I gripped the broom with two sweaty hands as my grandmother watched me sweep the kitchen floor. We were preparing for holiday guests and had been working all afternoon getting the house ready, hanging garland and dusting every nook and cranny as my grandfather strung lights outside on the house’s roof and porch.
“Why do we always have blue lights when everyone else on the block has colored or white lights?” I asked as I searched for any remaining dust on what was already a spotlessly clean floor.
She looked at me with a frown.
I paused sweeping.
“It’s just what we do,” she said, thrusting her cigarette in the direction of some microscopic detritus in the corner.
The setting sun had cast elongated rectangles of pink light on the kitchen’s floor. A lemon pie cooled on the counter, its golden meringue peaks looking like a twisted winter wonderland from a Dr. Seuss book. On the stove a pot of soup simmered, filling the house with the aromas of boiled onions and celery as a bony chicken neck covered in gray puckered flesh bobbed on its surface.
“Grandma, why do you always eat the neck?” I asked.
She took a long drag of her cigarette, letting the bluish smoke out in a long billowing stream from the side of her mouth.
“It’s the best part,” she said, her voice mixing hoarsely with the smoke. “Boy, don’t you ask a lot of questions.”
A tap of metal on glass brought our attention to my grandfather as he peered through the window.
“I need Tim out here to help with the lights,” he said, his voice muffled.
I twisted around expectantly toward my grandmother.
“He’s still got sweeping to do,” she yelled back, her voice so loud and forceful that I raised my shoulders to help block the sound.
My grandfather smiled and then, after checking to see that she wasn’t looking, he stuck out his tongue and then raised his hands to his ears, making what looked like reindeer antlers. I laughed. Before she was able to turn to catch her husband in the act he dropped his hands and started to whistle loudly, shrugging his shoulders and grinning widely when their eyes met.
“Your floors are already so clean that I’d eat off them,” he shouted.
Her expression hardened and her pink tongue swept slowly back and forth over her lips. Without breaking eye contact she held out her arm and then gave a single flick to her cigarette, its gray ash falling to the floor.
“When he’s done he can come out and help you,” she called back, pointing to the ash.
He started to shake his head but stopped short.
“Just send him out when he’s done,” he bellowed before disappearing from view.
When I looked back my grandmother had closed her eyes and was swaying a little, her arms folded, a stream of smoke lifting from the unseen cigarette along her side.
“You ain’t never too poor to have clean floors,” she said, almost as if to herself.
Through the kitchen’s doorway, along the hall wall hung a few old photos. In one, a black-and-white picture had been painted with unnatural pastel colors — a young woman with curly blond hair wore a pink dress and held hands with a young man who looked a lot like Elvis. He wore gray pants, a black belt and boots and a bright-white T-shirt that had a square box of what I imagined must be cigarettes rolled up on one shoulder. Both grinned as they looked toward the camera. A rooster, its feathers painted with reds and greens, pecked at the dust near their feet.
I could see the resemblance of the girl in the picture in my grandmother’s ancient face.
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“Is that you and Grandpa?” I asked, pointing to the picture.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.
“What happened to the chicken?” I asked.
“Oh, that rooster stayed back in Oklahoma when we moved,” she said.
I squinted my eyes and looked at the pot on the stove.
She laughed again.
“No, that’s not him,” she said.
Outside, we could hear my grandfather as the ladder scraped along the gutters.
“OK, I think we’re done here,” she said, smiling and gently taking the broom from me as she swept up the ash herself. “Now you get outside and help your grandpa.”
I made no protest and rushed outside.
“OK, Tim, go ahead and plug in the lights,” my grandfather called from the top of the ladder.
I followed the cord until I found the plug end and began to hunt for an outlet.
“Why does Grandma always say that the chicken neck is the best part?” I yelled.
He gazed down from atop the ladder and then began to descend slowly, each step deliberate. When he reached the bottom he kneeled.
“It’s just her way,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s the best part — it looks gross,” I said.
He smiled and reached for my hands and held them, his fingers and palms rough and stained from years of welding in the shipyards.
She stepped outside onto the porch. When he looked up at her, his lips tightened.
She looked at him, frowning, and shrugged.
“What’s all this lollygagging — when we getting this show on the road?” she asked. “Being the only house ‘round with blue lights, we better make sure none of them are burned out and looking shabby.”
My grandfather stood up and guided me toward the outdoor socket.
When we plugged in the lights they popped, flickered once and then each bulb glowed and sparkled.
My grandmother joined us as we all walked to the sidewalk. We stood admiring the rows of glimmering sapphire-blue stars that now covered the house. To our left and right the other houses shimmered white or multicolored. I imagined what a bird might think as it glided overhead, amazed by what must appear as a quilt of blinking lights, or perhaps ancient stars reflected off some still-as-glass sea below.