I had been holding on tight for at least a couple minutes but it didn’t appear to be working. The dog’s ribcage was still rising and falling as he breathed. In fact, he didn’t even seem to mind that I was squeezing his neck so viciously. “Dumb dog,” I said and released him. He popped up off the linoleum, panted loudly and wagged his tail, hoping for more. His ignorance sickened me and I turned away and went to my room in the finished basement, though I could never really get away from hearing his wheezing and panting.
My mom let me have the basement when I turned 12. She needed the extra room upstairs for the baby, anyway. John Charles. What a stupid name for a baby. I don’t know why she kept having babies. There were already four of us before John Charles the baby came along and stole my room, which used to be pink, but was now painted blue and yellow and had a border of sailboats around the top edges of the walls. I guess my mom thought John Charles the baby was going to start sailing the seas before he even reached his first birthday.
I turned on the old TV set and switched the dial until I found a channel that would come in. A man was speaking into a microphone and waving one fist around in the air. It was Sunday so the only things on had to do with the Lord and the Devil, who was going to get you if you weren’t careful. That was one thing I was thankful for. At least my parents didn’t make us go to church like the neighbors. Sometimes I would watch them from my tiny basement window shuffling into the long station wagon, all dressed up like birthday presents. I got up on the stool and looked out the window even though I knew they had already left. It was almost ten, and they wouldn’t be back until quarter to one. I turned, jumped off the stool and landed on my bed, which was unmade as usual. At least nobody hassled me about that anymore.
“And the Lord Jesus said unto us, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt receive the light!’” The man on TV was bellowing even louder now.
I stood up on my bed and opened my arms and proclaimed, “I shalt love the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind.” I waited for the light until my arms got tired and I collapsed onto the pile of sheets.
* * *
On Wednesday, my mom announced to the dinner table that Grandma was coming for a visit and she was going to stay in the basement. She said it nonchalantly as she stuffed mashed peas into John Charles the baby’s puckered mouth with a rubber-clad spoon. My three younger sisters sat unaffected, twirling ears of buttered corn in front of their smug, round faces. I looked at my dad, but he was busy reading the newspaper as he shoveled roast chicken into his mouth, small bits being distributed throughout his beard.
“Now, Lila,” my mother said without looking at me. “Don’t get cross. You have a double bed and there’s plenty of room to share.” I said nothing, but gave her the evil eye until I realized she was too preoccupied to notice. Quickly inhaling my dinner—you weren’t excused until you finished—I mumbled, “May I be excused?” and took my plate to the kitchen without waiting for an answer.
My grandma looked a lot like a bird, with two toothpicks in orange pantyhose jutting out from her knee-length skirt and landing in a pair of squared, buckled heels. She arrived just after dessert, which I missed because I was being forced to clean my room. We all sat in the living room pretending to have a nice time while my grandma cooed and kissed John Charles the baby sailor. My mom had even costumed him up in a sailor suit just for the occasion. He looked like an idiot, his fat head waggling around in a sailor’s cap and a drooly fist punched into his pink gums while Grandma pecked incessantly at his cheeks. Oblivious to the horror show on the couch, my sisters were playing with Barbies near the fireplace, but the dumb dog with the thick neck had joined in and was panting loudly at my grandma’s feet. Finally, my dad put a stop to the madness and told us it was bedtime. I heaved a sigh of relief until I remembered I was going to be sleeping next to an old woman who probably smelled funny.
It took her years to get down the basement steps, me holding her papery hand and leading her slowly. Her sturdy heels clicked like tap shoes every time she struggled to the next step. Arthritis, she said was the reason. “My bones just don’t like me anymore.” I couldn’t blame them. She looked like an unhealthy chicken and smelled like curdled milk. After we’d gotten into bed, she started chattering on about how beautiful John Charles the baby was, so healthy! And those chubby cheeks! He reminded her of my dad as an infant. I pretended to fall asleep and she finally quieted down. I did go to sleep for a while, too, until she woke me up with her wheezing. I put the pillow over my head but it didn’t help. “Heeee-haaaww, heeee-haaaww.” I was going to be a wreck for the President’s Challenge Fitness Test in gym tomorrow. The moonlight from the small window cast a long stripe through the darkened basement onto my grandma. I could see her chest moving up and down as she struggled to breathe. Her dyed, curled hair was trimmed just above her neck, which I noticed was awfully scrawny, and I finally saw the light.
Bi0: A mail-order bride by trade, Tabitha Wilson divides her time between collecting wooden teeth and raising leprous felines in her abandoned military storage facility located somewhere beneath an Iowa cornfield. She also owns a snarky greeting card company and creates subversive products for Fred and Friends. Her work can be found (now and very soon) on Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and Yellow Mama. Contact her at facebook.com/cardjackers