Lost Belongings

It was heading east, our way, but we had other things on our mind. There had always been storms. By then we had already cancelled our appointments. We had nowhere to be. Mom bought a transistor radio, a lantern, and a pack of protein bars. We expected violence. Foolish men in trucks might slide off the road.

The snow drifted in slowly. We did not mind. We drove and did our usual grocery shopping. We took down the Christmas tree and left it in the driveway for someone to pick up, whenever. The snow kept falling. The boughs of the oak tree began to slump. The asphalt changed from black to white.

The storm came in the night. The wind picked up. I felt an eddy of cool air come from the cracks of the window. Grandpa called up to us. He asked if we were awake.

After the foreclosure, Mom moved in with Grandpa. The house where she grew up was of a quaint Tudor style, white bricks framed with thick slates of oak. By then, I was back at school in Connecticut. On the phone, I could hear the strain in her voice. Mom called our floor the “apartment” and told me my bed was bigger now. We kept most of our belongings in boxes. Mom turned her childhood bedroom into the kitchen with a hot plate and a microwave. Grandpa slept on a pullout couch in the living room.

It bothered me when Mom said she was relieved. She liked to talk about newfound freedom from the inconveniences of life, of leaky faucets and floods in the basement and bats in the attic. But her relief — if that’s what it was — and even the joy I sometimes heard in her voice sounded dangerous: desperate and elusive, a happiness born into a place emptied of hope.

Grandpa yelled Mom’s name again. When neither of us answered he kept yelling. I peeked from the top of the staircase down at him, where he stood with one hand on the banister, his legs shaking. Even in December he wore khaki shorts and a striped polo shirt with a frayed collar.

We came downstairs in our pajamas. In the living room Grandpa sat with a cigar in front of the soft glow of the television. Without saying a word, he walked to the kitchen and poured a glass of gin. Mom said nothing. It made me sad to think she had finally given up on changing him. The house still smelled like cardamom from when Grandma tried to cook his Lebanese dishes.

After Grandma died, fifteen years ago, he no longer left the house except to check the mail. Grandpa looked out the window. A deer leapt out of the forest. Again and again it tried to shake the snow from its hind legs.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to begin searching the house. It seemed like the right game to play for a snow day. We opened cupboards in the kitchen and cabinets in the living room. What we were looking for, who knew.

Grandpa told Mom to stop it, this was his house. Mom told him we were only looking for a spare toaster.

In my bedroom, where Grandpa once slept with Grandma, I found a Bible and a stack of dirty magazines. I found little else worth remembering. I thought I had failed in some way.

We thought Grandpa had thrown out everything years ago. After the funeral, he hired men who liked old junk to take away Grandma’s clothes and her brother Jack’s purple heart from the war. He told Mom and Aunt Cindy that he needed the extra space for storage. You could tell he was pleading with them.

Mom brought me a stack of photos, most of which I had already seen. She kept the photos of Grandma for herself. I offered to scan them into the computer, but Mom told me not to worry about it. I thought it was because she did not trust me with them.

In my memories of her, when they bubble up vaporously, Grandma is in a silk kimono on the couch. She pulls an afghan up to her shoulders because she is sick. I ask permission to get an orange crème popsicle from the kitchen. At the funeral, it was hot and so we had to wear hats. I wore a black boater hat. Tucked in the grosgrain ribbon was a black feather, which felt in my fingers like silk. The hat smelled like anise, and I could not stop touching it. Mom gently swatted my hand away. I leaned over the casket so Grandma could see my hat and the way I had tipped the bowl to one side like the women did in the movies. Later I found a photo of her in a similar hat tipped in the same way and kept it.

“WHERE ARE THEY? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THEM?” Mom sounds like a girl when she raises her voice.

Upstairs I pressed my face to the carpet. I heard a glass break on the wood floor. Every time the voices yelled, the floor hummed.

That night we sat on Mom’s bed like schoolchildren at a sleepover. I felt like she wanted me to ask her if everything was all right. I tried to keep my voice light.

Grandpa had lost a set of Grandma’s pans. She used the pans for the spätzle at Christmas. Of course my mother did not cook. I pointed this out to her. I said: we don’t even have a stove. She said: it is not about the pans.

She glanced at the door of her room. We heard Grandpa scrape his cane across the floor.

“I have to use the john,” he said. “None of you’s coming down, right?”

She looked at me as if to say, we weren’t always like this.

He was handsome once. Women would offer to do things for him. He did not refuse them. He met Grandma at a bar. She pursued him.

Once she had found Grandpa with another woman after-school on the living room floor. The woman wore a loose skirt. She lay on her side, her elbow propped on the rug. The two had been playing Arabic records together, Odette was also Lebanese. I have listened to those records. The women who sing have husky voices, nothing like my grandmother’s or my mother’s or mine. As Mom told me the memory, she seemed to realize something.

The next morning Mom was up before me. I woke to the sound of her on the phone. The bedroom smelled of egg and burnt oil; I found a dirty pan on the hot plate. It took me a moment for me to find her voice. From the top of the stairs I saw the back of her head in the dining room. She talked for what felt like a long time.

Later I found her in the living room with Grandpa. She pretended not to notice when he took a sip of gin. He noticed that she had not noticed and had the look of a man who steps into the sun after a long time in the dark. It made me sad to see him that way.

Mom stood and told us it was a beautiful day for a walk. She promised not to come back for a while. She left, and soon after I found myself in the dining room. The table was covered in old bills. It took me a while to find Mom’s legal pad on top of a pile. She had written a long list of numbers, added them, and circled the total. Then she had divided the number by two and circled another number. She had added the letter ‘k’ at the end of it.

I found Grandpa’s last will and testament under the legal pad. There were two recipients listed, Mom and Aunt Cindy. There were numbers on the paper that matched the numbers on the notepad. I stared at the wall in front of me, the same way Mom must have stared at the wall when she was a child. I stood in the same place for some time.

The doorbell rang. A boy from next door told Grandpa he just shoveled the driveway. If Mom had been home, she would have given the boy licorice and a dollar, but Grandpa just thanked him.

Growing up, we also had a boy next door shovel the driveway. One night he rang the doorbell. Mom saw his head in the window and got the licorice ready in a little plastic bag. But when she opened the door, he shook his head. He had only come to tell us that they had lost their cat in the storm.

I went out and searched with them. Eventually someone found the cat. Like all the old houses on our street, below the porch was a lattice skirt of wood. As children we stuck our fingers through the lattice to feel the cool air that came from the dark. You could hardly fit your hand through the hole, but somehow that night the cat had found a way under the porch.

The cat returned to the same place often after that. Sometimes we found her and fed her tiny pieces of turkey from the other side. For a while whenever she went missing we made a game out of finding her. The way she looked at you it was like she had been playing too, just waiting for someone to find her. Years went on, we got busy and tired easily of the cold. Eventually we stayed inside and stopped looking.

 

Hayley was born on January 1. The other day she read in a book that her birthday color is “baked clay.” Apparently this means something. If you would like to know your birthday color, email her at hayley.byrnes@yale.edu

 

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