1. The Key
His father drops him off for dinner:
meatloaf, peas and mashed
potatoes, a glass of milk sweating
on the table. Grandma T. asks
about school, but what else
does she say? I can’t hear her voice
anymore, only her shoes’
faint shuffling, then water runs,
a spoon tinks against a bowl
in the small green kitchen.
He sits across from her each Tuesday
in her second-floor apartment.
I don’t think he asks her anything.
He’s only eight. After dinner
Grandma T. has a few chores for him.
I remember carrying her
one small bag of trash down
to the dumpster. I stood on that
same chair once, shoes off, to change
a light bulb. We never hugged
(I kissed her faintly fuzzy cheek
when saying goodbye) but she held
my waist to steady me. I see
him take her plastic Christmas wreath
to the basement storage locker.
It smells down there of wood
and damp, what he doesn’t know
are mothballs. The padlock key
feels cold in his palm. “Be careful
you don’t lose it,” she says.
“There’s only one.” I remember
the game he plays, racing
alone down the narrow stairs.
Can he make it from the second floor
to the basement before the slow
fire door on the landing thuds shut?
He likes how this feels—
as if a bomb’s ticking, but he might
still escape. The boy opens
his hand to be sure the key’s still there.
Then he squeezes it
tighter in his fist. Then he runs.
“Go get your pennies,” Grandma T. says
once he’s done with his work.
She keeps them in a plastic tray
in her top dresser drawer. I remember
licking the flap, sealing the church envelope
she’d give me to carry them home.
Sometimes they barely fit and he’s afraid
the envelope will rip. Other times
she says to add a quarter—she keeps
these in her drawer too—if there aren’t
many pennies. In her younger days
pennies meant a lot, and to him
they’re like pirate’s treasure, the gleaming
weight of coins in his hand. I see him
walk down the hall to her bedroom
in his blue t-shirt and shorts. Dusty light
stretches his shadow across the floor.
He’s quiet, a secret worrier given to
imagining each bad thing that could happen.
He knows she’s old, can’t stand straight,
shuffles when she walks. He’s heard
his parents wondering how long
living alone here can last. I want to tell him
not to worry—or go ahead,
worry, though it won’t change her story.
She doesn’t drive, doesn’t go out
often. Church friends give her a ride
on Sundays; his dad takes her to the A&P
every other week. He’s too young
to think it, though I do: where did she
get all those pennies? But already
I’m walking down the hall, stepping
back forty years to watch him scoop
up the coins, see how he forgets himself
in their shiny heft, the faint clink-clink
as they fall into the white envelope.
3. Mrs. Twichell
Then it’s time to “pay a visit,”
Grandma T. says, sending him
across the hall to her neighbor
Mrs. Twichell. She’s taller, rounder,
her cottony white hair so different
from Grandma T.’s brown wig.
I think he understands she’s lonely—
or maybe I’m filling that in now,
looking back as he sits once more
on her couch and she perches
in the gray armchair. She lived alone
like Grandma T., was also a retired
teacher, a widow. Maybe she
had no grandchildren so Grandma T.
was sharing hers. He examines
Mrs. Twichell’s living room
and the sliver of kitchen he can see.
Her apartment mirrors
Grandma T.’s, even the furniture:
a chair and a couch and a coffee table.
But she doesn’t have a letter opener
shaped like a sword, like the one
Aunt Phyllis brought back from Spain
that he longs to play with,
or a neat stack of slit-open letters
from Mrs. Bea Teabo of Lima, Ohio,
Grandma T.’s “long-ago friend.”
Now Mrs. Twichell’s asking about
school, but like a poor student
he’s let his mind wander
back across the hall: what does
Grandma T. do while he’s here?
Mrs. Twichell asks again. She doesn’t
need much to drift away too,
to a smaller town where she stands
before a roomful of children.
She turns the globe, names
oceans, rivers, all the bright jigsaw
pieces of those faraway lands.
4. The Landing
One night Grandma T. tried to sit
on the edge of her bed, to untie her shoes
or maybe make a call, and missed.
She sat on the floor instead, sat down hard
and broke her hip. The boy doesn’t know
who found her or how. Maybe
she screamed, he thinks, and someone
heard the scream. Someone called for help
and the ambulance comes, red lights
flashing off darkened windows.
The super, Mr. Lee, lets them in with his key.
But the paramedics can’t get their stretcher
up the stairs, can’t make the tight turn
at the landing. Is his father there by now?
The boy hears this story later, from his
parents. They had to carry her
down the only way they could: sitting
in her rocking chair like a queen on a throne.
No one told him if she was strapped in
somehow, or wrapped in a blanket—
if she was awake, or how much
she was hurting. Though it’s over before
he hears it, he fears she might fall off
the narrow chair. She could catch cold.
I worry they didn’t replace her wig,
which might have fallen off when she fell,
or maybe she’d taken it off already,
getting ready for bed. The paramedics
carry her to the parking lot. I hear
the ambulance doors slam shut, the engine
rev before they pull away. Except
I’m not there. He wasn’t there. But what
I’d give for us to be in this moment—
when it’s quiet again, when he could imagine
a different ending before she disappears
into the fog of the nursing home.
5. The Day Before
He sits on her carpet the color
of apple sauce, stacking the wooden
blocks Grandma T. keeps
in a cardboard toy box. He’s too old
for this, but what else is there to do?
I can see their chipped blue
and red letters, feel their worn corners.
She watches as he builds a tower
the way his father used to. He looks
at the wooden legs of the marble-top
coffee table, her heavy black shoes.
I remember she’d set out Christmas mints
in a glass dish on that table: pretty
red-striped candies he tries once.
They taste terrible. I can still picture
the cramped galley kitchen,
the avocado-green stove and refrigerator.
He hasn’t tasted an avocado yet
or even heard that word. Grandma T.
saves used twist ties, untied strings,
rubber bands, smoothed-out “tin foil”
in her kitchen drawer: anything
that still has “some use in it.”
She worries something might break
because she’s afraid to ask Mr. Lee
to fix things. Had she heard him yell
at someone? I remember her telling Dad
Mrs. Twichell was scared too.
The boy looks up from his blocks,
noticing how Grandma T. just calls her
Twichell, as if it’s her first name.
Grandma T.’s name—she’s the only one
I’ve ever known to have it—was Majel.
Matthew Thorburn’s latest book is The Grace of Distance, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. His book Dear Almost won the Lascaux Prize. He has new poems in Copper Nickel, Hotel Amerika, The Southern Review and The Best American Poetry 2020. He lives in New Jersey. Find him at www.matthewthorburn.net.