Grams Pouts With Duck Lips

by Allison Pinkerton Read author interview March 20, 2017

Grams was a social media virgin when she came to live with us. We’d posted about her—funny things, like pictures of her at Thanksgiving with the caption: Hanging with the OG—but she’d never posted anything. So, after she unpacked, we showed her how to use Snapchat, partly because we were bonding and partly because we were treating her like a new toy, and it was funny in a way that zoo animals can be funny. We felt mean, after. She loved the flower crown filter that tinted her face pink and put makeup on it. We loved it too, and the three of us made duck lips.

We started to notice something weird, though, in the weeks after she moved in. Mom had told us her memory was failing, it wasn’t that. On Tuesdays, she acted like a teenager—from her time, not ours. She chattered about Paul Newman and Glenn Miller the same way we gushed over Ryan Gosling. She checked out her reflection in the knives at dinner, like we did. We recognized her vanity. We recognized the way she hated her body when we snuck into her room and touched the pile of colorful dresses discarded on her bed, each still warm.

Grams got older throughout the week. On Wednesdays she was in college, and we followed her around waiting for her to tell us advice on how to get a boy to kiss you, which seemed like magic to us, the girls who used code-words—Broccoli, Ham Sandwich—to name the boys we talked about with our friends. Instead, Grams said, “I saw a girl bleeding on the floor of the dorm bathroom, the coat hanger resting beside her.” We acted surprised each time she told us, even though we thought it sounded like a Lifetime movie.

Thursdays, she was all about Grandpa. We’d go out for pizza, and carry the pillows she used to support her back in restaurant booths. The chef cut her pizza for her, and she would go starry-eyed between bits of pepperoni. “He’s in the Navy,” she’d say. “He has a car so covered in bumper stickers that you can’t see the paint.”

Her use of present tense bothered us, but we didn’t say anything. We crammed our mouths with hot cheese, and sipped our Diet Cokes.

On Fridays, she and Grandpa were divorced. We hated Fridays. When we drove her to get her hair washed and blown dry at the salon, she’d regale us with tales of his shenanigans—how he’d missed our dad’s 18th birthday because he was out with his girlfriend, how he’d organized a motorcycle trip and rented Grams a dirt bike, and she couldn’t keep up. She told us the exclusion had been intentional.

“He doesn’t think about me,” she’d say. And we weren’t sure what to reply, whether to agree or disagree because Grandpa had been dead for seventeen years and we’d never really known him. So, we rolled down the car window, cranked the Twenty-One Pilots song on the radio, and gave Grams our magenta lipstick to try. We took selfies when we stopped at red lights, angling our phones so Grams was in the pictures, too. We made duck lips at her through the rearview mirror, grasping for a bit of the Grams she was before she started age-cycling, but she wasn’t there. Her lips stayed slack, and she totally judged us: raised eyebrows, side-eye.

On Saturdays, she talked about us when we were babies, and we liked her best then, because we were selfish, and she seemed most real to us when she was talking about us: “We called you Shamu,” she said. “And we called you Cue Ball.” We walked around on Saturdays wondering if she saw us with mashed sweet potato drying in our hair, or if she actually knew us.

Sundays, we went to lunch after church. We couldn’t place her age on Sundays—worries consumed her. She’d pinch the paunch around her middle and say, “I hate this.” She’d tell us stories about her bladder medication. She’d tell us again about her weight.

“Eat a brownie,” we said. “No one cares.”

“I care,” she said. “I’m a person.” And then we felt like assholes—sad assholes—because no one had told her she wasn’t a person. We wondered if getting old was like the air leaking out of a balloon.

Sunday nights, we’d talk to Dad after spending the day hanging out with Grams, and he’d always say the same thing, about how we should have seen her when she was young. She’d get standing ovations at the community theatre, she’d fight for equal representation for the special needs kids in the high school drama class she’d taught. She’d call students out for using the word retard, she called it “the r-word.”

“Grams was fierce,” Dad said.

Mondays, she didn’t talk to us much. She’d sit and listen as we gabbed about this English test, or that frog dissection, or the way Brittany M. had dissed Brittany S. in the cafeteria. She had names for us on Mondays—the tall one, the smart one.

We’d look into her eyes as we hugged her goodnight, searching for the fierce Dad had described. We didn’t see it. We love you, we love you, we said, and we searched for it again—for a flicker, a spark, an ignition, a flame.

We saw the spark, we told each other later, staring up at the dark ceiling of our shared bedroom. We repeated it back and forth to each other, like we had with “Why don’t boys like us?” when things were simpler. We figured we would repeat it until it was true. We repeated it to make it true. We saw the spark; we saw the spark; we saw the spark.

About the Author:

Allison Pinkerton is the 2017 Kathy Fish fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her work is forthcoming in Image, and has been published online at Monkeybicycle, The Pinch, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

Jake Thacker is a wedding photographer.