Shit!" Faith stumbled back from the greasy cabinet door as a large mouse scurried from behind the two-pound box of Uncle Ben's rice for which she had been reaching.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing, Mommy," Faith hollered from the kitchen into her mother's bedroom. The rice was unopened, but she inspected the packaging carefully to see if it had been assaulted by the fleeing mouse. It hadn't.
"Yes you did. I heard you say something," came Miss Irene's teasing reply. "And don't you be cursing in my house. You may be thirty and a hotshot literary agent, but I'm still your mother, and I can still get up off this bed and put a foot in your behind."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing," Faith hollered again.
"Yes you did. I heard what you said. I'm your mother and I know how old you are. You're thirty years old. I don't know why you have to keep lying about your age," Miss Irene hollered, before bursting into laughter.
Faith grunted and looked around the tiny kitchen for something to wipe her hands with. She picked up a hand towel that was thrown over the back of a rickety wooden chair, but threw it back down when she realized it had large, black mildew spots on it and smelled. Ugh.
She used to come over and clean up for Mommy, but gave up when she realized that Mommy didn't care one way or the other and that the house would be back to its same nasty state in a matter of days. Faith once thought that Mommy had had a nervous breakdown a few years back and somehow this accounted for her wanting to live in utter filth. The house was never like this before Papa left Mommy for a younger woman. Faith even once suggested that Mommy see a psychologist, but her mother flew into a rage. It had to be some kind of neurosis; no normal person could actually want to live in a pigsty -- especially someone who prided herself on her personal appearance, like Mommy did. What was even more amazing was that Mommy's sometimes live-in boyfriend, Ronald, didn't seem to care about the filthy conditions either. But then he didn't seem to care about much besides figuring out where he was going to get his next drink. He seldom made it home before the bars closed.
Faith gave up and wiped her hands on the back of her olive green wool skirt. Thank goodness she hadn't worn anything fancy, although she still wished she had thought to bring an apron to cover the skirt and light-green knit turtleneck sweater. Mommy always said she and Hope should avoid green -- that the color was unflattering to their skin tone. She had listened when she was younger, but discarded the fashion advice in her late teens after her boyfriend -- Henry -- bought her a fabulous green suede coat with a golden lambskin collar. It was the first of many expensive gifts he lavished on her over the years. The coat was a size twelve, and she was a size ten at the time, but she didn't care. Now, ten years later, the coat (which had long since been donated to The Salvation Army) would perfectly fit her mature body. At five feet four inches and 140 pounds, with breasts so firm she seldom wore a bra, Faith had a small waist and a big butt that drove men wild. She loved buying clothes now as much as she had as a teenager, and with her growing business as a literary agent she could well afford the expense. But she still enjoyed getting lavish gifts, and Henry still enjoyed giving them. She pushed her auburn, shoulder-length hair out of her face and licked her full lips as she thought about the floor-length golden beaver coat that Henry had bought her the day before. She had thanked him properly that night and looked forward to thanking him again when he returned from Chicago in a few days.
God, I hope they finish this deal soon, she thought. Being an investment banker, Henry had to frequently take trips to evaluate the financial stability of companies that his firm was considering investing in. He'd been traveling back and forth to Chicago for the last month or so, to assess a small publishing company that in two years had managed to put out four books later grabbed up by larger publishing houses and turned into New York Times best-sellers. It was one of the few times when Henry's line of work and Faith's actually intertwined.
She turned down the flame under the heavy metal saucepan and threw in a handful of diced onions and bell peppers, which sizzled noisily in the hot olive oil. She reached inside the counter drawer, ignoring the sprinkling of brown roach eggs, pulled out a can opener, and opened a can of tomato sauce to add to the oil and vegetable mixture. Then she added two tablespoons of salt, a dash of black pepper, garlic powder, and oregano -- and the kitchen began to fill with a spicy aroma. She searched briefly for a measuring cup, then finally gave up and went to the sink full of dirty dishes and washed a Skippy peanut butter jar. She filled it with Uncle Ben's rice and dumped it into the saucepan, followed by two peanut butter jars of water. She covered the saucepan, wiped her hands on her skirt once again, and headed out of the makeshift kitchen and into her mother's adjoining bedroom.
The whole house had at one point been converted into kitchenettes or efficiency apartments, as had so many brownstones in Harlem during the Great Depression, when people needed cheap rental space to live and homeowners needed extra money to pay their mortgages. Mommy rented out the second and third floors of the brownstone and kept the basement level and most of the first floor for herself -- and whichever one of her kids needed a place to stay at the time. At the moment that was Hope, since Allen had moved in with his girlfriend the year before and Johnny was still in the army. Faith had been the first of the children to leave the house, departing at age sixteen because of her hatred for Papa. She didn't even return for visits until after he moved to Brooklyn with his new woman, who was one-third his age.
The basement level had a full kitchen and two bedrooms. The first floor once contained an enormous parlor, a small coat room, a dining room, and a small bathroom. Miss Irene, though, turned the parlor into a bedroom that she sometimes rented out, converted the coatroom into a tiny kitchen, and turned the dining room into a combination bedroom and living room for herself. Pushed to the left corner of the large room was an ashwood captain's bed, from which the four-hundred-pound Miss Irene seldom strayed. Next to the bed was a badly chipped mahogany night table, upon which sat a brand-new 32-inch color television and VCR. In front of the television was an aluminum folding chair, reserved for anyone who stopped by to say hello. In the middle of the room sat a rickety brown couch with urine-stained cushions that one of the tenants had dragged in from the street. A sagging triple dresser and chest of drawers hugged the wall, along with a computer desk that was covered with old papers, but no computer. The computer Faith had bought her mother a few months before had been stolen by one of the tenants, which really didn't matter since her mother had never used the thing.
"Mom, I'm going to have to make you a steak instead of pork chops." Faith pushed aside the dirty laundry, including smelly underwear that had been thrown on a raggedy armchair -- once gold, but now brown with dirt and age -- and sat down.
"Why's that?" Miss Irene, clad in a gray housedress, size fifty-two, lay on her side, her salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a bun and her brown-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. People meeting her for the first time would always say, "She's so pretty to be so big." She had golden brown skin, with large slanted eyes, and a light smattering of freckles around her nose. Her hands were small and dainty, like those of a young child. Her nails were always meticulously manicured and polished.
"Why can't you make my pork chops?" Miss Irene asked again.
"No mustard," Faith replied, gearing up for an argument.
"But I had my mouth all fixed for your delicious pork chops," Miss Irene whined. "Can't you just run to the store real quick?"
"Mom, come on. It's pouring down rain outside, and it's freezing. Can't you just eat steak?" Faith whined back.
"Why do you need mustard for pork chops?"
Faith had forgotten the presence of Tina, also known as "Third Floor Front," after the space she occupied in the house. Faith didn't like the woman, whose face was sunken and skin an ashy gray. Like most of Mommy's tenants, Tina was a crackhead and was always coming up with excuses about her rent being late.
"It's a special way we fix them. We season them with vinegar, salt, black pepper, and garlic powder," Miss Irene explained to Tina, who sat on the aluminum chair facing Miss Irene's bed, "then we spread mustard on both sides, dip them into flour, and fry them."
"I've never heard of it. I guess it's good?"
Faith rolled her eyes. She knew what was coming next.
"It's delicious. You've got to try some," her mother answered, while enthusiastically licking her lips.
"Well, I tell you what, I'll run to the store for mustard if you make me one of those pork chops." Tina turned to Faith with a smile that revealed yellow teeth thickly covered with plaque.
"Nope." Faith looked Tina straight in the eye, daring her to say anything else, but Tina looked away and got up as if to leave the room.
"Faith, why do you always have to be so evil?" Miss Irene glared at her daughter before turning back to soothe her favorite tenant, who seemed to be near tears. "Tina, don't worry. I'll make you a pork chop myself if you'll run to the store for me."
Yeah right, Faith thought, but said nothing as she waited for Tina's reply.
"No, that's all right. I'm really not that hungry anyway," Tina said, as she wiped her runny nose with her coat sleeve. "But I'll go to the store for you anyway, Miss Irene. You're always so nice to me, it's the least I can do."
Faith rolled her eyes but said nothing. That's what the crackhead witch should have offered in the first place, she thought.
"Thank you, sweetie. Let me give you some money." Miss Irene sat up and reached for a white envelope that lay on the corner of the night table. She handed Tina a ten-dollar bill.
"I don't mean to be a bother, but could you hurry up? It smells like the rice is almost done." Miss Irene faced Tina as she spoke, but looked at Faith out of the corner of her eye.
Faith noticed the signal and obediently walked Tina through the kitchen to the front door.
"Now, you know if you don't come right back with my mother's change I'm going to kick your ass again, right?" Faith crossed her arms and stared after Tina, who hurried out the door in silence.
Faith had nearly reached her mother's bedroom when she heard the unlocked front door fly open. She whirled around, fists clenched, thinking that Tina had found some backbone.
"Hey beautiful!" Hope grabbed her around her neck, almost knocking her down with enthusiasm, and planted a big wet kiss full on her lips before Faith could get a word out. Faith shivered slightly from the cold rain on Hope's coat sleeves. "Long time no see, Baby Girl! Where you been hiding and stuff?"
"Nowhere, Baby Girl. And stop yelling!" Faith grinned as she always did when she saw her bubbly, energetic twin sister. They looked almost exactly alike, although Hope was just a shade lighter, which to enough people meant that Hope was the "pretty" twin. Faith noticed that Hope had also dropped a little more weight. She was getting downright skinny.
"I know, I know, I talk loud and stuff," Hope said with no apology in her voice as she grabbed Faith's hand and pulled her toward their mother's bedroom. "Anyway, whatchoo cooking? I can smell it all the way from outside."
"Is that what made you finally bring your butt home after two days?" Miss Irene looked at Hope and sucked her teeth. "The least you could have done was call and say you were okay."
"I know, I know, I'm inconsiderate and stuff. Whatchoo up to, Mom?" Hope leaned down and kissed her mother on the cheek. "Look what I bought ya," she said as she dipped her hand into her coat pocket.
"What's this?" Miss Irene smiled with delight as she turned over the small silver contraption in her hand.
"It's a tape recorder, Mommy! See, it takes little, tiny tapes," Hope said, pointing to a minuscule compartment on the front of the recorder.
"It's a micro-cassette recorder. I have one of those," Faith said with a laugh. "Hope, what is Mommy going to do with one of those?"
"I don't know. There was some guy selling it hot for five bucks on Malcolm X Boulevard, and it looked like something Mommy would like and stuff, so I bought it," Hope shrugged. "If she doesn't want it, you can have it, I guess."
"No, she's going to have to buy her own. This one's mine!" Miss Irene's eyes gleamed as she turned the small recorder in her hands over and over again.
"Like I said, I already got one. And y'all should both be ashamed of yourself buying hot items off the street." Faith sniffed the air, then ran into the kitchen. "Oh, shoot, I have to turn off the rice."
"Don't pay her any mind, sweetie, you know she's a snob. You just keep buying your Mommy these nice gifts," Miss Irene said as Hope sat in the aluminum chair and clicked on the television to watch music videos.
"No, you guys really should stop. You know darn well that the guy you bought that from probably stole it from someone. You're supporting theft," Faith said as she returned to the bedroom. She looked back and forth at the two of them -- Miss Irene still gushing over the tape recorder and Hope trying to look wide-eyed and innocent as if she really cared about what Faith was saying.
"Oh forget it," Faith said finally, plopping back down into the armchair.
"What did you tell Tina when you walked her to the door?" Miss Irene asked, finally putting the tape recorder down on the bed beside her.
"Just what you wanted me to tell her," Faith answered. "I told her she'd better get back here with your money quick or I was going to hurt her."
"Good. I wanted to make sure she didn't run off with my money."
"Baby Girl, you so mean," Hope said, though her eyes never left the television screen. Her favorite show, Wheel of Fortune, was on. "You know Tina is scared to death of you since you beat her up last time you were here."
"I only did it because of you and Mommy," Faith protested. "It's not like I care about that crackhead one way or the other."
"Well, she deserved it," Miss Irene said solemnly. "I know she was the one who took my twenty dollars out of the night table. And then for her to threaten Hope after she confronted her about it -- well, she needed someone to show her that she can't get away with treating people like that."
"But see, Mom," Faith leaned forward in the chair, "then you can't understand why I get upset when I come back and she's right up here in your face again."
"Well, you already taught her a lesson," Miss Irene said defensively. "Besides, she's good company. You know she has a -- "
"A master's degree from Yale," Hope and Faith said simultaneously.
"She's still a thieving crackhead, though," Faith added dryly.
"And a liar, too. You know last week she went and told Ma that she saw me in a crack house and stuff? I wanted to beat that crackhead's butt myself," Hope huffed.
"Uh huh, except you know she would have beat your butt and you would have to call Faith to fight your battles again," Miss Irene teased.
"I ain't call Faith to beat Tina up last time. You did!" Hope protested loudly.
"'Didn't call.' Not 'ain't call.' Why do you have to use such bad grammar?" Miss Irene snapped. "And how many times do I have to tell you that you sound downright stupid using 'and stuff' in every other sentence. Why can't you talk more like your sister?"
"'Cause I ain't my sister," said Hope, pouting. "And I don't be hearing you getting on Allen and Johnny 'bout the way they talk."
"Your brothers don't talk anywhere nearly as badly as you!"
"Well, then good for them!"
"Look, all I'm saying is that it doesn't make sense for you to have me push Tina around one day, if you're going to have her sitting watching television with you the next," Faith continued as if she didn't hear the bickering between her mother and Hope. "I'm not going to come running next time you call me and tell me that Tina did something to you, Mommy."
"Oh shut up, Baby Girl, you know you will." Hope got up from the chair and playfully swatted Faith on the top of her head. "That's what you do best."
"Yeah, when I was fifteen." Faith shook her head. "I'm twenty-nine now, and I have a reputation and career to think about."
"Thirty," Miss Irene said.
"Twenty-nine!" Hope and Faith said together.
"C'mon Mommy, we ain't gonna be thirty until June and stuff," Hope snapped at her mother. She then sucked her teeth and sat back down in the chair facing the television, but looking at her mother out of the corner of her eye.
"Well, you're closer to thirty than you are to twenty-nine, so you might as well as say thirty," Mommy snapped back. "And don't you suck your teeth at me. I'm still your mother, you know."
"Well, I'm staying in my twenties until the very last moment," Faith broke in before Mommy and Hope could get going on yet another fight.
They'd been like that since the twins hit puberty -- Miss Irene and Hope, going through tandem mood swings. One moment they were sharing gifts and fawning over each other, the next they were verbally tearing at each other's throats. Usually it was Hope buying the gifts and Miss Irene starting the arguments, but the roles occasionally reversed. Both would call Faith on the telephone to give their side of the story, as if she really gave a damn. It was their crazy relationship, let them deal with it. The only time Faith got involved was when the arguments started in her presence and Miss Irene started hitting Hope below the belt. Faith couldn't stand by and let anyone abuse her twin for long -- not even their mother.
Not that Hope didn't have her own stuff with her; some of the things she did to Miss Irene were downright despicable. But that was a whole other issue.
"Hey, how's Mrs. Trumble?" Faith asked.
"She's okay. Well...actually, she's not." Hope turned her complete attention to her sister, ignoring her mother, who still looked like she wanted to argue. "I'm gonna go and check on her inna little bit and stuff. I think she's got pneumonia, but she won't go to the hospital."
"Why won't she go?" Faith asked.
"Because she's stupid," Miss Irene snapped. "I don't know why you keep going over there and waiting on that woman hand and foot, Hope. It's not like she pays you or even appreciates it."
"She's an old lady, Mom. I think she's something like eighty-five years old," Hope shrugged. "And I don't know why you always got to make it like I'm there all the time and stuff. I just wanna stop by from time to time and make sure she's okay."
"Why do you have to do it?" Miss Irene asked.
"She ain't got no kids or anything, Mom. Who else is gonna do it?" Hope asked in an exasperated tone.
"Man, you are such a sweetie." Faith shook her head in wonderment at her twin. When they were kids, Hope played nursemaid to the wounded dogs and cats in the neighborhood. As she got older, she started checking in on the older folks on the block -- accompanying them to doctors' appointments, running to the store for them, and reading them the newspapers. And no matter how much they insisted, Hope would never take a dime from her charges. People are supposed to help other people, she would say.
"Hope's a dummy, is what she is," Miss Irene said meanly. "She takes better care of that old woman than she does of her own mother."
"Mommy, that ain't true," Hope said plaintively. "I'm always doing stuff for you."
"What's that?" Miss Irene looked around the room trying to locate the faint sound of music.
"My cell phone!" Faith raced over to the coat rack in the corner of the room and pulled her cell phone from a pocket, all the while chastising herself for leaving valuables in the same room as crackhead Tina. She hit the send button to answer the call just as the last strains of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" faded away. Damn. Missed the call. She hit the caller ID button and her home telephone number appeared. Henry's back?
"Your cell phone plays music?" Miss Irene asked incredulously.
"Yeah, ain't that neat?" Hope grinned.
Faith waved her hand at her mother and sister, signaling them to keep the noise down as she hit the return call button. "Hey, lover! What are you doing home from Chicago?" She twirled a strand of her hair as she smiled into the telephone. "I thought you weren't going to be back until Wednesday. Did something happen?"
"Hey, Princess," a soft baritone voice answered. "The head of the publishing company had to cancel our meeting because his wife went into labor. When I found I flew out there for nothing, I hopped on the next flight home. You know I had to come home to my baby."
"Mmm...and you know your baby loves the fact that you're home?" Faith turned away from Miss Irene and Hope, both of whom were giggling and making kissing sounds as she talked. "Are you going to have to make another trip out there, then?"
"Yeah, I'm flying back out the day after tomorrow." Henry stifled a yawn. "Are you at your mom's?"
"Mm hmm. I'm fixing dinner for her tonight, remember?" Faith stepped on a cockroach that was scurrying across the floor in front of her. "Why don't you come over and join us?"
"No, I think I'll pass. The Knicks are playing the 76ers tonight so I thought I'd catch the game." Henry yawned again. "What time do you think you'll be home?"
"Around ten or so."
"Cool. I'll be here waiting for you, baby. I love you, Faith."
"I love you, too, Henry."
"Mmm, good...that's what I needed to hear. Let me speak to the Queen Mother before we hang up, baby."
Faith dutifully handed the cell phone to Miss Irene. "Your boyfriend wants to speak to you," she rolled her eyes, but was unable to suppress her smile.
"Stop acting so jealous." Miss Irene grinned as she took the telephone. "Hi Henry. How was your trip?...Oh, I'm sorry to hear that....Did you bring me back anything?...Really?...Oh, goodie! I've always wanted one of those!...Can you bring it over tonight?...Oh, okay....Not until next week?...Well why don't you send it over by Faith if she can stop by here sooner?...Okay, then sweetie....And don't forget....Alrighty then, Henry...bye." She switched the telephone off and handed it back to Faith. "Henry bought me one of those computerized Spanish/English translators!" she said excitedly.
Faith sighed and shook her head wearily. "And why would he have bought you something like that?"
"Because he adores me, of course." Miss Irene grinned. "And I might have mentioned that I saw a television commercial for one and really wanted it."
Hope rolled her eyes. "He never buys me anything."
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "You're not always begging him for gifts like Mommy is."
"I beg your pardon!"
"I was only kidding, Mommy," Faith said soothingly. "But you have to admit, you are always trying to con him into buying you things."
"No, I don't. He just likes pleasing his almost-mother-in-law," Miss Irene huffed.
"When are you guys going to get married anyway, Baby Girl? Ya'll been together for like twenty years now an' still ain't tied the knot and stuff."
Faith glared at Hope. Now why does she want to say something like that in front of Mommy? she thought. Her mother had been bugging Faith about getting married for years, saying that she should threaten to leave Henry if he refused to set a date. Miss Irene wouldn't believe Faith when she told her that it wasn't just Henry. Neither one of them was in any rush. Things were going as great now as when they were lovesick teenagers. They did plan to marry...eventually. They talked about it from time to time. They even went and got a marriage license every January for the last ten years, so if they wanted to get married on the spur of the moment they could. That was Henry's idea. He was always coming up with crazy notions like that.
"Well, at least you're going to get to play bridesmaid even if you don't play bride. I can't wait until...oops!" Hope hurriedly covered her mouth with her hand, a guilty look spreading over her face.
"Play bridesmaid, what are you talking about?"
"Huh? Oh, nothing and stuff...I was just..."
"Miss Irene? I'm back." Tina appeared in the bedroom doorway, dripping wet with two small brown paper bags in her hand. "I'm sorry, I thought it would be okay to come in without knocking since the door was open and I had just left anyway," she said when she saw the look in Faith's eyes.
"You always coming in here without knocking," Hope said with a laugh, "why you apologizing now?"
Tina ignored the question. "I stopped at the liquor store while I was out and bought some brandy -- out of my own money," she said handing both bags to Faith with a hopeful grin. "I figured we could all use a shot to keep warm."
"I'll pass." Faith took only the smaller bag, then looked inside to make sure it contained the mustard. It did.
"I want some!" Hope leapt to her feet. "Where's the glasses and stuff?"
"Tina, I wish you had brought Manischewitz Cream White Concord. You know I prefer wine, but I guess I can drink some brandy. There's some plastic cups in the dresser drawer," Miss Irene said. "I try to keep them handy so I don't have to keep going back and forth to the kitchen if someone needs a glass," she said when she saw Faith's head shaking in disapproval.
"Oh, Miss Irene, I almost forgot!" Tina said after Hope handed her a cup. "Mrs. Crawford from down the street was in the grocery store. She asked me to let you know that Oprah was going to be rerunning the show she did with Sidney Poitier tomorrow."
"Really? Oh, Hope, make sure you set the VCR up for me!" Miss Irene clapped her hands in delight, causing Tina to chuckle.
"You must really like him," she said to Miss Irene.
"She loves him. And Harry Belafonte, too." Hope laughed. "Ooh, ooh, I got one for you, Mommy!" she suddenly hooted. "I can't believe we didn't do this one before. Faith, come here...I got a good one." She pulled her sister over so that they were both standing directly in front of Miss Irene, who looked at them expectantly.
"Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte? Which one would you choose?" Hope demanded.
Faith leaned a little to the side, put her hand on her hip, and thought for a moment. "Ooh, that is a good one. I can't believe we didn't do them before..." she cocked her head and looked at her mother who was struggling with the question. "Mommy, we haven't done this one before?"
"You know, I don't think we have. This is a hard one," Miss Irene answered slowly. "They're both handsome, though in different ways. They both have sexy accents. But I think I'm going to pick Sidney Poitier because he's a better actor..."
"But Harry Belafonte can dance! I used to love watching him swing them hips and stuff," Hope chimed in.
"Mm hmm, and I love his voice," Faith added enthusiastically.
"You're right!" Miss Irene nodded her head in agreement. "I'm going to go with Belafonte."
"Me too!" Hope said.
"I'm going with Poitier," Faith said after a few more seconds of thought.
"Why?" Miss Irene asked in a shocked voice. "You just said you love Belafonte's voice."
"Yeah, but remember when I was seven and Aunt Gloria took me to do some back-to-school shopping on 116th and Park Avenue and we saw Sidney Poitier down there?" Faith wiggled her finger between her mother and sister, who listened intently to find out why Faith had broken ranks. "Well, remember he patted me on the head and bought me an ice cream cone just because he said I looked like one of his nieces."
"Oh, that's right," Hope said slowly. "You know what? I change my vote."
"How are you going to change your vote now?" Miss Irene demanded. She sat up straight on the bed, put her hand on her hip, and glared at Hope. "You and I both said we liked the way Harry Belafonte shakes his hips, don't change up on me now because Sidney Poitier patted your sister on her head."
"Well, I'm not changing it for the pat on the head, but I kinda think buying a kid an ice cream deserves two votes and stuff," Hope said with a shrug.
"Traitor!" Miss Irene scowled at Hope, causing the twins to start giggling.
"Well, I'll side with you, Miss Irene." The three women had been so caught up in the little game that they had forgotten about Tina, who stood waiting -- impatiently, judging by the tapping of her foot -- for them to pour the brandy Miss Irene had placed on the night table.
"It's a family thing, your vote doesn't count," Faith said. She instantly regretted the harshness in her voice. After all, the woman had gone to the store to buy the mustard. And she was even treating to brandy. Faith retreated to the gold armchair and Tina quickly stepped in front of Miss Irene with plastic cup in hand.
"Thanks anyway, Tina," Miss Irene said as she poured a bit of brandy into Tina's cup. "And I really think it's time we address the inimical feelings so evident in this room."
"What's 'inimical'?" Hope asked as she held a plastic cup out toward Miss Irene.
"I beg your pardon?" Miss Irene raised an eyebrow at Hope.
"What does 'inimical' mean, Mommy?"
"You don't know the definition of 'inimical'?" Miss Irene said in a shocked voice.
"It's not a word that's used in everyday language, Mommy." Faith frowned. She knew what her mother was doing and didn't like it one bit.
"I wouldn't say that," Mommy said. She returned the brandy to the night table and then positioned herself comfortably on the bed. "Tina, you know what 'inimical' means, don't you?"
"It means hostile," Tina answered. Faith could see that she was trying to hide a smile as she spoke.
"Well, I ain't never heard of it, and I don't consider myself no dummy and stuff," Hope said defensively.
Faith grimaced, preparing herself for her mother's next comment, which was sure to be barbed. She wasn't disappointed.
"It just shows you what a failure the New York public school system is," Miss Irene addressed Tina with a haughty wave of the hand. "To think a child could go through twelve years of education and not know the definition of 'inimical.'"
"Mommy! Why you gotta go there like that?" Hope looked crushed, but Miss Irene ignored her.
"Well, some might say it's the failure of the public school system, others might say the failure is on the part of the child's parents," Faith said in her snootiest voice. "And after all, not everyone was as fortunate as you and Tina, who had parents that cared enough to send their children to private schools."
Miss Irene struggled back to a sitting position and leaned forward as if to confront Faith's snide remark, but then seemed to think better of it. Instead she just glared at her.
"Come on, Baby Girl. I'll keep you company in the kitchen while you fix her pork chops." Hope pulled Faith up from her chair.
"Ooh, you got Mommy back good." Hope chuckled as soon as they were out of earshot. "I bet the only reason she didn't say anything else to you was because she thought you'd put rat poison in her food or something."
"Oh come on, I'd never do anything like that!" Faith protested. Hope pursed her lips, crossed her arms, and looked at her twin sister.
"Well, okay, I did it once before. But that was only to Papa, and it wasn't rat poison, it was roach spray," Faith said grudgingly. "And it doesn't count because he didn't die."
Copyright © 2002 by Karen E. Quinones Miller
I'm Telling "deftly shares the pain and desperation of a family shaken to the core" (Booklist). For anyone who has ever chosen between speaking up and backing down, this impassioned novel lights the way toward love and redemption.
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