Raleigh Review vol. 4, no. 1 (2014), pp. 38-40.


What Remains
 
by Dani Sandal

Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
                                  — Rilke

     The Word slips from my lips and I am promptly led home from Sunday service by Grandmother Lucile for a lesson.

     While removing the Cajun Shrimp polish from her nails, she says, “If you’re gonna say it, baby, say it quietly and quickly like this.” Then she demonstrates the correct way to use the expression. The woman knows. She’s got credentials. Thirty-two years schooling English in Hattiesburg, she is not to be second-guessed.

     So on this Sunday afternoon in the heart of summer, I heed her advice. Eyes still teeming and ten-year-old ego scorched wicked from the light whip of a switch atop two layers of pants and one pillow. Ass intact and point taken, I blow her nails dry so she can peel me a fig.

     “That way,” she continues, “people can’t quite hear it and when they ask, ‘What did you say?’ You tell them duck or puck or luck or stuck or whatever—and laugh. Always laugh. They shouldn’t expect it coming from a cute little thing like you. You should be playing a harp, you’re so precious. Just don’t say it in church again. And so loud. Or, if you must, wait till the choir starts up. I say it all the time these days at the hospital when they ask those exasperating questions. ‘Mrs. Clement, what is this picture of?’ As if I’ve lost my mind completely. It is a whisk. I do not give one iota. They expect me to say, ‘Butcher knife?’ But I say, ‘Fuck.’ Very quietly. It throws them off. I am losing my memory, baby, not my mind. Fuck is a word whose meaning has never changed. Years and years could not mutate it. Check the OED. I have respect for its longevity. And, Lord, don’t overuse it, or it loses its kick. You may as well be saying, ‘Excuse me?’ So say it only when you mean it. Remember, ‘fuck’ has gusto. But don’t, I repeat, do not, use the word ‘suck.’ I don’t approve of the way youth use it today. ‘This sucks, that sucks, you suck.’ I know that you will be tempted, however, you must refrain. Got that?”

     Other things Lucile wants me to remember this summer: she sits, three years old, naked upon a patch of crabgrass at dawn with her cotton clad mother, cracking dewed watermelon, its sweat pink meat on her tongue…girl days: barefoot, braiding tobacco on a back porch or collecting potatoes from fields in her flour sack apron and keeping a few under her pillow to pretend they are dolls donning the same tweed dress…catching a rainbow, belly full of eggs…the sound those amber gems make when they break mirrored waters (plunk) and how their own rise to swallow them like Christ…marrying the preacher’s son at fifteen then giving birth to a baby boy, still and blue as a winter moon… receiving a stone throw to the skull while she rallies for integration…the sound it makes (like an egg to a spoon)…how she goes stockingless to church at noon to feel fine linen against her skin, a red-headed, foul-mouthed granddaughter in hand…after service she suns her full white thighs in plain sight at the reservoir while we suck on peppermints and watch the reverend baptize the wretched, washing their sins away…

§

     A December evening, room 103, artificial light spreads wide on a woman whose tongue—that lovely tongue—now lolls dumb in its tomb of forgetting. I slouch in a straight back chair at her side, feeling duped and benignly homicidal because there’s nothing I can collar and throw down. And because I am sixteen now and she had been a prophet, I say, “Well, Lucile, this absolutely sucks.” To which she stares, slack-jawed and slumped, eyes large on the window where snow beats against the pane and a lone pine bends in prayer. Taking her hand, cracked and flaked white as talc, I finger her nails, now yellowed, like ten blisters pressed in curled willow switch. Leaning in close, my lips to the crook of her ear, I whisper The Word so slow and soft that it must echo in that pillaged space where the past has been plucked by a thief like some celestial fig…fuck, fuck, fuck…and for a split, benevolent second, she turns back to me, bright-eyed and quick as a girl who’s seen the flip of a coin down a long dark alley.