Minnie Robertson was 82 years old. Her great-grandson, who they all called Pinky, was just 16. He was sitting in the back of a police cruiser because he had obeyed when the police yelled, “Come out with your hands up.”
Mrs. Robertson was sitting on the floor of what used to be her house, resting her head against the door frame of what used to be the entrance to her bedroom. It had been over two months and the house was down to studs and the wooden subfloor; she still swore she could smell the creek water.
She dreamed of the little house on Delray Drive all the time. Not bad flood dreams, like some folks. Just dreams of ordinary days. Of walking from the kitchen to the front door. Of the tiny gold cross that hanged by the bathroom mirror. Some nights, she would just dream she was sleeping in her own bed. Not memories, exactly, just her dreaming she was still in the old house.
After the flood waters had receded, she stood in her front yard and watch the volunteers tossing out dumpsters full of her ruined house. At first, she had tried to save photographs, and important papers, trying to separate them and dry them on the front lawn. But everything–the one photograph of her on her wedding day, the pictures of all her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren–all were ruined beyond salvation.
“Just let me see,” she said, on the second day, “Just let me go in and see.” And she could stand it all, until she got to the small kitchen and saw the cupboard door under the sink peeling apart, the top layers curling away from the bottom layers.
How many times had her grandchildren opened and shut that door, looking for pots to drum on or places to play?
She didn’t want to interrupt the volunteers, after that. So, she would drive over from Geneva’s house in the middle of the night, and climb the front steps, as she had always done, and she would wander her empty house, in the dark, until she felt calm again.
The neighbors were never going to call the police, she thought. If there were any folks left on her block, surely they would understand. And the people the next block over did not want the attention of the authorities. And there was no one behind her, just the creek, already back in its banks.
She had not figured on the sight-seers, who found themselves driving aimlessly through the empty streets, trying to make sense of what happened. And when they saw a figure moving so deftly through a house that was supposed to be empty, they figured someone was stealing the copper pipes and they did call the police.
After that, she was forbidden to drive. That is how Pinky came to be involved. He often stayed with his grandmother when he was trying to stay off of his step-father’s radar. And, because he was on the couch frequently when Mrs. Robertson was sneaking out at night, he knew long before the police were involved that she had been going somewhere.
So, he was not surprised when she came to him one night and said, “I’ve been thinking. There might be something in the attic. We should go look and see if anything got saved in the attic.”
“Gran,” he said, “you know we can’t do that.” But, of course, he couldn’t turn her down.
So, off they went in his car, in the middle of the night, when no one was around. He thought to bring flashlights, and so he took one up the ladder and she took one and wandered around her small house.
It was the doorway to her bedroom that broke her heart, after all this time. There, in faded pencil marks, were all the heights of all her grandchildren and great grandchildren, including the one now rummaging around in the attic, over the years.
“Everything’s gone,” she said, quietly, “But this stays? Lost every single dish, but pencil marks don’t wash away?” And so she sat down in the doorway and leaned up against those marks, as if she could, by proximity, get back to the moments they were made.
“I found something,” Pinky said, as he came back down the ladder. “I found this.” He handed her a picture of a stern looking girl, his age.
“That was me,” Mrs. Robertson said. “That was when I first went to work for Mrs. Bradley. Her husband had bought her a camera on one of his trips to New York. She was always taking pictures of everyone. This is the first one she took of me. I got used to it after a while. Smiled more.”
“I only found this one,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I would have liked for you to have had one of me smiling.”
“Oh, no, Gran,” he said, “I can’t take this.” He blurted out this next part. “Are you dying?”
“A little every day,” she said, still leaning against the door frame. “Listen,” she said, grabbing at his jeans, “We are from the past. Me from longer ago than you. And we haunt the present, wandering around, trying to make sense of how things are now. We’re the ones who need explaining. We’re the ones who are lost and who need saved. We’re our own ghosts. That’s what I want you to know.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” he said, but he kept repeating it, even later, in the squad car, because he didn’t want to ever forget it.
First thing the next morning, when the officer who took the call was getting off his shift, he had to wait in his car for his shaking sobs to pass before he could go into the station. He cried about that ancient woman, sitting on the floor of her condemned house, talking about how she was a ghost now. And he cried for himself, that he had to see things like that and couldn’t help.
Heartbreaking. Just … yes.
Pingback: Reading « Tiny Cat Pants