TITLE: Gracie and the Fly
By Debora Dyess
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A fly landed on the wall directly across the room from Grace's bed. The old woman's eyes widened slightly, almost imperceptivity.
She'd heard her brother wish to be a fly on the wall so often when they were growing up, listening to their parents whisper and giggle in the other room, that she named this fly, like all flies who entered into her world, George. In his honor. She wondered if he'd feel honored to have a fly named for him. The corners of her mouth almost turned up.
George—her brother, not the fly—had been dead for so many years now that most days she could barely remember what he looked like. Only a vague whisper of him, a shadow—his height, his coloring, the general shape of his face, his eyes. She remembered that he looked like Daddy, but he, too, was a faded ghost. She attributed this to her age, although both men passed away in 1942. WWll had been such a long time ago, she thought, and that year so bleak. It seemed justifiable that she couldn't remember well.
She watched George—the fly, not her brother—cling to the wall for a full minute and placed her bet. Would the insect jump up/down or left/right? She would make bets until she guessed correctly five times, or until she guessed incorrectly five times. Then the game was over and either she or George would be declared the victor. Grace played the game as often as George, or any of his myriad of relatives, ventured into her room, which seemed less often now. That meant summer was drawing to a quiet close, and only the strongest of Georges would survive at all.
The bug made an unexpected dart toward the window, to it's illusion of freedom. Grace followed it with her eyes, watching the poor thing bounce off the glass to the sill, only to jump up and try again.
She tried to mentally coax George back to the wall, to the game. She'd bounced off the fantasy of self-determination several times herself as of late, and knew its appeal. And it's danger. And it's futility. It looked close, easy, but in reality the barrier between her mind and...well, almost everything was invincible. In one quick moment the stroke had slammed the window of freedom shut, and Grace couldn't figure out how to open it again.
She'd always had the sharpest mind. Her mother had marveled at her ability to learn, to stay ahead of her classmates. Her father only shook his head in conversation with her, left behind almost from the beginning. Grace remembered hearing him tell her mother that it scared him to talk to her. Simple farmers shouldn't have children like that. She wondered what he'd think now—his bright girl unable to speak or move, much less confound.
Only George had been able to keep up with her wit and flights of mental gymnastics. He'd been her equal, but knew how to temper his mind around their uneducated father and demure mother. He'd known how to fit in.
Grace watched the fly, remembering how jealous she'd been of him for that. He felt as easy stretched out in a wooden chair at their parent's farm, discussing the latest misadventure of the Johnson boys, as he'd been in the college classroom where he'd taken her for her spring break.
She'd been a senior that year, due to graduate two years early from the tiny schoolhouse in the hills where she and George had grown up. She remembered stepping into the huge room, looking around and inhaling the smell of books and papers and ink. Her eyes had widened and she'd jumped up and down, so excited to finally find her world that she forgot all her determinations to act older so that no one would guess her real age. George laughed his contagious, booming laugh and turned to her. She could still hear him as he stretched his arms wide, spun around once and the stopped, bending to look her in the eyes. Welcome home.
The memory of that moment brought tears to her aged eyes, sending tiny rivulets of salty water around wrinkles and sags that had slowly appeared over the past decades. She'd been forever grateful to her big brother for introducing her to the world she'd been born for, the world where she spent the next sixty years.
The college had become her home, especially after the spring they lost George over France.
She received word of George and Daddy on the same day. Upon receipt of the telegram from the U.S. Department of Defense Daddy shook his head, grabbed his wife around the shoulders and fell to the ground. His heart, the doctor from the next county told Grace's mother gently. Something that would have happened sooner or later, he'd said. Sooner because of George.
It bothered Grace that they'd been able to bury Daddy but not George. It bothered her that he lay, somewhere in France, in the tomb of a burned out plane. She hoped someone found him, buried him, put flowers on his grave in the springs. She hoped, sometimes, that he'd managed to walk away from the wreckage, although she knew that was so unlikely as not to even be considered. But now she considered it. She imagined George in France, with a delicate little wife, now gray and bent, half a dozen children and grandchildren gathered around him as he recounted tales of parachuting form his fiery plane, or stories about his parents and sister in America.
After they lost George and Daddy, she moved her mother from the farm into the apartment she'd been leasing for five years near the college where she now taught. Their conversations in the evenings were always the same—brief descriptions of Grace's day and monologues by Mama about the latest recipe or dress pattern, a neighbor's problem or celebration. On rare occasions they talked about Daddy and George. Grace couldn't bear to see Mama's tears, and there was never a time they talked about the men that her mother didn't cry.
She stayed in the apartment after Mama went to a nursing home in '79, after she passed away in '81, and moved only after her retirement. She was 70 then, and had never worked or lived anywhere else. Except the farm.
She returned that year to the home where she'd grown up. Other people owned it, of course, but she gained their permission to wander the land around the house, now a storage building, and the creek where she'd often sat with a book, eating away hours of time she should have been helping with chores.
She pulled a book from her purse, sat gingerly on the same rock where she'd perched as a child, and read in the still, birdsong afternoon. She felt a bittersweet connection and completion as she sat there. She returned to the city that afternoon.
That had been fourteen years ago. She mentally tallied the years, moving form 1993 to the present in one leap of her mind.
Teaching had been too much a part of her sould to give up because of a birthday. She signed up to become a 'grandmother' at the local elementary school, busying herself reading, tutoring and mothering children whenever possible. As the years passed she lost track of most of the children who entered her life in Septenmber and exited from it the beginning of June. But she could see the difference she made in them, embraced the difference they made in her, and looked forward with excitement to the next school year.
Two girls kept up with her. Ashley and Tara visited her every other Sunday afternoon in her small room, seemingly unaffected by the occasionally unpleasant smell of the nursing home and the sea of old people that could at times be daunting, even for Grace. They bound in, bringing enthusiasm and life with them, curling up on her bed to share stories of school, work and boys. Grace laughed and smiled at their stories, remembering and sharing her teen years and lessons learned. She watched them grow up, from kindergarten until graduation.
And then...the heartbreak.
The colleges were several hours from home, the girls explained, tears leaving slick streaks down their cheeks; two different colleges, in two different directions. Hugs and more tears, thanks yous, and then emptiness.
She continued reading and tutoring at Addams Elementary, watching a new batch of little ones come into the system, wondering which of these would find their way to higher education, right up until her brain turned on her and took that away, leaving her trapped inside the nursing home, trapped inside her fragile body.
She had a lot to be proud of, she thought, and she wouldn't let bitterness take hold of her now, no matter how much it lured her. Hundreds of children had come through her life and she'd been a help to almost all. She'd done well with her years, she decided, although she couldn't say she would change nothing.
There had been a young man in 1950. They'd bumped into each other at the library, both turning a blind corner, books stacked in their arms. They'd fallen, their burdens crashing into a heap, and then hurried, embarrassed, to retrieve the volumes before anyone saw. He offered to buy her a soda for his clumsiness and she'd agreed. He'd been a nice man, handsome in his own way, charming and brilliant. They spent hours huddled together, reading, visiting, challenging thoughts and theories. Not since George had Grace found such companionship. The ache left by the absence of her brother began to abate some, and the world began to look new.
When the offer of marriage came Grace considered it for one week before declining. She liked this man, could see herself married to him and happy. But she wanted the titillating, hysterical love that she'd heard so much about, eavesdropping on the conversations of starry-eyed sorority girls in the quad. Only after the passing of many years did she realize that she'd missed her one opportunity to have a life mate.
She drove past his place once, years after the affair ended, and watched his house. There he was, older and yet the same, sitting on the front porch, his wife and son near him. He seemed to be dozing, while his wife, a woman Grace thought she might recognize from the library, helped their boy with his reader.
She was haunted by that scene for many years. It could have been her, she knew, comfortably sitting on the wrap around porch, untangling the mysteries of Dick and Jane while he snoozed in the early fall breezes. It could have been her preparing meals and chasing crazy schedules.
That, she would change if she could.
Perhaps then, if she could just change that one week in her life, if she could change the 'no' to a 'yes', she wouldn't be so alone now.
Children of her own would be nice. Someone to come in and break up the monotony of these long days. Someone to come in and rub her hands or stroke her hair, like she'd done so often for her mother.
Grandchildren...Grandchildren would be grown by now, with children of their own. It would be plesant to have them shyly come into her room, an old woman who they'd barely had time to get to know. Say hi to Nana, their parents would encourage. They would, and then retreat to a back corner of her room, hiding their faces in a book or, now days, a video game.
Grace would listen to grandchildren tell of long days at the soccer field, watching these quiet little ones kick goals or block goals or run themselves to exhaustion. She'd listen to stories of victorious spelling bees, high school graduations, college admittance and careers budding and blooming.
She'd experienced these moments many times since entering the nursing home, the same one where her mother had passed away so long ago. She'd watched and listened to other families as they visited their ancient relatives, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with a tinge of regret. She'd even, on occasion, imagined that her two girls were really her girls.
Where is your family?
She'd heard the question more that once over the past 12 years. She would explain that the college had been her family, that she'd never been blessed with the life her peers had experienced, that her blessings had been different. The women with active, attentive families would look at her with varying degrees of pity. Others, whose families seemed to forget their existence as soon as they entered the facility's front doors, would nod vigorously to show approval for her choice.
As it was, all she had to look forward to was the Drudge or The Ditz.
The attendants who came in several times a day to check on her, adjust her blankets, roll her, and attend her needs, unknown to her until her stroke. And a far cry from entertaining family, bound to her by blood and love.
She wasn't sure which of the two she preferred. The Drudge came in without a word, did her job mechanically and left. She treated Grace like a piece of unwanted furniture, moving her emotionlessly, never making eye contact. The Ditz, on the other hand, prattled on and on, getting into Grace's face to make the most ridiculous expressions. She was exhausting, and Grace felt exhausted whenever she came into the room. So there was her choice—nonidentity or nonstop antics.
This time it was The Drudge. She slunk into the room just as George took his position on the wall, readying himself for the game. Grace's eyes darted from George to the attendant and back. The last George had met a disastrous fate at the hands of The Drudge. Fly, Grace thought. Fly now!
But it was too late. The Drudge caught Grace's eye movement, swiveled her bulgy face to the wall and grunted. She rolled the papers she held and swung.
The Drudge finished her tasks wordlessly, never looking at Grace. Cow, Grace thought unpleasantly as the woman left.
The sun had begun to set and Grace glanced toward the window. Beautiful purples, pinks and oranges refracted across the sky, highlighted by beams scattering from a dying sun. Grace blinked back tears, taken aback by the sight in the sky. It didn't seem right to see such a thing, to feel such emotion, and have no one to share it. No way to share it with anyone.
She heard a familiar buzzing and blinked. She looked back at the wall.
George was there.
Grace felt her soul smile, aware of the absurdity of companionship with a fly. She blinked toward the window, hoping the silly bug had learned his lesson earlier and would merely take in the sights.
He buzzed past her, close to her face. Good night, George, she thought.
She imagined him flying around her head again, instructing her as her brother had, long before Burns and Allen. Say goodnight, Gracie.
She closed her eyes. Goodnight.
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