She had a peculiar way of stopping time.
If you interrupted her in the midst of whatever autobiography or crime novel held her attention, Grandma Spider would silently extend the index finger of her free hand and point at the ceiling, as if to indicate one more moment, just one more. The gesture was never rushed – in fact, it seemed to us the slowest and most meaningful motion in existence. Those of us assembled – Emily, Tuck, and even Cath, who typically lacked the patience to chew her food – would freeze in place and fall silent in the stale air of her living room. Fresh from a swim, water would drip from our knobby elbows and the seams of our shorts while her eyes slid across the page for as long as she needed – a paragraph, a page, an entire chapter – as long as it took. We held our breath against the weight of the gesture, waiting for the finger to fall and the book to return to its tented position on the arm of her chair. It was in those moments that the entirety of Spider’s life unfolded before me. Infant, toddler, debutant, woman, mother, and matriarch overlapped one another and flickered past – a zoetrope existence that burned eternally until her finger fell and time resumed.
Tuck was the first to ask. Seven years old, he lacked the sense of shame the rest of us had grown over the previous three summers. Over the same stretch, Emily and Cath had grown breasts and, at some point, their sweat had ceased to disgust me. Their hair – golden and light as dandelion since I’d known them – had developed weight and hung down to the middle of their backs. My own hair had darkened several shades and took on the texture of a wire brush. The soft weight of youth still clung to me, and I hadn’t taken my shirt off in front of the girls all summer. Spider still called us all her babies, but it was Tuck who wore the crown with the least resistance.
“Grandma Spider?” he asked after she had parked her book.
“Are you going to die soon?”
Emily attempted shock. Cath slapped him across the top of his head with a sloping hand. I hadn’t entirely unfrozen from Spider’s spell, or I might have added to the abuse. Still, there was part of me that wanted to know for certain, too. In many ways, she had been dying since we met her, wasting away with patience unknown to the prepubescent. But in the qualities that mattered, she was the same woman who had paid us five dollars apiece to collect the dead fruit from her yard and pile it neatly in the back, near the shed. Her hearing was sharp, and her eyes hadn’t failed. Her mind – which we coveted over everything – had yet to forget those corners of imagination most prized by the young. The slightest provocation sent her waist-deep into stories of pirates and treasure or recollections from her time in the California camps, which seemed fun until she told us how often her mother had cried. This made us cry too, but only Emily knew why. She was the oldest of us and the only one who knew what “internment” meant.
Her legs were the thing we noticed most after that first summer. They hadn’t ever been strong – at least to our knowledge – but over time they shrank entirely from relevance. The pale thickness of her calves fell back, leaving only the royal purple roadmap of her veins. Initially, she had pantomimed with a cane, pretending (perhaps for our benefit) that she wouldn’t be bound to the house. She followed slowly on three legs as we sprinted down the shoulder of the road and into the woods where the water waited. In her purse, she carried wine corks and nightcrawlers and the three or four hooks she’d kept in her jewelry dish since Christmas. Sometimes, we were already dry again when she reached the river’s edge.
By the time she taught us poker, she was in the chair permanently and a long, translucent snake trailed from her nostrils to a hulking machine in the corner of her bedroom that hummed around the clock. We were careful not to trip over her hose, but try as we might, we were constantly yanking her head straight back when we trotted to her refrigerator for juice and English muffin halves. She grimaced every time and the beginnings of tears collected in the corner of her eyes. A bruise had formed across her collarbone from the strap of the portable bottle she wore when she went to the store.
In between hands of Stud, she taught us to shuffle quickly and forcefully down, before arching our fingers and sending the cards fluttering back into our palms. Tuck, whose hands were too small to span the deck, used his pinkies. At this, Spider laughed until she choked.
Emily had been the first to notice. It was a week after she’d kissed me on the mouth, sealing my childhood under a film of memory. Her lips were chapped and peeling, far from the luxuriant red plush I had imagined. They felt rough against me and I fought the urge to bite at the loose pieces of skin that hung from them. It felt wildly serious – not mature exactly, but like something at which we would never dare to laugh. She took me by the wrist and laid my hand in the small of her back. I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes. Seven days later, she told me Grandma Spider was going to die. She whispered it in my ear, her breath warm and wet with the urgency of her secret. Even though I wanted to cry, I stiffened in my pants.
Grandma Spider chewed over Tuck’s question and my eyes drifted to her hands, waiting for her to put a stop to things once again. Tuck rubbed at the back of his head and cursed the sting Cath had left there. Emily and I looked at one another nervously, and I felt the importance of what would come next.