by Sarah Askins
After ten years, it was time for Grace to pay her respects. She clung to the paper grocery bag, rolled its top around the contents careful not to crush them, and walked toward the sign that used to display the name of her old neighborhood, WINTER GARDENS. But the blue letters faded almost to a silver that blended into the white background. Nobody bothered to paint the sign because nobody wanted to move into the Gardens. Grace didn’t want to come back either, but she needed to come. Walking down the sidewalk, Grace noticed that the daffodils and tulips sprouted early. But it is cold again, and snow tugged around the edges of expectant clouds, the air frosted and waiting. The flowers will die tinged in ice, but Grace resisted the urge to pick few blooms.
Two more block to go. She tried not to feel around in her pockets for her lighter; she pulled her down coat around her thin shoulders to keep the wind away. No one walked this section of Broad and Elder Avenues, and Grace didn’t bother to pull her coat toward her face when a passing car drives by. It had been too long since she was here, and she hoped no one will remember who she was. Time stripped away memories like a wood carver—whittling the dim past into its essential parts and leaving the rest as curled shavings to be swept away and forgotten. And Grace wanted to forget.
But she kept walking. She stopped at the intersection of Broad and Light Avenues even though no one was coming. The rusted crossing sign blinked a DO NOT WALK. Grace had learned to do what others told her to do, and she waited until the sign switches to WALK. Her hands clutched the grocery bag. The only reason that she made the trip. Looking up at the street sign, she tried to figure out how many more houses until she arrived. She looked down at her hand where she had written 1651 Light Avenue in Sharpie and started looking for her old landmarks.
The WELCOME HOME GRACE sign had hung slanted to the left as Grace walked into her Mother’s two-bedroom apartment. Nothing felt like home. To Grace, home had always been two blocks away from Ethan’s house. Not this strange apartment with its thrift store furniture. Grace dropped her one small duffel bag onto the floor. She didn’t know whether to sit or stand or go to the bathroom and hide, but her Mother sauntered out of the kitchen with a martini glass, her pale peach lipstick decorated the edge.
“Pick up your stuff and take it to the back bedroom,” her Mother said and waved Grace down the hall. “Can’t have a mess this evening. What do you want to do tonight since it’s your first…?”
Her Mother didn’t finish the sentence, but Grace knew what was left unsaid. She opened the door the bedroom and expected to find her things from the old house, Gran’s house, but the room had only a bed with mauve floral bed sheets and an old comforter to match. Grace dropped her bag down and moved to the closet. Empty. None of her books or CDs or the mix tapes that Ethan made for her were there. Not even her old clothes that wouldn’t fit anymore because she had lost so much weight.
“Where’s my stuff?” Grace asked tentatively as she returned to the living room area. “Did you leave it at Gran’s?” Her Mother sat down on the sofa and didn’t look at up at her daughter until Grace stood in front of the TV.
“What stuff?” Her Mother asked cocking her head so she could see around Grace to catch the last few minutes of Jeopardy.
“What do you mean what stuff? My clothes and books and CDs,” Grace said as she twirled her thinning hair around her finger. “I packed up before I left and it isn’t here. What gives?”
“Oh dinner will be ready soon, “Mother said and ignored the question. Grace moved away from the TV and flopped down in the rust brown recliner.
“Oh honey, you can’t sit there,” Mother said after she slurped the last of her drink. “That’s Elmer’s chair and he gets pretty pissed if anybody sits in it when he wants to sit there.”
“My old boss at the Grab-N-Go?” Grace asked but already knew the answer. Her Mother switched TV channels to the local news as Grace waited for her to say anything. Grace felt the old urges flaring up again if she had been at Gran’s, she could have easily left and walked down the next block to score. But her Mother had moved away before Grace had been locked up, and now, Grace was stuck in a world that she had no part of. Nothing of her life before her orange jumpsuit, nothing except a few letters Gran sent to her. Not that Gran’s letters said anything special or important. Just about how she was doing and if the peonies in the front yards had survived the winter. Another letter would come usually with a picture of the flowers in their full bloom. A grainy Polaroid because Gran refused to learn how to use a digital camera. It never mattered that Grace told her that Polaroid wasn’t making her film any more. Gran would shrug and mumble how she would be dead before she ran out.
“Grace,” her Mother said and snapped her fingers in front of Grace’s face. “Earth to Grace, I’m talking to you.” Grace jolted back to the living room and turned to face her Mother who was now standing in front of her.
“Sorry, what?” Grace said and felt her body aching with exhaustion. “You never answered my question.”
“Look, Elmer will be here soon and you need to act right for a change,” Mother said firmly. “He promised me that he would hire you on again if you stay clean.”
“But why does he have a chair in your apartment?” Grace said as she stood up and returned to the recliner. “Why is there after shave and men’s cologne on the bathroom counter?”
“Because this is Elmer’s apartment,” Mother said. She slouched back onto the couch as Grace moved off the recliner and onto the floor. Grace didn’t want to touch anything that belonged to Elmer or to stay anywhere that Elmer owned.
“Yeah, so why are you here?” Grace asked.
“I got lonely and Elmer offered to let me stay here,” her Mother said.
“Yeah, so he could shack up with you,” Grace yelled. Her Mother motioned for Grace to keep her voice down, but Grace felt the anger as it crept upward and made her voice louder and stronger.
“I’m your mother,” her Mother began, “and I refuse to have you speak to me like that.” Grace couldn’t bring herself to look at her mother. She went into the kitchen to get some water. It helped to drink something or eat something when the urge to shoot up started and wouldn’t go away.
“Elmer and I spoke to the director down at CrossPoint house,” her Mother said and followed Grace into the kitchen. “You can stay here tonight, but we’re moving you down there where you might have a shot at staying clean for once.”
“You’re sending me away again?” Grace asked. It explained why all of her things weren’t in the bedroom, why being on the outside felt more like a prison than being locked up.
“But it’s more than that,” her Mother said and parroted what sounded like the brochure for the place. “You’ll have your old job and a place to live. Elmer said it’s the best.”
“So now, Elmer gets to run my life?” Grace forgot about the water. The twinge had turned into a desperate need for a hit. The room spun, and Grace grabbed the counter to keep from falling over.
“I didn’t say that,” her Mother said. “You can stay here this evening and after dinner we can talk about it.”
“Why bother?” Grace asked. Nothing felt like home. Even her Mother didn’t resemble the woman who cried as Grace got five years in prison, or the woman who sent her a letter every week for the first year then stopped because she got too busy.
“When Elmer gets home, we’re going to celebrate you being here since,” her Mother said. Her voice cracked like fine china hitting a concrete floor. Grace clenched her hands and then rubbed her temples to keep the pounding at bay. But nothing worked. Just one more time would do the trick. Same lie, she told herself every day after Ethan died.
“Don’t worry about it,” Grace said. “Let’s just go.” Her Mother didn’t argue and grabbed her keys. Grace’s head pulsed louder and louder. Sometimes, it helped to think of happier times, but those always included Ethan. Grace stared out the car window and watched the maze of brick buildings go by.
The front door to Ethan’s house had always stuck. Grace watched as he placed his left shoulder next to the wooden door, jerk on the crystal doorknob, push upward. He tumbled inside, and Grace laughed after he took a sweeping theatrical bow just like he did every time he opened the door. Nobody was home. Not in the middle of the day when Ethan convinced Grace to skip fifth period Chemistry lab. They ran out to the parking and ducked behind cars so the resource officer wouldn’t see them.
Giggly and breathless, Grace slid into the front seat of his Dodge Ares station wagon. She watched as Ethan snuck around to the driver’s side and stayed low to hide his bright red hair behind the rusted car. Even in the dark, she could spot Ethan. The hair, the pale skin, the ten freckles on his face that he begged her to cover with make-up, but she refused. She loved spending their afternoons kissing each freckle lying on his twin mattress. Getting in the car, Ethan backed out and punched the gas so the gravel flew behind them. They both flipped off the resource officer who only saw them drive away. Ethan took her hand and interlocked their fingers as he headed back toward Winter Gardens.
Shutting the front door, they sat onto the plastic covered couch, and Ethan lit up the first joint for Grace. Ethan never allowed her light her cigarette or joint because he told Grace that’s not how Carey Grant did it. She inhaled as the smoke curled up inside her like ivy. The tendrils wrapped around all the shit from the school day and choked it till Grace forgot where she had gone. But she couldn’t forget how Ethan’s hand began to feel both heavy and light, how the ceiling fan whirred and wobbled as if it were coming like a siren to kill them, how Ethan laughed when she told him the fan was Jack the Ripper except his knives had turned to fan blades. They kept spinning but never close enough to get her.
“Do you remember where the Boyd house was?” Ethan asked and stared at the ceiling. Grace nodded and turned toward him. “All the flowers came up. Weird, right?”
“What weird about flowers?” Grace asked. “Gran’s come up every year. Cause she tells them to.” They both laughed and sighed at the same time.
“No, but like the house is gone,” Ethan said and inhaled before puffing smoke out. “But tulips and daffodils came up, and you can totally see where the house used to be. It’s like wow.”
“Like ghosts planted them,” Grace said softly. “I wonder what happens to the ghosts if the city tears down their house?”
“Bad shit, probably,” Ethan said. “Want to listen to something?” He slipped off of the plastic and hit the floor with his knees. Grace stared at the impression his ass had made and watched as the butt print disappeared.
“Wow, that was like magic,” Grace said moving off the couch to see if she left a dent too. Hers was smaller and vanished quicker than Ethan’s. The record player whirred to life as Ethan came back to sit on the floor next to Grace. His arm snaked around her middle as he pulled her into him. Softly, the harmonies blended with the clunking of the ceiling fan until Grace couldn’t tell if the singing came from the fan or the record player. Everything spun then blurred and came back into focus. But Ethan never moved. The only thing in the living room not swinging around Grace in enlarging circles. With his arms around her, he kept her from flying away into the fan then off to nowhere.
“Did they just sing send them all your celery?” Ethan asked as he turned his face toward Grace.
“Celery sounds good,” Grace said as she toyed with his hair. “You think anyone will send us celery?”
“Celery,” Ethan repeated softly as he stroked Grace’s cheek. “Maybe, we could ask them for celery and like CheezWhiz.”
“CheezWhiz is the best,” Grace said licking her lips hoping that a can would appear. “Remember band camp last year…” She didn’t finish her sentence because she didn’t need to. They sat together and listened as the music faded into the humming of the cars outside, the whir of the fan, and thumping of their hearts. The next day, Grace found cassette tape with a note:
“See you after school. Don’t forget the celery.”
The letter sat on the desk like an accusation. Elmer would know that she was going to lie. He always did. Grace stood in front of her boss, and waited as he looked her up and down, sighed, grabbed the envelope with his mustard stained fingers.
“I got some time off coming to me,” Grace began as Elmer opened the letter and scanned its contents. “Gran said she’s got a cold so maybe I could get Saturday off.” Elmer didn’t look up at Grace who had twisted her long thin brown hair around her index finger. Around then unwinding it as she waited for Elmer to say anything. He set the letter down and wiped his fingers over his stained shirt that left a yellow trail down the front.
“I don’t know, Gracie,” he said talking to her like he would a pet dog. “Just hired you back as a favor to your Mama. You called your Mama like I told you?”
“I said I would when I get a chance,” Grace said as she crossed her arms over her apron then uncrossed them. “Don’t get to use the phone all that much at the house. Besides, you see her more than me.” Elmer sat up straight when Grace brought up that he and her Mother had been living together since she left home. She knew he didn’t like talking about what went on after hours, and Grace always enjoyed watching Elmer turn a bright rouge from his cheeks to his gel-slicked comb over.
“Now listen here, “Elmer started. “It’s none of your business what I do outside of work. Besides, I promised your Mama to keep you out of trouble.” Grace rolled her eyes as Elmer attempted to sound fatherly, but ended up sounding like a broken after school special.
“Didn’t exactly work for her,” she mumbled as Elmer slid back in his rolling desk chair. She heard it creak as he leaned back, and she tried to stifle a giggle thinking about how funny it would be if he fell over.
“Saturday’s the busiest here,” he said. “Right now, you’re the only one I got to work since Clarisse had her baby last month.”
“I know, but,” she started and didn’t know how to finish her sentence. The back room reeked of overcooked popcorn and nuked corn dogs. She watched as Elmer ripped the plastic off of another thing of EZ-Pop and put it in the microwave. He toyed with the letter, pulled its yellowed paper out of the envelope, folded it and put it back in.
“I’m sure your Gran’s over that cold by now,” he said. The microwave buzzed, and Grace gagged at the smell of burning butter.
“I guess,” she said as she tried not to throw up in her mouth as Elmer grabbed a large handful of the popcorn and stuffed it into his wide mouth. Pieces of popcorn tumbled to the floor and his desk because even his mouth wasn’t big enough to fit half the bag in in it.
“Besides, why didn’t you go sooner?” He asked as he spilled more popcorn down his shirt than he put into his mouth.
“Don’t exactly let you go where you want on the inside,” she said. “The place I’m staying now only lets us leave for 12 hours so it wouldn’t be a long visit. Just across town.”
“And besides, isn’t it your Gran’s neighborhood where, you remember,” he said while chewing. “Just not a good idea.” He pushed the letter back toward Grace. She saw the greasy fingerprints staining the envelope.
“Goddamn it, I’ve been clean for over three months,” Grace yelled as she grabbed the desk and shook it. The popcorn spilled all over Elmer’s lap and onto the floor. She knew that she would be the one to stay after work and clean up the mess, but she didn’t care. “Just need to go see Gran. I won’t get into no trouble. I promise.”
“What good are your promises, anyhow,” Elmer said in a monotone. “Only got one strike left then you know what comes next.” Grace froze because she knew all too well how the orange jumpsuit fit, how it tugged at her armpits and caused her to chafe.
“What if I pee into one of those cups before and after I go,” Grace said holding back her frustration. Her whole body quivered. The old twitches started in her fingertips caused her body to fidget so badly that she couldn’t control herself. Her mouth tingled and numbed. She felt the throbbing and pounding inside her like too much bass. It talked to her reminding her of all the places where she could get just enough to take the edge off, to regain control, to forget awhile longer. The bell above the door into the Grab’N’Go clanged and both Elmer and Grace turned to see who came in. She caught her reflection in the window between the office and the store. Her eyes sunken and yellowed, but it was her teeth. Crooked and too many gaping holes, she looked older than she remembered.
“You going to go do your job?” Elmer asked slamming the chair against the desk. Grace didn’t move even though she knew by the look on Elmer’s face that the customer was standing at the front of the store waiting to pay.
“Not till you say I can go,” she whispered. “Just asking for the one day. I’ll work a double on Sunday.” Elmer nodded and waved her away. Grace forced a smile when she rang up the customer’s purchases.
Ethan had warned her that they started smelling gas a week earlier. Sitting beside his grandmother’s flowers beds, Grace watched as Ethan dug the trowel under the dandelions then jerked them up by the roots. He shook the good soil back in the flowerbed. Grace couldn’t tell the difference between a weed and the early sprouts of the bulbs, and she spent most of the time fiddling with the grass or watching Ethan dig up the weeds.
“Careful, that’s an iris,” Ethan said gently and moved her hand away from the thin green leaves that sprouted up next to the blooming daffodils and azaleas. “And that’s another.”
“God, they all look the same,” Grace said and stuffed her hands in her hoodie’s pockets. “When did you get so good with flowers?” Ethan shifted his weight and leaned forward to pull up tuft of wild onions growing near the boxwoods.
“Ma had to go on disability couple of months ago,” Ethan said and threw the weeds into a yellow wheelbarrow. “So she’d tell me which was a weed and which wasn’t. Don’t mind it so much.”
“Don’t you get cold at night?” Grace asked as she stared at Ethan’s house. Every window and door was wide open to the early spring breeze. Grace saw where the front porch sagged to the left and the shingles curled up leaving chinks in the roofing. Just like every other house in Winter Gardens, lead paint fell off in large chunks, water bubbled up where the line met the sewer. Now, gas filled the corners of the inside and spilled out.
“Got to until the landlord gets the gas fixed,” Ethan said and sat back on the grass. He stretched his legs out in front of him. “Ma’s called every day since we smelled it, but hasn’t heard back.”
“God, you’d think somebody would do something,” Grace said and slid closer to Ethan. She snuggled next to him as the wind grew colder. “Calling for snow tonight.”
“Yeah, I heard,” Ethan said as he pulled her closer to him. “Maybe, we’ll hear something today.”
“You all can always stay with me,” Grace said. “Mom’s been pulling third shift and Gran won’t mind the company.”
“I can ask Ma, but I know she won’t want to leave the house open and not be home,” Ethan said. “If it gets too cold, we’ll come over tomorrow night.”
“You sure? Gran won’t mind at all,” Grace said as she placed head her on Ethan’s chest. “Might not snow.”
“Maybe, tomorrow night,” Ethan said and kissed the top of her head before stroking her hair. She batted his dirt-smeared hands away and laughed as he stuck them right back in her face. Ethan reached over her and picked one of the daffodils and tucked it behind Grace’s ear. She smiled and leaned back into him being careful not to crush the flower.
“Fine, tomorrow,” she said as Ethan sang to her and the wind whispered above the pine trees.
As the night snow fell in white clumps, Grace heard the explosion from two streets away. Then sirens and lights and neighbors yelled and banged on Gran’s door. Pulling on her coat, Grace ran outside to see all of Winter Gardens rushing toward Light Street. She wanted to be wrong as she ran across the fresh snow. Another house, it must be another house, she thought as she got closer to the fire.
The whole neighborhood watched as the house burned. Grace heard the firefighter yelling to turn the gas off and get everyone back farther. The fire turned red and yellow and blue as it devoured the porch and flower bushes. Everyone looked the same dressed in winter coats and pajamas. Grace heard several children crying, people whispered and shook their heads. He must have gotten out, Grace thought as she tried to stretch upward to see above people’s heads. No Ethan. She pushed her way through the crowd and tugged on sweatshirts that looked like his, but when the person turned around, it was just another face.
“Excuse me,” Grace said tapping one of Ethan’s neighbors. The woman turned around and pulled her housecoat closer to her thin frame. “Did anybody get out?”
The woman didn’t say anything except to shake her head and walk away. Grace watched as the crowd circled around her getting closer and then moving away. The roof caved in on the burning porch causing the crowd to jump backwards from the barriers, but Grace didn’t move. She didn’t feel the snow start falling again or hear the firefighters cursing because the water from the hoses started to freeze. As the fire died down, the crowd began going home. Grace stayed waiting to see if she had missed Ethan. She must have missed him. But she didn’t. Standing alone near the barrier, she watched as the fire turn to embers then smoking ash. The blackened support poles from back porch and cast iron tub were the only things that Grace recognized. Everything else gone. The records, the wobbling ceiling fan, his sweatshirts that smelled of Old Spice and dirt.
Weeks after the fire, Grace kept buying his deodorant and smearing her old hoodie in the dirt from his Grandma’s ashen flowerbeds. She needed something to smell just like Ethan, so he wouldn’t really be gone. She never got the smell just right, and she felt him slipping away farther and farther away from her.
The grocery bag felt heavier, and she unrolled the top to check on her things. Flurries whispered around Grace as she trudged down the sidewalk. Its concrete rippled as if someone threw a penny into a still lake. She hadn’t paid much attention to the houses lining either side of Light Avenue. Looking up for street numbers, Grace gasped as she saw house after house boarded up. Bright lemon yellow papers taped on the front doors. When the wind blew, Grace heard the papers shaking as if they were applauding her to go on. Grace knew where to find the scrolled iron rails that led up to concrete steps toward his house. Even when Ethan and Grace had smoked all the marijuana they could afford, they both knew to look for the railings. Grace touched the curves of the iron and ran her fingers across the rusted brown then moved back to the black parts. She gripped it tightly as she hauled herself the last few steps.
Grace looked up where Ethan’s house had been. The crabgrass had grown-over the brick foundation, and someone hauled away the cast iron tub. She wished that she could touch it just one more time. To remember its cool ivory glaze, how it felt when she had worked a long day, and Ethan would let her soak in the tub for hours. Neither one of them talked just listened as the steam from the water and their breathing mingled in the tiny bathroom.
Not even the porch posts remained. The FOR SALE sign faded and laid next to the two feet of sidewalk still visible. All of a sudden, Grace couldn’t bear the silence. She fished around in her pocket for her lighter. A cigarette would do, anything just to stop the infinite memory loop of Ethan and the fire. As Grace pulled out her smokes, she looked up to see where the house had been. All around, the bright yellow daffodils and irises. A ghost garden, Ethan’s ghost garden. Grace unfolded the grocery bag and pulled out a package of celery and a can of CheezWhiz. Reaching down, she picked one daffodil and placed it next to her offering, her penance.
“I’ll never forget the celery,” she said as snow washed her face.
***Sarah Askins is a high school English teacher who loves to play with her words. A poet and fiction writer by trade, she can be caught reading Tolkien. Austen, and Chaucer when she isn’t writing. She blogs at sarahaskins.com and can be found on Twitter @sarahbostaskins.***