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The Grocer's Closet
The sky darkens. I can feel the neighborhood holding its breath. A cat crouches under a front porch, cowering from the inevitable storm.
I grab Leah’s hand. Our intertwined fingers tremble, though we are not cold.
We stand on the concrete steps of our grandmother’s house. Leah presses the doorbell.
It beeps, and I jump back.
The doorbell used to sound a lullaby I imagined would proceed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the Mozart for Children CD I play when I want to climb back into the womb.
Now it is a robotic beep, an alarm—the kind that radiates against pale tiles in hospital rooms.
My sister looks up at me. I try to smile. It doesn’t work.
A veiny hand opens the door and pulls me into the darkness.
I squeeze the shadow’s hand, but it doesn’t feel like a hand. Especially not the hand that fed me spoonfuls of Gerber’s apricot slush, mimicking an airplane as it swirled through my parted lips; not the hand clutched my shoulder when I first bled into my underwear in the west wing of the Pantages Theatre, during the scene in Hair where the hippies staggered across the stage on acid trips, and I nodded and laughed when the usher standing in the aisle did, because I had long lost track of the plot and had become increasingly fixated on the slipping, sliding, between my thighs. And most definitely not the hand that bought me the complete collection of Gertrude Stein poetry, slapping me on the back, saying, “this is the stuff.”
No, this is not the hand. But I squeeze it anyway, and caress the rubbery skin that hangs over the watch on her wrist, nodding and smiling like I always do when I don’t understand.
“We can play a game,” she says. “We can play Old Maid.”
“That’s so boring,” Leah says, but I stab my elbow into her side, hard, so the last word sticks to her throat.
There’s a silence.
I don’t like dark silences.
Finally, “I’ll fetch the cards,” and she shuffles down the hallway.
Leah whispers. “We never used to play cards. I hate cards.”
I collapse onto the carpet. It is rich and wine-colored in the light, but now it feels like heap of lint, sticky and moist against my thighs. I spread my arms, and I feel vaguely like Icarus, except an Icarus who drowned too quickly, and never tasted the sun.
The shadow reappears in the hallway. “I wouldn’t lay there if I were you,” nodding to the rug. “Daisy’s had some accidents.”
I jump up, and something in the sadness of her smile stops me from saying a word.
She opens the door to the kitchen, and we follow. The fluorescent lights flicker on, and all of a sudden, I can see her. I can see the darkness encircling her eyes in brushstrokes. I can see the splotches beneath her nostrils—red from the overuse of cheap tissues. I can see the dust floating restlessly through the house.
“Let’s play, grandma.” Leah says, slouching into a chair at the table.
Grandma shuffles the deck, flicking her wrist to form a bridge of cards. The bridge stands, for a split second, then crumples into a pile of dogs with moist, pleading eyes—straight from the gift bag of her most recent PETA convention. I try not to look at her hands, because they are shaking, and won’t stop shaking, and everyone in the room, even Daisy, is conscious of their shaking, so painfully conscious that we pretend we are not.
The night goes on. And on. And on. I watch as the minutes on the microwave clock change with a glaring blink, and they change so many times I lose track. We stopped Old Maid after Leah creased the card so she would know not to draw it, which meant that we managed to avoid the maid’s wrinkled face until the last moment of every round, when we turned the card over and there she was, staring up at us behind her big bosom and dusty lorgnette.
It is 10:02 PM, and Grandma stuffs the cards in a drawer and wanders to the living room. She stabs buttons on the remote. We watch the Kardashian mansion fill with plastic bodies and pulsing colors and trays of champagne floating through the twilight. I look at Grandma. She bends forward, her gray body shriveled in the shape of a couch, her eyes fixed on something behind the TV, through the wall.
Leah fidgets with the lint on the chair, pulling at the strings so they squirm from the cushion like dead worms. She elbows me. “Let’s play hide-and-seek,” she whispers.
1, 2, 3...she counts before I can object, her squinted eyes peering through the cracks of light between her fingers. Grandma stares forward.
10, 11, “Hurry up!” 12...
I race down the hall. The photographs dangling from the corkboards race with me, moving fast, faster as the corridor stretches long, longer. I race through a blur of memories preserved in discount frames—Anne’s first bath, Anne’s first breath, Anne face crushed against her sister’s newborn lips, Anne’s infinite number of first schooldays. I run and wonder how at age sixteen I am still six years old—sprinting to hide in a closet on a Saturday night, while my friends drink beer and writhe to suggestive music at a rock concert in San Francisco, which is strictly for wealthy teenagers who wear ragged clothes and who trace their breasts with dark eyeliner.
20, 21...my sister’s voice rages through the house, and my skin explodes into a sweat. I scan the wall with my fist, pounding at the shadows that flicker across the stucco, straining to hear the creak of the closet I have hidden inside (with a 100% success rate, due to its lack of a doorknob) for the past ten years. 29, 30... “Ready or not, here I come!” My sister’s sneakers thunder down corridor.
The closet no longer exists. Is that possible? Hard, harder, I punch the panel five feet from the basement staircase, because that is the spot, I know that spot, but the wall holds firm. Leah’s footsteps draw closer, and I dive into the open linen closet across the hallway, shut the door, and stifle my breath with a pillow. I hunch in the darkness, waiting, listening. She will find me soon. I know she will. I hear muffled shouts echo from the TV, and the squeaking of my sister’s sneakers pause just outside the door.
I know she can feel my breath on her ankles, and smell the sweat dribbling from the crevices of my legs. But she turns around; the shadows of her shoes shifting down the hall. I exhale and flip on the light.
My blood freezes. I am not alone.
A black-and-white man stares at me. His gaze blazes through a life-size poster board, through the tight air, and into me, so I feel him crawling into the layers beneath my skin.
I want to believe that he is the leader of a cult my grandmother joined, so I can roll my eyes now and shock my friends tomorrow with an exaggerated tale entitled “My Crazy Grandma’s Closet.” But I look around, and I know this is no cult leader. I know that if I told this story at lunch, my friends would stop giggling and picking at their salads to look at me strangely for several seconds that would last several hours, and I would sit there, breathing lightly, waiting.
Leather jackets hang above me, like corpses dangling from a wire. Ironed pants with shreds of tissues left mistakenly in the pockets; photographs taped along the wall from the army; silver stars awarded for bravery or injury or sitting around waiting for a gunshot; family portraits of pale women and pale men, their lips and eyes pinched back into pockets of flesh; photographs from fishing trips, faces grinning next to impossibly large trout; A Table for Two and other Nora Roberts novels that Grandma has devoured at an alarming rate since last month; and a cardboard box.
My hands tremble, and I don’t know why. I only know that this is not the linen closet. My throat tightens.
It is his closet. It is his box.
I press my ear to the floor, straining to hear my sister’s footsteps, but the only noise is of the empty silence, slowly eating through the house.
I lift the lid.
Papers, stacks of papers, ink-splattered papers and cursive with over-sized capital letters spill from the walls of the box. I can imagine each word echoing with a thump, thump, thump, in the cramped office behind his store. The scent of clove cigarettes, the grooves of sentences stamped into parchment: “A Meditation.” An outline of a Buddha with his palms pressed together, belly swelling from his waist, eyes closed.
A date is scrawled in the corner of each page, starting May 4, 1942. I close my eyes because I don’t understand. I close them tighter because I might not want to understand.
But the box is open. It is already open. And something tugs in my stomach, like a trout on a hook, and I know I need to begin.
I read of a man. A man bruised with dirt and blood. A man who deserted his comrades, recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to a dying monk in a field of ashes, where the grass and chimneys and bodies slumped inside a crumbling gray horizon. A man who lived eighteen years in a monastery, who sat and waited and sat with legs crossed and eyes closed, resisting the urge to slap the flies orbiting so close to his skin that he thought they must be fluttering inside of him, so close that he felt himself become one of the flies. A man who floated along the dusty roads of Tibet with a begging bowl. It was the only way he knew to find himself.
I skip to the last page—it is just a sentence. The date is circled in red. I hear doctors rushing, the wheels of a cot clanking against waxed tiles.
“Code blue!” They would have shouted. “Get in here, code blue!”
I can see my mother staring at the floor, her face pale like salt. She would have held his hand. I can see him waiting for me to come. He would have waited for me to come.
I did not die confused.
I want to cry because I always nod and smile, nod and smile. I want to cry because the grocer who smelled like leather jackets, and whose chin was rough and soft with stubby hairs, packaged apples and skinned carrots, but was not a grocer at all.
I want to scream, because just when I lean in close, feel his words and the space they filled in his mind—finally feel myself listening—I know I am one month too late.
I sit in my grandfather’s closet—and wait to be found.