Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11, Number 2
By Raymond Luczak
I like picking raspberries. They taste good, and it’s a fun thing to do on a summer day. Today Mom and Dad are food shopping. Then they will bring Grandma home from the hospital. She had a car accident, and now she can’t walk anymore. I visited her almost every day, but today’s special, because she’s coming home.
Picking raspberries makes my fingers red, and then I have to lick them all over, like my dog Fuzzy. But he don’t like to get near the raspberries in Grandpa’s yard because of the thorns. He just sits in the shade, panting from the heat and watching me from the other side of the fence. He’s got happy blue eyes with a black and white shaggy coat. He’s half border collie, but no one knows what the other half is. I can’t always understand people on the street when we go walking, but I notice their faces when they see Fuzzy wagging his big tail, and then they see my hearing aids. All of a sudden their faces sink, and they go quiet. It’s so strange. My family don’t act scared or look like they’re sad for me. Sometimes people on the street talk real loud or show off their teeth when they think I can’t lip read them. They seem to think I need a lot of help, but I don’t.
Anyway, Fuzzy always follows me without a leash wherever I go, even on the street. But not when I pick raspberries. After I fill my plastic bucket to the brim, I look for one last raspberry hidden under all the leaves and pop it into my mouth. I only eat one raspberry when I pick them. My brothers are terrible at raspberries. They never pick enough to make a rhubarb-raspberry pie. They keep picking and eating them as they go along. Grandma says I’m the best picker. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl.
Grandpa’s place has a big garden that he weeds all the time, and he mows the lawn twice a week. He’s got a big garage and a dull green truck that’s real old. He said his father used it during the Great Depression, which sounds like a long time ago, so he likes to keep it working. Dad says he’s proud of it. I went riding in the open back with my brothers to the beach one time. It was loud and bumped a lot. It was fun to sit and feel the air. I had to keep Fuzzy on the leash that one time. Dad was afraid Fuzzy would jump out of the truck on the highway, but he didn’t. He stuck his head out and let the wind whip at his nose. Then my brothers felt his drool fly all over their skins so they moved to the other side of the truck. I just held on to him so he couldn’t jump out.
Anyway, my bucket is nice and heavy. It’s got just enough for the pie that Grandma says she’ll make when she comes home. I close the gate behind me, and Fuzzy is already sniffing at my hands. I set the bucket down on the grass and let him lick my hands with his long tongue. His pink tongue turns red, and then his nose is about to dive into the bucket.
I scream “No!”
He scurries away a little back to the garden fence where there’s chicken wire and wooden posts. Grandpa made the fence very tall to keep the deer out. He did the same thing for the raspberries.
Over by the garden, Fuzzy spins around and trots right back to me. He looks into my eyes, drops suddenly to the ground and sticks his butt up. He wants to play. So I put my bucket onto the back of Grandpa’s truck and go rolling around in the grass with him. He loves wrestling with me, and he never bites me. Never. He’s a good dog.
He darts away when I think I’ve got him in my arms, and then he lies on his back. He wants a belly rub. He reaches up to lick my face if I lean too close. He always makes me laugh when he does that. I don’t know what time it is, but I have to get ready for Grandma. I think she will like the new ramp that Dad and Uncle Steve built for her. It took them two days. Fuzzy likes to chase the ball down the ramp when it bounces away to the sidewalk and he brings it back to me. But Dad says I can’t do that anymore. It’s for Grandma only. I helped Dad paint the wood green and white to match the house. I had to tie Fuzzy to the mailbox post so he wouldn’t get too close to the wet paint. Grandpa didn’t help out. He was busy fixing something in the garage. Dad and Uncle Steve kept looking at each other like there was something wrong with Grandpa. They didn’t talk much, so I didn’t know why.
The house has a nice lemony smell. We call it Grandma’s house because she’s the one who keeps it clean. She washes the floors once a week so it’s always shiny. I like the hardwood floors in the dining room the best. The sun glows there in the afternoon. It dances through the curtains when the breeze blows in. Sometimes it’s like a mirror, and you have to hide your eyes a bit. We don’t have hardwood floors in my house, so it’s different. Everything feels so Grandma here, but I know she will be upset to see that the cabinets in the dining room haven’t been dusted in a while. Mom tried her best, but she was so busy taking care of Grandma at the hospital. I tried to help out, but Mom didn’t want me to climb up the ladder. My brothers didn’t want to dust. They said it was too girlie.
I carry my bucket to the side door of Grandma’s house. There’s no ramp, but you can go downstairs or upstairs to the kitchen. I hold the door to let Fuzzy in before me. He goes straight upstairs to his bowl of water by the shoe mat, which he licks up greedily, and then he lies right near the air conditioner in the dining room when I show Grandpa my bucket. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, reading a newspaper. He’s got a big belly, and a red scar across his forehead. He got it from a war in Vietnam. I always mispronounce that name wrong. I say it as Veet-nam, but everyone tells me it’s Vee-it-nam. Grandpa has a thick white moustache, but he keeps it very short so I can see his lips.
He says, “Let me see your tongue.”
I stick it out to show that I’ve had only one raspberry.
He nods approval.
“Check Fuzzy too.”
Fuzzy wakes up when he hears his name. He’s real funny when one of his ears go up like that.
“Fuzzy, Fuzzy. Come here.”
He comes up to me and lets me open his jaw. Grandpa looks down and smiles.
“A little guilty, but acceptable.”
I hide the bucket in a big plastic bag and tuck it in the back of the fridge where my brothers won’t find it. They’re out in Logan Park, playing baseball. I don’t like being around when they play baseball, because they always act like big shots. They’re all older than me. They say girls don’t know how to play ball. Not true. Sometimes they pretend they don’t know me, ‘specially when other kids point at my ears. I never know exactly what my brothers say to them. They hate it when I ask. I hate it even more when they don’t answer.
Fuzzy was supposed to belong to Keith, my oldest brother, but he didn’t like Keith at all. He took one sniff of me, and that was it. He’s stayed with me ever since he was a puppy. He didn’t want to play with my brothers. Maybe that’s why Keith don’t like me so much. He’s in ninth grade now. Dad says that Keith’s going through changes most people don’t understand, but I will understand when my turn comes. I hate it when grownups talk like that. Maybe Dad thinks because I can’t hear everything, I won’t be able to understand everything. Not true.
My other two brothers just follow Keith around. Sometimes I want to go, but not all the time, because they push me around and say that I can’t do certain things ‘cause I’m a girl. They hate it when I keep asking what things, what stuff. That’s why they always slip out and never tell me where they’re going. They think I’m a big mouth. But they do talk a lot, and I can’t always understand their jokes. Sometimes I think they’re stupid, but Mom says that I shouldn’t think those things about them. It’s not nice. I’m supposed to give them a chance to talk, and then they’ll give me a chance to talk. I don’t know why people have to talk all at the same time. Mom says it’s rude too. That’s why I like Fuzzy. He don’t tell me that I can’t do anything, and he don’t tell anyone what things I’ve done.
Grandpa goes back to the living room and watches TV. I sit on the sofa, and Fuzzy follows. He knows he can’t jump up on the sofa, so he just puts his head up and waits for me to pet him. On TV, some soldiers are shooting a small group of thin people. They are almost like skeletons when they collapse to the ground. Other soldiers stand and watch them die, not even moving to help. I can’t see their faces well because it was done on a video camera like Dad’s. Grandpa turns and catches me watching. He picks up his remote control and changes the channel. A nature program comes on, and it’s got captions.
Fuzzy and I watch the whole thing. It’s all about butterflies and moths. I watch some men go netting after the butterflies, which is very strange. Why chase the butterflies when they will let you watch them a few feet away if you stay still? That’s how I watch butterflies around here.
My brothers come home from the baseball game. They are covered with sweat and dirt. Grandpa says they got to scrub up. Kory, my middle brother, sticks his tongue out at me, and I stick up my middle finger behind Grandpa’s head. Kory giggles and goes off into the bathroom. I turn up my hearing aids and listen real hard. Sounds like they’re squabbling again. I’m glad I’m not a brother. They have it hard when there’s more than one.
They have to fight for everything. They don’t want girl things, so they leave me alone for the most part. Sometimes they want to play rough with Fuzzy, but they know enough not to tease him for too long. My little brother Karl got bit on the wrist once, but that was because he kept pulling at his tail real hard. He thought he could pull it off like a dead squirrel. Dad was so mad at Karl. That was the first time I heard Dad call anyone stupid. Karl couldn’t use his left hand for three weeks.
Mom wanted to give Fuzzy away to someone else, but Fuzzy just kept his head real low and stayed behind me whenever he was in the house. She changed her mind when I told her that Fuzzy was my best friend. Now Karl never touches Fuzzy. Ever.
Suddenly Fuzzy scoots off to the front door. That means someone’s at the door. We all follow him. I peek out the kitchen window to see whose car it is.
It’s ours. Mom’s opening up a wheelchair next to Grandma’s seat in the car, and Dad’s lifting Grandma from the car onto her wheelchair.
Dad hollers my brothers out of the house, and he gives them a suitcase each from the trunk. Grandma’s been away for almost two months. I didn’t like the hospital, and she didn’t either. She told me so herself. But I came almost every day with flowers from the fields near Logan Park. Mostly I made lots of get-well cards, and she let me tape them all over her wall. Mom says that Grandma has to exercise her legs even if they can’t walk anymore. She says that it’s good for her blood.
Grandpa hasn’t stepped outside yet. He hasn’t come to the hospital for two months. Mom told me not to ask him anything about Grandma because he gets mad real easy. He turns away and goes back into the living room. It’s not nice, what he’s doing.
I follow him.
“Grandma’s home. Come on.”
I tug at his hand.
He pulls away and says nothing. He presses his remote control. The volume of the TV goes up real loud.
Back at the front door, Mom and my brothers are standing in the kitchen. Dad is pushing Grandma through the front door, into the kitchen. It’s so strange to see her in a wheelchair here, ‘specially in this kitchen. I remember how she stood next to the stove, stirring hot cereal or waiting for the molasses cookies to finish baking or chopping carrots on the counter. She never liked to sit still like Grandpa. She always liked me to help. She said I was her best helper, even better than Mom when she was a little girl.
Grandma looks up at me and holds her arms out.
I hug her. It’s strange to hold her like this, because she always felt so much bigger than me. Now she’s shorter than me. Fuzzy wags his tail, so I lift his front legs onto her lap. She hugs Fuzzy, which makes him wag his tail real happy. She likes Fuzzy, too.
Fuzzy gets off and sniffs her wheelchair. Grandma starts to push herself through the dining room and the living room. Karl rushes to help push her, but she waves him away. She goes on, but the doorway is a little narrow for her arms hanging over her wheels. She grips the doorway and glides over into the dining room.
We are all behind her, watching her navigate around the dining room table. There isn’t enough room for her to move around easily. Dad said that we might have to help move furniture when she got home, but we were supposed to wait and see how much room she needed first.
Grandpa says nothing. He don’t look at her at all. Just watches TV. I can’t believe he’s so mean.
She says something. I can hear her, but I can’t understand everything she says, because I can’t lip read her from behind.
Grandpa says something and shrugs his shoulders. I hate him now. I never thought he was such a meanie. Grandma turns around and wheels forward to the kitchen.
Dad and Mom and my brothers are looking at Grandpa with shock on their faces. Fuzzy breaks past me, pounces on Grandma’s lap, and licks the tears off her face. Normally Grandma wouldn’t allow him to do that, but Grandpa’s so mean, and Fuzzy’s so nice. She says,
“Maybe we should make a pie now?”
In the kitchen I sit with Grandma, picking over the raspberries. Mom sits and helps out. Dad’s in the living room with Grandpa. I can hear them even if the door’s closed. Grandma and Mom say nothing while they listen. Sometimes they raise eyebrows at each other and trade glances with each berry dropping into a big ceramic bowl. Fuzzy’s watching me from under the kitchen table. It’s his favorite place in Grandma’s house, because everybody has to go through the kitchen before going anywhere else in the house, and he likes to see who’s coming in and who’s going out.
My brothers are sitting on the stairs leading down to the kitchen. They are real quiet. I imagine them listening closely to what Dad and Grandpa are saying, but I can’t understand most of the words.
Mom clears the table, wipes it clean, and sprinkles flour all over. Grandma’s about to roll the pie dough. At first I was upset in the hospital when I saw her in the wheelchair, but when Dad explained to me that it helped her to get around, like my hearing aids helped me to get around, I didn’t feel so bad. She laughed when I asked to go riding on her chairbike.
Suddenly Grandpa is in the kitchen.
He looks at her and says, “What good are you if you’re like this?”
He clutches his hand into the bowl of raspberries and flings them all over the floor. His hand drips like blood as he steps outside.
Dad shouts something at him. I know it’s a bad word. Grandma lugs the bowl of raspberries and swings it at the window in front of her. It’s an old window, so it shatters easy and makes a huge crash. The bowl falls over outside on the yard.
She yells, “Coward! Coward!”
I look down at Fuzzy. His tail is right between his legs. I go under the table and pet him, just to let him know he’s all right. Some pieces of glass have fallen on him. I pull them out real careful and drop them next to the bigger pieces. I don’t want Fuzzy to get cut.
My brothers are already scooping the red mess off the floor with paper towels. For once they’re not fighting. I hold Fuzzy’s collar so he won’t go sniffing for raspberries and hurt his feet on the broken glass.
Kory beckons me to come out from under the table. The floor’s clean.
By then Dad has gone out of the house. Mom holds me real tight. I keep looking at Grandma. I can’t help it. She looks older than I remember.
Grandma says, “I’m sorry—I’m so sorry about your pie.”
“I can pick some more if you want.”
After a minute, she nods. Fuzzy and I are off with my bucket. This time we’ll find the biggest raspberries, and Grandma will make the best pie in the whole world. Ever.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of 15 books, including the novel “Men with Their Hands,” which won first place in the Project: QueerLit 2006 Contest, and How to Kill Poetry. A playwright and filmmaker, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit him at www.raymondluczak.com