AS A YOUNG WOMAN, Tilly flees home for the hollow underworld of Nevada, looking for pure souls and finding nothing but bad habits. One day, after Tilly has spent nearly thirty years without a family, drinking herself to the brink of death, her niece Stella—who has been leading her own life of empty promise in New York City—arrives on the doorstep of Tilly’s desert trailer. The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between them. With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns, the life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.
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Leslie Jamison was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Los Angeles. She has worked as a baker, an office temp, an innkeeper, a tutor, and a medical actor. A graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa’s Workshop, she is currently finishing a doctoral dissertation at Yale. She is the bestselling author of The Empathy Exams, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, Oxford America, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On Christmas I found Grandma Lucy lying on linoleum. She’d fallen. The refrigerator hummed behind her naked body like a death rattle. There were bloody tissues balled in her fists, but she was alive and speaking. “I just wanted a little yogurt,” she said. “I got a nosebleed.”
Her arms fluttered in the air, clutching for handholds, human fingers, anything. It was the first time I’d seen her whole body—her baggy ghost-skin and all the blue veins underneath.
I’d ridden a train through the brittle Connecticut winter with a wedge of gingerbread and a ham sandwich full of fatty cuts, her favorite kind. I had a bag of presents. From the floor she asked: “Are those for me?”
She was shivering. I’d never seen her this way, so fluent at this grasping. Her face twitched as though she were trying to hold her features steady while something happened underneath. She took my hand. Her fingers were greasy with lotion. “I need Matilda,” she said. Her voice was calm and sure, as if this request was entirely reasonable. I’d never heard of anyone named Matilda.
I gripped her wrist and slid one hand under the hunch of her back. Her skin was loose between the bony marbles of her spine. “Don’t pull,” she said. “It hurts.”
I called my brother. Tom said, “You need to ask her: ‘Lucy, did you hit your head?’” I cupped my palm over the phone and waited for her reply. He waited for me.
“It was only yogurt,” she said. “Just a little bit I wanted.”
I knelt down next to her. My boots squeaked on the linoleum. “But did you hit your head? Can you tell me that?”
“If I had,” she said. “I’m not sure I would remember.”
I reported back to Tom. He said I should keep her awake for at least two hours. This was the rule he remembered about concussions, in case she had one. He was with our mother, Dora, on the other side of the country, probably sipping seltzer at a Pacific restaurant where everyone was thinking cheerfully unconcussed thoughts about their sushi. It was a first-generation place, he told me, mercifully open on holidays. It was the first day my mother had taken off work in months.
“Tom?” I asked. “Do you know anyone named Matilda?”
“One sec,” he said. “I’m putting Mom on the phone.”
Her voice was loud and sudden: “You need to do what Stella says! You need to let her take care of you!”
“Are you trying to talk to Grandma?” I asked. “Should I give her the phone?”
“Oh,” she said. “Of course.”
Grandma Lucy gripped the cell phone with her quaking fingers. My mother spoke so loudly that her voice sounded like it was coming from the floor under Grandma Lucy’s ear. She rolled onto her side and handed me the phone. Tom said, “Two hours, yeah?” I heard noise in the background, the rustling of glass and gossip. I hung up.
Grandma Lucy didn’t want any gingerbread or tea. She didn’t want presents. She just wanted to go to sleep. It wasn’t dark yet, not even close. The day had been ruined, she insisted. She wanted to wake up and have Christmas tomorrow.
I checked my watch. I took a breath. Two hours: I would do this. We found a holiday special on television. Animated clay reindeer scampered across the glittering snow. I had to keep shaking Grandma Lucy to make sure she was awake. “Hey,” I said. “You’re missing the part with the reindeer. With the snow.”
“This show is terrible,” she said finally. The opinion itself, saying it out loud, seemed to give her a second wind, and she suggested we open presents after all. Her thick curtains made the sunlight feel oozy, as if it were coming through gauze bandages. She lived on the third floor of a block of condos with stucco walls the color of blanched almonds. Most of her neighbors were bankers who commuted into the city.
My grandmother loved Connecticut. It was where she’d fallen in love with my grandfather and where they’d gotten married. He came from old New England stock, but he’d been the one to insist they move west, to get away from his family. Then he took off to roam the world and never came back. He left her with a little girl to raise all by herself. His family promised her as much money as she needed for the rest of her life.
Grandma Lucy had fallen in love with that whole family—their old blood, their traditions—and she’d wanted to give my mother a sense of where she came from, so they spent summers on Cape Cod in a family property that my mother recalled with disdain. “It was nothing but a dirty bribe,” she told me. “Giving us that beach house for a couple lousy months. Money was like a bastard child out there—everyone knew about it, but you never heard it mentioned.” My mother didn’t have any memories of her father, but her anger toward him seemed vast enough to cover years of open wounds. It extended to his people with a ferocity that made up for my grandmother’s forgiveness.
Lucy had always understood, without needing to be told, that she wasn’t welcome at the year-round family haunts. That perhaps it was better if she stayed out west. But after she’d finished raising her daughter in Los Angeles, she’d come back to this sacred desolation, the eastern cold and money of Greenwich. She could buy anything she wanted, but she didn’t want much these days, and her sparse rooms seemed mournful in their neatness.
“She never blamed him for leaving her,” my mother said. “I never got that.”
Lucy was like a well-behaved child with her Christmas gifts, orderly and attentive. I’d gotten her a variety pack of bubble bath and a pair of pot holders that said in stitched letters: I’M HOLDING NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE. I’d always known Grandma Lucy as a maker of casseroles full of cream soups and canned corn, fridge biscuits torn into chunks. They were ocean-salty and smooth as silk. She cooked our dinners whenever she came out west to help take care of us, whenever my mother’s work got especially intense, but my mother usually hated what she made. “These stews have been processed up the wazoo,” she said. “It will take me years to shit them out.” She actually said this once at dinner. Grandma Lucy frowned and started clearing dishes from the table.
My mother had always criticized her mother’s cooking—how hard she tried and how she still wasn’t much good. She gladly took recipes from the family who had disowned her. Like she didn’t have a speck of pride, my mom said. And they always tasted terrible. There was a blueberry pie whose flakes of crust peeled away like dead skin. Finally, she just gave up and threw those recipes out, my mom said, her voice proud. She said: “I’ve had a lot of pies in my life. Never had a pie like this.”
So these NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE pot holders were a kind of wink, delayed by years, and a bit of a victory stamp. We weren’t on my mother’s side of the country anymore, and Grandma Lucy could make her casseroles in peace. She squinted at their diamond-quilted squares. “I can’t make New York’s finest anything,” she said. “I live in Connecticut.” She laid the pot holders neatly on her coffee table. “Six kinds of bubble bath,” she said. “How about that?”
When she pulled her wool skirt over the sticks of her legs, her panty hose were thin enough to show the damage of her age—plum-colored bruises across her shins and thighs. “It’s like a cage in here,” she said, meaning her body. “Every part of me aches, or else it itches.” She insisted that the itching was a deeper discomfort than I could know. “It’s not on the skin,” she told me. “It’s happening underneath.”
Then she paused as if trying to recall something. “I got you a present, too,” she said finally. “But I can’t remember what it was.”
I told her we wouldn’t worry about that for now. What if I ran a bath instead? Maybe it would feel good against her skin?
“We’ll use the bubbles!” she said. She was so lonely, so ready to please me. How was I only seeing it now? Her eagerness came loose like unspooled thread. You couldn’t yearn like this unless you’d been lonely for years, practicing. Now her body was weak enough to yearn along with her.
I ran a bath with honey vanilla, her choice, and sat on the toilet seat while she folded herself—thin legs, white belly, arms like baggy insect wings and glimmering with soap—under the steaming surface of the water. I brought a book and kept my eyes tightly locked on it, line to line, so she wouldn’t feel me staring. I glanced up once. She curled her finger to beckon me closer. I leaned in.
“She filled a bath,” she told me. “To bring them back to life.”
“What?” I said. “Who did?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. Very slowly, she inched herself farther under the water. I could see the red flush of heat marking her skin where she’d gone under. Who had filled a bath? Who’d died? It could be from a movie. I knew she watched a lot of them. What else could you do, alone all day, with every body part giving up separate ghosts—eyes and legs, lobes of the mind?
“Who did what?” I asked again. “What came back to life?”
“She was gentler than your mother, no matter what she did. She gave me a bruise here once, but she was always gentle underneath.” Lucy ran two fingers across her cheek, leaving a film.
I said, “I don’t know who you mean.”
“No,” she said. “We never told you.” She hugged herself. She could have been speaking from the middle of a dream.
“Never told me about what?”
“About Matilda,” she said. “Your mother’s sister.”
“You have a—” I stopped myself. “Where is she?”
She spoke so softly I could barely hear: “I don’t know.”
In her croaking voice, Grandma Lucy told me about her younger daughter in reverent bursts, as if Matilda were a dream that would be lost if she weren’t told fast enough. It had taken all these years just to say her name out loud.
Grandma Lucy said she’d taken Matilda—only Matilda, not my mother—to the tide pools every summer. This was in Chatham, near the big salty mouth of the Atlantic. “I showed her sea urchins,” she said. “Little bundles of purple pencils.”
She’d explained—to her and now to me—about starfish. How they ate with their stomachs outside their bodies. Their color was like orange juice concentrate, she said, so unbelievably bright. Maybe she had shades of freezer foods in mind for every animal. I remembered all the times my mother had said, She’s just a housewife, through and through.
“Matilda loved those pools,” Lucy said. “She really did.”
She’d loved feeling the urchins’ points and watching the crabs for hours, as they fought for homes in rock caves, but she’d flinched from the starfish when they sucked on her arm. “She said it felt like someone taking a breath right next to her skin,” Grandma Lucy said. “I told her it had a mouth on its belly.”
“It thought Matilda was food?”
“No.” Grandma Lucy laughed. “It thought she was home.”
She described the shoreline—meadows that stretched all the way to the water, full of a particular prickly weed. Matilda called it Grandma Grass, because the wind made it sound like an old woman sighing. “Grandma Grass.” Lucy paused. “I guess that’s me now.”
It was only when she started shivering again that I thought of how the water must have cooled around her skin. She couldn’t lift herself from the tub. I had to dunk my arms to hoist her up. Her wet body dripped all over my jeans and my cashmere sweater. She sat on the toilet seat, shaking.
That’s when she got to the part about the dead things. One time my mother had filled a bathtub with bits and pieces of the ocean: a collage of ash-gray barnacles lined up like toy soldiers, a small flock of ghost crabs that hoisted themselves across the tub with weary ticktock steps, old men in their shells. They tapped the porcelain with their pincers.
“Your mother left them for days,” Grandma Lucy said. “She was like that. Always curious.”
“And Matilda tried to save them?”
Grandma Lucy held the towel around her narrow shoulders while her white hair dripped bathwater. She told me about this younger daughter—new to me, gone to everyone—the one who found a tiny ocean dying and thought she could run enough bathwater to bring it back to life. What happened? The barnacles washed away like scabs. The crabs weren’t the kind of crabs that needed water all around them. They drowned.
* * *
On the train home, I called my mother. I told her Grandma Lucy needed help. No problem, she said. We’d hire a nurse for visits.
“She doesn’t need help sometimes,” I said. “She needs it all the time.”
My mother was an immigration lawyer and a fearsome pixie beauty. She negotiated her daily schedule as a creature separate from herself, uncompromising, a force to be obeyed: client meetings, spinning classes, therapy sessions. “I call Mother all the time,” she said, hurt.
I knew if she’d been in the room, she would have pulled out her daily calendar to show me where she’d penciled these calls: little X’s tucked between names and telephone numbers, between appointments crossed through once, twice, three times, until the final hour perched uneasily in a hasty box of pen strokes. My eyes got lost when I looked at that book. It was a maze. I knew my mother was in there somewhere.
None of it made sense, I said, why Grandma Lucy was naked and fetching yogurt, and what about this bleeding? All this shivering? Maybe it was loose firing, her explanations—I had a nosebleed—just words that came into her head and seemed right.
Had she been lucid or not? my mother asked.
I didn’t know, I confessed. She veered.
I could hear background fuzz. This meant I was on speakerphone. It was still Christmas, even in the West, but I could tell my mother had returned to her office. I knew she liked to pace the length of her long windows, their panels stuck with skyscrapers like splinters.
“She’s probably not getting enough exercise,” she said. “She barely leaves the house.”
I thought of Grandma Lucy sprawled on the floor, hands flapping like birds. A mustache of blood had pooled in worm trails from her nostrils.
“I don’t think exercise is the issue, so much,” I said. “She’s just...”
“She needs help.” I paused. “Like I said.”
I knew grown children did this all the time—put their lives on hold to care for the failing bodies of their parents, to help them eat and smile and shit without making a mess. My mom wanted to look into live-in care options. It was no problem, she said. She had the money. “But Mother isn’t going to like it,” she said. “Not one bit.”
Strangers being nice never make anything better, Lucy had told me. They just make me feel alone. She’d rather wither away completely than make this final submission to a stranger’s care.
I suggested another plan. I could come up four nights a week. I’d cook and keep her company.
My mom said, “You’ll make me look like a terrible daughter.”
“There’s always somebody falling, isn’t there? And you catch them.”
“She fell,” I said. “I didn’t make her fall.”
She stayed silent. So did I.
I said, “Sh...
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