The scraps of paper lying about the kitchen fill two entire boxes when I’ve finally gotten them all together. Recipes, announcements, baseball schedules, odd articles she found interesting. Small slivers of paper that, taken together, ultimately come to little more than a bulky, disintegrating mess. I figure I’ll cut down on the inevitable junk pile and just feed this to the fire pit tonight.
Grandma, like most of her generation, accumulated kitsch, seemingly wholesale. An entire wall of glass shelves is packed to the brim in heavily glossed ceramic figures, all in soft pastel tones of pink and blue. Tea sets, figures of children in prayer, images of squirrels and skunks and cats and dogs. In the center of the middle shelf, nearly lost to the crowd, is a picture of Grandpa, tucked in an old clam shell frame. Right beside, the old people on their honeymoon, back when they and the world were young.
I drag the boxes of old paper to the side, and begin the process of photographing the collection for sale. Maybe somewhere there are still those who’ll love these things the way Grandma did.
Every few minutes, a figurine I put back on the shelf flies off and thumps against the thin carpet. None of them break, and there’s a small pull whenever I pick them back up.
Photographing the collection takes a couple hours, and while the pictures load to my cloud drive I sit down on the thinning wraparound sofa with a beer. I drink too much, so of course I’ve added a shot or two of Evan Williams to it. I turn on the heavy TV, a set from the days when TVs were made to look like furniture. It has a remote, the kind where the buttons click when you press them. I watch a flickering anchorwoman as she updates me on the local high school football teams.
The boilermaker makes me sleepy. I doze off for a few minutes. When I wake up, the anchorwoman’s hair has gone white, and she’s screaming through the screen. It takes me a moment to blink myself back to consciousness, and when I do she’s smiling again, her hair dark, her voice low and pleasant.
I power my way through boxing up Grandma’s mammoth collection of trashy paperback romances, wondering to myself how many of them Goodwill will actually take. I reinforce each box with duct tape so they won’t collapse as I lug them to my car. When that’s done I drag a folding chair from the garage to the back yard, and lug out the boxes full of old recipes and newspaper clippings. I drop some logs into the fire pit and splash them with kerosene, then go back in to get my bourbon.
I drink straight from the bottle and light a cigarette, throwing the match to the logs to get the fire going. There’s a burst of light that seems to illuminate someone moving near the fence, but when I squint and shield my eyes from the flames, I can’t make out anything but shrubbery.
I get drunk. I light smokes with burning twigs because I can’t bring myself to use anymore matches. I feed the fire with handfuls of old paper. Glowing ash flits through the air as they burn. Sometimes they almost seem like eyes.
I nod off halfway through the first box. Only for a moment, but catnaps always make me feel like I’ve been out for hours.
I take a deep breath. The cold December air shocks my lungs, and the rest of my body jolts awake. The fire is out, leaving a lump of glowing embers in the pit. I toss a few handfuls of paper in, weigh them down with another two logs. I think about splashing some liquor in before I remember the booze isn’t actually alcoholic enough to ignite. I take another swig and doze back off.
I dream that Jenn is across the fire from me, her olive skin orange in the light, her black curls wafting from the heat. She’s smiling, like she always does. She’s wearing a red checkered shirt.
She’s also beside me, saying something I can’t make out. I feel her lean in and kiss the corner of my mouth, then slide her tongue out longways so that it parts my lips. I turn my face and kiss her back, deeply, sucking on her wet tongue.
The other Jenn continues to stare at us, grinning. I look back to her, and now I can see her teeth are being eaten away. I can see it in detail, despite the distance. Her grin never fades, but I watch as the edges of her teeth bubble and shrink. Faint wisps of steam seem to waft from her mouth. I can hear the sizzle of the dentin over the crackle of the fire.
The other Jenn is still kissing me, still ramming her tongue into my mouth. This one is also wearing a red checkered shirt. What if the one across the fire tries to take her place? How would I know she’d done it?
The other Jenn’s teeth wear away into ragged sawing fangs before I wake up.
My phone is chirping. Text from Jenn: “miss u”
I text her back: “miss u 2. thinking of u”
I decide it’s time to call it a night. I got too late a start on everything today. Still have most of the weekend ahead of me to get this done with.
I fill a couple lemonade carafes with water and douse the embers. Before the water hits I think I see the same gray face I saw on the TV, mouth open, lips curled back over ragged teeth. I can’t tell if she screams at me or if I’m just hearing the squawk of the steam.
I stretch out across the old couch, and around one in the morning I wake up with dry mouth. I pour a glass of water and drink it in one standing, then shuffle to the toilet to piss and brush my teeth.
I wash my hands and splash water on my face, then make my way to the porch for a smoke before going back to sleep. On my way to the back patio I hear a hard tapping at the bay windows. Fuckin’ woodpeckers.
I yank up the blinds and rear back to pound on the glass, but stop when I see the old woman again. Hair white and wild, face gray. Wrinkled mouth curled in anger. Both hands are against the glass, and she’s snarling at me. I can see the glass fog against her open mouth. Her teeth are small and lined in black.
“Grandma?” I ask.
I feel like falling, but somehow I stay on my feet. Maybe I’m too scared even for minimal movement. Eventually the hand I’ve drawn back smacks against the window. The old woman snarls at the sound and snaps at me.
The palm of my hand is pink, and darker in the center where she’d burn me when I misbehaved. She never used those matches for anything else. She never even used that fire pit Grandpa dug her. She always kept the match to me till it burned out on its own.
I take out a cigarette and use my Bic lighter this time to light it. I stare at the snarling thing on the other side of the glass.
“Move, old woman,” I tell her ten minutes later. “I got work to do.”
She stays another few minutes, a growling, hateful pile of ash, before the window is once again dark. I drop the shades and finish my smoke by the sink. I decide I don’t want to sleep on the couch anymore.
I walk down the hall to the back bedroom, and when I open the door an old man is lying on the bed in his boxers. He’s wringing his hands and staring at me in terror. Or maybe staring past me. He seems to be craning his neck to look…behind me. He’s almost solid, but I can see the faint pattern of the bedspread through him.
Well, couch it is, I guess. I’m too tired to put up much more of a fight.
“Alright, old man, you can stay put.” Grandpa flickers a bit at my words. “I’ll deal with you in the morning.”
His wide-eyed fear stays plastered to his face as I close the door. I sleep in the kitchen with the stove light on. The linoleum feels cool against my heated skin.