Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Lainey Bolen Burdge

Paper Thin

The nursing home reeked of urine, latex, and despair. It seemed to hover in the air, swirling around us like an early morning fog. A janitor tried to cover the smell with pine-scented cleaner, but it didn’t help. I held my grandmother’s hand as we marched down the stark hallway, and though I was fourteen years old, I was not embarrassed.

Right away, I hated the name “nursing home.” I wanted everyone to be honest with me and call it what it was: It was where you went to die. The whole idea of living out your final years with total strangers was depressing. Why couldn’t these saggy, old people’s families take care of them? I didn’t ask my grandmother this question because I was afraid that I already knew the answer: nobody wanted to take care of them. And I couldn’t say I blamed them, these families who had lives to live that didn’t include changing bedpans (or worse, diapers!) and spoon-feeding toothless patients. My great-grandmother, the one who lived and died there, was no exception. She was, in a sense, cast away from our family, her problems deemed too severe to be handled by my grandmother, her only child.

My own mother, who’d had me three weeks before her high school graduation, died in a car accident when I was two years old. Other than a few hazy memories, she left me with nothing, and when she died, my grandparents took me in. (My father—and I was told this much later, as an adult—was the kind of man who’d “run from trouble.”) That’s what happened when he found out my mother was pregnant. Though we had his contact information, my grandmother refused to even consider letting him hear from or see me. Not that he wanted to. (He’d sent a few cards through the years, with sentiments such as “Hope you had a great bday” or “Take care and enjoy the summer.”) From the day she took me in, my grandmother decided that I would have as normal a life as possible, with school and friends and swim lessons. She, along with my grandfather, had done a solid job, making my childhood years full and happy. But I knew in my heart that raising me, unexpectedly becoming my parent, had changed her, made her stoic. I saw her cry exactly three times in my life, and each time afterward she was embarrassed. She would apologize, quickly regain composure, and scurry away quickly to find something else to do. She told me she loved me frequently, but it was perfunctory and came across as almost accusatory. I loved her back, though it was complicated. Because she was both my mother and my grandmother, I never really got to have either.

Walking down the nursing home hallway, my grandmother’s heels clicked-clacked on the gray-flecked tile and I sang along in my head, the rhythm of her shoes keeping time to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” This was one of my quirky habits, finding songs that fit the rhythms around me. (Once I had a Huey Lewis song playing on repeat in my mind for two weeks. It was maddening.)

“Here we are.” My grandmother stopped abruptly outside of Room 116, and the song in my head came to a screeching halt, as if a record needle was suddenly and carelessly lifted. Party over. I peered inside and saw Nan, my great-grandmother, sitting on a recliner that was probably once blue, her head slumped down, a thin, stretchy line of saliva hanging from her mouth. I sensed my grandmother’s disdain in the way her voice become sharp.

“Oh, Mother,” she dropped my hand and rushed to wipe the offending spit from her mother’s mouth and lap. I was both terrified and fascinated at the sight of her, like unexpectedly stumbling upon the maggot-filled cat carcass on the sidewalk. I was repulsed but couldn’t look away. My stomach turned.

“Can’t they put a bib on her or something?” My question was serious and well-intentioned, although it probably did not sound that way.

“Allison, really!” My grandmother turned her head toward me. “That is ridiculous. Nan’s not a baby.”

She was not a baby, but she couldn’t speak or walk, and I was pretty sure she was wearing a diaper. So a bib sort of made sense to me considering the big picture. I envisioned it: soft, white terrycloth with “World’s Best Great-Grandmother” stitched in hot-pink thread. I kept this thought to myself. Her room was bleak, white walls with white tile. I guessed it was meant to look sterile, but the effect was utter hopelessness. Perhaps a nice light blue paint or a crisp linen curtain would have cheered the place up a bit. The cheap, seventies-style dresser was adorned with pictures of our family—there was one picture in particular that always got my attention. In it, I stood erect, wearing Nan’s long, flowing wedding gown, which was permanently suspended in the breeze. A crown of white azaleas sat loosely on top of my head. The curly tendrils of Nan’s cucumbers plants were spread out near my feet, which were bare and tanned.

My thoughts turned to three summers before, the summer the picture with the cucumber was taken, the summer I turned eleven. I would be starting middle school that August, and I’d become quite the irritating, giggly, dramatic, know-it-all preteen. My grandparents were taking a cruise to the Bahamas and decided to drop me off at Nan’s house, which was on the way to the port in Charleston.

I had vented all of this the night before over the phone to Stacey McMaster. She was the most popular girl in our grade and I spent countless hours daydreaming of ways to impress her. At the same time, I secretly hated her. Looking back, I think I hated her because I wanted to be her, but never would come close with my frizzy, mousy brown hair and my skinny legs. Frankly, I was shocked that she was even paying attention to me, as I had nothing to offer her that would promote her social status, which was, of course, every middle schooler’s main concern. (She realized this as well, though surprisingly, it took her almost a full month. I was demoted to mere acquaintance upon returning to school in August.)

I found the fact that my grandparents wanted to spend time alone “totally gross and weird,” as I had told Stacey the night before on the phone. She pretended to listen, but I am pretty sure she was concentrating on fixing her bangs. I heard the soft whoosh of the aerosol spray can. “Aw, sweetie,” she’d said, “that’s funny.” But it wasn’t. I wasn’t joking, and I knew that someone my own age who called me “sweetie” would never take me seriously. Something had happened that year among all of us kids. Something shifted in our understanding of ourselves, each other, the world. The change was subtle at first, like a breeze that carries the faint smell of a familiar perfume. But it ignited something in us, something profound and as old as the ocean, causing us to look at each other in a new way, part fear and part fascination. Suddenly, all that mattered was to matter. And here I was, trapped in my grandparents’ car, on my way to spend two weeks of my precious summer with an old lady. I stared at the back of my grandmother’s head, loathing her coiffed chestnut brown bob (fresh from the beauty salon) just because it belonged to her, and grinding my teeth in passive-aggressive contempt. How I wished my eyes could shoot bullets.

My grandmother, from the front seat, reminded me for the thirty-sixth time, “Allie, puh-lease remember to help Nan out with the dogs. She says she can handle them, but I know for a fact that Sugar got out last week and was gone for two days because she forgot to close the gate.”

I’d overheard my grandmother’s hushed conversations with my grandfather about the declining state of Nan’s mind. It had been happening for years, slowly and subtly, ever since my great-grandfather died when I was eight, but Nan insisted it was normal, just another depressing gift of growing older. She liked to joke about it. “Hell,” I’d heard Nan say to my grandmother on the phone, my hand pressed firmly against the mouthpiece so they wouldn’t know I was listening, “maybe one day I’ll forget how old I am.”

Helping Nan remember was not my grandmother’s only request. For weeks leading up to the trip, she’d have a new reminder for each day: “Puh-lease remember to clean up after yourself, scrub underneath your fingernails, wash your pajamas every other day, make your bed, not pick your toenails, blah, blah, blah.” It was obvious that my grandmother’s primary concern was showing Nan she’d done a good job of raising me. Up until then, I had only spent a few sporadic days with Nan, mostly holidays and all when I was in primary school, but from my mother’s list of rules, I deduced she had inevitably morphed into a prissy, decrepit old lady whose idea of a fun afternoon was polishing her tea set and practicing her posture. Wasn’t that what happened when you grew old?

When I arrived, stretching and yawning from my catnap in the backseat of the station wagon, I saw a slight, but sturdy woman standing in the front yard, her arms outstretched as if she were hugging the sunlight. Her hair, pulled in a low bun, was the color of a new moon, gloriously white. I thought she looked magical, like a good witch.

What I discovered about Nan that week was that she didn’t own a tea set (actually, she’d given it to my grandmother on her wedding day), and her posture was perfect thanks to the two hours a day she spent playing her piano. I’d sit at her feet and watch, starstruck, as she lost herself in something rolling and deep. She let me go for long walks by myself through her neighbor’s property, which had the feel of an enchanted forest. The only instructions I got were, “Just come back when it starts to get dark. Have fun.”

We cooked supper every night with fresh zucchini, squash, and tomatoes from the giant planters she kept on her porch. Everything about her was beautifully wild and seductive. I was fascinated by the way she sat with her girlfriends on the front porch, rocking back and forth, drinking sweet wine and laughing loudly when one of them made an irreverent joke about men. I’d stifle a giggle quietly from the wicker sofa where I was pretending to read. “Oh, Allie, just act like you didn’t hear that,” she’d say. But she was laughing when she said it. I fell in love with that woman. She was so alive, so much more alive than my grandmother, who insisted on pantyhose and hair clips and slips underneath everything. My grandmother was only fifty-four at the time, but she may as well have been ninety-four for all the life she’d missed out on every day. I wondered how these two women were related, and what happened to my grandmother to make her so tightly wound. It was if she were someone else’s daughter. She was so full of rules and Nan, by contrast, was so full of freedom. It emanated from her, and I wanted to catch it and take it home in one of the Mason jars she used to pickle okra. When I stood in her driveway two weeks later, teary-eyed and already nostalgic for her, Nan held me close and whispered, “You are so special, my love. We are kindred spirits, you and I. Don’t forget who you are.” Don’t forget.

I cried for the entire week after I left Nan’s house. I should have been agonizing over a boy who didn’t like me or not making the cheerleading squad, but here I was, an awkward preteen, locked away in my room, pining for my great-grandmother. I remembered the way she made me feel: honest, normal, full of joy. She was just that special.

Barely three years later, I stood in the room with Nan, my beloved great-grandmother, waiting for my grandmother to say something to break the eerie silence. Finally, she did. “Mother, you look so pretty! I love what the girls have done with your hair. And that nail polish is perfect for your skin tone!” I knew for a fact that Nan hated nail polish and she would have died if she knew they had curled her hair. (Shouldn’t her own daughter know this?) She gushed over Nan. I’d been there every Sunday afternoon for a month, and each time it was the same. She rushed about, talking to Nan as if she expected a response. And then she said it:

“Allie, go give Nan a hug and a kiss.” My stomach turned again, sharper this time.

“Uh, I gotta go to the bathroom.” This was my go-to excuse, and it bought me at least five minutes. I experimented with all of the cheap, powdery soaps and lotions lined up on the sink, but I could only stall for so long. I even poured more Pine-sol in the toilet and gave it a quick scrub with the brush I found in the corner. Somehow this made me feel better, more in control.

Tossing the damp, brown paper towels into the trashcan, I took a deep breath and pushed the door open. My mother was gone. Nan’s empty stare was fixed on the wall just above my head. I wanted to make a run for it, but worried that any sudden movement would get her attention and her glassy eyes would find and paralyze me. It wasn’t that I was afraid of Nan; I was afraid of what had taken over her mind and body. What kind of parasite was it? Where did it come from? Was it contagious? It drained the color from her hair, her skin, her eyes. It stole everything that made her who she was. She stared and stared, yet saw nothing. Her eyes were useless globes; they may as well have been gumballs. I stood, frozen, the air heavy and tense with my fear. From down the hall, I heard the muffled click-clack of my mother’s heels. They became louder and sharper as she approached the room. Hurry, hurry, hurry, I thought, with each footstep.

“I just can’t believe they let these flowers get so dried out. Honestly, for what I’m paying them . . .” She was mumbling and holding a crystal vase full of white daisies, their petals thin and papery, reminding me of the skin on the back of her hands. She, too, was getting older. Placing the vase on the thick concrete windowsill, she spoke without looking at me. “Allie, you really should give your Nan a hug and kiss.”

It did not occur to me to lie. “I need some water,” I said, and headed toward the door. My grandmother swiveled around caught me by the arm. She pulled me to her, nails pressed slightly into my skin, so lightly that I might have imagined it, until I was just a few inches from her mouth.

“Go . . . give . . . your Nan . . . a hug . . . and kiss.” Each word stung. I saw her jaw slightly clenched and I knew that I was defeated. Her face and her grip on my arm softened simultaneously. “She loves you so much,” my grandmother said quietly, her voice sad with remembering.

For months, I’d had nightmares about that moment. In them, my eleven-year-old self sat on Nan’s lap as she slowly turned her head towards me. Then, laughter, wild and demonic, erupted from her mouth. It was not Nan; rather, it was the monster inside of her that had taken over, trying to get me too. It looked at me from behind her eyes and mocked me for my own mortality. In my dream, I tried to jump up, but noticed that I was literally glued to her lap. So I sat there, frozen, until I woke up sweating, a strange tingling feeling in my feet. I knew that in reality, this was impossible, that Nan hadn’t uttered a sound in over a year, but the dream was so real that I woke up smelling Pine-Sol.

I swallowed hard and inhaled shakily, terrified to touch her. Her fingers, bony and twig-like, lie useless on her lap. But I could picture the demon inside reaching slowly for my throat, morphing Nan’s vacant expression into a chilling smile.

My grandmother was studying me with her arms folded over her chest, which meant I had no choice. Inching towards Nan, my breath became short and ragged. She thought I was being defiant, that I was embarrassed by Nan, to have to touch her skin and hold her hand. I hovered next to Nan as if I were squatting over a toilet in a public restroom. Any moment, might snap its head up and start the low howl just like in my nightmare.

“Allie, sweetie, are you okay?” My grandmother questioned. She looked genuinely concerned. I didn’t want her to know that I was afraid. That I was afraid because I didn’t know Nan anymore. That I was afraid because the last time she spoke to me, she called me “Susan,” her younger sister who died from typhoid fever as a child. I used to live for these moments, for the hugs and the conversations, but that was before her eyes began losing their color. They used to be the exact color of a robin’s egg. Now, they reminded me of cold steel.

I realized I was holding my breath. Hot, burning tears welled up in my eyes and I tried to choke them back. Squeezing my eyes shut, I pecked Nan’s cheek at lightning speed. Humiliated, I sprang from her lap, full of shame and adrenaline. I exhaled loudly.

“I’m fine,” I lied, hiding my trembling hands behind my back.

Nan died on a Friday. Just like that, the monster won. Or maybe Nan won. I will never know for sure. On Saturday, practically and efficiently, we cleaned out her room. As we packed her gowns and sweaters into plastic bins, I felt relieved that she is gone. She has to be somewhere, I thought, though I can’t imagine where. I pictured her with outstretched arms, walking through her neighbor’s enchanted forest.

“Let’s put these sweaters in that yellow container,” my grandmother told me for the third time, and I obeyed. She must have had a hundred sweaters. It seemed that old people are always cold. My grandmother spoke. “Allie, do you remember her? I mean, do you really remember what Nan was like?”

“Yes. I can still feel her arms around me, hugging me tight. I miss her hugs.” We were both quiet for a few seconds. “And remember those blueberry bushes in her yard? She taught me how to tell when they are the perfect ripeness. She used to let me eat them until I was sick.” These things were true, but mostly I said them to make Nan feel better. I could sense sadness engulfing her like a tidal wave.

I watched her pick up an emerald green scarf from the pile of sweaters and hold it to her face. She breathed in the leftover scent of Nan, and I felt awkward, like watching lovers kiss goodbye for the last time.

“This was her favorite.” She smiled as she said it and her eyes looked lonely.

We worked quickly and within an hour, her closet was empty. I halfway expected to see boxes containing Nan’s memories stacked against the back wall of the closet. I imagined them labeled in chronological order according to how they were stolen from her: Important Dates, Names of Family Members, What I Did This Morning, Talking, Walking, and finally, Swallowing Food.

I couldn’t understand where it all went. How could someone’s very spirit just disappear? In my physical science class that year, I learned that energy, spirit, or whatever you want to call it, changes shape and form, but is not destroyed; it is merely transformed. So if this was true, what shape had Nan’s smile taken? Where had her laugh gone? I was desperate for something tangible, something I could see or touch that looked or felt like what was once Nan’s glory. Maybe I could see her in the brilliant colors of the painted bunting that stopped at our bird feeder every afternoon around five-thirty or smell her in the balmy air after a long rain or taste her sweetness in the ripe tomatoes that I vowed to grow in her honor. This made me mad at God, who seemed to keep assigning beauty and love and joy and then taking it back, as if there was only so much to go around. Why couldn’t God make more? As far as I was concerned, there should have been enough for everyone. I think Nan deserved more. The world needed more of her. I needed more of her.

“Now, where did I put my purse?” my grandmother asked again, forgetting that she hung it from the hook on the back of the door. I pointed to the door, and her face twisted into a grimace of frustration. “Oh, right. Can you hand it to me, Allie?”

I don’t know if it was my imagination or if my grandmother’s hands really were shaking. Tired and deflated, she collapsed into the dull gray-blue recliner and closed her eyes as I set her purse on the floor at her feet. Her breathing became heavy and even, and I wondered if she had fallen asleep. She opened her eyes and looked at me, but said nothing. Something passed between us. I couldn’t help but notice that her eyes looked different. My heart sank in my chest as I realized what was happening.

This was my first real taste of fear. It seized me in an instant, like a hawk snatching its prey in sharp, gnarled talons. The sudden understanding that we were all dying, slowly rotting, was terrifying, yet oddly comforting to something deep within me, mysterious and very far away. I pictured myself fifty or sixty years later in the worn recliner, dripping with drool and snot, as my own daughter wiped my face tenderly, the same vacant stare from my eyes. Somehow I knew that this understanding would change me forever. We left the room.

“Bye now,” said a young, pretty nurse, with the cheerful enthusiasm of someone whose shift is almost over. “Y’all take care.” How easy it is to be happy when you are young and pretty. I can still picture her heart-shaped face, a small scar above her top lip.

Walking down the hallway towards the door, I grabbed my grandmother’s hand. She pulled me close to her and I leaned into the soft, familiar curve of her body. There was no song playing in my head, only the dull hum of the air conditioning unit and the faint, hypnotizing buzz of florescent lighting.

Lainey Bolen Burdge is a former English teacher who now owns a small business and works from home. She lives in Barnwell, SC, with her husband, two children, dog, and two fish. Though her grandmother died in a nursing home from Alzheimer’s Disease, “Paper Thin” is a work of fiction.

Dotted Line