Who knows when and where Gracie went to the bathroom? Not me. She never once held up her finger and said, “Excuse me while I use the little girls’ room.” I was afraid to ask if she and Mac even had one so whenever I had to go, I’d say, “I think I hear Mom calling. I better see what she wants. Be right back.”
Maybe Gracie had a pee bag tucked inside her girdle like some old folks do. Or perhaps the green shed that Mac built against their back fence before I was born was actually an outhouse. It didn't really matter though since Gracie and I spent most of our time in her living room and kitchen.
In the living room, instead of regular chairs, there were two chaise lounges with gleaming silver frames. The cushions were glossy fake leather the color of Christmas trees. If I hovered my mouth an inch from the surface and blew, a milky fog would appear. When I wiped it away, I could see black capillaries in the pine shine.
There was a sofa in the room too, in front of the window that paralleled our house. It was made up with flowered sheets and a pink quilt so I figured Gracie slept there. I never sat on it though. You don’t just walk into someone’s house and plop down on their bed. That’d be rude. I wasn’t sure where Mr. Mac slept because Gracie never took me up to the second floor. Maybe he slept up there and all the way to the left.
Most days I’d lay on the left lounge, ankles crossed, and Gracie’d recline on the right one. In the summertime we’d watch Phil Donahue in the mornings and Beverly Hillbillies in the afternoon. After supper I’d run back over and we’d watch Lawrence Welk. While we watched the tube, Gracie’d make lace doilies or embroider dresser scarves. I’d nibble my nails. Sometimes she’d rock herself to standing, go over to the mantle, and fetch one of her collectible miniature pitchers, the ones painted to look like American presidents.
She'd hand me JFK or Teddy Roosevelt. “Hold this, Pet, instead of biting your nails.”
“I don’t go too far down,” I’d say. “I just nip off the raggedy pieces.”
One time she held up a dresser cloth she just finished sewing by its top corners. "Ta da!" she sang.
I shook my head in wonder. Gracie made the best French knots ever.
“Do you have a hope chest, Pet?” she said.
I shook my head. “No, ma’am. What’s a hope chest?”
Her eyebrows flew up then the corner of her right eye fluttered. She did the exact same thing whenever she heard someone take the Lord’s name in vain.
“A hope chest is what a young lady uses to store things she’ll need later in life, when she’s married.”
I scrunched up my nose, stuck out my tongue.
“Then I don’t want a hope chest. No way I’m getting married. I’ve lived all my life with three brothers I don’t like much and a daddy I do. That’s enough men for me. I wanna be like you when I grow up. Live all alone with a blue parakeet named Dicky Bird.”
She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth, closed my right hand in hers, and led me upstairs for the first time in my life. On the second floor, we entered the first door on the right. There was a bed against one wall, a dresser across from it, and an ironing board over to the side, under a window. When Gracie bent to plug in the iron, I almost asked why she didn’t sleep up here since it was so pretty, but something pinched my lips and kept me quiet, a rare thing.
I smiled at the black and white portrait of her and Mac that hung on the wall. He wore a dark suit and Gracie was in a dress, same as always. I imagined the dress was cobalt blue and its crouton-looking pattern, butter yellow. I went over to stand in the sunbeam that was pouring through the window. I squinted against the light as I pulled a deep breath into my lungs through my nose. When it came back out, it seemed frayed and silvery gray, like if it was cold I could see it. I super duper wished Mr. Mac was still alive. He was a big man and the world had seemed safer with him in it, right next door.
“Be right back, Pet,” Gracie told me. “The iron needs some water.”
While she was gone, I turned around slowly in the middle of the room, tried to memorize the details in case she never brought me up there again. I bet Mac and Gracie slept in this room every night of their married life, him and her nestled together like quotation marks. Maybe that’s why she slept down in the living room now, because she missed him so. Perhaps it hurt her heart to lay all alone under their wedding ring quilt that still had someone's teeny pencil marks on it, between smooth and cool, bleached bright white by the sun, percale sheets. Or perhaps this was a shrine to Mac and she only visited once a week or when she had pressing to do. I searched the room to see if maybe she had a small candle to light in remembrance of him like they did at the big Catholic church I could see from one of my bedroom windows. My best friend Karen had taken me to mass there once.
I traced the picture frame then used my pointer finger to cover the place where Mr. Mac’s heart had been.
“I always had a feeling about you, Big Mac,” I whispered, “that I could ask your help with anything and you’d give it.” For some reason though, I’d never asked him for anything, never did manage to work up the nerve.
Gracie smoothed the dresser cloth along the length of the ironing board. Licked two fingers and pounced them on the iron’s surface. Her spit sizzled. She covered her needlework with a clean, white cloth and set the iron on top of it carefully.
“We’re going to press this,” she said, even though I was pretty sure she’d be the only one ironing, “and then we’ll wrap it in tissue paper. I’ll keep it here with me until you’re ready for it.”
I didn't argue because something about her tone assured me I wouldn't win. Gracie knew stuff. I don't know how, but she did. In that moment, studying that picture, I wondered if Mr. Mac did too.
More from living