by Greg Bottoms
I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door. This was in Hampton, Virginia, in 2002. She had asked me to visit.
The door spring was broken, and the hook was undone, so the door whapped against the scarred, paint-chipped frame after each knuckle rap. There were small holes in the lower part of her screen, as if a child had poked through it with a pencil, or someone had held the cherry of a cigarette against it.
I didn’t know my grandmother very well. This was my dead father’s mother. I saw her once, maybe twice a year once I was a teenager and after, and then usually only for an hour or so around Christmas or Easter. My father had grown up at the edge of poverty. His parents fought. His mother drank. His father was a schemer, later depressed, later dead of a heart attack or stroke (no autopsy) and left to rot for a couple of days in this small, brick house while his mother and father had been briefly separated. My father found his father’s body, dealt with the ambulance, the police, the coroner, the funeral home, the grave, the headstone, his mother’s grief, his own. But he never talked about it. He was like that. A product of dysfunction, distrust, precariousness. He turned this all into a tough-guy veneer. “John Wayne,” my mother called him. The Marlboro Man. Tragedy, strain, and painful memories had partially, in an unspoken way, estranged my father from his mother, even though we lived barely ten miles away. He loved her but he had no faith in her. He became the parent and she became the child.
So I had never had a serious or intimate conversation with my grandmother as an adult. I was nervous about her invitation.
I called out hello, looking into the crosshatched, dark gray of the house, seeing the ghostly outlines of her worn furniture.
I stepped away from the door, turned and looked around, scanning the neighborhood. Small ranch houses, brick or vinyl-sided, lined the street as far as I could see in one direction and to a stop sign and a busy thoroughfare in the other. It was spring, new leaves on all the tall, front-yard trees. Two young teenage boys and a girl with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her head were skateboarding off a steep curb over and over again, trying some trick, something new they couldn’t figure out. I thought about how I had been a decent skateboarder, spending hours and hours in a halfpipe, my head filled with the magnified, throaty roar of wheels on wood. The kids’ skateboard made a loud crack noise every time the deck hit the weathered asphalt, and my eyelids involuntarily blinked like doors slamming.
“Hello,” my grandmother called from behind me. I turned, and there she was materializing out of the dark like a figure in a Polaroid to open the screen door. I stepped inside, smiling.
She was in her seventies then, but she looked older. Her face was puffy, as if she’d been crying only minutes ago, eyelids red and tumescent, though she was smiling wide now. She had newly dyed hair—a deep black. She wore a teal leisure suit. She had already told me earlier on the phone that this was her bingo night, that she’d only have a couple of hours to talk.
She stepped to me suddenly in the small foyer, a gesture that belied her fragile appearance, reaching up and putting a hand on each of my shoulders, staring for a long moment at my face. She pulled me to her and held me as if I had risen from the dead, as if I was not myself but my dad, without the killing cancer, the mouth ulcers, the skeletal frame.
I had written a story in the late 90s about my father, which was about 80% true, if you can quantify truth in that way (or in any way), or really it was a stylized essay, with heavy narrative elements and a fragmented structure and time jumps (I was overly interested in artistic form then). In this story I recounted an anecdote about my father having to go help out with his mother when she was found drunk and barely conscious in a neighbor’s front yard one night. She was an alcoholic, recovering and relapsing throughout her life, but significantly better and stable during the time of this visit. And she had been, decades before her summons to me, twice temporarily committed to Eastern State Hospital—“the asylum,” as everyone I knew called it—for life-threatening substance abuse and odd and erratic behavior.
In my story—which included my own aestheticized version of a real moment in an old woman’s life—I aired all this dirty laundry like an eager would-be author fiddling with material. And, for effect, for some kind of symbolic resonance, I included a true but devastating story about how she once killed my father’s favorite pet and fed it to him. Then I published it in a well-regarded but probably little-read literary journal. It was not directly about my grandmother insofar as she was not the main subject; it was an elegy of sorts for my father and his tough, hard, sometimes tragic, and too-short life, ended by lung cancer at the age of 52.
I knew few people would see it, fewer still would read it start to finish. But I had needed to write it. So I was happy when I heard the piece would be listed in a “best of” anthology and even happier when I was informed it would be reprinted in another. Still, I thought it would be ignored, even anthologized and in wider circulation.
I was young, and prose was an art and craft I approached with religious zeal, much more seriously than I do now, since I am older, make my living teaching, and have a realistic understanding of how little what I write has any impact on the world. I have become more minimalist in style as I have become more minimalist in ego, in life (I don’t mean this as a defeatist statement; I find it all quite relieving, a quasi-Buddhist peace with what is).
Anyway, my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, was a recovering and relapsing and recovering alcoholic, as I said, and lived in a world a million miles away from literature and writing and the English degrees I had pursued. Or so I thought. It didn’t occur to me, not even for a second, that she could have read my story when I sat down on her couch. I had used her, turned her into a character, which alters the truth of a person for some more singular narrative purpose. The ethical thicket of the way I represented her burbled beneath my mental surface, if you will, but it didn’t occur to me that I would have to face it.
She wanted to talk about my father. She wanted to talk about being a mother—the joy, the pain, the pressure. She sat down in a blue, plush chair across from me—so frail, so wrinkled—leaning forward, her leisure suit almost blending into the upholstery. There was a clear effort to be as close to me as possible, as if to emphasize what she wanted to say, our connection, I don’t know.
“He loved that little duck,” she said—no set up, no prelude. “I think your dad was ten or eleven. Called the duck Pete. Pete the duck. He found him one day at the pond with a broken wing and brought him home. Had a little pen out back that I helped him make with chicken wire I had for keeping rabbits out of my vegetable garden.” She paused, looked me in the eye, waited to see if I would say anything. My heart was beating a little faster, and I could feel my face was blushing. I said nothing.
She went on (and of course this is remembered, recreated, and fictionalized dialogue). “Well, I drank back then, and I know you know that.” A pause, a long look. My incrimination. “Anyway, my husband, John, your granddaddy, dead long before you were born, of course, got on me about not having any Sunday dinner. He was real country, you know, and he expected a Sunday dinner in the early afternoon and he could be mean. We didn’t have a good marriage, I’m sorry to say. Fought all the time. I was angry, fed up, and I got to drinking, and I went out back and got your daddy’s little Pete out of the pen. I snapped his neck like I used to with the chickens back on the farm when I was a girl. Your daddy ate Pete that afternoon none the wiser. He had a great Sunday dinner with his father grimacing at the head of the table, not saying one word. Then I told him what he was eating. He went right into a crying fit, right over his plate, weeping and carrying on. I swear that boy cried for three days.”
I sat very still, attentively listening, holding my expression as blank as possible, as if this was a story I was hearing for the first time.
She waited to see if I would say something now about an incident I had turned into a scene and which she had obviously read. It would have been natural to ask a question. One would expect a question, some comment, offered here. I didn’t. My silence told the story of my guilt. Then she said, “I’ve always felt real bad about that. I loved your daddy and I’m ashamed I did that. I’m ashamed of a lot of things. If I could take it back, take that day away, not hurt him, I would. I certainly would. I was his mother and I loved him. I want you to know that. That’s what I wanted to tell you, and I needed to say it to you in person. I needed to look at you.”
For months after this meeting, I was haunted by shame to the point of depression and mental paralysis, her words—and even more her red, wet eyes—on an excoriating tape loop through my thoughts.
A few years later, after she died suddenly of undiagnosed late-stage colon cancer, and after two of my cousins, clearly also readers of my work, refused to even look at me at her funeral, I started a new story meant to redeem her. The first line was: “I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door.” But the damage was done. I never finished it.
Greg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.