A sinkhole is threatening to swallow up 79th Street in Bay Ridge. Police, fire, city workers are on the scene. Supposedly, the sewers had something to do with it.“The beginning of the end,” laments a longstanding neighborhood resident on local TV. He is wearing a trucker hat and gold chain and undershirt. Behind him, elders in lawn chairs spit husks of sunflower seeds onto the pavement. News stations recycle the same clips, which is understandable. It is August and nothing much is doing. A humpback whale has been spotted along the shoreline of South Jersey.
Around the corner my grandmother is dying. At 92, this is neither shocking nor new but explains things. Like my mother, who drives two hours each way three times a week, twelve hours in the car, ostensibly to take care of her but really to escape her own life. My mother is a hurricane by day, diapering and cooking and pushing stews through a food mill until it is fit for a baby; crawling into my grandmother’s bed at night, drawing up her feet beside a cold beating heart. Toenails curled like talons. Death provides an easy answer.
I understand: My mother was born here, where her mother lives. This is her mother, yes, and she is dying, but there is something about the place, too; rotted wallpaper of green blue vines, tub slimy with limestone, windows sealed shut. Spare rooms, each one more vacant, filthier than the next, untouched for years. In this mess lies a comfort. Stand in a certain spot you can see the river. Boats move through.
I am my mother’s daughter.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Children have ideas. They spill out of their attached brick homes in bathing suits and snorkeling masks, smacking the ground in rubber flippers. Fishing rods flush with live bait. Surround the hole like it’s a cauldron chanting: “Fill it! Fill it! Fill it!”
There was a time when I called my grandmother's apartment home, too. Fresh out of college with a shiny job that barely paid, I rode the express bus from Shore Road to Madison Avenue. On my lunch break I picked out navy blazers from discount department stores. This is what’s called "living the dream."
“Welcome to the Titanic,” another neighbor tells a reporter. His arms open grandly. Her blouse is a melted sherbet. It must be almost 100 out. A livery car has caught a tire on the pit’s rim, dangles from asphalt, silver hood already buried in the hollow.
When we were roommates, my grandmother kept tonic water and diet yogurt. That was it. From every cabinet poured empty vodka bottles, the kind stocked on airplanes, small enough to fit in a dollhouse. Old coats and fur hats hung in the closets, evening gloves missing their lining, and in the study, a carousel of carved pipes belonging to my grandfather, her great love, who did not smoke, who died when I was nine. On Fridays we drank Asti Spumanti then went to The Bridgeview diner. Everything brought cause for celebration. To her, the whole world tasted like the inside of a tulip.
I have been a disappointment, but today, I’m here, so we sit and watch television in the dark, which is how my grandmother likes it. She is blind now, among other things. I narrate. The mouth of the abyss stretches 20 x 20, a monster mid-scream. Bystanders swarm, flag down boys and girls circling the gap with bikes and scooters. Arms waving, a clash of house coats and hijabs and saris, their message is clear in every language: Do not fall in.
What are they saying, my grandmother wants to know, only it’s a whisper. Her voice is gone too but a song fills my head. Sinkhole, sinkhole, roly-poly sinkhole. Sinkhole, sinkhole, eat them up. Yum.
Sometimes I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s all I can do to stop crying. My children play with foam blocks on the floor. Build, knock down, rebuild. When we leave their hands and feet will be covered black.
Not the first time Bay Ridge is underwater, I report. Nana. She nods, her irises cloudy as mood rings. The hospice attendant tapes her lid up for visitors, so she looks like something from Dickens or an Altman flick, wide-eyed and unblinking, but it’s only a scythe of light that has muscled its way in.
Sixty –five years ago. Before all the business with the Verrazano Bridge, I shout in her direction. She lies on the couch, makeshift bed , stiff as a corpse. They call this posture Parkinsonian, although that’s the least of it. Yes yes yes. A whisper. Your mother, she starts, her legs twitch but nothing’s kindling. I’ve heard the memories before.
When I was 22 she never asked where I’d been, only if I enjoyed myself. That was priority for a girl my age. Happy hours spent wretched in bars named after Donleavy novels. Shirts upon oxford shirts.
Lately, my daughter is obsessed with mortality. Who can blame her? It is everywhere in the landscape: plants, puppies, spiders along the baseboards. "Will you still love me after you’re died?" she asks, at four years. My grandmother is choking on air. Socks slouch from her feet like a Dr. Seuss illustration.
"She was once an elegant woman," I say, suddenly defensive, as Margot – named for my other grandmother, also deceased - shirks from her in horror. A hair model, an actress, she worked for the Red Cross, then as a drama teacher, speech therapist, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. A Brooklyn college graduate, a beauty contest runner-up.
Here is a photograph: 16 in Seagate, banner slung across her chest in black and white.
What does it mean to runner-up?
"Almost," I say, "To be never quite."
Take an episode from ER or its prime-time equivalent -sirens and loved ones and last breaths, a final plea of the dying – don’t leave me – followed by tears and promises. That’s how it’s been for the last two and a half years. No one would choose it, but the manner in which she’s clung to death’s precipice, excruciating in its detail, drawn out in its demands, cruel in its absolute deprivation of dignity, a grotesque play-by-play of basic function failings, her body rotated on the hour, her hair the color of a street bird, may be her best role yet.
Perhaps that is cruel, but resentment runs deep. Forget about marriage – my father hasn’t a shot in hell at making good – and look at my mother, her marrow spooned and sucked clean. Is that any way to live?
That year I was young. Some nights I’d return from the city so parched I’d polish off whatever was cold and fizzy in her fridge, spit bitter quinine at water bugs crossing the linoleum floor. My grandmother claimed it was preventative. Of what, I was never sure.
On TV a couple, with matching full-sleeve tattoos, walks by the ditch. His arm around her waist, her arm through his, her head nuzzled into that spot in the neck, which always felt like a tricky, delicate thing, to walk hooked to another body like that, but they’ve got it, these two, her curtain of hair sways and he drops his nose in it, breathing her up and beaming wide as the sky because he knows how lucky he is.
My kids perk up. Jaws hanging open as they witness the tapes and wonder what lies beneath the surface. True, the hole looks apocalyptic. For reassurance, my son recites the layers of earth: crust, mantle, core.
Darling, is that it? My grandmother does not say but motions, clenched fingers a waxy mold of a hand, meaning the necklace. There is a necklace she gave me or I found or stole once when I went poking through her things, which she let me keep. My grandfather brought it from North Africa after the war, coins linked in rows. They had a whirlwind overseas affair and the gift was flashy, dramatic, and not the least bit real. My neck is bare. It would be awful to wear in this heat.
Still, the vestiges of vanity among ruin astound. Tubes of lipstick, thickened over half a century and hardly worn, with which she has never parted. That fall we watched Seinfeld like everyone else, an episode in which a woman appeared ghastly in some rooms, and becoming in others, where she turned to me, my grandmother, her hand a little fox claw in mine, flat and sexless and said, "As a matter of fact. We are the same, you and me. Let that be a lesson – always seek out the best light."
The construction crews roll in. Mothers squirrel their children, lock their dogs inside. Soon, the cement trunks will start churning, but you already can see the disappointment on children’s faces from behind homemade cloth curtains. They were hoping for a pool, a koi pond, something deep enough to swim in.
My kids shut off the TV.
When we leave I make a big show of kissing my grandmother, first one side than the next, cheeks caving in, as if to prove to them: Silly, rabbits. Death is not something you catch.
Sara Lippmann has written for national magazines, taught college English, and currently co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a monthly reading series in the East Village. A recipient of a 2012 fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, her stories have been published in Slice, PANK, Joyland, The Brooklyner, Jewish Fiction, Our Stories, Big Muddy, Connotation Press and others, placed on Wigleaf's list of Top 50 [very] short fictions, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and reprinted in a handful of anthologies. Her most recent essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Stymie, and Used Furniture Review. She mentors for Girls Write Now, and lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn.