“Jeanie, we need some more dish soap from the basement.”
Jeanie let the crayon roll off her finger and stared at the paper, leaning on the front of her chair with her arms. There were two figures on the paper, one with blonde hair and a pink dress, the other in blue slacks and a toothy smile. The pink dress was Jeanie’s, her favorite.
“I’m coming,” Jeanie yelled.
Jeanie frowned through her bangs at the large bay windows of her living room. Tiny moths bumped against them in twos and threes in the darkness. She sneaked into the kitchen, touching the wall with her hand and shuffling slightly so her padded socks wouldn’t make noise on the cold floor. Her hand ran over a glass mirror, smudging it.
“Jeanie, what are you doing? Please get down there.”
No, her mother hadn’t forgotten. She glanced at Jeanie through the reflection in the window above the kitchen sink.
Jeanie’s mother’s back was wide, with thick folds of skin enclosed by a wholesome apron. Once, last Winter, Jeanie had lost control of herself and ran across the length of the kitchen floor, ran and pushed her mother from behind as hard as she could. Her mother, paring tomatoes, had come unbalanced. Like a buoy when the tide changes. She had sucked in her gut in surprise and collapsed onto the sink. Jeanie had stepped back, her mouth open, then looked into the sink. Her mother’s paring knife had sliced her right wrist, and blood and tomato guts covered the floor of the sink. Everyone had looked at Jeanie as they crouched in the ambulance together. Her mother still looked at her like that, sometimes.
Jeanie sighed and walked out of the kitchen. The knob of the basement door was cold. She turned it slowly. Light wandered down the stairs and evaporated into the long hallway. Jeanie sat on the top stair and looked down. The stairs were much too big for her to use comfortably. She slid down them, one at a time.
It had taken her a few minutes, but now she was finally at the bottom. She placed her forearm underneath the bank of light switches and pushed them upwards all at once. The long fluorescent bulbs tinkled alight.
Straight ahead was the water heater room. On the left was Daddy’s pool table room, where the soap was stored. Jeanie held up her hands to make sure: “L” for left. She walked in. The pool table room had another door on the far side. It was made of pine and had a face in the wood grain that only Jeanie could see. Jeanie lazily ran her hand along the walls, until she reached this door.
This was Grandpa’s old room, and it still smelled like his rancid aftershave. Grandpa had died while watching television a few months ago. Jeanie’s mother had sent her downstairs with his nightly mug of hot chocolate, half-filled so that Jeanie wouldn’t spill it.
Jeanie had opened the pine door and found Grandpa in his armchair, feet propped up stiffly, his nostrils oddly flared and eyes winced shut. Jeanie knew she should have probably told her mother that Grandpa looked like that, but instead she retreated to the stairs, walking backwards, her hand touching the wall. Her mother had gone downstairs later that evening.
Now Grandpa was gone, the pine door was shut and his room was used to store things that were seldom needed. Jeanie had forgotten the step ladder, so, against the house rules, she climbed onto the pool table. She reached as high as she could up to a metal shelf and just managed to coax a bottle of dish soap to fall into her hands. The neck of the bottle fit snugly in her palm. She held her breath as she often did when she was alone in a quiet place. A soft ringing hummed in her ears.
Jeanie recalled Grandpa’s lips as he slurped the hot chocolate. Did she love him less now? Probably not, because Mother had said that they all would keep loving him. It was hard to love him if he wasn’t there though. Jeanie loved bringing Grandpa hot chocolate but she hated when he would suddenly look up at her while sipping from his cup. Grandpa was supposed to smile whenever he looked at her, but you can’t smile when you are sipping a hot drink. He had the face of a stranger when he did that.
Jeanie got down from the pool table. She ran her fingers over the varnished sides, then onto the smooth felt, then down into each pocket to touch the cold billiard balls. Far above her head her mother answered a ringing telephone. The sound was small and far away. Jeanie took the largest pool cue out of the holder and held it to her shoulder, resting her cheek against the wood and squinting down it lengthwise. It felt good to swing it back and forth like a sword, when no one was looking. She turned around to fence with her shadow on the wall and immediately dropped the cue. It’s tip clattered onto the carpet, leaving a smudge of blue dust.
Grandpa’s shadow was one the wall, stooping down toward hers. When she whirled around, he wasn’t there.
Jeanie couldn’t stop breathing. She breathed in and out, faster and faster. All she could hear was ringing, but now it was as loud as the recess alarm. She started to walk one way around the pool table, then the other, as memories crowded into the room. Grandpa drinking hot chocolate, Grandpa watching TV, Grandpa, healthier, taking her to the dog park two years ago. Grandpa couldn’t come to her birthday party because he was sick. Grandpa eventually staying in his room, like it was always winter, always blankets. It was his nest, and he never came out, always hibernating. Like a bear.
Grandpa had died. Jeanie thought of her mother’s stubborn rolls of skin as she bent over to place dinner in the oven. She looked up at the cream-colored ceiling and relaxed a little bit. Her mother’s feet were probably directly above her head right now. What had her mother thought when she had walked downstairs to find Grandpa? Subtract Grandpa from Grandpa and you get nothing – that’s what dying was.
Jeanie gripped the neck of the soap bottle tightly. She marched to the pine door and flung it open. Darkness disappeared instantly as she flicked on the light. The towers of boxes cast shadows. Jeanie sashayed around each one just to check. She ran her hand around each box, scraping and tapping the cardboard with her fingernails. Nothing was there. She straightened her posture and pushed back her bangs. Her hand was shaking a little, so she made a fist. There was nothing but boxes.
Jeanie switched off the light and closed the pine door firmly. She walked to the water heater room, her hand guiding her along the walls. The water heater’s bottom glowed faintly with the blue pilot light her father had showed her, and she smiled because of this secret knowledge. Nothing here – just boxes of nails and a few dead bugs on the cement floor.
As Jeanie returned to the stairs she heard the faint sounds of her mother in the kitchen. Jeanie felt her stomach rumble and thought of hot spaghetti. She looked back at the brightly lit basement hallway one more time, sniffing the air for a lingering taste of aftershave.
She desperately wanted to bring a cup of hot chocolate to Grandpa again, not just once, but every day, like the old, normal days.
Jeanie pinched a tuft of fiberglass insulation from the unfinished wall and let it slip from her fingers. Her eyes traveled up the mountain of stairs she had to climb. The fourth stair reached over her head. The bank of light switches met her forehead on the wall. Four switches, all flicked up, to “on.” Jeanie rested her arm on top of the switches and resolutely pressed them down all at once. Darkness ran through the basement into every room and every cardboard box. Jeanie caught her breath and ran upstairs into the light, not crying.Back