by Mary Carroll Moore
Baba waited at the top of the subway stairs, her worn green suitcase clutched in both hands. She wore her best summer dress and the brown hat reserved for Mass. When I tried to grab the suitcase, she just shook her head, gripping it tightly, so I followed her into the subterranean rumble of heat and trains.
I was just fifteen that summer, but I knew how to get around Brooklyn and the boroughs, so I found the right platform. The El car was packed. We slid into seats next to a couple of honeymooners. As we sweated along, I amused myself by watching the man’s hands snake into his wife’s coat.
My shorts were too short—but everyone wore them that summer—and I could feel my grandmother’s disapproval every time she glanced over at my legs. But soon she’d get distracted by our mission and sigh heavily. We were almost at the bridge when my grandmother began plucking at my sleeve like she took feathers off a chicken. ‘Where we going, Martina?’ Her voice sounded querulous, no longer grateful at how well I’d organized everything.
‘Krupy’s final resting place,’ I said. ‘Where angels will take the beloved one to his heavenly reward.’
I’d copied down the funeral words at last Sunday’s Mass, saved in my diary for this moment even though they sounded stupid, even to me. But the image of angels would calm my grandmother. She believed in anything heavenly, offered novenas every morning for my wayward father and gave me saints cards when I visited. Now she nodded solemnly, took a deep shuddering breath and patted the suitcase at her feet.
My grandmother loved that suitcase almost as much as she loved Krupy, so the fact that she’d chosen it told me everything about her state of mind. It was real leather, trimmed with gold paint. Back in Poland, she’d won it in a school contest, been briefly the envy of every girl in her class. She kept its two keys on a string around her wrist, even when she cooked, and only brought the case out for special occasions, like her flight to America and a weekend at Niagara Falls.
Settled between her brown shoes on the dirty train floor, it exuded a faint odor from the dog’s dead body. The woman of the couple next to us kept frowning at it then nudging her husband.
We ignored them.
My grandmother had called Sunday night with bad news. My father was out with his friends, as usual, my mother was sleeping off her night shift at the hospital, so I answered the phone. Krupy had ‘gone over,’ my grandmother said, which meant the rat-faced dog had finally died. My grandfather fed it Polish beer when my grandmother wasn’t looking, and he and I would fall over ourselves, watching it stumble around. I tried hard to be friendly to Krupy when I visited. He just snarled whenever I got close. Last week, he threw up on my new running shoes.
But I loved my grandmother more than anyone in the world that year, when my own family was falling apart. So I pretended I was sad about Krupy.
‘Martina, what does one do in America?’ Her English was broken, but the quaver in her voice came clearly down the phone line. ‘With the dead beloved?’
Another line from the funeral Mass. I stared down at my running shoes which still smelled. ‘When did Krupy die, uh, go over?’
‘Three days. I keep him in bathroom.’ She sighed. ‘I make beautiful grave in beautiful garden. But your grandfather said no.’
I imagined my stout grandfather hacking into the slab concrete of their American patio. Then I thought of something better.
Funeral leave meant a day off from summer school; Billy Hobson had gotten it when his dog died.
’I’ll take care of everything,’ I told her.
‘Dushenka! You are God’s gift to my life.’
I doubted that. Especially when I saw tiny tears budding at the corner of my grandmother’s eyes. She bent her head to wipe them, her body braced against the train’s heave and rattle. I patted her arm.
Her voice was low as she placed her hand over mine. ‘One question, dushenka. How will we know it’s the angels?’
The mortuary’s windows were covered in shiny plastic shades that reflected the light. Baba stood guard by the suitcase, her feet planted on the gravel path. Rows of tiny white gravestones shimmered in the hot air. An angular man in a tuxedo glided around the building, escorting a sobbing woman and her tall son out to their Cadillac. His shoes whispered on the lush summer grass as he approached us next.
Billy’s Doberman had been run over by a limo near Battery Park. The family found this pet cemetery in Queens, an honest-to-God miniature graveyard. ‘Hundreds of dead pets,’ Billy had told me, grinning as all the other tenth-grade girls squealed. I hadn’t believed him, but here it was, the long rows of little white markers stretching to infinity.
‘My Krupy,’ began Baba. She stepped forward, holding out the worn green suitcase.
The man put up one hand. ‘Madam,’ he said. ‘We are a final resting place for pets.’
‘We have a pet.’ I gestured to the suitcase. ‘We need to get him to his final resting place soon.’
The man spoke to my Krupy-flavored sneakers. ‘Our plots are quite expensive.’
My grandmother looked at me. ‘Martina?’
‘How expensive?’ I asked.
The ride home was very long. My grandmother sobbed the whole way, ignored by the people who came and went. A couple of windows were open halfway down the car, and cooler air whistled past my hot face. I thought of the makeup I’d practiced with that morning, hoping to impress the mortuary man, and how it was probably in streaks by now. My hair, I knew, was limp, plastered to my face. I just hoped no one from school was on the train, especially Billy.
Soon the train was empty except for two teenage boys who nudged each other and kept winking at me. My face heated even more, and I twisted away to stare out the window, running my finger down the dirty glass, watching our wavering reflections in the lights that blinked on in the houses we thundered past. I imagined people eating dinner, people who belonged here, people who had normal families, who understood how it was in America.
Baba finally stopped crying. She sat with her head bowed, the suitcase at rest between her feet. Soon we would be home. Maybe I could put my grandmother to bed, find a dumpster, and make up a sweet lie tomorrow. I’d always solved her problems, ever since I was small.
The train approached the second long tunnel before the bridge. The teenage boys were still looking at me, laughing now.
We entered the tunnel, and the train’s lights flickered and went out. For long minutes there was only the hot, humid darkness, the screech of brakes against metal rails, and the dank wind in my face, smelling of underground heat. My mother likened it to passing through Hades, and although she said she didn’t believe in that anymore, I felt her shiver the first time we traveled through this darkness together. Even though I was used to it by now, I reached for my Baba’s hand to reassure her.
And even though we’d both failed, I felt reassured too, by the dry papery skin of her fingers, familiar in my own.
Then my grandmother yanked her hand away. I heard a shrill little cry. ‘Angeli, angeli,’ she began calling over the racket of the subway train. ‘Martina.’
‘Baba,’ I yelled back into the dark noise, ‘what, what?’
It took forever, this nightmare moment. I heard the screech of the train, felt the wind blowing past. Then I heard something I couldn’t make sense of. Baba was laughing. I could count on one hand the number of times she’d laughed in her life; mostly my grandmother was about sorrow, about loss, about everything she’d had to say goodbye to.
I leaned towards her in the dark, then the lights came on suddenly and I blinked in confusion. The seat across from us was empty now. The two teenage boys had disappeared.
I looked at the floor, at my grandmother. ‘Baba,’ I said, ‘where’s your suitcase?’
Mary Carroll Moore‘s queer YA novel, Qualities of Light, was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award. A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue, her new novel, will be released in 2023.