All the Loving

Vasantha Sambamurti

Gregory

Nana was having her one-hundredth. She wanted a cake with butterscotch and lots of cream. So, we set the table with floral cloth and made the cake with no eggs. Nana had pet chickens growing up; it disturbed her, eating the unborn young. She had a taste for steak though. We were sure to make that too.

I’d been working at it since the early morning: leaving the meat out to defrost, spooning sugar and baking soda from their plastic tubs. I passed Mama the whisk to stir the cake mix and she kissed me on the side of the head, leaving a white print of flour.

Nana knew what we were doing but she wanted to be surprised. There’s no better way to die than of shock at your hundredth birthday party. There was something cinematic about it, she said. She loved the movies.

The table was a circle that brought everyone together. There was no one you couldn’t look at. My big brother Marc and his pret-

ty wife Pia, standing with her arms folded. He had a finger in the belt loop of her pants, as if making sure she stayed attached. Aunt Hannah was talking on the phone with her long grape-colored nails. She worked in sales. She was the type of woman who wore shades inside. Her sons ran everywhere, through and around her.

Mama brought the cake in on wheels, hair in her face. She caught my eye and smiled. We took opposite sides and set it in the center of the circle, right in front of Nana. It was the sweet core of a séance. She was delighted. She bobbed her head from side to side, her hair bounced, and I thought of how I had done it for her earlier–her hair. “Gregory,” she had said, “braid my hair real nice like you used to do for Anne. There’s a queen by that name and I want to be that.” She nodded once, as if saying yes, there was a queen and that queen was she. I obliged and drew her hair into a wreath. It was the thick white of stallion’s tail, and very, very long–Nana never cut it. Old superstition. As she grew frailer her hair grew thicker, leaching whatever strength she had left.

Nana loved me because I wasn’t quite like a boy was supposed to be. I was gentle in ways that brought out the mean in others. I collected pretty pins for her hair. And while I waited for her to examine herself in the mirror, I sat in a chair with my legs crossed, not speaking. I was a funny boy. Barely thirteen.

Nana took in the cake, her eyes growing wide as her face allowed. She had the powerful skin of a pale snake, always ready to eat.

“Butterscotch,” she said smoothly. She pinched out a rough palmful and brought it to her mouth.

“Ma!” Mama yelled. She was tired.

“The birthday girl gets a treat,” Nana said slyly and bit in. She winced as if met with resistance, then her mouth grew round like a bowl. She bared her gums. You could see her wet tongue and, in the center of it, a single cream-covered tooth.

We all stared. Mama made a devastating sound. Nana probed her mouth with her spindly tongue, perplexed.

Then she started screaming.

Pia

Nana cried over her bloodless tooth screaming, “Son of a gun.” She cried and cried and all I could think was how many times I’d tried to love her.

When we first met, she introduced herself as Ms. Myers, in the tight voice of a teacher who insists on pronouncing your name wrong. I knew it then. She didn’t like me and never would. When I ran out of small talk, I offered her my hand. A part of me hoped her touch would be warm. But when she squeezed my palm I felt a paralyzing cold. Something beyond death.

Marc and I got married last summer. My friends wondered why I loved him and, in truth, it was because he was dumb. He never understood anything I said enough to question it. He just wanted to be loved.

Our families sat separate at the ceremony. I said the word and promised myself to him. Nana scowled for all the pictures. I remember her in the room while I was getting ready. Marc’s mother, Margaret, was sweet, helping me. Nana looked my dress up and down. “Doesn’t look right,” she muttered. Of course, it didn’t. It was her family heirloom. It wasn’t made for me.

My mom’s dress was the red of a fresh period. The red of my first, days after she caught me playing in her closet, the sequins of her wedding gagra choli under my bitten fingernails. I was nine, an early bloomer. Yet, somehow, I never really flowered.

When I first told my mother about the proposal she shook her head.

“White man, white dress.” She shook her head again. “I was going to give you my jewelry. Now it will look odd.”

Still, we went on. Weeks before the wedding, the aunties did my henna. One hand came out dark, the other barely stained. One read fruitful, the other of ill fate. My mother’s face blanched. It seemed to be a sign that this time was all I had: to settle, get hitched, get wed.

So, she unearthed the dress from a locked box and gave it to me. She gave me every piece of her wedding jewelry except her ring. She gave me saris I only ended up wearing in family Christmas card photos. I thought it would make her feel better. I was able to be one of the Myers while retaining one shining piece of her.

Nana was the first to hold the pictures and point at my face. “You don’t photograph well,” she said. “Little shadow-woman.”

Bert, Marc’s dad, my dad-in-law, eased it out of her hand. “Let me see.” He flipped it over, made a show of squinting, tilted his head. “Well,” he said, very deliberately. “I think she looks great. A perfect ten.” Bert looked to me, smiling. “Miss India.” He winked.

Miss India. Little shadow-woman. Little old me. I flitted around prepping the table for Nana’s centennial, spreading the cloth, piling sugar cookies on a tray. I couldn’t bring myself to make another sad casserole for the potluck. So, I packed dal and squash in Tupperware and placed it on the side of a table, away like a shy child who doesn’t know how to make friends. Nana accidentally snagged it when reaching for the gravy boat. She sank a spoon into the center. I thought, with some satisfaction, that it looked delicious in the light. When she hauled a serving into her mouth and chewed for a long time, she made a face that, initially, read as pleasant surprise. Then she puckered her mouth and spat it out. “Garbage,” she said.

Maybe it was undercooked, I thought. Everyone laughed. Oh, Nana. Picky Nana. Sweet Nana.

“Don’t take it personally. She likes to grind gears,” Hannah said, laughing.

Marc squeezed my hip. “Sugar,” he said. I shifted out of his grasp.

Bert caught my eye, then, and winked again.

I had failed her. I knew this. We restarted the whole thing and I told Gregory we were going to make it the best we could. Nothing but the best for my Mama. She had a right to all my blood and sweat because she had a right to my love.

Gregory, the sweet youngest brother with the curly lashes, was by Nana’s side, completely aghast, as if he had murder on his hands. He never liked seeing anyone upset. Out of everyone, I liked him best.

Marc disappeared from my side to grab paper towels. He wet and wadded one up and took it to Nana’s frowning mouth. He barely brushed her lip before she bit his finger. Hard. He yelped.

Maybe something was wrong with me. Maybe I was cruel. But, I couldn’t help it.

I laughed. Marc’s neck vein bulged and he stared at me. Hannah stared. Bert stared too. Bert was always staring, it seemed. Margaret didn’t know where to direct her gaze, but it wasn’t at me and for that I was glad.

I couldn’t look at Gregory because I didn’t like seeing him upset. But I couldn’t stop laughing. My belly tightened. Water pricked my eyes. I wanted to hold something but wasn’t sure what. I thought about falling. I thought about folding myself on the ground. I thought about rocking myself back and forth.

I thought about my lukewarm Tupperware, how sad it was. So sad.

Still, I laughed.

Margaret

I should’ve known something was wrong when Mama broke the eggs.

We were cracking them in the glass bowl when she came through the kitchen for her morning porridge. She grew livid, screaming get those out of my sight. She shoved the carton hard and it all fell, splitting open like little sunbursts.

I had failed her. I knew this. We restarted the whole thing and I told Gregory we were going to make it the best we could. Nothing but the best for my Mama. She had a right to all my blood and sweat because she had a right to my love.

“Don’t forget I made you the way you are,” she told me once when I was being spiteful. “You think you’re going somewhere, but you’ll always come back. You hear me?” Her eyes flashed. “You’ll be begging to be back.”

I never believed her all those years she reared us, the years she kept the house under her lonesome thumb. But, so it was.

While everyone fussed about Mama, I called the dentist. I knew they were closed on Sunday but I called anyway. Once when Marc was a boy, he chipped his tooth and I just let it sit. I didn’t even call for him.

The tin woman on the phone announced office hours. It was no use. I watched Bert move around the table with Mama’s presents. He reached for the wine bottle and poured a drink, then handed it to the woman he brought. He said they were colleagues. I watched him graze her waist with his finger. Next May would be our thirtieth anniversary.

At first, I loved all he could be for me. But then I lived with him.

Bert told me that he felt the pregnancy more deeply than I did. He was tired all the time, carrying my sweaters, my pills, my food. At some point it became too much for him to carry me into bed and out of it. I started sleeping on my own.

“Damn, you got me good!” Marc cried. I watched him nurse the finger Mama had bit.

She sat there staring at nothing. Spittle framed her frowning mouth. I knew her hurt went beyond the root of the tooth. She never broke a bone. She broke others. She was the vengeful god we worshipped.

I put the phone down and Hannah nudged my shoulder with her own. I turned and she slipped a cream-colored circle into my hand: my ring.

Beneath the cake, you could see the yellow band clearly tarnished with age. The small diamond-cut cubic zirconia gleamed like a dirty mirror.

I’d grown up seeing it so I wasn’t surprised, years ago, when it flashed before Bert’s bent knee. Marrying me was the only hard decision he’d ever made. Lucky him.

“Here’s the culprit.” She said, grinning. “An heirloom, huh?” I tried to smile. With a brisk hand, she pushed the flyaway hairs from my face. “Don’t forget it,” she said. I forgot nothing. I’d never even noticed it was missing.

I wondered what Ma tasted when she bit it. The cake or the metal. Earlier, she had eaten so much. My potatoes and gravy, her red steak. Pia’s food didn’t agree with her. She spat it out. So, I felt bad and took a few spoonfuls, mixing it with the potatoes. Pia had given me a soft smile.

Before the wedding, Mama hadn’t wanted me to give Pia the ring. It was for the women in our family and our family, only. I had told her Pia was family and she told me to shush. I rolled it between my fingers now and wondered why it meant so much. Why she had given it to Bert to give to me without even asking me, all those years ago.

Gregory, my sweet boy. He scrabbled in the cabinets and pulled out a roll of sandwich bags. “Here,” he said, and opened one up to Marc like a purse. “The tooth,” he said again. Marc blinked and dropped it in, uncertain. Greg sealed it shut. Then he pulled a marker from his pocket and wrote in big black letters across the top: NANA.

My boys were sweet. I brought the ring to my eye and framed them in the silver circle. Like one of those pictures in a locket, they shone. I moved the lens to my mother and caught her shrewd dark eyes. She looked at me and I wondered what she was seeing, through all the ache and loving.

Nana

Star, Chickadee, and Little Blue. I considered them my babies because they were a shade younger than me–not quite newly born, with toughening scruff. They were born in a white cardboard box packed specially for me, the biggest baby on the farm. I was seven, a little peaked from the heat in Indianola. We had a farm in the country, a plot of brush and scrub. We had seeds for produce, cows for milk, and chickens for eggs. They were funny little things. When the new ones hatched they seemed to crack the shell more out of curiosity than a need to escape. And when they got out they walked like they knew where they were going. Sure-footed twig feet.

This morning, everyone was up like just-born chicks. I could feel them flitting around in the spring of the bed, hear the hush of their feet when they passed my door. We gotta be quiet for Nana, don’t want to wake her up. I knew full well what they were doing. And it was cute because they knew I knew full well what they were doing. The seventeenth of February is a holiday in this house. And as long as I breathed, so it would be.

I didn’t think of myself as having seen a century–more that a century had seen me. Time had tempered my yellow hair and added skin around my eyes. Time had seen me empty my mother’s bedpan and use a city toilet for the first time. Time had given me Robert Redford. And the alchemy of time had turned my bones to lead.

Memory escapes me, but not my first babies. This morning when Gregory came to my door with a hairbrush, I remembered their first bath. We had set out a little tub of water, and set our hands nearby in case they needed help. Chickadee took the water faster than anyone, leaning her face into the bowl and splashing it around as if she was trying to ruin her reflection. She had a missing patch of fur and I always wondered if she knew she wasn’t beautiful. Star sat smack in the middle, rotating around the dish in a manner true to her name. Little Blue became stiff as the moment she was born. She dug her feet into the rim of the dish, peering down grimly. I wondered if it reminded her too much of the egg, the lack of air that made her hatch blue. Either way, it didn’t matter because she was gone now.

I asked Gregory to brush my hair because he is gentle, just like a girl. He knew which knots were safe to pry apart with your fingers, which ones wouldn’t come undone at the touch. All my life, I have never gotten a haircut. He knew this, which was why he was extra careful with the hair at the ends. “The same hair nipped by the calf, right Nana?” Yes, boy, I’d say. The same hair that tickled the nose of Tootsie, the baby of our only horse. The same hair that hid Chickadee, when we were playing a game of hide and go seek.

I loved getting my hair done. Maybe I am not the greatest beauty, but I knew what it felt like to be a queen. I’ve seen the movies. I looked like one now.

Gregory put my hair in German braids like he used to do for the gone child, Anne. I wore a straight white dress that, a century ago, would’ve been considered a shift. The table was ready. All anyone was waiting for was me.

Steak knives, porcelain plates, electric candles. The hibiscus print cloth. The circular table. Margaret was still in the kitchen, doing what needed to be done. She was always my favorite daughter. The other one sat across from me with her legs crossed, wearing a dress you can’t get things done in. She took a business call, selling something real important, her fingers tight around the mobile phone. There was an awful, rotten color on her nails. And she was wearing her sunglasses inside like she didn’t want anyone to know what color her eyes are. Sometimes, even I forget.

I had not raised Hannah in any particular way, but somehow, she had turned out like my father. Square chin and bad temper. Bitter like a walnut.

Her kids are something else too. Not sweet but not unlovable either.

I am nothing if not honest: Hannah is a sour daughter, aura and all. But not so unseemly as the sight of my grandson’s thumb in the pants of his dark wife. Marc is Margaret’s eldest so he is my eldest. I always had the most hope for him–to find work, to find a girl. He did both to his ruin. A handsome boyblue eyes and all. But for work he puts things together that are broken anyway; drywall, houses. And for a woman he’s got a foreigner.

Black, brown, green–I’ve seen them all. I’ve lived a long time. The farm had many colors. But not all people are like us. We keep to our own and they keep to their own. That’s when things work best.

All the same, I opened my heart to her. I held her when we met. She reminded me of a flower. I was the first to speak when Marc brought her home, wanting to know everything. “Where is your home?” I had asked, widening my eyes and all that. I wanted her to know that she could trust me. But the poor girl looked at me and said, “Orlando.” She didn’t have the guts to be honest.

Later when the engagement was announced, she was all the rage. Margaret loved her. Hannah got her an expensive porcelain dish. Her family came in beautiful dresses of red silk. I made sure Marc saw that I gave her a hug. “You’re a lovely girl,” I had said. “And your folks too. Quiet, intelligent people.”

That night we took pictures. She never showed up in the photographs. She was easily missed.

I have a sense for things. So I predicted my feast before it came, a crown cake on wheels. Margaret brought it in. Beautiful.

Smooth and ornate as silver, fatter than it was tall, topped with concentric rings of butterscotch. It had the look of a song. I had the urge to dance.

“Butterscotch,” I said. My favorite flavor. I stuck a finger into the side of the cake and rolled an easy dollop into my mouth.

“Ma!” Margaret was livid. She doesn’t know how to let an old woman have fun. I laughed at her. “The birthday girl gets a treat.”

I think of how, earlier that morning, Margaret had fetched a carton of eggs from the store for the cake and I had broken them in a rage. I did not expect to be betrayed by a child of mine, one who knew the names of the ones that came before her. Star, Chickadee, Little Blue. When the shells cracked they had let the albumen and the yolk run free. They mixed and made a pool. In it, I saw my face. I saw my face as Blue must have seen hers. I saw the shape of the housecat, as it was reflected then, in the cabinet glass, pounce on my little ones, swallowing them. For days, he spat up the fur of would-be feathers. They were hardly three weeks.

But this, right now, was a joyous time. I didn’t want to think about that. I chewed up my little morsel of cake. My tooth hit something hard and I thought of the last thing Papa said to the horse before we put her down: “Big girls don’t bite.”

Vasantha Sambamurti is a poet, translator, and prose writer pursuing an MFA at the University of Arkansas’ Program in Creative Writing and Translation. She is a senior editor for Transition Magazine. Their work appears or is forthcoming in Portland Review, Toho Journal, Cream City Review, the minnesota review & elsewhere.