It was a strange and beautiful display. Delicate silks playing on the breeze, dancing with lace in the summer sun. I saw them as I glanced over the white picket fence in my new backyard. I’d never seen myself as a homeowner, a man of property. Pure fluke is what it was, of course. Luck, I guess, to be left a three-bedroom house in the heart of suburbia, all thanks to your grandmother’s will left untouched in fifteen years.
I suppose that had she updated that last will and testament, perhaps I still would have had the deed bestowed upon me. I was always the good grandson, not like my brother Jake, who stole from her spare change dish, and never smiled. I wasn’t like my cousins, who never took off their boots, soiling her clean carpets with their muddy soles, and who never went to church, soiling her family name with their, well, muddy souls. No, I went every week with my mother and my grandmother, and Jake, of course. Always the same pew, always quiet, hands folded, eyes forward. Grandmothers can tell when you aren’t really listening, not paying attention. I always made sure to keep my eyes alert, to never let their corners droop. I’d smile when it was required of me. I’d speak when spoken to. I was the good grandson.
Nothing can stay the same though. That’s the nature of life. My mother met a man at that church. And he married her. We moved far away – a distance incomprehensible to a ten year old boy. Far enough away that I changed schools, friends, area codes, provincial acronyms, and church pews. My grandmother sent us birthday cards with birthday cheques. She’d talk to my mother on the telephone, and listen to her cry, and send her cheques too, but not for her birthday.
I like the backyard in my grandmother’s house. My house now. It is plain and square, and classic with its whitewashed fence. I half expect to see Tom Sawyer out there, manipulating random children into feudal labour. I think about that, and then I look over the fence into the yard next door. Those aren’t sweatshop goods. No modern day slave labour went into constructing the peach silk slip, or the red satin bikini briefs with the black lace trim. They’re quality.
The Christmas after we moved away, my grandmother came for the holidays, and for two or three Christmases after that. One year, however, she didn’t come. I don’t remember how old I was, just that she stopped coming, but I was probably seventeen before it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen her in a very long time. It’s strange when you’re a kid. I have so many more memories of my childhood then I do of my adolescence. I assume I went mean, as all thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year olds do, and just didn’t care and didn’t ask where she was. I was never as bad as Jake, though. He’s six years older, and got mean at fourteen, and from my understanding, never grew out of his meanness the way most people do, at the very least before they are old enough to vote. Don’t get me wrong, there are mean people of every age, but it’s a certain type of meanness that gets you at fourteen. It never let Jake go, that’s all.
I haven’t brought any furniture into my new house since I inherited all its contents too. Everything is very orange and brown and blue, faded. My couch is the couch that everyone’s grandmother owns or owned, an autumn leaf pattern instantly recognizable and gratifying. It is covered in a plastic sheet, and I laughed out loud my first time seeing it again. I like to sit on it now, and hear the plastic crinkle. Everything smells like potpourri and old and, especially upstairs, like cinnamon.
Once when I was eight, my grandmother caught Jake and my cousins lighting fires in her backyard. She was a big woman, and my cousins were real scrawny, but at fourteen, Jake was no small fry. So when my grandmother got up on them, looming her large frame over where they crouched tending to a fire made up of what I think was someone’s mail stolen from their mailbox, my cousins looked up with fear in their darting eyes, but my brother was only defiant. When he stood, her eyes met his chin. I watched silently from the backdoor as she scolded him. My cousins cringed, and stomped out the fire, but Jake simply looked at her, ears red. She yelled that boys who play with fire would pee the bed, which is when I started laughing. I, of all people shouldn’t have, but when you’re eight and someone suggests that your big brother who teases you about your rubber sheets might need them himself because he is a pyromaniac, well, it tickles something deep inside, even though you don’t know what a pyromaniac is. So I laughed. And Jake heard me. And he swore at our grandmother, swore at her so fiercely that little bits of spit flew from his mouth and landed on her eyelashes. He pushed past her, knocking his shoulder into her, and then he started running for me. I ran from him in turn of course, so hard and so fast that I thought my little lungs would explode. I bolted inside and I hid in the closet of my mother’s childhood bedroom. Her old dresses still hung there, and brushed against my face.
I had been in my new house just a little over a month when I first climbed over the fence. There were no cars in my neighbour’s driveway, so I knew it was safe. She’d left me a selection out on the clothesline, brassieres mostly, hand washed, their bright colours waving at me. The fence is probably 5 feet tall, an awkward height. I bounced clumsily to the ground. I paused to make sure the coast was clear before making my way over to the clothesline to examine the treasures. They were glorious achievements in construction and colour, one turquoise, one burnt orange, another like a watermelon in different shades of green. There was one, very plain at first glance, white with a tiny bow, which I knew she must wear under conservative white blouses, satisfied with the secret of the tiny bow in a naughty blood red. I touched that one; let my fingers trace the bow.
When someone dies in a messy way, I’d always assumed that certain things would be taken care of by certain authorities. This is not the case. I’ve been sleeping on the plastic-covered couch in my grandmother’s house. One day, I walked to the hardware store and purchased carpet cutters. Back at the house, I walked up the stairs, smelling the cinnamon, and made it all the way to my grandmother’s open bedroom door. I saw the stained floor, a once-white carpet now an array of fall colours in one large-woman-shaped splotch. I went back down the stairs.
My brother had big feet; wore size thirteen boots, black and steel-toed. The summer after my high school graduation, Jake came back after half-a-decade to prove to my mother that he wasn’t facedown in a ditch somewhere and also to sell our television. I was doing laundry for my mother on the day he showed up. Very domestic of me I know, but a woman’s delicates need to be treated delicately. Jake never understood things like that when he saw them. So when he saw the lacey slip in my hands, my brother felt the need to use those boots of his, and now my four front teeth aren’t my own. I think sometimes that people can tell. They are perhaps an unnatural colour. I haven’t seen him since. I think I assumed he was dead.
I wasn’t planning on taking the pair of leopard print panties from the line next door. I’d taken to climbing the fence on her laundry day, Saturday mornings after she’d zipped off to run errands. She came back too soon, though. When I heard the car door slam, I panicked, grabbing the first thing I could off the line and vaulting back over the fence. Back in my own house, realizing what was in my hands, I found it hard to believe it belonged to the same woman whose impeccable style had taunted me all summer long. The elastic was stretched, the fabric factory-made and such a trashy pattern that I nearly wept. I went back outside, waited until I heard her car start again and drive off, and climbed the fence. Carefully I reattached the leopard print disaster to the clothesline, then selected my favourite red satin pair with the black lace accent. If I was to take something, it was going to be quality.
People have a misconception that natural death is filled with dignity and peace. I used to think that to, but it isn’t true. I know that now. You sweat and you fall, and you lose control of your bodily functions. When your mother told you to wear clean underwear in case you ever got hit by a bus, she was giving you useless advice. If you are old and alone then your body waits for weeks while you rot. Finally, your neighbour with beautiful taste notices that she hasn’t seen you puttering around your garden in a long time, and checks up on you. First she notices the broken window in your backdoor, then she sees the house is in shambles, then gets scared and runs away without climbing the stairs.
The police told me there was no foul play. Someone broke in and made off with her jewelry and half-empty pill bottles, but by then she’d been dead for days. The thieves worked around her, even taking a roll of money she had kept under her mattress for the past fifty years. I shuddered to think who could do something like that. The officers told me not to hold my breath about the robbery as they found only one piece of evidence, just a footprint in the backyard. A generic man’s bootprint, thousands and thousands of the same tread on the market. Size thirteen.
Autumn is coming and the air is getting crisp. This morning when I was walking to work, I ran into my neighbour at her mailbox. She introduced herself and told me how much she’d liked my grandmother and how sorry she was for what happened. Thanking her, I smiled and went on my way. As I walked, I put my hand in my jacket pocket and clenched my fingers around the soft red treasure within.
Marg Craig is a writer originally from Canada’s beautiful East Coast. She now lives in Toronto with her camera, her laptop, and a growing collection of vintage clothing.