by | Nov 24, 2020 | Fiction

INHERITANCE by Danit Brown

After the President said that only some of them were good people, I asked Mary about the black SUV parked on the street corner.  We weren’t friends, but Mary was wary in a way I recognized: she kept toilet paper and cans of beans in her file cabinet. She kept a road atlas in her car.

“It isn’t FBI,” Mary said. We watched from the window of my fourth-floor office. Our building was close to the airport, so it wasn’t a stretch to pretend that strangers we saw were packing heat.  We imagined agents in dark sunglasses waving parabolic microphone dishes in our direction, listening through ear buds to the nothing we were saying. Mary took time-lapse photos with her phone. A kid with a weedwhacker edged the lawn below us. Somewhere, a bell was ringing, a distant fire drill. The parking lot filled with administrative professionals in professionally pressed suits and ties. We waited for sirens that didn’t come.


Mary’s real name was Esther, but Mary was safer, more holy, more local.  Mary said, “Internment is to jail as utilize is to use.”  She disapproved of extra syllables. In her office across the hall, two interns were downsizing documents, replacing terminated with fired, untruth with lie: reverse thesauruses.  She left the air purifier under her desk on high so that she wouldn’t breathe in her interns’ breath. Earlier in the week, she’d written “Vote or Die” with Wite-Out on the door to the women’s bathroom, but our boss made her erase every letter. “Not everything is politics,” he said with the certainty of a man who’s never been uncertain.


Not long enough ago, Mary told me, and in another country, her mother pretended to be a tourist and married a stranger so she could stay. The family that Mary’s mother left behind was marched into the woods and shot in the back, falling into graves they’d dug themselves.  No one said anything, not even Mary’s mother, who only found out what happened after the war. There were very fine people on both sides until there weren’t.

“Just like now,” Mary said, then ducked down below the window sill. “We’ll have to build a fake file cabinet front, a secret annex, raid the cafeteria late at night when no one is watching the potato chips.” She eyed my shoes: “Are those good for marching?” She was wearing boots in July—it wouldn’t be summer forever. Somewhere not far enough away, children were sleeping in cages under silver mylar blankets, birthday balloons emptied of helium.  Mary ordered a pair of 18-inch Men’s Lacrosse Insulated Alphaburly Pro Boots from L.L.Bean.  She got the last pair. It was possible, she told me, to walk to Canada: “Just head north and keep going.”  If it came to that, I was planning to swim.


I had two children and a husband born to a family that had been safe so long, they no longer understood fear. “All clear,” my husband insisted even when ashes from faraway fires turned the moon red. He didn’t believe in reparations, super spreaders, sun spots, electro-magnetic pulses, conspiracies, nuclear winters, extinctions, apocalypse. Our children, he thought, would be fine even though they were half mine, even though white most of the time isn’t always the same as white.


When I was young, I saw a child turned back at the Canadian border. “If we let him in,” the immigration officer told the child’s parents, “the U.S. won’t take him back.” Years later, Mary’s husband drove across the Niagara River for a better glimpse at the Falls and never returned. Some Saturdays, he stands at the other end of the Rainbow Bridge and waves at Mary, who watches him through binoculars. Only a few feet away, a mother and child study a display about the seven-year-old who went over the falls and survived. “He must have not listened to his parents,” the mother tells her son. “He must have been a very naughty boy.”


I had my grandfather’s yellowed passport, long since expired, a Canadian birth-abroad certificate and two passports of my own. My parents collected citizenships like stamps. The key to survival was leaving early, before anyone understood you were running away: better to be an expat than a refugee, to arrive before talk began of waves and swarms and infestations, before forced separations and the closing of borders.  By that measure, though, I was already too late.


In the afternoon, the SUV disappeared then reappeared across the street. “McDonald’s,” Mary whispered. “Or maybe Burger King.” A second SUV pulled up behind the first, headlights flickering. Mary consulted her Morse-code-to-English dictionary and dictated palindromes under her breath: N-E-V-E-R-O-D-D-O-R-E-V-E-N.  T-A-C-O-C-A-T.  We didn’t know what any of it meant. I used my phone to order three pairs of Men’s Xtratuf Legacy Boots from L.L. Bean. Within seconds, my husband called with further instructions: Stop spending money. Stop being afraid.


The State Department web page was dense with advisories: Do not travel to Venezuela due to disease, crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens. Do not travel to Afghanistan, Somalia, the Dominican Republic. Reconsider travel to Germany, Namibia, Belgium, Ghana, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Cyprus. Exercise caution when traveling to New Zealand, Macau, Palau. World advisory: please stay home.

Overhead are the named ghosts of Mary’s murdered aunts and uncles, the unnamed ghosts of my own emptied family tree. They watch my husband wash the car, polish his golf clubs, mow the lawn, impervious to their warnings: no one is safe, not even the safe ones. I gather up the go bag, the children, the boots, duck behind minivans, overgrown shrubbery, an unknown neighbor’s privacy fence. Fear, it turns out, is stronger than love. Mary meets us out by the Costco in an RV she’s equipped with solar panels and an 80-gallon water tank. The children huddle together, wide-eyed and silent, heirs already to the certainty of loss.

“All set?” Mary asks, handing me the road atlas.

“No,” I say. “Yes. I mean, yes.”

Not long enough ago, my grandfather smuggled himself into the U.S. in the trunk of a car. Even now, a part of him is still there, in the dark, pressed against a tire well. “Practice makes perfect,” he whispers before waving us on. Highways radiate from our town in every direction. The road is loud beneath our tires. Mary steers the RV, a large ship, onto I-190. She flips on the turn signal. We point ourselves north.



Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Danit Brown is the author of ASK FOR A CONVERTIBLE, a Washington Post Best Book of 2008 and winner of a 2009 American Book Award. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary journals including Story, One Story, and Glimmer Train, and have been featured on National Public Radio. She teaches at Albion College.

Books by Danit Brown