ritual phantoms

by lauren atkinson


when my grandmother passed, i stayed in her house the week after. I slept in my mother’s old room on a dingy futon. in the middle of the night i heard my grandmother's tv click on in the basement. I covered my head with the blanket trying to sleep and not imagine ghosts mulling about. i heard footsteps somewhere, even though i was alone.

in the morning, sitting on the sofa, still ripe with cigarette smoke lingering in the air as if she was sitting next to me, i watched the static on the television as i flipped through the menus on the remote control. 

an auto-on function.

my grandpa later told me that my grandma had a terrible time sleeping without sound. even though their bedroom was on the floor above, the distant hum of the television would lull her to sleep.

later in the day, my grandpa slipped out for a coffee. it was his ritual. sitting in the kitchen, i heard the footsteps again, and they were coming from the attic room. they were quiet, like a child’s and almost barely there. Going up the stairs, I stopped, and watched as two mice scurried under the old turntable stand. the one, sticking out his nose and sniffing the air while his chest rose and fell, silently.

i heard a crash in the other room, and the mice darted into a crack in the floor. slowly i crept into my grandmother’s sewing room. pins and needles scattered about, bobbins rolling about on the woodfloor. and then i saw a cat perched in the open attic window. i didn’t know my grandma owned a cat. and just as i began to think about it, he slunk out the window and across the roof of the second story, leaping onto the carport of the neighbor’s house. sitting atop the carport, his tail flicked the air and his eyes followed a robin that bounced through the lawn looking for worms. 

later in the day, i watched my grandpa stand at the fridge with the door open, hunched and looking confused. i didn’t ask him if anything was wrong, but he told me anyway with his mumbled german accent and the asthma wheezing in his chest.

"I never cooked a thing in my life. i was in the war, and there was food prepared for me. i came home and mother cooked every meal. I got married and Barb took care of me. i don’t even know what she put on my sandwiches."

giving up, he sat down with a non-alcoholic beer, stale smelling and sweaty with the late summer air. he stared out the window for an hour, not saying a word. somewhere in that hour, i got up from the table and stared into the fridge myself— stale bread, moldy cheese, curdled milk. i stood there longer than i should have, frost pouring out into the heat of the room, hoping a bit that something decent would materialize. i ordered takeout instead. 

sometimes our habits are there to keep us safe. other times to help us grieve.