The television stutters. I hear it from the kitchen, staring at the pebbled linoleum and shuffling my sneaker at a loose corner below the oven. The floor yellow like gingivitis on a dental office poster. Tomato soup cools on the stove because I forgot and it boiled, and it isn’t safe to give to my grandmother. The nurse warned us she could burn her tongue and lips and chin.
I call my mother. She answers after five rings.
“Hey, when are you coming back?”
“Honey, I’ve got you on speaker.” The high-ceiling kitchen hollows her voice. “I told you – your father is picking you up. When the nurse comes. And she’ll be there at eight.”
“Can you – can he come earlier?”
She sighs, and I open cabinets. Cans of beans and vegetables. Plastic cups imitating crystal. Mismatched floral plates more at home in antique shops beside tin Coke signs and plastic busts of Elvis. My grandmother loved those stores, brought us trinkets my mother tossed.
“You said you would help out. I’m really counting on you.” My mother speaks in accusations. I see her standing in our kitchen at home, the tile floors. Stainless steel. Track lighting.
“I’m just – I don’t want to be alone? Here?”
“Don’t be rude, you’re with your grandmother. Interact with her, please. Be friendly. Has she eaten yet?”
“Make sure she eats. I’ll see you later.”
When I came here as a kid, adults gathered in leather chairs while I counted pennies on the floor. Now I fold towels and heat soup. Either way I go unnoticed. I walk back to the den, sit next to my grandmother on the brown plaid couch. Antiques Roadshow is back on.
“I think the cable truck came through earlier,” I explain. “Mom says reception always gets worse when they’re here.”
My grandmother stares straight ahead while I watch the light of the screen shift across the lenses of her glasses. She nods slow, hangs her mouth open for a moment before closing it again.
On-screen a man and a woman discuss the painting between them: an obscure surrealist piece with a chipped frame. She’s a beige pantsuit, watercolor blouse blooming from the lapels. Brass buttons. The guy stands beside the painting with his hands behind his back, rocking forward onto his toes. His sunglasses hang on a faded lanyard.
“And the artist was your father?” the appraiser prompts.
“Yes! Yes he was.” He grins but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “A lot of his stuff was already sold when he passed. But there was a few pieces left, for me and my brothers and sisters to split.”
“And I understand this piece was – somewhat unpopular with your family?”
On the canvas, a woman gazes at a dark landscape, her back to us. It looks like a storm is coming, but the wind doesn’t touch the still layers of her beautiful red hair. She wears a toxic green dress. The painting is the man’s favorite thing his father ever made, but it was banished to the attic for years. His mother and siblings were scared of the woman.
“Couldn’t wait to get rid of it! See, the thing is, I keep waiting for her to turn around! And I’ve been waiting – been waiting about sixty years for her to turn around.”
The television stutters again, and freezes. The woman in the painting turns to look at me. Her face a blank of creamy paint, faint pink where her lips could be. Brushes of gray could be eye sockets. The broadcast skips ahead and she’s gone; the appraiser discusses insurance values.
I jump up from the couch. The weight shifts, my grandmother sways. She sits still, on her towel. Charming boats and seaside cottages hang on the wall above her, but from where I stand, the television casts waves across the frames.
“I think your soup is ready,” I say, hurrying away. I arrange the bowl and spoon and napkin so she can still see the butterflies printed on her scratched plastic tray. When I place it in front of her she leans forward, starts to eat.
I’m supposed to tuck a napkin into her crewneck, but I don’t want to interrupt. Her mouth hangs open and her lips tremble as she dips her spoon into the soup, like she’s about to say something.
I sit and the show moves on, cycling through wardrobes, vases, sets of china. Things my mother packs away every time she comes here; things to be taken away, never appraised. My mother doesn’t let needlepoints and ashtrays haunt her.
Her soup is halfway finished when my grandmother’s mouth trembles open again, this time she speaks.
“Don’t worry – I saw her too.”
I wait for her to turn, arrange her face in a reassuring smile. In the silence, I think about the painting propped against the wood beams of an attic, an old thing ignored. Burning with anger under placid layers of paint. I flinch when the nurse arrives and flicks the television off. My grandmother never looked at me.
Notes from Guest Reader Eliezra Schaffzin
This story depicts a very familiar scenario–a young person trapped with an older relative with whom there is very little opportunity for connection–though the piece seems to travel a different path, thanks to the woman with the parasol. When the painted figure turned toward her viewers, I had the eerie sensation that the story was turning to face its readers as well. It’s always amazing to me how the introduction of one reality-stretching element can recalibrate our experience of the world.