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Fellow v. Feller
I sat cross-legged on my grandmother’s grizzled grey carpet, picking at loose threads with a dirty fingernail, and listened intently as my grandmother read the A-Z Alphabet Read-Aloud Book. At seventy-eight, my grandmother could not sit on the floor with me; she rested her arthritic bones in an overstuffed armchair, occasionally leaning forward to show me the illustrations. The A-Z Alphabet Book itself suffered from a broken spine and several missing limbs. Bent and faded cartoon characters smiled sadly at me from the cover- a young girl playing xylophone, a bemused-looking owl, and a painter proudly sporting a beret. The book’s inner pages featured children’s rhymes and accompanying illustrations: “K is for KNITTING a sweater or socks, K is for KEYS to open up locks,” and other such nonsense. My favorite letter was O, which stood for “OSTRICH, a funny old fellow.” When my grandmother read the ostrich line, she pronounced “fellow” like “feller”; forty years in Washington had not removed this trace of Iowa from her voice. A funny old feller. I looked up from the carpet to examine the ostrich; he looked cartoonish and awkward, confused yet pleasant. My grandmother turned the page and continued reading, her voice raspy and weary with the weight of seventy-eight years.
We stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, which featured peeling yellow wallpaper and peeling yellow linoleum- the whole house had peeled and yellowed along with my grandmother. A bowl of stale Chex Mix and another of cashews sat in the middle of the chipped dining room table. Above the table hung a cheap replica of the Last Supper.
My father spoke as if every syllable pained him: “She’s dead, Molly. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand, not really. Avoiding my father’s stare, I scrutinized the painting hanging over the dinner table. I decided the painting depicted a woman serving dinner to several hungry men. It was a good painting, I decided, but not very interesting. Finally, I spoke.
“My heart is full of love for Charlie,” I declared. “I don’t have any room for anyone else.”
“Charlie was a dog,” my father yelled in staccato syllables, frustrated by my lack of sympathy, compassion, comprehension. “He wasn’t even your dog. Grandma was a human being.”
I thought he said “human bean.” I didn’t know the word “being.” I pictured my grandmother curled into the fetal position and enveloped in a translucent green sheath. I imagined my grandmother as a bean at the Last Supper, on the plate of the woman who turned out to be Jesus. I imagined as Jesus decided whether or not to eat the bean. “Is she a good bean?” he might ask. “Or is she rotten?”
I decided that my grandmother wasn’t rotten. She taught me the alphabet and let me eat her Chex Mix. She was a good human bean. I stared at the peeling yellow linoleum, and said nothing.
My father sighed and asked me if I wanted to keep anything from my grandmother’s house. All I could think of was the word “feller.” I ran to the closet and dug through piles of board games and Disney VHS tapes until I found the A-Z Alphabet Read-Aloud Book. My father looked bemused, but said nothing. When we returned home, he told my mother, “I don’t know why she wanted that book. She’s a goofy kid.”
I decided not to explain why I wanted the book, not to tell anyone about feller, or the ostrich, or the human bean. And I never apologized to my father for favoring a dog over his mother.
I read the book again yesterday, searching the pages for any trace of my grandmother. I hoped she had drawn in the margins, or at least written her name on the inside cover. I didn’t find anything except a funny old ostrich, but that was enough.