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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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A Good One with Her Name in It

 

by Casey Francis

 

 

 

I carry a sack of dog food, a fifty-pound fluorescent orange one, across the lawn to the house. Ankle-high grass provides just enough cover for the poop that I must keep scanning the grass. My arms sag from the weight and I struggle to shift the corner of the bag away from my face. “A good deal,” my grandmother informed me earlier.

 

My grandmother stands on the bottom step of the screened-in porch holding the door open. She narrates with “step one, step two, step you” as I walk up the steps and through a single-file path between boxes on the porch. The rounded corners of the cardboard boxes resulted from the sliding, shoving, and stacking of them at the auctions from where they came. A black Magic Marker number brands each one. The printing on the boxes reads like a smorgasbord of consumer goods—Pampers, assorted fruit, stuff from the Oriental Trading Company, and ice cream sandwiches from Wells’ Dairy. One box announces, “Product of Florida.” The actual contents are more varied. My grandmother shuffles behind me across the porch. The piles of boxes have grown to be chest high to her since the last time I was home.

 

“I’ll get some of the cousins to come down and help clean the porch this weekend,” I say, sticking my bottom lip out to blow my hair from my eyes.

 

“Not before I get through the good stuff,” my grandmother says. “You all don’t know what’s good. Hurry. I could have done this faster myself.”

 

As I walk, I spot a set of carnival glass dishes in one of the boxes to my left. In another box an assortment of secondhand hats with the logos of Cargill, DuPont, and Roundup Ready heap over the edges of the box. I imagine the hats as orphans left wondering what happened to people who had so thoroughly established their sweat rings on them. My elbow strikes the corner of a cutting board sticking out of a box by the door into the house. The unseen items in the cutting board box sound off as they settle: clink, crash, clack, crack. My grandmother takes a short breath. The sounds hint at a mixture of glass and metal as they settle.

 

“Don’t hurt that box. That one has the good stuff. Elsa Leonard’s stuff. She died,” my grandmother says. “You know she had money. I got it all for you, so you can have a proper kitchen. It was tough bidding, but it was still a good deal.”

 

“I don’t need it. I already have all I need,” I say, stepping into the living room and continuing toward the dining room and the kitchen.

 

“Babies. My babies. Time to eat,” my grandmother says. “I took the real good stuff, of course. You’re too young. But, you can have that stuff too when I’m gone.”

 

Her black lab, Eloise, stands slowly from her bed of rugs in the corner. Nugget, the miniature daschund, barks then carefully slides off the couch to her front paws and begins moving forward until the second half of her long body falls to the floor. She rushes between my feet. I step on Nugget’s paw and she yelps.

 

“Careful, my babies.” My grandmother follows me into the kitchen. “You need a Coke? You need a Coke. Get one out of the fridge and bring a cup of coffee to my chair.”

 

She shuffles back to her chair in the living room. I scoop kibble into the dogs’ Cool Whip containers on the floor and Grandmother switches on her pink recliner. It hums. A one-switch control attached to wires extends from between the arm of the chair and the cushion. Holding the switch back, the chair guides my grandmother to a lower sitting position. When she holds the button the other way, the chair leans forward to help her slide off the cushion like her daschund and tips her to her feet.

 

She yells, “Your mom sent me a poem you published and your book. Read me one on the long-distance too.”

 

Sounds of the Game Show Network begin to reverberate through the kitchen with its clapping, beeping, and long oooo! of disappointment. Television contestants on Press Your Luck hope for good timing. I walk to the living room and sit in a blue chair next to hers. It’s a lift chair too and used to be where my grandfather fell asleep. A year ago he still sat there in a red flannel and boxer shorts watching a polka band on channel 254. His head drooped forward and then rolled to the left, but his arm, extended across the armrest, kept the half-full coffee cup level in his hand.

 

My grandmother watches a woman with crimped red hair on the TV screen say, “No whammy. No whammy. Stop.” Her fourth whammy, the girl loses. Three weeks’ worth of newspapers rest on an end table between the two lift chairs. The section on top of the pile has the circle of a red pen corralling an obituary with a picture. The dates read, “August 3, 1918 – February 3, 2011.” The pictured woman is young, wearing a hat tipped to the left with a long cigarette between the fingers of her limply hanging hand. Above the circle, it reads, “Good one. Use young picture for my own.”

 

My grandmother says, “Glad your hair grew out of red. Most men don’t like red.” She turns the channel to WOWT 6 for the 5 p.m. news. “Why don’t your poems rhyme? Your whole book had no rhymes.”

 

She watches the screen. I close my eyes and release a deep breath. “They just don’t have to rhyme anymore. Remember you asked me that last time?”

 

“Oh. I like rhymes. You should rhyme some of the time,” she says. “Ha. I’m a poet too.”

 

“You’re something,” I say, leaning my head against the chair.

 

My grandmother says, “How come they’re sad then? Always about an old building falling and empty towns. And winter too. They’re always about winter.”

 

“They’re not all like that,” I say and open my eyes to see that hers are still glued to the local news.

 

The squealing and popping of fireworks begin to play for a commercial about Gene Steffey Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep. The camera pans right from an aerial view of a snowy car lot then zooms in on a balding man wearing an American flag tie and cargo shorts. Calf-deep snow chills his legs. A red banner across the bottom of the screen reads: NO MONEY DOWN! The man shouts, “It may be winter, but we’ve got deals hotter than the Fourth of July!”

 

“Some are,” she says. “Most of your poems are.”

 

“Well, that’s because they’re true.”

 

“That’s not the whole true,” my grandmother says. “We’re here. Ain’t we? I’ve been shrinking, but I’m not nothing yet.”

               

“You’re right, grandmother,” I say and wonder whether I can get her a hair appointment for tomorrow. The curl of her perm has evaporated. They droop lose and brush her eyebrows. The black is still strong. No need for a color yet.

 

“I know I am right. I want a good poem about good things. You write one,” she says. She lifts her remote then sets it back in her lap without pushing any buttons. “No, you write a story. I like them better.”

 

My grandmother’s favorite weatherman, Jim Flowers, appears on screen in front of a map. He uses an index finger to brush his mustache then points to a storm system on the screen behind him. Her eyes track the pink and blue kidney bean shape moving on the screen. The Doppler 3000 predicts a seventy percent chance for a rain-snow mixture tomorrow. The camera cuts away to a blonde anchorwoman.

 

“We got some good things here too. Use my name in it,” my grandmother says. She pulls a piece of her black hair in front of her face and crosses her eyes looking at it.

 

“Okay,” I say, “but you have to look at me when I tell it. And no TV.”

 

Her eyes look away from the news and into my eyes. I realize I have never noticed my grandmother’s green eyes. They’re so green you could sell them as emeralds.

 

She says, “First get that coffee and Coke you forgot. You tell it after the news.”

 

***

 

A Good Story

 

A Ford painted gray chased the gentle arch of Highway 51 that leads toward and then past Bancroft. A grove of trees, then a white two-story house, and finally a red corncrib and barn reflected off the shiny surface of the passenger’s side of the car. On the driver’s side, the jagged banks of a creek in the pasture reflected. The sun neared the highest point of the day in sky. Two little girls stood in the garden behind the house with small paper bags. Near tomato cages that she could just see over, Nancy wiped one hand on her blue cotton dress and held a bag in her other. Doris crouched pulling green beans one by one and the wind rustled her floral-patterned dress. The movement caused the small pink flowers on it to look like they were dancing.

 

Ida walked out into the yard a few steps and yelled with her back to the door, “Nancy. Doris. Time for lunch.”

 

She scanned the length of the creek across the road. The girls often played in knee-deep water when the sun got harsh. She noticed how the roof on the corncrib sagged, like the wire of a tightrope walker who has stalled in the middle of his act.

 

The girls ran opposite ways around the house. Doris peeked her head around the north corner with a bulging bag in her hand. Ida faced away from her in gray pants and a yellow blouse. Doris pulled her head behind the corner quickly and then dropped her bag. The beans dotted the ground around her feet.

 

Ida did not know that these girls would visit her each Sunday for years after, or how she would weep because they were not still small when the staff at the nursing home would say, “I know you remember your girls, Doris and Nancy. Your sister’s kids.”

 

Ida listened for a response through the breeze.

 

At the other end of the house, Nancy rested her bag against the stone foundation then peeked at Ida. She fixed her eyes on Doris’ corner, waiting for her to peek out from the corner. Doris’ bag crinkled as it hit the ground and saw her green dress blow from behind the corner.

 

“Girls, the food will get cold,” Ida said less loudly than the first time. “Guess I’ll be eating all lonely like yesterday. No Grandpa. No Danny. And, now, no nieces.”

 

Doris looked at Nancy’s corner of the house and Nancy smiled at seeing her. Raising her hands high above her head then flinging them toward the ground, Doris pointed down to her feet in wild gestures. Nancy giggled at the gestures Doris made with her flailing arms.

 

Ida turned to see Nancy at the corner of the house laughing. She clapped then said, “My goodness am I glad you found me. I thought I’d have to eat all alone.”

 

Nancy picked up her bag, felt a wet spot from a punctured tomato on her hand, and ran with it toward Ida. “Aunt Ida, you don’t have to be lonely,” she said. “We’re here today and I picked you tomatoes. I can stay here as long as you want. I wouldn’t never leave you for a silly war. I’m not like Danny.”

 

Doris yelled from her corner, “I picked stuff for you too, Auntie. I got green beans, but I dropped them. I can stay longer than Nancy. I won’t leave either. Not even for heaven like Grandpa.”

Ida walked toward Doris and Nancy skipped ahead of her. Nancy hummed then squatted to help Doris gather the beans. Ida held the bag in one hand as Nancy placed a single bean in it then Doris did the same. Ida’s other hand rested on Doris’s back.

 

“You girls are so helpful,” Ida said. “I thought that sun was going to fry all this good stuff right up.”

 

***

 

The daschund trots behind our chairs. Her nails click on the wood floor. The black lab licks grandmother’s foot. She can no longer reach her toes, so the doctor cuts her toenails and the dog knows to raise its head when my grandmother reaches to scratch behind its ears.

 

“Get out on that porch. Grab that Roundup Ready hat,” she says, “out of the Folgers box.”

 

“Why?” I say, rising from the chair.

 

“Just do it,” says my grandmother, gesturing toward the door.

 

I open the porch door and find the Roundup Ready hat. It’s red with a sweat ring and sits on top of all the other hats in the box. I enter the house again and close the door behind me. I hand it to her, asking, “Why do you need that one now?”

 

“Shh,” she says. “It’s my new got-a-good-deal hat. I wear it when I get a good deal.”

 

My grandmother smiles. A gold crown peaks from the side of her mouth. I smile bigger. She turns the television on again.

 

“During this show I have to turn it a little louder,” she says, “to get all the good stuff.”

 

A voice from the television says, “Hello and thank you for joining us. This week on…”

 

I turn to walk out the door, the voice on the show begins to distort as she pushes the volume button up on the remote.

 

“I’m taking the dogs out,” I yell and pat my thigh. “Come on guys.”

 

The dogs rush past me when I open the door. On the screened- in porch, they sit staring at the storm door. I open it and the lab walks down the first two steps to jump over the bottom step to the lawn. Front paws, back paws. Front paws, back paws. The daschund makes her way down the stairs, mindful she is top-heavy. She runs to catch up with the lab. They sniff the ground around the neighbor’s oak. The voices of the television broadcast hum from the house. The lab squats and the daschund barks at a squirrel. It chirps back.

 

The wind tangles my hair into intricate braids and uses them to thrash my face. I am cold. Eventually it will be warm. I can feel the cold beginning to race away—out of town, over empty fields, down the highway. The forecasts are always gloomier than the reality.