The boy sits cross-legged on her faded carpet, surrounded by piles of shiny beads, bangle bracelets and jeweled belt buckles, many-colored catchers of light, cool to the touch, frictive whisperers that ignite imagination, a tiny, sumptuously bedecked potentate whose other self is slightly under-sized, scab-kneed and small of tooth, a kindergartener at the public school five blocks away. The boy is her grandson. His treasures are cheap costume jewelry, hers and her two dead sisters’, spilled from the old sewing bag she saves them in, poured out upon the floor to pass yet another gray afternoon of shared confinement.
The boy’s name is Joey. He especially likes to find the antique badges among the brighter objects and pretend he earned them. “What’s this, Grandma?” he asks, pinning a tarnished medal to his shirt.
“Aunt Catherine won that for three years’ perfect attendance at Sunday School.”
“Can I go to Sunday School, Grandma?” the boy asks.
“You’ll have to ask your mother,” Harriet says, a common refrain that underscores the limits of her power. Her daughter-in-law is a late sleeper, her son, taking after his father, an atheist. Harriet herself has come to an uneasy peace with the divine. If something’s waiting on the other side of too-fast approaching death, she is prepared to give it its due.
Fortunately, the Red Cross badge distracts him, another favorite, which he affixes to the collar of his shirt. “This is the one you got during the War, Grandma.”
“Yes, Joey. For rolling bandages.”
Next thing, he’s attracted by Rosemary’s DAR emblem, about to pin it on, but Harriet says, “No, Joey. Not that one.”
“Why not, Grandma?”
“We quit that club. Because they wouldn’t let a Negro lady sing in their club house. You may be proud of your ancestors who fought in the Revolution, Joey, but you may not put on that button.” Disappointment clouds his little face, until she tells him he can be part of their protest. “You can throw that pin in the garbage can for me, right now, please,” she says, and when he does, “Good riddance to bad rubbish. It’s important to take a stand against injustice.”
Her grandson nods solemnly, steps across the jewel spill on the floor to scan the spines of the eleventh Britannica tightly packed into her too-small bookshelves, something that often draws his attention in the moments between moments that arise when their daily visits go on too long. Joey pulls out a burgundy volume from mid-set, opens it randomly to two facing pages mid-book, tissue-thin and lined with tight gray columns of tiny print.
“Did Grandpa really read the whole encyclopedia, Grandma?”
“When he was a travelling salesman, Joey. It took him two and one half years.”
“Which one did he read first?”
“He went straight through, A to Z.”
“Grandpa must have been the smartest man in the whole world.”
Harriet, as always, accepts the invitation to conjure her long-dead husband in order to assess the stretch and limits of his intelligence. “Your grandpa was very smart in many ways,“ she says.
“When I learn to read real good, I’m going to read the encyclopedia, too.”
She suspects the boy understands full well how fraught this subject is. Six months ago or more, knowing he was ready, Harriet started to teach her grandson the alphabet and the sounds the letters make. He would sit on her lap and with her help, read all the words in the funny papers out loud, a thrilling pastime for them both, until her daughter-in-law found out.
“Children today are supposed to learn to read in the first grade,” Nancy told her. “Early readers disrupt the classroom,” Nancy said. “And then they have to unlearn everything and start again, the right way.”
“But I can still read out loud to him,” Harriet said, not without a low note of defiance.
“Oh yes, that,” Nancy said. “But no more teaching him to read.”
“When you learn to read really well,” Harriet tells her grandson, “you can read anything you want to, all by yourself.” She looks at the Bakelite alarm clock then. “Almost five thirty,” she says. “Time to put away the jewels before your mother comes.”
By the time Joey’s mother knocks on the door of Apartment One, austerity has been restored, not a glittering object in sight. Joey hugs Harriet goodbye, an embrace too small to reach all the way around her hips, Nancy says, “Have a good evening, Mother Creighton,” and Harriet stands in her doorway to watch the two of them travel the short distance up the hallway, past the mailboxes, and disappear inside Apartment Three. Before that door quite closes, Joey’s small voice wafts back to her.
“See you tomorrow, Joey,” Harriet says, then steps back inside the studio apartment whose three small rooms plus closet are now the compass of her life.
It’s the boy’s job to check in on her once a day, to make sure she has not fallen and broken her hip or had a stroke or died in the night. Both of them understand this is the premise of their relationship and they make the best of it, owning the time that is theirs.
Neither tidiness nor cooking has ever been her strong suit, and the kitchen in Apartment One is tiny, more like a closet with sink and stove than a real room, which means Harriet knows well all the Campbell flavors, parsing her favorites out across the evenings, sometimes opening a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew or Hormel Chili in place of soup, one can of any product stretching across one supper, one lunch before she rinses it clean and throws it away. She eats at the huge, old-fashioned office desk that dominates one end of her one room, a hand-me-down from her son when he updated his office with Danish modern furniture. It’s here she sits to read, to write the occasional postcard to one of her few friends still alive and able to write back, here she pretends to make progress on the memoir she pretends to be writing, about the long-ago years she and her husband Douglas lived above the Arctic Circle among the Eskimos.
Tonight, her white bowl furred with the last traces of tomato soup, Harriet pushes her dinner things aside, takes the lowest member from her stack of spiral-bound notebooks and opens it flat on the desk before her, to a page whose contents look like this:
This diagram expresses what is now her deepest insight about the human condition, its joined triangles encompassing both space and time. Put into words, it describes the course of a life, commencing at a single point, expanding to its widest girth at middle age and then contracting inexorably till only dust is left. Womb, cradle, bed, home, yard, neighborhood, world—life grows. House, apartment, room, bed, finally, urn, it shrinks around you until at the end, you are compact and still once again.
Apartment One Harriet expects to be her penultimate address. Her daughter-in-law’s grandfather died here, then her much older half-brother. It was her sister Catherine’s last abode before the nursing home, that place her body lived briefly while her mind roamed elsewhere, getting ready to let go for good. In the worn trunk the nurses gave her after Cate died, Harriet found a pickle-size Mason jar filled with coarse gray dust. Taped to it was a note in her sister’s delicately forward-sloping script: Please commingle these ashes with my own, with no hint of whom or what they once had been, with no apology for the practical challenge of fitting two sets of remains into her urn, one of four matched brass volumes Rosemary and her sisters prudently purchased as a set when Douglas died, four books to house the remnants of four bookish souls. Our collected works, they joked.
After some nights of sleeping poorly, Harriet solved the problem of the ashes by sealing all of Catherine and as much of the stranger as would fit inside Catherine’s urn. The remainder she flushed down the toilet. For several weeks after, a pale gray ring appeared around the water line inside the toilet bowl, a ghostly presence that finally suffered itself to be exorcised by Ajax and elbow grease. Cate’s book joined Rosemary and Douglas in their glass-fronted niche in the mausoleum.
Harriet’s volume, named but dateless, waits on the back left corner of her desk, snugged into the meeting place of two beige walls, the single far-right point of her second triangle, beyond which there is only a question mark.
“If you had a TV, Grandma, we could watch Howdy Doody.”
“If I had a television, Joey, you would never talk to me.”
“Yes I would, Grandma,” he says.
“Shall we read a book?”
“I know them all by heart.”
“You could play with the jewels.”
“I’m too old, Grandma. Boys don’t do that.”
Joey climbs on his grandma’s bed so he can peek through the gauze curtains that shroud her tall windows. Nothing is happening on the street outside. His parent’s parking spot is still empty.
“You could jump on the bed.”
“My mother says I’m too big. Your bed might break.”
“I doubt that. Would you like to draw pictures?”
Joey lets the curtains fall back in place. He turns from the windows and scans his grandma’s one room from the unfamiliar height of her bed. From here he can see dust on the tops of things, keeping them from shining. He can see the lumpy laundry bag that squats like a dwarf beside the closet. From this height, even though he can read now, he can’t read the names on the spine of the books because they are too far away and the letters are too small. A copy of Life Magazine is on the floor beside the bed. The door to the bathroom is open just a little and seen from above, the opening is a skinny triangle cut out of a little square. He knows better than to tell his grandmother he’s bored, so he says it to himself.
Grandma doesn’t like to go on Sunday drives because both his parents smoke in the car and it makes her feel sick. Joey doesn’t like to go because it’s boring. If the grownups talk at all, it’s about people he doesn’t know or things he doesn’t care about. Sometimes they listen to the baseball game on the car radio. The announcer’s voice gives Joey a headache. He has never seen a real-life game.
“Do you have any instant pudding, Grandma?”
“Not now, Joey. But you could go to the store and buy some. Chocolate or butterscotch?””
The store is just across the street. When she sends him there, Grandma stands on the corner, on the curb, and they watch until the light changes the right way and then he crosses by himself. Now Grandma turns away from him and opens the top drawer of the desk where she keeps her money. He thinks he is only waiting while she counts out quarters but really, he must be looking, too, because all of a sudden he notices something he’s never seen before, a book standing all by itself at the very back of the desk, snugged into the corner where the two walls meet.
He jumps down from the bed then and climbs from the swivel chair onto the desktop, belly stretching as he reaches for the book. “What a funny book, Grandma. It feels funny.” He tries to get closer but the desk chair slides backwards on its casters.
“Be careful. Get down from there.”
“I want to see the book. What’s it about? Is it the Bible?”
“All right. But get off the chair. I don’t want to answer to your mother if you break your neck.”
“I won’t break my neck,” he says but he climbs off the chair and follows her when she picks up the book and carries it into the kitchen to wipe it down with a dish towel. “It doesn’t have any pages.”
“No. It’s not a real book, Joey. It just looks like one,” she says.
“What is it?”
“It’s called an urn. U-R-N. Do you know what an urn is?”
“Daddy earns money. Do you put money in it?” He looks for a slot to insert coins.
“Not exactly. You’re right about people earning money. But this is a different kind of urn. You put dead people in it after they die.”
Joey’s mind stretches with all the objections that rise up inside it. “You can’t,” he says. “It’s too small,” he says. “A person wouldn’t fit. Not even a dead person. Besides,” he says, “you put dead people in the ground. My other grandma is in the ground.”
His living grandma goes quiet for a minute, then she says, “Well, you have to make them smaller first, so they fit. Your Grandpa and Aunt Rosemary and Aunt Catherine all fitted into books just like this one.”
His grandma groans a little, lowering herself into the desk chair. “Cremation,” she says.
He edges closer, better to see the strange book she holds on her lap. “What’s that?”
“When people die, they don’t feel anything anymore. They aren’t people anymore. They’re like the chair, or the desk. And if you let them all sit around, pretty soon they’d take up all the room on earth, so there wouldn’t be any left for living people. So they put them in a big furnace and burn up their bodies, which, remember, can’t feel anything anymore. Then they take all the ashes that are left and put them in special containers called urns.”
“If they’re not people anymore, why do you save the ashes?”
His grandma says, “So you can remember them better, I guess. You just do.”
“What about their souls?” he asks her. “Don’t their souls feel something?” His friend Lucas, who gets to go to Catholic Sunday School, has told him all about the scary journeying of souls.
Grandma says, “I don’t know, Joey. But I doubt it. No, I don’t think so.”
“Who’s inside this urn?”
“Nobody,” his grandma says. “It’s empty.”
She reaches out one crooked finger then, touches something he can’t see and the book springs open all by itself, as if by magic. The space inside is smooth and empty. He can’t resist touching it. His fingertip feels the coolness of the metal and the air in the apartment is so still he can almost hear it buzz. He looks at his grandma then, looks hard at the soft, lined skin and the half-white eyebrows that bristle out above the frames of her eyeglasses, the thin lips that half-smile at him and the grizzled roughness of her hair. “That’s right, Joey,” she says. “This one is mine.”
A few breaths later, car lights blaze through the windows, playing for a moment against the far wall and in the gauzy curtains before they go dark. “They’re home, Grandma,” Joey says.
“So they are,” his grandmother says, pulling him close and squeezing for a moment before she lets him go.
One hand gripped around the handle of her cane, Harriet makes a fist of the other to knock on the door of Apartment Three. When her daughter-in-law answers, she wears a flowered cotton housecoat and a pair of feathered mules with heels higher than Harriet has ever seen.
“Mother Creighton, what a surprise.”
“I don’t want to disturb you, Nancy. It’s just that Joey borrowed something from me and I find I need it back.”
“What is it? I’ll get it for you.”
“No, please. I mean, it’s a secret.”
The living room, behind Nancy, reflects her anomalous aesthetic, good taste and none at all haphazardly commingled. A green chair, a red chair and a gray sofa fill the space, no more affinity among them than the strangers in a doctor’s waiting room. The whole apartment smells of cigarette smoke.
“Where are my manners?” Nancy says. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“I had coffee earlier, thank you,” Harriet says.
“Are you sure I can’t help you find what you’re looking for? Joey’s room is always such a mess.”
Harriet and her cane three-step toward the hall that leads to Joey’s room. “Christmas is coming,” she says. “It’s a time of secrets, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I see. I’ll leave you to it, then.”
The disorder of her grandson’s room is magnificent but his choice of hiding place is disappointingly ordinary. After only a few minutes of searching, Harriet finds her urn inside a dresser drawer, buried in boy underwear, and tucks it inside the shopping bag she thought to bring with her. She finds it interesting how fast and hard her heart is beating, how relieved she is to recover her property. When she emerges from the bedroom, Nancy invites her to sit, to eat a bite, to visit, but Harriet says, “I’m awfully busy,” and leaves her son’s wife to wonder what lies behind the lie.
Joey is pale and quiet the next time he comes to visit her, his eyes drawn as if by magnetism to the brass book that stands alone on the center of her desk, his hands clutching one another for comfort or support. Before he came, Harriet rehearsed the lecture she would give him, about respecting the property of others and the importance of trust among friends, but she sees now it is unnecessary. Instead, she asks him why.
Her grandson stares back at her through a scrim of shame and regret.
“Please, boy, tell me why. Why did you take my urn?”
He looks away before he tells her. “Grandma, I don’t want you to die.”
His grandmother passed away after a long, strange time when she was not herself anymore but someone else, sometimes nicer, sometimes not. After she broke her hip, his parents put her in the same nursing home where Great Aunt Catherine spent her last days. They didn’t visit often, but when they did, she seemed to remember who he was and that they had a history together. The nurses said she was always happy when he came.
After she died, his parents took the bronze book to the funeral home where she was cremated, had her dates inscribed on the spine and sent her ashes to the mausoleum to join her husband and her sisters on their shelf. At the memorial service, he didn’t cry. A few days later, a letter arrived from the funeral home, addressed to Master Joseph Creighton. Inside, there was a smaller white envelope. Joey, it said. He recognized his grandma’s handwriting and took the envelope to his own room to open it. Inside, he found only one piece of Harriet’s plain white writing paper and on it, a simple, careful drawing of two triangles that shared one common side: <>
It was his grandmother’s favorite doodle, a shape she drew often and everywhere—on napkins, on the lined pages of her notebooks and the margins of newspapers. When he asked where it came from, what it meant, she only smiled. Once, he remembered, she’d traced it, large, in the dust of her desktop. Finally, it was not dusting but more dust that made it slowly disappear.