Clare Beams is the author of the story collection We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books, Oct. 2016). Her stories appear in One Story, n+1, Ecotone, The Common, the Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and have received special mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV. She recently moved with her husband and daughter to Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing at Saint Vincent College and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts — and will be launching We Show What We Have Learned at White Whale Bookstore on October 25th!
From the publisher: “The literary, historic, and fantastic collide in these wise and exquisitely unsettling stories. From bewildering assemblies in school auditoriums to the murky waters of a Depression-era health resort, Beams’s landscapes are tinged with otherworldliness, and her characters’ desires stretch the limits of reality.”
Joyce Carol Oates: “A dazzling story collection—as if, by a rare sort of magic, Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson had conspired together to imagine a female/feminist voice for the twenty-first century that is wickedly sharp-eyed, wholly unpredictable, and wholly engaging.”
In the wake of the end of things with Adam, a good and generous man, Teresa felt the need to do something self-evidently good and generous. Adam had made her feel incapable of giving. She would show him giving. She called her older sister Deb and said, “Let’s take Granna up north.”
But there were tried, true ways to force Deb to override her better judgment. Teresa blew a gentle puff of air into the phone.
“I just think,” she said, “that it’s the right thing.”
When they pulled up to the retirement home where they had stashed Granna five years earlier, she was there on the bench out front, hands crossed in the lap of her high-waisted silken dress, waiting for them, looking very, very old. Where do you even get dresses like that anymore? Deb had said once, years ago. Until Deb mentioned them, Teresa would never have thought to wonder about the dresses, any more than she would have wondered about Granna’s own particular skin.
“Yikes,” said Deb’s daughter, Ellie, from the backseat, as Granna rose, squinted at the car, and began to come slowly toward it, shuffling in her Band-Aid–colored shoes. Ellie was nine now. Teresa hadn’t seen her since Christmas. During the car ride, she had displayed a new knack for saying aloud the very thought that had been in Teresa’s head, too, but that she never would have voiced, so that being with Ellie was like being stripped naked before herself.
“Hush,” Deb told Ellie. Then, “Where are her bags? Doesn’t she have any bags? I’ll go ask.” Granna stopped when Deb reached her. Deb put her hand on Granna’s arm and murmured something while Granna looked past her, fixing her milky eyes on Teresa’s face.
Teresa remembered those eyes’ former sharpness. When tiny ants had overrun Granna’s kitchen in the summers of Teresa’s childhood, Granna had spotted them, even from across the room, and crushed each individually, with books, the bottoms of her dainty coffee cups, her heel, her naked fingers. She used to eye Teresa’s outfits and send her upstairs to change if she found the smallest stain or stray thread. The scrutiny had felt frightening and wondrous. No one else in Teresa’s life had ever seen her so clearly. When Teresa was eleven or twelve, though, dimness began to settle over Granna; Teresa’s mother had said she was “slowing down.” So they’d left her behind. Deb and Teresa stopped taking their summer trips with Granna to the line of cabins in the Vermont woods near where she had grown up, and they visited her less and less often. Eventually they’d taken Granna’s whole life and dumped it here, in this small, gray place.
Teresa was going to let that life out into the air again. She was going to carry Granna right back into a family Vermont trip, as if those trips had never stopped.
But her sense of the trip’s rightness was wilting, confronted with Granna in the flesh. Granna lowered herself into the front seat of the car while Deb fetched her forgotten suitcase. She faced straight ahead as they drove away. Her hands lay on her knees like abandoned things, the knuckles swollen and pearly as bulbs. Teresa hadn’t managed to remember her quite this ancient. With Deb and Ellie, Teresa had visited last year and sat with her for an hour in her room at the home, that space overfull of the table lamps, ceramic figurines of women in ball gowns, and patterned pillows Teresa remembered from Granna’s house—as if someone had taken that house, with everything still inside it, and squeezed and squeezed. Granna had sipped from a glass of water, spoken a few times. Now she said nothing. Nobody said anything. Granna watched the road. Teresa imagined Adam’s beautifully expressive eyes on her, rich with disappointment: Is this helping, Ter?
“It’s so good to see you, Granna,” Teresa said. She tried not to speak too slow or too loud. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”
Deb leaned forward to cup Granna’s shoulder with her palm. “We all have, Granna,” she said. Ellie rested her cheek against the window.
They stopped halfway, at a rest-area bathroom. Teresa and Deb walked on either side of Granna with her arms in their hands; beneath Teresa’s fingers, Granna’s skin rolled loose over the bones in her elbow. Teresa wasn’t sure how hard to grip. She looked to Deb for clues, but Deb was distracted, talking to Ellie behind them, telling her that she couldn’t have a soda from the vending machine, there was seltzer in the car. What must it be like, Teresa wondered, to have to experience the world in such a fragile body? You would evaluate the direction of every step, if walking was this hard. Yet here Granna was, stepping off into the wilderness with them. Well, she could sit safely on the porch of their cabin for the whole trip, breathing in the fresh air. Teresa would bring her every last thing she needed, before she even realized she needed it: plates of food, cups of orange juice and tea on skillfully balanced trays.
Teresa and Deb sparred over who would pay for their drive-through dinner, and Teresa won, handing money through the window while Deb was still grappling with her wallet. Granna removed and ate only the top bun of her Quarter Pounder. By the time they turned in to the pitted drive that led to Sanderson’s Mountain Cabins it was almost dark, and Granna had fallen gently asleep with her chin tipped up toward the roof of the car.
Time had not been kind to Sanderson’s Mountain Cabins, or else Teresa’s memory had been too kind. Each of the ten sad, white cabins seemed to be ailing in a different way: a missing shutter, a patchy roof, a tilted front step. They sat in their half circle with tragic patience, as if they’d gathered here to await improvement without any hope that it was actually coming. When Teresa parked, Granna opened her eyes and cleared her throat with a pebbly sound.
On her way back to the car with their cabin keys, #7 for Teresa and Granna, #8 for Deb and Ellie, Teresa thought she saw a shadowy, sinuous something twist its way from the corner of the porch and off into the bushes, where it rustled in the leaves. She jumped and hoped the others hadn’t seen. A squirrel, probably, that her mind had made larger and darker.
When Ellie opened the car door she said gleefully, “Scaredy-cat, Aunt Terry!”
They dispersed and unpacked. Granna leaned against the headboard of her bed with legs extended and shoes still on, placid face lovely in the light of the old boxy television. It was impossible to tell from her expression what she was thinking, or whether she was thinking anything at all.
“Are you comfortable?” Teresa asked.
“Oh yes,” Granna said.
Deb knocked at the door then, and asked Teresa if she’d come for a walk. Teresa wasn’t sure about leaving Granna, but she could tell from Deb’s voice that it wasn’t really a request. They took the path that led from the back of the cabins toward the stream and swimming hole they’d loved as kids. The air had a dark chill. Deb kept her flashlight trained on the ground right in front of them. Like everything else here, the swimming hole proved slighter in all ways than Teresa remembered—its sound less a babble than a slow seeping—though it did still have the leafy, soaked smell she would have known anywhere. Deb swatted at a mosquito on her leg. “I think,” she said, “that we should consider a change of plans.”
Deb widened her eyes. “Seriously? I know this is a hard time for you and everything, but we can’t just stay out here in the woods in the middle of nowhere for a whole week. With an old lady. What are we going to do with her?”
“Where did you think we were going? You’ve been here.”
“I don’t remember it being so . . . ” She extended her hands and held up the thick blackness, as if measuring it.
Teresa was not going to admit defeat on this, her project of goodness. “We promised Granna and Ellie a vacation, Deb.”
“Ellie? Ellie is going to kill me if I make her stay here.”
“You’ll see,” Teresa said. “Just wait. It will all look better in the morning.” They were hardly going to pile back in the car and drive through the night. Ring the bell at the retirement home at two in the morning and speed away, leaving Granna blinking on the doorstep and gripping her suitcase like a foundling.
Deb sighed. “We’ll talk more tomorrow. It’s not like it makes sense to leave now,” she said, letting it be known that sense, and not Teresa, had convinced her. All their lives Deb had been sensible. In between their visits, Teresa always forgot how maddening this could be. Now Deb turned her back and started down the path.
Granna had already tucked herself into bed by the time Teresa returned, and her breathing was soft and even. She’d left the overhead light on. Teresa switched it off, turned on her dim bedside lamp. She went about her bedtime preparations in shadow, giving herself a splinter in the side of her thigh when she brushed against the raw wood of the bathroom door. In bed, she read two pages of the book Adam had given her for her most recent birthday—thirty-one—before realizing she was hearing the words in his voice. She turned off the light.
Last month, Adam had looked at her in a considering kind of way and said, “I just don’t know if you’re a mother.”
They were talking, as they’d begun to do (though only after a long time—maybe that should have been a sign), about getting married, about children. It had taken a minute for the hurt of the words to hit Teresa.
Initially, she’d just felt confused. Of course she wasn’t a mother, not yet.
“It’s just something I feel about you,” he said. “You, and being maternal.”
What was there to say in response? Teresa supposed she could have told him he didn’t seem very paternal to her either, but both of them would have known it was a lie. She wondered how it happened that some people just turned out obviously better than others. Yet it seemed terrible of him not to have given her a chance, that largest of all possible chances, to transcend the way she seemed.
Teresa lay very still in her bed, not sleeping but trying to sound like an asleep person, trying to not wake Granna. She realized, though, that Granna was indeed awake. She heard the rustling of the covers, and then a watchful silence. Teresa stayed silent herself by instinct. She cracked open her eyes to see Granna moving not toward the bathroom but toward their cabin’s front door, still in her nightgown. Granna pulled the door open and closed it quietly behind her.
Teresa sat up in bed. So Granna had stepped out. To do what? She waited to see if Granna would come right back, which of course she would have to, because where was there, in this place, for a ninety-year-old woman to go? When a minute passed and she didn’t return, Teresa went outside. Granna was picking her way through the parking lot with the caution of someone walking on ice. Teresa advanced. She would lay a hand on Granna’s arm, a gentle, nonstartling hand. But then a crane fly, trailing its long thready legs, brushed Teresa’s lips tenderly, and she gave a quiet shriek. Granna turned around.
“I’m getting some air,” Granna said. Teresa thought there was a plaintive note in her voice. “I want to look at the moon.”
“Let me come with you.”
“No thank you.”
I come or you’re not going, Teresa wanted to say. But she wasn’t Granna’s mother. “Only for a few minutes?” Teresa asked.
Teresa returned to her bed to wait. While she was waiting she fell asleep. She woke to daylight and Granna propped up in bed.
“Good morning,” Granna said. “Didn’t you have a nice long beauty sleep.”
The beginning of “Granna” from We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams. Copyright © 2016 by Clare Beams. Used here with the permission of Lookout Books, University of North Carolina Wilmington, lookout.org.