Sunday morning, the rotary phone on Grace Vincent’s nightstand doesn’t ring. The black-handled receiver rests in its tarnished cradle perched atop the antique base while the pearl face and black numbers below gape out over the edge onto the brown shag carpet. By Friday, a layer of dust will have replaced the clean spot left by fingers on the receiver’s handle and even Grace won’t be moved to take rag and cleanser to the antique phone.
In a cabinet under the kitchen sink, the clairvoyant rag is stirring. Folded end over end like two fervent hands, it anxiously prays above a bottle of lemon-scented furniture polish awaiting Grace’s call. And feelings of neglect build with each passing moment it does not come.
In Grace’s room two oak rocking chairs sit empty in opposite corners. A blue afghan trimmed in white hangs neatly on one, giving the nearby bureau a skyline to admire in the dim morning light. On the other, a pair of brown work boots stands on recently washed blue overalls and a beige, buttoned-down shirt, pressed and ready. Framed pictures creep quietly over the paneled walls. Rays of sunlight, filtering in through curtains like soft fingers, caress a frayed, yellowing portrait of a balding man with a thick mustache standing next to a woman with upswept hair wearing a plain dress. Both gaze at the empty space on the wall to their left, staunch and unsmiling. Out of their view are newer frames, whiter portraits with gleaming smiles showing under eyes looking strait ahead. Children fade into parents into children once again and finally into young adults in the footprints of a family left clinging to old walls. The bed is large but not high. An icy blue comforter and matching sheets spread across a single, cool mountain range and its lumpy foothills then run headlong into the valleys on both sides before careening over flowing falls to the floor below. The house is enveloped in an unusually calm silence. In the kitchen, a red-handled broom nervously looks at the dustpan below. A bottle of dishwashing liquid by the sink tries to bubble into lather, fails and resignedly sighs. A vacuum cleaner in the closet nibbles at its cord, powerless. But Grace doesn’t emerge from the hallway leading to her room as usual today, waddling in her orthopedic shoes, round and barking along the way. She doesn’t greet the kitchen like a lieutenant to troops at reveille as she has every morning for years since Joseph passed away, calling her platoon to arms for the daily battle against dust bunnies and dirty dishes. At six O’clock the enemy is already charging the battlefield, settling on any surface and breaking the spirits of the leaderless resistance.
“Your grandmother wants to talk to you, Grace,” her mother says.
“But momma,” Grace whines.
“Don’t talk back, young lady. Now go.”
Grace sighs and dropping the rag doll she had been playing with slowly creeps past her mother. She walks timidly into her grandparent’s living room and approaches the rickety old rocking chair where her grandmother sits. The house smells like wilting flowers mixed with that unmistakable old lady smell that can only be found in conjunction with doilies and knitting needles. Pillows are arranged neatly on the blue couch next to the rocking chair and a large white afghan, crocheted to look somewhat like a spider’s web is perfectly aligned on its sloping back. On a small oak table sitting in front of the couch are two small porcelain figurines. A shiny but teary-eyed clown with a painted smile holds a single flower while his closest friend, a gray owl perching on a cypress stump, looks on, its eyes wide and frightfully clear for mid-morning. Their reflections in the table make them seem less lonely.
Light breaks through the window in rays that fall to the floor between Grace and her grandmother. The illuminated air is smooth and transparent against the darker outline of the walls on the other side of the room. It fills the space like a giant block of molten glass, growing without blemish and melting slowly around both women. The pristine silence of the room hasn’t been broken with the booming echo of a sneeze in decades. Grace tiptoes on the bare wood floor, inching closer. The woman in the chair looks up and slowly smiles. Without the spectacles, Grace thinks, she would bear a horrifying resemblance to an old, sun-dried prune.
“Lord, child you’re gettin’ so big I hardly recognized you,” the old woman or the rocking chair creaked, “How old are you now, dear?”
“Five and a half, Granny. You saw me on my birthday, remember?”
“Oh yes, it seems like ages ago. You’re gonna be a young lady soon, and so pretty. Why don’t you come visit your Granny anymore? You’re old enough to walk across the field on your own now, you know. You can come see me anytime.”
The screen door slams shut from the front of the house and Grace’s mother shuffles into the living room impatiently.
“Come on, Grace, I have dinner on the stove and Daddy will be in from the field soon.” Her mother says, “Give Granny a hug and let’s get back to the house.”
The old woman’s arms curve into an empty basket to receive the little girl’s embrace. But as soon as her mother turns to the door, Grace backs away from the old wrinkled woman and follows.
“Bye, Granny,” comes billowing from the other side of the screen as she breaks into a run to catch up to her mother.
“Wait, Grace…Goodbye…” her grandmother’s voice trails and quickly fades.
“Did you give your Granny a hug?” asks Grace’s mother as the child joins her walking down the dirt path to their home. Grace looks up without hesitating.
A silence passes between mother and daughter as they walk along until Grace turns and asks a question.
“Why don’t we go see Granny anymore, Momma?”
“Well, she’s getting old, sweetie, and she hasn’t been doing so well these days. Besides, she gets tired easy and we can’t be bothering her with long visits anyway.”
“Oh,” Grace pauses and then, “She smells funny, Momma.”
“Now don’t be saying that about your Granny. One day you’ll be an old lady too and you wouldn’t want anyone saying that ‘bout you.”
Grace walks along the path saying nothing, thinking over her mother’s words. Then almost by accident she speaks.
“I didn’t give Granny a hug like you told me to. She’s all wrinkly and I just couldn’t, Momma. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“I know baby. And I’m not going to get mad at you. Your Granny loves you and I’m sure she understands. It’ll be all right. We’ll go visit her again next week and you can give her a hug then.”
Skin pulls and tightens, wrinkles, and subsides on Grace’s hands. The dust rag yields to every push and pull beneath her lingering force. Fridays are always dusting and vacuuming. A face peers back at Grace from the bureau’s surface, weary and pained. The antique phone sits on the nightstand like a big black cat, its tail hanging over the edge. Airborne dust particles drop from invisible planes and sail toward their target. Simultaneously satisfied with the gleaming bureau and sensing the sneak attack, Grace mounts a full defensive on the nightstand. The would-be paratroopers never have a chance, landing in a minefield of furniture polish with a sweet smell of disinfectant death.
Rose is coming visit today after work. And little Elizabeth is certainly making the journey to Granny’s with her mother. She’s such a sweet child and looking more like her mother in every picture arriving in the rotting mailbox perched precariously on the rusty pipe-stand Joseph has long since ceased tending. In the picture attached to the last letter from Rose, Liz stands near the altar with Father Dubois in the cutest little white dress and shiny white shoes and stockings. Her hands are folded around a Children’s First Communion Book and a rosary with pearl-colored beads hangs down through her tiny fingers. She looks just like an angel.
Grace reassures herself and nods at the sparkling phone and nightstand with the weary rag clenched between the wrinkled and arthritic talons like prey being taken back to waiting young in a mother bird’s nest.
“Now it’s your turn. I don’t want my babies coming here to see such a mess.” Grace glares at the carpet and reaches for the upright vacuum cleaner. It shudders momentarily at her touch then whirs to life tugging hard on the shag carpet, its inhalation seldom interrupted by so much as a lost lent ball or straggling dust mite. Grace glances up at the mustached man and plainly dressed woman staring off at the empty wall. They seem to be searching for something, someone.
What, Momma? Tell me.
The little angel in a pure-as-snow white dress hovers over Grace’s shoulder, interrupting her wandering thoughts. Grace flips the red button to the “ON,” position and the vacuum shudders once more before resuming the futile attempt at filling its belly.
“God, Almighty, almost noon already! We’ve got work to do, Hoover. Let’s go.”
“Rose, put your coat on honey. I wanted to leave half an hour ago.” Grace calls out the order to her daughter who is still trying with difficulty to master the art of shoelace tying.
“Isn’t Daddy coming with us to Grandma’s?” Rose says as her mother helps to pull the blue, tattered coat over her short arms.
“No, sweetie, he has to work today but we’re going to tell Grandma hello for him. Now button up tight, you don’t want to catch a cold.”
The old Chevy pulls out of Grace’s driveway and soon mother and daughter are on their way. Grace knows that she missed her mother’s birthday last week and the belated phone call was short and anything but sweet. So she’s rushing, as if driving faster might reverse the Earth’s turning, spinning the hands of time with the blue and green sphere until she arrives on her mother’s porch with a “Happy Birthday” smile brimming from ear to ear. And her mother stands on the front porch smiling back and happy. But as every mile passes the minutes seem only to fly away into oblivion faster than she can push the speeding car. Rose sits in the back seat playing with two dolls. Grace can hear her speaking for one and answering with the other in a different voice. She doesn’t want her child to grow up not knowing her grandmother but the last few visits seemed to put a strain on the aging woman. Soon weekly trips turn into bimonthly trips turn into monthly trips turn into every-couple-of months trips, which then give way to even less frequent phone calls.
Grace pulls onto the dirt driveway and looks up to see the house standing, old and unkempt over the Chevy’s hood. She could see the curtains drawn in the windows, yellowed and unwashed. The blue paint is chipping in places, revealing the darkened signs of rotting wood beneath. A pair of brown work boots sits outside the front door, dried dirt still clinging to their soles. Her mother does not come out to meet them. Grace gets out of the car and walks over to open the door for Rose. They walk up the cracked cement steps leading up to the porch, hand in hand. Through the screen over the doorframe Grace can see her mother hunched over an ironing board. Her gray hair is thinning and shocks of white twist and sway in a wispy halo above her head. The skin on her arms and legs hangs loosely in bunches, looking all too much like dough before it’s kneaded and shaped into a loaf or rolls ready for the oven. Fuzzy puffs of steam billow up as the iron presses down over the beige shirt and on the other side of the door, a knot wells up in Grace’s throat as she reaches for the handle.
“Oh, I didn’t expect you so early.” The older woman says as the door opens.
Grace peers into the kitchen where her mother stands, still bent over the ironing board. On the dinette, four places are set, dishes, soup bowls, forks, knives and spoons – all shining and spotless. She walks slowly, deliberately, barely noticing four glasses for their transparency, lined neatly on the counter near a pitcher of iced tea.
“Well, I didn’t want to get caught in the weather later so we left a bit earlier than usual. I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course it is, now come in and sit down. I’m almost done ironing Edgar’s shirts. Can I pour you some tea? Milk for Rose?”
The lump drifts upward in Grace’s throat.
“No…Mom, why are you ironing Dad’s shirts?”
“You know he likes them pressed, Grace. What on Earth would make you ask such a silly question like that?”
Grace covers her daughter’s ears and speaks softly.
“You know Dad hasn’t been with us for twelve years, Mom. We go see him every year on his birthday and bring him flowers. Don’t you think it’s time you put his clothes away? And for God’s sake, take those damn boots off the porch!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Grace. I’m still your mother and you’d do well to remember that from time to time. You…you don’t set foot in my house for months or even pick up the phone to call. And when I call, you never have time to talk for more than two minutes. I don’t even get a chance to talk to my own granddaughter. And now that you’re here you treat me like this in front of her!”
Grace pulls her hands away from her daughter’s ears, still staring at her mother holding the iron, her brow slowly straightening at the realization of the child’s presence.
“Give Grandma a hug, Rose, we have to go now. We don’t want to get stuck in bad weather on the way home and Daddy will be worried if we’re late.”
“But Mommy…” Rose scans her mother’s face, childish fear and confusion on her own. She looks at her grandmother still holding the iron, her eyes sunken as if a great force willed them to cave inward seeking refuge deep in their sockets. Her lips form a taught and perfectly horizontal line in rigid defiance of the failures of her own flesh.
Grace turns to the door and steps onto the porch. Before her foot comes to rest on the bottom step, Rose is at her side.
The bottle of dishwashing liquid erupts violently, sending a thick yellow stream jetting into the sink where it quickly mixes and foams in the hot water. Two clean plates, forks, knives and glasses join a single dirty plate and fork already bathing there. Saturday morning is always kitchen work, always dishwashing, sweeping and mopping. Grace presses the dishrag into service and grinds the few bits of food from the dirty plate and fork then turns her attention to the remaining two plates. She lifts each out of the sink, first one then the other, glaring at them like disrespectful children in need of punishment. When she places the last fork and knife alongside the other dishes in the drain board she drapes the dishrag over the shiny metal divider between the sink basins.
With the dishwashing done, Grace walks to the utility room where the afternoon’s ironing awaits. She hobbles over to the closet and retrieves the large, folding ironing board. She sets the board in the middle of the room and plugs the iron’s power cord into the electrical outlet near the washing machine. Three sets today. The blue blouse and slacks are hanging neatly with a pair of black trousers and a white, buttoned-down shirt opposite a worn, but altogether similar, beige shirt and blue overalls, Joseph’s work clothes for tomorrow. From where they hang in the doorframe, the blue and white shirts seem to be holding hands; the sleeves touching lightly like an old couple walking in the country after Sunday dinner. Grace draws the blouse tightly over the board and presses firmly with the iron only to wince from the pain in her hand as it jumps away from the iron’s handle. She looks down at the matching blisters on her thumb and index finger, baffled, and then her eyes shoot across the room to the kitchen. Without willing to do so, she finds herself moving in the direction of the sink. And there, draped where she left it is the weeping dishrag, still damp and limply hanging over the metal divider. She lifts the poor rag, stretching it between both hands, until it frames the window above the sink. With the wet rag in her hands eclipsing the sky on the other side of the glass, her fingers begin to throb where the red blisters are rising and a short gasp sneaks into Grace’s open mouth as two new eyes filled with mourning sunlight peer back at her from the square and drooping face.
Grace drops the rag and quickly starts down the hallway to her room. When she enters the room her mother is waiting for her, staring down from the wall in silence. Grace brushes her away and heads to the nightstand where the big black cat is sound asleep. She claws for the handle and plunges a bony finger into a circular hole then spins fiercely. The first digit gouged, she releases and the contraption recoils, spinning in the opposite direction until coming to rest once again. Grace fingers another and another and then the wrong one. She slams the handset on its carriage and tries to steady her shaking hands. She can’t wait any longer. Her fingers frantically poke and spin once more, cursing the antique dust catcher. After an excruciating battle, the phone concedes and Grace brings the receiver to her ear with the sound of ringing.
“Hello?” a little girl’s voice asks.
“Elizabeth? This is Granny.”
“Oh, hi, Granny. Mommy’s right here.”
“No wait, Eliza –“
“Hello?” Rose says.
“Oh, Rose, I was just talking to Elizabeth and she –“
“Yeah, one of her little friends is over here and they’re playing.”
“Oh…well listen, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday.”
“Mom, look, I’m sorry we couldn’t make it out there but something came up at work and I had to stay late and when I got home I had to get dinner started.”
“It’s all right, R –“
“And then I had to go pick Lizzy up from practice and stop at the store on the way home ‘cause we were out of milk. When I finally got back I thought it’d be better if we just stayed home.”
“Rose, it’s –“
“And I didn’t call ‘cause I know you go to bed early these days I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“Rose, listen to me, it’s all right. I know you’re busy, dear, I understand. And I know you can’t visit every weekend. But I just wanted you to know that you can come any-“
“Uh huh, Mom, look, I think my turkey is burning in the stove and Lizzy’s little friend needs a ride back to her house before dinner. I’ll give you a call tomorrow and we can talk o.k? Gotta go, Mom. Bye.”
Click, silence…beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…
Grace set the receiver slowly onto the base and looks up at the framed picture of the angel on the bureau, an angel that has hovered above her shoulder before, an angel already blending in with the ceramic cherubs and seraphim, trumpeting and watching from their polished oak clouds. Grace straightens as much as her bones will allow and turns to leave - she has to finish pressing her husband’s work clothes, blisters or not. Her mother stops her before she reaches the door and this time she follows the unblinking eyes to the bare spot on the wall. She looks back at the yellowed portrait and sees an old woman standing over an ironing board, the wispy halo sighing and falling in strands to her forehead. Grace welds her eyelids shut, damming the river before it floods the house. Waves of crimson and white light crash in her mind, flailing wildly, searching for an outlet. But only a chosen few rivulets escape, which soon branch and dry before they ever have a chance to empty into the carpeted estuary below. When the waves subside, an infinite and silent blackness is all Grace can discern, but something is being born, taking shape, forming in the void. She strains to make it out, wrinkles folding and overlapping on her brow. The black fog slowly clears, and in the crystal darkness sits a gray, porcelain owl, its large eyes, round like the dishes drying by the sink and frightfully clear.
Copyright J.S. LeBoeuf 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005