“Twelve in the Black” is, on its surface, a story about a father trying to make sure the people in his life are safe. There’s the narrator’s aging mother, who is being swindled by a Jamaican investment scheme. And his son, who isn’t in any direct danger but is on the cusp of young adulthood, which is undeniably dicey territory. John Thornton Williams handles the shifting balance of these characters’ lives in a wonderful way, treating this story’s violence, fraud, age, and love with extraordinary care.
Twelve in the Black
by John Thornton Williams
My mother’s eyesight is going. You can tell by the way she butchers my hair, what’s left of it. I sit on a kitchen stool with a cape snapped around my neck, draped over my knees, and she talks about her overweight husky and the state of her kittens—how the mama cat wants to eat its babies.
Offhand, I mention shaving my head, ridding it of the fair ring that seems to have a mind of its own, that in the mornings makes me look like a friar. She warns that I’ll get cold, which means she’s afraid I’ll stop visiting.
* * *
The calls come from Jamaica at dinnertime, so the man on the other end is calling around four in the morning. The phone rings. She pushes back her chair and leaves her plastic-sectioned plate of leftover macaroni and green beans and sliced tomatoes, sliding her socked feet over the linoleum saying, “Hold on, I’m coming.”
To start, the man asks if she has any grandkids. He asks if she’d like to pay for their college. He says that trust funds sell for fifty cents on the dollar in Jamaica, that they just need time to mature. Does she have a spare hundred dollars she’d like to turn into two?
He keeps calling, and she keeps giving. He updates her from time to time on her account, which is off the books, under the table. Before long, she asks me for money to put in my boy’s birthday card. I ask if everything is okay. You know, money-wise. She says it’s great. That Junior is in for a heck of a surprise when he turns eighteen.
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