The tree branches hung low that day, like tired aching limbs of brown, wrinkled men. They dangled over the sidewalks, their leaves brushing the tops of our heads as we carried forward. Though they may have been more like gnarled fingers reaching out for us, we were really more careful to avoid tripping over the overgrown roots. As the breeze whispered through the leaves, they would rustle gently, reminding me of Grandma in her night gown and her shawl, shuffling quietly down the stairs at night. As the wind passed, the leaves fell still and silent.
The pavement seemed to roll on for miles that day, endless square slabs of cracked, city-cement sidewalk. I was careful to avoid stepping on the cracks – something about an old wives' tale and breaking a mother's back. I wasn't particularly superstitious, but watching my feet as carefully as a Jain avoided stepping on insects kept my mind occupied, at the very least.
Glancing over at Jill disgusted me. She wore a baby doll tee as gaudy a yellow as the sun and blue jeans as washed out as the sky. Her rubber sneakers pushed against the pavement lightly, as if she were skipping on cotton candy clouds. That damn ponytail danced rather too jovially for my liking as well. I willed the tree roots to creep out, snatch onto her ankle, and drag her underground. Was I too hopeful?
The further we walked, we were greeted by yowls, howls, yelps, and piercing squeals: expected cacophony, but unpleasant nonetheless. The noise tangled inside my head, wrapping itself like a vine so tightly around my mind I could scarcely see or think or breathe. The closer we got to the noise, large brick building started to loom over us, steel lampposts towered along the paths, and cold glass windows and concrete malls encroached us on either side.
Jill pointed in front of her and said, "There it is." I resented the unchanged tone of her voice. But we were there, so I did not linger on it.
Dozens of yippy, barking dogs, all clawing against the class, tumbling over, nipping at one another. Birds fluttering frantically in small cages, squawking through gaping beaks. And dead-colored, scaly iguanas glued to plastic perches, their glass eyeballs rotating only once in a while. My eyes water; I wondered at the hopelessness of it all. I pressed my hands against the glass, careless of the fingerprints that the storekeeper would most likely angrily Windex later, and felt the breath pour out of me. Grandma was like this: trapped behind a wall of glass, seeing out, but always staying in. A caged existence.
"If you two girls wash those apples in the sink and peel the skins off, I can make an apple pie. That would be a great help to me." Grandma spoke softly, looking over the rim of her crescent-moon glasses as she pulled out her famous green bean casserole out from the oven. Ever since my sister and I arrived for the weekend to stay at her house, she'd been in a frenzy of cooking. Grandma's cooking never tasted like it came from a four-Michelin star restaurant, but it always managed to fill me up and strain the waistband of my jeans. Eagerly, I jumped from my chair and rushed over to the sink.
Jill on the other hand didn't budge an inch. She had her arm dangled over the side of a chair lazily and the other was holding a compact mirror, which if she looked into much longer would freeze like a computer screen, her haughty features likely to be glued to the glass for the rest of her life. The sound of the compact clasp indicated she was done—for the time being—but she still didn't get up and move. She sighed exaggeratedly, and dropped her head on the table.
"I'm bored!" Even through her muffled voice, she made it clear that Grandma and her cooking were about as exciting as sitting next to the class nerd in her first calculus course.
Grandma smiled at her, stepping away from the stove to put her hand on top of Jill's. "Why don't you go out in the sitting room then and watch some television, dear? When your sister and I are finished cooking in here, we'll call you in."
"But that TV has only ten channels," Jill whined pathetically. Continuing to wash the apples tested my patience, as all I really wanted to do was go over to the table and stab Jill with the pointed end of the apple peeler.
"Well, there's some photo albums in the sitting room too. Oh, or there's some board games upstairs! Why don't you get Monopoly and we'll all play after dinner?" I gave Grandma credit for trying, but she was desperately out of touch with the age of electronic media and instant, visual entertainment.
Jill, having run through the mill of her options, sighed again and, looking as if she carried a hundred pound bag from her shoulders, forced herself up from the kitchen table and trudged into the city room. Good, I smiled to myself. Go away and leave me and Grandma alone. All the more time I get to spend with her. I started peeling the apples rather smugly, each skin that fell into the bowl giving me a boost of confidence.
Suddenly, I felt as though I'd been skinned alive. One minute, Grandma was cutting up her casserole. The next, she had collapsed on the floor. The apple I was peeling rolled out of my hand and travelled aimlessly along the tile. Jill had even hauled herself up from her place on the old velvet chair and we crouched over Grandma's body; her arm felt cold, not like an icicle but like cookie dough that had been left in the refrigerator. The coldness scared me; Grandma was too pale too. And then we were on the phone, dialing with fingers that couldn't move fast enough. The ambulance arrived, its familiar sirens blaring and filling me with dread. And from being in Grandma's kitchen washing apples, I was tossed like a ship on sea in a hospital room listening to a doctor telling me Grandma had a stroke, she was in a coma, she would likely die soon.
"So, which one do you want?" Jill asked, smacking on her bubble gum loudly.
I couldn't believe we were standing where we were. I couldn't believe we were doing what we were about to do. The storekeeper approached us and asked us what we were interested in, but I wasn't even listening. I couldn't even focus on the twenty kittens strolling around in the boxed cage in front of me. I couldn't do it.
I began to walk away—walking back toward the wrinkled old trees on the side of the sidewalk. I wanted to grasp the leaves in my hand and squeeze them tightly, to slide my fingertips along the coarse bark, to sit at the roots with my back against the trunk and never move. And soon I was running, the metropolitan mall disappearing, all the storefronts and electric lights fading away in a blur. A rush, not like a psychedelic high but more like having too much breath, filled me and I couldn't even feel the muscles aching in my legs. I couldn't feel the sweat on my brow or hear myself pant. I just kept reaching out, reaching for those tired old branches.
That's when Jill grabbed onto my arm and drew me out of my dream.
"Where the hell are you going!" she exclaimed, looking at me like I were some kind of wild animal. The sight of her in that yellow tee, those blue jeans, that pink bubblegum—how could she still stand?
"I'm going back to Grandma!" Tears started to stream down my face; my voice croaked and I openly sobbed.
"She's not coming back!" Jill stomped her feet angrily like a toddler. "Won't you just stop being sad. That's why we're getting a pet. Mom and Dad said it would make you feel better. So start feeling better!" She flung her hands out emphatically, maybe thinking this would change my mind, make me sane again. Maybe if she weren't wearing that goddamn yellow tee.
"Just leave me alone," I whimpered, and I started to run again.
Jill must have decided to abandon her cause of making me feel better because when I reached the old trees, she was gone. My arms and legs feeling like soggy green beans, I collapsed against the tree and slid down to sit on the pavement. Suburban homes and pavement sprawled in front of me, but I saw gravestones instead. Gray suburban tombs, I thought, with homemaker corpses. A soft thud awakened my senses. An apple had fallen from the tree. I stared at it, noticing that some of the skin was brown and bruised. It was then I realized that Grandma did not live the caged existence; it was me. Softly, I began to cry.