Prose Winter 2021

Birthday Card

by Sophie Boyd-Fliegel

Grandma’s house was on the top of a hill with no view. Driving up the crowded hillside for the first time in almost ten years, all the houses I used to think looked like easter eggs had somehow grown uniformly washed-out. We turned onto her street where some bigger lots had front yards with shrubs that sprouted chain link fencing and guarded two-car garages. The garages, I supposed, were for things and not cars because the cars were strung along the asphalt where the sidewalk should’ve been. The street sagged in the middle, and yellowing lawns baked in front of empty porches. It might’ve looked so exhausted because of the late July heat, thick as a nosebleed. But it was probably because she was gone.

I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t have remembered the exact day Grandma Clara died, except it was the day after my sixteenth birthday, July 24. She’d left me a message two days before. I remember I’d gotten home from driver’s ed, checked to make sure my mother was still at work so I could make some Top Ramen, and played the voicemails. Grandma Clara always called on my birthday, or whenever she remembered, and she’d always repeat herself, saying I had to get out to see her out where it was “California calm.” In the voicemail she only said she’d try again, and there was a card that should make the mail before Sunday.

I used to get dropped off at Grandma’s on weekends when we lived in the valley and mom had to work. But since we moved to Michigan for mom’s old boyfriend’s Amtrak job we’d never been back. I used to tell Grandma not to take it personal, we never went anywhere. The truth was, I stopped asking to visit when I hit high school because it was always the same answer: “If she wants to see you,” my mother would say, “she knows where to find you.”

She hadn’t called on my birthday or the day after. I was in the family room watching Antiques Roadshow when I heard mom put the landline on speaker and continue washing dishes. Maybe her hands were wet, or maybe she figured I wasn’t around because I heard the police still on speaker say they’d taken her mother’s body from the bathtub where it had been for 60 hours. “Autopsy pending,” I heard a man say. “Sure,” mother cut him off before she hung up, followed by, “that’s all right.” What else should she say, I guess, if she didn’t want to know. Still made me mad. We flew out the next week because estate services said everything had to be gone by the end of the month. I wasn’t going to go, but was told it was my last chance to grab anything before it got sold or dumped.

“We’ll get some stuff we can remember her by and some stuff we actually want,” mom said in our kitchen as she packed her suitcase with empty bags. She didn’t say much on the flight there except to tell me I didn’t need the Biscoffs. I only spoke to offer to split the earbuds so we could watch Wedding Crashers for the second time that summer. She said yes but didn’t laugh until the credits when I asked if I could drive the rental.

We didn’t stop for lunch, just drove straight there. I was starving, but the combination of the air conditioning and the second hour of Rush Limbaugh made me nauseous. The moment the car stopped moving I turned everything off. My mother said nothing, just pointed to some knocked-over squirrel feeders. “What?” I said.

“So nice,” she said, “to know she cared about some living things.”

“Don’t worry, they’ll die too,” I said, wondering if Grandma had actually managed to take the dependent rodents with her. She would’ve loved that, hippie hoarder that she was. We idled in silence while my mother corrected her drawn-on eyebrows, nearly permanent now that she had the habit of casually ripping out her brow hairs with her fingers. I was losing my patience and more nervous than I thought I’d be. I swallowed snot and jiggled the child-locked door. “Devin,” mom said with her eyes still on the mirror, “don’t open the door.”

“Thought I was here to help,” I said. “No, the house door,” she said. “The house will smell like her.”

“I know.”

“I mean like dead her,” she said, now looking straight at me.

“I said I know.” I found the lock, forced the handle, and blew my nose onto the wavy hot concrete. Mom got out halfway and drew one of her two-part breaths, exhaling forever. She looked so much older. Made me more annoyed. I thought about how slowly she’d moved in LAX, tripping over herself on the escalators, and how I’d actually felt sorry for her then. I watched her find the hide-a-key — the rock hadn’t changed — click it into the padlocked garage, then shove up with what looked like the last of her. Inside, hundreds of cardboard boxes lined the walls, all different sizes, five, maybe six deep in places, stacked to touch the ceiling.

We hesitated together on the threshold of the garage, which was surprisingly cool and deep. My decade-old memories of my grandmother, always busy preparing lunches, pulling weeds, or ordering toys I’d wanted off paid programming ads, were beginning to fade. Mom’s paranoia was replacing them, about Grandma’s drinking, her run-away debt, bad teeth, fat dog. From what little mom had said about growing up with an alcohol and credit-addicted single parent, I’d guessed there would be a lot of stuff. I was expecting it, just the sheer amount. But then I realized I probably would never see it all. I thought about crying. Maybe, if it had been a dump, we could’ve called a scrap truck.

Except what we had was a library, a temperature-controlled collection of everything Grandma might’ve breathed on since, like, the forties. She never really touched it either, by the look of the boxes’ sharp corners, how they hadn’t softened from age or being moved around. Each box had a Sharpie name tag on one side with her strange all-caps writing. My mother had already turned back to light a cigarette. I started reading the tags as fast as I could.

Hello, my name is: PANTS. FORMAL. ’71-’82. Hello, my name is: XMAS COUPONS (ALL). Hello, my name is: DRAWER ORGANIZERS. Hello, my name is: BUTTONS. (SINCE ’00). Hello, my name is: MELINDA — DOLLS (FOR DEVIN).

It would take months, maybe a year, to go through it all. But I could figure something out. I could block off the street, get a crane to arrange the boxes on a mile-long blanket where I could splay everything out, look at everything one at a time, then all at once. Sure, an inconvenience to the neighbors, but I could turn it into a museum, free of charge except for a suggested donation for my troubles, call it “Clara’s World.” Or I could make it a theme park with a Maze of Memories, games to win rodeo paraphernalia, rides like Tupperware Tumbler. I’d have info plaques with her favorite salad dressing flavors and get the catalogs she loved to sponsor the merchandise. There would be a big book at the end that everyone had to go out of where they would write down things they loved about her, even if they didn’t know her and were just there for the experience. Or I could win Antiques Roadshow.

“God, be near,” I heard mom say as she pulled out her notebook. “Who gets the house?” I asked. “The bank,” she said, continuing to write.

“Bank accounts?”

“Not your business,” she said, “even if there was anything.”

I waited. “Too bad,” I said, the closest I’d come to a condolence. I walked back into the heat of the driveway and scanned the street for neighbors, mailmen, dogs, anyone that she might’ve known by name or who might’ve known hers. My mother’s bleached, perm-curled hair had fallen over her made-up eyes, still on her notebook. I couldn’t believe it, she could write nonstop, but she refused to talk to me. I grabbed the key off the car hood and slipped it in my giant sweatshirt pocket. “I’ll check the mail,” I said. No response. I turned the corner, took the shallow steps to the back door under the fading scalloped awning, slipped in the key, and turned the lock.

I took a breath and considered if I should hold it while I tried to find the card, just in case of rotten food or, I don’t know, whatever mom was worried about. But I’d only taken one step and looked down before I saw it on a table, next to a fake hydrangea bouquet and an ashtray. On top of a plain envelope was a pink Hallmark card with owls who had rhinestones for eyes. “To my beautiful granddaughter,” the front read. I opened it immediately. “DEAR DEVIN,” was in the top left corner, printed small as if for a long message, but there was nothing below.

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