what will you do when I die, grandma doni asks me,
the cataract on her left pupil glittering,
genuinely curious. the knife I’m holding
turns to lead. her folksy kitchen swims briefly around me.
throw you one hell of a funeral,
is what I tell her, my cuticles caulked
with vanilla icing after cutting her
a slice of her seventy-seventh birthday cake.
she giggles, unembarrassed by her death, it seems so storybook
and distant. I keep slicing, wondering why the first answer
that came to mind wasn’t mine, but my mother and father’s:
hours earlier: mom, dad, and I in the water
of grandma’s backyard pool, blue and warm
and absent her. every room of the split-level house reeks
of her: her menthol smoke, her twin chihuahuas’ piss.
the pool is the one place you can forget her,
the ladder so treacherous (her back,
her poor back). my parents, sunscreened and plucking ritz crackers
from a soggy plastic sleeve, discuss the septic system.
we’ll have to get it replaced, mom laments,
before the house sells. (The house is on the market
nowhere yet but in her mind.) 10K at least, dad adds. his eyes
trace the strands of ivy circling the windows like nooses.
we should tear down the vines, too.
mom has been watching a lot of house hunters
and wants to knock out a few of her mother’s walls, cannibalize
the dining room, erase the magenta carpet with blonde slats.
open, airy, light, she repeats like a prayer
to the HGTV satellite. the vocabulary didn’t exist
when she married my father, who converted
his family’s trailer into a squat rectangle of a house for her:
a cramped hallway and a bedroom too small
for the king bed she unloads on a credit card and forgets
and two upstairs bathrooms: one furnished in malachite green,
the other in placenta pink. irreparably nineties.
thirty years later and now dad doesn’t even want
to buy a new sofa for us. it’ll be as ragged as the old one in a few years,
he argues. I think all they see in our house
are unfinished projects.
and I think all they see in grandma doni’s home are unfinished projects
with a margin. I hate it, but I have started to see them too:
the atlas of stains on the recliner’s armrest. the wallpaper peeling
like chemo nails. the liner in the pool wrinkled, bleached.
all of them reparable and, if we are fortunate,
profitable. grandma doesn’t seem to mind the betting odds
on her head and property. she loves games of chance.
before the virus, when the world was only moderately threatening
to her aged, ailing body, she gambled at the horseshoe
twice a month. she dabbled in pai gow but always landed
in front of a slot machine. I have good luck, she claimed.
and she did. she usually won.
on the spins when she lost narrowly, though, I recognized
her look. when the second red “7” clicked into place
after the first, but the third never came. same as the look
on our faces when we come home from grandma’s pool.
sometimes I think what it means to be white here
and now lives between the second “7”
and the third. and sometimes I think it means
waiting for your mother to die,
and she knows it, so you can move that for-sale
sign from your brain to the front yard. anyone
can desire inheritance, but white ways are the way
of death, clifton once said.
white americans do not believe in death,
baldwin said before her. we don’t believe our own ways,
but there we go, observing them. and grandma’s ready
to pass on, so long as the funeral is a party.