Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Afterimage

Afterimage

She once loved that picture as if it were her best and only friend.

Over two years ago, when we stepped into her dimly lit kitchen that smelled of spoiled sandwich meat, her hesitantly-blue eyes fell on my face in surprise. “You really favor her, you know,” she said as though likening me to the Queen.

I didn't know what to say and my throat closed around any words that might have tried to slip past my lips for the sake of etiquette. I smiled as politely as I could and gave a nod of acknowledgment, eyes on the linoleum floor and on the popcorn ceiling and on the dark wood cabinets. Looking at anything but that photograph in the silver frame.

She did not pause in her incessant chatter, oblivious to my
discomfort.

I'd stood in this kitchen many times before in the years of coloring books and finger paint. Before the yellowed blinds on the window drew themselves against the company of the sun, and before the leaves on the plant in the large blue pot became shriveled and brown. When green beans boiled on the stove and Wheel of Fortune projected hazily into the room from the corner of the counter where the toad of a TV squatted. When Sunday mornings were a blend of cinnamon rolls and curling irons and spearmint gum before church. When the half-finished crossword puzzle in the newspaper was among the papers littered across
the table, accompanied by pencil scrawlings on scrap paper from chubby hands. This kitchen had hosted many of the Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters of my memories, when we'd crowded around the square table in mismatched chairs rubbing elbows and nerves.

Though the room had been warmer back then, her words had been wintry, sharp and angled like a painting by Picasso. Her wrinkled forehead was pinched as though some thread had snagged in the fabric of her skin.

Her plate was a small sampling of the meal, and she'd season each bite with complaints. “Whoowee! That's too sweet! My stomach...I just can't eat sweet food. I wish I could, baby, but I just can't.” The assortment of colorful pills, white round ones or oblong pink ones lined up on a napkin, seemed to constitute more of her diet than actual food.

She wore layers and layers of oversized sweaters, and was quick to tell anyone who would listen that the house was too cold. “Air
conditioning, my foot!” She often tried to give away clothes that were too big for her, eager to explain that she was chronically
underweight. “Lord have mercy! I hope and I pray...” Her closet
smelled like moth balls, and I would quietly refuse the padded
shoulders and elastic waisted pants. She would explain how old this dress was, or how she'd hoped to grow into it. She would boast about her bargains. “This? A quarter at the Quarter Store.” And she would raise her eyebrows as if daring me to doubt her, her carefully powdered forehead wrinkling like the sands of a wind-blown desert.

Always seeking conversation, she often caught us children in dark
corners of the house when she would relive the same stories. How when she was a little girl, they did calisthenics at school and she could jump over a bar her own height without even a running start. How when she was a little girl, they worked on the farm, picking cotton and shelling beans. How when she was a little girl, they taught penmanship in school so everyone had to write in cursive and she always had the best grade. How she had read the Bible in its entirety every year for the past seven years, from 'in the beginning' to 'amen'. How my great-grandfather, her husband, used to own a rolling store. “And baby, he drove it all over the country! Sneads, everywhere.” We would nod and smile when appropriate, just enough to be polite, until one of
the other adults rescued us. “Why aren't you playing with all of your cousins? Come on, they're looking for you.”

Her impeccable signature is still on every belated birthday card she has ever given us. At the time, we tucked them away in boxes, at the bottom of desk drawers, used them as bookmarks. My sister found one the other day which had been given to her half a year late, explaining that the card had been signed and dated by May 10th but didn't make it out the door until late October. They are infinitely more valuable now, as precious to us as her husband's wind-up wristwatch and rusty harmonica became to her once he wasn't there to use them.

She smiled rarely, reluctant to flash her perfectly straight
dentures. She said she didn't believe in jokes. But she would always raise the corners of her thin lips when she told me one particular story. “Chris, he told me, he says to me – 'Nanny', he says, 'You're gonna live to be a hundred and two!' ” She would wag her finger and chuckle, pleased at the prospect of so many years.

How old is she now? Eighty-one, two, three?

I used to have nightmares that she would die. They probably resulted from the frequent accounts she gave of her husband's death. She would point to the orange cushioned wicker chair he'd been sitting in, tucked away in the front room everyone always called the den. She would explain how they had been planning to go to McDonalds as usual.

But when she came to get him, he'd already had the heart attack. He died with a smile on his face, she always said. I was young, and I remembered my great-grandfather only as a white plastic lawn chair and a trucker's cap, but her stories introduced me to a shadow of man's mortality. That dusty shrine to the past became sacred to me. I would stare at the mounted pictures on the wall of my mother and uncles as children, and count the ants crawling across the twenty-fifth Psalm of the King James Bible displayed on the bookshelf. It was cold and quiet there, a little sanctuary secluded from the crowded noise of holidays.

These days, the room seems more like a mausoleum. I have no idea how long it has been since human feet have tread on that gray carpet. A year? Two?

In my dark dreams, her spirit would always seek me to warn me of her imminent death. The house would suddenly expand to a labyrinth of unfamiliar rooms, and I would frantically search, opening misshapen doors and racing down crooked hallways. Inevitably, I would be too late and the family would be standing around her lifeless body by the time I arrived. She's gone, I would think, and wake with that sinking despair, heart pounding in the darkness, tears streaking into my hair.

Some nights, I would give myself the opportunity to go back in time and try again. But the dream always ended the same. The nightmares quit coming once I realized that her descriptions of inexplicable pain and dark prognoses were more than exaggerated.
And there I was in the kitchen, a crooked and misshapen version of the familiar room, living in that nightmare as she posed a question with a knotted and quivering finger pointed at the picture. “Has she eaten yet?”

Yes, Nanny. She has eaten. She is not hungry, we answer.
“Has she eaten yet?” we ask as we slip into the institutionalized
room with its cold cinder-block walls and linoleum floor, two
uncomfortable cots crammed side by side like hospital beds. She is stretched awkwardly across the one nearest to the window, her fingers working a corner of the coarse white blanket. This bed has flattened the back of her wiry gray hair and left sores on her useless legs. Her watery eyes do not focus on us as we gently hug her thin and bony shoulders.

The window is open while we stand in an uncomfortable circle around her small form. I watch for the rise and fall of her chest, as gentle as lake water lapping a muddy shore. A breeze stirs the pages of the multitude of cards taped to the wall, pinned like butterflies. The words captured and preserved inside are beautiful but dead, and they mean nothing to her. Their covers are aggressive orange or violent pink or brazen blue, too bright against the stark white walls.

I hate this place. It smells of cleaning chemicals and vomit, and the rooms are filled with empty human shells whose cavernous eyes stare as you pass. Some of the bodies are swollen with torpor, while others have shrunk into themselves. Time is not kind to any. TV screens flash falsely cheerful images at their hopeless faces. Deal or No Deal, Gray's Anatomy, HGTV.

In the cafeteria, there is a tank with an albino fish. It doesn't have eyes. They sit there in their wheelchairs silently waiting for their meals.

Blended messes that are molded into the shape they used to be for
easier recognition. The brown pile is meat, the white pile is
potatoes, and the green pile is beans. There are 60 empty bodies
waiting to be fed, and one by one a staff member in pastel scrubs
delivers their mounds of food to them. Their chalky hands can no
longer grip the silverware, so like babies they are spoon fed,
sometimes by visiting relatives and sometimes by the impersonal hand of a stranger roughly shoveling the mush into their toothless mouths.

No one speaks, and the only sound is the solemn scrape of slippered feet scooting wheelchairs across the floor. Once, though, a woman's voice echoed across the space. A visiting man
was sitting next to her, his gentle hand on the shoulder of her thin flowered gown, his assuring words funneled directly into her ear. Still she begged the empty space in front of her as though she were alone and her plea carried like a death toll across the room. “Somebody help me. Somebody help me. Somebody...”

But now that my great-grandmother is bedridden, the food is brought to her in her room and we do not have to sit among the ghosts next to the blind fish. It doesn't matter anyway. My little sister tugs on my sleeve that last day in the cafeteria. “Where is the fish?” she whispers. It had died. I wonder vaguely how long its pale body was suspended in that water before somebody noticed it was lifeless, but I did not tell her that.

Right after the stroke that February almost two years ago, when there was still hope, she was in a nicer facility. We thought maybe she could learn to walk again, so we would lead her down the hall and she would eagerly shuffle forward like a fearless child who has yet to fall. She attended therapy every day. My mother made her a scrapbook with pictures of all of the family, and largely-printed labels in the hopes that she would be able to remember us. She would trace the words with her fingers and read the names. “Christina, Kathryn, a...a...Carissa.” It was the easy words that she stumbled on. The. And. With. At.

We tried to teach her how to hold a pen, to follow the familiar
swooping pattern of her name but she could never recreate the
beautiful signature she had once been so proud of. She would count, marking each word with her fingers.
“One two three four five six seven...”

I am counting breaths to reassure myself that we are not encircling a corpse as we are crammed among the colorful, limp cards in that terrible room. Before she broke her hip, she would roam the cold halls babbling nonsense words. “Beautiful, beautiful!” she would call us. “Mmm! Sweet, sweet!” she would say after a sip of Coke. And once, shocking us, she patted the leathery hand of my grandfather and said, “Good man.”

But with the captivity of the one stark room, she has lost strength. We try to translate the sounds she makes, incessant and
unintelligible. “Nuh nuh NUH nuhnuhnuhnuh nuh!” But these days she cannot tell us if she is cold, or if the food is too sweet. She still loves to talk, of course. Some things never change.

This scene, the hospital bed and the generations gathered around,
reminds me of the five generation picture I have been shown many
times. I was a baby in my mother's arms, wrapped in a pink blanket. My mother told me two weeks ago that this picture was actually taken in this same building, across the hall in fact. But the woman in the hospital bed then was my great-great-grandmother. She died when I was two weeks old, and Nanny always hated that picture. She said, “That doesn't look like Mama. Mama didn't look like that.” Sunken cheeks, flattened white hair, blank eyes. She was as unaware of the significance of the moment as I was. And as I stare at her now in the bed, I think, That doesn't look like her. She doesn't look like that.

“You really favor her, you know.” She was still talking about that picture on the kitchen counter next to the pale green fridge, the senior portrait of a young girl in a black v-neck. “That's a good thing.” A silver cross necklace dangled around the girl's neck, and the waves of her blond hair lapped at her sand-colored shoulders, their tides tamed only by one silver clip. The picture was obviously edited because her two front teeth were whitened a shade lighter than the rest, but her frank green eyes dared anyone to care.

“She's always smiling,” she said, hands clasped in front of her as she contemplated the photograph. “She taught me how to smile again. I sit right here all the time, I love to see her smile, and talk to her.

I don't know why she doesn't talk back.” She laughed then, dismissing the sentence that had sent chills down my spine with a wave of one bony hand. “Yes, I do know. She's a picture. I've got another in the back, on the dresser...” Her voice faded as she gestured vaguely in the direction of her bedroom, down the shadowed and narrow hall like part of a horrific maze.

That was the omen, then. The warning. Of course I looked like her, I wanted to say. The picture was of me. But now that the nightmare is a reality, there is no chance to try again. “Has she eaten yet?” we ask.

No. She has not eaten yet.

But the longer I stare at her watery eyes, the more I count breaths, the more I am convinced that they mean nothing. The. And. With. At.

One two three four five six seven...

It doesn't matter. She is already gone.

__________________________________________

Author: Christina Kettering

A sophomore at Auburn University and a Florida native, Christina Danielle Kettering divides her time between English and piano performance majors. She is heavily involved in outreach to
international students who are far from home, in a very rigorous academic program and under a lot of stress. She helps them with English and hosts events that make them feel welcome and wanted. She describes herself as having more ideals than ambition, though without specific career goals, she is confident that God has a purpose for her passion.

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