I still hear his voice. Not in my head, but in my chest. A whisper of smoke trapped in my lung’s left upper lobe, Granpa’s breath laced within it. I soon learned to amplify his voice: feed it more smoke until the heaviest parts fall out as words.
This life is something else. I lean back in the chair while gazing through the window, feet propped up against the ledge. Granpa always sat in this chair. The setting sun glimmers through as a faint dying glow that mimics the lit end of my cigar reflecting––faint, but still enough to smoulder my room to an incandescent warmth. I manage to make out the reflection of something else next to it. A pale outline of an old lady, staring in my direction. I could feel her shuffling around in the shadows behind me for the longer half of a minute.
“That smoking there going to kill you, you know boy.”
Grandma. An old hunchbacked Christian lady who has been fighting death for too long now. Clothes-pins diagonally down her gown like weapons of war. She enters and starts sorting the dirty clothes from the casualty pile on my bed. Her nose guides her as she tries to salvage those who avoided the stench of death.
“Something in this world have to,” I reply.
Her neck whips a stare at me again, as if startled by how well I’ve learned to imitate Granpa’s voice. Or, perhaps, a momentary break from a foul-smelling pair of drawers.
“Remember to take your medication. I did take up the Prozac and Seroquel out your old room and put it on the dresser.”
I grumble words that would unchristian her ears.
“I don’t need to take those things. I am alright.”
“Take them man. Hold on, just let me carry these clothes outside then I’ll come back with a cup of water for you.”
A sigh of smoke slowly propels me from my chair, launching me hesitantly towards the dresser. My eyes fall into the same trap they always have, stuck on a worn-out photograph with its aggressively ripped edge tucked into the crease of the mirror’s corner. A photograph of three people outside. My mother, barefoot in the grass. A thin wavy-haired woman smiling into the camera and then my little brother huddled in her arms–remnants of a dark muscular arm scythed around her shoulder from the ripped pieces of my memory. The third person, the one I always end up staring at the most, is clutching onto her knee and trying to reach my little brother’s toes–me. A curious, carefree, glistening-eyed toddler. Standing next to him is a large grotesque figure, slowly taking his medication from off the dresser. I hate this mirror. All it is is a reminder of how much I’ve changed. My years have grown on my face as black reaching curls of hair, like hands outstretched from a grave. These eyes have now pooled ink beneath them that could write letters of unsaid words to the dead. Better yet, sacks for storing rotting flesh. I’ve made habit of carrying the dead on my face. If I look in this mirror too long, I end up thinking more than two people in that picture died.
“Humans are very fragile” Granpa would tell me. I pop the cap and stare at the two pills that fall into my palm. “And old people are very humane.” I wish I could respond now. I try using my finger to gently tap the third one out, but it remains stuck against the rim. Granpa needs no images tucked away on the dresser, this entire room is his image. If I peer long enough through the smoke, the entire wooden frame of the dresser itself morphs into a casket’s exterior. Tonight, the image of his open casket is crisp, and I just want to place a cigar in his mouth one last time, light it like a candle’s wick, and watch it burn peace throughout his wax body. I want to hold his hand, be burnt with him.
“Water,” Grandma. My hands tremble as I reach for the glass.
Grandma watches me, then says, “I tell you boy, that smoking going to mash up your nerves.”
“It’s the stupid pill them that the doctor prescribed mashing up my nerves. Since I find Granpa stash of cigars in the barrel, I don’t need to take even one.”
I placed the two pills in my palm back into the bottle. I take a deep puff, cough, and drink.
“I don’t like how you look. You eat your dinner already?”
“No, I don’t feel hungry yet.”
“From yesterday ‘til now?”
She stares me down with concern in her eyes. A hand’s wrinkled backside sucks warmth from my forehead. She holds me around the wrist as if checking my pulse. An inclination from her nursing days.
“Why you take up this habit of smoking? It not good for you. The doctor did tell us it is what give your Grandpa cancer.”
I take a puff. Woman, leave me alone. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers she was the one who introduced him to it. Whenever a younger me would question the unusual look of cigars, Granpa was never shy to regale how he got them from her as a surprise on their honeymoon. She usually sat at his side and laughed, only interrupting to correct him on subtle details. Since then, he would never complete a fishing trip without buying at least three months’ worth from a store in Port Falmouth.
“I don’t want you to get cancer, my boy. You think you can try to stop smoking? And start taking your medication again?”
After noticing I want this conversation done, she continues staring at me for a while. Or, at least, I always assume she’s staring. I haven’t looked her in the eyes since Granpa, but I can always feel when her gaze is on me, and I hate it. She thinks I’m mad. Why should I be taking medication? Medicine is for the sick. The horrors I had to endure, and I am sick for feeling the way I feel? Dying and diagnosed? Granpa was the only one who made me think I was still a normal person. He would take me on fishing trips with him. Talk with me. Tell me stories. Whenever I felt as if nothing remained worth smiling about, he would explain to me life and its burdens. He would assure me that everything would work out, and I believed him. I would feel healed with every word. Now, with every pill, I only feel sicker.
“You should come church tomorrow. I going to make the pastor pray for you.”
“I don’t want to.”
I feel her eyes on me again.
“You don’t have to. But if you can come, then come. I really just want to make sure you alright.”
It is not frequently that she coerces me to go to church in this manner. Neither Granpa nor I got into the practice of begging, as he’d call it. Anything in this world that you want, you must grab yourself. You can’t grab anything with your hands clasped and pressed up under your chin. What extra blessing will the pastor have tomorrow that she would want me to go? Anything short of resurrection won’t help me.
“If nothing else, at least to keep me little company.” She says in a sad tone.
“You’ll be fine on your own.”
I put the cigar out and return to my seat.
What would Granpa say in such an event? Would he want me to go? The moon now gleams through the window. A curved streak that looks like God’s fingernail clipping. Dead and detached. Where are the other four? I wonder if God keeps them. I sink into my chair. Grandma, if you want me to come to church tomorrow, then fine. Just this once. Afterwards, I better not hear anything when a cigar is in my mouth. I better be able to smoke in peace.
I drift off into slumber not long thereafter.
The sunlight pierces my eyelids. A clock sits on the dresser, right next to my brother’s grade six trophies. Church will start in a few. Grandma left a bit earlier, but hopefully, I’ll be able to find her once I’m there. I look through the pile of clothes on my bed for my dress suit. The same one I wore to Granpa’s funeral. It’s the only one I have.
Close to the church’s gate, I see cars lined out in front. Now I understand. They probably have one of those “special healing” pastors that tour from church to church. Because that is what I need? Special healing?
I enter the church and I am caught off guard by the floor. I can never remember nor understand why, but it is completely covered with sand.
People fill the seats. Everyone dressed in black and suspicion. The numbers are so great that I try looking for a while but can’t spot Grandma anywhere. While looking, some of the congregation starts glaring at me. They mutter amongst themselves. Yes. It is me. The mad boy from down the street. Hypocrites. This is exactly why I didn’t want to come. A grab on my arm diverts my attention. One of the church members rubbing my hand and saying nonsense. I smack it off and look for an empty bench to sit on, but the church is too full. I go to the back and sit on the floor instead.
I trace my fingers in the sand. It reminds me of when I was too young to go on the boat with Granpa. He would leave me on the shore, and I would build sandcastles while waiting. Sometimes, when he was back early enough, he would sit with me and help me. Providing saltwater to sustain those crumbling walls. When it is time to go, I help him bring the fish to the trunk and watch while the waves swallow my afternoon’s work. Even if we build a new one tomorrow, it won’t be the same as that one. Even if we go to the same spot, not even the sand will be the same.
Sandcastles. How we indulge in an activity with the understanding that it will naturally fade away shortly after. How much of life is a sandcastle? I realise it depends how far the eyes can stretch. If it stretches to death, then all. If it stretches to “Christ”, then none. That is why for these old people in church, they have to believe that Christ conquered death. So they can fix their visions towards him. Fools. They are the true mad people. Has it ever worked for them? With each clap, I can see the dust shed from their skin. The tremor of their joints moves sand to the floor. What is this church but a graveyard? A cemetery of sandcastles.
Where in life can I find life?
I need some fresh air.
I need a smoke.
I go home.
Room. Barrel. Cigar. Light. Light? The lighter was moved from the spot on the dresser where I usually leave it. I go to the kitchen. No lighter. Grandma. She hid the lighter to try and stop me from smoking. I sweep my hand across the cupboard, clearing the canned food. No lighter. I shake the dishrack empty into the sink. No lighter. I knock the pots and blender to the floor. No lighter. Where. Where did she put it!?
I find it resting under a cup near the stove. I light, but before I could even take a breath, I hear a voice.
“Why did you leave church?” She walks up behind me. “Jesus, why you do the kitchen so?”
There is her gaze fixed on me again.
“Woman, leave me alone.”
“I just want to make sure you’re alright. You don’t have to sm–”
“Look here, no!” I grab her by the throat and reach for the knife out of the sink, the point aimed at her neck.
“Leave me alone! Just hurry up and dead and leave me–” The knife falls to the floor as I notice tears streaming down my face.
“Leave me. Leave me, make me dead.” I whimper, staggering backwards, sliding to the floor. I can’t stop myself from crying.
She wraps her arms around me.
“Woman, let me go. You don’t see something wrong with me, you don’t see I’m mad. Suppose me kill you a while ago?”
Through the tears, I see a faint smile.
“Something in this world have to,” she says.
I hug her real tight.
For the first time in months, I manage to look at her face.
I finally hold my head up and look her in the eyes. They aren’t there.
Demoy Lindo is a Jamaican author and poet who first came onto the scene after being shortlisted for the Poet Laureate of Jamaica/Helen Zell Young Writers Prize in 2020 at 19 years old. He was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Writer’s Prize in 2023 for “Road Trip And Fall”.