HFR: This piece has a wonderful tendency to juxtapose humor, the mundane, and tragedy. In one moment, we're with the quirky Fox-Neck, or on the phone with a family member, and in the next we're looking at the great-grandmother's skin like crumpled paper. What do you think the importance is of shifting tones in this story?
EB: The most significant scenes from my own life—and most people’s lives, I think—are riotous with feeling. Not just one. Chaos invites a certain kind of manic alertness and the antenna goes up, jerking us in and out of emotional stations. Where there is predicted pain, I think we become receptive, eager, for a different feeling. The shift is a survival instinct. I think the narrator’s erratic experience of death in this story is just one version of everyone’s. What we all notice, say, project, ignore, what we tune in and out of, shift between, is the way we protect ourselves from the permanence of loss. From a craft standpoint, the tonal shift can wake readers up and keep us ready for the next jolt, but it only does that because we want that turn in life.
So I’m in a waiting room with this middle-aged woman who’s got a dead fox around her neck. I can tell she’s from out of town. I can tell she has power of attorney, unlike me. Five minutes ago, she refused her brother-in-law—I know he’s her brother in law because he’s married to this lady’s identical twin sister—a sip of her drink. Fox-neck passes the soda to her daughter. The brother-in-law notices and furrows his eyebrows. He doesn’t say what the fuck, like I would’ve. “She’s my daughter,” she tells him. “We’re blood.”
People always say silly shit about family. We’re blood, they say. It’s in our blood, they say. And here’s the thing about blood. We’re all blood—and all the same stuff’s in that blood. Yeah, I know. The DNA is different, but big deal. A couple floating staircases that look the same as the next set. Have you ever seen an especially distinct staircase? I don’t know much about science, but every picture of DNA I’ve ever seen looks like the one before. What does that say about family?
For example, my brother and I. He was smart enough to get out of here. To get an education you can’t get in the valley, where the rest of us are stuck being waitresses, secretaries and pizza guys. My brother went north to Pennsylvania to study computer science. And here I am, not even knowing what that means. All I can really imagine is him putting keyboards under microscopes.
My point is that I don’t have a clear handle on what makes us different and what makes us the same.
So, I’m sitting in the waiting room with thirsty brother-in-law and Fox-Neck because my great-grandmother had a heart attack yesterday. I found her rolling around in her soiled sheets gasping for air. I called an ambulance and when the paramedics showed up, they asked if our family had a history of health problems. I threw up my hands. Define history, define health problems, define family. I know I sound thick, but you have to understand, at the time I really didn’t get it. Everyone’s family has a history of health problems—everybody’s body gives up eventually. That’s what I mean about DNA. All the staircases look the same.
They wanted me to know all of the details of her life when really, all I could say is that I’m the only family member in town. That my parents and grandparents have all retired to cabins by the water. That they left my great grandmother and me up here in this mountain’s shadow. I visit every few days with a new bag of prescriptions. I smile at her bedside as she fidgets with the oxygen tank. I listen to her broken breathing. It sounds like fire crackling.
What I can tell you, what I told the paramedics, is that my nana is stubborn. That she takes more pills than she should. Sometimes less. The medics didn’t seem to find that information useful. As they loaded her onto the stretcher, her moans synched up to the tick of her grandfather clock. She insisted on bringing it to the assisted living building even though the carved wood scrapes the ceiling.
She always says I could have been a movie star, I told them, laughing. “That I should move to California.”
The cross-eyed paramedic’s hand gripped my shoulder. “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re going to take good care of her.”
He called me ma’am. I haven’t spent enough time on earth to deserve that title. My great grandmother was hauled on the stretcher wrapped in a robe older than me. I’m not sure I’ve done a single worthwhile thing in my life.
Because what have I done? The joke is that I work as a secretary at a life insurance firm here in the valley. A lot of people take out policies on their kids. I feel suspicious of everyone, everyday. Like these parents are putting anti-freeze in the Jello. Like husbands will push their wives down the stairs. Like wives will crush up sleeping pills and bake the powder into a Bundt. I used to bring up the suspect policy holders to my boss and he’d just shrug. I told him I would never want to insure my life. He finally broke and said, “That’s worse than getting poisoned for a payout, doll, because it means there’s no one you love more than yourself.”
When I got to the hospital, the paramedics pointed to me. The doctors said, “you’re the family?” And I nodded, feeling dishonest. I’m only one person.
They told me it’s time I made a decision about whether to pursue surgery. She’s ninety-four with emphysema, they reminded me. Like that would make me want to preserve her less.
So I called my grandmother on the phone, then my mother, then my great uncle. No one knew what to do. They couldn’t see the jolting of her bare chest, her skin like crumpled paper. They couldn’t hear her go between wheezing and moaning. They couldn’t see her milky cataracts staring me in the eye, telling me to make the decision I didn’t make.
Two hours later the surgery was done. A success. The nurse smiled. What do you mean by success I asked, that she’s going to make it? After I said the words aloud, I cringed. With five percent lung capacity, when you’re not alive for yourself, what’s making it?
“You can see her in about an hour or so,” the nurse said. “But the doctor will come talk to you before that.”
And here I am, where I’ve been waiting for hours with nothing better to do but watch the brother-in-law of the fox-necked lady ask for a sip. But they’re not blood.
Fox-Neck’s daughter is sitting beside her mother’s leather boots, coloring a Disney Princess. She colors the eyes, the hair, the many fabrics of the gown—she even adds little red heart on the left of her chest. When she turns the page, the princess and prince are dancing.
I hear my great grandmother shriek as they’re wheeling her to the ICU. I am not sure how she can scream like this with so little lung function, after heart surgery. She sounds like an animal caught in a trap. I hope I don’t get this old, but if I do, I want to be just like her.
She doesn’t know where she is or what’s happened. She’s screeching, please, don’t take me back to the hospital. Please, I’m begging you, please.
I’ve never heard her say please. This may be among ten things she’s ever asked for in her entire life. I run to the stretcher and a nurse with chipped nail polish says to go back to the waiting area. To have some tea. To wait until she calms down. I do what she says, even though I feel like waiting is the worst medical advice of all. I sit angry, hoping that nurse gets fired or at least twists her ankle.
The doctor comes. He shows me photos of my great grandmother’s heart. He shows me what was wrong and I nod, pretending like I see the problem. When he shows me where he put the stent, I know it’s supposed to show me some fix, some improvement. But it makes me sick and ashamed. Before, her heart was pulpy. And if it stopped, surrendered to its own clots, its own order, I don’t know. In retrospect, something about that just seems better.
I’m alone again in this room with Fox-Neck and brother-in-law. Daddy came and picked up the little girl for bed. Neither of them speak. They’re staring at their feet, then the ceiling. Sighing. Thinking what I’m thinking, I’m sure. Of all the ways we can try to beat nature. Like if I hadn’t showered before leaving the house to see her, if I’d called her building’s emergency line when she didn’t answer the phone on the second ring, maybe we’d gotten her here faster. Maybe it would have helped. And then I remember the eggs. Of all things, the eggs are what make me cry in this waiting room.
My great grandmother must have gotten up this morning at her usual time, around 4 AM, to make two eggs, like she does every day. She had a spoon of butter on a pan, the two eggs beside it. When I got there, the coffee was cold in the pot. I poured it out. After the paramedics rushed her here, I put the untouched pan in the sink and picked up the eggs. They were warm—no good, I figured. So I rushed out of the apartment with an egg in each hand, thinking I didn’t want to leave them behind and risk her eating spoiled eggs when she got back. This was my last true quiver of hope.
The chipped-nail nurse comes in and tells me I can see her. I follow her down the hall. She walks so slowly and goddamn, should this hospital fire her. My great grandmother is being strapped to the bed when I walk in. Five nurses are fighting against her and I feel so sad and scared and proud. When the nurses look at me like my dog just bit them, like they want to step in and control her, I can’t help but stand back, watch and smile, amazed by the brawl. Watching my great grandmother tear at the tubes, with nurses flocking and shouting at her to stay still, I can’t imagine we share DNA. I’m a coward. I don’t fight for anything. After all, I sat patiently in the waiting room. I followed the slow nurse.
Finally she calms down and I move in. Her eyes are wide and darting. She doesn’t speak, but I stroke her coarse remaining tuft of hair. I feed her cold water from a straw. She’s so thirsty and even though the nurses say not to give her too much, I can’t help it. I know her eyes—they’re unrelenting. And I’m scared, even now, of not doing what her glance says. She lets out noises that I decide mean thank you. She croaks words slowly, asking me where I put her alarm clock. She means the one from her bedside table at home. She asks where her TV is. She doesn’t realize she’s in the hospital. And I don’t want to tell her. I know better than to tell her. But the nurse doesn’t know better. My great grandmother’s eyes turn back to me. I didn’t want this, she says. Why would you bring me here, she says. Why did you do this to me, she says.
The new nurse pats my back when I start to shake. I was wrong to keep her alive. To do what I wanted. To disregard her body’s order. I throw up in the corner of the room into the trashcan meant for hazardous materials. I throw up on hypodermic needles and empty IV bags. My great grandmother doesn’t notice because she’s barely conscious, but still, somehow, trying to get out of her restraints.
When she tires of that, she falls asleep and they tell me to leave, but I’m tired of listening to the nurses. My nose burns with bile, the smell of disinfectant and decay. My great grandmother wakes up, grunts something I hope is my name, and I get close to her face. She’s somehow gotten one hand free and she reaches for my hair and holds on tight, like babies do. She doesn’t let go, I don’t know if she can control her grip. Her eyes are wide. A nurse comes in and pries her hands from my hair. It’s now I know she’s mostly gone. It’s now I know she isn’t going to make it. Whatever that means.
So I call my family, I call them all. I say to come if they want to see her. It’s the end, I say. You should hurry, I say.
What are they doctors saying, they ask.
They said it was successful. There are percentages, I tell them. But they don’t know anything, I say. But, you better come soon, I say.
My family doesn’t rush because I don’t make a coherent case. What I should have said is that I had earlier heard my great grandmother beg. Then they would know something had changed.
I’ll catch a flight out tomorrow morning, they say. But some say tomorrow afternoon.
That may be too late, I say.
The doctors don’t know her, they say. She’ll put up a fight, they say.
I hang up without saying she already did. Without saying that she fought her whole life. She fought for us, against us. That now’s she’s done. Because somehow, as one of her youngest kin, the only one here, I have the least and most authority. But I’m used to the question mark people see above my head.
I leave the hospital and lie in the backseat of my car in the visitor’s lot, waiting for my phone to ring. I wait for the doctors to tell me she’s gone. But instead, when they call, they say her heart just failed and they resuscitated her. I sit up in the backseat and scream. With the least and most authority, I scream. With only a couple decades of life, I scream. Stop keeping her alive for me, I scream. Stop invading her tired heart with metal and currents, I scream. And fuck you for making me say it, I scream, after I’ve already hung up.
Even though it’s 4AM, I make the calls. I leave the news on answering machines. Her heart stopped tonight and they resuscitated her, I say. The doctors think that the most recent attack killed her brain, I say. She’ll be gone soon, I say. Get on a plane, I say.
I go back into the hospital and they give me a fresh visitor’s pass. The label makes me feel more alive than ever. To only be a visitor.
Fox-Neck and brother-in-law are cuddled up on a waiting room couch, but the dead fox has slipped to the floor. I wonder if, like me, they are letting go to someone whose life was full, complete. Who dirtied the world with generations. Or if they’re waiting on the doctors to say a young life can, or can’t, be saved.
My phone won’t stop ringing now. My family, all of them, they’re coming, even though they may not make it. One by one, people are calling. Some commending me, brushing the receiver with grief. Some still think she’ll make it before they get here.
I let my grandmother, her oldest daughter, say goodbye to her body. I put the phone up to her unconscious ear. I pick the phone up off my great grandmother’s pillow after the waves of sobs on the line slow to heavy breaths.
I sit by my great grandmother’s side for another hour. She’s breathing through a machine. The even pumps of air relax me. I sign the DNR. The DNA signs the DNR, I say to the new nurse. She’s probably seen it all, but she still furrows her brow and says I could use a rest.
I hold my great grandmother’s limp hand. Her fingernails are caked in blood. I whisper promises I hope I can live up to. I’ll get married and have a million babies, I say. I’ll be a better driver, I say. I’ll learn to cook, I say. I’ll make you proud, I say. I’ll clean up the eggs, I say.
After I left her apartment, with an egg in each hand, I rushed down the stairs. I wanted to catch up with the ambulance. I didn’t even think of taking the elevator because my great grandmother always made me take the stairs—even when she took the elevator. It’ll keep your lungs strong, she’d say. Well, after running down three flights of stairs holding warm eggs, I panicked, not knowing what to do with them, and threw them in the staircase. I didn’t look back, but I heard the shells crack. I spent the whole way to the hospital thinking about how, because of me, all the old people in my great grandmother’s building would have to smell the decay of those eggs, wondering if it was a neighbor’s undiscovered body.
When her heart finally stops, her eyes jolt open. The machines let out their own artificial moan of death. I ask the nurse what we do. The nurse looks at me sadly. Nothing, she says. Even though I knew to expect it, I fall to the floor. My knees buckle and I can’t catch my breath. I must have inhaled death as it swept through. I pace the empty hospital room after they roll her body away.
I guess I just didn’t expect her eyes to open. I wonder if she could see the water-damaged ceiling or me or if the building melted away and she saw the sky, with this morning’s swollen clouds.
On my way out of the hospital, I see Fox-Neck alone, crying. But, it almost sounds like laughing. I decide they are happy tears, though I can’t be sure. A man in a t-shirt that reads KARMA’S A BITCH brushes past me. I surprise myself with a rip of laughter. It feels like she’s telling her last joke.
My little brother is half asleep in flannel pajama pants as he bolts from the elevator. He must have taken a train down from Pennsylvania. He doesn’t even see me until I grab his arm. I shake my head, meaning you’re too late. Meaning you’ve been up since 4AM, paid close to three hundred bucks of student loan money to get down here to say goodbye to the body of our great grandmother. Meaning she’s already in the silver drawer.
We turn the corner for the stairs. I sit on the steps for an hour with my brother, asking him questions about his life that he answers vaguely. When I ask him to explain DNA to me, he says he doesn’t do that kind of science, but he tells me the basics. I want him to use words like genetics, family, us. Instead he says organisms, double helix, mitochondria. I nod, not understanding. But, when he nudges me, tells me I look like dog shit and that he’ll drive home, I don’t care about what courses through us or what made him learn binary code at eleven while I was locked in my bedroom for hours, watching myself smoke candy cigarettes.
My great grandmother took me aside on more than one family get-together and said my brother and me needed to help each other. Because he was all sense and I was all nonsense, she said. Shouldn’t he be the one helping me then, I asked, insulted. She shook her head sternly and said that neither of us would ever be happy being all one thing.
As we make our way down seven flights of stairs, we start to pant a little. He asks me if I’m alright. I say yeah. He nods, keeping his eyes on the stairs. I want to imagine my great-grandmother’s swirling, spiraling around us.
We walk out of the hospital. The sweet sound of birds chirping surprises me.
I don’t even know what to do next, I say.
You don’t have to do anything, he says.
As my brother drives us back to my apartment, I look out the window and imagine all my family, suspended in the sky. I’m relieved for the first time in days. Longer than that, probably. Everyone will be here soon. My mother and Uncle Jay will fight over the casket’s lacquer and the tone of the obituary and who gets the grandfather clock. They’ll panic when they realize that my brother doesn’t have a proper suit.
Maybe one day I’ll quit my job and move to California.
Maybe one day I’ll get life insurance.
But today, I’ll just watch my brother eat potato chips and play video games. His quick fingers will go between bag and controller, pressing pause to wipe grease on his pajama pants. I’ll watch his avatar tramp through the woods, avoiding the enemy, until the inevitable shootout. The simulated gunshots and groans of death will lull me to sleep before I can ask if he won.
Elise Burke is an MFA candidate at Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing. She received her BA from the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she worked also taught fiction and non-fiction workshops. She was awarded two Kratz Center for Creative Writing Fellowships in 2011 and 2012 and was the recipient of the Kratz Center’s 2012 Reese Award, naming her Goucher’s writer of the year. In 2014, she received a 2014 James Purdy Short Fiction Award. She has been nominated for a pushcart prize, the Best of the Net anthology and one of her stories was named a "2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable story." Her fiction has either been accepted by or published in The Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Joyland, Heavy Feather Review, Swarm Quarterly and others.