I am searching through my grandmother’s things in a room of wood paneled walls and plush white carpet. Curtains thin as lace allow sand-colored light to stretch across a bed smothered in three hand-sewn quilts folded in tiers along the pillow, halfway down the mattress, and along the foot of the bed. They are 70s toilet pink, denim blue, and yellowish white, respectively.
I remember when I told her, at twenty-five, that I felt old. I remember how she put her hands on her hips, always aproned in accompaniment to the smell of scratch-made yeast rolls in the oven, and told me, “Alan James, your elbows are still sharp as glass.” She would ask me to clear out the beehive under the back-porch roof while I pondered this.
She died three days ago. I am sitting on the end of her bed, which she has not slept in for the better part of a year, on a Thursday afternoon on the last week of May. Her gurney is still against the inside wall of the living room, close to the vent to help keep her warm on the unseasonably cold May nights that crept in during the last miserable week of her exceptional life.
I knew she was exceptional because she was Rhoda Genevieve Clark, an unabashed victory girl during the Second World War, a shunter of societal expectations before anyone else in our family. She was, more accurately, my great-grandmother. My grandparents lived across the country, on the West Coast, and Grandma Rhoda knew that they would not care to raise another child. They believed they had done their job with Sam, my dad. She raised me because my parents couldn’t. They were still kids, she’d told me. They didn’t even fight for custody. I came to learn that the reasons she won custody without a fight involved opioids and some level of neglect I am capable of recollecting only through what my grandmother told me when she thought I was ready to hear it.
He is in the kitchen now, my father, and I can hear him riffling through the old recipes and batteries and rubber bands of her drawers in search of something about which he will not deign to tell me. I am holding a porcelain cat, white with blue paint in the grooves of its fur, its head cocked to the left and smiling with bright green eyes. There is a silk purple ribbon tied around its neck, and the tip of its tail is missing. This reveals a vague cavern of unpainted porcelain within the figurine. I am starting to look inside when my father calls from the kitchen.
I don’t answer because I hate that nickname. He calls again, “Al,” and I dig my heels deeper into the carpet. “Alan!” he calls, sounding edgy, like he needs a fix.
I leave her room and move through the den, also carpeted in white, with cloudy gray light pouring through a hole in the green curtains along the far wall. The couch, big enough to seat four people with room, is stacked with boxes full of papers and a duffel full of medical equipment waiting to be returned to the hospice she spent a few days in before begging to go home to die from the cancer eating her stomach.
I enter the doorway to the kitchen and lean against the wall, swallowing the urge to scream at him. It is worse in here than my hearing gave me credit for. He has torn every object from the drawers. There is Scotch tape, rubber bands, at least four whole notepads saying Thinking of You…, and a pile of paper clips directly in front of him, and numerous hand tools and silverware and who knows what else sprawled on the pale blue counter.
“Called for you,” he grunts. He has a hand on one hip and a hand on the counter, and in another universe, I might have thought he looked like Grandma Rhoda. In this one, I am livid. She was more than my great-grandmother. She was my mother and my father. I feel myself starting to cry. My dad—Sam—laughs.
“You cryin over an old bat, boy?”
“Fuck you, Sam,” I snap.
Sam gets serious, then. He is gangly and pale, old, and I like to think my days at the gym have benefitted me. I am thirty-two now, and I’m not his boy. He stomps up to me with a clenched fist and I shove him back as a preemptive strike. “Boy,” he starts.
“Don’t touch me. And get out of here. Whatever you’re after, it’s not here.”
“She was my grandmother, boy,” Sam says. His nose is beaklike and his two front teeth are gapped so that I can see the black space in between. There are track marks on his arms, bright and brown against the blue-gray of his shirt.
“You didn’t give a shit about me, you sure as hell don’t care about her. You want something. And I promise you, it’s not here.”
I’m not even trying to play stupid. We both know what he’s after. His eyes narrow, bulgy in their sockets, and he smiles. “You already have it, don’t you?”
“Me and my grandparents. There’s nothing for you or your wife here.”
He’s starting to get angry, but he doesn’t know about the police caddy weaving its way along Beckley’s streets to here. I called fifteen minutes ago. They are taking their time, but it’s worth the wait.
“You know she was a whore, right?” Sam says, throwing his hands out. The skin of my knuckles splits against his teeth and he collapses, sad and old, against the white linoleum.
“She was not a whore. She raised me when you and Mom chose pills and locked closets over your screaming baby. Get the fuck out, Sam.”
A knock on the front door from the den, and what perfect timing. I cross the living room and pull the door open to find an officer. When all is said and done, my father is in the back seat of the reversing police car with his hands cuffed behind his back and his nose and lips streaming blood. The house is mine, legally. Grandma Rhoda put my name on it two years ago. I wash my hands in the bathroom, run peroxide over the cuts on my hand.
I remember being older when I came to my grandmother’s house, but she had told me on multiple occasions that I was still a baby. “Barely tripping over my toes,” she’d said, describing my attempts at toddling. I remember doing menial tasks around the house, but never anything too strenuous for my age. I remember her fingers caked in bread crumbs and egg yolk as she prepared fried chicken on Saturday nights, the smell of corn on the cob boiling in the silver pot on the back of the stove, fresh yeast rolls in the oven.
The house smells rancid now. Like sickness. I open the windows and switch on the wax burner her daughter and son-in-law sent her ten years ago. The wax cubes smell of butterscotch as they puddle in the metal tray. I clear the boxes from the couch and place the duffel by the door. I pass the gurney on my way to clean the counters off, to remove the taint of my father’s greed and ignorance and restore this house to its glory.
When I am finished, the house is blue-gray in the setting sun. I stretch out on the couch and close my eyes, rest my hands on my belly. I try to remember what it was like to hear her working in the kitchen, the sound of her voice as she protested politics on the news, the soft whisper in her throat as she told me she was proud of me a week before she died. Some of her things are on the bed she had shared with my great-grandfather before he’d died, sometime before I was born. Others are still in the cabinets untouched by my father, still more are in the shed behind the house, waiting to be sifted through by my grandparents when they arrive back in West Virginia for the first time in thirty years.
My grandmother’s things are not just the things she owned, but the things she loved and hated, those that loved and hated her back. They are the photo albums stacked in the back-left corner of the living room, behind an ottoman that her husband, who I never met, liked to rest his feet on in the wintertime. My grandmother’s things are not just physical, they are the words and lessons that echo in my mind, the values and punishments that shaped me into the man I am today. This house is a thing of hers, a book of memories in the form of walls and foundation. My father, his mother, and I. We are things of hers.