Fiction: Beginnings by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Outside in the parking lot, Al is circling for a space in my rumbling Datsun. It’s squat and faded blue, but that little car reliably growls us around the Twin Cities, its only complaint a high-pitched whine when we press the gas pedal to the floor, like we just did on the way here. But we made it, the car squealing us down the highway in the icy grip of near dawn.

Al dropped me off at the door because the message he received was garbled, my mother in a panic. I fled the car, jacket flapping in the wind, the dim gray sky lit with one wide, beautiful rosy slash. Grandma is that slash of red in our otherwise quiet family—that sudden, unexpected color. She is our fire. And she is why we are gathering.

I know this waiting room too well, and I’m sick of the buzzing fluorescents, the whish of the revolving door, the pale gray walls. I’m sick of the same magazines from months ago, so thoroughly thumbed that the corners crinkle upwards. I’m even sick of the same night-weary nurses who know me by name. These lovely women and one man who patiently, kindly, assist my family. Saints. I am sick of saints.

The doors hiss, and I feel a thread of chilly air as someone comes inside, hear voices that are not my family’s. Subdued sobs. A stretcher rattling down the hall. I don’t even turn to look. I am beyond curiosity, beyond worry, beyond weary. I am on rote, clutching my notes so that when the nurse returns, I am planted where she can’t miss me, right at the front desk, just in case she’s new. Planted so I can recite the information like a prayer and pass over my wrinkled paperwork: medications, doctor’s names and beeper numbers, nursing home. Social worker. Grandpa’s name. My name. My phone number.

My coat is itchy, the wool cuffs longer than the pajama top I have on underneath, and I absentmindedly scratch, like my grandmother now does, all the time. Scabs on her scalp, as insidious as moss, everywhere.

Shows you. That’s what’d she’d tell me, if she could. She, who would never go to the grocery store in her pajamas. Because that’s where I was when Al found me this morning. At Red Owl in my PJS, thinking no one would ever know. I rushed out of Red Owl holding a tomato.

Shows you. It’s only recently that she has added sharpness and bite to what she says, and I know that means our real Catherine is slipping, becoming what age and pain remake her. Carving her a new face, creating a new spitting vocabulary.

Once, she would have giggled about the PJs. She might even have thought it breezily risqué.

“Sarah.” A nod, an apologetic smile. It’s Estelle, her slender frame tucking itself into the dark chair at the intake desk, her bobbed brown hair stuck in place with hairspray.

“Estelle.” I nod back.

“Just you with her this time?”

I shake my head. My parents are still on their way, having farther to come. Al is coming through the door any minute. He phoned Glennie, too. Where is she? I wonder, pulling at my coat collar. Away. My little sister is always away. And I am always the one who makes it to the hospital before anyone else. The one with the lists of medicines and doctors’ names taped in her frayed, thin wallet. The unemployed one. The available one. The one who is the mathematician, counting who was there, who was not, who I can rely on.

Right now, I can count on Estelle.

I wish I could count on Glennie. I sometimes wonder where things begin, if the reason I am the strong one is because I did not get the pretty face; if because I am the oldest, I assumed responsibility, letting her off the hook. Does she now believe I’ll take care of everything?

At twenty, Glennie has a will of her own, a single-mindedness that nine times out of ten puts me to shame. But it’s single-mindedness like a laser, aimed toward one goal. I am often in doubt. I fear change but am never surprised by it. Glennie is. She is as shocked by a swift change of seasons as she is by turns of events. She’s not, I tell her repeatedly, in tune with the world. She has shut herself away in a laboratory with a pile of MCAT prep books. She has shut herself off, and that is dangerous.

“I have to concentrate,” she replies. Always the same answer.

I press. “Don’t you want a boyfriend?  Sex?  A good meal now and again?  Don’t you want more than this?”

She doesn’t answer. She’s a bundle of nerves and tensions. MCAT; high scores; the cost of applications.

You will regret this, I tell her. There is more to the heart than what you can name; there is more in the blood than you can label.

***

The waiting room falls quiet. No conversation, TV silent, and then, as if in apology, sounds race forward. A siren coming from the distance, the smack of a hand shoving open the door in the hallway behind me. A phone trilling. The hum of voices. But for one whole breath, the Emergency room was silent, and I wonder who in that breath left us, and who in that breath arrived.

It’s still early morning, and somewhere on the other side of Minneapolis my sister is waking in a strange bed, or maybe it’s not so strange really.

“She’s at Ted’s,” her roommate said when I called again, from the hospital.

Who?, I thought, but what I said was, “I need you to take a message.” My voice had sounded faint. Only a few feet away, in the depths of the Emergency room, someone was trying to beat life back into my grandmother. I thought about Ted. Whoever Ted was. I thought about Glennie’s heart, beating faster and faster.

The roommate was hardly agreeable, but when she heard the message, she wished me well, said she’d pin the note to the front door so that Glennie couldn’t miss it, but I knew Glennie could. She could pound up the steps, already listing what to study for the day. Fumble with the key. Look down.

I had called from the pay phone tucked down a thin strip of hallway off the waiting room, part of the old familiar. The patterned tile, the row of vending machines, the bank of phones. The waiting room was half-lit, as was the sky. I knew Glennie wouldn’t get to the hospital for hours, if she got there at all.

I wonder now when Glennie’s secret relationship began. Last night after lab? A week ago at MCAT prep? I wonder what Ted did or said that made her lift her eyes from the page. We are all full of secrets. Glennie, with the new lover nobody knows. Grandma, who stopped taking her Coumadin. Me.

Over the PA system, a call goes out for Dr. Jones, please. Dr. Jones to Peds. Down the way, Al paces, creating stepping patterns along the multi-colored tile. He is dancing in his own heavy-footed way, his feet thumping with each step, his belly hanging down over his trousers. But he is graceful, too, swinging his arms out delicately, turning on the tips of his toes, repeating the pattern, balancing the heavy with the light.

My father is leaning against the wall, head bowed, hands shoved in his pockets, his briefcase at his feet. He stares absently at the tops of his shoes, then reaches down and rubs a scuff from the toe, the whole bulk of him, belly and broad shoulders and graying beard, focused, like Al, on something small, something easily controlled. My mother waits by the double doors.

A nurse tries to get her to sit and she refuses, bluntly.

“You might get your nose whacked,” the nurse says.

My mother doesn’t respond. She stares, arms crossed, through the small window in one door, then flips her braid and steps back, but not too far.

This is most of us, gathered together in a place none of us wants to be. I still have my coupons in my coat pocket, remnants, like my father’s briefcase, which was already in hand when their phone began ringing, when Jack called. Jack from the nursing home. A night shift aide whom we have never met. At the nursing home, Jack still sits beside Grandpa’s bed, though his shift is long over. I imagine they have run out of conversation now and are waiting, just like us.

I don’t know why, sitting here for the second time this month alone, they keep us in the dark. There ought to be a way to let us know how things are going, what’s happening. There ought to be someone who can pull my mother away and calm her down, have sympathy for the way she cranes her head every time the double doors swing open.

Glennie will not believe at first that Grandma stopped taking her Coumadin intentionally, not until she sees the cache of pills stowed neatly in Grandma’s dresser drawer, which Jack found when he hurriedly opened her the drawer, looking for her glasses case. The pills rolled with the force of his pull, like an avalanche. But Glennie has hardly visited.  The news would be less surprising if she’d been over, seen how irritable Grandma is.

“I can’t hear you,” Grandma had started saying, waving her hand in front of her face. “I can’t hear you, didn’t you hear me? Why are you talking when I can’t hear you?”

Pressing the button above the bed. Needing to be sedated. Sitting in her wheelchair with her hand out, hoping someone will take it. I hope, in a way, that she has succeeded, that she will slip away on this cold spring morning and never have to sit again with her hand out, like a beggar. Then I hate myself, in the same way Glennie will hate herself when she realizes how her absences have cut her off, made her unaware, oblivious. I want to protect Glennie from that, from her own absences, from the guilt. Nobody anticipated this.

A thin noise breaks into the silence. My mother is crying, and something in me sinks, like a deep breath, except that I don’t feel like I’m breathing. A nurse is talking to her, holding open a double door, half in the lobby, half out.

My father moves with a speed I didn’t know he could attain. Al moves with a speed I didn’t know he could attain. But Al rushes toward me, hand extended. He wraps his arm around me, and we walk toward the doors together, because we have decided to always be together now, and we will, he said, take each other slowly down whatever road we face.

***

I was in the grocery store, rummaging through the tomato bin like my grandmother used to do, poking tomatoes to test their firmness. It was early, around six, a time I liked to shop. Shopping then got me out of bed, prevented me from lounging around in my pajamas pretending to look for a job. I cut coupons, stuck them in an envelope, and off I went, morning after morning, to shop with what our adjusted daily budget allowed for daily bread.

An old lady was muttering to herself by the mushrooms.  She eyed the price and shook her head. She looked wide from the layers she’d wrapped around herself. Black wool coat, heavy plaid scarf. She looked like she could really whack that sign and send it spinning. She did not look, I thought, frail, like my grandmother.

“Prices are too high,” the lady said, catching my eye.

I’d nodded. The tomatoes, I remember clearly, lacked a certain luster, but I found one that would work well enough in a dinner salad, and I had it in my hand when a car horn started honking.

There are times when I get gut feelings, when I pick up the phone already knowing who is calling, already knowing, in a sense, what I will hear. Maybe there is nothing special about this, maybe it happens to everyone, but I knew then to step away from the bin, to walk outside.

Al was climbing out of my Datsun, fumbling with the seat belt, which had wrapped around his arm. “Get in.”

He had on a blue Oxford shirt and a pair of dingy old jeans. No coat. He’d slipped his sneakers on without socks. I looked down the road at our house, a small, white two story with a brown lawn that dipped, dramatically, before reaching the sidewalk.

“Sarah,” Al said, finally free of the seat belt yet climbing back inside. “Get in.”       He started the car, leaned over and threw open my door. I slid into the seat and let the door close with a click. I still had that tomato, and I held it carefully, like it was china.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Your grandmother,” he said, and off we went, careening out of the Red Owl parking lot, heading east.

“What happened?”

Al signaled his turn, and we sped onto the highway. “She had a heart attack.”

I thought a prayer. I sent the prayer to Grandma, with beams of energy and light that I imagined I had, thoughts of power and fight and strength. Take that, I thought, and that. Power strength defiance anger. Make your anger keep you alive.

Tomatoes are good in salads, with salt, and with cheese and onion.  In the summer, a salami and cheese and tomato make a good meal.  In winter, tomatoes are good with cheese and onion and hot soup.  As for sauces, any.  I listed things off in my mind. I spelled the word tomato backward and forward. We drove.

***

My grandmother had, in the last week, decided to start painting. She said, “I can hardly see. I’ll probably create masterpieces.”

I stopped by one afternoon and found her, eyes closed, slipping a paint brush over a canvas. She was ensconced in the dining room, surrounded by tubes of paint and newspaper, the day’s Star Tribune. Someone had tied a bib around her, and the bib was flecked with red and orange. She didn’t hear me. I watched her paint line after line, then I said her name, and she stopped and said, “What color next?”

I paused to consider the canvas, a series of stripes, some overlapping, some broken off.     Grandma snorted. “None? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” She fumbled among the tubes, squirted blue onto her brush, ignoring the way the paint plopped onto her hand. “No color? Don’t paint?”

“Take that,” she said, dipping her paint brush into a jar of water, making the jar shake and tilt. Then, a bright blue streak, right across the canvas, again and again.

“Grandma,” I said.

She didn’t hear.

“Grandma,” I said again, louder that time, and she still didn’t hear. I selected a color, orange, and handed her the tube.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

I took her clean hand. “Sarah,” I said, and I ran her hand over my engagement ring.

“Sarah,” she said, sighing, “there is somebody else in this room.”

***

My grandmother has not died.  She is, in fact, furious that we think so.  She has awakened, and with a vengeance.

She sees us and says, voice hoarse, “What’s going on?”

“Devil didn’t want you, huh?” Al asks, tweaking her toes.

I give him a glance that would send anyone to hell, but Al only winks at me. Grandma hasn’t heard, and she would have laughed if she had, because Al said it. Al gets away with what no one else can, third helpings, breaking a china plate, swearing if the Vikings lose. Not even Dad has these privileges, though Dad is close. Even Grandpa can’t, as he says, make a mouse-sized fart around Grandma without the roof coming down.

She is awake, and she is ornery, and my mother is weeping.

“Take me home,” Grandma says. She’s frowning now, glancing from one to the other.

“Get me home,” she says, with a little less strength, and finally, “Where’s Ed?”

At the mention of his name, Al disappears to call, carefully closing behind him the blue curtain surrounding the bed. Who knows at this point what Grandpa will understand, what he will hear? The night Grandma woke screaming, not so long ago, he understood her raving, apparently whispered for God to take her, if she’d have to live like this. Who knows what he hopes for her now. Hope is different, he has said, when you get this age. His day nurse, Kirsten, told me what the night aide told her: that the night Grandma raved, unable to separate her nightmare from the world, it was Grandpa watching from his bed for whom the night aide had sympathy, the way Grandpa tried, despite the feet of distance, to soothe her with his voice. With whispers of love, traveling from the night to the day, from one pale and weary person to another.

Grandma sighs deeply and closes her eyes. My mother has stopped crying now, and she stares off into the distance. Her hair has fallen loose from her braid. My father guides her from the bed, rocks her back and forth, his voice a soft murmur. My mother’s shoulders sag.  A nurse pulls the blue curtain open in two efficient tugs, then closes them in one brisk motion. She is an older woman, pale, her make-up only adding to the fatigue evident in the darkness around her eyes, in the heaviness of her movements. She glances quickly at my grandmother, then at my parents, then me. “She’s awake?”

I nod.

The nurse busies herself with taking Grandma’s pulse, something Glennie will one day being doing. Glennie will know the components of blood. She will be able to resuscitate a stopped heart. She will be Dr. MacMillan, and for that privilege she will have made sacrifices.

Grandma seems to be listening to the nurse, to the thin rustle of her stiff white skirt, the whooshing sound of her shoes. How she could hear anything, I don’t know, but I watch her eyes move under her lids, and I know she is paying attention, at least trying to hear. I go to her and hold her hand. The nurse touches Grandma’s shoulder, and Grandma squeezes my hand.

“Are you feeling better, Catherine?” the nurse asks loudly.

Grandma nods.

A male nurse joins the first, towing a stretcher behind him, letting it swing wide when he opens the curtains. He has chest hair poking up under his uniform, and I think about that, focus on that, think about Ted. Wonder if he has chest hair. Wonder if Glennie likes that. Wonder why I’m wondering.

When the nurses lift her, Grandma’s release is a reluctant one. Grandma does not look heavy. She looks like wet laundry, like a sheet, hanging down a little in the middle, loose and light on the ends.

From a place inside myself I do not recognize, comes my voice. “Be careful with her.”

The woman looks offended, and my voice, just a rush of words, a thin stream of air, suddenly settles into something stronger. “She’s afraid,” I say quietly. The nurse’s eyes meet mine, and she nods.

“What’s happening?” Dad’s voice is calm.

“We have to run a few tests,” the woman says, trying to smile.

I follow them from the room.

“The doctor wants a few tests,” the woman repeats as they go. “She’s okay. She’s all right.”

I watch the nurse move, try to peek around her wide, swinging hips to see Grandma’s white head. Through another set of double doors, and they are gone.

“What doctor?” I ask.

***

Letting go is impossible, I have decided. You never really let go, you just accept that what you had is gone. There is a difference. In his lectures at the U, Al is careful, patient. He tells his students all the things religion can be and in the end they define it for themselves.

I have never been good with death, never easy, never unafraid. I am haunted by the renewals and cycles that will always leave me turning, looking for the person who is not there.

“What doctor?” I ask dad, looking back over my shoulder.

He shrugs. He looks confused. “I don’t know. Maybe Kline called in some tests.”

Kline, the elusive doctor, the one on his way from his new home in Eden Prairie. Once farm land, now the latest development. Like out where my friend Brenda lives. They are filling in the spaces.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“It must be the right thing,” Dad says.

“Well, they ought to tell us what’s happening. We have a right to know.”    “They don’t have time to tell us anything,” Dad says softly.

He’s right. I let my arms uncross then. I wonder where the hell I lost my tomato. I think about seeds and new gardens, cycles and changing seasons, the ways in which all my life I have fought for moments to not move forward. I have heard that those who fight live the longest, and so I know we will be together for a while in one capacity or another. I think of Grandpa praying for Grandma and think capacity may not be enough. It’s going to happen. Maybe not here, not now, not for a long time, but death will come, gently, quietly, silently, and spirit away what I love, turn my world into a new world. This isn’t acceptance. It is recognition, it is resignation.

Because I could never accept the loss, or forgive it really.

Glennie bursts down the hallway, white blonde hair flying behind her, a flash. She looks like she will rush past us, and I turn, because I am the strong one, and hold out my arms.

***

Later, when Grandma is settled in a private room, and we are waiting for results from tests we cannot name, I walk into the hallway and down the stairs. My feet feel heavy, and yet I walk down quickly, through the double doors of the emergency entrance that open for me alone, since no one else is coming or going. I unzip my coat.

Someone asked me once why I loved Minnesota. I said I didn’t love the place, I loved the cold. The cold is numbing. I stand with my coat thrown open, hat off, hands exposed, hoping the cold will burn into me, freeze whatever strength I have left.

I need to get out of the room, away from Glennie and my mother. Glennie, arriving in sweats much too large for her, sits stunned in Grandma’s room, a small, silent, bony woman tucked away in the corner, biting her nails. My mother noticed the sweats, said, “Where did you get those? Those are cute.”  But she didn’t notice that the logo was wrong, or the school name.

Macalester College.

After Glennie had arrived, I pulled her away. We stood outside the double doors, back in the lobby, which was empty. I told her that nobody had had any idea. I told her about the Coumadin, how Jack said that at first, he thought the pills were candy.

“I was at Ted’s,” she said.

I began to tell her that everyone needed relationships, that I was happy for her, but the look on her face stopped me. Her look was apologetic.

“I’m not as busy as you think.”

Funny thing about the cold. It makes a person feel oddly warm, the way frost bite tingles and burns, for instance. Now out here alone, I spread my arms and point my toes, touch delicately the hard ground, and turn. I have a secret. I have a secret grown in my belly like a whisper, then a song. I am a woman, and I know. I am superstitious, uncertain, and I cannot look my grandmother in the eye. What dies continues on. I have a dread and a joy. I have a check and balance. I turn.

Al appears in the doorway, face flushed, breathing heavily. He rests his hands on his hips.

I don’t want to know what has happened. I want a moment of stillness, of quiet.

Back upstairs, a doctor is messing with Grandma’s wrist, taking her pulse, again. His hands shake. Grandma eyeballs him and says nothing. He smiles at us when he’s done, but the smile is too cheery for the occasion, and I instantly distrust him. He’s too young, too new at this, I think, to be honest from the get go. I demand honest from the get go. I don’t have time for false cheer. I don’t have the patience.

“May I speak to you in the hallway?” he says to my father.

I catch his eye and raise an eyebrow.

“The whole family,” the doctor says, stuttering slightly.

Mom and Dad squeeze out the door together, but Glennie doesn’t move. She avoids my glance. Something in me hardens. It is the I-told-you-so, ready for use.

Finally she says, “I should have gone over more.”

Between us, in the middle of the room, Grandma sleeps quietly, her head turned to one side, mouth open. I’m reminded of how it is with sisters in this family, how we get so close we breathe each other’s air. Glennie looks at me. She waits, and as angry as I am, I know there is no time for either self-indulgence or I-told-you-sos.

“So go over now,” I say.

Al pokes his head in the door and says softly, “We’re waiting.” He jingles the loose change in his pockets. He doesn’t smile.

I walk into the hallway after Glennie, who rubs her hands together over and over. We stand in a semi-circle around the tall pale man with the wispy mustache who is our temporary doctor, since Doctor Kline has somehow not yet managed to arrive from Eden Prairie. I cross my arms and listen to our choices. We have two, he says. Add, subtract, multiply, divide, I think.

Carry over. Carry on.

Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned her MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University. Her short stories have been published in Puerto del Sol, Wisconsin Review, Hypertext Magazine, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Mud Season Review, and Long Story, Short. Her short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was published by Fomite in August 2017 to excellent reviews nationwide. Visit her at www.caitlinhamiltonsummie.com
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