The way you forget my name and need to be reminded. The way you think I’m your dead wife instead of your granddaughter, because I look like Grandma when she was young—waves of dark hair, thick eyebrows, serious mouth—but there is something off about me, you tell me, there is a wrongness in my face, I am too lean, too hungry, and why do I look so sad? The way you still ask for Grandma’s famous Lebanese stew on your birthday—green beans and chunks of steak simmered in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce—the way it is your birthday every week, the way you have turned 82 at least a dozen times by now, and each time I feed stew and rice pilaf through the jagged maw of the old baby food grinder from when I was little, cranking until Mom’s attempt at Grandma’s recipe spits out as a thick, reddish paste, then spoon small bites to your quivering lips. The way you tell me it needs more—more salt, more sauce, more oomph, more of the way Grandma used to make it—the way your taste buds can only detect two flavors, 1. sweet, and 2. spicy, so we dump sugar on everything, or else hot sauce, and when I accidentally rub my eyes it burns and burns, giving me a chance to cry, but instead I rinse my eyes under the tap, splashing handfuls of water, feeling the hot-pepper sting down my cheeks like grandma’s cheeks, the tingle on my lips like grandma’s lips. The way we are all a mess of bodily fluids, the three of us fermenting in this canning-jar house—my period coming painful and heavy, despite the birth control pills, Mom’s sweat forming dark halfmoons under the sleeves of her work scrubs, your piss and shit and occasional drool that needs dabbing. Mom reminds me that you did this for me when I was a baby—fed me bottles and wiped my sour-milk spit-up while she was a single, working mom—but I know it was mostly Grandma who did these mothering tasks, the nurturer, the one you’re always searching for—though you did read to me back then, pages upon pages. Not children’s books, but field guides—North American Birds, Guide to Nature of the Midwest, Edible Wild Plants—so that now I’m a fount of useless wisdom. How to tell a massasauga from a timber rattler, how to forage peppermint and blueberries and mushrooms. The way the morel’s elaborate folds and creases remind me of your brain, or maybe a poisonous lookalike, its flesh shrinking, shriveling. The way your hands remind me of Mom’s eyes when she smiles, or her crinkled forehead when she screams at me and then apologizes for screaming. The way I want to protect her from you, want to put you in a home somewhere with a garden and a koi pond and clean rooms and kind, energetic nurses, but that kind of place doesn’t exist around here, if it exists anywhere, and even if it did exist, we couldn’t afford it. The way you sit in your old station wagon, a rusted fossil in the driveway, touching the gear shift, adjusting the mirrors, placing your hands at ten and two, and I wonder if in your head you’re on your way to the Oscar Meyer plant (closed now, a hulking emptiness, conveyer belts frozen), or driving up north to the lake (my grandmother next to you, the windows rolled down, my twenty-year-old grandmother untying the silk scarf she’d worn just so she could remove it, letting her hair billow). The way Mom retrieves you from the parked car and guides you back inside, shows you the balloons, the streamers, the grocery store cake, a heap of presents—random household items that we wrapped in colored paper. An embroidered pillow, a Bible, a container of Morton Salt. The way you tear up and your voice waves as you thank us for each one. The way I read you the books Mom brought home from the library—Are you my mother? Are you my mother?—and the twinkle in your eye as the little bird searches for its lost family in cats and dogs, in a passing boat, in sharp metal jaws lifting him up, up, up. The way, while Mom is at work and you’re tucked in bed, I convince myself it would be okay to walk to the corner store and buy novelty ice creams for today’s birthday—a chocolate eclair for me, an orange push-pop for you, sweet enough for you to taste. The way I get back, treats bleeding through their wrappers, and see the old, rusted station wagon—the one that wasn’t supposed to work anymore, the one you didn’t even know how to start—coughing and sputtering to life. The way you drive past without even looking at me, eyes fixed on the road, the way the balloons tied to the bumper dance and sway and bump together, the way I see my grandmother’s face reflected in the windshield next to you, and lift a hand to wave, and she waves back.
Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared at Longleaf Review, Flash Frog, Chestnut Review, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @lindymbiller.
Photography by: Annie Spratt