The Lives of Things

by Shaun Terry

In the corner opposite to where I stood was a small wooden end table with a shelf in it. In the relative dark, I couldn’t see it well, but I could tell that it was covered in dust. I grabbed an old coffee mug from off the coaster that sat on the table and I blew the dust off. It flew through the air: a rapidly disintegrating cloud of dirt and memories.

I remembered that mug, only because it was the one my grandmother had drank from after she had served me rice and bulgoki. Grandma was short—about 4’8”—and she knew how to love more than any human I’d ever known and have known since. As a small child, I would go to her house to eat all I could, to watch cable television, to listen to grandma softly sing old Korean songs as she gently stroked me. That was a long time ago.

I wasn’t sad. My grandma had lived a long time, but the house was different now. It wasn’t their house anymore; the house had long ago been taken over by an external force. It was superficially tidy in most places, albeit growing dusty, but they hadn’t managed to keep the house up in all the ways that it needed. Houses have natural lifespans of their own if they are not meticulously maintained and manicured in order to retain their best form.

I wonder if grandma was content with the state of the house as it aged or if she had been displeased by its deterioration. She’d been a pragmatist—the kind of person who sees honesty as the most efficient way of dealing with the world, but also saw the wisdom in avoiding unnecessary confrontation. I’d only ever seen her fight once.

My dad made decent money for a long time, but somehow, we never saw much of it. The kids across the street always teased me for the clothes I wore, even though I’m sure my dad made more money than theirs did. How strange it is that kids should know or care about these things.

Grandma didn’t like dad, though. She didn’t say it, but you could feel the air go cold when they were in a room together. My dad persisted with his superficial charm, but grandma wasn’t confused by the magic show he put on. She only ever seemed to see people’s souls.

After he’d worked for the insurance agency for a couple decades, he’d decided that he wasn’t into it anymore, so we moved an hour away to the city. It was my senior year, so I was pissed, but I also had no say in the matter. Such is the nature of being a child.

He worked that job until he simultaneously became the most productive employee and became the most disillusioned employee. Everyone at home had grown angry with everyone else. Truthfully, it seemed to me that everyone always had been, and because I was the oldest child, it was basically all my fault, but what could I do about it now?

Dad started to sleep a lot and mom went back to work, but I was dealing with my own existential crisis having gone from all my friends in a more diverse high school to one with a lot of rich kids that I wanted nothing to do with. Grandma had other concerns.

One day, when my mom wasn’t home yet, grandma came over and she started yelling at dad. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember my surprise. I didn’t know what was going on or whether there was a real problem, but I knew that grandma must be right. My parents would divorce a few months later.

The bottom of the coffee mug was shiny. I wonder what’s been the last drink from it. When I’d gotten a little older, I’d sometimes been around during a big celebration during which grandma drank. Her big, wrinkled smile seemed to occupy her whole face and she’d laugh in her sly, sweet way. I put down the coffee mug and walked toward the kitchen.

Centered above the china cabinet was an old photo of my grandfather. He’d looked very normal. Around that photo were various photos of the rest of the family, but grandma was in hardly any. I looked from photo to photo, trying to find her late, weathered face, until finally, I saw her smiling with her middle daughter.

As I whimpered, Jenny turned to me, not knowing how to react to my contorted, moistened face.