THE BENCHES OF ST. PETERSBURG
The white cardboard box seemed too light, yet somehow appropriate. Briefly, Kate considered buckling it into the car seat; instead, she placed it on the floorboard. At the stoplights, she uttered a Hail Mary with each cursory glance at the box containing her grandmother’s remains.
As she drove beneath the vast Texas sky, her grandmother’s lament played. “I see them clearly, old fools sitting on the benches along the boardwalk: their droopy shoulders and stick necks, heads bobbing and spines curled like fishhooks. Day after day, sitting and stinking of mentholatum and urine. I promised myself I’d never end up there. No, not me.”
Were those her grandmother’s last words—or did it only seem that way? Before her death, there were endless sermons, and the benches of St. Petersburg were often cited. She was right, of course; she hadn’t ended up there. She had come to live with Kate. Kate wondered if the benches remained, or were they gone, too?
Annie, her elderly neighbor, approached as she pulled in the driveway. In some ways, Annie seemed like her grandmother: the small frame, sagging skin speckled with age spots, tired eyes, ashen hair. So, Kate thought, throwing the car into park, this was the future for the blessed and the damned, the inevitability of the flesh—but not necessarily the spirit.
“Oh, Kate, I’m so sorry about your loss. I would’ve enjoyed knowing her more.” Annie avoided looking at the box as Kate got out of the car. “Will you bury her?”
“No, I’ll set her free, I think—soon.” Cremation was all that Kate could afford.
“Joan and I were just getting to know one another, but I think that will suit her. You’ll always have your memories, dear.” Annie left Kate to pack her grandmother’s things.
Sitting on the faded rug, Kate opened the old trunk. She unwrapped her favorite glass ornament and held it up to the light. Still lovely, she thought. Still magic. Carefully she returned it and decided to keep the ornaments. Her grandmother had loved Christmas. Kate smiled, her first in many days. She knew now. In late December, after a nor’easter brought a new snow, she would go to the country and scatter her grandmother’s ashes. Perhaps Annie would come, too. “What do you think, Grandmother? Me and Minnie to send you off.” Her grandmother’s nickname for Annie, a reference to Disney’s Minnie Mouse, was an odd combination of affection and disdain.
Kate had sometimes wondered who the miserable old woman was before her. No one was immune, not Kate, not Annie, not even the cat. One summer day, she found her grandmother glaring out the window, breathing life into her bitterness, a communion of sorrows and rage. “I tell you, Kate, I think Minnie may be an imbecile. God love her, it’s not natural.” She nodded toward Annie, whose transgression was to be smiling and sitting on her porch. Annie’s fond memories of Florida had ignited the tirade. “Anyone that old, to be that happy—reminds me of the St. Petersburg unfortunates. Honestly, look at her, day after day sitting in that cheap plastic chair. What is she thinking about—crochet yarn? God save us from old ladies and their crochet. How many potholders does the world need?” Her face crinkled in a sneer, the lines a testament to years of unhappiness.
Yet Annie convinced her grandmother to join her on her porch late one afternoon. Together the two women dragged a chair from Annie’s kitchen and made repeated trips, fetching teacups, sandwiches, candles, and finally a wool blanket to share. Her grandmother remained long after the chill of the evening eclipsed the afternoon sun. During the unexpected visit, Kate often glanced through the window to make sure Annie was still smiling.
Later her grandmother insisted she’d stayed out of charity. “The poor thing seems so lonely. You know she has a miniature pink flamingo stuck in that fake palm tree? And it’s wearing sunglasses, even. I swear that damn palm tree smells like oranges. She’s an odd one, all right.” She went on with a slight quiver in her voice. “Oh, and actually, it’s not crochet. She knits. Seems she’s working on an afghan for me. I just hope it won’t have a pink flamingo on it. Because whatever it looks like, I’ll have to pretend I love it.” With that bittersweet revelation, Kate sensed her grandmother’s impending mortality.
She pulled her hair into a loose knot and knelt amid her grandmother’s belongings. Opened boxes blasted her with the sweet and powdery scent of her grandmother’s hugs, the smell of her ironed and precisely folded linens. Here was the old purse her grandmother had loved, tattered and stained. The vibrant tapestry was faded and threadbare in spots where the silky threads separated to reveal the rough canvas. Her grandmother had still thought the purse fashionable, her failing vision like a saving grace.
From a stack of colored tissue paper, Kate selected several sheets of cerulean blue, the color of her grandmother’s eyes. She hugged the purse to her before wrapping it. After cutting a length of white satin ribbon, she tied it the way her grandmother had taught her years ago. Each Christmas they spent hours wrapping presents beautifully. The wrappings were more elegant than the inexpensive gifts they exchanged: teacups, organic tea, stationery, cheap perfume, and talc. Her grandmother had taken her in when her mother abandoned her, supporting her through her tenuous teenage years on a modest Social Security check. Kate knew her grandmother felt her daughter’s failure was hers and Kate her responsibility by proxy. During that time, Kate knew the only stability in her life. They read books, talked about the world, her grandmother assuring her dreams were possible. Only when Kate moved out and no longer relied on her did she look back on her life and find something lacking.
“She was a caricature—a mean old lady.” Her boyfriend’s casual dismissal had hurt. “Hell, Kate, she even picked on that nice old lady next door. Nobody’s going to think kindly about her.” Her grandmother had been right about David; she deserved better. Now he was gone, too, but she only missed her grandmother. She placed the wrapped purse in the box for the church. It wasn’t nice enough to use, but someone else would have to throw it out.
Kate backed the station wagon into Annie’s driveway and opened the tailgate.
Annie saw her from the kitchen window and arrived with dishcloth in hand, breathless. “Kate, what in the world?”
“I’m on my way out of town, but I wanted to deliver this before I go.” Kate slid the large cardboard box from the car. “It’s a present,” she said. “Actually from my grandmother. She knew how much you enjoyed sitting on your porch and knitting. She hoped to join you once she felt better.” Kate cut the plastic binding to reveal a wooden bench with ornate cast-iron grating and feet. The artificial palm rustled as she moved the bench into the only space on the small porch. A strong citrus smell from orange-blossom air freshener filled the air.
Annie ran her fingers over the polished wooden bench. “Oh, it’s lovely. I remember her saying one of her strongest recollections was something about St. Petersburg and some benches. I’m sorry, but I don’t recall the story.”
Kate hugged her tightly. “Never mind that now. Just enjoy.”
Annie mouthed a thank-you as Kate drove away. Watching the stars spark across the darkness, she whispered a blessing for Kate and her grandmother, then laid down the knitting needles and smoothed the afghan across her lap. I didn’t finish it in time, Joan, but I know Kate will like it. Slow out of the gate, he always said—but my finishes were grand. With care, her knotted fingers settled a wisp of hair. She closed her eyes and inhaled, smelling the salt in the air and feeling the droplets of moisture beading across her bare skin. Across time, the ocean roared.
Here you are. She marveled as the moonlight spilled silver across their bodies, both of them shivering more from anticipation than from the cool night air. Softly, she outlined the contours of his face. Her fingertips traced his body, delighting in the darkness cast across his torso, for those shadows defined such wondrous differences.
The warm skin of his flat belly and slender hipbones pressed into her. His chest compressed her damp breasts and signaled an ancient dance. A longing filled the hollow of her sex with an exquisite ache. She gasped quietly. Years ago, that gasp had been throaty and deep, echoing long into the night.