by Cheyenne Brown
It was a Friday morning in March of 1996, and my parents had left us with Grandma the night before while they visited the Nova Scotia Casino. It had opened a year earlier, and they were excited to try their luck at cards. My siblings, Jake and Evelyn, complained that they wanted to go, too. Some Disney movie was playing in Sydney, and McDonalds was right next to the theater.
I was all right with my parents going without us. Let them have their stupid casino. What kind of place with so many games doesn’t allow kids? Grandma hated the idea of the casino too, but my parents convinced her they would only bring five hundred dollars, and they’d return the next evening.
It wasn’t that Grandma objected to gambling. She favored Friday nights: card night with her friends. “It’s different,” she told me. “I’d rather lose to Flora Belle than those snakes in a swamp!”
Grandma had strange names and sayings for almost everything. “Screech” meant someone’s butt. A “gearbox” was someone who wore jeans to church. A “gommach” was someone who wore jeans to church but only because they had burnt their good trousers on the iron. A “rig” was someone who not only wore jeans to church but only went at Easter and Christmas. A rig could also be an animal so pathetic that you felt sorry for it. A “finnean” was a person small in stature but big in personality.
I kept a list of Grandma’s sayings, so I could keep track; there seemed to be a new one just when I thought my “Grandma dictionary” was complete.
I loved Grandma’s house. Always warm with the blast of heat firing off from the wood stove. Friends stopped by to gossip and cook. It was just a trailer but, since I was only ten years old, it felt like a tiny palace.
I can still smell the yeast from when her hands were strong enough to knead bread. Her Catholic Women’s Organization quarterly was on the little round table by the door. Inside were decorative stamps commemorating Easter.
Instead of a bunny or egg, the stamps were embossed with lilies and gold crosses. I thought of asking her for them, knowing she’d throw them in the trash. A sticker was still a sticker to me, and I could add it to my collection, maybe stick some on my tarnished bedpost. Dress it up.
Jake played quietly as he always did when he was working up to trouble. He had relocated Grandma’s couch, turning it over to use for his fort.
I stood next to Evelyn, ready to teach her how to make bread the right way. It was clear she wasn’t interested, and Grandma would be awake soon, expecting breakfast. I knew Grandma’s bread recipe by heart. I winced at the sight of baking soda on the counter. Evelyn had brought it from home as a substitute for Grandma’s Magic brand baking powder, which was the key ingredient if you wanted the bread airy, light, and edible. I rolled my eyes at her, and she stuck out her tongue at me.
I heard Grandma rustle from the bedroom, and Evelyn shot like a dart under Jake’s fort. Clearly, the baking lesson was over. I turned on the radio, tuning into a jaunty fiddle riff by Ashley MacIsaac, Grandma’s favorite musician.
Grandma shuffled into the kitchen. She clutched her worn robe over her nightgown. Her wisps of short hair were wild and peppered gray. Without her glasses, her eyes were a lovely solid green.
She squinted towards the living room. “Jessie,” she asked me, pointing to the fort with her cane. “Do we have a couple of gommachs in there?”
“I think they’re a couple of rigs, Grandma.”
I could hear Evelyn scrambling further under the cushions. She was older and taller than I was, and her giant sock foot stuck out on the carpet. Jake giggled, remaining hidden.
Grandma inched closer towards the fort, and the cushions quivered with movement. As she was about to lift the top cushion, Jake and Evelyn lunged towards her on their knees, screaming like pirates. She dropped her cane in surprise, and I ran towards her, ready to steady her feet. She leaned on me, letting out a hoarse cough.
I glared at Evelyn. She twirled her auburn curls through her fingers. Jake stood up, one arm bent, tensely rubbing at the other one. “Sorry, Grandma. Are you all right?”
“Yes, rig,” she said. “I just need to sit down.” I kicked at the cushions, making a path for Grandma to her rocking chair.
She turned on her respirator, the motor of the air tank blared in my ears. She fixed the air hose about her chest, cupping the mouthpiece. I handed over her glasses, which were sitting on the table beside her. She turned on Coronation Street, a morning soap, and I sat on the carpet, pretending I was into it.
Jake and Evelyn turned the couch around and pushed it to its rightful place. They sat on it like little angels, stealthily punching at each other’s arms, covering up a grape-juice stain on the cushion.
The phone rang, and Grandma flipped off the television. She lifted her mouthpiece, pointing at the kitchen for me to turn off the radio. We heard her say, “Oh, hi, dear,” into the phone which meant it wasn’t one of her friends. Had it been, I would have heard Gaelic, a language Evelyn said was as musical as chalkboard scratchings. A language she wanted to understand only so she could hear what Grandma was saying about her.
“It’s your father,” she whispered.
Jake, Evelyn, and I chattered incessantly to ourselves, wondering what news he had from the casino. Jake jumped and danced, herding around Grandma, chanting, “We’re rich, we’re millionaires, zillionaires.” He was six.
Grandma hung up the receiver. “Joe and Lynn just won a thousand dollars. They’re coming home this afternoon,” she said through gasps of breath. That was how she addressed Mom and Dad to me. Always by their names.
Grandma grunted. “Pfft! That can buy you kids a lot of bikes. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“A thousand,” I said, trying to do the bike math in my head. “I saw a pink one at Harold’s Hardware. It’s got sparkles and streamers and—”
“Ack! Your mother’s just going to put it away, and you’ll never see a dime. That’s all she does: count Joe’s money.” Grandma rocked in her chair and put the air mask back over her face.
“Maybe,” I muttered.
Grandma’s mood was sometimes unpredictable. If you spent too much time with her, it was like you grew stale on her. It didn’t help that all four of us were hungry by then.
Grandma shut off the respirator and, with a lot of effort, hoisted herself up with her cane, and shuffled through the kitchen.
“We’re going to the Coal Miners Café, kids. I want you ready by the time I leave.”
That could mean a while, depending on how dressed-up Grandma wanted to be.
The three of us dashed outside to the twin poplars in the front yard. Jake sailed on the log swing, each trip lifting him high as he could go towards the heavens. Evelyn kicked at a pile of dried leaves. I climbed one of the trees, flicking at the ants that soldiered up the bark until I reached the thickest branch and dangled over it, excited we were going to town for breakfast.
Grandma knew everyone, and everyone knew her in Inverness. She came from a line of stern Cape Breton country women. Women who did the needful on this isolated Island. Women who cared for scores of each other’s children while their husbands were at sea, or in the mines. Women who trudged miles through the snowy foothills to tend to faraway pregnant neighbors with little more than a darning needle and a screaming pot of boiled water. At ten years old, I felt I was heir to the throne of these stoic queens.
I heard Grandma’s Chrysler K-Series running in the driveway. Her horn blared. Evelyn, Jake, and I piled in, carrying on in the backseat. Evelyn reached for the tam in the back window Grandma had given me, teasing me that I was her twin. We pushed each other’s heads into the seat in front of us until Grandma yelled for us to stop and took the tam away. Jake bent on the floor, snatching a silver piece of foil. Evelyn said, “It’s not gum, Jake. Just a candy wrapper.” Jake made a face and chucked it back under the floor mat.
We rolled along the dirt road that turned into pavement, then stopped at the St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Grandma peered at herself in the car mirror, and blotted her lips on a tissue. Jake, Evelyn, and I got out of the back seat and followed her through the graveyard path.
Evelyn and Jake ran ahead to the large angel statue in the center of the cemetery. I kept pace with Grandma, making sure she kept her footing. I noticed she was wearing her good wig, and her boots were shined to the tips.
She visited our Grandpa’s grave each week, but I always found an excuse not to go with her. I was glad it was daylight. You’d never catch me there alone. Evelyn once told me if you stepped on a grave, the dead would follow you home and haunt you. I was careful to stick to the path away from the gravestones.
“Get over here, finnean,” she called to me, and I obeyed. We stood together next to Grandpa’s simple gray slab with our Miller surname etched in thick font. She sighed, and got up close, tapping his headstone. “We all end up here someday. You know that, don’t you?”
I stared at her, bewildered. “It’s bad luck to step on graves, Grandma.”
“Who told you that?” she asked.
“No dear, that’s not true. The dead can’t hurt you. They’re part of your life. You need to visit them so they know they’re in your heart.” She tapped Grandpa’s stone gently with her foot. “Isn’t that right, Peter?”
We stayed for a little while until Evelyn and Jake came over complaining that they were both hungry. Grandma blew one last kiss at Grandpa’s grave, and we left for Inverness.
We were a few miles from town and Jake grew restless, taking off his belt to investigate the floor. Suddenly, Grandma screeched her tires to a halt. Jake nearly flew over the front seat. Evelyn stopped him by the waist of his pants. He banged his head on the console and started wailing.
A dog stood its ground on the road, just looking at the car. Grandma slanted out the driver’s window, taking in a heavy breath, then, “Get out of here, Inverness dog!”
The dog barked then ran away. “Inverness dog!” we repeated in the back seat, busting up, the fear of Grandma’s wrath erased from our minds.
Jake stood up, “It’s a bitch. That’s not a swear. A bitch is a female dog.”
Grandma’s eyes narrowed at Jake through the rear-view mirror. “Where’s your seat belt? Sit down and buckle yourself now!”
Jake bounced on the seat, his hands grasping for the belt. Grandma swore, too. She implied it in between her rantings. She could do that.
Evelyn leaned into Jake and me, whispered, “I once saw an Inverness dog look both ways before crossing the street.”
Jake and I nodded. It was probably true. Town dogs had owners, but no collar in sight. They roamed wherever they wanted; private property meant nothing to them. They came in wiry lab form, or sometimes a fat hot-dog style with slightly longer legs. They were a breed of their own.
If you took every kind of dog and mashed them into a genetic blender, you’d breed an Inverness dog. Streetwise, hard to catch, but always nearby when their owners jingled their bowl of scraps.
We reached the Coal Miner’s Café. Grandma handed me back my tam and pulled her own from her quilted bag. We slipped them on and giggled at each other. We looked like two festive Shriners.
Inside, Grandma scoffed at the menu of paninis and cranberry walnut salads, and we’d end up ordering the same thing; S.O.A.S. She wouldn’t reveal what it stood for, but I knew it was something brutish and suitable, and I bragged to Grandma that it should be her bread under our plates topped with gravy.
Evelyn and Jake ordered mac and cheese. Jake hammered the ketchup bottle over his bowl. Globs shot out on the pasta, and some of it landed on the floor. He twirled around, fetching napkins on the counter. He slid into the mess, then got up, giggling. The back of his blond head smeared with it, like a gaping wound.
After breakfast, Grandma took us to the hardware store where she chatted with men who were doing their men business, buying house things and fixing house problems. She shooed us away while she talked. I ran past the bike section and busied myself with the dryer hoses nearby that looked like spaceman appendages if you shimmied them up your arms.
Copyright © 2016 by Cheyenne Brown