Matthew Thorburn



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.


2. Pennies

“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 

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