Story: Grandma’s House
By Claudia Piepenburg
The girl had never been inside a mausoleum. She was just a child after all. No one in her family had died yet so she hadn’t attended a funeral or burial. But she was always afraid when she reached the last step of the double set of oak stairs leading to the second floor in her grandma’s house and saw them: four oak drawers slid into the wall. They were huge, that’s what she remembers them being—right there in front of her, large enough that a grown man could have easily laid down in one, without bumping his head or stubbing his toes. Of course he’d be dead, so it wouldn’t matter anyway. And if he were lying in the bottom drawer, three other men (or women) would be above him. All four of them: all dead, all in the drawers in the wall in the hallway on the second floor of her grandma’s house.
The drawers were, of course, for linen storage: sheets and blankets, towels and washrags. The sheets and blankets went on the beds in the three bedrooms; two to the left of the drawers as you faced them, one to the right. The girl used to see her grandma take towels and washrags out of one of the drawers and carry them to the bathroom at the end of the hall. The bathroom with the mottled mirror hanging askew by one nail over the pedestal sink, the chipped porcelain claw-foot tub and a toilet so tall that the girl would back up against it, place her small hands behind her and push down hard, hoisting her body onto the seat so she could pee. She thinks she remembers seeing her grandma doing that, taking sheets and blankets and towels and washrags out of the drawers and carrying them to the appropriate rooms, but she’s not sure. She was never really sure if she ever saw her grandma open those drawers—not even once.
Other things scared the girl in her grandma’s house, not just those coffin-like drawers.
She was terrified of the basement. So afraid that she never went further than opening the door, and flicking the switch on the left wall that illuminated the bare bulb screwed into the socket in the ceiling, which cast a pale yellow circle of tepid light, light that extended no further than the first step descending into darkness. It smelled, the underground air that blew onto the girl’s face when she opened the door. It smelled the way you expect darkness to: dank and musty and old and slightly sour—it smelled like something had almost died below, almost but not quite. Maybe whatever it was, it was crawling around down there, trying to find its way up the stairs, into the light. The few times she remembered opening the door, she slammed it shut so hard that the noise made her jump, the “bang” echoing throughout the first floor. She’d wished for a lock.
All the bedrooms scared the girl. The walls were painted dark in the two to the left of the corpse drawers. Maybe they had once been white, or cream, a soft eggshell color or perhaps pale pink, but they had grown so dingy over the years that they took on the non-color of dirty, very dirty dishwater that looked like it had been mixed with gray paint that had been sitting for so long it wasn’t paint anymore, but more like grease or old oil someone had drained from their car. There might have been stains, but if there were, you couldn’t see an individual blot, each wall was one massive stain spread out like a cancer, a metastatic darkness that sucked away whatever light found its way into the room.
Those bedrooms scared her like the basement did, because of the darkness, the lack of light. One of them her grandma used as a television room. When the girl would visit (her mom dropped her off every other Friday at 7:00PM after they’d eaten dinner), her grandma would be sitting there, in her rocking chair in the bedroom the farthest on the left. The only light in the room would be the soft blue glow coming from the screen, reflected in her round wire-rimmed glasses, lighting them up with an unearthly iridescence. Her grandma slept in the bedroom adjacent to that one, in a four-poster bed footed by a trunk with two metal straps fastened over the top. The only other piece of furniture in the room was an armoire with a mirror on the front, its beveled edges looked moldy underneath.
But it was the bedroom on the right, the one closest to the always cold and unpleasantly damp (even in the summer) bathroom that frightened the girl the most. It was the brightest of all the rooms, it had two windows, the other bedrooms had only one and there was no window in the bathroom. The walls in that room were painted blue—the color of the sea where the ocean floor is not very far away, where the water’s so clear if you’re sitting on the deck of a boat, you can see fish and sea turtles swimming in their home, and when you go back to shore and look at the water it’s just blue, vibrant beautiful blue with all that life underneath, swimming around under an azure ceiling. At least that’s what she imagined the color to be imitating. She’d not yet seen the ocean, not in real life; she was a Midwest girl. But she’d seen pictures in magazines and she knew that if she ever saw the real ocean, that’s the color it would be.
The first thing you saw when you walked in the room was a twin bed, its brass headboard flat up against the wall on the left. If you moved the bed away from the wall, you would see marks where the finials on either end of the headboard had rubbed up against the blue—dark smudges, wounds, scars that couldn’t be washed off. One of the windows was to the left of the bed and the other one was on the far wall. Lying in bed that window looked like there were bars covering it. There weren’t bars, but it appeared that there were because you saw the window through the brass footboard.
There always seemed to be sunlight coming through the window on the left—that’s what she remembers, or maybe that’s what she wants to remember. She knows that the sun couldn’t possibly have shone through that window every time she stayed at her grandma’s house. She surely stayed there on wintry cloudy Midwest days and spring days when rain splattered against the windows sounding like thousands of dying insects hitting the glass. The sun wasn’t shining through on those days. And yet—she remembers waking up alone in that bed, after having spent a dark night sleeping there and the sunlight was always warming her face, fever-like, and taunting her with golden bursts, little stars that lit up the darkness underneath her eyelids, until they opened wide and she let go of the night before and welcomed the new day.
But the letting go was never that easy, the morning’s light couldn’t blot out the night’s dark—not entirely. Even though she knew that two perfectly fried eggs (firm bright yellow yolks surrounded by a white halo with crispy brown edges) and two pieces of toast (thick white bread spread slavishly side-to-side and top-to-bottom with creamy butter, heated on a griddle until each slice was heavy, dripping with the sweet grease) awaited her once she got out of bed and shuffled to the tired and dreary but always tidy kitchen, she would lie in bed for a long time, sometimes closing her eyes again against the light, wondering if she was still asleep, if she might be dreaming and she would think (dream?) of things that no child could have, should have, known about.
Titillating. Carnal. Erotic. Thoughts—images—scenes. When her eyes were closed the images were stronger, more real, but even when she let her lids open they didn’t dissipate with the light. It was as if she was watching television or a movie in an unnaturally bright theater. There was no escaping them, no willing them out of her head. Mostly the girl hated those images, mostly she was ashamed of them, but sometimes she wonders if she stayed in bed longer than she should have because maybe she also enjoyed them. She was ten or maybe eleven. She doesn’t remember how old she was and there’s no one alive now who can tell her.
Her grandma wasn’t her biological grandma; she’d adopted the girl’s mother. Adopted her when she was fourteen along with her husband, who had died years before the girl was born. Her mother had lived with them as a foster child for six years before they made the relationship legal. The girl’s mother slept in the same bed when she was growing up, the brass bed in the bright blue room with the two windows. She knows that because her mother once told her that she did. The girl’s mother never asked her if she slept there, too. She never asked her anything about the visits with her grandma.
A few years ago she spent an hour scrolling through a well-known real estate website looking up addresses of houses from her past: houses she’d lived in, relatives’ houses, friends’ houses. She thought it would be interesting to see what the houses were worth, how many times they’d been bought and sold over the years.
The houses on either side of her grandma’s house, the house across the street, were all listed. She read their histories. Read that the crime rate in the area skyrocketed in the past several decades. People still lived there though, despite the pall of disorder and powerlessness and fear that had fallen over the neighborhood.
But her grandma’s house wasn’t there. She kept typing in the address, over and over again, but it didn’t come up. She looked for it on another website and then another and finally one more—to no avail. Her grandma’s house was gone.
She thought: “Is it better that the house is gone? What if it wasn’t? Would I get on a plane and fly two thousand miles so I could stand in front of it? And how would I feel if I did that?”
She doesn’t think those thoughts very often. She doesn’t dwell on those questions, what’s the point? But sometimes, sometimes when she’s just woken up, when the sunlight fills her bedroom and tiny starbursts explode beneath her eyelids she wonders: “Why is my grandmother’s house the only one that isn’t there?”
Her grandma’s house is gone but her contradictory memories remain. Her fear and shame at what she’d felt coupled with the memory, to this day, of what may have been pleasure. How did I hold, how do I hold, those feelings in my mind? Feelings so at odds with one another?
And the cold realities of those questions, of all the questions, the ones that tear at her psyche, make her feel alone even when she’s not. Because she knows the disconcerting and awful truth: some questions have no answers.