Claire’s grandmother greets her from the doorway, and from Claire’s vantage point on the asphalt, she fills in Little Debbie Swiss Cake rolls and two glasses of raspberry Crystal Light on the dusty side table, just out of view. Claire’s mom reminded her to check the glasses under the kitchen light before she drank from any, referring, Claire guessed, to the way her grandmother sometimes stopped cleaning dishes mid-way through.
For all the time she spends in that place, you’d think it would be spotless, her mom added on days she was annoyed with running her errands, picking up the single-ply toilet paper, canned fruit, prescription refills at the only pharmacy in town. The errands embarrassed Claire sometimes, too; the cart looked meager, all store brand, only what her grandmother’s social security checks could cover. Claire craved consumption without limits, and for her third-generation family of lobster boaters and clam-diggers, the only excess available was inhaling salt air.
Grams, she says, climbing the cement stairs to the front door. You got your shoes on?
Just my house slippers, her grandmother says, smiling coy.
Claire leans against the railing, elbows jutted back like warnings. She says: Bottom stair?
Her grandmother does not look at the stairs but at Claire’s skinny middle. Let’s have a snack, she says, and Claire tastes sugar and hope in her throat despite her mission.
Come on, Claire says, tugging her grandmother not with her hands but with eyes and a smile that say really, now, please. Let’s bring it outside.
Claire’s grandmother does not come on. She firms her purple-slippered feet in place, and Claire is reminded of the wiener dog she walks for a neighbor: low to the ground, docile and triumphant in holding ground on heat-thick afternoons. Her grandmother’s eyes hold the same spirit as the dog, too; fear, sure, but Claire sees an autonomy, a refusal to be dragged at someone else’s speed into a world she’d rather assess from behind a smudged den window.
Grams, Claire says. You promised we’d get some of this bay air you’ve been missing. The air, Claire thinks, is what she will miss about coastal Massachusetts when she vanishes. Smart salt that stays steady even when people like her are born here and take off before they die here too. Claire considers her grandmother on those front steps, how long it’s been since she’s left her house—years, if she remembers right. Too long spent at a window, blaming fat horse flies. At twelve, Claire feels certain leaving any place is a matter of only feet on the ground.
Claire’s grandmother speaks above Claire’s head, eying the stretch of bay directly across the way. Not even houses obstruct it—just a one-way street and a low sea wall. She says, Will your mother be by tomorrow, with the car?
Yeah, Claire says, red. She’s coming. Claire thinks about fibbing, the internal what-if game she recycles; what would Grams do, anyway, she wonders, if her mom didn’t come by, and her mail piled up, and her fridge got down to mustard and the onions she quick-pickled herself. She’d leave the house, wouldn’t she? Claire imagines her grandmother in her slippers, foot after foot, triumphant in the check-out aisle.
Her grandmother mhmms, her face, to Claire, a settled story.
What if I fell back over the railing, Claire says. What would you do?
I’d call an ambulance, baby. Her grandmother shifts. Don’t do that.
Would you run down there, yelling?
Sometimes when I’m afraid, her grandmother says, I don’t make a noise but in this brain of mine.
Claire tries to think of her grandmother as she is, not as the questions everyone asks when she’s not in the room: Was it an armed intruder? A man in a mask? A threat in the mail? What in Heaven’s name goes on to make you decide, at eighty two, that you want to exist in a world only on your own terms. Claire envies and fears her consistency.
If my skull was open, Claire says. Neighbors screaming, and all.
Her grandmother sturdies herself. Girl, she says. Don’t push what you can’t hold.
She pulls the Little Debbies from the front pocket of her robe. The robe is all faded sunflowers with black buttons her grandmother replaced over the years, thick fingers working at the stitches. Claire wants to know what that robe smells like; she’s known it before, in all the times she’s hugged her grandmother, but she can’t summon it out of will; the wanting obscures it, and Claire feels a premonition of adulthood, an understanding of memory as intrinsic absence. When her grandmother passes her one Little Debbie, she unwraps it and takes a thick bite.
With her mouth full, Claire says, I love you.
Claire’s grandmother chucks the other Little Debbie clear over Claire’s head. Claire hears it land on the grass and runs down into the yard thinking of the neighbors, their gossip; she doesn’t want to offer more ammunition. Of all of her grandmother’s games to avoid coming outside, Claire thinks, this is new.
Claire picks up the Swiss roll—only dented beneath plastic. She looks up to tell her grandmother she’s coming back inside. She wants to lift a laugh in her own throat but she doesn’t understand; this August afternoon sits different. Looking back at the doorway, she says, Holy shit.
Her grandmother has the screen door pushed all the way open, both arms out, neck stretched forward, chest and belly and robe full-on in the sun. Hummingbird cosmic. Claire holds both hands to her forehead to block out the light; her Debbies sandwiched in her fingers, sugar scent breaking through the plastic, hitting her nose. Claire can’t see her grandmother’s feet; one leg is stretched out, bright white and veiny, she’s nearly sure, but has it touched the ground, has she stepped? Has it happened? Claire doesn’t know, can’t tell, unwilling, she is, to move her squint from the varicose veins, all intrepid blue.
Marissa Higgins is a lesbian journalist and recent D.C. Arts & Humanities Fellowship grant awardee. Her work has appeared in the Best American Food Writing 2018 (originally in Catapult), The Atlantic, NPR, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is working on a novel.