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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
Forgiving Eva
By Amy Meissner
Genre: Fiction Level: College
Year: 2002 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

The steamer trunk bounced when the deliverymen dropped it, leaving four rust-filled dents in my grandmother's kitchen floor. It had arrived on a Tuesday, a morning for washing sheets and cleaning berries, but my grandmother untied her apron and patted her thin hair, fussing with her dress long after my grandfather signed his name and the men rumbled away in their truck. She crossed her arms over her thick stomach as she stared at the trunk; her fingers twisted over her mouth, becoming a fist she pressed to her lips. I finished my egg.

The trunk smells were layered, in the same way the barn smells mixed wet and musty with new red paint on the outside walls every other spring. And at that moment, I imagined everything in America smelled this way, the old made new with packaging and string. I thought anything that went into the trunk could be remade and I wanted to close myself inside, shut the lid, and follow the wallpaper flowers for a map of this place called Boston. I could see why Eva had wanted to go -- the harbor was the edge of a cabbage rose, the roads were twirling vines, and there was the tea party I had read about, on a curled leaf tip.

Grandfather and I sat at the kitchen table, with small spoons resting next to hollowed eggshells, overturned in chipped eggcups so they looked uneaten. I did this just because he did. Our breakfast dishes were yellow, small, and always looked wrong sitting on the table, unless it was morning.

My grandmother unfolded embroidered blankets and paper-wrapped clothes, stacked slippery magazines on the kitchen chairs until all the seats were filled. Her nostrils flared and she frowned as she worked, as if she were scrubbing pots, or weeding, or polishing black-soled shoes. The cracks in her fingers were stained from the blueberries she had been de-stemming and rolling clean on blue-spotted tea towels so they wouldn't bruise or burst. The berries lay warm and neglected on the counter by the sink. She spread the trunk's contents in a circle on the floor and I could tell she was trying to decide where to stack things: all things blue together, a useful object far away from the impractical, the most beautiful needlework on the floor behind her back. She smoothed brown wrapping paper between the fabrics and the bare-swept linoleum tiles, as if she could protect one from the other.

I wanted to pick at the cracked canvas that split across the trunk's lid, its tight threads ripping free from a lacquered finish that had held it drum tight. I thought if I could stick my finger inside and peel strips away from the water stains, I could find the wood hiding underneath. I thought the wood was its heart.

"Anna! No hands!" My grandmother said, flashing her gray eyes. Her body stayed bent, frozen as if waiting for me to move first. Against the fabrics she held, her arms were floury white and her dress faded. Perhaps the dress had once been covered with leaves, but the shapes were now shadow curls, the lavender dye bleached to yellow under her arms, while still dark and patterned inside the patch pockets at her hips. I chewed the dry skin on my lip, peeling it away with my front teeth, and slid my fingers between the chair and my bottom where they always seemed to fit, cold and tight like a small lock.

She held a velvet purse and shook her head while the tissue crinkled inside. It was too small in her hands and her dry fingers snagged the fabric as she followed the beadwork, smaller than any of her garden seeds. The creamy round handles would have clicked together smooth and rich over my wrist, but I knew I'd never play with it this way; it would stay crushed, dark and quiet in the trunk.

I swung my legs and gripped the edges of the smooth wooden seat while my chair wobbled, a light thumping against linoleum. My grandmother circled. The trunk's contents were still packed tightly, while the fabrics on the floor slowly expanded and filled with air, like they were breathing for the first time. "Why has she sent this?" she asked, standing with her fingers spread on the small of her back. "No one can use these things here. She's left Sweden and forgotten we're still on the farm." She stared at my grandfather who closed his eyes and pretended to drink coffee from his empty cup, holding it to his lips and searching for drops with his tongue. When she looked away, the cup rattled softly in its yellow saucer and he glanced at the clock ticking on the wall above the stove.

I breathed through my nose and tried to smell my aunt, Eva, in these things, but she seemed too far away, as if she had changed her own packaging, and I thought I wouldn't know her anymore. For as many times and as many ways as I had imagined her coming back for me, I wondered if I would even know who she was. If she stood in my bedroom doorway with an empty suitcase just for me, would she recognize my shape under the bed? I had grown.

The honking Volvo that had come for Eva three years ago was sturdy and black like a man's thick boot, with a mean-laced grill, and fenders that bulged like fat seams. I watched from my window above. The driveway dust settled in the yard on the staked and line-strung raspberries, on the car's dark teardrop roof.

Eva had dragged her suitcase out the door and stumbled down the concrete steps, knees knocking out from under her each time the bag swung against her thigh. A fuzzy knit hat covered her ears and her coat's tweed collar had flipped up so no one could see her face. Grandfather wouldn't come out of the cool dark barn to say goodbye, and I wondered where he stood, maybe with his forehead against the mare's gray neck and his fingers wrapped over the edge of her stall door. I thought I had seen him like that once before, the day my uncles buried my mother and I had come to live on the farm; or maybe I had done this, when I'd asked if the horse was crying too and he lifted me to touch her broad flat cheek. I couldn't remember having a suitcase of my own then either, or even clothes, just a bear I'd named Koppar, the color of the pots hanging in the kitchen.

When my grandmother saw the black car, she had cried out from the garden, and started running towards Eva, still clutching a small spade and dropping black soil from her fingers. Eva tugged her hat lower and grabbed the suitcase handle with both hands, dragging it sideways through the gravel towards the open car door. Her skinny friend from town, Katrina, helped her load it into the back seat because the trunk was already full of luggage. Eva wore her winter coat; its pockets bulged with gloves, shoes, and scarves. Underneath, she'd layered her short jacket, a green sweater, three dresses, and a belted skirt. I'd watched her get dressed. It was late summer, still long warm days, but she'd only had one suitcase. Eva was eighteen and I was seven.

The blue and yellow luggage sticker pasted on the trunk read GRIPSHOLM, Svenska Amerika Linien, and I imagined Eva standing on a pier, waving these gifts goodbye with a handkerchief in her gloved hand, and wearing a striped red dress with blue stars. The same ship that took her away brought back pieces that didn't feel like her. My grandmother held a blouse by the shoulders and as it unfolded, a sheet of white tissue fluttered to the floor.

I pointed and said, "I like that one."

"Your aunt is stupid to waste her money on these flashy fabrics," my grandmother said, scowling at me and then at the blouse. "Maybe a person can wear this on the street in America, but I can't wear it here, not even to the church." She held the red flowered blouse to her chest and its yellow scalloped collar flopped to the side. She looked down at it and huffed, "It's all so bright!"

The colors inside the farmhouse blended in seasonless, faded ways: sun bleached and starched. The kitchen walls were dove gray board and batten, easy to scrub and repaint; easy to see when it needed to be done. The floor rugs were tightly loomed with coordinating scraps cut from worn, soft clothes. The stripes wove back and forth, alternating, one color gradually becoming another. After shaking the rugs outside on Fridays, my grandmother would lean over them, combing her fingers through the tangled cotton fringe, her blunt fingernails tapping the floor.

She made curtains for the kitchen window, crocheting with fine cotton yarn and following patterns from borrowed magazines, the pages marked with paperclips. The last curtain she had finished was my favorite, a simple long rectangle with roosters in a row; their marching shapes emerging somehow from the holes and squares. She had unraveled it and re-stitched it twice, each time using a smaller needle and tighter stitches while the yarn zigzagged off the unwinding balls, remembering its previous shape.

"It's all too bright!" she said again, snapping and re-folding the blouse in the air.

My grandfather cleared his throat and picked small crumbs from the tablecloth with the pad of his finger, slowly skipping over the geometric pattern like he was connecting stars. He examined the crumbs in the light. "I think the pigs would like to see you wear that," he muttered before pressing his fingertip to his tongue and covering his smile. I imagined the pigs in a row, all eleven, clean and shiny pink, smiling at her with white teeth. They squealed and wiggled like babies when they saw her.

"What did you say, Karl?"

He cleared his throat and reached for the newspaper, rolling it into a tight narrow tube. "I said ... I have to go feed the pigs." He exhaled as his chair scraped the tiles and stood, snapping his suspenders over his shoulders and shrugging them into place. His work pants were stiff from washing and blowing on the line, the knees and seat a softer, faded brown. He didn't see me wink at him, but instead asked, "Anna, what makes you always wrinkle your nose like that?" as he dropped his stained hat on his head and stooped out the door.

Eva had had the quickest wink I'd ever seen, but left home before she could teach me how. I'd gotten used to looking for one when I needed it. Sometimes I got two winks in a row, and she'd stick out her tongue too if my grandmother had her back turned. It was like having Eva hold my hand, even if we were across the room, or sitting on opposite ends of a table. When I got caught sticking out my tongue, my grandmother had scolded me: "The birds will come and poop on it if you do it again, and if you do it in the rhubarb patch, you'll poison yourself." Eva covered her mouth and snorted, later locking her thumbs and fluttering her long fingers every night in the light from her reading lamp, threatening me with her bird hands.

Eva had winked at me also when she slid the crumpled newspaper clipping towards my grandmother's plate at dinner. I had smiled and fluttered my fingers by my knee, under the waxy tablecloth, but I didn't realize that she had winked, looking for my hand to hold.

My grandmother picked up the clipping and tipped her head to read down the end of her nose. She still held a fork in her left hand, where it hovered over her plate. I watched her chew slowly, her jaws circling wider, harder. A spot of yellow butter sat on her lip, melting, as she frowned. I didn't know what the paper said or meant, but I watched Eva face her mother with her eyes upturned and her mouth slightly open. I sometimes forgot that I wasn't really the youngest child, that actually Eva was the baby. My other aunts and uncles were all gone, had already moved away from the farm, had families of their own. I had older cousins, too, some were even older than Eva. But watching her lean towards the clipping, closer with each breath, reminded me, even then, that my grandmother was still her mother. That Eva was too young to be anyone's mother.

When I had come to live on the farm, I was three. My grandmother had made a bed for me in the triangular attic space that had been my mother's room growing up. This was something that had made sense to her, I'm sure. Either she thought there would be some connection with my mother there for me, or she could forget about me up there in the same way it seemed she wanted to forget my mother. Ignore the fact that she was gone, the fact that there was no father to take care of me instead of an old man and woman who wanted to be finished raising children. I screamed for an hour in the darkness before Eva came and slept with me.

She stayed the next night again, and brushed my hair, and then she brushed Koppar, saying we could all be beautiful, like movie stars. On the third night, my grandfather wheeled my narrow metal-framed bed into Eva's room, asking the whole time, "Are you sure?" Eva just nodded and taped a black and white magazine photograph of Ingrid Bergman on the wall above my pillow. When we made the bed, it fluttered next to a ceramic angel head with pink wings wired onto a nail. She sang to me until I slept.

When my grandmother finished reading the advertisement, she turned the paper over, pushed it along the table, and picked up her knife to finish cutting her meat. "You don't need to go all the way to America to take care of other people's children," she'd said, staring hard out the window and over the top of my head, "None of us do."

Across the table, I looked for anything from Eva, a wink, a wrinkled nose; something to say this was a joke. That going to America wasn't real, just like holding your breath to run up the stairs didn't really make you run faster, like an upside down egg shell only just looked like you hadn't eaten it already, or like tying thick stockings to the swing only just seemed like flags fluttering behind you. Grandfather scraped potatoes onto the back of his fork. His silverware clinked softly as he hunched further and stared at his plate. It was clear that my grandmother was all things mother, and no. I thought if I smiled at Eva, somehow, I could ask, you're staying here with me, aren't you? But she also looked out the window past me, where the sky drizzled over gardens and fields of bent alfalfa. The land was so green against the clouds that it hurt to stare for too long, while the dripping leaves reflected watery in our eyes.

My grandmother pulled a flopping hat from the trunk. A large red rose was pinned to a ribbon band around the crown and its straw brim was crushed on one side. The magazines on the chair next to mine slid from their stack onto the floor. They slipped slowly at first, and then faster until they all let go, their soft pages curling underneath the spines. My grandmother made no move to straighten them, so I left my chair to pick them up.

"Good God, child, do you have to be underfoot all the time?" she said, turning and losing her balance. "Maybe you would be happy sitting right here?" She pointed between her eyes and I pictured myself smaller than a crumb, arms wrapped around my bent knees, sitting on the end of my grandmother's nose and staring straight ahead, seeing what she saw, feeling how she felt.

The magazines glistened, like they'd been brushed with butter: red cars, fluttering silk scarves, and women with bright lipstick, beautiful like Eva and Ingrid Bergman, and just like my mother. I pictured them driving by the ocean -- Eva, and my mother, and Ingrid Bergman -- with wind pushing laughter towards the curls of their ears, their small soft hairs on the backs of their necks swaying, pale-white and fine brushed, like mine.

I had watched Eva buckle the straps on her suitcase, lifting the bag again and again, first with her right hand and then with her left; walking to the door, turning, and then walking back to the bed, measuring the weight, and holding out her arm for balance. Each time, she had unbuckled and reorganized the space inside. "These books are all moving too much," she whispered, as she stuffed panties and balled up stockings around their square edges. I sat on Eva's bed, on the opposite wall from my own, and wished I was black and white, made out of lines and shadows like a picture in one of Eva's books. I could fold up and slip between the pages, so when Eva opened the book in America, I would jump out and surprise her.

Eva's lips were full and pink in our warm bedroom as she fumbled with the brown flat buttons on her coat and blew her pale bangs from the corner of her mouth. Her eyebrows looked thin and white against her hot face. She took a deep breath before wiping the shine from her forehead and looked taller than I had ever noticed before. I stared at her black-heeled shoes with the thin tied laces, her stockings wrinkling at her ankles in the way she hated. We were never allowed to wear shoes in the bedroom and I was always supposed to point to her ankles when she needed to pull up her stockings. "Anna, will you write and draw pictures for me when I'm in Boston?"

I shook my head and covered my mouth with my bear so she wouldn't see me cry. The fur smelled like sleep, deep and quiet. I squeezed the lumps inside, shifted the cotton stuffing with my fists. Eva touched his red-gold arm, "Maybe Koppar will write a letter, then." I stared past her to the dresser we had shared. Eva's drawers were tipped open and empty. A wire hanger squeaked in the closet as it swung back and forth. I twisted from Eva and faced the wall. It was plastered and smooth, the color of an eggshell, and I reached out to touch it, to see if it was empty.

"I'm sorry, I can't stay with you, Anna," she said softly, staring at the bear, "and I'm sorry, but I just can't be here anymore. I won't." She cupped the side of my neck, warm fingers resting on my jaw, and then sliding through my hair before she dropped her cheek into it. I sat sweating under the heat and weight of Eva's coat, with Koppar still covering my open mouth. I screamed into his head and felt my whole body stiffen before I kicked with bare heels into the mattress where it met the wall. Eva breathed into my hair. I pictured her eyes closed, like she used to do when she smelled flowers, so she would remember them in the winter, she said, when the flat crumbling petals pressed in her books weren't enough. Her body shook and she seemed to stop breathing for a long time, until she took one ragged breath while her fingers tangled and wrapped in my hair. I felt her teeth pushing on the top of my head, wet, and wondered how long before she would scream into me. She whispered, "I'll miss you," before she turned and tried to run down the stairs, stumbling, and then slowing in her heels to take one wooden step at a time, her suitcase scraping and thumping behind her. I held my breath until she reached the bottom, but not so she could run faster.

I saw, buried in the trunk, a small square package with my name on it, To Anna, and I reached for it while my grandmother stood reading the letter from Eva. "These are things her new family doesn't want. They were going to throw it all away." She shook her head. "Just because she goes to America she thinks she's rich now." My grandmother stared at the clothes and fabrics on the floor. She put the letter to her forehead, covering her face. "Well, she's not. She's just living in someone else's house, looking after someone else's children. There is nothing rich about taking care of somebody else's child." She pushed my hand from the trunk but didn't look at me; she wasn't saying this so I would understand.

She picked at a silk and velvet blanket with her thumbnail, huffing and complaining about the time spent wasted on the small, uneven scraps of fabric, stitched and patched with bright embroidery floss: triangles, crooked squares, flowers. All shapes from fancy dresses, blouses, or curtains -- fabrics too fine to throw away.

"These colors don't even match," she said, shaking her head, "That's just crazy; my daughter is going crazy in America. You should be happy you aren't crazy in America like your aunt who thinks she's so rich. She thinks she'll show us she's so American now."

I have a present, I said, and I'm going to open it up, but my grandmother didn't hear me because the words were in my head and the package was under my shirt, tucked in my waistband by my belly. I stepped backwards to the landing at the bottom of the stairs. The windowsills behind me had all been freshly painted, white oil, with brush strokes careful and unending. Like a letter written to home, done without lifting the pencil to breathe. Like things unfolded from the Boston trunk, looked at, and then refolded and closed away in one movement. In one breath.

I ran up the stairs.

Under my bed, webs swayed and reminded me of gray stockings on the line, flags flying from a swing, or a ship. Spiders watched me from their corners and the floor gripped hard on my elbows. The air was mine there and I could breathe it in and out, could gulp it and hold it in my belly, or just blow it all away. I pushed spiders with my breath.

Unwrapping the smooth plain paper was like getting only one piece of cake and then carving small bites with a fork until it was a sliver standing on a plate. The tape was clear and glossy, and held soft layers of brown wrapping as I slowly peeled it away, smoothing wrinkles with my fingers, looking for Eva.

My present, To Anna, was a red plastic wallet with a shining yellow and white cowboy printed on the cover. He wore pointed boots and wide pants with fringe down the sides, and twirled a rope over his head. He smiled from beneath his hat brim like he could catch me if I ran away. I wasn't sure what a cactus was, but there were two, stamped yellow, in the background, standing far apart like lonely people watching from a distance.

Inside was one green dollar, ironed flat. I stared at the man in the oval frame, tried to remember the word for president, and the reasons why he was not a real king. A clear plastic pocket held a black and white photograph of Eva, in Boston, with the three children that she took care of. I thought about how white it would look taped next to the yellow picture of Ingrid Bergman on the wall and the chipped angel head that never flew away from its nail. The static crackled when I pulled it out to hold, and the border scalloped, stiff against my fingers.

Eva's smile had become my mother's, round and soft and shy, and I was jealous thinking that if someone else's children got to live in Heaven, that my mother took care of them there. The shadow of Eva's wide brimmed hat her hid eyes, though I knew they were lifted and searching. I had forgotten that she used to smile this way, with her chin tipped low and her head cocked to the side like she was asking a question. Her gloved hands rested on the shoulders of a boy and a girl as they leaned in, like vines growing up a pole. The youngest stood in front, holding a bear, newer, but smaller than Koppar, and rested a pouting chin on its furred head. I couldn't tell if this was a boy or a girl, but I wanted to hate them, all of them. Rip up Eva and throw her away.

I pressed my cheek to the cool gray-painted floor and closed my eyes. I could hear my grandmother in the kitchen downstairs, a soft murmuring that sounded like parts of her voice smothered in blankets. I had never heard her cry before. The photograph curled and stuck to my moist fingertips; when I looked at it again, my spiraling prints had dulled their faces. They all squinted into the sun, smiling, and the photograph blurred to nothing at the edges as if they stood on a sidewalk in the clouds. I tried to see what made these children look American, or prettier, or better behaved somehow. I thought we all looked the same. In black and white, no one looked brighter.


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