The night before we came to stay with Grandma, Dad woke me, pulling on the sleeve of my pajamas. I followed him into the kitchen where he offered me a handful from a bag that he must have brought home from the V.F.W. hall where he’d just played a dance job with his band. I felt his eyes on me as I chewed the stale popcorn. Why has he pulled me from bed for this? I smelled stale beer on his breath.
Next morning, Mom stood at the sink with her back to us, nervously picking at her dry, cracked, and bleeding hands. I notice she’s also chewing on the inside of her cheek. I know when she does that she can’t pay much attention to us.
“Mom, are you coming with us?” I ask, as my father ushers us out the door.
I’m thinking about the suitcase sitting open and empty on their bed. She is standing over the kitchen sink full of breakfast dishes submerged in gray water. She stares out into the backyard where clothespins grasp the empty lines like irregularly spaced commas.
“Cinthia, I’m taking the boys. Back in an hour,” Dad says.
Dad calls mom Cinthia rather than Cin when he is angry.
Mom absent-mindedly scratches her hands. A condition aggravated by the scalding water. Looks at us for a moment. There are shadows under her eyes. She turns to grasp the edge of the sink, as if to steady herself, then looks again into the yard, to the leafless elm planted when Pete was born.
We are herded into the station wagon. Pete sits next to Dad in front. Francis, Rob, and I huddle in the back seat. Francis is sniffling, wiping his face with his sleeve.
“Where we going Dad, why’s Mom not coming?” I ask.
“Grandma’s. Your mother is going to the doctor for a bit,” my father replies.
“Stop crying.” That’s all he will say.
Rob looks out of the window, gripping the seat beneath him. Pete, the oldest, was born deaf. His cries are shrill, then strangled, then howling. I remember when the neighbor’s dog got hit by a delivery truck. The dog screamed for five minutes before it died. This sounds worse.
I feel like I’ve been punched in the chest. I pinch myself hard, once, on the thigh, to distract myself. I will be black and blue there tomorrow. My father’s knuckles are white where he grips the steering wheel. I notice he doesn’t push away Pete’s hand, which is tugging at his sleeve. Even though Pete can’t hear or talk, I have the feeling Dad wouldn’t know what to say to him anyway. Dad puts the wagon in gear and we are on our way to Grandma’s house.
Why does Mom have to go stay with the doctor for a while? It is clear we’re not to ask any more questions. Maybe her sadness has become so heavy that she can no longer move. I’m afraid to lose her for good. We file into Grandma’s house by age: Pete first, then Rob, me, and Dan. In the living room hangs a picture, near the carved cuckoo clock. Jesus in his crown of thorns. Grandma is in the backyard.
Grandmother raises prizewinning roses. Blooms large as cabbages. She ministers to them tenderly, digging carefully around the base to add fish heads and vegetable scraps and other ingredients she won’t disclose. She pinches back errant leaves and beheads rosehips. With her pump sprayer she poisons sap-sucking aphids, powdery mildew, and nibbling beetles. The blossoms in lurid red and voluptuous pink and delicate new-bride white are her pride. I spy her slight smile early this morning as she admires a particularly full bloom of pale ivory with the faintest blush of pink, encrusted with drops of dew on sturdy, thorned canes.
She stands in the yard, admiring the shrub, her thick hands folded one over the other, rosary dangling against her crisply ironed red-check apron. A smile on her face surprises me; it seems to belong to someone else, to another time.
Grandma seats us around the breakfast table. She fries kielbasa and oats bubble in the pot.
“Clean plates,” she orders, setting our plates and bowls before us. We know this is not a request. Grandma stands at the kitchen sink, her hands glazed with suds, awaiting breakfast dishes. She studies her hands, picking at the tiny thorns of steel so difficult to remove. She has burrs of metal embedded in her hands from working at a steel fabrication plant. Men’s work. Lucky to have it. Began doing it during the war. Pays better than cleaning houses. Her hair looks like the steel wool she uses to scour pans. She looks through pale eyes out of the window over her beak-like nose to her garden, then turns to check on our progress.
She notices my hesitation over the bowl, spooning oats from one side, then to the other. My brothers are noisily consuming their breakfast. She snatches my bowl, places it on the kitchen counter. I’m distracted by her stack of nursery catalogs with their vivid portraits of roses. My finger follows letters, slowly making out the names of various cultivars: Resurrection, Deep Secret, Night Song, 4th of July. She pulls the pamphlets away, and they land on the counter with a plop. She scans me up and down. She points to my bowl.
“You too thin. You eat like bird. Eat more.”
Grandma carefully places raisins and sprinkles brown sugar into my bowl. My heart sinks, because I know I must eat every shriveled raisin and consume every spoonful of oatmeal. She replaces the bowl in front of me.
“God wants you to be full of smile,” she says, patting her stomach.
Grandma has drawn two eyes, a nose, and a smile with raisins. Brown sugar sprinkled for hair. I grin back at the oatmeal. For a moment, I’m not afraid of her. I eat my oatmeal and Grandma even lets me wash my own bowl, standing on the stepstool with her firm hand at my back so I don’t fall.
Grandmother is insistent that we use everything up; that we leave nothing behind.
“It is sin to waste,” we are reminded.
“You must be good children. Honor father and mother, thanks God,” we hear again and again. We behave because misbehaving means sleeping in the same bed with Grandma, eyes wide open, alert to every shift and strain of the old mattress.
That night I have a dream. The cuckoo is about to burst out of hiding from behind a tiny door to call out midnight. Barefoot in my pajamas, I wait quietly for the wooden bird to appear. I alternate looking up at the portrait of Jesus in his crown of thorns and checking for the songbird. The cuckoo suddenly appears, beginning its rotation from behind the face of the clock, but remains strangely silent, as if it has forgotten its role. Beneath his coil of razor-sharp barbs, Christ’s stricken face is framed by waves of long hair as He gazes imploringly at the ceiling, where there is nothing, not even a cobweb.
Suddenly, I feel wiry frozen grass beneath my feet and between my toes, and I’m transported into the backyard where I’m looking up into a blackness densely encrusted with stars. I’m startled, noticing that I’m surrounded by Grandma’s rosebushes. They grow in a dense circle of which I am the center. I discern a pattern in the petals of each that reveals a portrait. One looks like Grandma’s portrait of “Jesus in Agony.” In another I see my mother’s face, not looking at me, but toward the night sky.
Suddenly, mom’s image in the rose bursts into flame.
I wake with a shout, sitting upright in bed. My body is rigid. My heart feels as though it will burst out of my chest. I am flushed and hot, as if on fire. I look to the other twin bed where my younger brother Dan lies sleeping, undisturbed. He sleeps through everything. Trembling in the darkness, I can make out that the closet door is open and observe with horror the yawning abyss inside. I am certain that I’m about to be devoured by the evil clown who continually invades my dreams or the forearm-thick white boa constrictor eyeing me from the darkness. It will leap from the black void, clenching me in its teeth, and drag me back into its hole. My flesh will be separated from the bone. I will be consumed.
The bedroom door opens, and light from the hallway spills in. Grandma pads quietly into the room in her flannel nightgown, her steely hair contained by a net. I’m afraid she will scold me for waking her. She sits on the side of the bed, and I can feel her assessing me with her watery blue eyes in the dark. She tells me that it is just a dream and orders me to lie down. She pulls the covers up and smoothes the spread. She places her rosary in my palm and wraps her calloused hand around round mine. Her skin is rough, but warm and moist. She talks to me, firmly, but with a softness I’d not noticed before.
“There is no reason ever to be afraid. Jesus sees you and hears you, wherever you are, whatever pain you have. He will not forget you. He is always there. He loves children. He loves you. When you are afraid, call His name. You are His lamb. You are His own.”
My body unclenches.
I have always disliked our church, its cinder block walls, the drone of the priest, the monotony of the organ and the puppet-like kneeling and standing, but I rally to the idea that I am not forgotten. That I belong to someone. That I might not be alone.
Early in the morning, I watch Grandma in the backyard, beating rugs on the line, a housecoat with a frayed hem over her cotton dress and apron. She swings a broom while baring her teeth, striking with such force that a cloud of dust surrounds her. She pauses to catch her breath, sensing me in the doorway, glancing in my direction. It seems to take a minute for her to recognize me.
“Don’t let dust in,” she says, waving me back indoors.
The phone ringing brings her scuttling into the house, wiping her hands on the apron. She picks up the receiver, and with a backward glance notices I’m still in the room. She begins to speak in a hushed voice, while waving me out. Later, I discover her bedroom door slightly ajar. Her back is to me and she is kneeling next to the bed, elbows propped on the white chenille spread. Her forehead rests in her hands, from which the rosary hangs. She is murmuring in Polish and I’m wondering if she’s crying. I’ve never seen her or my dad cry. Mom and me cry plenty. Grandma often prays aloud in English, hoping perhaps that the prayer will be better received for the effort required in uttering it in her second language.
In English she says, “Please, Lord, make her strong. For my son. Crying is no good. Bring her back to us. Bring her home. Let the doctors and the medicine and their machine take away her sadness. My son, he need her. The boys, they need her.”
The phone rings in the kitchen. She stops abruptly, looking up. She clears her throat. The rosary is dropped, forming a puddle of beads on the spread. As she stands, I turn and run away down the dark hallway.
Tom Wasik is a psychotherapist and artist. He lives in East Hampton, where he was a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop in Springs. This story is an excerpt from his novel, “Thin.”