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When You Believe In Things You Don’t Understand

My grandmother was still playing Euchre with her friends, even though the East Shore Senior Center had closed down months ago. Those seniors were sneaky about it—alternating houses, setting up games at odd hours so no one could detect a pattern, speaking in code over the phone to make arrangements. She said they weren’t particularly worried about COVID. In fact, they hardly even discussed the pandemic anymore, now that their card games had resumed.

But one morning, I served Nan her tea in bed—just like I always did—and she told me that she was going to die soon.

“Well, Trina, this is it.”

Her hair was already braided, pinned in place on top of her head. She’d made up her face too, dabs of powder caught on her little chin hairs.

“I’ve lost my wedding ring. Woke up without it.”

She lifted her bare hand and wiggled her fingers.   

“It’s probably in your sheets somewhere.”

“You know what this means, don’t you?”

I just looked at her.

“I’ll be gone within a week.”

“Says who?”

“The curse of the lost wedding ring. Lose it and die in a week’s time.”

“When’s the last time you had it on?”

“Don’t be daft. If I could remember that, I’d know where it is.”

On the tray, I’d put her insulin needle next to her napkin. It had taken me a while to prepare it: rolling the insulin bottle between my hands to warm it up, priming the needle, measuring out the dose, triple-checking to make sure it was correct. Now she picked it up and held it in between her fingers, like it was a cigarette she was about to light.  

“It’s a sign, I tell you.”

“It’s absolutely not a sign. You’re about as healthy as I am.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She pushed the bedspread down and pulled her nightgown up. I faced the wall as she gave herself the shot. By the time I turned back around, she was struggling to lift the teapot. I’d made the mistake of filling it up with too much water, and it was too heavy for her. But I couldn’t help; the last time I tried, she snapped at me.

My half-brother, Jimmy, stopped by later that day while Nan was napping. He was her favorite grandchild, all because he’d shouted “No fucking way,” at our grandfather’s wake when the son of Grandpa’s long-time girlfriend, Dee, stopped by to ask if his mother could be part of the funeral procession. Jimmy was drunk at the time but Nan still appreciated it. “You heard him,” Nan said to Dee’s son, a narrow-faced, unusually short man who didn’t know enough to take off his baseball hat when he walked into the funeral home. Afterwards, she’d chided Jimmy for his language, but everyone could tell that her heart wasn’t into it. 

“Nan lost her wedding ring and she’s really upset,” I said to Jimmy now.

“Why was she still wearing it? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

He’d brought over some homemade sourdough bread. He fished a bread knife out of one of the kitchen drawers and cut me a slice. Crumbs everywhere that he left for me to clean up. He’d been the sous-chef for an Italian restaurant downtown but it closed when the state shut down indoor dining and, since then, he’d stopped taking care of himself. Drinking more. Gaining weight. His hair was flat and too long, flopping over his ears, and there were crumbs nestled in his dark, scruffy beard. 

“Well, we just need to find it. Can’t be too hard,” he said.

“Have you ever heard of the curse of the lost wedding ring? Nan believes in it. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, that she has one week to live, just because she lost that ring.”

Jimmy started singing. His voice wasn’t good so it took me a while to recognize that Stevie Wonder song about superstition.

“This is serious, Jim. She’s positive this is going to happen. It’s freaking me out. Honestly, it’s all I’m thinking about right now.”

“You’re spending too much time with her. You need to get out more.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re really not.”

Jimmy didn’t like me living with Nan. Some nights, when he was up too late drinking, he’d call me to warn against it. I’d wake up in the morning to a long, mournful message from him, all about how I was in the prime of my life and I needed to move forward, not backward. But, really, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Before Christmas, I’d gotten myself into trouble and I’d lost my job and my boyfriend, Mickey, too.

“I really don’t want to get into that right now.”

“Can’t avoid it.”

“You’re worse than Nan. Bugging me about it all the time.”

When I asked Nan if I could live with her, she made me tell her everything. I tried to describe it as best as I could, how one Saturday morning I woke up at Mickey’s and looked out his bedroom window and my spirits sunk at the sight of the gray sky, the dull, thick ice covering the sidewalks, the parking lot, the dumpster set back in front of the trees that blocked the road. Mickey stood behind me and said it was going to snow soon, snow mixed with sleet, and that made me feel worse. I wanted to do something, just until the weather changed, and that was when I thought of going to Mohegan Sun. I didn’t mention to Nan how Mickey refused to go with me, how he wanted to know what funds I was going to gamble with because the last time he checked, I had to borrow some money from him to pay my electric bill. I left out the part about accusing Mick of talking down to me all the time, about checking my phone constantly once I got to the casino, waiting for a text from Mick that never came. But I did tell her that the day got away from me at Mohegan Sun, that the hours spilled into each other as I paid too much for watered-down drinks and lost at every game I played. By closing time, I was just sitting in front of a slot machine, stunned by the sudden quiet on the casino floor, staring open mouthed at the pineapples, cherries, grapes on the screen before me. The security guard was curt as he told me it was time to go and this outraged me. After the day I’d had and the money I’d spent, couldn’t this man be a little nicer, a little more solicitous towards me? So I shrugged him off when he touched my arm, and then I pitched what was left of my drink at him. I tried to laugh it off— “Oops,” I joked—and then I dropped Mickey’s name because he was the Assistant D.A. in New Haven and I thought that might intimidate the guard. “I wouldn’t want to have to call him on you,” I said right before I was yanked off my seat and my arms were pinned awkwardly around my back. After that, everything turned. Mickey said he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, because my little scuffle got into the paper and his name was all over the article. My boss at the library used my bad publicity as an excuse to get rid of me.

Nan agreed to take me in only because she needed help drawing up her insulin. It was supposed to be temporary but then, a few months later? COVID.

“Anyway, we need to focus on this ring right now,” I said to Jimmy. “What can we do about it?”

“Why don’t we just buy her another one and give her that? It’s a gold band, right? She won’t know the difference.”

“Oh, she’ll know.”

“Or, look, we could do nothing at all. Just ride it out. And then, at the end of the week, she’ll see that she was wrong.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“It’ll be interesting, though, I’ve got to say, to see what she does with this time, you know? What she thinks is her last week on earth. I mean, what would you do, if it were you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think like that.”

 “I’d blow it. I’d buy a motorcycle and I’d just take off. Gone like the wind. I’d see everything I ever wanted to see but never had the chance to.”

His cheek bulged with chewed-up bread before he swallowed.

“What have you always wanted to see?”

“The Grand Canyon, for one. That big hole in the ground. It’s got to be something. I would just stand at the edge and I wouldn’t look down, Trina. No, I’d look out, towards the other side.”

He threw his arms wide open, and—for a second—I could see it too, my sweet brother, balancing on the edge of something wide and vast and deep.

The next day, Jimmy came by the house again, this time with a tool box that he borrowed from a friend. He said that, most likely, Nan lost her ring while washing her hands at the bathroom sink. He planned on opening up some pipes to find it. By that time, she’d tagged every piece of furniture in her house. Each table, bed, bookcase, and bureau had a little yellow sticky-note on it, labeled with someone’s name. She’d reserved her heavy oak dinner table for Jimmy even though he rented a room in a house that didn’t have a separate dining room. 

Jimmy stretched out on the bathroom floor, on his back, and looked up into the bowels of the washroom cabinet. He hollered at me to see if Nan had a flashlight. Then he rummaged through the tool box, picking up wrenches, dropping them back down, swearing a little under his breath. Nothing he tried worked. He ended up using his hands to twist apart the pipes. His legs were fluttering, his feet trying to gain purchase on the floor, as if he was wrestling with something big and agile, a mythical beast, and I wanted to tell him to stop before he broke something, and then it was too late because he did break something and there was a little bit of water that I had to clean up with some beach towels that Nan had recently taken out of the linen closet and tagged for one of my cousins.

“It wouldn’t be there anyway,” she told us as we cleaned up.

I asked her to retrace her steps, thinking that might help. Where had she gone the day before she woke up without her ring? We mapped out a route: living room to kitchen, back stoop (because she heard a dog barking somewhere in the neighborhood) to bathroom, living room to kitchen to back stoop again (because the dog wouldn’t stop barking). But she was half-hearted about it. She wanted me to take her to Grandpa’s grave instead.

He was in the Lower City Cemetery, not the nice, historic one near the university with the stately trees and prominent people buried in it. His gravesite had a view of the backside of a trailer park. Nothing but a chain link fence separated the patchy-grass cemetery from a row of scruffy mobile homes. I couldn’t stop looking at the sagging clothing lines, busted-up grills, and dented plastic play structures in the trailers’ backyards.

“Do you have something you want to say to him? I can give you privacy, if you’d like,” I said.

“I’m not going to stand here and talk to myself, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Although my grandfather lived with Dee for years, he never divorced Nan. He spent his free time nosing around his old house, doing odd jobs for Nan like painting the shutters, putting up storm windows, cleaning the gutters, sealing the driveway. Then, one morning, as he was driving from Dee’s house to Nan’s, he had a heart attack. He pulled over to the side of the road, right in front of the First Congregational Church, and died. A member of the Altar Guild found him and, at first, she assumed he was sleeping. She said he looked so peaceful with his arms draped over the steering wheel.

Now Nan used her cane to point at the mess of yellowed grass clippings scattered across Grandpa’s headstone.

“This is a disgrace. The city does a horrible job with maintenance. Why don’t they take better care of this place? You should ask Mickey. Mickey might know. Mickey might know someone who knows someone who can fix this.”

“I can’t ask Mickey anything anymore. We broke up, remember?”

“Of course I remember. You should ask him anyway,” she said. 

I looked down at my grandfather’s stone. There was something green growing around the carved letters of his name and the dates of his life. I got down on my knees and scraped it off with my fingers. Just a few feet away, someone had buried their poodle and the stone for that dog was bigger, taller and much more ornate than Grandpa’s.

Thursday of that week was Euchre day, and it was Nan’s turn to host. I set up card tables in the living room, as far apart as possible, placed mini-hand sanitizer bottles and a stack of paper masks on each table, and wiped down the cards. Nannie made a pitcher of lemonade and I put some of Jimmy’s oatmeal raisin cookies on a platter.

I greeted the seniors at the door and showed them to their places. First to arrive were Mr. Delaney and Miss O’Leary and Mrs. Jabrowski. They were not overly friendly to me. I’d played with them before, when I’d first moved in. Mrs. Jabrowski was my partner and, at the end of the game, she clucked her tongue and stared at me hard, without blinking. “Well, now, you got yourself euchred,” she said.

I thought Nan would lead the conversation with news about her lost ring but, at first, all she talked about was the weather and politics. She was happy that last week’s rain storm hadn’t knocked down any branches. She didn’t plan on voting for Trump again because he bragged too much. She didn’t bring up her ring until the end of the game.

“I lost my wedding ring a few days ago. You know what that means.”

Mr. Delaney threw his cards down on the table.

“There goes my concentration,” he said.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Miss O’Leary said.

“Why didn’t you tell us beforehand?” Mrs. Jabrowski wanted to know.

The seniors hustled out of Nan’s house after that, as if her bad luck was something they could catch. 

Later that night, Nan came into my room. She stood next to my bed and tapped me on my shoulder. She said that she was unable to take a deep breath. She said that it was coming fast. She didn’t specify what “it” was. She needed me to act quickly, pack a small bag for her with her insulin and syringes, a fresh nightgown, a change of underwear. It was time, she stressed, to go to the hospital and she didn’t want to get there by ambulance.

The problem was, the night before, I’d had some tequila with Jimmy and I’d taken a sleeping pill too and it was very hard for me to get out of the dreams I was having. Which were all about Mickey. In my dreams, Mick kept asking what was wrong with me and I couldn’t find the words to answer him.

Nan didn’t give up. Her finger taps got harder. She flicked the overhead light on and off. She ripped the bedsheets and comforters off me. She yanked the pillow out from under my head.

“In the name of Pete, Trina, how long do I have to wait?”

I got out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom down the hallway to slap some cold water on my face. I could hear her hollering at me to hurry up. I steadied myself, gripping both sides of the porcelain sink bowl, to stop myself from shouting back at her.

At the hospital, they didn’t want to let me in with her. She argued with the admitting nurse. She said that she didn’t feel safe without me. She said that she was an old lady and it was the middle of the night and she needed her granddaughter with her or she might start feeling even worse. Behind us, the Emergency Room’s automatic glass doors kept opening and closing even though no one else was coming in or out.

Finally, we were ushered into a cubby, a ceiling-to-floor curtain pulled tightly across for privacy. I helped her onto the examining table.

“Nan, how are you feeling now? Are you still short of breath? Has it gotten worse? Do you have any other symptoms?”

“I’ll wait until the doctor comes to answer any questions. I don’t want to have to repeat myself.”

She adjusted the mask on her face. It was one I’d bought for her, in a pretty pink color that I thought would look good with her skin tone. Her hair was perfectly braided and coiled on top of her head. She was wearing one of her best blouses and skirts. I hadn’t noticed it before but she was completely prepared for this outing.  

“You’re feeling better.”

“How do you know?”

“Nan, you had time to fix your hair.”

“Don’t get smart with me. Your mother was always smart with me.”

“You don’t have to bring Mom into this.”

“I told her not to marry your father. But she thought she knew better. And look what happened there.”

Nan was the only person in the family who was allowed to bring up my father. My mother had married him when she was nineteen but their marriage had been a disaster, ending when my mother called the cops one night because my father had started a bonfire in their front yard, fueling the fire with all of their clothes, books, bedding. I was six months old at the time and slept through the whole thing. My mom lived in Florida now, with my step-father. She was not sorry to leave New England. “I miss you and Jim,” she said to me once. “But that’s about it.”

“Look,” I said to Nan, “I’m not trying to be smart. I just don’t know what I’m doing. It’s the middle of the night and you’re thinking that you’re going to die and it’s only me here. I should call Jimmy. He’ll know what to do. Or maybe one of my other cousins or my Mom or my aunts. I just don’t know what to do, Nan.”

“Who says you have to do anything? You already did it. You got me here.”

She reached over and patted my hand. That was more than she usually did for me, so I felt better.

The doctor was a big man with an unhealthy-looking gut but he was cheerful as he ordered some tests for her.

“Gramma,” he said, touching her knee with the tips of his fingers, not noticing when Nan flinched, “We will get to the bottom of this.”

It took hours to get a chest X-ray and an EKG. By the time we got the all clear—the doctor looking disappointed as he told us that all the tests had come back with no findings, nothing wrong at all—it was turning light outside. The sky was edged with streaks of pink and yellow, and I couldn’t help but think of Mohegan Sun. After sobering up and filling out paperwork and answering questions from the local police, another guard escorted me out through the loading dock of the casino’s back entrance and I was amazed to see how pretty it was outside. Everything was light. The bad weather from the day before had left new snow on the ground. It was pristine, glazed with a thin layer of sparkling ice.

“This light is something, isn’t it?” Nan asked as I drove us out of the hospital’s parking lot.

“It is.”

Those last moments at Mohegan Sun weren’t that bad. The chill in the air felt good on my face. Of course, I didn’t know what was coming next. One other person was outside with me, an older gentleman, dressed in a rumpled tux. He handed me a bunch of casino chips. “For next time,” he said.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Nan said.

“No…”

“Let me tell you something,” she said.

“You don’t have to explain yourself. Not to me. It’s OK, Nan.”

“You’re a lot like me, did you know that?”

“No.”

“Listen to me. You’ve got bad luck, just like me.”

“Oh God, I hope not. Don’t say that.”

“I broke a mirror once.”

“I haven’t broken anything.”

“This was years ago, mind you. The mirror was hanging in our front hallway. I’d gotten it at a tag sale and I quite liked it. I was cleaning, like I always did, and I was almost done too. Who knows? I must’ve been going too fast or been careless about it because the mirror slipped off its hook and fell right off the wall. So anyway, a few weeks later, I went up to East Rock. I don’t know why I went. I was still thinking about that broken mirror. I just needed to clear my head. I thought the view would help. Anyway, I got all the way to the top and what was the first thing I saw? Your Grandpa with Dee. I recognized her right away. She was a friend of a friend. We’d see her at neighborhood parties, church, that kind of thing. I was about to call out to them, join them. ‘What a coincidence,’ I was going to say. I was such a fool. But then I stopped. There they were, facing the city, taking it all in. They weren’t touching but they were side by side and there was something between them. Oh, I could just feel it.”

East Rock’s high, trap rock ridge loomed over the city, but it was always something I barely noticed. We went there once for a family picnic when I was a kid. I remembered chasing Jimmy around the foot of its War Monument while my mother and step-father smoked cigarettes and watched us play. I’d never once heard Nan mention it before.

“So what did you do?”

“What did I do? Why ask me that? I screamed. I cried. I swung at them. I pushed them over the edge.”

“You’re not making sense, Nan.”

“None of it made sense. That’s luck for you.”

“But, look, whatever was going on between Grandpa and Dee up there? It probably didn’t start that day.”

Nan looked out the side window.

“Dee’s gone now, did you know? Stomach cancer. Got it a few years after your Grandpa died. I went to her funeral just to make sure.”

“I didn’t know that,” I said, stiffly. Something was slipping away from me but I didn’t know how to stop it.  

She tucked her chin down and stayed quiet for the rest of the way home.

At the end of the week, I prepared a special breakfast for Nan: scrambled eggs with cheese, turkey sausage links, a slice of banana bread that Jimmy had brought over the day before. I wanted to celebrate the fact that she had survived the curse. She was still alive. She’d escaped her bad luck. Those were some of the things I wanted to say to her. When I pushed open her bedroom door, I called out good morning, trying to make my voice sound as cheery as possible.    

Her bedspread was on the floor. So was a pillow of hers, the one with the embroidered pillowcase that she insisted that I iron every week. Her cane was missing from its usual spot, leaning against the bedside table, and that was how I knew that she was gone.

Jimmy checked the basement to make sure she hadn’t fallen down the stairs. Then he called 911. I went outside and ran up and down the street, calling for Nan as if she were a runaway dog that would respond to a whistle and a promise of a treat. When I came back, I slumped down on the front steps of her house. Across the street, there was a two-family house with an American flag draped over its second-floor porch. The flag was tattered and threadbare, a declaration of patriotism that had turned into an eyesore.

When I saw Mickey’s city-issued sedan pull up to the curb, I stood up.

“What are you doing here?”

He stayed close to his car, resting one elbow on the top of the open driver’s door.

“Jimmy called me. I have friends in the police department who can help.”

“I don’t need you here.”

“This is about your Grandma. Not you. Not me.”

“Her name’s Nan.”

He shrugged.

“Please, Trina, I’m trying here. I’m not a complete asshole, you know.”

I got up from the steps and slapped my hands together.

“Fine. If you’re not going to leave, then I will.”

“Come on.”

“Well, I can’t just sit around and wait. I’ve got to do something.”

That was when I thought about East Rock. Maybe—and this was the first shot of hope that I’d felt in a long time, running straight through me—she’d called a taxi to drive her up to the very top of the cliff. It wasn’t impossible. Maybe she’d wanted to use any remaining time she thought she had to go back to the place where she’d found her fate, to see the view that my grandfather and Dee had blocked for her all those years before.

“I’ll drive you there,” Mickey said.

“I should tell you to go to hell.”

“Don’t do that, Trina. For once, just don’t make things more difficult than they have to be. Just get in the car, will you?”

Jimmy came out of the house as we were driving away. I watched him in the rearview mirror, standing in the middle of the street, waving his arms in the air like he was trying to flag down a bus.

East Rock was in bad shape. The stone walls that bordered both sides of the road up to the summit were marked with loopy graffiti tags. The parking lot at the top was full of cracks and potholes; its white-painted parking stripes were barely visible. A picnic table with a busted leg was propped up next to a playground that was missing its swing seats, just chains dangled down from the rusty swing set. No one was up there but tall garbage cans were overflowing with paper bags and dented Styrofoam containers. A swarm of flies lifted up off the trash as we passed by.            

It was clear, right away, that Nan wasn’t here, that she never could’ve made it up the steep, narrow path that led to the top where a thin layer of fog hung over the city, blurring everything, and a wobbly, rusty chain link fence, with big gaps in its links, stretched across the edge. I pressed against the fence and looked down at the weeds and half-dead bushes and stunted trees growing twisted off the side of the cliff, just to make sure.

“Let’s just go back down and look for her somewhere else,” Mickey said.

“She thinks I have bad luck. Like her.”

“Of course you don’t.”

“How do you know?”

“What happens to you, Trina? It’s of your own doing.”

“Why are you here? If you think so poorly of me.”

“I told you already. I want to help. And I don’t think poorly of you, Trina. That’s not the problem.”

“Here’s the part where you’re going to tell me what the problem is.”

“It got to be too much and you know it too. We couldn’t keep on like we were.”

“But you’re here now.”

“I am.”

We didn’t say anything to each other for a moment. I was happy for his silence at first, relieved by it, really. There was so much he could’ve said to ruin everything. But then I thought of Nan again.

“Where is she? Oh, Mick, I’ve lost her.”

“You didn’t do anything. She’s fine. And we’re going to laugh about this someday. The time we believed the unbelievable. Your grandmother disappearing off the face of the earth just because she lost her wedding ring? The truth is, Trina, the world just doesn’t work that way.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Come on. I can walk under a ladder and nothing bad will happen to me. I can cross the path of a black cat and I’ll still be fine. Old wives’ tales, that’s all they are.”

Around us, the fog was slowly lifting. Mickey kept talking about superstitions. At one point, he asked me a question, but I didn’t answer him. I was beginning to see more of a view: the neat squares of the city streets, the university’s chapel spire peeking out from the treetops, the outline of the power plant by the shore, the gray shimmer of the Sound. For a moment, I even imagined Nan down there, still cursed but relatively steady on her feet, chin up, using her cane to stab the ground below her feet. She’d scold me if she knew I was up here. Why was I so surprised by her absence, she’d want to know. She’d given me fair warning, after all.


Catherine Uroff’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals, such as Sou’wester, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart, Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and the Roanoke Review. She is a past winner of the Prairie Schooner Glenna Luschei Award and was a finalist for American Short Fiction’s Short Story Contest and the Snake Nation Press Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. 

One thought on “When You Believe In Things You Don’t Understand”

  1. Gail Ansel says:

    Another wonderful story from Catherine Uroff! The skillful weaving of COVID sets the tone for the fantastical, such a smart reflection of our surreal year, the mixture of hopelessness and hope, of reality and magical thinking. Brava!

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