My great-grandma’s apartment is gone. Every day I drove past it to get my coffee. Two tall towers that never really belonged there—stuck up like two fingers in the midst of a short, small neighborhood. The buildings lost and lost, diminished and diminished like sandcastles on a beach, but sharp. They got sharper, not smoother. They lost their windows and howled open. They lost their dressings, floors, light fixtures. Then they lost themselves, story by story. When my great-grandma lived there, we ate oatmeal with butter, green knox blocks, and fried chicken. I slept in my blue flowered sleeping bag on the floor.
I danced my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls on the table and on the path that led around the buildings, where we went to walk in the shade. We must have talked, too, but I don’t remember anything we said. My great-grandma moved into my grandma’s house, then a nursing home, then to death. Her name was Mabel Stieren, and my favorite word she used was “evidently.” She took Latin and ancient Greek in high school. She had one child, a girl. She married a mortician and lived above a funeral home. She was embalmed in the same place her husband had worked, and where he was embalmed, and where they would dress and make up her son-in-law, my grandfather.
Everyone said her husband was charming as hell. Arthur smoked cigars and teased everyone and kept dacschunds. No one says Mabel was charming or funny or talented or interesting. And she’s gone.
I would drive by where great-grandma’s apartment building used to be, and think of her, and go in to get my coffee. I got my coffee there every day and now the place is gone. Not every day. Most days. The last day they were open, I pulled up thinking I’d charge my phone there and get a mocha. Oliver was standing outside talking with some people. “You’re too late!” he said. “Sorry.” It was like going home to find someone standing in front of your living room. “You’re too late. Sorry.”
I never ordered there. They brought me my drink when it was ready. Sometimes a new person asked if I got whole milk or skim, and I would say, “I don’t know. They just make it for me.”
I saw all the same people. Some of them became friends, one became a boyfriend, and some I never talked to– the professors, the composers, the Shakespeare festival director, the autistic guy who mumbled to himself but was harmless, the comedian who had cerebral palsy and used a power wheelchair, the white man and the black woman and their daughter. Once I listened to them argue pretty passionately. The blonde woman who remarried the tall guy who biked and played chess with her son. The hippie couple—after they divorced the dad still came occasionally with the daughter and her plastic animals. The lesbian twins with their matching glasses and izod shirts. The guy who would play the flute outside, as if anyone wanted to hear that. The guy who looked like Brad Pitt, but not in a good way. Sometimes I brought my own peanut butter because I knew they were out.
I watched two baristas, Robin and Bonnie, grow more and more pregnant, have the baby, and then I got to meet Zeke and Sparrow. I read the poem of the month, written on the chalkboard. I restacked the newspapers when I was done. I always took my dishes up to the counter. They knew to give me my drink in a cup with a saucer, or a mug, never a paper cup.
Now all the dishes are gone, sold, and the fourth of five spots in the building is empty. No newspapers, no babies, no peanut butter. Sometimes I see people from our old place, and even if I never talked with them before, now we say hello. We are bonded now, as we didn’t realize we were before. We are all floating around because our place is gone.