When I was seventeen, I lived with my grandmother in a five bedroom house with seven other people, most of whom were cousins of the second and third variety. I had only lived in NC for a couple of years and was fairly new to this side of the family; dysfunction ran rampant throughout. I had inherited a plethora of crack-heads, convicts, or worse, but I was one of them, one of the fold. I felt at home among them, felt welcome.
Two of the cousins and I were teenagers and, with Gram closing in on 60, we took full advantage of the situation: we came and went at all hours, drank, brought girls in and out as if on a conveyor belt. Gram made plenty of threats, hollered and screamed, but we paid no attention. She had a new boyfriend at the time, and he would try to talk to us, but that only made things worse.
Dave was a tiny little man, short in stature and as skinny as a malnourished puppy. Dave didn’t like to work; he had a simple approach to life: he liked to sit in the yard with a cold beer in his hands, soaking in the sun. As a result, his skin looked like a tanned hide, a dark leathery brown. Dave had been promising Gram that he was entitled to veterans benefits; his daughter was collecting the checks in Pennsylvania, and all he had to do was contact the V.A. and give them his new address to start getting his pension sent to him in NC. Every time she would raise enough hell to get him to try, he would concoct some grandiose story about why the check had been delayed yet again. It soon became clear to everyone that he was a freeloader–clear to everyone but Gram.
She was glad to have someone to talk to, someone she could spend time with; she liked being doted on, even if Dave spent much of his time drunk. He tried to compensate for his employment status by doing chores around the house: cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and making her laugh, which–I have to say–was a rarity before Dave came along. I can’t speak for his true feelings toward her, but I can say that he made her feel good… for a while, anyway.
Gram soon became frustrated with Dave’s drinking; she tried talking to him about it. When that didn’t work, she started yelling, then the silent treatment and, eventually, withholding cash. Dave replied by going to friend’s houses to do his drinking. He would stay gone a day or two and, when he came back, all would be forgiven. The harder Gram tried to rein him in, the more he would buck against her. Eventually, she started drinking with him; I guess it was her way of keeping him close.
Gram had been 15 years sober by then. At one time, however, she had been what most people would consider a “wino.” My mother had told me stories about my grandmother from when she had first moved to NC. Stories of hiding Gram’s bottle from her, or pouring out the stash she found in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. She had told me stories of Gram, suffering from withdrawals, shaking to the point she couldn’t lift a glass to her lips to have a snort that would relieve the pain. She would wrap a towel around the back of her neck, putting one end in her hand and grabbing a glass of whatever poison she was drinking that day. She would grab the other end in a fist and pull down on it—using the towel as a rope and her neck as a pulley—pulling the glass off the table and toward her mouth. This would get her that first taste or two, until she could manage to do the work on her own, without spilling too much.
It didn’t take long for that woman to reemerge after she had that first taste in 15 years. Soon, she was drunk constantly, and became belligerent to the point that no one knew what to do with her – including Dave – but he was enjoying the new freedom to drink all he could pour down, and wasn’t keen on relinquishing it. So, instead of trying to keep her from falling into that hole again, he babysat her, even as the rest of us grew to hate him for Gram’s backslide.
Things were getting bad, but I had grown up with an alcoholic father, and knew the stories of how Gram was before, what I didn’t know, however, was the one thing that Gram used to do that Momma never shared with me.
I got home in the early morning hours of that Saturday morning. This wasn’t unusual, I was having a great summer, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for me to see the sunrise before I went to sleep. I went into the rear bedroom that I shared with my two cousins, Bobby and James. I lay down on the love-seat couch we kept back there. Bobby, the one cousin closest to my own age, was already asleep in the bed. I was just starting to doze when I heard Dave’s shrill voice in the dining room.
“What the fuck are you doing?!”
I could hear Gram saying something, but her words were a drunken slur, so unintelligible they could hardly pass for spoken English.
“Give me that!”
I heard Gram say something else, then I heard—what sounded like—them tussling; unless I was wrong, he was trying to take—whatever it was—from her. I decided that I was needed in the dining room. I walked out of the bedroom door, and I could see down the short hallway, through the kitchen and into the dining room, but only part of the room was visible from where I was. The lights were on and I could hear them in there; they were definitely in some sort of feeble-old-drunk struggle. My pace quickened, ready to body slam Dave for fuckin’ with my Gram, but, as I entered the room, the scene that presented itself before me were so perplexing that I was unable to do anything other than stare, just trying to take it all in. When I entered the room, they were indeed struggling over something, and they both stopped as I barreled into the room; I could see clearly that it was a kitchen steak knife. I could also see that Gram was bleeding–from her wrists.
“Jason, go to bed, she’s fine. I got this under control.”
Dave’s words spurred me to action, and I started toward her saying, ‘Fuck you, you go to bed.”
Had she cut herself?! What the fuck was going on? I reached over Dave and grabbed the knife from her hand.
“Okay, give me that, and go to bed. I can handle it from here.”
I put my face up against his—so close I could smell stale beer and cheap cigarettes—and I screamed into it, using every ounce of strength in me to force the words into his face.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY, OR I WILL HURT YOU, OLD MAN!”
Dave’s retreat was instantaneous; my message came through, and he responded as I expected him to. I would have hated to put my hands on him, but my grandmother was bleeding, and I needed to see to her.
“Jashun, git ou’ve ere.” Her eyes stayed pointed at the table, as if her shame was too heavy for her to lift her head.
“Gram, I won’t. What happened?”
Dave stepped up close behind me, he seemed desperate to get me out of the room, “She cut herself because I …”
“Who asked you? Shut the fuck up, and let me handle this.”
In a tone reserved for unruly toddlers and disobedient pets he said, “I’m just trying…”
I turned on him allowing the fury that was building in me to show through my eyes and put my finger in his face but said in a level voice, “Not another word. Do you hear me?”
He nodded and took a step away from me. I turned to my grandmother again.
“Gram, what happened?”
“I did it, now you go to schleep and lemme taw shoo Dave.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Bobby? I turn to see him wiping his eyes and standing in the doorway.
“I don’t know. I think she’s cut herself.”
“What!? What the fuck?!”
“Get some towels and put them on her wrist. I’m going to call an ambulance.”
Both she and Dave protested loudly, but I ignored them. I dialed 911 and requested an ambulance. I then dialed my mother’s number.
The two of us hadn’t spoken in months; whenever we had an argument, it would end in me packing all my things into an army duffel I kept just for such occasions. We wouldn’t see or speak to each other for long periods of time. But this transcended that; I was obligated to tell Momma.
“Hello?” It was her; I could hear the twenty years of chain smoking in her husky drawl.
“Momma, it’s me. I think Gram cut herself. I called an ambulance. They’re on the way. I don’t know what to do. You have to help me. What am I supposed to do?”
“Wait, what?” I could hear her brain deciphering what I had told her. “Is she drunk?” Momma hadn’t been aware of Gram’s drinking. I certainly hadn’t told her.
The conversation didn’t last long; I relayed the pertinent information, she absorbed it—better than I expected—and then we hung up so she could make the journey to Gram’s. I went back to the dining room, where Bobby was receiving a thorough cussing. Dave, having gotten no more sympathy from Bobby than he had gotten from me, had resorted to patting Gram on the shoulder while rubbing her back, cooing in her ear all the while, like a pigeon on a stoop.
In that moment, I could have beaten him, pummeled him into a coarse powder and threw it to the wind. The rage building in me threatened to consume me, to overcome my willpower and force me to lash out at him in response to the fear and confusion that were ripping at my mind like ravenous hyenas. He never knew it, but he had been within a whit of walking with a limp for years to come.
“Momma’s on her way.”
“Ammit, Jashun, Why canth you mine your own damn biznith?”
“This is my business, and you left me no choice. I had to call her.” My patience was wearing thin and it was evident in my voice as I said this.
“Mother fucker,” These words were spoken clearly, as if she hadn’t drank a drop, spoken with an ease that comes with practice, “You a pain in an ass.”
I turned my attention to Bobby; his face bore the shocked look of a young man that has just woken up in the Twilight Zone. He was holding a towel to Gram’s wrist and staring at the wall on the far side of the dining room. I don’t know where he was in that moment, but he certainly wasn’t in that room. Wherever he was, he was furious.
He didn’t even flinch; his name had soared over him like a loosely gripped balloon at a parade. I thought about leaving him be, letting him continue to dwell in his fantasy, but I wanted to know what he was hiding under that towel.
He snapped to this time; his head whipped around, forcing his neck to crackle. He didn’t say a word, but I could see in his eyes that he was with me now, shaken, but not useless.
“How’s it look?”
“I don’t know, haven’t looked.”
I walked to where he was kneeling beside the chair Gram was slumped into and stood behind him, peeking over his shoulder. Gram grumbled something that was hardly recognizable as human in nature when he removed the towel and turned her wrist so we could see.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined. The amount of blood I had seen when I first walked into the room had convinced me that Gram was not long for this world, but what I saw then told another tale altogether. Her wrist was scratched several times in lines that ran parallel with her wrist joint; a couple of them still showed splotchy bleeding, but she could have done as much damage pruning roses.
Just then, headlights lit up the window, and I realized that Momma was pulling into the driveway.
As Momma charged into the house; her eyes wore a glaze that whispered of dreams lost to this nightmare. Her mouth was set in a rigid line, and I could see that she was frantic with worry. Her actions would show none of her trepidation. She took full control of the next thirty minutes.
She started by looking at the wounds. She stepped around Bobby without uttering a word to anyone, and he knew to get out of the way.
As she pulled the towel from Gram’s wrist, I said, “I just saw it. It’s not bad.”
Momma looked at the scratches on her mother’s wrist, and even though she didn’t actually do so, there was a visible sigh of relief.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Momma looked up into Gram’s face as she spoke, but before Gram could say a word Momma asked her, “Are you fuckin’ stupid?”
Gram’s face twisted into an angry snarl, and she started to speak, but the words that came out of her mouth amounted to nothing more than incoherent blathering.
“And you’re fuckin’ drunk.”
The accusation was laden with hurt and anger; Gram cringed away from it like a hand was sure to follow, aiming to slap the alcohol out of her. It never came.
Just then Dave spoke up, apparently hoping to finally get the sympathy he was due. “Robin, she wa…”
“You better shut the fuck up, you little motherfucker. My mother has been sober a long time. Then you come along… look at her. This is your fault. So, you better just shut the FUCK UP!”
Dave huffed and puffed like a card sharp caught with a sleeve full of aces, but uttered not a word. From the look in Momma’s eye, it was a good thing he didn’t.
Just then, an ambulance pulled up out front. Momma went out the back door to usher them in that way; the front door had long ago been nailed shut. She held the door open for them, and I heard her talking up a storm.
“She had a few drinks, mixed her pills with it and had an accident. It looked really bad at first, but once we cleaned it up it looks like she’ll be fine.”
“What kind of accident?”
“She scratched herself up pretty good, but we can’t figure out how. She’s too fucked up to tell us.”
“Okay, well we’re here, and we have to at least look at it.”
They did, and the police came, but by then the paramedics had bandaged her up and never acted like they suspected anything was wrong, so they all left us there with Gram, who was fading fast. She was hanging her head and unwilling to attempt conversation anymore.
Momma went through the house looking for sharp objects. She took knives—even the plastic butter knives you get with those prepackaged utensil pouches that come with to-go orders—she took pins and razors, anything that had an edge went into a bag. When her search was finished, she called me into the kitchen.
“I’m going to go home. It’s late, and I have to work in the morning. She should be fine now. She’ll go to sleep. Tell her I’ll be back tomorrow. Call me if anything happens.”
“What the fuck is going on, Momma?”
“She used to do this all the time. Haven’t you ever seen the scars on her wrists?”
I shook my head.
“Well, when she gets drunk, she cuts herself. Usually, it is just to get attention, but sometimes… sometimes she really tries. Anyway, go get some sleep.”
I kissed my Momma good night for the first time in months, and she left as quickly as she had come. Bobby had gone back to bed when the paramedics arrived. Dave was shuffling Gram to their bedroom. I went into the back bedroom once again and laid down on the love seat to finally get some sleep.
What’s she doin’?” Bobby asked, from the darkness. He had been lying there quietly, no doubt reliving the last hour over and over.
“Goin’ to bed, Dave is putting her to bed anyway.”
“Kay. Fuckin’ crazy right?”
“Fuckin’ crazy.” I echoed.
There was no more chatter, nothing really left to say. Fuckin crazy had summed it up nicely.
Before long, I heard the deep, rhythmic breathing that will give away anyone sleeping soundly. I too fell into sleep quickly; it was a fitful and restless sleep, but deep, nonetheless.
Sometime later, I was startled awake by a noise. I wasn’t sure about what I had heard, wasn’t even sure I had heard it in the real world and not just in my dreams. My ears listened intently for a few minutes, but there was nothing there.
I closed my eyes again, trying to doze for the third time that night when it came: a shrill voice charging from the inner part of the house.
“What is that… where did you get that… give it to me… HEY, give it to me, NOW!”
I ran for the door and heard Bobby right behind me. We were headed back to the dining room. Déjà vu isn’t an accurate word for what I felt as I ran for the dining room again that night, but it’s close. I was awash in it, flooded by the feeling of having been there before. I tried to shake loose the idea that I was running into a macabre scene of blood and misery starring my grandmother, but it clung to me like an infant chimp to its mother.
I raced into that room fighting the truth; I wanted to imagine that I was crazy, confused; I wanted to believe that Bobby was falling prey to my madness, that we were both having delusional fragments of the night’s events steering our consciousness into this hysteria. I wanted—needed—my grandmother to be asleep; I needed to be dreaming, or wrong, anything but admitting to myself what was really happening.
You see, my grandmother was bleeding again when I entered that room; she was fighting Dave over a tiny piece of metal that she had used to open her other wrist. There was blood flowing down her raised forearm as she held it away from Dave.
She had ripped open a disposable razor and extricated the sliver of metal inside, using it to slice into herself. The wounds would prove to be superficial once again; Gram wasn’t ready to die—she was just begging for help; screaming for it.
My mother would end up moving into that house, along with my step-father, to keep an eye on Gram. Dave would be gone soon after. Gram missed him when he left. She never said it aloud and would vehemently deny such nonsense, but we all knew it.
In the months to come, I would look for the scars on her wrists, when I could get away with it, when her attention was elsewhere and I could look without her seeing—her knowing—what I was doing; never really hoping they would be gone that time, never really praying the gods would have erased the evidence, but allowing myself the time to check.
A little over a year later, I would cut myself much in the same way that Gram had. I was sad, and lonely; I was confused. And yes, I was drunk.
I went into the bathroom and took out a razor. I nearly took a piece of my thumb off trying to pop the top off of it so I could remove the steel inside, but I got it out after a little concentrated effort. I toyed with the idea of getting into the tub; I knew that water was supposed to help slow clotting, but I decided waiting to die warranted television. So, I sliced into my wrist, wincing at the horrible sting that it produced, and went to watch some T.V.
I woke the next day to a horrible headache and a puffy red wound on my wrist that felt like fire when I moved it. I was ashamed and scared, full of relief and sadness; I had lived, but I was still sad, still lonely.
I washed as much of the blood off as I could and went to the bar, where Momma was hustling beers to the kind of people you’d expect to see drinking in a redneck bar on the south side of Wilmington at eleven a.m. She was unusually busy, and I waited patiently for her to have time to walk over to me. When she did, I slid the sleeve of my shirt up so she could see what I had done, never saying a word.
She looked at it and said, “Oh Jesus, Jay. Come back here.”
She walked toward the storeroom in the back of the bar, and I followed. She never asked me why, never yelled or cried. She never called anyone; she just cleaned it up, put a bandage on it and went back to work.
There was an instant, while she was bandaging my wrist, when our eyes met. They locked onto one another, and I could see there what we both knew: it was in me. I had inherited this—this constant battle for happiness—from her and her mother; I had witnessed my legacy and was taking tentative steps towards claiming it.
I don’t consciously think about Gram when I think about dying, but I have a feeling that she’s there, somewhere deep inside me, whispering that, if I just take a little off the top—just open it enough—then someone will come along and save me.