My grandmother had a stroke on her seventieth birthday. We came to her door smartly dressed, with a cake, a bottle of Soviet champagne, a knitted shawl, which my mother had bought because she couldnt knit, and the birthday card, which I had decorated with stickers because I couldnt draw. My uncle was to join us later. We rang the doorbell, then we knocked, then my mother pulled the keys from her purse and told me to stay on the staircase. In a few seconds, I heard her scream. She ran out of the apartment, grabbed me by the sleeve, and dragged me to the next-door apartment. A short, chubby woman opened the door and took me in after my mother whispered something into her ear. Inside, a fat man in a white tank shirt was eating his dinner in front of the blaring TV. "Are you hungry, my little chick?" the woman asked me. I shook my head and went back to the front door, where I flattened my face against the cold wood of the doors surface and watched through the peephole what was happening on the staircase. Nothing happened for a long time. Then I saw my uncle and people in white gowns running up the stairs. My mother was crying and shaking when she opened the door for them. In a few moments I saw my grandmother strapped to the stretcher. My mother ran down the stairs after the stretcher, trying to throw the knitted shawl over my grandmothers legs. That means she is alive, I thought, wiping the tears away from my eyes so I would be able to see. There is no need to cover the legs of a dead person.
"Shell be home soon. It was just a mild stroke," my mother told me later. "Shell just have to live with us now. She really is fine."
The chilling preparations for my grandmothers arrival made me doubt my mothers words. A big bed was installed in the living room. A waterproof sheet was carefully tucked over the new mattress and covered with a regular sheet. Then my uncle came with a special chair he had made in his garage. You could remove the chairs seat, place a potty under, and there, you had a toilet. He raved about his creation. "Eh? What do you say? After shes done, you can put the seat back and use it as a table for her meals."
"A table?" my mother gasped. "A table! On the same chair, where she . . ."
"So what? The seat is removable, right? Anyway, I talked to Mother and she didnt mind."
I wondered what had happened to my squeamish grandmother. If she didnt mind taking her meals on the toilet, she couldnt possibly be fine.
She looked fine, though. She looked the same, I decided when I came home from school on the day of her discharge from the hospital and saw her in the new bed. She was pale, and shed lost some weight, and she wore a nightgown instead of her usual dress, but she smiled and talked and made sense when she did. "The food in the hospital wasnt as bad as Id expected. Yesterday they even served cream puffs, and I wanted to save one for Tanechka, but they didnt allow me," she said. My uncle spent some time teaching my mother how to remove the chair seat and how to move my grandmother onto it without having to lift her. My mother practiced a couple of times. My grandmother didnt protest. Then we all had tea in the living room so my grandmother wouldnt feel left out. She had some tea too, leaning over the new chair.
"I want to see my little girl," my grandmother requested the following morning. I walked up to her, but she shook her head. "Who is that?"
"This is Tanya," my mother said. "Our little girl."
My grandmother laughed. "You two think you can deceive me like that? Our Tanya is no more than two or three and she doesnt look like this one at all. You think I wont know the difference? You think I went funny in the head?"
It was stupid of me, but I ran out and locked myself in my room and said that I wouldnt come out. "She has crazy eyes!" I yelled through the door. "Wet and crazy!"
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar Copyright © 2006 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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