That Sunday I went over to Grandma's early, clutching the towel-lined box of jewelry. When I knocked, no one answered, so I used my key. In the dim living room, the heavy blue curtains were still closed. It smelled of baby powder and old lady. Grandma sagged forward in her wheelchair in front of the TV. At first I thought she was dozing, but then I saw that her eyes were open and she was rubbing her hands together, as if feeling the swollen knuckles and parchment skin in disbelief. Her wheelchair sank into the worn grooves in the brown carpet.
"Grandma?" I said. She didn't look up. I walked forward until I could put my hand on her shoulder. It felt thin as a coathanger under her twisted blue sweater. "Grandma, it's Sara."
This time she looked up, though I couldn't tell if she focused on my face or not. "Oh, hello, dear," she said. I'd like to think she recognized me, but she had taken to calling everyone "dear."
My ex-husband Rick had always called me "honey." It took me three years to realize he called all women "honey" because he didn't want to get caught saying the wrong name.
I walked down the hallway to the master bedroom, still holding the open box. When my sister Janine had moved in to take care of Grandma, we'd transferred Grandma from the old master suite to the smaller bedroom closer to the hall bathroom that had the tub. Janine had moved into Grandma's old room. It made sense, since Janine could use the master bath's stand-up shower and the hall bedroom was closer to the living room, but seeing Janine's things where Grandma's used to be still seemed wrong. She'd repainted the room an artificial peach ice cream color and bought a bedspread with carnivorous-looking flowers on it. Her old "dolls of the world" collection stared down from a shelf above the window. How could she sleep in there without having nightmares?
I found Janine in the bathroom, still in her puffy pink bathrobe, using a curling iron on her straw-straight hair.
She jumped a bit when I said her name, but kept her arm with the curling iron steady. "Oh. Sara, you startled me." She had pale lashes and light blue eyes, and without eye makeup she looked innocent and vulnerable.
"I came a little early." I spent every Sunday with Grandma to give Janine a day off. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Well, talk, but I have to get ready for church." She started curling the next hunk of hair. I'd watched her do this all through adolescence. She'd spend half an hour curling her hair, and within two hours it'd be as straight as ever. My hair was the same, but it was dyed red and cut close to my face to emphasize my smoky blue eyes, my only really good feature. Rick had been a musician. I think I married him just because he wrote a song about me called "Sea Storm Eyes." Neither Janine nor I was much of a beauty, though Janine looked wholesome and ladylike, like someone from a 1950s ad for vacuum cleaners. I only managed interesting.
I held out the box, shaking it so it rattled. "Look what I found yesterday at a garage sale. All of Grandma's earrings." The rhinestones sparkled in the bright bathroom light. Grandma had worn the comedy and tragedy mask earrings as a volunteer community theater usher, the white plastic daises with a daisy-printed dress, the jeweled holly leaves every Christmas, and the imitation pearl drops to my sister's ill-fated wedding. Grandma's jewelry was all costume, except for her worn wedding ring that wouldn't come off anymore. I'd found the earrings in the midst of a stranger's castoffs—men's shirts and a heating pad and a bunch of old pocketknives—selling for a dollar a pair.
Janine glanced over her shoulder. A line appeared between her eyebrows, then disappeared as she shrugged. "Oh. I thought that Annie would keep the jewelry. She's so fond of Grandma. But I guess I can understand if she wanted to sell it. She probably doesn't make very much money."
Annie was the woman who helped Janine out twice a week. I'd met her yesterday at her garage sale, a rabbit-toothed woman who'd tried to pass off the jewelry as her own grandmother's. "She took advantage of an old woman. And you let her."
Janine heaved a sigh and turned back to her curling.
I wanted to shake her. "Don't they mean anything to you?"
"Grandma asked her if she wanted them. And Grandma will never notice they're gone."
"How do you know? I think Grandma notices more than you think. Of course she seems out of it sometimes. You would be too if you were parked in front of the TV all day."
"Look. You're not here every day. I know more about Grandma than you." She put the curing iron down with a snap. "Oh, it's so easy for you to criticize. You don't know the half of what I do for her. You have no idea." Her eyes were wet.
"But, this Annie person, you just let her..."
"Yes, I let her take the jewelry. Without her to give Grandma her bath and everything else she does, I don't know what I'd do. If some ugly costume jewelry keeps her happy, then fine. And I hope you didn't offend her when you found the jewelry, because if you did, and she quits, you're giving Grandma her bath until you find someone to replace her."
Janine frowned into the mirror. She's two years younger than me; when we were kids, she always pouted and refused to talk to me until Mom would say "Sara, she's just a little girl." And Janine would get her way.
I loitered in the bedroom, watching her get ready because I knew it would annoy her.
Janine had been a secretary in a large company that made some kind of valves. She hadn't liked it much. They paid next to nothing and still expected her to be cheerful all the time. I think she became a secretary aiming to marry a high-powered executive, which always happened in those Harlequin Romances she read in high school. Instead, she married the first man who offered. Certainly there was no other excuse for marrying a man called Bud. A womanizer, like my Rick, but without a tenth of his charm. How Bud got even one woman to sleep with him was a mystery to me. Still, Janine might have put up with it (or remained blind to it), but he left her for a tanned blonde whose father owned a big resort on the bass lake where he fished.
I sat on the bedspread, though I always felt like those giant peach flowers would come alive and bite me on the ass. Janine finished her hair with many careful little spurts of hairspray and fumbled into her make-up bag for a bottle of glutinous foundation.
She'd jumped at the chance to quit her job and take care of Grandma. I thought we should put Grandma in assisted living. I didn't like that Grandma spent the whole day in front of the TV or that Janine was letting her own life slip away caring for Grandma. And I didn't like the way she held her position as caretaker over me at times like this. No one asked her to make the sacrifice. I thought since it was her idea, she had no business complaining about it. But I felt guilty anyway. With Mom gone four years ago from cancer and Dad out of the picture since we were kids, Janine and Grandma was the only family I had.
"Just talk to me first before you give anything else of Grandma's away," I said.
Janine didn't turn from the mirror, apparently so absorbed in stroking on foundation with a wedge of sponge that she didn't hear me.
I went out and joined Grandma in front of the television. Even senile she was better company than Janine.
"Look what I brought you," I said. I put the box in her lap. She made no move to take it, so I held it there for her.
After a few moments she lowered her hands into it. She moved them around in the box, but didn't pick up any of the jewelry. "That's nice, dear," she said. Her blank face made my chest ache.
Her head bobbed forward. I took the box from her lap.
Some pieces were scratched, the gold rubbed off, the pearly beads worn down to glass. Others were as shiny as if they'd never been worn. One pair of pearl earrings was still in a cellophane sleeve that crackled and split when I touched it. Why had she bought the strange pair with blue and red bead spirals? It must have been for a specific dress. And where had the clusters of silver feathers that looked vaguely Native American come from?
Grandma was never one to reminisce. Instead, she listened well and spoke mostly of the present. So even though I was always close to her, I had no real insight into her past. And then, when her mind began to fail, it was too late to ask.
After Janine left, I tried to turn off the television, but when I did, Grandma gasped painfully, so I turned it back on. I muted it, though, and put on a record. Grandma had never converted from vinyl, and her records were Percy Faith or 101 Strings. But tucked in the back I found a few of Janine's old albums. I put on the Eagle's Greatest Hits and sat down to sketch mosaic ideas while Grandma watched the commercials flicker by like traffic on the highway. The mosaics I do are called "pique assiette" which means "broken plate" in French, but is also another term for a scrounger. I spend every Saturday at garage sales, looking for china, jewelry, bird figurines, buttons, even ashtrays. I'd never expected to find my grandmother's treasures among the bits and pieces I combed through, as if they were things without meaning.
The Eagle's were singing "Peaceful, Easy Feeling," and I was sketching a new clownfish box lid design (since "Finding Nemo" clownfish were big sellers) when Grandma spoke up.
"She's got a man, dear."
"What?" I looked at the television, but it was showing a commercial for a Toyota dealership. "Janine?" I asked.
Grandma just nodded along with the music, as if she hadn't heard.
"Has she brought him over?"
"Too slick," Grandma said.
"Are you talking about Bud?" Sometimes Grandma got the past confused with the present. "Bud and Janine?" I tried again when she didn't answer right away. She just continued to bounce her head.
Was there a man now? Janine hadn't mentioned a thing to me, but maybe she wouldn't. It would undermine her big martyr act. Or maybe she thought it would hurt my feelings if she paraded that she was seeing someone and I wasn't. Maybe she met someone at church, some nice, upstanding man who needed a good woman. Some guy with freshly cut hair and a collar that was too big, like a boy on school picture day. But slick, Grandma had said.
I looked in the kitchen for clues. Was there beer in the fridge, fancy coffee in the freezer, a box of cookies in the cupboard? But I found out nothing except that Janine still ate Froot Loops.
I tried to go back to my sketching, but I couldn't concentrate. Grandma's head sagged forward and her eyes closed. Her breathing made a thick sound, not quite a snore.
I padded down the corridor to Janine's room. Why was Janine hiding him from me? What if he was married and the wife showed up here one day?
In her room, the dolls' eyes watched me as I went to her bedside table. Some mosaic artists use dolls in their work, but I never have. I can't bear the way they look at me from their mire of grout.
Her bedside table was tidy, with a Redbook and a little bowl for her jewelry. Janine had gotten her engagement ring from Bud made over into a pendant, the meager diamond looking even smaller at the end of a chain. The pendant was in the bowl, along with a pair of small pearl earrings from her secretarial days. I opened the drawer. It was crammed with paperback novels, the kind where the muscled hero with no shirt embraced a woman in a frothy ball gown. I guess these were Janine's equivalent of the vibrator in my bedside table. No condoms.
I went over to Grandma's old dresser, the scarred top now covered with a fringed scarf. A clock, a large doll in a pinafore and pantaloons, and her jewelry box were lined up in a row. As a girl, Janine had always kept things important to her in the bottom drawer of her jewelry box—blue ocean glass, an old rhinestone necklace of our mother's, the jewel box's snapped-off ballerina figure.
Now that she was grown, the jewelry box was bigger, made of cheaply-varnished wood with a mass-produced stained-glass lid. But it still had a bottom drawer. I found her Social Security card. The same rhinestone necklace of our mother's. A kitten broach with fake emerald eyes that she had worn constantly after I gave it to her for her tenth birthday. A dusty bundle of Jordan Almonds in pink netting tied with satin ribbon, one of the favors from her wedding. A florist's card, still in the envelope. Knowing I shouldn't, I drew it out.
"Happy anniversary to my Angel" it read, and was signed "Bud."
I slipped it back in to the envelope, shielding it. I tried to arrange things in the drawer as I found them, but unlike the tidy top of the dresser, the stash in the jewelry box had been jumbled together in a heap. I closed the drawer with a little click and found I was crying. On my wedding day, when she was my matron of honor, married two years herself, Janine had already had sad shadows under her eyes. After she'd finished helping me dress, she'd hugged me and whispered in my ear "I know you'll be happy Sara, I just know it."
Back in the living room, Grandma was awake and staring at the silent set. The music had stopped. She rubbed her hands together with a papery sound. I turned the TV volume back up, filling the room with a laugh track. Grandma raised her head. "She's got a man, dear," she said.
"No she doesn't," I said, sure now after seeing the card from Bud.
"Too slick." She nodded. "A musician. He'll be nothing but trouble. You tell her so."
I knew then what time she was visiting, what conversation she was replaying, who she thought she was talking to. I could only be grateful that Janine hadn't passed on Grandma's message, that she had substituted a kinder one of her own, a wish for my happiness, given in the face of her own misery.
When Janine came through the door in her church dress and sensible shoes I felt like hugging her, but I knew she'd be suspicious or uncomfortable. She dropped into an armchair, mascara worn off, curls gone.
"What did you do this afternoon?" I asked.
"Went to a movie. Did a little window shopping." She shrugged. "How was Grandma?"
"Fine. She slept a lot." I hesitated. "She said a few things that made me wonder if she knew what time it was. I mean, like she thought it was the past."
"She's like that sometimes." She sat up straighter. "I told you she's been slipping for a while. You just don't see her enough to notice, or you don't pay attention." She nodded in the direction of my sketchbook, left open to the unfinished clownfish drawing.
She got up, went over to Grandma, held her hands in both of hers to stop the chafing. "Hi Grandma, I'm back. Did you have a good time?" Grandma didn't respond. "We'll get you to bed when Sara goes. Then tomorrow, Annie will come and give you a bath, OK?"
"Annie," Grandma said. "I like her. She fixes my hair."
"That's right," Janine said. She looked over her shoulder at me. "You should get going." Her lips were pale.
I got up, touched Janine on the sleeve. "Need any help?"
"No, go on home, I'm used to it," she said. She still hunched over Grandma, but I managed to lean in to give a kiss to Grandma's dry cheek. Close as this, I could smell my sister's Jean Naté bath splash, the same she'd been using since junior high.
I gathered up the box of Grandma's jewelry. Maybe Janine was right and I shouldn't begrudge anything Janine did for Annie. Annie whom Grandma remembered when I wasn't sure she remembered me. But Annie had tried to pass off the jewelry as her own grandmother's, probably just to get a better price for it. And where had all the other things on that garage sale table come from—the heating pad, the old pocketknives? I didn't trust her, but I wasn't sure how to start fixing the situation. Too many pieces.
"I've been thinking," I said. "I could set up a workroom over here, be around more, help out a little bit more. This is a lot for you to do on your own."
"That's not necessary," Janine said.
"I'll come over tomorrow."
"Fine," she said. "Do whatever you want, like you always do."
I looked down at the pile of glittering earrings. I would put them in a mosaic after all. A jewelry box studded with rhinestones and ringed with pearls. Something for Janine. It would be a beautiful hodgepodge that wouldn't go with anything else in her room. But maybe she'd keep it anyway.
Ann Hillesland's work work has been published or is forthcoming in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Monkeybicycle, Sou'wester, r.kv.ry, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2012. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen's University of Charlotte.