Tribal Luminescence

By Gillian Ramos

My grandfather is dying in a crowded room, surrounded by sons and daughters, doctors and nurses, a man in the next bed with a bone-cracking cough. I am in the hall having a staring contest with the vending machine. Fifty-two cents in my pocket and a pack of restless little cousins behind me. They point to candy bars too small to share and bags of mixed nuts I can’t afford. They fight over cheese curls or pretzels. Potato chips or corn. Whether or not Peter can eat Swedish Fish with his new braces. I buy A5, a roll of wintergreen mints, and hope they will keep everyone quiet even if we don’t like the flavor. Nobody ever wants A5 but all I have left are these two pennies and all the little cousins have are pockets full of lint. And none of it matters because my grandfather – our grandfather – is dying in a room that cannot hold us.

I scrape my thumbnail around the roll, feeling for a tab. Pull here. I tear into the paper, then the foil. The mints cling to each other. I whack the roll against my palm. They separate. I dole them out to the little cousins who suck, slurp, crunch.

I am the eldest grandchild. The only daughter of the only daughter. The first one to scream and cry and walk and have a birthday party that someone tapes. A birthday party with a ruffly dress that I ruin and a rose-covered cake that I mash with both hands. My grandfather watches the tape on all of my birthdays. He laughs when I clap my frosted hands on the sides of his face. We blow out my candle together. He calls me to tell me about it and to sing The Four Seasons to me. I hear it in my head for the rest of the day because I am his candy girl.

My grandfather marks time with sweetness. He knows all our birthdays by what kind of cake we like. Remembers that Thanksgiving my mother made pecan squares instead of a pie. Sends away for boxes of chewy spice cookies every Christmas because they are the same kind his mother bought. Our mailboxes stay fragrant for days after the packages arrive.

Polka_Lovers_Klub_of_AmericaEvery dessert, every snack, every candy is his favorite because they are all he can taste. Sweetness is the only thing that zings across his tongue, though actual flavors are a distant memory. He keeps a bowl of drugstore jelly beans – the big grainy ones that all taste the same – by his favorite chair. He examines each one before eating. Mmm, pink!

My grandmother said it was because of the war. I studied my grandfather for old injuries – a limp, a twinge. During one overnight visit, I crept into my grandparents’ room with a flashlight and combed through his hair in search of a scar. Before my fingers found anything other than cool smooth scalp, my grandmother awoke, pulled me into the kitchen, and warmed up two mugs of milk. She told me that there are many ways that people can get hurt. Ways we can’t always see.

We did see it, in time. After my grandmother died. After we defrosted and devoured the last of the neighborhood ladies’ casseroles. No one sat with him night after night, urging him to eat. My mother and father and her brothers and their wives brought him bags of groceries, promised to check on him. He gladly ate the fruit and drank the juice and milk, but left the vegetables and meat to spoil. Money down the drain, they thought. That’s what this is. They drove him to the doctor, nodded sternly when she told them about my grandfather’s blood. Too much sugar, not enough of anything else. They compromised, bought him crates of ice cream flavored nutrient drinks. The bottles boasted MORE PROTEIN! MORE VITAMINS!

Better than nothing, everyone agreed.

Better than nothing, but still not enough.

My grandfather lies in bed fragile and furious. He is not allowed to have jelly beans. He refuses to even look at his meals. The doctors and nurses bring him bottles of the same drinks he had at home. They crack the seals and pour the thick liquid into plastic cups with straws attached to the inside. He lets the cups sit all day, the drink becoming less appealing as it comes to room temperature.

I dared Peter to sneak a sip the last time we visited the hospital. The bottle on the bedside table was called Very Vanilla.

How does it taste?

Gluey.

Now we are sitting along the hall next to the vending machine. We have eaten half the roll of mints. My tongue is bored and numb. I wonder if this is how my grandfather feels all the time. I wonder if I have eaten enough mints to have fresh breath forever.

Peter taps me on the shoulder and points to a small dark room next to the one stuffed with our family. He wants to show me something he learned on a Scout camping trip. He tells me to swallow all my spit and lick my sleeve until my tongue is dry. Peter is the weird one. But I quit Scouts before we ever went camping, so I have to know what he knows.

The room is more of a closet with lockers on one wall, a deep sink on another, some buckets on the floor. We flip two and sit face to face.

He pops a mint. Chews fast, barely closing his mouth between bites. His braces glow.

Now you try. Don’t suck, just chew it hard. On the count of three.

I take a mint and Peter takes another. We can hear voices through the shared wall. Hazy outlines of words. Soft laughter. Sniffling. The man coughing in the next bed. We count to three. Crunch the mints. Ask each other Remember that time… with blue sparks in our teeth.

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Gillian Ramos lives and writes in Rhode Island. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has most recently appeared in Gravel and Wyvern Lit. When she is not writing, she can be found knitting, reading, or tweeting (often about knitting and reading) @gggilliannn.

Art by Lucas Cullen, Polka Lovers Klub of America
Lucas is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer who has been losing well for more than 20 years. He has a B.S. in Film, Video, & Theatre, and a minor in English Language & Literature from Stevenson University. Presently, he is the editor of Women and Meds — a feature-length documentary about women who want to have children but take medication for mental illness. His artistic influences include Emily Dickinson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Chris Gethard, David Lynch, and Francesca Woodman.