Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
It was hard not to think. I remembered my Grandfather's suntanned face, his blue eyes brighter than in any photograph I'd taken. His swift, fierce hug a few days ago had taken me by surprise, but most alarming to me was that he smelled strongly of Old Spice. Before, the Old Spice had somehow been mellowed, softened by a trace of my grandmother's White Shoulders perfume.
I stared into the cup of warm tea, tugging at the paper and string to make dark clouds billow into the clear, steaming water. Only a few more hours here, I thought. Tomorrow, I would go back to the guest room in my grandparents' house.
I looked slowly around the silent kitchen.
Dark wood paneling dressed the walls, the same height as the bottom cupboards. Harvest gold counters rested on their sturdy wooden bodies, dotted with bright chrome fixtures. Delicate blue and buttercup yellow flowers climbed thin, twisting vines in the wallpaper. Notes and photographs dotted the front and side of the white refrigerator, held under food-shaped magnets.
The door from the kitchen into the living room had been replaced by a pocket door. Gleaming wood disappeared into the wall behind the refrigerator. I could see dust on the crescent of its brass pull.
It had been six years since I'd stood in this kitchen, 2,500 miles from my new home. My aunt's white ceramic ducks waddled across the far counter on their orange feet, away from me.
I sighed and pulled the tea bag from the cup, setting it on the white saucer. The oak table was empty except for the lonely china. A sip of tea brought back the taste of my grandmother's sun tea: sweet, cold, and consumed by the gallon.
"It just isn't possible." The thought rolled up at me like a breaking wave. As it retreated, the pain and confusion grew, as though the idea had carried all the moments after the phone call away with it. My great-grandmother was ninety-two when she died, I insisted to the air.
Another taste of bitter tea reminded me. A phone call, a plane trip in the middle of the night, a memorial service, each was proof that my grandmother had died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day.
She outlived her only daughter by fourteen months. I curled my toes in my socks against the cold, curving, pedestal of the dining table, trying to wish the thought away. Hidden behind it, in the darkest part of my nightmares was the question, "How long, for me?"
I blew across the tea in my cup and the liquid rippled, steam drifting away like fog. Yesterday, my aunt and I had driven to one of Grandmother's favorite places. I gave hesitant directions I remembered from summers a decade before and waited alone while my aunt scattered the ashes in the privacy of dark, familiar woods.
I pushed away from the table, wondering if my brief touch of the ashes had left its loamy scent on me forever.
The doorbell rang.
My uncle moved away from the Civilian Air Patrol radio in the den, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. I heard my aunt pad down the stairs from the bedrooms, into the living room adjoining the kitchen.
I stopped in the open doorway, surprised to find that Linda had already reached the front door and opened it part of the way. She couldn't have been asleep and reacted so quickly, I thought.
A dark brown cap bobbed into view for an instant as the person at the door bent to retrieve something. A cheery, masculine, "Happy holidays!" followed as footsteps retreated. A moment later Linda walked into the kitchen and put two boxes on the table. Her long, polished nails drummed on the table top.
"Denny, did you order anything?" Her voice had a nasal quality to it I had seldom heard, not since she'd had surgery on her back years ago.
"Noooo," he drawled, stretching the word upwards into a question. He looked up the half-dozen steps, then glanced away as the short-wave radio squawked suddenly. Linda nodded; he dropped back into his groaning armchair to listen for aircraft in trouble.
Frowning, she retrieved a bread knife from the drawer to cut through the brown plastic tape on each box. The first jagged cut made a sound like my old metal push-top, hollow and ratcheting.
I looked at the second box; it was identical to the first. My hands shook when I realized it was also the same size as yesterday's unlabeled box of ashes.
The cup in my hand felt suddenly cold. I looked down to see a red blotch swelling across the back of my still-shaking hand. Drops of pale amber tea fell from my wrist and fingers onto the linoleum. I grabbed a rag with my left hand, mopped up the warm puddle on the floor, and poured the rest of my steaming tea down the drain.
I rinsed the cup before I turned back to the table, surreptitiously dousing my hand in the cold running water. I reminded myself to put some aloe vera oil on the burn before bed, then covered it with the towel I used to dry my hands.
My aunt read the invoice carefully. Her shoulders heaved. I grabbed for the half-empty box of Kleenex on the counter, missed, and grabbed again. The towel fell, forgotten, to the floor.
I slid the box across the table to Linda. I whispered, "What is it?"
"It's a Christmas present. . . ." She took a shallow breath. "It's something your grandmother ordered."
I sat abruptly in the chair I'd left only a few minutes before.
Linda pushed the opened box to me. Inside lay a stuffed puppy. The plastic eyes gleamed beneath low-hanging eyebrows, its velour body squashed only a little by its snug traveling quarters. One dark brown ear was twisted, and I could see the line of a seam in the middle of its underside.
"What kind of dog is it?" Linda asked. She glanced down the stairs and so did I. Denny was listening to the radio through headphones.
I swallowed. "It's a Shar-Pei, I think. The wrinkles have been stitched in. See?"
We stared at each other. Only two members of the family collected stuffed animals, and we both sat at the same table letting tears drip silently onto the waxy wood. I grabbed a fistful of tissues, but forgot what I was going to do with them.
Linda opened the second box and pulled another stuffed dog free. They were nearly identical. A slight difference in the way the wrinkles gathered across the bodies, a slightly different turn of the head, made them look like identical twins instead of clones.
We each picked up an animal and went upstairs. I held on to the banister, knowing that my socks had little traction. In the guest bedroom, Linda made a space on the shelves mounted along the wall above the bed, then set her puppy carefully between a Raggedy Ann doll with red strips of cloth for hair and a hunched, shaggy teddy bear whose joints sagged with age.
I walked to the chintz-covered reading chair, then dropped the stuffed animal when my aunt spoke.
"Your grandmother loved Christmas surprises, you know."
I nodded. Linda slipped out, moving quietly toward the master bedroom.
My puppy balanced on my beige duffel bag, waiting.