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Heaven’s Whisky

A short story

I DON’T MEAN TO BE A BOTHER, BABY. You know I don’t. But when are you gonna refill that shot glass? I mean, if you’re going to go through the trouble of putting whisky on your altar for me, at least keep the cup full. My cup doesn’t runneth over. Not even this itty bitty shot glass. At least let my tiny cup runneth over and not sit empty for your-months1 at a time, with a dirty brown grit at the bottom.

Take your time. I don’t mean to be a burden about the bourbon.2 But I gotta say this: Right here next to this empty glass, you got this picture of me, my old eighth grade graduation picture. Now why? You have much better pictures of me with my hair down, lips red, smiling. Like that one with me in that green dress, standing in front of Shirley’s Cadillac the day she bought it. I look scared to death in that old picture. (I suppose I was.) Well, at least you can tell my color there. You can see I’m fair. And my high cheekbones. You know, I used to tell people I got these cheekbones ’cause we got Indian on my daddy’s side. I loved my daddy and my grandpapa. But Grandpapa wasn’t really my grandpapa.

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You know, these old stories would go down a lot easier with whisky.3

Be sure you wash that glass before you refill it, whenever you get around to refilling it. You know I was never particular. Not like your mother, who had to have everything just so. Mints and nuts on the picnic table in the backyard for parties. The spaghetti always mixed with the meat sauce before she served it. The potatoes and the bell peppers and the onions and the celery and the boiled eggs for her potato salad, all had to be chopped just so, else she would riot. Like she was the lady of some grand mansion and not the black sheep of a shotgun house. She got them airs from her grandmother, not me. Because my mother was particular too. Not about food, mind you. She couldn’t cook to save her life. You ever hear tell of a Black woman who can’t cook? A Black woman born in 1900-and-six, at that? Some folks said she thought cooking was beneath her. I heard the whispers. About that and some more. But I don’t think she ever learned how to cook, never had nobody to teach her. Or maybe she hated the body that tried to teach her. I never knew. She never told me nothin’. She didn’t raise me. She left that to other people. She lived in that big old rooming house all by herself, drinking water out of goblets, eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup out of crystal bowls, dressed to the nines, not a hair out of place. That’s what she was particular about. Clothes and appearance. Pillbox hats with pearl hatpins. Tailored suits of tweed and wool. Blouses of rayon and silk. Never a wrinkle, never a bare leg, never a bare lip. Skin black as midnight, just like your mother’s.

Now I done lost my train of thought. What was I talking about? Oh, right. The whisky. I appreciate the offering. You know I do. But why you put a shot glass on the altar instead of a whisky glass, anyway?4 When we lived back on your-side, your mama tried to control my liquor too. Tried to control me. Had that cry-cry sound in her voice like I’d done something to her, just cause I had me a little taste every now and then. Every night and again. If she’d been through what I been through, she’d understand. I didn’t expect her to. I just wanted her to leave me be. I got tired of that cry-cry voice chasing me, chastising me, like she was the mama and I was the child. And sure, I told her to shut her mouth sometimes, but—

What’s that?5

That’s what I said! Shut your mouth. I’m not no child . . . Whew, Jesus. Talking about the before-times make me thirsty. I mean, what does an ancestor have to do to get some service around here? Now what was I saying . . . Oh! Grandpapa. So, he had a temper. Real bad. Anything likely to set him off. The watchmaker didn’t have his watch ready when he went to pick it up from having it repaired. He beat the watchmaker. And when he do stuff like that, he’d leave town for a while until things blew over. Just hop on a train and go. And he’d send Grandmama these long love letters,6 about how much he missed her and blah blah blah. Well, I guess letters wasn’t enough to keep her from being lonely. She had a job working at a laundry owned by this Chinaman.7 And folks say . . . well, you know what folks say. Look at my graduation picture again. That’s not Indian8 you see in my face. That’s Chinese.9  But nobody said a word about it to my grandpapa. ’Cause he might have killt my grandmama and that . . . Chinese man. 

I know beggars can’t be choosers, but next time you fill my lil cup, can you make it Dewar’s? White label. No, no, you remembered right; I did love me some Johnny Walker Red. But ’round the time you went to high school, I switched. I guess you was so busy being a teenager, you don’t remember that.10 To answer your question: They do have liquor on this-side. But it’s like this: When you was little, you liked it better when I made hot chocolate for you than when your mother made it. And I told you I had a secret ingredient, and you begged me to tell you what it was. And I told you it was love.11 Well, that’s what it’s like on my-side now. Everything here, including the whisky, is regular. But the whisky on your altar has that secret ingredient, that love. Despite everything that happened in the before-times, love. Your remembering is love. So when you leave that shot glass empty for your-months at a time, I guess you are remembering something else. There’s no joy on this-side. No sadness, either. No arguing with your mother, because here, we remember only what we choose to remember. That’s the best part of being on this-side. The choosing. Your mother minds her memories, and I mind mine. Peaceful, but there ain’t no streets paved in gold. Just regular streets. Regular everything.12 

Baby, listen. I know you’re busy with your job and all. And your plant-children.13 I know the altar slips your mind. I know you wish we would answer your questions quick and straight-on, and not talk in these circles. But that just ain’t how it goes on this-side. I can’t stand in the way of your lessons anymore than I can stand in the way of your blessings.14 I know it seem like I just complain and make demands. But I really do appreciate you. Like when I asked for something blue, you put that baby-blue scarf on the altar. Now, I did feel some kind of way that that scarf’s not special to you. Just a gift from someone, you don’t even remember who, someone who thought you wore old lady scarves. Someone who obviously doesn’t know you at all. I don’t want an old lady scarf or any scarf that you wouldn’t wear yourself. I only want what has been close to, next to, your heart. You always was my favorite, just like I was my grandmama’s favorite. Even though, she always didn’t raise me. I ever tell you that story?15 So, my papa could pass for white, and my mama, like I said, black as midnight. My mama was sixteen and pregnant.16 My daddy’s parents told her that if the baby came out light, they would raise it. 

If not, she and her baby could get the hell on. Well, you see how I turned out. So they raised me. For a while at least. Then they passed me around from relative to relative, like a bundle of laundry. Wasn’t nowhere safe for high yella gals back in those days.17 We fell like dominoes. Your mama, black as she was, fell too. But I see you refuse to drop. Always was hard-headed.

So I guess I wasn’t entirely surprised when you set up the altar. We sent you to church. Like you could be salvaged, even if we couldn’t be. I stayed home, took communion with Deacon Johnnie Walker Red. Elder Dewar’s and I prayed prayers of forgetting. What would I do different, knowing what I know now? I would-a killed a man. Maybe a few of them. And I would’ve been softer with your mother. She was just a girl too. We all were. Just girls. I know I used your mother’s back as a footstool to climb onto that pedestal in your heart. I know you love me anyway. I love you anyway too. Please fill my cup, baby, when you get a chance.


  1. She once told me that someone on her-side told her that one Earth-month is approximately one one- trillionth of an eternity. “So an eternity is equal to a trillion Earth-months?” I asked. “An eternity is less than infinity?” You know I never went past the eighth grade, is all she would say. (return to story)

  2. She never actually drank bourbon, so I suspect this is her attempt at what is called a slant rhyme or an imperfect rhyme (burden/bourbon), as opposed to a traditional, or perfect, rhyme (“drunk” . . .“funk”). An imperfect rhyme for an imperfect grandmother. I don’t think she knows that it’s called a slant rhyme because she only went as far as eighth grade. I went as far as a master’s degree and I only learned the term when I Googled “what do you call it when words almost rhyme.” An almost-perfect grandmother. (return to story)

  3. “They don’t have whisky in heaven?” I ask. And she just laughs a laugh that’s not really a laugh. (return to story)

  4. Asks the woman who drank her liquor nightly from a 7-11 Big Gulp cup, filled to the brim . . . (return to story)

  5. Her exact words were, “Shut your black mouth.” (return to story)

  6. I found these letters from my great-great-grandfather tucked in the big family Bible. (return to story)

  7. “Chinese. Not Chinaman,” I say. That’s what I said! “No, it’s not.” How you gon’ tell me what I said? (return to story)

  8. “Indigenous,” I say. But she pays me no mind. (return to story) 

  9. Damn. I see it. (return to story)

  10. I remember. (return to story)

  11. One morning when I was seven, I snuck and watched her make my hot chocolate. Turns out, the secret ingredient was milk instead of water. (return to story)

  12. “So . . . purgatory?” I ask. Purga-what? “Like, you’re stuck. Between heaven and hell.” Oh. Oh, nah. Ain’t nothin’ like that. Ain’t no heaven. Ain’t no hell. All that stuff they told us in church, come to find out, ain’t none of it real. “What would you do differently, if you could live your life over again, knowing what you know now?” She thought about it for a long time. (return to story)

  13. Wow. (return to story)

  14. This slant-rhyming is not something she did in life. I kind of like it. (return to story)

  15. She’s told me this story many, many times. (return to story)

  16. In my journal, I write: Were any of the conceptions in the last four generations of my maternal family the result of consensual sex? (return to story)

  17. This part of the story is new. Even though I think I know, I ask her what she means by this, and she says, I choose not to remember. (return to story)

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Deesha Philyaw is the author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and finalist for the National Book Award.