Grandma sits out on the fire escape like it was an old front porch. She uses one foot to make her small wooden rocking chair go back and forth, enjoying the peace of the silent street below.
The birdsong. The breathable air. The warmth of the sun. They combine in a way that says, this is how we are supposed to live. Grandma wonders if she is still agile enough to avoid the clutches of Death if he comes knocking.
All the apartment-dwellers have their windows wide open to let in the breeze that is so rich in oxygen.
It is quiet enough to hear Jomar and Buddy bickering from the apartment below her. A child shrieks from an open window high above, quieted by the snarl of a man who is not her father.
Yesterday morning, Grandma met Jomar coming home from work. She watched him as she prepared to venture out to the market. He was so tired that he leaned on the heavy door of the apartment building, forehead resting on the cool glass. When he looked up, he saw her standing inside the lobby, waiting with her home-made mask stretched over her nose and mouth and tight around her ears. He looked sheepish for a second, then pulled the door open and held it for her as they edged past each other.
Are you well, Grandma?
Yes thank you, Jomar. I’m well.
She skirted the bag that held his uniform, and carried on walking.
Today is Sunday, she feels, although she isn’t sure. Sitting out here on the fire escape, today feels like a Sunday, but so do all the other days.
The sound of a guitar, softly played, washes over her. It will be Rita, with her long, clever fingers. Rita, who lives in the apartment next door. Grandma doesn’t altogether like her ways.
Rita is always in the middle of some excitement or other, with her finely arched eyebrows raised high and her bronze-coloured eyes wide open. Only last week, the father of one of Rita’s children was standing in the street, bellowing up at them, demanding to see his son until finally Rita got the boy to wave through the window. Neither party was happy, but what else could a person do in these times? Grandma is grateful she is too old for all that melodrama.
Rita plays a lazy, improvised melody that echoes Grandma’s sweet, warm mood. Most of her neighbours like their music loud-loud, but recently there have been periods like this, when a quieter, acoustic vibe prevails. Grandma can smell marijuana. That will be Rita, too. Two breaths: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and the joint will be extinguished. Gone before anyone can complain, let alone identify the culprit. Grandma realises she misses smoking pot on a hot summer’s day. Misses the gentle relaxation and the thoughts drifting through her mind, dissolving and reforming like clouds across the sky.
The bickering from downstairs has stopped, and now Buddy’s voice is full of mock outrage. “Hey everyone, guess what? There’s another movie, one I’ve never even heard of.” He climbs out onto the fire escape and waves the battered old film guide he pulled out of a dumpster last week. “We missed it off the original list.”
“We voted on a longlist, then we voted on a shortlist,” Jomar calls from inside, “and I’m not going through all that again. We decided, man. And it was hard work.”
“You two still arguing about this?” Curtis asks from the window above her. His voice has the impact of a stone thrown into a pond. It carries easily past Grandma, further down to Buddy and Jomar, and probably right on down to the ground.
“Not really,” replies Buddy. “I was just teasing Jomar. Feels like a big deal to get it right.”
“Only if you ain’t got nothing else to do,” says Curtis.
“Yeah, well, none of you got anything else to do,” says Jomar. “I’m the only one working around here.”
The sudden tension in the air is no more or less uncomfortable than it has been in the past, when her neighbours have had their various disagreements. They all know each other by sight. But the recent enforced proximity means they all speak to each other far more than usual. They have begun to strike up half-decent conversations, getting to know one another. Except for Grandma, of course. Because she is old, they avoid her. They do not know how to be with her, or act around her, or speak to her.
Which makes what she is about to do next, all the more difficult. She clears her throat, not sure how to approach this. Not sure how her voice will sound out loud, she so rarely uses it these days. She decides on a direct approach. Has to try a couple times to get her voice to carry on the air. “You boys think you could fix it so as I could watch too?”
There is a sudden silence. Rita stops playing. The breeze dies away. Grandma stops rocking. She is all ready to jump up and apologise, to cover over the awkwardness.
Somebody whistles, a falling note that says, oh boy!
Jomar speaks first. He can’t stand the thought of anyone being left out. “Sure, Grandma. We can figure a way…” She can hear Buddy trying to hush him.
Curtis sighs, disapproval so heavy she can feel the air flutter with his breath. Even his sighs carry more weight than other people’s. “Yeah, Grandma. I guess we can rig something. Might have to run a cable, though. You ok with that?”
Grandma hurries to say, “Sure Curtis, anything you need. Thank you.”
Rita says, “And me.” No question mark in her voice. “You been bigging this up all week. I don’t want to be left out.” She makes the strings on her guitar emphasise her words with a little shake.
“You can pay for it your own damn self.”
“No Curtis. Can’t pay for nothing right now. Not even food. If you do this for me, I’ll do Frankie’s hair and nails for free when it’s all over. I promise.”
Grandma hears noises overhead as Frankie pushes Curtis to one side and leans out of the window. “That’s a good trade, Rita. Hair and nails for free a couple of times. Whaddya say, Curtis?”
Curtis sucks in a sharp breath. Frankie makes the noise she makes to her children when she puts her arms around them and rocks them out of a bad mood and into her way of thinking. Grandma can hear the floorboards creak above her as Frankie takes Curtis in her arms and rocks him back and forth.
“Like living in a goddamn commune,” grumbles Curtis. But everyone knows he dotes on Frankie and the children. Will do anything she asks.
Monday is set to be hot again. Grandma is back out on the fire escape, early. In the freshness of the morning she feels her lungs expand the way they did when she was a child. She settles down with a magazine. It is only a few weeks old, but already it belongs to a distant era.
In the afternoon, Curtis knocks on her door, rousing her from sleep in the baking sun. She has been dreaming of flowers and the scent of cut grass. It takes her some time to climb back through her window into the apartment and open the door. Curtis is standing well away from another man who she recognises as the one who snarls at his stepchildren, high up on the fourth floor.
“Grandma, this is Steven. He’ll make it so you can watch the movie tonight. Gonna put you on the network.”
She makes her face go expressionless at the word.
Curtis looks at her for a minute, a small quirk of the lips saying he knows a blank face when he sees one and that he figures she has her reasons. He makes no comment, is clearly not interested enough to ask. When Curtis turns away and leaves her alone with Steven, they can hear him run his fingers softly along the wall in the hallway as he walks. He taps lightly on Rita’s door – more a brush than a knock – and keeps on walking.
Grandma hopes that this is just the physical expression of a passing thought. Rita is beautiful, she is lonely, she is always the centre of attention. She’d take Curtis, but she doesn’t need him. Not the way Frankie and the children do. Rita doesn’t open the door and Grandma is relieved. She wishes Rita would look outside the building for her next Mr Right.
“Hi Grandma,” says Steven. He has a voice like a running engine, but an engine that is running rough. He shrugs off his backpack and pulls out a plastic container. It is full of raw kernels of popping corn complete with a little knob of butter wrapped in clingfilm. “The kids sent this. They said you can’t watch a movie without popcorn.”
He steps cautiously into her apartment. She does not like the way his eyes take inventory of everything she owns.
“I’ll leave the popcorn on your table. Now go and sit over there, while I get to work.” She watches him read her expression. He seems to think she is concerned about possible damage. “Don’t worry,” he tries to sound reassuring, “It’s real simple, I promise.”
She drags a chair away from the table and over to the stove, and sits down on it to watch him work. The word ‘network’ has chilled her spine. She does not live in a world of networks, does not own a computer. She thinks back to the occasions when well-intentioned people have tried to show her what to do. She never could do it right. Just sat there feeling stupid.
Steven is kneeling on the floor by her television, looking at his phone. He does not explain what he is doing and she does not want him to. “It’s really just one button, Grandma,” he says, showing her. “I’ll call you and talk you through it before the movie starts.”
As the time for the movie approaches, she pops the corn. Can’t let good food go to waste.
Her phone rings for the first time in weeks. Steven says, “OK Grandma, here’s what to do. The kids think I should climb down the fire escape so I can show you through the window, but the truth is, I’m scared of heights.”
He laughs, a smoky rasp that comes from deep in his chest. She finds herself laughing too. He reminds her again what to do. It is surprisingly simple. “OK, that’s it, Grandma. Film starts in five minutes. Buddy’s going to bang a pan lid, or something.”
She readies herself in front of the television with her popcorn. Anxiety makes her stomach hurt. She understands in that moment how out of balance her emotions are. How crushing the disappointment will be if she has failed to follow his instructions correctly.
The sound of Buddy banging a pan lid with a wooden spoon startles her into action. She pushes the button with her breath held and eyes closed, and to her delight, a movie starts playing on her TV. She has seen the film before but remembers little or nothing of it. She settles back to watch the forging of a sword fit for a hero with a mixture of pleasure and relief.
She thinks about the week-long debates, the arguments, the complicated voting system the others had put in place to choose what she was watching. Just like the Primaries, Buddy had said, delighted with himself. She could have corrected him, it was not anything like the Primaries, but a week ago she had not inserted herself into this activity.
She tries not to think of the vase, which should be standing on the shelf behind the TV. Although she never really cared for the thing, she misses it, now it is gone.
On Tuesday afternoon, Grandma waits for the smell of marijuana to waft onto the fire escape. “Rita,” she calls, “I need you to do something for me.”
She leaves the money outside her apartment door. Hears Rita’s door open, three steps, a pause, and then Rita going back into her own apartment.
Outside her door, Grandma finds five perfectly rolled joints wrapped in another magazine, this one a more recent issue, but no more relevant to her life.
Later, Stephen sends his oldest girl downstairs to make sure Grandma pushes the right button. She brings more popcorn kernels and another carefully wrapped little knob of butter. The girl is shy, watchful, no more than eight or nine. She waits patiently while Grandma goes to get last night’s popcorn container, carefully washed and dried. They do a complicated dance, passing it from one to another while maintaining the gap between them. The child shows her the correct button to press. Her shyness makes both of them feel awkward.
After the girl leaves, whispering goodbye, Grandma heats the oil and puts the corn on to pop. Then she searches through her kitchen drawers and finds a half-empty box of matches behind the darning block.
Without thinking about it, operating on muscle memory alone, she sits down in front of the television with her popcorn in a bowl and lights the first joint, allowing herself a long, shaky puff. She fights the urge to cough and leans back into her chair, certain from the air wafting through her window, that half the building is doing the same. After that, the movie makes her laugh. It is the sequel to last night’s film but the actors are puffy, the jokes are ponderous. The only memorable thing about it is the lead actress, and Grandma is astounded all over again by her physicality and the perfect symmetry of her face.
At the end of the movie, the mood is subdued. Grandma rocks on the fire escape and listens as the consensus is reached that this one has been a mistake. The next time they hold a themed movie season — which will probably be next week the way things are going — they will have to be more careful.
Curtis is particularly vocal. “You all kept choosing it, I don’t know how many times we had to vote.”
“Everybody loves Grace, man,” responds Buddy.
“Maybe one of the comedies would have been better,” says Jomar. But he’s not blaming anyone.
On Wednesday, Steven sends his middle step-daughter; a round bellied, gap-toothed seven-year-old. She has not yet learned to be shy or watchful like her sister. Perhaps she is Steven’s favourite, and has no need to worry. She stands on one leg, far away from Grandma and points at the button.
Grandma feels guilty. The missing vase has been there all the time, sitting on the floor, moved out of harm’s way by Steven. So she sends the girl back upstairs with a batch of home-made chocolate chip cookies.
Despite the name the building has bestowed on her, Grandma has not, in fact, had children – let alone grandchildren – but she knows how to bake cookies, and she wants to make amends for her suspicions, even though no one is aware of them but her.
When Buddy bangs the pot lid, she starts the movie and is immediately overwhelmed with nostalgia for the sights and sounds of the early ‘70s. She marvels at the clothes the men are wearing. The exaggerated proportions, the extra-long collars and the wide lapels are alien, yet so familiar to her.
She is drawn in to the drama that unfolds despite herself. Halfway through, all she can think of is the amount of food it must have taken to build those muscles, and about the deprivation required to reveal them. The train of thought makes her hungry, so she eats one of the cookies she has kept for herself. It tastes of her mother’s love and for a fleeting second, she regrets sharing this with people who are little more than strangers.
The people in the film speak differently to the way she has become used to hearing on screen. The slang is old-fashioned, of course, but the voices themselves seem different. The ghosts of forgotten regional accents bring back unexpected memories of people long gone from her life.
In the end, she finds the movie motivating. Those men and their odd obsession with their own bodies, ended up inspiring the entire world. She feels powerful, energised. But then she catches sight of the skin on the backs of her hands, and she remembers where she is, and who she is. Her frame was not designed to bulk up with muscle and even if it had been, there was never enough food to spare.
She goes outside to take the air. Buddy and Steven are pumped up, half drunk, half joshing, half ready to start a fight. She can see Jomar holding Buddy as he leans out from the fire escape, looking up at Steven. The level of conflict is escalating; she can hear it brewing in their voices, which fly up and down the side of the building.
“There’s got to be a space in this building where we could put a weights bench…” rasped Steven.
“I’ll look in the basement, tomorrow,” Buddy replied.
“We’ll look in the basement,” called Steven.
“No room down there,” said Curtis. The mood flattened. “No damn room anywhere in this building — in this city. No room to breathe.” His voice is a growl. You can hear the tension in his throat and feel it in your own.
“Get off me, woman,” he says, as Frankie tries to soothe him.
“Is Daddy mad, Momma?” asks one of the children, and the baby starts crying. The baby next door starts up and the cries meld into a sonic wave of unfiltered anger and frustration.
Grandma hopes Frankie is not trying to take Curtis in her arms. That would be the worst thing she could do to a man feeling trapped and suffocating.
Rita tries to cut through the noise before the whole building starts screaming. “Be great to get the dumbbells out from under my bed,” she calls.
“Instead of in your bed,” says Frankie, loud, to hoots of laughter from Steven and Buddy.
“We’ll think of something,” says Jomar. “We can work this out.” His tone is confident, soothing. Grandma realises this is how he speaks to patients who are seriously ill and afraid. He tells them to get well while he washes and dresses them.
She feels a brief little lift of optimism. But it is probably just the pot.
Thursday is even hotter. Traffic fumes have disappeared, but the air is starved of oxygen. The fire escape offers no respite. The birds have sung themselves out and are resting in their shambolic nests, roughly assembled on any spare ledge.
Grandma feels a bead of sweat trickle down her back. She is summoning up the strength she needs to walk downstairs to the basement.
It is a dismal place, ignored and unmaintained. The bare brick walls are rough and the space smells of damp earth and mould. Burned out lightbulbs have not been replaced. At one time there had been a single coin-operated washing machine down here for residents to use. There was a brief flurry of excitement when it was installed; but the new laundry was so dark and frightening to be alone in at night, that everyone carried on using the laundromat and the machine was taken away. Nowadays, most of the apartments have their own washing machines, but Grandma still washes her clothes by hand in the sink, drying them by the radiator.
She assesses the items in her storage space, wishing someone would fix the lights, but pleased their lack has kept people away. Her things are familiar, but not old friends. She can convince herself there is nothing here that she wants to keep.
The space is not huge but judging from the film she watched last night, there would be just about enough room to store a weights bench and some dumbbells. And, if you used the corridor as well, enough space to lift them.
The opening of the film distracts her.
Just like the movie, the night she saw it first, started off one way and then changed into something else.
She thinks about the man she saw it with. She thinks about his hands, how strong they were, how elegant his gestures, how gentle his touch. The memories are old, she has not seen this man for decades. But she still remembers the way the date didn’t end until the next morning.
Watching the people in the movie carry on their life-or-death struggle, refusing to give up, makes her think of the things the man fought for, the things she and her friends had fought for. More often than not, we won. When did the fight go out of me?
Besides the man, whom she loved deeply, there were others – men and women – whose company she did not value enough when she had it. Friends forgotten and left behind. She is overwhelmed with a feeling of loss as she remembers nights of talking and laughing and smoking until dawn. Of being with people who were so full of ideas and plans that they felt a physical need to release them. So they danced, through the night.
Where are they, those people who had such an influence on my life? Even if most of them are dead now, I would like to know that. And I would like to know what happened to them.
Her thoughts drift back to the present. What will become of us? We can’t even imagine the worst that could happen. We know that now for sure.
The sound of Buddy cheering in the room below rouses her. He takes a childish delight in every explosion, every blow. She enjoys his pleasure.
The story behind the film is still powerful after so many years, and they are all jittery with adrenaline when it ends. There is no animosity on the fire escape tonight.
“What did you make of it, Grandma?” Buddy calls up to her. “Bet you weren’t expecting that.”
“Young man, I saw that movie when it first came out. I knew exactly what was going to happen. And guess what? It turned out just like it did the last time.”
“Yass, Grandma,” calls down Frankie.
“Frankie, send Curtis down to see me tomorrow, you hear?”
“Sure, Grandma. I’ll tell him.”
Grandma does not stay out to rock her chair tonight. She wants to be alone in bed with her memories.
Friday, she wakes sour. She can feel the air pressure changing. Her joints ache with it. An electrical storm is coming. She hopes it brings a decent, cleansing rain. She wants the colours of the city to be clean; the stonework of the buildings French grey, the sidewalks velvety black, the trees in the far distance, brilliant green.
She opens her apartment door. She has not walked along the hallway since Saturday. She puts a brightly coloured enamelled bangle down on the floor and knocks on Rita’s door.
“What’s up, Grandma?”
“Found this when I was cleaning out a drawer. Thought you might like it.”
Rita bends and picks up the bangle. Inspects it and says with genuine appreciation, “Grandma, this is lovely. Are you sure?”
In truth, it is one of Grandma’s tiny hoard of treasures. She swallows the sourness she felt on waking and makes the words come out sweet. “After this is over, when you can go out again,” she puts the lightest emphasis on the word out, “you’ll find Mr Right, no question.”
Rita glances at her, then lowers her eyes.
“He’s out there, honey, you just need to look. And if you’re wearing my good luck bangle, he can’t fail to notice you.”
Back on the fire escape, Grandma rocks and watches the grey clouds build. The youngest of Steven’s step-daughters is crying, a whiny half-hearted effort that is pitched just right to set any adult’s teeth on edge. She is three, Grandma thinks, maybe four.
“Will you stop that noise?” Steven’s shout is accompanied by a slap, which is followed by a scream of pure rage. The volume is extraordinary.
Grandma rocks, but does not want to listen to this domestic drama. Equally, she doesn’t want to be forced back inside.
They are all shouting, now. Maybe it’s cathartic, she thinks. Then, maybe not. She rocks for a full minute, considering, and climbs back inside her apartment. She looks at the walls, not seeing anything new, and picks up the phone. She hesitates, screws up her courage and hits last number recall.
“Yeah?” Steven’s voice is more ragged than usual. The volume of the background noise slamming into the phone’s cheap microphone hurts her ears.
Three little girls file into her apartment, round-eyed with curiosity. The smallest one will have to stand on a chair to reach the table. This is likely to get messy.
“Now,” she says, taking a deep breath, “the first thing we have to do is measure out the flour.”
She is still cleaning up, when Curtis knocks on her door. When she opens it and steps back, he follows her in. He is busy, impatient. Not waiting for her to get out of his way. Since they all started talking, he no longer treats her as a demented old woman. She is not one of them, exactly, but some of the distance between them, and the deference, has gone. If she wants to belong, she has to act like the way they do. She has to stand straight, move briskly, speak firmly. Keep up.
She too, has important work to do, and she is doing it right now.
Curtis runs his fingers along the back of a chair.
“What is it, Grandma? You need help with something?” Now she is becoming part of his group, he sees her as another burden, another problem to deal with.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do, Curtis.” She watches his shoulders lift and slump as he sighs. “I want you to take this key and go down to the basement and empty out my storage space. Take whatever’s in there, I don’t care what you do with it.”
“Well, all right, Grandma. I can do that.” She can see that he is puzzled by her sudden urgency, but a lifetime of minding his own business prevents him from asking.
“Good. And once my things are out of there, you can keep the key.”
He looks at her then, a sharp glance, quick as an arrow. She half turns away from him, busying herself with straightening the tablecloth.
He doesn’t say anything for a full minute. Then he replies, his voice soft. This is his true voice. The one he uses for his family. The one he speaks to his mother with.
“Thank you, Grandma.”
She can’t help having the last word. “Man needs his space, is all.”
It is time for the last movie in their little season; the sequel to the one they watched last night. After he bangs some pan lids together to get their attention, Buddy makes a little speech. He reminds them that this is the film that received the highest number of their votes, and says he hopes they can do it all again, soon.
He reads aloud from the film guide. “This film is widely regarded as one of the rare examples of a follow-up being even better than the original.”
“Yeah, it better be,” Curtis drawls, “We ain’t forgot the Tuesday night turkey.”
Grandma half watches it, more interested in her memories than what is on the screen. By the time she saw the film the first time round, the man she loved had moved on. His activism came first, he told her. He had no time to settle down into a life of choosing drapes and raising kids. She was too conventional; not imaginative enough for him.
Because he was a man she admired, a man whom many people admired, she took this as a universal judgement, an opinion that would be shared by everyone she met. She allowed his rejection to change the natural trajectory of her life. She lowered her sights.
And now, during this time of isolation, she had spent more time with people than she had for years. And enjoyed it. She sensed the possibility of lasting change. Whether the change was in her or in the world, she was not sure. Maybe it was both.