Digging a hole was not nearly as easy as it looked on TV. First off, shovels were heavy. Second, South Carolina dirt seemed to be as hard as her mama always said her head was. Miri had thought that breaking the tough topsoil would have been the easiest part. The very same dirt that bubbled up any time it rained, sticking to the bottom of her shoes and releasing slimy worms onto the concrete. It hadn’t been, though. She’d been forced to bang the head of the shovel against the earth so many times her shoulders ached. Once it finally cracked enough for her to bury the tip of the shovel in the ground and pull from it, she felt like she’d already done an entire day’s work.
It had only been two hours. Two long, torturous hours of labor that left her cursing under her breath. Always under her breath. With enough force that the words felt satisfying to say but not loud enough that Ms. Candice could hear. Though the woman was eighty-two and more than twenty feet away, sitting on the back porch with her feet up on the railing, Miri had no doubt the woman still had ears like a bat. And enough stamina to call Miri over for a pop in the mouth if she heard her cussing.
Ms. Candice wanted the hole three feet deep exactly. And she would know if it wasn’t too—she could tell just by eyeballing if Miri missed the mark by even a few inches. The last time Miri had done this for her, it had taken three hours. But she’d been younger then, with a body that didn’t ache because of a shitty mattress and much less hopeless resignation about where she was in life.
She was thirty-two now. Her muscles were softer and her patience was much, much thinner.
Miri paused to wipe the back of her hand across her forehead. She had on an old, rough pair of work gloves that she’d borrowed from her cousin Jay. When the material brushed against her skin, she grimaced. It was hot out. The sun was well hidden behind the clouds, so her skin didn’t burn, but the humidity rolled in from the coast, making the temperatures feel even more suffocating. She hadn’t even been able to dress in her coolest clothes. Not unless she’d wanted to hear from Ms. Candice how she didn’t need to be “showin’ all her stuff” around town. So she wore her cheapest leggings, a pair from the Family Dollar that were so thin they showed her panties when she bent over, and a long, loose tank top. Sweat pooled at the small of her back and dripped down her collarbones. Every time she pushed the shovel deeper, dirt flew into the air, coating her skin and clothes and hair. She felt disgusting, especially knowing that she had multiple errands to run once she left but before she’d be able to go home and shower. Fantastic. She couldn’t wait for the rumors to roll through Greenbelt letting everybody know that she’d walked around town stinking like outside and looking like she’d been rolling around in filth.
She knew she was too old to still get embarrassed about something as ridiculous as a small-town rumor mill, but fuck … the whispers were just gasoline on the garbage fire that her life had turned into.
“You need some more water, baby?” Ms. Candice may have been closer to a century than anyone else in town but she still had a voice that could carry like nothing else.
Years of being the lead—and loudest—soprano in the church choir would do that, she guessed.
“No, ma’am,” Miri called, pausing to make eye contact with the woman. “I’m almost done actually, if you want to go ahead and get your box.”
Ms. Candice’s lips straightened, and she groaned low as she stood up out of her chair and disappeared behind the black screen door.
Miri kept shoveling, moving faster the nearer she got to being finished with her task. She had dinner plans with her friends tonight, and the only thing getting her through this job was the promise of losing herself in the love of her best girls and a giant pile of lemon pepper wings.
Ms. Candice had switched her house shoes for a pair of thick-soled clogs when she returned. Miri kept her back to her but she could hear them clacking on the dirt.
Miri paused when the other woman stopped next to her. She held her breath as Ms. Candice turned her eyes to the hole. A little milky around the centers but still alert.
“That’s three feet,” Ms. Candice said.
Miri released a breath of relief. “You want me to put it down there for you?”
They both looked down at the box Ms. Candice was holding. A shoebox, wrapped in multiple layers of newspaper, taped shut around the edges, then secured with multiple thick rubber bands for good measure.
“Yeah, all right.” She handed the box to her, not fully allowing Miri to take it for a few seconds. “Make sure you get it all the way down in there. Right at the bottom of the hole.”
Miri had to get down on her knees to reach. She handled the box gently, like it was the most precious thing she’d ever touched. Shit, it actually might have been. It was certainly the most expensive.
“Hurry up and get it covered, will ya?” Instead of walking away, Ms. Candice stood right next to her as Miri shoveled dirt back into the hole. The older woman kept her eyes glued to the box, even after it disappeared beneath the soil.
Miri’s voice was breathless when she spoke. “You know, Ms. Candice, there’s a Black-owned bank over in Beaufort. One of my best friends and her boyfriend bank with them. She says it’s owned by a local family and that they take real good care of the folks that bank there. Maybe…” She paused, considering her next words. She knew she was overstepping and that she might have had an easier time getting the CEO of an evil tech giant to give away his billions than she would convincing an older Black woman to stop doing something she’d been doing for sixty years.
When Ms. Candice turned her milky eyes to her again, Miri had no choice but to look into them. They hadn’t turned unkind, but they were more serious than she’d ever seen them.
“I used to help my daddy do this when I was just a girl. Any money he got that didn’t have to be spent on feeding and housing us was bundled up and shoved into a burlap sack and buried somewhere on our land. Daddy always said that money was dangerous. That it made you a target and turned you into somethin’…” She paused, turning her face to the side. “Somethin’ nasty. Daddy always wanted to keep his money close to the earth. Make sure he didn’t give himself the chance to flash it around and let everybody know he had it. Whenever we got in a bind, needed somethin’ fixed on the house or faced a rough winter, he would get to diggin’. And when I left his house to go be with my husband, Lord rest his soul, Daddy made me dig up the money he’d put aside for me, told me to bury it in my backyard along with all my other money and that if James ever did anything untoward, I’d have the means to slip away without him knowin’.”
“That’s … real smart,” Miri said quietly. “Your daddy seemed like a smart man.”
“Smartest man I ever knew.” Ms. Candice snorted. “Which ain’t sayin’ much, but if he knew enough not to trust nobody with his money but this South Carolina soil, I sure can’t say I know any better. I taught the same thing to my boy and both my girls. Not that they listened to me, mind you, but at least they’ll know how to get what I left behind for them when I’m dead and gone from this earth.”
Miri tossed the last of the dirt back into the hole, patting the shovel down on it to pack the dirt in tight.
“Do you want me to put some kind of marker here? Maybe I can arrange some rocks in a shape or somethin’.”
“I know where it is,” Ms. Candice said. “I’ll have my boy around here tomorrow to lay some new grass down. Come on in and get your money.”
She took the shovel with her as she followed the older woman into her house. She left the tool next to the bottom step, leaning against the back of the house.
Ms. Candice handed her a wad of cash silently, and Miri took it without looking at her. It didn’t matter how many times she did something like this, it always felt weird to accept money from someone she knew. Even if she’d worked for it. She didn’t bother to count it as she shoved the cash into her bra with a quiet thank-you.
“Here.” A foil-covered plate was shoved into her hands. “Take these salmon croquettes to your mama. I know she’s cleanin’ Della Jones’s place today and that old bat don’t even got the manners to offer somebody a cold drink when they come in her house, let alone a plate.”
Copyright © 2023 by Jodie Slaughter