Remain Silent – Katrina Clark

The last time I really talked to my grandma was three summers ago.  Since I was only nine years old, I had to stay at my grandparents’ house during the day while my mother went to work.  It was better than having to go to camp with a bunch of kids I didn’t know even if my grandparents’ house did always smell like cleaning supplies. I loved my Grandma B dearly.  We didn’t have much in common, except we liked to watch Chuck Norris kick ass on Walker, Texas Ranger.  My Grandma B could probably take on Chuck Norris, or at least she would have tried.  I liked to listen to her stories about the battles she won as a child.

“Grandma, tell me about the little girl who wanted your candy.”

Hunched over me in affection, her face became perfectly alive as her raspy voice escaped through her plump lips and pearly dentures.

“Ooh, Shana.  You know that story gets me all riled up.  When I was about your age, this little girl from the neighborhood – Latisha Jones was her name – tried to get the best of me. She come up behind me all big and bad saying ‘I heard you got some hard candy.’ That little heifer thought she was gonna take the five-cent candy my daddy worked so hard to bring home to us.  Well, honey, she thought like Lit…”

“He thought he farted but he shi…,” I said in my best grown folks voice, flaring my nose and widening my eyes – proud I knew this joke and could fill in the blank.  I had almost gotten that curse word out when she interrupted me, “Girl, don’t you be over here cussin. Your mama will have my head if you go home using those choice words.” But I could tell she thought it was funny.  She’d almost burst in laughter whenever she told a joke, which made me laugh too.

The truth was Grandma B was happy if I said anything to anybody. I couldn’t tell a story like her, and her church friends far outnumbered my friends at school.  Her mouth was always moving – at least that’s what my granddaddy said. Granddaddy, on the other hand, was a man of few words – like me, but meaner.  I was scared of my granddaddy, and he always seemed to be an unnecessary accessory to my grandma.  

For some reason, my grandma married my granddaddy 42 years ago. She had told the story a hundred times about when she walked all the way home from town.  She said the devil must have hitched a ride in her shoes that day because they were on fire with ache from cleaning Ms. Sarah’s house all day.  All she could think about was sitting on the porch putting her feet up. That’s when she started up the short dirt road leading to their little white house only to see granddaddy sitting in the rocking chair with his head cocked to the side and his feet propped up on the porch rail.  Grandma said, “Well. You just go right ahead and make yourself comfortable.”

Granddaddy said, “I figured I might as well get comfortable cause I ain’t goin nowhere until you marry me, Bernice.”  They got married as soon as she could sew herself a dress. I believed all the stories my Grandma B ever told me – except this one.  I couldn’t see how someone so mean could have ever had a bit of love in him, and how the man sitting in the other room who hadn’t said two words to me all day could have come up with such clever words to get Grandma to marry him.

That morning had passed as usual, grandma fixing me breakfast, making me go outside to play with the neighbor girl and then making lunch later in the afternoon. I set up her TV tray while she brought in our lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and strawberry soda.  Grandma walked into the sitting room where there was a wall of windows glowing with almost blinding sunlight. We spent most of our time in this room. It was her favorite because she could see things best from there – the cars driving by, kids walking down the street. She saw a little girl pass on the road.

“Shana, sweety.  You should really start thinking about how you can make more friends in the neighborhood.”

“I’m fine, grandma.”

“Really, baby. I don’t know how your mama can just let you sit around not saying anything all the time. I’m going to get you to talking if it’s the last thing I do. Don’t you know how nice it is to have friends to talk to when you get to be my age?  You don’t want to grow old alone.”

“But, I’ll always have you grandma.”

“Yeah, baby. I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.”

Even though Grandma B always looked at the bright side of things, I hated when she said things like that.  I knew everyone would die at some point, but I didn’t like to think about it. Besides, my grandma didn’t seem old at all. Her fuzzy gray hair didn’t mean anything.

After lunch and granny’s lecture on being more social, we watched Walker, Ranger on TV. I liked to sit on the Oriental rug in the middle of the floor, just in front of the TV cart, which was on casters, but no one ever moved it around. Grandma always sat in her old recliner my mom and her sisters had gone in together and bought for her birthday eight years ago.  Just as Walker punched a Mexican drug lord in his side, I felt a forceful thud on the floor and a presence behind me.  I jumped up and looked down. Grandma B was lying on the floor on her right side but still positioned as if sitting in the recliner.  I screamed, “Grandma, what happened? Grandma, Are you okay?”

My granddaddy was sitting in the room adjacent to the sunny room. I’m not sure what that room qualified as, but there was no TV.  He was sitting there in silence until the fall.  “Bernice. Bernice.” He yelled from his recliner.

By this time, I was on my feet backing away from grandma.  She hadn’t said a word, still lying there seated but on her right side, looking at no one.  Her eyes focused straight ahead toward the bottom of an old couch. She lay parallel to the burnt umber linoleum floor. The pattern of the couch was uninteresting.  Why wouldn’t she look at me? Why didn’t she answer?

Granddaddy, still in his chair, had yelled “Bernice” at least six times.  In between each call, he had a look of frustration.  I finally suggested, “Granddaddy, I don’t think she can answer. Something’s wrong. I think we should call an ambulance.”

“Bernice, get up from there.  Stop putting on.”  He had finally walked over and leaned down over grandma inquisitively, like I had when I saw what looked like a pile of feathers from a distance, but I wanted to see if it used to be a bird.

My granny’s face was still frozen, so much so that her open mouth was now losing saliva into a puddle on the linoleum. My tears started to stream. I called my mom at work.  

“Mama, something’s wrong with grandma.  She’s on the floor, but she can’t move.”

“Can she talk?  Put her on the phone.”

“No, mama. She’s sick. Please. We need to do something.”

“Where’s daddy?”

“Right here, but he’s still trying to get her to get up.”

“Okay, baby. I’ll call 911. I’m on my way.”

I told granddaddy the plan as my grandma lay there on the floor. Why couldn’t it have been him? He should be staring at the bottom of the couch. His cheek should be on the linoleum. No one would miss him. He was just a witness to grandma’s constant testimony. He never felt the need to provide any testament himself until that moment when he finally spoke the truth, “Oh Lord, I guess she can’t get up.”

He reached down and shook her by the stiff left shoulder. She almost fell backwards but didn’t.   I sat on the little couch across from my grandma, crying, watching.  I just wanted mama to get there as fast as she could.  I wanted someone to get there who could help, who would help.

Everyone arrived at the same time. The paramedics and my mom all asked my granddaddy what happened. He told them Grandma B fell out of her chair and just laid there on her side, that he kept trying to get her to get up, but she didn’t.  

When we got to the hospital, my mama tried to explain to me what a stroke was.  I knew it must have been horrible to take my grandma’s voice like that and make her spit all over the floor.  Mama said grandma’s brain needed blood, but it couldn’t get any because something was clogged up, sort of like the toilet does at home sometimes.  She warned me grandma would be different.  

When I went into the hospital room, the left half of grandma’s face was still beautiful and strong, just like always.  Her left cheekbone sat high on her face. The left half of her lips was pursed and her left nostril flared. But the right side looked like it could fall right off, just hanging there, her eyes and lips drooping like the sunny room’s sunlight had finally started to melt it away.

When I say Hi to her, she doesn’t talk back.  The left eye moves toward me, so I think she sees me but doesn’t respond.  Her left face looks pissed.

“Shana, she can’t really talk right now,” mama said. The doctors said it might be better in a few days.

But, two weeks passed, and she still couldn’t talk. She only had half a face, and I was wondering if she only had half a brain too.  And, did the part she lost have all those good stories and jokes in it?  My granddaddy was there everyday until they moved her to a nursing home.  Sometimes, I’d still catch him leaning over her hospital bed looking at her like road kill.

Some of her church friends came by for the first couple of weeks too. They brought flowers and took up a donation, but Grandma B couldn’t even smile or talk, much less smell roses or go shopping.     

My mom and her sister were the only ones who kept visiting Grandma B in the nursing home, which didn’t smell like a home at all.  I’d never really smelled anything like it before. It smelled most like my baby cousin’s dirty diapers, but I didn’t see any babies around.

Visiting grandma in the nursing home always confused me – made me wonder what it meant to visit someone. I thought the person you visited got your attention and you got theirs. When Walker, Ranger paid someone a visit, it was always clear who he came to see and what he wanted to talk about.  But when we visited grandma, we just talked at her a few times when we first got there. My mom would always say, “Tell her Hi Shana.”

“Hi grandma.”

Then, my mother and her sisters would take turns.

“Mama, it’s me. How you feeling today?,” but there was no answer, only a left face that looked less and less pissed each time we visited. She’d been this way for two months and never an answer. After greetings, my mom and sister would have their own separate conversation about their stories, work, men, or our other family members.  But, they almost never talked about Grandma B.  Her room had just become our meeting place.

One night, after we visited Grandma B in her nursing home, I overheard mama talking to one of her sisters on the phone.

“It’s a shame the ambulance couldn’t have gotten there sooner.  The doctor told me if they had gotten there three or four minutes earlier, the damage would have been so much less severe. She may have even been her old self again by now.”  

I thought about all the things granny used to say.  I wanted to talk to her again, but she couldn’t talk because of granddaddy.  Because he thought she was just trying to get attention, now she’s his unnecessary accessory.  I was so mad.  I went straight into my bedroom and got out a sheet of notebook paper and a pen.  Grandma B wouldn’t have written in pencil.  

Dear Herbert,

I know you don’t think you can get away with what you did. I know we were not the most loving couple anymore, but I don’t understand how a so called husband could do this to his wife.

Granny would be spunkier.

Listen here, if you thought you could just get rid of me this easily, you thought like Lit.  You know the rest.  I put up with you sittin around not talkin to me when I was at home with you, but now that you got me in this nursing home for the rest of my life where I can’t talk to anybody, you better come up here and talk to me everyday.  And, you better keep talking even if I don’t talk back because that’s what I did for you all these years.

And, you better think about how this is hurting Shana.  She misses my stories and jokes and my smile.  So, you better give her some of what she’s missing since you decided I was just laying on the floor for fun.

                                Your loving wife,                   

Bernice

I put the letter in the mailbox the next day.

I wondered what would happen.  I knew my granddaddy was mean, but I didn’t know if he was smart enough to figure out who sent the letter.

On Christmas break, my mama told me I could stay at home while she went to work, but someone would come there to stay with me.  She said it was a surprise, but she told me not to worry – it would be family.  I was so excited, guessing it would be one of my teenage cousins from Chicago who always treated me like I was their age.  But right before mama left for work on the first day of my break, I heard a slow roar outside. It was my granddaddy’s yellow station wagon pushing its way into our driveway.  

“No way, mama. There is no way I’m staying with that man. He doesn’t even talk to me.”

“Shana. I’ve talked to daddy quite a bit over the last month or so, and you’d be surprised how much he’s changed since mama got sick.”

I thought about the letter. Maybe he was smart enough to figure it out. He was there to pay me back for sending the letter.

“Mama. Please. I have to tell you something.”

“Shana. Come on. He’s your granddaddy. He’s my daddy. Don’t be like that. It’ll be fine.”

“But, mama…”

Then, my granddaddy walked through the door. I’d only seen him in my house a few times. He looked so tall there, so scary and out of place.  

“Shana. Daddy. I’m running late. I’ll call and check on yall in a bit.”

When mama left, I turned my back and started toward my room.  

“Shana. I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was sick. You know how much I love Bernice.”

“No, I don’t. You don’t love her. You never loved her.”

“I did. I do. Things just ain’t like they used to be. We been together for years. We ain’t kids in love no more. I may not tell her I love her like I used to.  And, maybe I don’t believe everything she say, but I still love her and she knows it.  Let me tell you something.  One day, your grandmama was walking home from that lady’s house she used to clean.  I was sitting on her front porch more excited that a pig with a slop pail all to itself. I just wanted to see her. And, then she turned the corner and started up that dirt road toward the front porch.  She was the most beautiful thing. I turned my head, making sure I could see every bit of her coming up that walkway. Her yellow dress floated toward me on that set of toffee colored legs.  Her hair was pinned up on top with a little yellow flower hairpin on the right side.  She walked up to the porch, almost limping cause her feet hurt her so bad, and when she smiled at me with those cranberry lips, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.”

In all the times I’d heard that story, I’d always pictured granddaddy sitting all cocky up on the porch, but I never pictured my Grandma B so beautiful as my granddaddy described her.  

I stayed at my house with granddaddy until the end of Christmas break.  

The next time we visited Grandma B in the hospital, granddaddy was there at her bedside.  He was telling her about an episode of Walker, Ranger.  A jewelry thief had told Walker he forgot to read him his rights, and Walker replied with a kick to the thief’s stomach.  Then, he said, “You have the right to remain silent.”

– Katrina Clark is a graduate student at UTC.

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