*Image: “Paradox” by Fabrice Poussin, Photograph
By Brent Fisk
When I’m working in the garden in the heat of August, ripping out the plants that failed to thrive, I think of my grandmother under her straw hat, her small trowel in her hand and a red bandana knotted at her throat. She was partial to shade-lovers—hostas, creeping Jenny, and coral bells. She’d point to every flower she grew and tell me I must learn the name of each. Black-eyed Susans and bleeding hearts. Bachelor’s buttons and forget-me-nots.
She had more luck with plants than men.
Married to my grandfather for 22 years, she wed young, mothered young, widowed young. I remember little about him—the stink of his cigars, the white t-shirts I’d wear as a nightgown, how his toenails shone through the holes in his socks.
She was single for more than a year after his death and kept to herself in the squat, asphalt-shingled house they owned on Walnut Street. She’d often watch me while my mother worked as a cashier. She loved to drag a lawn chair out on the stoop, sip iced tea, and flip through magazines as I raised whole towns in the dirt beneath the massive oak in the side yard, only to mow them down with my Matchbox cars. When I woke after spending the night, she’d be out before the heat took hold, gathering vegetables, dead-heading the ox-eye daisies and the marigolds. She kept the house full of flowers, saying they kept away the blues, and sometimes she’d tell me stories about my grandfather, pulling a dahlia from a Ball jar vase and plucking it petal by petal.
Off the kitchen a passageway led to a root cellar—a small, dark cubby with a wood plank door, stairs that creaked beneath our weight as we descended into darkness. Sometimes I’d balk at the top of the landing, the gloom a living thing rising toward me. Once you passed through the door, you walked down the stairs blind, felt around for the pull chain and inadequate bulb, afraid of what you might grasp. My ears heard every skitter and scurry. The space smelled of coal dust, rotten timbers, must. Cobwebs fluttered on the old knob and tube wiring, crosshatching the oak bracing, and funnel webs billowed in the drafts, seeming to breathe against the stone foundation. Strange stains and shadows hid in the crude masonry, and my mind saw the twisted faces of animals and men. The dirt floor was packed so hard it shone. A honing wheel leaned in one corner, and a rickety table held an assortment of tools. Along one wall a set of shelves knocked together from warped lumber was studded with nails working loose, and furred with old snipped wire and string. Canning jars, their contents clouded and murky, lined each rustic shelf five or six deep, and if you reached out to steady yourself, the whole contraption would shake, glass jars clinking and chattering in ways that made my heart race.
My grandmother said she liked it down there, all that coolness in the summer heat, the care that went into canning, and how it made her think of the womenfolk who lived in the house before her. She said she wouldn’t dream of throwing out their handiwork, though the jars gathered dust among mouse middens, snake skins, old hemp twine chewed so badly it looked like human hair.
She’d often ask me to fetch a jar of pickles or beets, but I did not like to go because the dampness of the basement sometimes made a light plink out, and the door was prone to shutting on its own. Once when she was feeling mean and lonely, she closed the door and locked it behind me and only let me out when I was sobbing, thrashing my palms against the door. She said it swung closed of its own volition, the old walls unsettled, askew; though she denied she’d ever lock it, I heard the bolt slide home, saw her feet shadow the light coming through beneath the door. It felt like she lingered for several minutes before she threw the latch open and let the daylight stream in. I tried to run past her, but she snatched me by the wrist, spun me around and pulled me to her. Kissing the crown of my head, she would not let go until I’d quieted. After, I wouldn’t dare go near the door.
She couldn’t make ends meet on social security, so she went to work as a barmaid at Skiles, a tavern the locals called The Bloody Bucket because of how the mop water looked after the fights that would always break out. She worked the less-rowdy day shift, when the men were cowed by what they drank and did not look for trouble. I sat behind the bar and drew on placemats until she finished her stint. Ray used to give me a quarter when he’d come in.
“For the jukebox,” he’d say, “or a pickled egg.”
“Or a magic pony,” my grandmother said.
He was a jowly man in bib overalls who liked to slip his hand on my grandmother’s hip when she came out from behind the bar. If he noticed I was watching him, he’d give a baleful look and blush, the port-wine birthmark on his neck going darker.
He’d lean in when talking to my grandmother, and she’d hold his forearm while she rolled her eyes at his jokes.
Ray was twice divorced, twice a widower, but never had any kids of his own.
“But I’d never stray from you,” he’d say, direct, earnest.
“You wouldn’t?” she’d ask, give a laugh soft as the wings of a bird.
“You’re sure to outlive me, too,” he’d add. “Inherit everything.”
She’d pour him a bourbon and wipe the bar top until not a fingerprint besmirched it.
When they got married at the courthouse, my mother and father wouldn’t go, saying it was too soon after my grandfather’s death and Ray was too crude to be part of our family. I stayed home for several months, a kind of punishment, until the rumors started. Women in the grocery whispered to my mother that Ray had cheated, there’d been a nasty verbal brawl, and Ray had packed all his things and gone to Florida.
“Good riddance,” they said, putting heads of lettuce and new potatoes in their baskets, but there was something about the way they smiled when my mother turned her back that made me think they were lying.
The first time I stayed over after she split with Ray, I noticed the garden had bolted. The asparagus spears out beyond the burn barrel were leggy and thin. The pokeweed popped purple along the back fence, and she did not remove it. Only the tomato patch had newly turned soil. I sat cross-legged on the counter as my grandmother washed dishes, and we named the birds that flew into the yard: cowbird, thresher, titmouse, grackle. When an old tomcat slunk through the fence, she pulled a sudsy finger from the water, shaped her hand into a pistol, pulled the trigger, and blew the suds from the end of her thumb with a wink.
“Never be lonely,” she said, “and never be old.”
She scrubbed a utensil beneath the water, dried the blade with a dishtowel, and held it out for me to see.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked.
“A knife,” I said.
“Yes, but what kind of knife?” she asked.
“A butcher knife,” I guessed.
“Close,” she said, “but that’s much bigger.”
“This is a boning knife,” she said and slipped it in the drawer.
Davis Crabb was my grandmother’s third husband – and last. He sported a fedora with a feather in its band and liked to take my grandmother dancing. When they were first courting, she put records on the Victrola and taught me the Foxtrot, the Lindy, and the Charleston.
My grandmother was 42, just a bit of peppered gray in her hair. She wore an ivory dress and said this time she’d get married in a church, to change her luck. They went to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, the only time she ever left the Kentucky.
Davis made himself at home and did the things the neighbors expected of him. He mowed the lawn. He sat in my grandfather’s recliner and said it was unseemly for a woman to drive a car when a man was around to do it instead. One day he’d orbit my grandmother, crooning Irving Berlin, while the next day his face was set and grave and he’d quote nothing but Bible verse. When he felt she wasn’t doing something right, he’d tell stories about his first wife Ida. How she could keep a house. That I’d never taste anything so good as her lasagna.
The women at the grocery store said Davis was “handsy,” that my mother should keep a wary eye when I was around him. He never touched me, but there were times I found him looking at me in hackle-raising ways, and once I thought I heard him come to my bedroom door and press against it like that hungry darkness in the cellar.
When I called out, “Grandma?” he moved away.
My grandmother found some Polaroids in the lining of his Bible, hid them from him in the cellar, and confronted him when he came home from work. He blacked her eye and demanded she give them back to him, but she lied and said she’d mailed them to the sheriff. She told my mother he threw his things in a pillowcase and left after pulling the phone cord from the wall. She called the sheriff from the neighbor’s house the following morning, turned over the evidence, said she hoped he’d rot before the law might find him. She quit her job at Skiles and gave up on men. I was too old by then for playing in the side yard and too old to fear the dankness of the root cellar, though she never asked me to go down there again. Sometimes she’d bring up a can of green beans, hold it up to the light, and check the seal. We’d fix a meal together in the small kitchen, me stirring the pot before it boiled over, her slicing store-bought carrots with a boning knife. We’d sit on the stoop and look at the garden that had slid into ruin. She paid a boy down the street to mow it all under, but here and there a flower bloomed unbidden in the knee-high grass—verbena and coneflower, a sweet pea or two.
“When you are old enough to marry,” she said, “make sure it’s a thing you want more than life itself.”
“Fourth time’s a charm,” I said, repeating a joke I’d heard my father deliver; when I leaned toward her, she pushed my head away as if I were all muddy.
“I think maybe I’ll get a dog,” she said, “but he’d only go digging where he’s not wanted.”
My parents had long moved away to Biloxi when my grandmother died of a stroke, and I had grown up and gone to the local college. My parents abandoned their blackjack tables and slots for a few days and flew in for the funeral, for her burial beside Grandfather Samuel.
They left the settling of the estate up to me. The house was mine, along with its contents.
A handwritten note said, “To the only man who never deserted me.”
I found a cigar box on the top shelf of her closet. It had some of my father’s baby teeth and some snapshots of her sisters, smiles full of horse teeth and wickedness. A pipe cleaner, green as a four-leaf clover, held six wedding rings tied in a loop. Three were my grandmother’s, one from each marriage. Three were men’s simple gold bands of various sizes. Finding them gave me pause. I wondered if men who ran off would make such a noble gesture as leaving their rings behind. And then a thought that came with a shiver. I thought of the cellar that brought her strange comfort. My heart raced in an old, primal way. I cleared a path down among the cobwebs with a yardstick held out in front of me like a sword. The bulb came on though the chain was balky and swung at the end of its cord, casting a harsh yellow light. The earthen floor was unbroken, packed as hard as the last time I’d been there, with no sign of the digging I’d feared.
What had I imagined her capable of? I remembered the time she locked me in the cellar, how she stood outside the door and let me steep in dread, the darkness alive and breathing all around. I reached out to steady myself, my hand on the wooden shelves.
Two jars with lids caught the light – two jars filmed with dust but newer than the others. I pulled one out to inspect it more clearly and almost dropped it to the ground. The only human heart I’d seen beyond the pages of a textbook. I put it on the shelf where it belonged, pulled the chain on the bulb and tested myself against the old fears of that dim cellar. Upstairs the landing would be firm, the kitchen bright, but a new kind of darkness awaited me when I emerged, one my grandmother never taught me the name of, being neither knife nor bird.