It had been a year last Thursday since we stood beside Pearl River and Ceil’s ashes were scattered on the water. I had thought that going back to the house on Channing Green would make the knot in my chest weigh less. I was wrong. His face stared at me for the whole of my short visit, pressed behind crooked picture frames as if to convince me that I should be fine–just remember and move on. But everything I meant to say keeps running through my mind, graffitied under my eyelids every time I try to sleep. I should have told Frances I was sorry, that I miss him, too. I should have told her how much I couldn’t bear to see her, my grandmother, try to move on like everything was okay while here I was just a granddaughter and should’ve been there for her.
It wasn’t until after I got off work that I decided to go. The lunch hour had been especially busy last Friday at Grambo’s Grill, and even though I’d been scheduled to work a double, I knew I could make it to Crystal Springs before dark if I left before three. I got Kat to cover for me, the girl who had an apartment with her boyfriend and used to say I was naive. We sometimes sat in the smokers’ lot after closing, but we didn’t ever smoke anything, me because it would give me cancer and her because she was always almost broke. We would stare up into the swirling, inky void and talk about stars. Sometimes we would see one. One time I told her what Ceil had said a long time ago, about stars being notes still singing from when God created the world. She laughed and said she didn’t hear anything.
I was glad I left Corinth when I did. Otherwise I’m sure I’d have talked myself out of going. An accident held me up for a good forty-five minutes outside Tupelo. Many of the cars I passed had stickers in their rear windows. Several were of smiling, stick-figure families with dad, mom, three kids, and a dog. Some had sayings with them, things like “Keep Calm and Love Yourself,” “Coexist” spelled out in religious symbols, and “Stay Alive, Don’t Text and Drive.” The back of a yellow Wrangler read, “All Who Wander Are Not Lost.” In a small way, this one seemed comforting. Even though I was in my third year of college, I’d felt for the past year like a child in the mall who couldn’t find her mother.
And then a Dodge with wheels almost as high as my little Mazda growled passed, and I saw a different kind of sticker. This one was of a stubby guy who looked like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, and he was peeing on the word MARRIAGE. Just streaming away, right there on the back of that truck window. A weird burning began to scratch in my throat, and it inched up to press behind my eyeballs. Could’ve been my contacts. What did the man who drove that big, white Dodge have against marriage to make him put a sticker like that in his window? What is marriage, anyway? Who even makes stickers like that?
But then I thought of Ceil and Frances and how we celebrated their fifty-third the spring before he died. She had made his favorite jello salad, the green one with pineapple and pecans in it. When she set it in front of him, I remember he joked and asked what the rest of us were eating. She jabbed him with the pie server, grumbling something about how gluttony’s a sin, but I saw how her eyes shone beneath the table light. Not to mention how she took the first serving so he could get the bigger, less mangled piece.
I’ve decided cars look better without stickers.
When I finally reached Hazelhurst and turned onto Brentwood, my heart began pounding in my right cheek. It’s been doing that ever since I started working at Grambo’s. Kat says it’s a stress tic. I hadn’t driven past the church since the visitation last fall. I couldn’t bear to stop, promising myself I would go later but knowing I probably wouldn’t. I wondered if Frances still went by there most Sundays to visit the memorial garden, didn’t know how she could stand it. Even just seeing that tall building, the worn bricks, the darkened windows, made me miss Ceil so much I wanted to pull over at the stop sign and punch something.
The sun set. I had told myself I needed to get to the house before dark, so I risked getting a ticket and sped through town.
Frances was getting the mail later than usual. It was already seven and the porch light was on, but she was just now reaching into the rusted mailbox at the bottom of her drive. I pulled to a stop on the roadside just beside her driveway. She had not seen me, and I watched from my car for a moment with one hand on the wheel and one on the keys. A year is a long time. Her back was more like an S than it had been last November. I noticed her wince as she pulled out the mail, and again when she shuffled through it. The arthritis must have gotten worse.
She’d already started back for the house before she looked up past the drive and saw me. I should have called, at least let her know I was coming. Part of me wanted her to be mad at me. I could deal with anger. It was the silence that kept me up at night, my silence and hers and God’s. But all she did was smile and lift a hand. I turned off the car and walked down the drive.
We didn’t hug. I must have looked tense when Frances came towards me, because she thought better of it and gave my shoulder a pat instead. Emotionless. I told myself she must not have wanted to touch me. But deep down I think she really held back because she could tell it was me who didn’t want to touch her. I didn’t want to feel how much weight she had lost or how easy it would be for her heart to stop working. Just like Ceil’s.
“Have you eaten?” Of course that would be the first thing she’d ask. No hello, as if I’d never gone.
Suddenly fumbling, I said, “I brought a chicken,” holding out the flimsy box like some pathetic peace offering. It’d been an afterthought at the Chevron when I’d stopped for something to drink and a pack of Tums. My stomach had been whirling ever since I’d decided to make the drive, and I’d been surprised the little convenient store even had them. The kid at the counter had asked if I was just passing through. He’d probably been about my age, maybe a little older, but any joker who winks at you while ringing up a bottle of green tea, a box of greasy chicken and some Tums is still living in high school. He probably never made it past senior year.
When Frances opened the door for me, there was a moment when I faltered, as if I’d expected her to turn me out onto the curb. After not hearing from me for a year, I wouldn’t have blamed her. “Let me get my stuff,” I said to cover my surprise. I got my backpack from the passenger’s seat and followed her inside.
She sat me down at the cramped kitchen table, the one that had been the kids’ table whenever we used to have reunions for Thanksgiving. It looked smaller than I’d remembered. She seemed frustrated that she’d already eaten, though she hadn’t had any inclination I’d be coming, and began rummaging in the fridge. She took out little brown margarine tubs of leftovers, setting them in a row along the counter. Though I knew she tried to hide it, I saw her stuff my chicken behind the milk jug, didn’t even take it out of the box. The gift had caught her off guard, as if she thought I was implying she needed help cooking, and she didn’t know how to respond. I just had not wanted my unexpected visit to put her out, and I’d figured that since I’m an adult now, the least I could do was contribute a meal.
“So,” she said while she slid the Corelle plate into the microwave, heaped with a mound of cold chicken spaghetti and some acorn squash. “Talk to me.”
I laughed, then wondered if she thought it sounded nervous. “Talk? What do you want to know?”
I guess there was a lot to tell. Twelve months’ worth of unraveling are hard to sum up. I could have told her about how my parents had gotten a divorce after the funeral, no chance either of them called to tell her themselves. They drove together in their red Honda to the memorial service, watched the ashes scattered on the river, and sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” along with the rest of us. Then I went back to school, and the next thing I heard, they both had a lawyer and were signing papers to say they hadn’t really meant those vows they’d made twenty-two years ago.
I got a text from my mother during finals week last December that she had gotten engaged to the neighbor, Joe Barclay down the street, and she hoped I could make it to the wedding. I told her I’d see. They were married at the courthouse in March and didn’t make it back from the Caribbean in time for Easter Sunday.
For a long time, I’d felt like Ceil had abandoned us. Maybe if he hadn’t had that stroke, my parents would still be together, for better or worse. I caught myself wanting to ask Frances if she ever felt like her whole life was a lie. I wanted to tell her how awful I thought it was that Ceil was cremated. My grandfather had hated fire. Part of me wanted Frances to know that for a year, all I had been able to pray was, “God… God…” because “help me” was too late. But when Frances set the steaming plate of leftovers in front of me, I dug the fork into the mound of pasta without pause.
“Thank you, Lord, for this food,” she said. I blushed from the sarcasm and steam. She must have thought I had forgotten to say grace.
I’d known I was bitter–the ulcers in my stomach were proof of that. But Frances must have noticed, too. She brewed a pot of coffee and brought out a tin of gingersnaps from beneath the china cabinet, her way of trying to set me at ease. I should never have gone to see her at all. Sometimes, if she thought I wasn’t watching, I thought I could see a look of sadness in the way she looked at me. Why not for Ceil? He was the one who was dead. Or for herself, for that matter. She was the one left behind.
To fill the silence, she told me about the summer pears that the tree in the back had produced. “I’ve set up a dozen jars,” she said. “There’s a sort of grace that comes with harvest.” I thought of all the yellow fruit that had fallen to the ground beneath the tree, now half-hidden in the unmowed grass, the white flesh eaten by ants. No matter how many were gathered and stewed with cloves and pectin, the back yard still smelled like rotting fruit. After a while I said I was tired and went to bed. I had never really cared for pear sauce anyway.
I’d wanted to ask her what it felt like to be forgotten, finding herself suddenly alone in the same house stocked with fifty-three years of memory. I wanted to ask her at two in the morning, while I lay on the rickety guest bed and the grandfather clock gonged the hour, rattling the stillness and all the pictures on the wall. Grandfather. What a cruel name for a clock.
Everything in the house reminded me of him. The mounted bass that swam wide-mouthed on the wall above the TV. I’m pretty sure I’d helped him catch that one. The clay mug with the Native American carvings that he’d gulp black coffee from throughout the day, no matter how much steam was rising from it. Those mud-caked boots by the door, the ones Frances would get onto him about for tracking into the kitchen. They were his standby whenever he’d take me before dawn to go geode-hunting along the Pearl.
“Find a geode, find a gem,” he used to whisper as we searched with our flashlights, creeping in our galoshes through the inlets forgotten by everyone but himself. Hunting as if the rocks were hiding from us. He’d always look over his shoulder at me and wink whenever he’d say it, our own very big secret. We’d stow everything we found in the rock garden behind the house, arranging them in clever little mountains to best show off their crystals inside. For some reason, it surprised me that the garden was still there. I guess I’d thought that geodes would stop existing once Ceil stopped making them special.
“You’re my geode girl,” Ceil used to say. “No matter how rough you are on the outside, there’s a whole bunch of treasure inside just shining away like gemstones. And one day some man’s gonna find you and see that and say, ‘Wow, what a beaut!’ and take you away to his garden to live like your grandma and me. And you’ll think it’s the best, most real-life thing you could ever dream of.” At the time I had believed him. Now I know that there are no crystals inside me. I’m not a geode. I’m just a rock, and one day I’ll be tossed right back into the river I came from.
The next day, I hung around till lunch only to be polite, but I think Frances could tell I wouldn’t stay much longer. Maybe that’s why she got up from the table so fast and started opening cabinets in the kitchen. Like some sort of last attempt that comes too late.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Funfetti cake,” she replied, her head hidden behind the open cupboard door.
I choked down the knot that had swelled in my throat. She knew it’s been my favorite ever since she had made me a big girl cake when I turned six. As she had cut into it, I’d seen the rainbow polka dots inside and asked with awe, “How’d you get those colors inside?”
“Faith,” Ceil had said, “just like the geodes.”
As Frances attached the beaters to the electric mixer, I felt like the six year old girl again. All I wanted to do was run up to her and hug her waist and bury my head in her apron that smelled like cumin and lye. But something else tugged me towards the door.
She must have seen my reaction, because she paused and said, “Heading back to Corinth?”
“Will you make any stops along the way?”
I shook my head.
“Well, then.” She pressed the button to eject the beaters. “Be safe driving home.”
Home. I felt like I was leaving it. Or more like I’d lost it when it’d been scattered with those ashes over the Pearl.
“You miss him, don’t you?” she had asked that night before, when I didn’t say anything about the pears. It was the only time she brought up Ceil. But I didn’t want to talk about him–not to her, not to anyone.
I didn’t go straight home like I said I would. I took a detour to the Pearl. I left my car on the curb beside the mangled guard rail and walked down to the edge of the river. A year, and nothing had changed. The same angular boulders were clenched in exposed tree roots along the banks, some half in the water. A few yellow leaves floated on the dark surface. I reached a hand into my pocket. The geode I had stolen from the garden behind their house felt rough in my fist.
I knelt on a large rock at the water’s edge. The hard surface felt cold and damp through my jeans. I took the geode from my pocket and smashed it until the crystals inside turned to white powder. A few bits got caught in the grass stalks, but I brushed whatever I could over the edge. Some of the larger pieces sank to the bottom. The powder swirled with the yellow leaves and caught a fleck of light, a last glint, before it disappeared downstream.
Laura Little is a young writer currently living in West Tennessee.