I discovered Grandmother’s ash closet the week she died. They were serving beanie weanies and chowder rolls in the backyard, and a handful of relatives were there. It was the ides of July, but the old house was cool, since it always seemed to be frozen in winter of 1932. I snuck into her bedroom in hopes of finding the “Robin Red Breast and Her Cousins” book I so dearly loved in childhood. There, on Grandmother’s vanity, underneath a fading Raggedy Anne doll and a box labeled “PATCHES FOR DAD,” there was a compartment I had never known about. I jiggled the compartment loose and pulled it out. The words “ASH CLOSET” were written in black charcoal, and inside the compartment were six hundred dollars and a wadded-up linen. I took the linen in my hands and unrolled it, and there were nothing but small bones, thin as broken toothpicks. Inside the linen, the words “DAD’S WEASEL” were written in the same strangely readable charcoal handwriting. I gasped, and hastily put the linen and money back in the ash closet.
Weeks later, I returned to the room, in hopes of confirming that the ash closet was not a dreamy invention of mine. I was known as a girl who did not have her feet on the ground, and sometimes I think half my life is a thinly constructed day dreamy invention. That’s what pa always told me, anyway, and he knows what he knows. He worked in the iron mines and he believes only in hard facts. The family was in grandmother’s house again to squabble over who would receive my dead grandmother’s objects. Uncle Saul gets the love seat, Cousin Lucky gets the olive blinds.
I moved the Raggedy Anne and dad patches, jiggled the compartment, and I stared in amazement at what I found in the ash closet. The six hundred dollars were gone, dad’s weasel was gone, and, there, in the dust and dirt and decades of filth, was a perfectly pristine goose head. It looked as if it had been freshly plucked off a goose and placed in the ash closet.
I sat down and grandmother’s bed and sobbed into my apron.
Days passed, and I returned to my job at the insurance agency. All day and night, all I could think about was what I saw in the ash closet. I couldn’t concentrate on my Windows computer or the copy machine or the water cooler. I could only think of the colorful, fresh goose head, sitting there, so vacant, so full, so clean.
I wanted that goose head.
I drove back to Mahogany Lane at 9:00 PM, using a rental car I couldn’t afford. I smoked cigars that I had reluctantly accepted at my dead grandmother’s auction. They were the only things I was offered and I accepted them because I am good. I don’t want anything from this world, you know… just a nod and a smile from the people I see, that’s all.
And that goose head. I wanted that goose head!
I snuck in the back window and quickly made my way to grandmother’s bedroom. There was a large balding man with pearls around his neck sitting on grandmother’s bed, stroking a cat and singing “I Ride An Old Paint Horse.”
I sobbed into my apron again.
“Now, now, please don’t cry, little girl,” said the man, his voice booming. “We’ve only a few brief seconds in this world, and we can’t spend those seconds a-cryin’ and complainin’.”
“Who are you?” I asked, refusing to make eye contact.
“I’m the devil,” smiled the man. “But, you know, don’t judge me on that. I was just taking a look at your grandmother’s ash closet. She was a mighty fucked up woman. Did you know she had a tattoo on each breast? The Chinese characters for ‘pussy’ and ‘willow.’ That’s right. Your grandmother was a little garden hussy! But who am I to judge, little woman, who am I to judge? Do I smell cigar smoke on you? Are you a garden hussy, too? Well, now, I always knewed garden hussies were genetic! Do you want some food? I bet you’re mighty hungry, yes. I’m cooking shoelaces and barley down in the guestroom.”
Weeks passed, and I never forgot the incident with the devil. I accepted it fully, though, and I was able to work my job with a swiftness and grace I had never been awarded before.
Sometimes a girl has to accept the badness of the world, and the worse it gets, the calmer she feels. That’s what the devil told me that night, as we ate shoelaces and barley and talked of the things of which we dreamed.
Back when I was younger, my pa used to tell me a story about five white horses lined up in a row. The horses patiently waited to be brushed, one by one. The first horse was brushed, then the second, and the third, and the fourth, and when it was time for the fifth one to be brushed, the brush had thistles missing and was worn and torn. It was awful painful for the fifth horse to be brushed, but he loved it just the same.