Hard Of Herring
By Zan Nordlund
It's never good to get a personal phone call at work. When I got the message right after lunch to come to the main office I knew it meant trouble. Grammy was pretty important to me, and I owed her. She had, after all, raised me. I put in the rest of my usual day. I then dutifully climbed behind the wheel of my beat-up '87 Chevy, the one with the duct tape on the right rear tail light, and hunkered down over the thirty-six miles of incessant country roads to her house. All-the-while I fought to quell the anxiety building within my gut. The closer I got to her house the faster my heart raced. "Hi Grammy!" I cut loose as I let myself in through her back door. My voice resonated off the window over the sink. I know I'd better warn her of my arrival since she's deaf as a haddock.
She's there perched in her usual spot, in the captain's chair of her proudest possession, a rock maple dining set. Her head is down. The kitchen feels like a chapel it smells like potpourri and Mr. Clean. The walls are covered in dark three-quarter paneling, topped off by half-inch crown molding and twenty-year-old sunflower-print wallpaper. Around the molding sits every statue she's ever collected from a Red Rose Tea box in her entire lifetime. The room has a gold mosaic no-wax flooring and copper-colored appliances. Dim lighting contributes to the church-like feel of the place.
"You near scared the bejesus outa' me!" she scolds without yet lifting her head, "I'm an old woman! You coulda' killed me runnin' off at the mouth like that!" She glances at me from the side and waits for her eyes to adjust to the light.
"I'm sorry, Grammy. I didn't want to surprise you, that's all. Remember? You called? What's wrong?"
"Damned if I know. You're the one chargin' in here like a house on fire. What's that hissing noise?" she asks looking around, and then narrowing her sights on me. "You got somethin' wrong with you?"
"Nope it's your hearing-aide. You need to turn it down, that's all. Do you need a new battery?"
"Frikin' thing. Never works anyway. They just like to sell me batteries to make money off 'a me take advantage 'cause I'm old. So you gonna' just stand there yappin' all day, or you gonna' fix it, or what?"
"Fix what? That's why I'm here." It's always something. The last time she'd flushed a Depends down the toilet. The time before that she put an entire chicken, bones and all, down the disposal. I can't wait to see what delight she has in store for me today. I'm hoping it's her hearing-aide battery.
"Well, it sure took you long enough. It has been three damn days. Why didn't you wait another week? A person could starve to death around here."
"What's been three days? You just called this morning." I make a note to myself to have a chat with her aide about being a little quicker on the draw. "Why didn't you have your aide call me sooner?"
"Who? Oh. The girl? Ain't seen her since I fired her a week or so ago. Don't know why. She ain't even called in sick, or nothin'. Can't count on nobody to show up when you need 'em these days, I guess." She shoots a glare in my direction again. "She never does much around here, anyways 'cept maybe wash a floor or two and make my bed. That's, of course, when she bothers to show up a'thall. (Another glare.) I sort of think she should do a little more to earn the kind of money you pay her." "Ok, Grammy. Ok. So tell me. What is it today? What's broken?"
"Like I said! The damn fridge! Whadda'ya? Goin' senile, or somethin'?" My stomach sinks.
"Well?" She cranks. "What 'cha gonna' do? Just stare at it all day? You been lookin' at the TV with that there Billy Graham on it? 'Ya seekin' a damn miracle healin'? It ain't gonna' work, Champ. You're a Catholic. YOU gotta' pay off one or two 'o them priests and light a few candles maybe, even learn a prayer in Latin to make somethin' that big happen. Even then it's easier just to do it yerself. Them saints ain't a sure bet, neither don't always pay off like they's supposed to money's a surer bet with the horses, I say. Hey! Would you quit foolin' around now, and get movin'? Stuffs spoilin!"
"That stuff's been three days! It's already spoiled how about I just call the appliance guy and buy you a nice new refrigerator? That way you'll never have to worry about this happening again."
"That's the problem with you kids! You're all alike! A little somethin' goes wrong and you think 'throw it away.' Yous guys never want to fix nothin'! Never wanna' stick nothin' out at'hal. 'Sides. They don't make 'em in copper no more. And I'm eighty-three I'd be dead before I got my money's worth out 'a new one. Naw. Don't make no sense. Let's just fix this one."
I sigh. I can only imagine what lies beyond that door. She never throws anything away. The very thought of opening it now is enough to scare the likes of Vincent Price and I am only a mere mortal. I take a deep breath and know what it must feel like to come face-to-face with a firing squad. I tug on the handle. The door appears to have sealed itself shut, like King Tut's tomb. I take this as a sign and give it one more shot. "How about a new stove, too? That way they would match." Even though she never cooks anymore, I figure the cost of both appliances would probably be less than a series of treatments for botulism.
"No, no. I like my house just as it is. Let's fix this one. I already told 'ya . . . I ain't gonna' live forever. Now get goin'!"
"Yes, ma'am." I open the door. The stench is overwhelming rotted vegetables, cans of half-finished Fresca a quarter-of-a-century old. She watches my every move, her ice blue eyes dart back-and-forth behind her cat-eye glasses like a prison guard on work duty. I fight the constant urge to vomit.
"What are you throwin' away?" she yells. "Hey! That's still good! It ain't been opened yet!"
"But it's half gone."
"Well, I don't care. It's still good. Put it over there." It's like that all afternoon.
Then we get to the giant-sized jar of pickled herring. It's way in the back on the bottom shelf and stamped $3.25 in blueberry ink. It came from a store out of business for over fifteen years. I pray the glass won't break when it hits the bottom of the trash can. Does she ever get riled up then!
"Hey! Don't throw that out! If I'd known it was there I would have eaten it! Hey! I want that!"
"But that jar's been sitting there for three days with no refrigeration."
"I don't care. I want it! That stuff is expensive." I showed her the top of the bottle.
"It wasn't expensive when you bought it. This is pickled fish, Grammy! The last time it saw water, Eisenhower was in the White House!"
"I don't care! I want it!" She raised her voice and started to yell.
"This is pickled fish!" I said with a slight edge on my voice, "It could have come from the net trolling behind your mother's boat when she came from 'the old country'."
"Fine. Toss it then," she said. She put her head down on the kitchen table. We finished cleaning out the refrigerator in silence.
That task completed, the real fun was about to begin. I had to pull out the refrigerator in order to investigate the source of the problem. Lord only knows what deadly disease or ancient food items might be lurking in the 50-year-old dust behind it. The cause of the failure was soon evident the appliance had been unplugged.
"Gram? Are you keeping your yardstick behind the fridge again?"
"No, I ain't!"
"Your lunch tray?"
"Nope." "Your knitting?"
"Well, how then did the fridge get unplugged?"
"Musta' been when I hit it with the damn broom."
"So you're keeping the broom back there?"
"Nope. You told me not to. So I ain't."
"Well then why was the broom back there?"
"How the hell else was I supposed to get it out? I'm an old woman. Or haven't you noticed? Things don't work as easy for me as they do for you."
"Get what out Gram?"
"My backscratcher! You ain't lettin' me put nothin' else back there, you're so damn pushy, and all."
"Get your coat."
"Where we goin'?"
"Food shopping. And in the morning I'm going to see if I can hire another aide for you. But we need a few new rules. No backscratchers behind the fridge, and if I find you another aide you can't fire them, ok?"
"You got more rules," she said with a resigned sign. "And for the kind of money them aides get I think they should work a little harder, that's all."
"I know, but you can't fire them, ok?"
"Ok, Honey. If it will make you happy. Can I buy some cookies?"
"Yes, Gram You can buy some cookies. Any kind you want. And we can't forget. We need to buy a nice big jar of pickled herring."
Bio: Zan Nordlund served as a professor of English with Johnson & Wales University, and is a member of a writer's consortium with Brown University. She is a Grand Prize winner of the Chicken Soup for the Soul 10th Anniversary International Writer's Contest. Her works have appeared in The Back Bay Beacon, The Boston Globe, and with TimeLife Publications, as well as with Dead Mule, Retrozine, a Journal of Memories, Mipoesias, and Zoetrope Artists Studio. She has received several literary awards. Her first novel Altered Realty is currently under contract for publication.