This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is an excerpt from This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. by Jennifer Wortman, released by Split Lip Press in 2019.
Excerpt from “What Family Does”
I didn’t know my grandfather well, but I’d always been a little afraid of him. It wasn’t just that he lived hundreds of miles away and we saw him too rarely for him not to seem alien. At six foot four, with long jowls, stone-gray eyes, white hair combed back from his face, and a slight but unmistakably foreign accent, he was a scary man. When we were little, he never changed his voice when addressing us, which set him apart from other adults, whose bright, tentative tones suggested we were both fragile and wild. I remembered him sitting in a drab green chair that was too small for him in the living room of his Brooklyn home, his knees pointed and high, hands gripping the narrow arms as if he sat inside a lifting airplane. He’d stay that way for hours, staring into space, completely at ease with his discomfort, as though proving a point. He sold carpet for a living, and as I got older, I was surprised by television portraits of salesmen as slick and ingratiating; my grandfather’s success at sales, I imagined, was due to a side of him we never saw, or to his extraordinary talent for quiet intimidation. My grandmother, a good-natured, anxious woman, fluttered around him like a sparrow looking for a perch on a large but crowded tree.
My mother needed a project. Without one, she roamed the hallways of our house like a squirrel in search of a buried nut. It used to happen only after she’d been awakened by an emergency call for my dad, but lately her roamings occurred without prompting. Sometimes, to direct her excess energy, she’d try painting in the room we’d converted into a mini-studio. My mom painted portraits of faces torn from magazines. She’d never taken a class. She was afraid she wasn’t good enough. “That’s what the class is for,” my dad would argue, but my mom said art was for viewing, and she didn’t want to make people view something ugly. She was a good enough artist, but her portraits always had one ill-rendered feature that ruined the entire face—a nose that made a five-year-old Minnesota girl look like a sixty-year-old Spanish king or an upper lip that gave a Nobel Laureate scientist the come-hither aspect of a teenage songstress. I liked what these mistakes did for my mom’s paintings—they made them interesting, unique—but I never told her that. Instead of trying to correct her mistakes, she’d leave them intact, like police evidence in a baggie, and her night wanderings would become more frenzied.
I began doing my homework in the living room, where I could get an earful, and, if I was careful, a bit of a view of my grandfather and mother’s dessert chats. They had little to say. Usually my grandfather complimented the dessert and my mother described what went into it. Then they would fall into silence. My mother would steal a glance at my grandfather, then ogle the table. My grandfather focused on his dessert, chewing vigorously and retrieving crumbs from the corner of his lips with his tongue.
One evening, though, they began to talk. “You’ll have to excuse the landscaping,” my mother said out of the blue. “I’ve stopped maintaining a flower bed. If someone crushed my flower bed, I don’t think I could take it. I’d rather not have one.”
“It is, isn’t it?” She opened her hands. “Sometimes kids will put toilet paper in the trees or soap car windows. That’s just a kids-will-be-kids thing. But crushing a flower bed—that seems uncalled for, don’t you think?”
“It is indeed.”
“My family thinks I’m sentimental. But I don’t feel sentimental. Sometimes I think the world is going to pot and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Of course, you can’t give in to feelings like that.”
“Well, because it’s selfish.” She seemed surprised that he had asked. “It’s just an excuse not to try.”
“Then again, sometimes you try and it just makes things worse.”
“I’m a very lucky person, though,” my mother said. “Don’t think I’m an ingrate.”
“It’s hard to be human,” my grandfather said, as though simply observing the weather. “Edna wanted to plant flowers. I told her they were a waste of money. They died, and in the meantime, attracted bees and caused allergies. And the whole idea of trying to bring beauty to a city that had excrement in its subways seemed ridiculous. Of course, I was wrong. I should have let Edna plant her flowers.”
“You had your reasons.”
“Reasons,” my grandfather said, “are the worst excuse there is.”
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