Hi,” I say. He’s not what I want, not at all. Paul is the one I’ll be finishing the night with. But he’s here, and he’s trying, this boy.
“I’m Pat,” he says. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I think about saying yes, asking for a cranberry juice or a Diet Coke, but an arm grabs me up roughly around the waist.
“Sup,” Paul says. He and Pat look at each other.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Pat says. He says it to Paul, of course, and not me. “Didn’t realize she was with someone.”
“All good, bro,” says Paul. He daps him up.
I feel like a piece of livestock. Trey and Dan are still yelling about the video game.
“Playing on console is for fucking pussies, bro, and that’s not even up for debate,” Trey declares, shaking is head and sneering. “Especially with this game.”
Pat is still standing there. His eyes dart around. He’s stimulated. He is no longer looking at me.
“You guys talking about the new Lords of the Dungeon Sky?” asks Pat.
They answer him. Pat says something. They all laugh. Everyone daps everyone up. I look harder at Pat, and his features harden before my eyes. The girls laugh. They all talk about something else. Someone asks me a question, and everyone’s eyebrows are raised when I have nothing to say, I’ve forgotten what you asked, sorry. Pat grows louder by the minute, guffawing full-throttle with the fellas at everything anyone says.
Around eleven, I tug on Paul’s sleeve. He turns around, red-faced. He’s drunk. His eyes look like my grandma’s eyes. I give him the look. He misses it, so I give it again.
The bar is loud. It’s too much. We need to leave. You lead me.
His buddies say stupid things as we leave. He looks back and gives them a look that might be clandestine if he wasn’t so sloppy, so childish with his hard-on. I let him grab my ass hard as we walk through the bar.
Instead of walking to the subway, he leads me to a black Mercedes parked on the street.
“You don’t take the train?” I ask, surprised.
He looks insulted. “No,” he scoffs, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t take the train. Get in.”
I get in. The leather seats are ice on my legs, even through my tights.
“Wanna come back?” he asks. He turns on the car. He’s not looking at me. He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling.
I nod. He doesn’t see. Fifteen seconds pass. The seat warmers activate and it’s lovely against me. People walk by, talking. Eventually, he looks over, annoyed, swinging his head on his neck in that drunk way that drunk people do.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s go.”
He doesn’t say much as he drives down the West Side Highway. We’re headed uptown, making every light. I don’t know where he lives, and it doesn’t matter. He reaches down and touches my leg, squeezing my thigh like a blind man exploring a woman’s face, getting a read on flesh. He studies my topography while swerving. I sit there. He turns on the radio. We listen to Future. We listen to Ty Dolla $ign. He raps along. He knows all the words.
“Paul, pull over.”
“You gonna puke?” he asks, though I haven’t had a drop to drink.
“No,” I say, and I reach over and run my hand over his crotch. “I’m not.”
He grins. “Wild girl.”
Paul swings the car over to the side of the highway. We’re up near Midtown in the 50s. I rub him again. He grows stiff.
“I don’t live far, let’s just do it there,” he says, but he stops talking and gasps a little when I raise the little blade up to his throat. He stops.
“What the fuck…”
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” I say. “It’s just hot like this.”
“What?” he says, looking at me. He’s scared. I want to freeze this moment into a crystal and wear it around my neck. He’s still hard. I unbuckle him, pull him out of his pants. It’s an ugly penis.
“I want you to make yourself cum.” I move the blade away, setting it back in my purse, though I can still feel the flat of it against my index finger, waiting.
He looks at me, dumbfounded. He looks scared. He doesn’t seem as drunk anymore. I wonder if he’s thinking about his mother. I’m thinking about mine, and my Mama.
I speak very slowly, very calmly, because I am calm, really soothed for the first time all night. His penis is deflating.
“It’s away. For now. But you need to make yourself cum to keep it away.”
“Seriously, Paul. Just do it to yourself for me, baby, okay?” I say, my voice suddenly butter. I unbuckle myself and turn to face him. I’m sexy, and he sees it. Despite all this, he sees me for what might be the first time as a being unto myself: my hair pouring over my shoulders with its paleness and deadness rendered mysterious and gothic by the cool light coming in from the street outside his window, my cold eyes occasionally licked by headlights from passing cars, my breasts suddenly out, untethered, in front of him.
“Grab yourself, Paul,” I say.
He doesn’t look as scared anymore. He’s growing again.
“Can’t you, like, suck it a little?” he asks, his tone that of a boy asking his mother for an extra hour of TV before bed.
“No, Paul,” I say, smiling. “I can’t, like, suck it a little.”
I don’t let him touch me while he does it. He takes a long time to finish, but I don’t mind. He’s drunk enough for it to be a hell of a task. When he does, his shot is impressive, reaching his own face, even the ceiling of the car. He makes a mess.
I steer the Mercedes through the moneyed streets back to Gramma’s house. It’s very late, after three. I stopped for a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich on the way, using the car’s upholstery to wipe hot sauce off my hands. I don’t listen to anything, just the engine and the tires on the road. I don’t feel bad. I’ve finally changed my life.
I imagine the man I imagine as his father answering a phone call about his son being found covered in all of his own fluids. Naked, cut, standing in the street. The shame. The death of a lineage. The withering of a dynasty.
My grandmother is long asleep. I find her in bed with no covers on. I tuck her in, kiss her head. I see my mother and myself in her ugly, half-dead, bloated face. Her breath is like pennies and I can smell her adult diaper, full and noxious.
At her computer, I go to eHarmony. It’s much more her speed than Bumble or anything else. I give her age, seventy-six. I say she likes reading, which is a lie, and golf, which is an even bigger lie. I delete all that. I put down her real hobbies: TV and wine. It asks for a photo, and I scan my grandfather’s study. I take down one of the whole family—me, Mom, Gramma, Grandpa, my father—from when I was smaller, and remove it gently from the frame. I take scissors from the drawer and get rid of my father first, on the far left, and then my grandfather from the far right.
It looks absolutely divine when I am through.