By Mary Grimm
When Kelsey and Sean went to his grandmother’s house to have sex, she assumed that no one would be there, but when Sean got to the front door, his aunt opened it. His grandmother wasn’t dead, as Kelsey had assumed, but in a home, and the aunt was getting something for her. Aunt Lillian. She had a cup and saucer in her hand.
“Damned if I know,” she said when Sean asked her what grandma wanted with it. She couldn’t always understand what her mother was saying, she said. She held the cup and saucer out on the palm of her hand to show Kelsey. “Lustre ware, it’s called. It could have been duster that she said or mustard, but why would she want those?” She tucked them into a bag. “What are you kids doing here?”
But she didn’t seem interested or suspicious. When Sean said he was just showing the house to Kelsey she nodded. She’d been in a convent, Sean explained after she left, and when she decided not to be a nun anymore it had made her weird in a number of ways. It didn’t make sense to Kelsey, but she nodded. They were sitting on the bed stripped to their underwear, damp and sweaty in the overheated room, eating saltine crackers with jam, all they had found in the cupboards. The jar of strawberry jam was balanced on a pillow between them. Was it the grandmother’s bed? Kelsey wondered. They hadn’t had sex yet.
She got up and went to the dresser to look in the mirror. It was the grandmother’s room, she decided, looking at the fancy, old-fashioned hairbrush and the mirrored tray. She picked up the brush and examined it, then one of several ancient perfume bottles. She squeezed the atomizer but only a scented puff of air came out, stale and flowery, like the inside of someone’s closet.
“Don’t play with that stuff,” he said.
“What – is your grandmother going to get mad?” She opened the top drawer and took out a necklace which she hung around her neck. The faceted beads hung between her breasts.
“I mean it,” he said.
She left the drawer open and went to the window where she opened the curtains to look out at the snow. After a minute, he got up and put his arms around her, pulling her back to the bed and rolling on top of her. The beads of the necklace pressed into her chest and she opened her mouth to complain, but he kissed her and put his hand between her legs and she forgot about it. Sean looked good in the dim snowy light of the bedroom, hair falling into his eyes, his mouth wet. They had met at the downtown college in a geology class where they were both bored – it was one of the soft science options for humanities majors. They were both in journalism, Sean because he wanted to travel and Kelsey because she had the idea it was something she could do from home. She had two kids, girls, and also a husband.
The first few times they’d had sex had been in uncomfortable places: a carrel in the library with paper taped over the window in the narrow door, the back seat of Sean’s car. Sean had suggested his grandmother’s house because no one was living there.
Sean licked her ear and then stuck his tongue inside. She wasn’t sure if she liked that, but decided to go with it for now. Could his aunt tell that they were going to have sex? Kelsey imagined her driving away in her car, the cup and saucer sitting on the seat beside her. She was driving to the nursing home, which in Kelsey’s mind could be seen from above, a dotted line connecting it to the grandmother’s house, the car driving neatly from one place to the other.
Sean’s hand was on her breast, and she pushed her underpants off, scraping them down with her feet. She opened her legs for him and let the rush of his skin on hers, his hands, his tongue, him pushing into her, let it take her under.
Sean didn’t know why he liked Kelsey so much, but he put this question out of his mind when they were having sex. He had noticed her in geology class, sitting two desks ahead of him. He could see the back of her head, her shoulder, and one of her feet, which jigged nervously up and down, her shoe dangling from her toes. The sole of her foot was small and dirty, and for some reason he couldn’t take his eyes off of it. When class was dismissed, he speeded up to get behind her, intending to say something, but she was talking on her phone. “I’ll be home soon,” she said. “I have to go to the library. No, I have to go.” She stuffed her phone in her purse, but it slithered down the outside, and Sean caught it.
“Thanks,” she said when he gave it back to her. Seen from the front, she seemed bigger, taller, a contrast to that little foot. She looked annoyed.
“I’m in your class,” Sean said. “Geology.”
“I don’t know why I took that,” Kelsey said. “Rocks, for god’s sake.”
“I know,” Sean said, although he sort of liked it.
“I really need some coffee.” She looked at him as if she’d asked a question, which was something she liked to do, he later learned. She didn’t like to commit herself, even to something as simple as a desire for caffeine.
He didn’t know why he’d brought her to his grandmother’s house either. Well, the bed, of course. An empty house and a bed. He’d seen one of the neighbors parking his car when they went in. Would he tell Sean’s grandmother? But no, he couldn’t tell her unless he went to see her in the nursing home. She was in there and according to his mother, she wasn’t coming back.
Kelsey was lying on the bed, drawing out strands of her hair and running her fingers down to the tips. Her eyes were not quite closed – he could see the liquid shine of her eyeball through her lashes. Her neck was blotchy where he’d been probably a little rough with his mouth. She sometimes went to sleep after they had sex, just for a few minutes, but he knew she was awake. Her body hummed with something, her thoughts, the things she wanted. He’d found out pretty quickly that she was married – she didn’t try to hide it, instead throwing out the fact of her husband’s name, Michael, as if it was a dare. She pursed her lips as if she were about to throw him a kiss, eyes still closed. She was thinking about something, but he didn’t want to know what it was, so he rolled over and covered her body with his, his mouth going again to her neck until she pushed him away. “I don’t want to have to wear a scarf, for god’s sake,” she said.
Kelsey lay on the bed after the second time, looking out the window. She could see only white on the other side of the curtain, its yellowed lace lit by the brilliance of the snow. Snow was lying on the sill. There would be snow thick on Sean’s car. He’d have to brush it off before he drove her home. She’d help him. They’d throw snowballs at each other. But no, there wasn’t any time for that. Sean was in the bathroom. I have to go, she called, and he said something from the bathroom, something she couldn’t understand.
Don’t take a shower, she yelled, but he didn’t reply.
It was time to go home home home. There were so many things about home that made her tired. The couch was brown, old and brown. The bathroom tile was gray. The woman who had lived there before them had had a stroke there, and there was a stain on the floor which Kelsey believed was blood. Her daughters still slept in their cribs, which her mother-in-law said was unhealthy for their age, but who cared what that old cow said. Her head felt heavy. Her arms were too heavy to lift. “What if I have to stay the night,” she said, but not so loud that Sean would hear. If they were snowed in, she told herself, she’d have to spend the night and she willed the snow to fall, to keep falling, until it rose to cover the car and lapped at the second floor window sill.
In the bathroom, Sean lingered at the sink, taking things out of the medicine cabinet. His grandmother had kept her partial plate in a glass, cushioned on cotton, but this was gone, of course. He took out an ancient pair of wire-rimmed glasses and tried them on, turning to one side and then the other to catch his profile in the mirror. There were some pill bottles, but he had already inspected them for interesting drugs on an earlier visit. On the top shelf he saw a little bundle of ribbon. He lifted it out and unrolled it. A scapular – the sorrowing face of St. Veronica looked out at him, holding up her face-painted towel. Veronica was kind of hot, he thought and then winced, as if his grandmother was here to scold him. She was never going to be here again. He loved her, but he hated going to see her in the nursing home. It smelled, and the old people were scary. His grandmother didn’t look like herself, more like a skinny doll, almost a skeleton, the bones showing in her face, her wrists and fingers knobby and bruised looking. “Lighten up, for christ’s sake,” he said and out in the bedroom he heard Kelsey say something as if in reply. He put the scapular in his pocket and opened the door.
She was still lying on the bed, the sheets pulled up to just short of her breasts, which he thought she had done on purpose, and which he appreciated.
“What are those glasses?” she said. “You look like a priest.”
“Bless you my child.” He bypassed the bed and sat on the chair by the window. “Why a priest?”
“You look like the priest that married Michael and me.”
He hated when she brought her husband up, as if she expected him to do something or feel something. He picked up one of the books on the table by the window, a life of some saint. His grandmother was big on the saints. Some pages were marked by holy cards and he opened it at each of them. St. Anthony who found things, the one who was stuck full of arrows – Sebastian, Mary standing on the world. “I’m not interested in Michael,” he said, or anything the fuck about Michael.”
Kelsey pulled the sheet up over her face. “I don’t even know who Michael is,” she said, making her voice robotlike.
He opened up to another marked page, the place held not by a holy card but a black and white photo.
“Seriously. I don’t know who he is.”
The photo was of two fat children, Sean and his sister Janie, and a chicken. When had they ever been around a chicken?
“It’s like sleeping with a stranger,” Kelsey said. She rolled over so that the sheet fell away.
Of course, it wasn’t at all like that. It was more like sleeping with someone that you knew too well. You knew what he’d say when the car wouldn’t start, and you knew what would happen if you were half an hour late coming home. You knew his mother and his sister, and you knew you’d be playing canasta when they came over, because it was his mother’s favorite game, even though no one in the world except old ladies played it. You knew that his mother would bring over some dented cans she’d gotten from the bargain cart at the supermarket, which you’d later throw away. You knew that you’d have to go out to the suburbs once a month on a Sunday, where his aunts and uncles all lived and sit on their plastic-covered furniture and drink instant coffee and talk about church and the price of gas. You knew it over and over.
Kelsey could tell that Sean didn’t want to have sex again. She didn’t want to either, really, but she wanted him to want to. She wanted him to think about her after he’d dropped her off, when he was doing other things, when he was in class. She wanted him to pass by other women unseeing, because he was thinking of her. She wanted him to be remembering the way her hair fell over her shoulders, right now, a long tail of it lying on her left breast, which (she hoped he didn’t notice this) was slightly smaller. She wanted him to call her even when she couldn’t talk to him, and had to pretend that he was one of her girlfriends or a telemarketer. She wanted to leave things in his car, so that other people would pick them up and say, oh – whose is this earring? This glove? I didn’t know you were interested in climate change, they’d say, picking up her book on melting glaciers. And whether he would say that it was hers, Kelsey’s, or whether he answered vaguely, or even lied, he’d be thinking of her.
“We’ve got time for once more,” she said. Sean shook his head, but after a minute, he sat down on the bed. She took the glasses off him and put them on. “Do I look like a schoolteacher?” she said. He shook his head. “Librarian?” She took his hand and licked his thumb and then each of the other fingers in turn. “You’re thinking about something,” she said.
In fact, he was thinking about his aunt. She liked him to call her by name, Lil, instead of Auntie, which was what he’d called her when he was little, apparently. He didn’t really remember. They had visited her several times in the convent, which he remembered vaguely, but then she’d gone to someplace in South America to teach English to little kids. She was fourteen years older than he was, but she seemed younger, more his own age, especially compared to Sean’s mother. She had a way of cornering Sean and trying to get him to talk about what he was going to do in life. “Don’t let anyone talk you into anything,” she had said several times. Did this mean she’d been talked into the convent? He had asked his mother, and she’d told him it was none of his business. He sometimes thought that his mother didn’t like her sister all that much.
“Not really,” he said.
Kelsey was still holding his hand. “We should go soon,” she said.
Which meant, he knew, that her other life had started to creep into her mind, the life where she made dinner for her kids and reminded her husband to mow the lawn, or whatever. He had found that when he thought about this other life, he couldn’t help thinking of it in terms of his own home and parents. He didn’t like that, the weird mingling of his mother and Kelsey, his father and Michael, an overlay that warped what he knew about family. He knew that his mother would think that what he was doing was wrong. His father might pass it off as a boys-being-boys kind of thing, something he’d grow out of, but his mother was more scrupulous, more religious. She went to church even during the week sometimes, she prayed the rosary every night. It suddenly occurred to him that his aunt might mention something about seeing him here with a girl, and he went cold all over. He’d go home, and his mother would know. Or maybe she’d know anyway, even if Aunt Lil didn’t say anything. Which was ridiculous. But he decided he had to take a shower, if only to get rid of this chilly sweat.
Kelsey sat on the bed and listened to the pattering of the shower down the hall. The house had only one bathroom, just like her own. She lived in a neighborhood of bungalows, each a little box with a pointed roof, one and a half stories, a concrete stoop with an overgrown bush next to it. Their landlord’s name was Bill. He was immensely fat, and he never ascended the three steps of the stoop when he came to collect the rent or discuss repairs. He stood by the bottom step, leaning on the railing, and shouted to them in the house, then stood there wheezing until someone came out. Michael thought it was funny, but Kelsey found it annoying.
It was chilly. She could hear the furnace banging – Sean had turned the thermostat up when they got there. The itch to get home was starting to grow on her. Her daughters were at her mother-in-law’s. She had to pick them up, and all the details this would take – the conversation she’d have to have with her mother-in-law, the car ride home, the way the key always stuck in the lock of the front door, the noise they would make falling over in the hall when they took their boots off – it made her itch all over so that she couldn’t be still. But running alongside that itch, that impatience, was something about the way their hair lay on their heads, so smooth, or that place between their necks and shoulders that always smelled good, even when they were dirty. They were named after her husband’s sister and her own grandmother, the dead one, and sometimes she wished that she’d given them names that didn’t belong to anyone, names that would let them be separate. Or something. She didn’t know what she meant.
Kelsey opened the door of the bedroom and stood in the hall, listening to the shower, then, not bothering to get her clothes, walked down the carpeted stairs. It was very unlike her house, which was full of toys and furniture that they’d gotten at Goodwill or from relatives. Everything here was old, not Goodwill old, but museum old. The tables and chairs were dark wood. The windows had two layers of curtains – one satiny and one sheer. In the dining room there was an immense sideboard with a silver bowl on it and two candles, one on either side. A door led into the kitchen, which looked more as if someone lived here, or had lived here. There was a mug in the dish drainer. Maybe the aunt had stopped to make herself a cup of tea. The cupboard was half open from when Sean had been looking for something to eat. Kelsey sat at the kitchen table, the wood of the chair cold under her butt. She could see the back yard from here, a snow-covered square with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the back corner. If she lived here, she’d get rid of that for sure. And she’d change the ugly curtains in the window over the sink – orange and yellow blobs on a green background.
She put her bare feet on another chair, imagining living here with Sean. His grandmother might leave it to him in her will. In this imagined life, Sean had finished college and had gotten a job writing for one of those news blogs. Although how much money did they pay? Kelsey herself would have a job, too, although she didn’t know what, something that she had to wear high heels and an expensive suit maybe, in an office. Her daughters would be here, somehow, coloring Disney princesses on the kitchen table when she came home from work. All the jobs she’d had so far had involved food in some way: waitress, hostess, convenience store clerk. Her work study hours at the college were in the cafeteria, although she was trying to get it changed to something where she didn’t have to smell like pizza cheese all the time. Although that was good for her diet: sometimes she skipped dinner altogether after working.
The phone rang, and Kelsey’s head jerked around. She could see the phone on a small table in the dining room – so old that it had a dial, which she’d never seen IRL before. She waited for the ringing to stop, or for the answering machine to pick up or for Sean to answer it, but the water was still running upstairs, and he probably couldn’t hear it. It rang and rang, and finally she went into the dining room and picked it up. “Hello?” she said.
She could hear the sound of someone breathing. A perv, she thought, which was a little funny, somehow. She started to hang up.
“Who is this?” a scratchy, thin voice.
“Who is this?” Kelsey said.
“Is Arthur there?”
“I don’t know any Arthur,” Kelsey said. “You must have the wrong number.”
But the person on the other end didn’t seem to have heard her, or paid attention. “Tell him Vera said he should come and pick her up now. He’s late.”
“There’s no Arthur here,” she started, but the person talked right over her.
“I’ve told them I don’t like green beans, but they keep – “ her voice faded down to nothing and them came back. “I don’t like this phone. So bring a new one when you come.”
The voice was a little slurred but imperious. Kelsey had guessed that it was Sean’s grandmother. “OK,” she said. “I’ll tell him.”
There was a silence on the other end. “Who are you now?”
Kelsey didn’t answer.
The voice dropped to a whisper. “Tell him to hurry.”
“OK,” Kelsey said again, but her caller had already hung up.
Upstairs, the water shut off. Sean went back to the bedroom for his clothes – they were still scattered on the floor where he’d left them earlier. Kelsey wasn’t there, which annoyed him a little. Not that he wanted to have sex again right now, but he didn’t like the idea of her wandering around in his grandmother’s house. He pulled on his underwear and jeans. They weren’t any dirtier than they’d been when he took them off, but they felt as if they were. He stuck his head in his t-shirt and went downstairs. “Kelsey?” he called.
She was in the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator, head ducked and butt out. She was still wearing only her underwear. “Put some clothes on,” he said.
She straightened up. “That’s not what you said an hour ago.”
“Come on. Anyone could come and look in the window.”
Kelsey sat down on one of the chairs. She’d found a carton of yogurt and was eating it, her elbows propped on his grandmother’s ancient formica table, her small breasts jiggling a little as she spooned it up. “Your grandma called,” she said. “I think it was her anyway.”
Sean threw up his hands as if this was the last straw, which he sort of felt it was. “What did she say?”
“I don’t know – about someone named Arthur.”
“That was my grandpa.” Sean sat down.
“He’s dead, I guess, right?”
Sean nodded. His grandfather had been dead for long enough that he didn’t remember him all that well as a person, more just a big shape with a mustache. “I was named after him. My middle name.”
“Sean Arthur,” Kelsey said. She licked some yogurt from the corner of her mouth. “They don’t go together.”
Sean didn’t think so either, but this didn’t stop him from feeling irritated. “Nobody cares about middle names.”
“Middle names are cool. I love my middle name.” She pointed her spoon at him. “Do you even know what my middle name is?”
Sean didn’t know what her middle name was and also didn’t know why it was important. “So what is it?”
Kelsey didn’t answer him. She scraped the last of the yogurt out with her spoon. She was sitting sprawled, her legs apart, and he could see the shadow of her pubic hair through the cloth of her underpants. “Why did your aunt stop being a nun?”
“How should I know?” He went to the cupboard where the glasses were kept in neat ranks, upside down. He took one out, and although it had a scrim of dust on it, he turned on the faucet and filled it.
“I don’t know why anyone would do that in the first place.” Kelsey was using her finger to get the last traces of yogurt.
“She wanted to do good, I guess.” Sean sometimes had thoughts about his aunt, about Lil. About her breasts or the shape of her ass in jeans. She was older but not that old. It seemed weird that someone who had been a nun would wear jeans that tight.
“Do good,” Kelsey said, her voice mocking. “So she’s the kind of person who thinks she knows what’s good for everybody.” She sat up straight and drew her legs together. “I just don’t get people like that. Everything is so screwed up anyway, what difference does it make? If one person does good,” she emphasized the word, “the whole world is just going to go on being the same. So what’s the point?”
“I don’t know,” Sean said. “Why are we talking about this?” Why were they still here? He wanted more than anything right now to push Kelsey out the front door and never see her again. He had to drive her home though. And he couldn’t help but look at her skin, which he knew was soft, and at her breasts, of which he knew the heft.
“I don’t want to talk about anything,” Kelsey said. She got up and went upstairs, leaving her yogurt carton and spoon on the table.
Upstairs, Kelsey put on her jeans and stood in front of the mirror brushing her hair with Sean’s grandmother’s brush. Vera: a weird old-fashioned name, like someone in a show on PBS. The bristles of the brush were worn away at the edges. How long would you have to be brushing your hair to do that? Kelsey knew that Sean was annoyed that she had talked to his grandmother. But what was she supposed to do, hang up on her? Her voice had been crackly and slurred, as if she were holding something in her mouth, something she couldn’t swallow.
Her own grandmother lived in South Carolina, which was fine with Kelsey.
She put on her shirt and brushed her hair in a tail over her shoulder, smoothing it down with her hands. Maybe she would take the key when Sean wasn’t looking. Maybe she would come back on her own. She imagined herself walking through the house, sitting down on the velvety couch in the living room, opening the china cabinet to look at the wine glasses and tea cups. She wished she had a house like this where she could come and be alone. If she came here again, maybe Vera would call. She imagined that they would talk but she couldn’t imagine what it would be about. Maybe about how stupid it was that her daughter had become a nun. Kelsey couldn’t think of anything worse than living with a bunch of women, doing good and not having sex. Sex was the one thing, she thought, the one thing. She put her shoes on and stood for a minute by the mirror, looking at herself with the bedroom behind her. The bed sheets were rumpled, half hanging on the floor, but this wasn’t her house and she didn’t have to make the bed here, so she went down the stairs, holding the brush so that the broad part of it was hidden in the palm of her hand.
Sean put the yogurt carton and the spoon in the sink, and then, thinking of evidence, washed the spoon and put the carton in the garbage with a paper towel over it. There was a pinkish smear on the table and he wiped it up.
If it hadn’t been snowing, he would have been able to look from his grandmother’s kitchen window into the kitchen window of her neighbor, but the snow was coming down hard and he could only see the outline of the house next door. How many times had his grandmother stood here, washed dishes looking out at the neighbor’s house, checking the weather? How many cookies had she baked in this kitchen, many of which he had eaten? She was in the nursing home but somehow in his mind she wasn’t. His brain wanted her to be here, opening the refrigerator to get out a snack when he came by after school. She persisted in thinking that he was going to be a reporter on a newspaper, no matter how many times he tried to explain about blogs and media platforms. How many times had she wiped her hands on the dish cloth that hung from the drying rack? He took it down and wiped his own hands, but the cloth was thin now and they still felt damp when he was done.
Sean stopped the car on the corner of her street and Kelsey got out. “Hey,” he said as she came around the side of the car. She made a circling motion with her hand and when he rolled the window down she pulled his head through and kissed him. A movie kiss, a romantic goodbye kiss. “I thought you needed to be careful,” he said. “What if someone’s looking?”
“Who cares?” Kelsey said, but when the car moved away, the tires crunching over the snow, she looked around to see if they had been observed.
All the houses were snug, buttoned up, the snow falling like a curtain to hide her. She put her hand in her purse to feel the bristles of Vera’s brush, and then pulled up her collar and walked down the street. Someone had gone this way ahead of her, someone with big feet and a long stride, and she played a game of fitting her boots into the prints. The snow was ankle deep, soft and fine, the flakes a cold tickle on her overheated skin. She jumped from one footprint to another, stretching her legs. It was like ballet class, her five-year-old pink-tutued self grown tall. She looked back on her fat child self in confusion. What did I think I was doing, she thought. Her kids were not going to do ballet, that wasn’t going to happen.
Halfway down the second block, she stopped her leaping and walked more slowly, not caring if the snow got in her low boots. Here is where her neighbor lived, here the woman who yelled at kids when they played on her lawn, here the place where Kelsey had sideswiped the pole with the car, just a little. What was there in the freezer that could be transformed into dinner? Would anyone come over tonight? The cares and feeling of the Kelsey who was someone’s wife and someone’s mother came over her and she plodded the last few steps, her feet dragging and bunching the snow.
Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University, and is currently working on a novella about a haunted high school.