We always played with the yellow exercise ball when my grandpa wasn’t home. It was big, at that age it was the same size as me, and half the fun was the idea that it could run me over. The other half was the fact that it was forbidden. My grandpa kept it stored in the attic and there were strict rules that we were to never put our hands on it. He said we would break it or pop it and he wouldn’t be able to use it to exercise with anymore, only he never did that anyways, hence why it was stored in the attic.
When I arrived at their house that day, barely saying goodbye to my mother as I sprinted up the stone steps that led up to their front door, my grandma was waiting in the doorway for me, a twinkle in her eye.
“Want to play with the ball?” She asked. I nodded ferociously. We both knew we didn’t have much time, it was already 4 and my grandpa usually pulled into the driveway just before 5. I followed her through the entryway with the large window that looked out on a wall of trees. Sometimes I would just stand in front of it and watch the leaves shudder in the wind, admire the way the sun lit up certain patches, making them glow. Sometimes the house felt like a museum. But today we continued, past the door to the basement where I never went, I was forbidden to go there, and this I obeyed. To my knowledge, all that was down there was a large pile of wood that was infested with spiders. Once my grandma had gone down there by herself and merely brushed her leg against the wood and was bit by a brown recluse. At first she thought it was a mosquito bite, but then it started swelling bigger and bigger to the size of a baseball on her calf. Even then she wore long pants and didn’t tell anyone. She slipped up a few days later while having lunch with my dad, she put her foot up on the coffee table and her pant leg was too short and he saw it peeking out, this big bulging sore, exuding puss. He drove her to the hospital immediately and they identified the bite. When he asked her why she didn’t tell anyone, she replied she didn’t want to make a fuss. She still has the scar, I used to like to feel it while I sat on the floor of the bathroom and she French braided my hair. How I wish I could go back to those moments of bliss: the smooth cool tiles pressed against the bottom of my feet and the palms of my hands, the sound of the spray bottle spritzing every few minutes when the strands got hard to work with, the drops hitting my neck, her bony fingers raking in the hair and pulling it together tightly, so tight it hurt my scalp but made the rest of my body relax. To her voice telling me it was going to hurt but there are certain kinds of pain we just accept. My hand found the scar on her calf, slightly indented, a little rougher than the skin around it.
We walked on, across the stone floor, towards the dark staircase leading to the second floor, to my grandparents’ bedroom, to my grandma’s closet, where the stairs to the attic resided, leading to the hiding place of the golden exercise ball. At the first step I peeked to the right into the kitchen, with the pots and pans that hung down above the island like a copper bouquet. Maybe later there would be grilled cheese, gingerbread cookies, cinnamon toast, but for now there was the ball.
I ascended the stairs behind her, we were in low light for a moment and then we rounded to the top where the brightness of upstairs welcomed us. The whole house had a quietness about it and we kept the peace with our silent steps. I spent so much time with my grandma in those days that most times we didn’t need to talk, we communicated through few words or else we were playing some kind of pretend where we had designated lines to say. We were very keen on reenactments, with a slew of recurring scenes and characters that we rotated through depending on the day. There were selected scenes from Beauty and the Beast—I’d come down the stairs in my fancy holiday dress and she’d propose marriage to me. “Belle, I love you so much,” she’d say, “Will you please marry me?” And my reply: “I cannot marry you because I do not love you.” Another favorite was The Secret Garden, where she’d recite her favorite line to me from the film we watched almost every time I visited: “As long as you remember me, we’ll always be together.” We loved to do the scene in Anne of Green Gables where Anne lays down in a row boat on the lake and recites “The Lady of Shallot.” I would lie down on the sofa and ask her to read the poem aloud, imagining myself floating out over a calm dark lake, flowers adorning my hair. “A pearl garland winds her head, she leaneth on a velvet bed, full royally aparalled, The Lady of Shallot.” She would read it softly, steadily, like a quiet drum beat, lulling me into the depths of my imagination.
We walked down the long carpeted hall that led to their bedroom. I craned my neck to look up out of the skylight, even though back then I didn’t understand the sky and it wasn’t important to me. I whispered hello to the giant stuffed black bear that sat on the bed in the room to the left where I’d be sleeping later.
Their bedroom itself wasn’t explicitly forbidden by my grandpa, going in there didn’t warrant the same disgrace as, say, playing with the exercise ball or forgetting to use a coaster, but it was a place I felt I wasn’t particularly welcome, definitely when he was home, and even when he wasn’t he somehow managed to leave behind a disdainful dust that lingered in the air and settled over everything.
Particularly the water bed. I didn’t like it and I knew my grandma didn’t like it and that made me dislike it more. The few times I ventured to sit on it I felt terrified at what felt like a meek and thin layer of mattress between me and the treacherous waters underneath, I thought it would burst while I was on top of it, pricked by the invisible pin of my hatred, but instead of the water from inside coming out I would get sucked inside, down into the space underneath the bed, I thought that mattress went on forever, down down down further and further, screaming for my grandma but she couldn’t hear me, lost in purples and blues, water clogging my lungs until I drowned.
Most days like that day I tried not to even look at it. I just followed my grandma into her closet. I breathed in the familiar scent of her clothes, I got a fresh look at my favorite pair of shoes she had, always tucked in the back corner, almost out of sight: a deep red pair of high heels. I had never seen her wear them, but she promised me that at one point she had. One day she even let me try them on, but I can’t explain my disappointment at realizing they were too big. “They don’t fit,” I said to her, tears welling in my eyes. “One day, they will,” she assured me. “One day you’ll wear lots of pretty shoes, you’ll get to pick out your own.” But this didn’t comfort me at all. Somewhere in that space between my heel and the back of that red heel was something I needed desperately but I couldn’t put my finger on. I felt disgusted at my tiny-ness and at the idea of “one day”, of waiting.
In front of me, my grandma pulled on the cord that brought down the stairs that led to the attic. As they came down my heart leapt with excitement: peeking out over the corner was the plush edge of the yellow ball. She climbed a couple steps to reach up to it, and then she brought it down, hugging it between her arms. We locked eyes and raised our eyebrows in a gesture of mutual excitement. Then she extended her arms, offering it up to me, the most prized of all possessions, the greatest toy I had ever known.
The ball bounded towards me with joy, all the way down the long hallway, and I giggled with mischievous excitement as, on its upwards bounces, it came dangerously close to hitting the picture frames aligned neatly along the wall. As it came closer and closer to me, filling up my vision, my heart leapt: would I be able to catch it? I closed my eyes and opened my arms wide, surrendering myself to fate—and then it was in my arms, I squeezed them tight around it, it seemed to be hugging me back. I opened my eyes and the brightness almost blinded me, I felt like I was holding the sun. I held my breath and, with all the force I could muster, launched it on its way back across the hallway, back towards my grandma. I watched it bounce, bounce, bounce, with glee, until she caught it, there was a breath of anticipation as she lifted it slightly, and then she let go and it was coming back to me, I couldn’t wait to hold it again. I grabbed it tightly, I squeezed, I threw it back. Time seemed to fade away while we played with the ball. It felt like the hallway was suddenly another dimension of the world where everything was concrete and simple and perfect. I panted out of utter exhilaration, my cheeks were sore with the grin that refused to leave my face. One throw of hers was particularly forceful and the ball bounced off my body and knocked me down. We both burst into laughter. “Sorry!” My grandma called through her giggles. I just laughed in response and jumped up to grab it again, I lifted it over my head and released it forward, watched as it bounced, bounced, bounced down the hall, big spaced out bounces, tapping the carpet with a soft bump, my grandma waited with open arms. It was halfway across the room when a sharp sound cut in to the atmosphere, deflating everything: it was the sound of the key turning in the lock downstairs, and then the door opening. My grandpa was home early.
“Hello?” He called.
My face dropped and my grandma’s did too as we willed the ball to stop in space between us, but of course it kept going, all the way to her, now the bounces didn’t seem soft at all but loud, booming through the whole house: bounce, bounce, bounce. My grandma caught it and stared at me for a moment, her eyes big, as big as the ball, she seemed tiny and our fear was as tall as the skylight, I could feel it. Then, ball in arms, she turned and ran. She disappeared into the bedroom and I heard the clunk of the attic door and then her rushed footsteps and then she was coming quickly back down the hall towards me. As she got closer she reached for my hand.
“Hello?” My grandpa called again, his voice expectant.
“Hello!” My grandma called back, grabbing my hand and holding it tightly, the force reminded me of that which she used when French braiding my hair. She pulled me with her down into the dark stairwell, down towards the kitchen, down where I did not want to go.
Downstairs my grandpa was standing at the kitchen counter, drinking a glass of water. He was dressed supremely in his work clothes. What his job was I didn’t know, he was either at the house or he wasn’t and what he did outside of it didn’t concern me. He looked at us and we looked back at him.
My grandma immediately busied herself, pulling out all kinds of food from the fridge.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I said, my voice formal.
“Hello,” he replied, matching my tone, and I could tell that something was wrong. He had two distinct tones that he used with us: one where everything was a joke, and one where everything was very serious. Just from the hello I could tell it was the latter, and I braced myself for what might come.
My grandma broke in and asked him about work, and they chatted for a bit, she somehow putting something in the microwave, heating a pan on the stove, and chopping on the cutting board all at once. He just stood, slowly sipping his glass of water.
I stared out the window at a bird that had landed on the porch railing outside, willing time to go faster. Then his sharp voice broke in, bringing me back into the kitchen:
“Were you playing with the ball when I came home?”
He was looking at me, but my grandma answered immediately.
“The ball? No, no we weren’t playing with the ball,” she said. “We were in the kids room playing with the beanie babies.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” he said to his wife, turning to me, “I was asking Piper.”
“Oh, John,” she said, but she too turned to look at me. My arms felt very heavy, hanging at my sides. I wished I had something to put in the microwave. His eyes seemed to cut into me, they were dark and beady, the opposite of the ball, huge and full of light. I wondered how someone capable of such seriousness had come upon such a silly and wonderful possession.
I hadn’t yet lied much as a child. My mouth started tasting bad. But of course I wouldn’t contradict my grandma, I would stick by whatever she said, no matter what.
“We weren’t playing with the ball,” I said aloud, but in my head all I could hear was: lie lie lie lie. My grandma smiled at me and turned back to her million tasks. My grandpa took another sip of water.
“That’s funny,” he said. “Because I could have sworn I heard it bouncing when I opened the door.”
My grandma didn’t say anything, she was suddenly very enthralled with the toaster. I studied the copper pots ferociously, I wanted to move but I felt frozen, my palms collecting with sweat, I thought: how does someone look like they’re not lying when they are? An image came to me of something I’d seen someone do, maybe it was my mom, or in a TV show. I lifted my shoulders a little bit, like a shrug, unable to look at him my eyes floated to the ceiling, I placed my sweaty hand on my hip and leaned into it. I thought about the bird outside.
Prompted by the non-answer from both of us, my grandpa spoke again: “You aren’t to play with that ball,” he said. “You’ll break it or you’ll break something else in the house. It is used for a purpose, not for playing.” Now I looked down at the floor, at the cracks in the gray stone. My hand fell from my hip, the shadow of adultness I had tried to conjure gone.
“Susan, I mean it,” he added. And then he put down his glass and walked across the kitchen, passed my grandma standing still at the toaster, to the door of the basement, which he opened and went inside, immediately enveloped by the darkness. The door shut slowly behind him as we heard his steps descending slowly down, down, down, down, until they stopped. Then the house regained its silence.