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2018 NonFiction

Christina Harrington

DRAGONFLIES BY THE DOZENS

The afternoon after my grandfather was buried, my mother and I sat at her crowded kitchen table and drank out of wine bottles left over from his service. My mother sipped pinot grigio from the slender neck of her green bottle; I gulped something red. We were trying to forget the morning, the rain and the mud, trying to artificially advance through the stages of grief until they were safely behind glass and observable from a distance. We drank until it was night.

I was hungover the next morning when I went with my mother to the funeral home. We paid the last of the bills with the professionally gentle funeral director. He gave us the photos we’d used at the wake, the shells from the 21 gun salute, the trifolded flag entitled to my grandfather as a veteran of war and a tastefully branded bag holding the last of his belongings. While we waited for the charges to go through–It might take a few minutes, my mother said, an apology caught in her throat, they aren’t used to me spending this much–I went through the paper bag branded with the funeral home’s understated logo. His bolo tie, his wedding ring, and, in a small red velvet bag, his wire frame glasses.

A shock went through me, like there was a static charge held by the glasses, just waiting for my fingertips. The plastic protectors wrapped around the end of the wire arms were yellow with age. The silver paint was worn in the spaces that would have rubbed against his temples; a tired brown peeked through here and there. The nosepads were filthy with grease and skin flakes.

My grandfather slowly went blind for the last ten years of his life. At the end, he couldn’t see my face, misrecognized my voice for that of my long-dead grandmother. I couldn’t remember the last time he wore his glasses, except for the day before when he was alone in his casket. I felt pressure build behind my eyes. Here was this object, indispensable to my grandfather, utterly useless now without him. Something so personal, now personless.

Oh, my mother said, when she looked over my shoulder, I wanted those to stay with him.

***

I was just shy of sixteen and we were homeless. After years of promising, my mother lost the house I’d lived my whole life in, the big, creaky place on Center Street. My older brother was away at college, so my mom, myself and my younger brother and sister found ourselves with nowhere to go, until Grampa agreed to let us stay with him.

My grandmother had died the year before, and the house on Wallace Row was now a cold place to visit. It felt changed the same way grandpa changed with her death. Where once there was cherry Jell-o and sugary cereal to indulge us with, there was now a leaking refrigerator and empty, moth-smelling cabinets. No Christmas tree was put up that year, and The Last Supper painting—no bigger than the size of a postcard—only hung on the kitchen wall out of habit.

I slept in the living room on cushions folded out from a chair my grandfather built when he was my age. My mother, on the couch. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d wake up to pressure on my shoulder, like someone squeezing it gently, only to find no one there, my mother gently snoring.

We weren’t allowed upstairs, where my grandfather slept alone. He was annoyed by our loudness, his grandchildren, laughing in the kitchen. But when the dog got out, he chased him down the street, up a steep hill, until he caught hold of his collar and led him back home. This was before the fall in the shower, the hip replacement, the walker and then the wheelchair. His persistent belief that he’d walk again. Someday.

The most tactile memory I have of this time is the lumpiness of the cushions from the old chair underneath my hips, how I’d toss and turn to find sleep. All I seem to recall is the old, matted shag carpet an inch from my face, how small the whole living room seemed, now that I was growing and growing. Most importantly, I remember the synergy of that moment—how I turned sixteen without a home, how I learned in that year to distrust the veneer of stability, how it can be pulled out from under you, quick as a trap door.

***

Eight months later, for the first time since we buried him, my sister and I visit our grandfather’s grave. It’s the hottest day in an already hot summer. We scatter wildflower seeds over his blank gravesite. We shake bottled water over the naked ground.

What the fuck, my sister says, voicing what we’re both thinking. In the direct sun, the graveyard is cartoon green, neon even. Except over where our grandfather lies. No grass has grown there.

We wander through the headstones, each engraved with consonant-crammed Polish names, looking for indignities similar to our own, finding none. The cemetery is almost beautiful, ringed like it is by a quiet stand of trees. The rich kids that I went to high school with lived out here with their in-ground pools, and sprawling lawns, and finished basements. If you pretend the headstones are statues, the graveyard looks like a park. There are dragonflies here, flitting from granite tombstone to marble plinth to anemic rosebush.

Dragonflies are supposed to be the spirits of people who love you, Kate says. Oh, I say, watching a pair, the curve of their flight, how their wings blur invisible.

The church cut back on maintenance, my mother tells us when we call her on speaker. They just don’t have the money to make sure the grass roots. I guess I’ll have to come by and plant some on my own.

I think about the church, the stucco and dark brown wood of it, the meticulous lines of pews, the candle-smoke smell of the place, how my grandfather’s father built it. I think of the Pope, too. The Church, with the big C. His robes and red velvet slippers. The famous gold throne. There is no correlation between what the Pope can have and what my grandfather is not allowed to have.

I wonder if my mother hadn’t been back to the grave yet. If she’d only thought about it, pictured a carpet of green growing over the site. If she assumed everything was running the way it ought to run, for once, without her having to help it along.

I say nothing about this to my sister or my mom. Kate and I say nothing about the wildflower seeds, how they bounced across the brown earth, or the dragonflies we saw, by the dozens, or the heat in the field, baking down on us.


Christina Harrington is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she received her MFA in writing. While at SLC, she was the managing editor on LUMINA vol XIII. Since graduating, Christina has been pursuing her dream career in the comic book industry, first as an editor at Marvel Comics and now as the managing editor at AfterShock Comics. You can find her writing in Foliate Oak, Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, and forthcoming in Gyroscope Review