Delia’s mother finally agreed to get rid of her collection of ceramic mammies only after she saw the movie The Help. She’d told Delia she understood now why they “might possibly come across as offensive to some people.” She’d lied. When her mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, Delia found a ceramic toothpick holder in the door of the fridge shadowed by ancient bottles of salad dressing and pepper sauce. The toothpick holder looked just like all the others: the cookie jar, the teapot, the spoon rest, the salt and pepper shakers; identical, except for the minor differences that fit their function. A red kerchief knotted atop their heads. Round, dark faces. Bright white eyes. Wide grins. A fat red dress covering an ample bosom, hands on sizable hips, and a starched white apron flowing to chunky shoes. Her mother had named them all, which somehow made an awful thing even worse. She called the toothpick holder Lessy.
Delia picked up the toothpick holder, ready to smash it on the kitchen tile, when her brother called her back to the bedroom and they watched their mother die. Delia was a hospice nurse, so was used to this, and even though it was her own mother, she approached the passing with a detached professionalism. She thought about curling the toothpick holder into her mother’s hand as the men from the funeral home quietly took her body, but she didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being buried with this thing she was incapable of throwing away. Delia wrapped the toothpick holder in some dirty socks and put it in her suitcase and took it home with her when she left Georgia two days after the funeral.
Back at work, Delia developed a habit of checking her patients’ refrigerators, curious about those things they might’ve told their own daughters they were getting rid of but held on to for God knows why. Mr. Sasaki kept a collection of Japanese coins in a small mason jar tucked in the corner of an empty vegetable drawer. Delia took them out and pressed the cold metal to her temples, imagining she might one day go to Japan and spend this man’s money on sushi, circulating his coins back into the system where they’d lose their chill. Delia found a swatch of fabric from a baby blanket inside Mrs. Tierney’s fridge, an ivory-handled butter knife at Mr. Cishek’s, a snow globe of downtown Philadelphia at Mrs. Smith’s, a Tupperware full of watermelon seeds at Mrs. Longenbach’s, the shifter knob to a 1978 TransAm at Mr. Sherman’s, what she thought was a human finger but turned out to be a fake inside a butter dish at Mr. Crandle’s, and golf balls nestled inside an egg carton, each one of them dated with a black Sharpie at Mr. Dickman’s. And the items she found that were small enough to take, Delia took. She kept them all in a shoebox along with her mother’s toothpick holder. She didn’t know why she stole these things from people. It wasn’t so she could remember her patients or tally the numbers she’d helped usher to the other side. She felt like she deserved their things, or maybe like she was helping them unburden this part of themselves they’d kept buried in the cold. She told herself it wasn’t even stealing.
Which is also what she told the hospice facility when they fired her for stealing.
Delia had a friend who urged her to move out to L.A. and start over. She found a sunny one-bedroom apartment scented with jasmine that always seemed to be in bloom. When Delia was unpacking, she opened the shoebox and went through all the objects. Junk now. A box of dead people’s junk. Why had she brought this crap with her? She couldn’t even remember all the patients who the objects belonged to, but she did remember her mother. She missed her. She dumped everything in the trash except for Lessy, whom the giddy perfume of jasmine now rendered laughable. Out here, Delia would not become a person who hid her secrets in the refrigerator. She was from the South. This had been her mother’s. She would own it. So she put Lessy on the windowsill above the kitchen sink and filled the hole in her back with toothpicks like a quiver, and every time Delia washed her hands or rinsed off dishes, she saw Lessy smiling and thought of her mother without shame. Delia got a new job, made new friends, started a relationship with a man named Carl. He noticed the toothpick holder in her windowsill and asked her where she got such a thing and why she had it and why she kept it on display when it was so obviously racist and all their friends could see it at this very dinner party! Their black friends! She knew she couldn’t answer the way that he wanted. She told him he had a fleck of pepper in his teeth.
Carl broke up with her. Her rent went up. The jasmine stopped blooming. One day she came home and the toothpick holder wasn’t on the windowsill anymore. Delia would convince herself she’d finally summoned the strength to get rid of it, that she knew no matter how it kindled memories of her mother that it was unjustifiable, that it was mean and ugly and hateful. She would even call Carl and tell him she’d smashed the toothpick holder with a righteous hammer. But she knew the truth. She knew Lessy had finally had enough of waiting around for people to do the right thing and had simply walked away, her hollow body armed with tiny arrows.
Jeremy T. Wilson is the author of the short story collection Adult Teeth (Tortoise Books). He is a former winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction, and his work has appeared in literary magazines such as The Carolina Quarterly, The Florida Review, Hobart, RHINO, Sonora Review, Third Coast and other publications. He teaches creative writing at The Chicago High School for the Arts.