I’m standing on my front porch, wearing my dead grandfather’s blackwatch flannel pajama pants. My ears are red, the snow is white, and my dogs are peeing yellow. They wander around, trying to find the right place to go, but the frost is confusing them. Each of their paws leaves an indention in the the ice, and they turn around to sniff the tracks they leave behind them. I hide my nose from the cold air inside the collar of my father’s sweatshirt. It reads “Jesuit High School” in faded baby blue letters. I'm hunched over the porch railing like the curve of a candy cane and look at my cuffs. Both are ripped along the seam, and the right one has elastic threads escaping from the fabric. My dogs are almost two, and today, my father is sixty.
Every year for my father’s birthday, my grandmother sends him a fruitcake, a jar of fig preserves, and an ill-fitting sweater. And every year, I watch my father devour the fruitcake and slather preserves on english muffins. And as is tradition, my dad prances around the kitchen in his new sweater. The collar squeezes his thick neck. The argyle over his stomach stretches diamonds into squares, and we all laugh and eat cake.
Cars hum, driving across the bridge over the river. I can’t read without my contacts, but know the pink neon blur in the distance is the sign for Jake’s Diner. Drunk couples wander out of bars and towards the parking lot behind our house. Most people who walk by pet the dogs through the fence. No one ever seems to notice me on the porch.
We live downtown, and our house is squeezed between another town home and a bakery. The house on the corner belongs to Sandy, a divorced woman with eight dogs and a dozen plastic surgeries. Her town house has double-decker wrap-around porches, and most people assume our house is a part of hers. But we’re here, with our own front door and address and everything, I swear. Living next to a bakery means that we can smell the daily special before we get out of bed. The wall that separates us from their ovens has been soaked with butter and caked in flour over the years. We know when the bakery is making biscuits or banana bread. Mom always has focaccia on hand, but if she didn’t, we could fix that problem in less than two minutes.
Our front yard, isn’t really a yard at all. It’s a generous patch of grass. The thin layer of snow on the ground reflects the moonlight, and the atmosphere is a hazy violet. The hope of seeing violet is the only reason I volunteer to get off the couch and let my dogs out to pee.
The violet of the sky is the same shade as the walls in my grandmother’s home. Her carpet is white, but has stains and marks like the ones my beagles are leaving before me. But I think her stains are from spilled coffee and food, or at least I hope so. Up until last week, I had not seen my grandmother for a decade. Last time I saw her, I was ten, and it was my sister’s funeral. Now, I am twenty, and last week was my grandfather’s funeral.
Before getting on a plane to Texas, I knew little about my grandmother. I knew that she had bad taste in sweaters and no idea what size my dad wears. I knew that she had a fig tree at every house she’s ever lived in. And I knew that growing up, she gave my dad foot rubs whenever he asked. I did not know the color of her walls until I saw the fresh coat of magenta paint the day before Granddaddy’s funeral.
It was a winter day in Dallas, and my grandmother answered the door in a Mickey Mouse bomber jacket and light wash jeans.
“Oh my gosh!” she yelled.
“Hey, Mom,” my dad said as he hugged her five-foot frame.
“Hey, Nancy!” we all said in unison.
According to Dad, she made everyone call her by her first name except her children. It made her feel young.
“Well come on in. I have some ham and cheese and bread for little sandwiches. The rolls are soft and fresh,” she explained.
She waved us towards the kitchen. The front hall had picture frames of recent yearbook photos of all the grandchildren. These were alongside baby photos. I saw a picture of my cousin Drew and me. I was wearing a pink smock dress that was hiked up to reveal my diaper. I was holding a cookie in one hand and a fistful of Drew’s hair in the other. Seeing pictures of yourself that you have never seen makes me feel like I am aging backwards. It’s like I’m adding time to my life, meeting a part of myself I have never known. This self is sloppy and angry, but only to entertain the person behind the camera.
In the kitchen, the island was set up with slices of lunchmeat and pepper jack cheese. Nancy started to open the a package of Hawaiian Sweet Rolls. Nancy’s house smelled like paint, but I hardly noticed. I was too busy looking at her decorations. On the wall that followed the curve of the stairs there were crosses. No fewer than fifty of them. And that doesn't include the small crosses that were painted on a larger cross. My dad had warned us about the crosses before walking in. Nancy used to work at a gift shop, and got a discount that she had obviously used. On the wall above the fireplace were dream catchers. Dangling from their strands were colorful beads and feathers, and there were enough to ensure that anyone within a mile of the house never had a bad dream.
“Y'all just make yourself at home. Watch anything you like, and I have some and peanut butter cookies in the dining room,” Nancy said.
Her phone started to ring with the name Peter.
“One second. Y’all make yourselves at home,” she yelled. She bounced past her green chair and into her bedroom. When she came back out, she picked up her crocheting and walked into the kitchen with it. She let the yarn ball drag behind her, collecting crumbs and dust. Her metallic nail polish reflected the light as she moved her needles and thread. She was making a brown and blue blanket.
“Mom, where's dad’s chair?” My dad asked.
“Oh that old thing?” she asked back.
“Yes, that old thing that he always used to sit in. You just ditched it?” he said.
“Oh it was old. And no one would use it now anyways.” she explained.
My dad scratched his new beard and nodded. The last time he had a beard was when my sister, Ruby, was sick, and I'm sensing a pattern.
“And what the hell have you done to the walls?” he asked.
“Oh isn't it cute? They’re finally pink,” she cheered.
Finally. Like she had been waiting until Granddaddy couldn't tell her no anymore.
“Dear Lord, Mom,” my Dad breathed. He walked to the fridge and took out one of the twenty jars of preserves. He placed it on the counter and opened the silverware drawer. Twisting the lid off made a pop! and he dipped the spoon in and ate a mouthful of gooey figs. The rest of us made sandwiches with our fresh, packaged sweet rolls.
I walked around the house, exploring a place I did not remember. I recognized the grand piano from the picture of me and Ruby sitting on its bench. I saw random pots and and jars stacked around the house. I opened lids and discovered what was inside. One in the living room had wasabi peas. One on the breakfast table had Caramel chews. Another by the pantry had glitter. The armoire had stacks and stacks of plates and bowls that I assumed had not been used in years. There were way too many plates for a family of six, let alone an old woman without kids at home. By the windowsill there was a napkin with two large avocado seeds. I didn't think planting an avocado tree would go well in Texas, but maybe I was wrong.
People started to arrive. There were some relatives that I knew, like Uncle Mike and Steve. Mike was an exact copy of my father, except he had blonde hair and blue eyes instead of brown hair and brown eyes. Steve looked nothing like either of them and frequented a tanning bed, fighting the winter season and the pale skin tone that even he had inherited.
Most people who rang the doorbell I had never met before. There were people like my dad’s cousin George, an ex-Catholic priest, and and his cousin Jennifer who may or may not be an alcoholic. She preferred talking to anyone who wasn’t an adult.
“Let me tell you. I had a good time in college,” Jennifer told me. “One time I went to a rave in the woods. And when we got there, Salt and Peppa and Run DMC were playing,” she said.
“That’s insane!” I laugh.
“Well the really crazy thing was that they were serving pork loin between two pieces of white bread. The bone was still in it, and there wasn't beer, just water.”
“Huh,” I said, confused.
“I'm going to go outside to smoke. You want some? It’s grape,” she offered.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said as I shook my head no.
Jennifer made her way towards the sliding glass door. She pulled her tight shirt back down over her belly button, but let her low-rise jeans slip further down her waist. I decided to sit on a kitchen stool and munch on the hors-devours that my grandmother set out. There was shrimp dip and cream cheese with pepper jelly. My grandmother poured herself a glass of Welch’s grape juice, and then mixed it with a splash of cheap tequila. She took a sip, and then added some prosecco. I assumed, this was her drink of choice. She had been sipping the same honey blossom colored concoction since we arrived. It could easily be mistaken for juice, unless you saw her quickly prepare it in the kitchen or noticed that half a handle of tequila had disappeared by the end of the day.
My brother was on the couch, looking at my grandparents’ old high school yearbook. Granddaddy was a receiver for the football team. Nancy won “Most Popular Girl.” Together, they won “First to the Altar.”
“And then they got married a week after graduation,” Uncle Steve said. He had one hand on his hip and slurped a Diet Coke in the other. After he gulped, he fiddled with the top buttons of his paisley button-down. It seemed he couldn’t decide just how much chest-hair he wanted to show.
“Where are those?” I asked as I pointed to the can.
“The fridge in the garage, baby,” he said twirling his hand around, smiling as wide as his botox would allow.
I walked to the back of the house and knew that my mother was right. Steve was gay. And he married Lisa to hide it. And because she cleans houses for a living, and she’ll do his for free.
As soon as I stepped into the mudroom the washer dinged. I thought I would prove myself to be a helpful granddaughter. I opened the washer to move the wet clothes to the dryer. I pulled out a clump of clothes and a pair of khakis fell to the floor. I shoved the wet ball into the dryer and then picked up the khakis. I tossed them in, and then pulled them back out. The waist size was a 33, much too small for my grandfather who had always been severely overweight. And well, he’s not even alive to even wear khakis. I searched through the clothes and found a man’s flannel.
I snap back to horns honking and my dogs are scratching at our front door, begging to get back inside our warm townhome. I open it and they run in, but I decide to stand outside a little longer. I can see my breath against the navy sky. I imitate Jennifer smoking her grape flavored weed and make a huge cloud. The sky glows a more saturated lavender shade as the clouds dissipate. I shiver because I'm cold, but more so at the thought of Nancy making out with some gross old man.
After a few minutes, I go back inside, and my father is ready to unwrap his gifts. The first, is from mom, and it's just an envelope. My dad opens it and finds a photo of a grill.
“The patio store didn’t have it in stock, but I ordered it for you,” she explained.
“Thank you love,” he said and kissed her cheek.
“It’s from all of us,” she said as she gestured to me and my siblings.
“Alright does anyone want anymore cake?” Dad asked.
“Wait I have another gift,” I said.
I ran up to my room and grabbed the gift I had wrapped and hidden earlier in the evening.
“Here. From all of us,” I said. I handed my father a large square wrapped in paper with reindeer all over it. Dad’s birthday is December 27th, so he’s gotten used to Christmas wrap. Dad pulled back the paper and revealed a picture frame. It was a drawing of a forest. There was a burly man with a knit cap and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He was swinging an axe, determined to chop down a tree to keep his fireplace burning.
“Why do you have this?” Dad asked.
“What is it?” my brother asked.
“It’s one of Grandaddy's pen and inks. Why do you have this?” he asked, rushed and angry.
“I found it in in Nancy’s garage,” I said, “I figured she would probably throw it away.” I prepared for a lecture, but then Dad smiled.
“Good work,” he laughed, “I know exactly where we’ll put it.”