Even as I’m climbing up the empty staircase, I just know it: I’m too late. The bankers have stripped my grandma’s place already. The front door has a hole in it where the lock should be, the door is half open. I guess they don’t care if someone just walks in and tries to steal something; everything worth stealing is gone already, all theirs now.
I step in and the aromas of her life find me immediately. Stains on the wooden floors paint a blueprint for what once was there; the ceramic stove, the dresser, the china cabinet, the ficus. The wood is bloated where the plant used to be. Grandma was a chronic over waterer, as now am I.
The apartment seems much larger now that it’s empty. They left nothing behind, and now it’s too late to try stopping them. Sure, they sent me a letter of explanation, a jam of words like consent, obligations, rights, distraint, ownership, court order, resale. I barely read it. I thought I’d get here in time, before every last thing was gone. I just wanted a small memento; a photo maybe, or a vintage blouse. Grandma’s porcelain soup bowl, a small sugar bowl, even an ashtray. Something to remind me of grandma and her out-there ideas.
One of those ideas stuck with me. Back in high school I used to visit her after classes, told her about a certain dark-haired guy and a certain big-bosomed chick next to whom I looked like a boy. Grandma’s comment? One of the most important things in life is to properly clean your face.
Wash your face with cold water, use regular soap. After that, put on some Nivea cream. A fresh face is the key to a fresh outlook in life.
That earned her a perplexed look back then, but now... Perhaps I understand now what she meant. A fresh outlook would have taken me miles away from that dark-haired nitwit.
The small kitchen on the side is alive with cooking aromas. I could swear the last thing grandma cooked was a chicken and veggie soup. Still, the kitchen is just as bare as everything else. Even the faucet is gone, ripped from the wall. Repossessed. As if it ever were theirs to possess in the first place.
Every person in every office I to tried reasoning with – grandma’s death certificate in hand – kept repeating the same thing: it’s all by the book. Almost like an apology, but not quite. Still, who apologizes if they aren’t guilty of something? It was all by the book; the repossession, the distraint. I wanted to beat them to it, grab a thing or two. Nothing more.
I go back to the living room, scan the floor. Perhaps they missed a trinket; a dessert spoon, even a button? Of course they didn’t. I look at the balcony. They got the plants as well? What the hell are they going to do with plants? The balcony was the bane of my existence when I was a kid: grandma decided it was my exclusive duty to wash it. I used to spend entire mornings washing the damned thing. Bucket, soap, brush. Lots of water.
- Don’t spill so much water, you’ll flood Ms. Pepa downstairs! She’ll come knocking and we’ll never get rid of her!
- OK, grandma!
And I’d spill more water. I’d scrub the balcony floor like my life depended on it; push the water toward the edge with the brush. Ms. Pepa be damned. Grandma’s plants took a nice swim, too. If she hadn’t warned me, I probably wouldn’t have made such a mess. One other time, I played with a hammer and nails. Decorated the doorpost. One nail every two inches. As generous as I was, I didn’t slam them all the way in – left them peeking a little from the wood, so grandma could remove them later. She always let me do crazy stuff like that, pretended not to see. Did I love her more for it? Sure I did. Kids are selfish that way, and I guess that’s OK.
Come noon, I’d be called to the table, set formally. Everything by Austro-Hungarian rules, proper, like in the old days. I was expected to sit up straight, exercise perfect control over my movements, eat like a lady, take small bites and not ask for seconds, swallow in absolute silence, keep my elbows close to my body, take my place at the table without making screeching chair noises. Every time my elbows lifted off my sides, grandma would stick a book under my arm.
- When was the last time you went to the opera?
- What? Why opera?
And then grandma would offer another pearl of wisdom: use bad weather to spend time with yourself. It’s good for the soul.
I go out to the balcony, look down on the cemented backyard. Ms. Pepa is gone, too. I was so damned afraid of her. She looked like a wrestler, mustache and all. Now the courtyard is silent; there are no signs of life. No kitchen sounds and smells, no names called, no threats yelled. No neighbors tinkering around, no kids playing. The building is now owned by the bank, and the rebuilding has already begun. Soon this will be another three-story branch, brimming with girls in tight power suits and guys with perfect hair, all fluent in math and money, ready to crunch numbers and intimidate the rest of us into giving them every last penny. All by the book, of course.
I walk into the bedroom and step on... sugar? What’s that doing here? I squat to take a closer look. Should I just take some sugar to remind me of grandma? She kept a sugar cube on her nightstand, along with a glass of water. In case she needs a quick pick-me-up.
Something near the door catches my eye and I realize it’s a small feather. Down from grandma’s pillows, I’m sure. When it came to bedding, grandma was a staunch traditionalist. Down or nothing, she maintained. She tried over and over again to make me see the light and switch to down, but I resisted. Occasionally she’d mix the down into life advice, say something like “get used to sleeping in down now and you’ll be ready for it when you come to heaven.” She’d drop that wisdom on me in most inopportune moments, be it from the balcony as I was playing with friends in the yard, or as I was getting out of the bathroom. Once she just called me on the phone and straight up started preaching her down doctrine; gave the sermon and hung up before I could react in any way.
This tiny feather belonged to her. I pick it up carefully, lift it to the light. Hippie freaks would say this fluffy thing is filled with grandma’s energy. She slept on it, breathed through it, dreamt next to it. I wish I had one of those plastic evidence baggies like those forensic people on TV, but I just put the feather in my pocket and zip it in. This’ll do until I get home, and later I can find a better place for it. The feather feels warm in my pocket. I found something of hers, this is it.
Grandma used to read me a story when I was very little. The one about the circus elephant with comically large ears who could fly using the ears as wings. He was given a ‘magic feather,’ told it would help him achieve whatever he wanted. Perhaps this feather is magic as well. Perhaps it will make me understand what happened and how we lost grandma’s place. We were told it was all by the book, the way they just took ownership of the apartment after grandma died. As if we were guilty of something and had to be punished by having to give up the apartment. It all seems so wrong I simply have to do something about it. Perhaps the feather will give me a push in the right direction.
I’m going to ask them right away. I put on my earphones. This time I’m ready: if I fill my ears with music, nothing else can get in. Last time I had problems with other people’s problems. Every other person in the line was going through their own personal tragedy, every one of them caused by the bank. When the guy in front of me finally told his story to the teller, I was so disgusted I lost it. Apparently he took out a small loan, one hundred euros. Couldn’t pay them back in time and got sued. When the case got to court, the court reporter, who must have failed all his language classes, omitted a comma and somehow combined the poor guy’s street number, 42, with the one hundred euro debt. The guy got stuck with an impossible-to-repay debt, especially for someone like him; unemployed, with a limp and a lisp, not even in a shiny suit, but a flannel shirt and sport pants. I lashed out at the monster behind the glass. She just kept smiling politely, yet with obvious disdain, and pushed the silent alarm button. Next thing you know, I’m being dragged away by two gorillas. Me, with twigs for arms. Of course I swore and cursed from the top of my lungs. Made me feel a lot better. So much better I didn’t even mind the fine I had to pay for it. Still, I probably shouldn’t repeat that.
That’s why this time I’m going in with earphones. My problems and nobody else’s this time. I know what grandma would say: keep the feather safe in your pocket; without it you’ll surely fail. I can see us in this kitchen; she’s spreading her wisdom, I’m trying to make proper coffee, thick Turkish coffee that’s so bitter you need to sip it through a sugar cube. I can’t shake the feeling my issue with the bank is anything but out-there. If anything, my questions are banal. So clichéd I don’t even know how to ask them. Why did you take what is mine? Nobody ever let me take anything that didn’t belong to me, starting with other kids’ toys in the sandbox. What did you do with my grandma’s things? Where are they?
I try to peel away with my foot the black stain in the corner of the room, where grandma’s favorite armchair used to be. I can’t let those monsters see something like this. It’s too intimate to share: the image of her in that armchair every afternoon, blanket over her knees, waiting for Dynasty to begin. She had two posters by the front door, in the hall; both torn from the TV guide. Carrington was one of them, that’s what she called the actor. John Forsythe’s piercing eyes, a right semi-profile welcoming her home. The other poster – Rade Šerbedžija. Grandma was close to eighty and still wouldn’t give up the poster. The actor was so young in the photo he was almost unrecognizable. I still remember the ‘70s butterfly collar, white around his striking face, a left profile saying goodbye every time she left.
Why couldn’t they have left the posters. I would have taken them off the wall carefully, folded them, kept them. Mementos. This way they just made me angry. The apartment, I understand; banks always go for the apartments. But the things? Chipped china with glaze long gone? Moth-eaten dresses? Cracked mirrors, crocheted doilies, cheap paintings with darkened varnish, sticky plates, dusty old books, deckle-edge photos of dead cousins, orthopedic shoes... They really have use for all that?
If only they had left the posters, I might have dropped the whole thing. But now... Revolution begins with one person. I want it all. The apartment. The things. The very last little dessert plate from our coffee-and-cookies afternoons. I’m pretty sure grandma’s out-there advice for today would be something like Don’t water flowers when the sun is high and keep that feather of mine safe in your pocket.
Photos by Suzana Matić