Pictures on the Wall
It was late November when cranberry and squash colored leaves lined the edges of Interstate 64 in Virginia. My family and I drove into Richmond to visit our grandparents for Thanksgiving; a time for watching car shows on the couch in silence, hugs that lasted too long, and chucking everything in a deep fryer.
My little sister sat in the back row of the Suburban, her feet pressing into the back of my seat. “Are they really our grandparents?” she asked as she munched on Cheetos and continued to kick at my seat.
“Well, your grandpa is my dad,” said my mom as she brushed her blonde hair out of her face. She already had this conversation with my brother and me multiple times in years past, so she was pretty much a pro at it. “But Ruth isn’t really your grandma.”
The car got silent. My brother and I exchanged looks that said trust us, we know.
We turned into their neighborhood; the car rocked back and forth as it fought the gravel road beneath it. The house was hidden at the bottom of a steep, rocky driveway shrouded by weeping willows and small transplanted trees, like pitchforks sticking up in their front yard. It reminded me of a snake den. Just like no one wants to find snakes in their yard, none of us wanted to be here, but we were not allowed to say that. Then, the front door opened as if to welcome us inside. Ruth stood there as all grandpa’s dogs flooded through the door and into the driveway to greet us. Her curly, bleached orange hair stood out against the gray stacked stone decorating the exterior of the house. She stayed in the doorway, her red nails resting on the side frame.
Ruth watched us with predatory eyes as we piled out of the car and fell into the swirl of furry, barking dogs. My sister laughed and screamed, “They’re so cute!”
My grandpa, with his cane clicking against the floor, made his way to the front stoop and waved to us. My siblings and I all scrambled out of the car and up to greet him. I got there first. My grandpa’s eyes lit up when they met mine and he pulled me into a tight hug. He smelled like sawdust and the little cuts on his callused fingers made me think for just a moment that he might offer to take me and my brother into his woodworking shop. Just like we had done before. Then my mom strode past us, through the driveway and into my grandpa’s arms.
My mom and him talked and laughed as the rest of us were herded inside the house by the dogs. Inside it smelled like laundry detergent, and something else too. I crinkled my nose at the small taxidermy animals that lined a shelf right inside the doorway.
My grandparents urged us to sit down on the gray couches in the living room, as my brother and I passed each other another look that said, we are going to be glued to the couch all week.
So the sitting marathon began. On the TV some young man with slicked-back black hair talked about a red Volkswagen directly behind him. We all sat in silence and watched him. He was the only one allowed to speak. Ruth got up and came back with a bottle of wine clutched in one hand, offering it to everyone.
My mother jumped at the excuse to get up and offered to get glasses out of the kitchen. She rushed in with Ruth right behind her. “Don’t worry about it Susie, I can get it, really, I can get it,” she said to my mom and swung the wine bottle back and forth like a weapon in her hand.
The two of them poured wine in the kitchen while my grandpa and my dad made offhand comments about the cars on TV. Their conversation consisted of three main phrases:
“If I had the money.”
“I remember hearing that.”
“They don’t make them like they used to.”
Meanwhile, I had counted 16 spots on the ceiling. My brother, Noah had tried to interject into the conversation about cars four times, and my sister had pulled burrs off of two of the dogs. It proved to be the most aware of time I’d ever felt, sitting on that couch. As someone who spends a large portion of their time procrastinating, I caught a bad case of existentialism as I wondered if I would ever do something meaningful with my life. The taxidermy offered no respite.
The evening came slowly, creeping along to the time shown by the grandfather clock placed in the corner of the living room, right by the door to the back porch. My brother and I left the terrible couches of silence and sat out back. When the silence made me feel like time had possibly stopped--or maybe the grandfather clock had died-- I turned to my brother.
“Noah, why are we here?” I asked as we sat cross-legged, staring out at the river that backed up to our grandparents’ property. The only sound was the soft chirp of crickets.
I slapped his arm gently and brought him back to our current state. He looked at me groggily and shrugged.
I sighed. I should have known he didn’t care that we were out in the middle of nowhere, wasting our lives, doing absolutely nothing.
“Have you been upstairs?” he asked quietly.
“No, why?” I said.
“She took down all the pictures,” he said.
I looked at him for a moment, not sure what he was talking about, and eventually, we faded back into silence, outspoken by the crickets and birds.
Our mom came outside and called us in for pizza. It wasn’t Thanksgiving Day yet, so we all said we were saving our appetites as we munched on thin crust pepperoni. When the adults went back to sitting on the couches, and the man with the greasy hair flashed onto the screen, my brother and I turned upstairs to go to bed.
Walking up the smooth, bleached wood stairs, my brother stopped me. I could remember when we came to my grandpa’s house a few years ago. Before he remarried, he kept pictures of us and our cousin lined along the stairs. Now, gone was the dark-framed photographs of my siblings and me on my grandpa’s old boat or strawberry picking on Mother’s Day with him and our mom. The pictures of his dogs, ones that had died years ago, and that my mother claimed he had loved more than his own children, gone.
There was one picture hanging in the hall. It was of my grandparents’ second marriage. Ruth’s arms wrapped around my grandpa’s neck; they were dancing at their wedding. He was looking at her and smiling. She was looking straight at the camera, straight back at us at this moment. I felt the silence of the house creeping over me like a hand covering my face, making it hard to breathe.
This woman who was 20 years younger than my grandpa, sneaking into his life. She was here in every empty shadow on the faded walls. Takings pieces of him and making them disappear while everyone sat in front of the TV downstairs, trying not to mention things like the missing pictures or why our cousin had refused to visit this year.
It was Ruth. Everyone knew it. She held his hand like it was leash and the rest of us were just knots she needed to untangle to draw him closer to her and farther from us. No different from their dogs that slept on the couches with them. I didn’t sleep on a couch that night, my brother and I both chose the floor.
We left after the holiday and dragged all our things to the car and out of the house. She stood by the door and waved us out, only smiling when one of the adults were looking.
“This has been really nice,” said my mom as she gave my grandpa one last hug.
He smiled and hugged her back, whispering something to her that I couldn’t make out. The expression on her face changed for a second then, she smiled again, but it wasn’t the same forthcoming smile.
Inside the car again, my sister’s feet pressed firmly against my seat. I leaned forward and asked my mom what grandpa had said.
“He said that next year, Thanksgiving might not work out.”
Fall, 2019 Issue