Once I rode with my step-mother who isn’t really my step-mother to a barn auction on the edge of a small town, by which I mean an auction held inside a barn. I sat in the back because Roxy, my step-mother’s neighbor, occupied the front. Roxy spoke in a voice grown soft with age so that I had to lean forward, my feet on the rise between seats, my arms folded across them, to hear the rattle of air that wheezed from her lips around the familiar shape of words. My step-mother drove, and the car crept along the road which curved like water. A pale blue cardigan buttoned under her chin and draped from her shoulders like a cape. Trees arched and met overhead; our slow progress contained inside this leafy tunnel.
When we got to the other side, I expected the world would open to meadows, and Roxy and my step-mother might evaporate with rapture as if their whole lives they had been waiting for such an expanse.
That didn’t happen.
We parked in gravel beside a barn, grey with weather and stately. Inside the auctioneer sang his solicitation first for an antique milk bottle, then a cow, a goat, a tractor, a rabbit, a snow crawler, and a box of buttons. He drew from these like a Bingo caller, B-7: revolutionary iron, O-34: Confederate uniform. “Shoulder button,” he said. “No wear.” The room leaned forward, blue-veined hands, fluttering in tiny waves, competed for his attention.
Roxy waved, and we drove away, buttons rattling on her knees, to a not-yet-shuttered summer diner where we ate BLTs and Tuna Melts while curtains with frilled edges billowed.
My grandmothers lived alone at the ends of their lives, one for forty years, one for fifteen. One took up driving at seventy, when her husband died. I wonder who sat beside and suggested she narrate to hone her attention from the habits of a passenger as she drove, who pressed a hand on the dash for stability or gripped the door and called out warnings causing my grandmother to lash out: What? I have this. I see it. Enough already. I know what I’m doing. Jeeze.
My grandmother would not say Jeeze. Such informality of speech is the territory of my generation who will, as old women, climb on sofas to reach a book stowed on a too-high shelf and curse like sailors at the alien reflected in the window glass.
My other grandmother taught me to play Scrabble. She knitted sweaters for each of us in bold colors with painter’s names: mauve, magenta, azure, and sewed clothing for my Barbies. I didn’t know it then, but they wore haute-couture detailed by her needle before arthritis stiffened and bent her knuckles to fierce angles, as sharply cornered and unmoving as ice floes.
I visited her, once, in her nursing home. We sat at a table of old women, all of them vying for my attention. My grandmother swelled with pride and anger. “My granddaughter,” she said. “My guest.” She wanted ice cream, so I took her away without signing her out. We drove along a road between a meadow and a winding creek into a nameless town, a crossroad with an ice cream shop and ordered cones that melted, sugary liquid cream running down our wrists.
Birds, I should know them. Grosbeak, pipet, flycatcher, whip-o-will. Feathered flyers whose hearts beat among the clouds. I know the whip-o-will by whistle but nothing of its color or habitat; except to know that, like me, she is not a California bird.
From the mirror, a woman looks out. Her eyes are slightly cockeyed, one hangs in a perpetual squint, her nose curves in the middle. She juts her chin as she looks at me, flattening the dimple that caused great comment in her high school poetry class when students closed eyes and ran blind fingers over another’s face. The feeler described the sensation while other students guessed identity. We declared the project stupid, mundane, to hide our excitement at the thrill of touching another’s face. My overbite announced me before the novice poet said more than a couple words.
I jut my chin and the woman in the mirror obliges, elongating my cheeks, tightening the loose muscles of my lips. Though she, the woman in the mirror, cannot be me. I am a woman who stands on my sofa to turn my blinds open each morning. I have no dignity, no veneration, no wisdom. Look at her. Look. She does not even know her birds. She is as useful as a baby.
But here is a thing: wizened or not, even if she (the woman, any woman) is like an old hollow tree that should be euthanized before the wind cracks its spine, she has her pleasures, her secrets, her shames.
Kathie Jacobson's work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Driftwood Press, Pithead Chapel, Necessary Fiction, and other journals, is forthcoming in anthologies presented by Crack the Spine and Epiphany, has been featured as a Longform Fiction Pick-of-the-Week.