The Carousel Eliza Gilbert
On the day Grandmother swallowed a piece of the sun, the carnival was in town.
“They’d just elected Eisenhower,” she swears. “A do-nothing. Creepy looking, too. Bald, sun-spotty. That Normandy heat sucked the collagen right out of him, poor thing.”
We nod and smile and keep on using the bedside commode and the bars of the home-hospital bed as jungle gyms. We don’t point out that just yesterday, Grandmother claimed Nixon was office during the carnival, or that three days ago, she said the president was a man with no mouth, just a smear of rubber-smooth flesh that crumpled up and down depending on the state of the nation.
“I was a girl,” Grandmother says. “I was in my good red dress. The one with the frilled collar. You know.”
We nod even though we do not know. The machines bleep and putter. They too have learned the art of aimless acceptance.
“Everyone was buzzing about the unicorns in the big tent, but I’d seen the men in the trailers pasting horns between those sorry ponies’ ears, so I stayed away. Far away. Didn’t like the smell, either. From the carousel, that tent was just a gumdrop.” Grandmother pops her tongue. A wad of buttery phlegm hurtles towards us. We shriek, duck, fling ourselves to safety. She throws her head back like a sword-swallower and cackles.
“You wouldn’t believe how quickly it happened,” Grandmother says. We freeze, stop flipping ourselves over on the walker, stop making the tubes of the nebulizer into alien tentacles. This is our favorite part of the story. This is the part that never changes.
“I was on that red horse in my good red dress and the carousel was playing this beautiful music. Bum-da-dee-dum, bum-da-dee-day. Something stirred inside the saddle. Something hot and important. You could just feel it, the importance. You could cup it in your goddamn palms.”
We nod and nod. Oh, Grandmother. Oh, conjurer. You make us into mystics.
“I spread my arms wide like a dragonfly and looked over the booths, over the ferris wheel, right into the sun. And then it happened.”
We are a chorus. An ear-worm. “What happened, what happened?”
When Grandmother smiles, her criss-crossed front teeth catch the jaundiced light and briefly turn the color of her skin, the color of a spoiling body. “A piece of the sun fell from the heavens, right into my kisser,” she says.
“Right into your kisser,” we whisper.
“And you better believe I swallowed,” Grandmother tells the pulse oximeter on her finger. “You better fuckin’ believe it.”
Grandmother is a liar. Father gets angry when we tell this truth. She’s just confused, he says, but Grandmother never sounds confused. She’s the most certain person we know. But of course, she never lived in a town, so there couldn’t have been a carnival, and the sun’s still here, still whole, isn’t it, and Grandmother’s not burnt to dust like she would’ve been with all that light in her belly. She’s still here. Partly, at least. Maybe halfway. Here enough to be a liar. Our favorite liar, but a liar nonetheless. Probably she would spit at us if we told her this. She does a lot of spitting these days, mostly at Mother. Grandmother, we’re pretty sure, can smell Mother’s impatience. Mother would very much like the guest room back, but tick tock, tick tock, and Grandmother doesn’t die.
Mother used to sleep in the guest room. Not because of Father, of course, she’ll reassure us in a gummy voice. It’s the night sweats. The deviated septum. The cover-hogging.
We never point out that these items still qualify as “because of Father.”
Grandmother doesn’t like to sleep and neither do we. We sneak to her room at night, centuries past bedtime. We become gymnasts on the geriatric recliner, acrobats on the various grab bars. Sometimes Grandmother claps. Yowls. Mostly, she hums. Bum-da-dee-dum, bum-da-dee-day.
One night, while we’re doing aerial work on the spare IV pole, Mother comes in with a puckered look on her face and a glass of apple juice clasped in her hands. We all know the juice has smushed-up nighttime pills in it, the little green ones meant to make Grandmother sleepy and quiet.
Back to bed, Mother tells us with her eyes. Mother says we’re hellions, to vault around Grandmother’s room like we do, but Father says it’s all right. She hasn’t got much time left, we heard him assuage Mother one night. Not much, I promise. Let them be with her while she’s still around.
Grandmother doesn’t want to be made sleepy and quiet and neither do we. When she sees the drink, she starts to do her moose bellows. The noises are soupy and raw and we join in and Mother jumps and apple-pill juice splashes onto the hardwood. Mother retreats, the door snapping shut like a knuckle. Grandmother stops bellowing and begins to laugh and we laugh with her because what a treat to see a parent scared! What a wonder to watch adults fumble.
We perch ourselves like parakeets on the end of Grandmother’s bed. “Tell us again,” we say. “We’ve forgotten.”
We’re liars, too. But not like Grandmother. We’re more than halfway here. Three quarters, at least.
“They’d just elected Truman,” Grandmother says. “I remember because of the smell of the air.”
The night outside the window is a blackberry sprinkled with powdered sugar. Grandmother’s rickety ferris wheel voice spreads through the room, across our chests, burning hot and cold like the mentholated goo Mother rubs into our sternums when we’re sick.
“Bum-da-dee-dum, bum-da-dee-day,” Grandmother sings, and we lean in, echo the notes back to our shriveled siren. We rock together on the home-hospital bed, among the alien tubes and wires.
Grandmother is a liar. But when the story is over and she opens her jaw to moose-bellow to the ceiling, her throat shines like firefly juice, and we can see it all. Every jolt of the carousel. Every splinter of the sun.
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