Breadcrumb #511


I heard my mother's voice. Whatever she was saying sounded important but I could not figure out the words. I couldn't see her either, the light coming and going the way it does in our house during a bad storm. I smelled the wool of Dad's jacket, the good way his shoulders smell when I hug him. My mother's voice joined the other noise, muffled in the background, and I tried to follow her. In front of my eyes were slow moving shapes like clouds in an overcast sky, gray and white, thinning out as I pushed towards the sound of my mother. It sounded like crying and I tried to call out her name, but I had no voice. I saw a car far below me driving on the icy blacktop of a parking lot and I flailed my arms frantically until I realized I wasn't falling any farther than where I was. Where I was, somewhere between the car and the clouds, I couldn't understand. Below me was my Mom's old green Subaru. Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old. I saw my mother next to him bent over crying. I saw my big sister Karen's face at the window as they pulled out of the parking lot I was floating above. She was crying like Mom. The red blinker of my Dad's car flashed a left turn, snow on the roof of his car glinting like spilled diamonds beneath the shine of streetlights just coming on. Gray clouds feathered the edges of a sky the color of iron. There was a thin layer of new snow on the ground but I was not cold.  I was so scared.

Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old.

   A white van passed Mom's car and I remembered. The feel of the road beneath my feet, how careful I was not to step on the yellow slashes of the crosswalk, bad luck, like stepping on a sidewalk crack. You could get eaten by bears or break your mother's back, some horror if you failed to pay attention, but I couldn't remember which it was.  I was leaning towards bears, the picture in my head more Goldilocks picture book than savaging threats. I imagined a family of three cute bears, the Papa, the Mama, and the Baby Bear outside a cute white cottage with blue shutters. Window boxes full of red petunias. I smiled at my own silliness. I knew I was too old for these kind of thoughts but as long as the kids in school didn't know I still felt more fairy tale than cutting edge, I'd be okay. I heard a sound, something outside of my thoughts, outside of myself. I heard something coming like how a leaf must sense the approaching wind. My hair static, my skin meeting the push of air, and I looked up.

   The immediateness of it, a block of white and silver, and a face blurred behind the windshield just kissed with the first snowflakes. There was a noise like thunder, a wet like rain, and the wind stopped.

  Thickness, strands of pulled cotton, slow and sleepy like waking on a summer morning until I saw myself below on a long bed. I was not moving, my hands were half open, my fingers curled like flower petals just before they feel the sun. I was crooked and swollen, bruised and broken. I was wearing one sneaker only. There was dirt in my hair.

  A nurse stood beside me, not much older than my big sister, dipping a sponge into a plastic bowl of water. She touched the sponge to my face and sound returned, buzzing of electric lights, the wall clock's slight tick, the sound of water wrung from the sponge, a voice on an intercom calling a doctor to the ER, the squeak of the nurse's white sneakers on the checkered floor as she turned to the sink and put fresh water in the bowl.

   Her fingertips persuaded my eyelids to close over my staring eyes. She washed my eyelids and brows, my scraped cheeks, my bruised forehead, cleaned the blood from my mouth.

   A tired looking woman, older than my mother, leaned in the doorway and shook her head. "You don't need to do that, you know, you're off shift. Now that the family said their goodbyes, the next crew will bring her downstairs." I saw her glance towards an enormous gray duffle bag resting on the floor.

   The young nurse gave a half smile. "I know. I want to do this. Don't worry, I clocked off shift twenty minutes ago. I'm on my own time."

   The other woman shrugged. "Up to you. A tip, sweetie - it's better not to get involved." She watched as the young nurse ran the sponge over my hair and smoothed it back. "Newbies," she muttered as she stepped away.

   The nurse removed the purple shirt I had just gotten two weeks ago on my birthday. She cut my favorite jeans off with scissors. I watched her wash me down. I could not feel the water on my skin but I saw her hands careful and gentle as she washed the dirt and the blood off what had been me. As I watched her I began to understand I that I would no longer be returning to the home of my body.

   I didn't know what I was going to be if not myself. I wanted to cry or even scream but I had no voice so I listened to the song she hummed. She brushed dirt from my hair. I was already starting to change into something else, something I am still learning, when she called in people to help lift me into the bag.

   After they left the room, she pulled up the zipper until it reached the crest of my chin. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to my forehead. "Goodbye, sweet girl," she said.

   I watched her drive out of the parking lot, the red blinker of her car flashing a left turn beneath a sky the color of iron. Already I was something else, going somewhere else. I watched the lights of her car down the road until I couldn't see her anymore. I was not cold and I was not afraid.

• • •

Breadcrumb #507


Maude spent most of her time in the produce section, close to the fresh greens that were misted periodically, so that customers wouldn’t be startled when they felt a sudden cold draft as they passed through her. This was also her favorite place to observe the passage of time through the change of seasonal vegetables. She watched sun-sweetened berries and meaty heirloom tomatoes give way to barrels full of winter squash and still-dusty root vegetables; she loved the excitement on shopper’s faces as they saw the end of a long winter heralded by piles of bright rhubarb and woody asparagus spears.

Maude found that time passed differently now. When she wasn’t thinking about it, the hours seemed to pass quickly, especially at night. She didn’t mind floating up and down the empty aisles, humming a little tune to herself as she watched the overnight stockers refill displays. Aisle 11, the frozen section, was her favorite at night. There was something peaceful about the mechanical hum and the foggy glow of the condensation building up behind the glass doors.

But time slowed down to what seemed to be its normal speed when she was really paying attention to something.

Like that time she saw a man scolding his son in aisle 3, canned food and pasta. The little boy, who was probably about 4, had opened a box of macaroni and spilled it across the floor. The boy’s father had crouched down and put his face too close to his son’s and snarled in low tones. The little boy had already started crying when the pasta spilled, and this made him cry harder.

Maude hated seeing parents being cruel to their children. Not many things made her as angry. She still felt things as strongly as before, but not everything was the same. As she watched the man berate his small son, her rage boiled up inside of her. It was the kind of anger that would have made her shake and clench her fists. Instead, what happened was that a stack of canned kidney beans behind the man suddenly toppled off the shelf and struck him in the back of the head. The man stumbled over, stunned. He wasn’t hurt badly, but he did stop his tirade towards his son. Maude watched them until she was sure the man had calmed down and followed them to the exit.

That was about the most excitement she’d see in any given week. A grocery store wasn’t exactly a prime spot for haunting; she’d heard of other spirits taking up residence in museums, funeral homes, theaters, and old penitentiaries (the last one was rather played out, in her opinion). But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares. And while the grocery store might not be the most thrilling place in the world, it was familiar to her. And it was where she saw them.

But Maude wasn’t much for spooks and scares.

Like clockwork, they’d come in every Sunday. They’d pick up a week’s worth of groceries - milk and cereal, bread and cold cuts for sandwiches, and maybe one or two sweets that the boy picked out. When he was younger, he’d ride in the front of the shopping cart, dangling his legs through the bars. As he got older, he’d totter through the aisles, helping his mother by grabbing anything within his 2-foot high reach.

About once every couple of months, they would come in to shop for Sunday sauce. This was what Maude looked forward to most. She had taught her daughter the recipe as soon as she was old enough to stand on a chair over the big, enameled cast iron pot and stir the bubbling sauce. Their house would be filled with the smell of caramelized onion and garlic, slow-simmered tomatoes, and fresh basil and oregano that was tossed in right at the end. Sometimes they’d add whatever scraps of leftover meat there were from weeknight meals - a pork chop, some short ribs, a few sausages. In the summer, when Maude’s garden was in abundance, they’d make big batches of it to store in mason jars and freeze for the winter.

When her daughter grew up and went away to college, Maude would look forward to the weekends she’d return home, lugging a bloated bag of laundry with her. Most of her time home would be spent catching up with townie friends or holed up in her old bedroom writing papers, but they’d find time to be together in the kitchen, sometimes early in the morning over coffee and fried eggs or late at night after Maude had put the dinner dishes away. But some of the most meaningful moments happened when they were cooking that sauce together - there was something about the steady staccato of chopping onions and tomatoes that set the right mood for vulnerable conversations, when her daughter would open up about heartbreak and new relationships, fears and hopes for her future. It was one of these times while they were waiting for the sauce to cook that she first told Maude about meeting the boy’s father, and later it was in the same kitchen when the two of them told Maude that she’d be a grandmother.

Maude remembered all of these moments with incorporeal tears in her eyes as she watched her daughter pick up a plum tomato and show her son how to squeeze it to check for ripeness. She imagined the memories they’d make together over the steaming Dutch oven, laughing as they’d steal tastes from the wooden spoon that was worn around the edges and permanently stained pink. She thought about how, even though she hadn’t been able to meet him, her grandson would come to know her as he wore the faded, frayed mint green apron (that would be way too large for him) and placed his small hands in the same pockets where her weary ones once rested.  He’d hear stories about how she always liked to listen to Oscar D’Leon while she cooked and would dance with her daughter standing on her feet. Maybe when he got older, he’d be told that his sense of humor or the way his brows furrowed together when he was reading was just like her.

Some might wonder why Maude didn’t return to their house, so that she could experience all these moments firsthand; she had considered this herself. But she knew that nothing good would come from holding on too tightly to what could not be. Their home was no place for a ghost - she was better off here, in the grocery store, where no one stayed for very long and she could catch glimpses of their life without intruding too much. She’d wait for them to come in every week, until maybe one day they decided the produce selection was better at a different store, or moved away. And then maybe she’d move on as well, to find out what the rest of the afterlife had to offer. But until then, she had the monotonous beeping of the checkout aisle, and the rotation of fresh vegetables, and the ebb and flow of the grocery’s patrons who were all biding their time in one way or another.

• • •

Breadcrumb #505


At night, our grandfather walked along the canal. He liked to watch the local heron, standing statue still in the shallow waters waiting for a fish or baby turtle to cross their path. When our grandmother was still alive, she urged him to keep moving down the canal towpath to their destination: dinner and the movies or—usually—the movies without dinner.

Popcorn was their main course. Our grandmother passed two months after the doctor told them both they were eating too much of it.

"Don't bother the heron," she would say when she noticed her husband slowing. "He wants to eat and so do I."

"I'm not," he would say. "We understand each other." Then he'd stare into the heron's black eyes, standing as still as the bird. Our grandmother sat on a stone bench while he did this, taking in the fragrant air and listening to the crickets’ chirp in the tall grass by the abandoned restaurant on the other side of the water.

Most of all, our grandfather enjoyed interacting with random dogs.

Then he’d stare into the heron’s black eyes, standing as still as the bird.

"Don't bother the dog," our grandmother said when she saw one in the distance growing closer. Sniffing things. Dragging a tired human behind it.

"I'm not," our grandfather said when the dog stood in front of them, its tail rapping at its person's leg. Our grandfather knelt to eye level with the dog, so they could tussle together. "We understand one another." Our grandmother would shake her head but eventually crack a smile and pet the dog with her husband.  

As if by intuition, our grandfather knew the name of every dog before ever reading its tags with his aged eyes. This one was Jones.

They had a dog when we were young. We loved her but can barely remember how happy she made us, much less what she looked like. Some of us think her name was Olive with pointed ears. Some of us think his name was Oscar, with a happy face.


Our grandmother passed before a movie one night. Heart failure while they walked down the hill from their home towards the theater.

Nothing could be done.

The EMTs made her comfortable while she died on Silverwood Street.

Our grandfather sat on the curb with a neighbor’s dog named Lando, staring into the forested dead end of the street. They understood one another. Before Lando licked his face to break his stare, our grandfather thought he spotted his wife of fifty-three years sinking into the trees with a pack of friendly dogs surrounding her. The image edged out of his mind as grief crawled inside.

He missed the movie.


During the nights after, our grandfather still walked along the canal with the intention of going to see a film. It wasn't the same without his wife, but he could stand and watch the heron for as long as he wanted, now. He could pet his neighbor's dogs for as long as they tolerated him. He could sit on the bench where his wife sat, breathing in the air and memories for as long as they would last in his delicate skull.

A year after our grandmother passed, he was strolling by the green water on a Tuesday night. He couldn't find the heron, but the remains of a baby turtle lined the trunk of a fallen tree in the liquid dark. It rained that week, so the canal was bloated and full. Its surface reflected the stars in such a way that they appeared purple with nebulas strung between them.

Up the towpath, several dogs without any humans happily trotted towards our grandfather. They all understood one another. A collie named Juniper, a corgi named Porker, a hound dog named Gordon. More followed. A dalmatian named Mark, a great dane called Diane, a shiba inu known also as Diane. Even more. A pittie named Otto, a husky called Nanook of the North, a retriever known as Paul, a shaking chihuahua named Francis in a little sweater.   

"What a pack," our grandfather said, kneeling in the gravel to welcome the dogs, all ranging in age from puppies to adults to seniors. The puppies tripped on their paws. "Silly!" our grandfather said to them. "You haven't grown into your mitts just yet."

The pack trotted; they galloped; they ran to our grandfather as if he had just arrived home. They licked his face and pawed at him to play. He tussled with all of them, joyously laughing into the empty night. A chill ran ripped through the air as more dogs piled on top of our grandfather. Through the rare gaps between them, he saw another pup moving at a deliberate pace towards him. The other dogs settled in a semi-circle, panting in unison.

She was golden hued, with pointed ears and a happy face. She moved close enough for him to see. She had the outline of a skull painted over her face, but it was her.

"Scavenger!" our grandfather said. A voice resonated in his head. Scavenger’s voice. The exact one we made up for her when we were much younger and actually visited our grandfather.

It's time.

“I missed you.”

I missed you.

The dogs piled on our grandfather again. They grabbed hold of his collar and khakis with their teeth; they began dragging him away from the theater—away from the canal. Our grandfather struggled at first, screaming for help on the empty trail. No one heard. He wrestled against jaws in the dirt and gravel, clutching at trees, grass and park fixtures to stay where he was until he realized it didn’t matter where he was going. The dogs dragged him up the trail’s concrete steps, ascending above them and away into the night, their yips and barks and pants fading like the light in the bad streetlamp by the bench where our grandmother used to sit.

Scavenger followed the pack, her happy eyes swallowing the world around them. Beside her, our grandfather caught vision of a young woman he once knew for almost sixty years wearing skull paint on her face and scratching their old dog’s ears.

They understood.

As our grandfather watched the canal grow distant, moving through the membrane of our two spheres, he saw the heron picking at the bones of a fish on a log. They stared at each other, until the heron lost sight of the man.

• • •