by Jacqui Biggs Larsen
Grammy wants to sell the house. She’s been living there
since Grandpa built it in 1939. But since he died last
Thursday, she wants to move. To explain, she tells
us she never wanted to live so far from the city. She
would have preferred a lot on the East side, but
he started building beyond the suburbs by Jamesville Lake .
He always wanted things convenient and arranged his house
accordingly. Underneath his bed were rows of wide-mouthed Ball
jars filled with red beans. He once told me it was the perfect storage
place , never in the way . Hanging from a tree by an outdoor spigot
was a tin cup. It hung there year round, ready whenever he was
thirsty. And to teach himself Spanish, he taped vocabulary words
on the furniture . On the bedpost a white label read “cama,
cah-mah.” The curtains had one, “cortinas, kor-teen-ahs,” and the
bathroom, “bano, bah-nyo.” When I went to South America, he
typed me letters for practice, shifting to red ribbon for the Spanish
words. Each time the letters were a little redder. He knew a lot of
words before he died, though he still couldn’t conjugate a verb.
The last time I visited them, we rocked in metal lawnchairs out-
side the kitchen door. Grandpa pointed to the dry chrysanthemum
stalks and said they needed to be cut. He found a scythe for me,
then pulled his chair around to watch . Grammy told him it was
too cold, that he ‘d better go inside . He said he would be fine. It
was a long hedge and the stalks were strong. Twice I went inside
to wash small cuts. Grandpa gave me a rubberband to keep the hair
from my face; and later when I found a caterpillar, I carried it to
him on the blade of the scythe. We laughed to watch it back away
from the edge.
Lately, I have been looking at photographs. I have one of
Grandpa typing. It shows how the light sifts through the curtains
and spreads along the wall. The details are grainy and faded so that
he seems part of the room. In the photo he is wearing a wool cap.
I have some other photographs, old ones, when the house was
being built. The best one is of him, close up . His arms stretched
high, he aimed the camera at himself. His pipe dangled from his
mouth. Another shows the house as rows of two by fours, curving
toward the roof like a ribcage-Grandpa in a tank shirt leaning on
a saw horse, Grammy in a flared skirt and lipstick. There are
another dozen taken from a hilltop, showing the house’s progress
from planks to a white two story with black shutters.
Looking at the pictures, I remember the nights I slept there
as a child. The first time was years ago . Grammy’s was a twin bed
pushed against the wall, under a black clock with gold hands. She
lifted the blanket to make a tent and I crawled in. On Grandpa’s
headboard, a fluorescent light stayed on all night for reading.
Grammy didn’t like it shining in her face so she slept in the bed
by the wall. I watched the hands move. When the big hand reached
the little hand, they stuck together and hummed and buzzed. The
next night I slept in the big bedroom.
In this room I could hear the trains and see their lights. They
would form on one wall, then inch, then slide, across the sloped
ceiling. Grammy layered heavy wool blankets and a Scottish afghan
over me while I lay straight. When I asked her for bread, she left
the room. I heard her footsteps go all the way down, then back up .
The bread was buttered, sugar sprinkled over every inch. Little bites
made it last.
In that house I put on other lives. In the morning I was a
foreign servant girl, humming and dusting, following my grand-
mother with stories of my country. Before lunch I was a kerchiefed
negress, picking string beans like cotton, suffering the heat. Later,
sitting on the top stair, I cradled a porcelain Shirley Temple doll
of my mother’s and imagined myself an orphan, dancing for kings.
Since Grandpa’s death, Grammy said she felt him. She was
sitting at the edge of the double bed and felt him brush her arm.
I believe her.
Now a young couple wants to buy the house . The man’s name
is Steven, but Grammy calls him Stevie. She’s known him all his
life and wants him to have it. I tell her that I might want it in a
few years, that she should wait. I want her to wait. Ever since I
saw Stevie steal a sandwich from the junior high cafeteria, I haven’t
crusted him. She’s ready co sell. “Whatever Stevie can afford,”
Yesterday morning my brother and I carried paper bags of
clothing and boxes of puzzles and Agatha Christies into my parents’
house . Grammy will be staying in my old room. To help her settle
in, I placed on the shelf a wooden camel and a plaque that says
”Joy” -knickknacks from her mantel. She looked at me and said,
” Isn’t this what they do at those retirement places, bring your little
things so you think you’ re home?”
I laid my high school clothes in boxes with stuffed bears and
tied letters. Then I lifted the dollhouse Grandpa made me when
I was ten, but Grammy said co leave it. “It reminds me of you,”
she said, “like you’ re right here with me .” She had said the same
thing when I gave her the tulip-printed shower curtain when I was
twelve . Standing together in the old bathroom, the marbled tiles
following one another across the walls, I asked her what she would
do if the house caught fire and she didn’t have any clothes on.
Would she go out to the road and stand naked among the crowd
watching the flames? She said she would stay in the house, and I
said I would, too .
Last night I heard the trains. Their whistles woke me. The room
was dark and could have been any room. I thought of the trains
running between Jamesville Lake and the house on Apulia Road,
trains that slide pointed fingers of light along ribbed ceiling squares.
But the sound is coo distant and I am four cities away. In a carpeted
room, my grandmother watches car lights from the highway
pirouette across thin dollhouse railings.