Oct/Nov 2014  •   Fiction


by Andrea Cetra

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Sometimes I dream apples don't grow on trees, she said, but in the cracks between the sidewalk pavement, like little crab apples all in a row. In every bad dream I dream, Charlie told her grandmother on the day she died, the apples are rotten so no one can eat them. They're spoiled. Isn't that a damn shame?

Yes, her grandmother told her, no one likes rotten apples, and then she took her last breath. Yellow sunflowers on the dresser, blue paint chipping away like old skin, worn out and no longer multiplying.

Grandma never even liked yellow, she said, yelling at the doctors, face red. Why did you get her yellow? You know, she doesn't like those kinds of flowers, she shouted, not knowing there was no way the others could have known, and the flowers were from her Aunt Jesse.

Pats on the back and doctor's notepads, chicken-scratch notes written with shiny silver pens with the name of drug manufacturers on them. They stared and flashed their white teeth like they cared, but few people in the room that day in the hospital in Harlem cared about the woman who didn't like yellow, she thought. Everything in the place was grey on white on grey. The hospital walls all looked the same, blended into one another like a bad watercolor.

Charlie sighed, gathering her papers together and shoving them into her purse, the one she bought off Broadway because Martina said those were the best knock-offs anywhere, if that's what you're going for. So she went and was glad she had. Gum wrappers, torn and wrinkled, sprinkled over the barely pink tiles near room 313, falling out of her bag. Didn't matter she had asked for a different room. Grandma never liked staying somewhere with a 13 in it, but Charlie gave up, deciding instead to use the natural charm grandma said she had on the white-coated staff with their white smiles.

Chalk stains on the sidewalk in blue. Potholes in the pavement. Charlie stepped on them all, hoping her heel would stag on one to drag her somewhere else, but even so, the boulevard was refreshing. Air was crisp. April-in-August weather, grandma called it, because it was so out of place. Hop scotch on the sidewalk. Did kids still play with that stuff? Old fashioned, she said to no one. So old-fashioned people are these days, it's like they'd rather be living in the 1950s except without all the other problems. Harrison liked the way the 1950s looked on paper, he said. Told her it was the only thing worth caring about. Maybe the doctors cared about the 1950s more than they cared about the dead woman in their basement or the 1930s when she was born.

Watch where you're going, Charlie shouted, when a yellow cab nearly severed a foot. Not hers, but the woman next to her. You are the weakest link, grandma would say, laughing on Sundays when she watched her favorite show about people who were too weak to win any money. Charlie smiled. Red lipstick overstepped its bounds. The light turned to WALK. Obeying, she overtook the woman with the trench coat, gliding like a dancer.

Harrison liked the ballet, grabbing her arm and smiling before each new act. With his eyes squinted, he would run his hands over his shaved head, the sound of stubble just barely audible. This is the best part, he would say. Just you wait. Charlie waited, adjusting her watch up-and-down her wrist. Looking for the perfect spot.

That night Charlie dreamed of apples. Rotten in the sidewalks, attracting fruit flies. Blue chalk everywhere, and children running to clean it up. Sorry, they said, we're sorry to have made a mess.

But you didn't, she tried to reassure them. You haven't done anything wrong.

Still, they wouldn't listen and backed away from her. Then twisted their arms behind their heads, distorted. Contortionist, Charlie's waking self remembered thinking, consciously. I have to get out of here, she also remembered thinking, before the sidewalk opened and the apples fell inside and then it was black. I guess it's over, she thought, still half asleep. It must be. A shaking hand reached out to turn on a lampshade with a black-and-white photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge pasted on the front, but missed. Damn, she said. Damn. Light flickering, Charlie cursed her memory for having forgotten to pick up a new bulb. Harrison always kept a spare. The type of man, she thought, who could remember to change the light bulbs in the house, so when you reached over after a bad dream, it would work and not flicker. A useful man.

But most weren't, Martina said, most weren't even worth giving the time of day to, she said shaking her head, gold bangles moving along her wrist, catching onto her peach fuzz while she tried to brushed them off.

313 was quiet. Grandma didn't have any neighbors. Not while she was staying in the room with the teal baseboard and white and grey-speckled walls. A bed with beige side rails was still in the room, waiting for the next unfortunate resident who would rather be anywhere else than the hospital in Harlem. No pictures hung on the wall, but a fat television sat on a holster high up, waiting for someone to switch it on to catch the five o'clock news. Charlie eyed the spot on the table where the yellow flowers had been, remembering how grandma had protested when they brought them.

I hate yellow, she said, hate it. The glass vase had shaken from all the bodies bumping into it all at once, a nurse's hand appearing to save the unwanted flowers from falling off their perch.

Can I help you?

Charlie turned, spotting a nurse's uniform in the doorway. No, she shook her head. No I'm fine, she said, moving to the window to open it.

I'm sorry, Miss White, but you can't be in here, she said.

I'm leaving now.

No smiles were exchanged as Charlie pushed her way past the doorframe and into the hallway, which was still very grey. Passing by saturated photographs of mountains and hills and one particularly atrocious close-up of a wave, Charlie reached into her purse. Wrappers fell onto the tile.

Excuse me, Miss. Someone's hand was waving, but Charlie pushed on. Excuse me, you can't litter in here, this is a highly protective… she didn't hear the rest. The voice faded, like Charlie wished the photographs would, although some might say they were pleasing to the eye.

At the front desk, a blond-haired woman twirled a piece of gum between her long, French-manicured fingernails and her mouth, letting the green blob stretch in and out over her tongue piercing. Harrison hated piercings, Charlie remembered. That was why she had never gotten one even though she contemplated it a few times. It didn't mean much then—the thought about the piercing. It was insignificant now, with grandma's body in the basement of the hospital in Harlem with the over-saturated photographs in the hallways and the gum-twirling receptionist.

Don't forget to wash your hands before dinner. Grandmother's voice pulsated in the back of her head. Under the fingernails, darling, under the fingernails. Keep those paws clean until you're really ready to use them. Staring up at grandma, she had seemed so correct and the advice pertinent. It was. The gum-twirling receptionist had to know. Charlie left the hospital in Harlem on the arms of two security guards, who whisked her away out of sight of the children and the man with the bandaged head in the waiting room.

That night she dreamed foxes were chasing her through a cemetery, and when she woke up, checked the window, just in case. Putting on socks, because Harrison disapproved of bedtime footwear, Charlie ventured into the kitchen, pulling out the kettle and knocking over a bag of rice, kernels going pitter-patter on the tile. Damn, she sighed. Midnight snacks never looked like they did in the movies.

The hallway leading to the broom closet was long and thin, a photograph of Harrison and Mom and Dad on the front steps, Martina at the Apollo Theater, the lights behind her. Rick, Grandma's latest boyfriend before she died in the hospital in Harlem with the grey walls and over-saturated photographs, stared back at her, a sign for the Newport Jazz Festival moving behind him. Tripping over a bump in the runner, Charlie remembered beige had been Harrison's idea.

The baby blue kettle begged for attention. Charlie answered it, shutting off the first burner and reaching for a mug. They didn't serve beverages in the hospital in Harlem in sturdy mugs like the ones at her apartment. Typical, Charlie said to no one, just so typical, although it was the only hospital she had ever visited.

We all end up somewhere, grandma told her one Christmas when Harrison was no longer around. It's not good or bad, it's just where we are, darling. A pat on the back and a shoulder-squeeze.

Ow! A bead of boiling water caught her on the arm. Wiping it away, Charlie poured the tea. Peppermint. Into the black mug—the inside a cylindrical abyss. Clean under the fingernails, grandma reminded her. Head throbbing. Placed the kettle back on the burner, shuffling to shut out the light that wasn't flickering. Harrison, although useless as a bank manager could be, never failed to fix the bulbs.

Deciding to take a prolonged break from the foxes, Charlie stepped onto the balcony. Tenement building from the early 1900s, Harrison said. Some historians men were, the way they talk about other people's history like it was their own. Charlie remembered grandma ate onions on the boat when she was 13, a long way from the day she died, sharing them with another girl. Harrison's history was so far removed from grandma's. They were living in different universes, but he pretended to run both galaxies.

We didn't have anything else to eat, grandma said, but we kept going, all the time we kept on. The pale yellow walls in the room in the house on 135th street in Queens where grandma told the story weren't offensive to her the way the yellow flowers were in the hospital in Harlem on the day she died. The walls had already been painted years before she lived there, so nothing could be done, grandma said, and she would live with it.

Saxophone music wafted up through the grates of the fire escape like freshly baked cookies, a slow dragging melody. Music is the only sanity we have, grandma told her one afternoon in April—she remembered the month because it had been so hot. People were cooling off on fire escapes, children shirtless, men the same way, exposing their beer bellies to the sunlight. Women in cotton shirts, with their hair pulled back, fanned themselves with newspapers or whatever they could get their hands on. A chorus of flip-flops, freshly cleaned but caked with sand from Coney Island, squeaked along Clayton Boulevard not too far from the hospital in Harlem where grandma said her last words.

When the saxophone music stopped, Charlie slipped back into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin and wondering if the foxes would show up again, but hoping they wouldn't. They never came. But on the day after they moved grandma's body from the basement in the hospital in Harlem where the gum-twirling receptionist filled out the necessary paperwork with one hand, still twirling in the other, Charlie thought she remembered dreaming about the vase shaking, the yellow flowers grandma never asked for falling to the floor, the over-saturated photographs breaking loose of their frames, sliding onto the tile. Charlie thought she remembered telling someone the next day about the dream.

There was a dresser, too, she said, like you wouldn't believe, with blue paint chipping away like old skin, worn out and no longer multiplying.