The following morning was cheerful, bright and pleasant.
Dressed in his finest Mens Wearhouse suit, Manley skipped up three sagging wooden steps, ducked his head underneath the declining porch roof, and strode across weatherbeaten floorboards to the bungalow’s front door. He twisted the squeaky storm door knob and yanked the creaky aluminum frame until it released its grip, flew open, and scratched the toe of his brand new black oxfords with its sharp bottom corner. He propped the door open with his heel, then bent over, spit on his forefinger, and attempted to polish the scratch away. “Motherfucker,” he whispered, abandoning the task.
He looked back toward his car, where Crystal was still sitting in the passenger seat. He motioned for her to join him. She ignored him. He motioned harder. She ignored him harder.
He heaved a sigh of despair and turned toward the front door. It was wooden, with varnish peeling in patterns that followed its grain, battle scars from decades of morning sun interspersed with the occasional tropical storm. Manley picked a spot that was still shiny and rapped his knuckles on it, making a hollow salutation that he hoped would be heard inside.
He spun back around to see if Crystal was coming. She wasn’t. But she glanced up at him. He motioned for her to come up join him. This time he made sure he looked angry.
Crystal looked disgusted and opened the door car door, obviously under protest. She stepped out into the black neighborhood, wearing a pink floral sundress that showcased her perfect porcelain skin, and white patent spike heels that showcased her ass. She slammed the car door shut and strutted toward the front porch where Manley was waiting.
The door opened a slice and a single eyeball peeked out of the darkness. It was moist and bloodshot. The skin surrounding it was brown. “Can I help you?” it said with a feminine voice.
“Hello,” Manley said. “I’m here to see Ms Gertrude.”
“Ms Gertrude is not available right now,” the brown woman said through the crack in the door.
“Oh, well, okay, then,” Manley began. “My name is Manley Tapper from the Mississippi Mutual Insurance Company.” He produced a business card, and displayed it to the eyeball.
Crystal’s heels clacked up the steps. The eyeball’s line of sight snapped away from Manley, looking past him, toward Crystal.
Manley shucked the thumb of his other fist backwards over his shoulder. “And this is my assistant, Crystal Methe.”
“Hi,” Crystal said, slouching with her feet side by side, wiggling her fingers in a cheerleader’s wave toward the eyeball.
“Insurance company?” the woman asked from the shadows. Her brown hand came out of the crack in the doorway like a charmed snake. She found the card and clamped her fingers around it. The hand with the card disappeared back inside the house. Her eye disappeared but the door didn’t close.
Manley turned around as if leaving, but didn’t go anywhere.
Crystal gazed at him with a clueless expression.
Manley cupped both of his hands on her shoulders, and gently guided her to turn around to face the car, but instead of pushing her, he held her in place.
“Stay right there,” he whispered.
Crystal looked back over her shoulder. “We leaving or what?” she asked.
“Shhhh,” Manley said.
“This is bullshit, Manley.”
“I said shhhh.”
As soon as the door creaked open, Manley nudged Crystal toward the car and walked behind her. Crystal made it halfway down the stairs and then Manley took the first step down behind her.
“What you want with Ms Gertrude?” the brown lady shouted toward their backs while opening her door wide.
Manley feigned surprise that the lady came back to the door, and spun around with a smile.
The woman was middle aged, and dressed in a hotel maid’s outfit. She wiped tears out of her eyes with the back of her hands, first the right, then the left.
“Ms Gertrude asked me to come by and finish up her life insurance policy.”
“What life insurance policy?” the hotel maid said.
“She started a life insurance policy, and wanted to finish up her application,” Manley said. “Crystal here has a copy of it.” Manley reached out to his side expecting Crystal to hand him the policy, but his hand only grasped air. When he looked over where he thought she was still standing, he saw that she had snuck down the sidewalk and was now getting into his car. “Crystal!” he shouted as her ass hit the bucket seat. “Get Ms Gertrude’s policy and bring it over for Ms—”
Manley turned back around and examined the brown lady. She was leaning on the door trim. A little girl was hugging her knee and peering up at Manley from behind the screen door.
“I’m her daughter,” the brown woman in the hotel maid uniform said.
“Nice to meet you,” Manley said, strolling toward the door while extending his hand.
The woman ignored his hand and stared past him toward Crystal instead.
Manley twisted his head back around to focus his attention on Crystal. “Bring Ms Gertrude’s insurance policy over for her daughter to see!” he shouted.
Crystal rolled her eyes and launched herself out of the car. Then she spun around and leaned back into the car’s interior, displaying her skinny ass while retrieving the paperwork. She bumped her head on the door frame of the car on the way out, mumbled something that was probably vulgar, and clacked up the sidewalk to the front door with a handful of official looking documents.
“Here you are, ma’am,” Manly said, brokering the paperwork from Crystal to Ms Gertrude’s daughter.
The brown woman gazed at the papers, flipping through them like she was a lawyer who knew what she was reading. She paused on every third page and moved her lips as she read.
Gertrude’s daughter flipped back to the cover page. “This says ten thousand dollars.”
“This is a life insurance policy.”
“And my momma axed you to get it for her.”
“So what you need from my momma?”
“I just need her signature, and the first month’s premium.”
“She’s too sick to sign anything.”
“Can she make an X?”
“Maybe,” the daughter said, offering the policy paperwork back to Manley.
“You said this is for ten thousand dollars?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Manley said, ignoring the papers in her outstretched hand.
“How much money you need?”
“Thirty-five dollars,” Manley said.
“That’s all?” the woman said. “Thirty five dollars?” She looked at the paperwork again, flipped a few pages, then shook the girl off her knee and nudged her deeper into the house with her bare foot on the ass of the little girl’s diaper. “Laquisha!” she barked. “Go get momma’s pocketbook.”
The sound of the little girl’s tiny footsteps receded as she disappeared back into the darkness of the house.
After the little girl was gone, the brown woman got serious about reading the policy. She flipped the documents over and considered reading some of the fine print on the back.
The little girl came back with a crocheted hemp pocketbook big enough to hold a basketball. The woman took it by the shoulder strap without looking or acknowledging her daughter’s helpfulness. She turned the pages back over to the large print, licked her finger, and flipped down to the signature page. Then she pointed at a paragraph. “Says here I can buy a hundred thousand dollars worth of insurance with no credit check or physical examination.”
“Yes, ma’am, you can,” Manley said. “But Ms Gertrude just wanted the ten thousand.”
“How come that’s all she wanted?”
“Well, a hundred thousand dollars is an expensive premium.”
“Five hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Five hundred and fifty dollars?” the woman asked. “For a hundred thousand dollars?”
“And all you need is the money and my momma to make a X on the papers?”
“Y’all come on inside.” The brown lady flung the door open. “LAQUISHA, YOU AND ANTWON GET YOUR ASSES TO THE KITCHEN AND EAT YOUR COCOA PEBBLES, BOTH OF YOU, OR I AIN’T BUYING IT NO MORE!”
“My name’s Mary Anne,” the brown lady said, offering her hand for a white man’s shake. “Mary Anne Frederick.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Manley said, stepping inside and graciously accepting Mary Anne’s polite handshake.
Mary Anne Frederick led the way through the house, making s-turns around plastic toys on the floor, as Manley followed, and Crystal brought up the rear. She led them down a hallway that became darker the farther down it they went. Finally they entered a dim room that smelled of lysol and feces, where Ms Gertrude was drawing the last breaths of her life.
The dying old lady was clad in a worn-out nightgown. An oxygen cannula hissed into her nostrils. Her gray hair was an abandoned bird’s nest.
“Momma, the policy man is here,” Mary Anne said.
“Uh?” Ms Gertrude said, twisting her neck halfway toward Manley and Crystal. “Uh?”
“IT’S THE POLICY MAN YOU CALLED, MOMMA. THEY NEED YOU TO PUT A X ON THIS HERE PAPERWORK.”
Mary Anne put a funeral home pen in her mom’s fingers and closed them around it. Then she slid the insurance policy papers underneath. “Put a X right there, Momma.”
“Uh?” Ms Gertrude said.
Mary Anne moved the papers under her mother’s pen to draw the X. Then she showed it to Manley. “Zat good enough?”
Manley examined it thoughtfully. “That should do it,” he said. “I’ll just need to collect the thirty-five dollars and we’re done.”
“I want the hundred thousand.”
“Oh, okay, I guess we can do that.”
“The papers say you can,” Mary Anne said. “Zat as high as it goes?”
“Well that is as high as I’m authorized to sell without calling in for my manager’s authorization.”
“How high can you get it?”
“You don’t want to go any higher than a hundred thousand dollars,” Manley said. “It just gets too expensive.”
“How high does it go?”
“Well I can see if we can go up to a million.”
“A million dollars?”
“A million dollars,” Mary Anne Frederick whispered. She looked back up at Manley Tapper. Her eyes were even wetter than before. “How much would that cost to buy?”