“Do Not Accept Nan Check”

Grocery shopping with my mother

Kiese Laymon

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Photo: Nicolas Balcazar/EyeEm/Getty

At Jitney Jungle, you filled our cart with cream of mushroom soup, tuna, name-brand wheat bread, and a big bottle of off-brand cranberry juice. I asked you if I could get the latest issue of Right On! magazine because Salt-N-Pepa were on the cover. You told me you’d get me a subscription to the magazine in a few months when I turned 13, so I just read it while we waited in line. When we walked up to the checkout, I put all the food on the conveyor belt and watched it glide away from us. Behind the cashier, pinned to a board, were a number of checks and Xeroxes of licenses, with the words DO NOT ACCEPT NAN CHECK FROM THESE CUSTOMERS in all caps. A Xerox of your license and one of your checks from Trustmark was in the middle of the board. Your check looked like the undisputed champion of bounced checks at Jitney Jungle.

I wondered what it felt like to have a face like yours plastered on the wall at the biggest grocery store in North Jackson.

“Let’s go,” I said as I watched you go in your purse and pull out your checkbook. “I ain’t even hungry.”

“Kie, do not say ‘ain’t.’”

“Okay. I won’t say ‘ain’t’ again,” I told you. “Can we just go?”

You looked in the direction of the older black woman cashier. She looked like a black version of Vera from the TV show Alice, but she had thicker lips and smaller teeth. “These folk don’t even know when to use ‘nan’ or when to use ‘any,’” you said. I wasn’t sure if you saw your picture or not, but I watched your shoulders dip as air left your chest. “You’re right, Kie,” you said. “Let’s just go. There’s tuna and crackers at home.”

I told you I thought the person who wrote the sign, just like Grandmama, used “nan” to mean “not any” or “not one.”

“Don’t excuse mediocrity,” you told me.

“So Grandmama is mediocre?”

“Grandmama had to work for white folk instead of going to high school, and she finished high school through correspondence classes. She has an excuse to use the language she uses. What are these people’s excuse?”

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Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Heavy. He is also the author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America.