Featured image: The Cat that Loves to Smoke, by Yatin Thomas Marneni
I was twisting the balls of my feet into the pale, beige carpet, but the fabric was so short and rough that I couldn’t move any of the fibers. My shoes were too tight, and the room was so stuffy and square that I didn’t want to keep my head up anymore. There were tables full of dull, flower bouquets wrapped around the room. Cards of condolences stuck out between the arrangements of white daisies, roses, and lilies. Nothing too colorful. The yellow lighting made everything hazy and dirty.
In the back of the room was where the casket was, and next to it was the memorial stand with a picture of my grandpa’s face propped up on it. His face was still round and full in the photo. His thin gray hair was combed to the side like it always was. His warm, tender smile crinkled the skin around his clear, blue eyes that the picture didn’t really capture that well.
“In Loving Memory of Donald Fischer”
He would’ve hated this place.
My grandpa was a very loved man who sold potatoes. He was very good at what he did. Any red, roasted potato in a frozen meal or blended product probably came through him. People called him the “spuds king,” and eventually his subjects started to trickle into the funeral home. I sat in between the rows of identical wooden chairs as friends, colleagues, fellow food lovers, and all the relatives I didn’t recognize filed in. I don’t know how my grandma was able to talk to all of them, but she put up a strong front, at least for a little while.
It must’ve rained the night before because my heels were sinking into the ground at the burial. Everyone from the service came, and I watched their shoes get covered with mud. We gathered around the casket, and my dad was probably the only thing holding my grandma up. The cold wind whistled through the trees, and the clouds rolled over each other.
Winter came quickly and the sun began to set earlier. For the next month, I spent a majority of my evenings high under the skylight of my bedroom, watching the sun slowly sink out of view. It wasn’t something I was proud of, but numbing myself out was the only way I could sleep at night. Otherwise, I would think myself into holes, trying to understand how my grandpa, healthy and happy in July, could be dead four months later.
One night, I was lying in bed watching the raindrops pool on the skylight, when there was a knock on my door. The door cracked open, and my grandma poked her head in.
“Hey Bug,” she said softly.
“Grandma?” I immediately sat up. “Why did you walk all the way up here?” I asked disapprovingly. She shooed off my concern as I helped her over to my bed. I didn’t like making my grandma walk up one flight of stairs, let alone three.
“I’ve got something for you,” she told me. She removed a canvas bag from her shoulder, the same one she always brought when she came to visit. She lifted the bag up onto her lap, opened it, and pulled out a small, denim teddy bear. It was made up of patches of different shades of navies and blues, and it had round, black, button eyes. I knew what it was, but I figured I’d ask anyway.
“What’s this?” I took the bear in my hands.
“It’s made from grandpa’s old jeans,” she answered. Tears were welling up in her eyes, and I didn’t know what to say. There is something so horrible about watching adults cry. I set the bear down next to me on the bed so I could hug her. As I wrapped my arms around her, I heard the bear fall off the bed and onto the floor.
“I had one made for all of the grandkids,” she told me, her voice quavering. I was a little too old for a teddy bear, but I knew my little cousins probably loved it.
“Thank you,” I said, squeezing her tightly before pulling away. Her bottom lip was quivering despite her trying to hide it with a frown. She lifted herself up and put her hand on my cheek. It was shaking, so I covered it with my own and held it there for a little bit. I gave her my best smile and tried to look as appreciative as I could before she pulled away. She walked back to my door and began to make her way back downstairs. I would’ve offered to help her down, but I couldn’t move.
When I was 8, I spent an entire summer with my grandparents while my parents went on a vacation together. We drove twelve hours from Indianapolis to their condo in Brigantine, New Jersey. I spent the summer on the beach, boogie boarding, eating way too much ice cream, and never putting on enough sunscreen.
My grandpa strapped our bikes onto the back of his green Yukon Denali so we could ride our bikes down the boardwalk together when my grandma needed a break from us. He got me a pair of biker gloves with flames on them that made me feel invincible, up until the one time when I cut a turn too tight and ended up on the pavement.
He quickly pulled me off to the side, away from all the people, and dug through his fanny pack to find bandaids for the scrape on my knee. I was a tough kid, but I started crying, more so embarrassed than hurt. Noticing that I was upset, my grandpa got down on his knees, cupped my face in his hands and told me that it was okay to cry. He wiped away my tears before eventually helping me to my feet. He brushed me off, took me by the shoulders, and told me that my knee made me look like a badass, which was a word I couldn’t tell my grandma he said.
My grandpa always knew what to do and what to say. He liked being the “fixer” of the family, the glue that held everything together. Cancer was something none of us believed could even happen to him, and it was even harder to understand how it killed him so quickly. I kept trying to wrap my head around it, picking apart my memories, trying to find any signs. Maybe if the fixer of the family admitted that he was broken sooner he’d still be here.
I sat in my bed for a while after my grandma left before eventually grabbing the dab pen hidden under my pillow. I took a long and smooth pull to get the best hit. I picked up the denim teddy bear from where it had fallen and sat it in front of me. The bear’s face, stiff and sad, stared back at me with its lifeless, black buttoned eyes. It wore a plain, navy vest that was too rough to hug, and its body was cold and overstuffed. I poked at its belly and pushed it over.
At some point after the sun went down, I decided to tuck myself into bed. There wasn’t anything else to do besides sleep, so I pulled the covers up under my chin and slumped down onto my pillow. The bear fell off my bed, back onto the floor, and I left it there.
I was blinking in and out of sleep when suddenly, the button eyes of the bear began to move. The buttons squinted and blinked, and the bear raised its head off the floor. It stood up, almost losing its balance, and hobbled to the foot of my bed. The bear swung its arms back and launched itself into the air, landing gently by my feet. I laughed and closed my eyes, mentally noting how many hits from my pen was too much.
The bear didn’t stop though. I felt it crawl up my torso and stop right on my chest. When I opened my eyes I saw its chubby denim arm inches from my face, its button eyes staring right into me.
“AHHHH!” I screamed. I jumped up in shock and flung my head backwards, accidentally banging it against my headboard. The denim teddy bear lost its balance and fell off the bed.
“Ow,” I winced, shutting my eyes and rubbing the back of my head. I was hoping the hit would snap me out of whatever hallucination I was having. I opened one eye and then the other, squinting around my room. Having regained its balance after falling on the floor, the denim teddy bear shot back up onto my bed.
I screamed again, falling off the other end of my bed. The bear waddled to the edge of the bed and looked down at me. I kicked at the space between us, backing up against the wall.
“What the fuck,” I whispered. I brought my knees up to my chest and buried my face into my hands. I tried to convince myself that I was just really high. After a couple big, deep breaths, I peeked through my fingers to see that the bear was still looking at me. It hopped down from the bed, a foot away from my feet.
“No, no, stay away from me,” I yelled at it. I jumped to my feet and scrambled to the opposite side of the room. I sat down next to my shoe rack and moved it in front of me for protection. The denim bear shuffled around the bed towards me.
“Stop!” I pleaded. I took one of my shoes off the rack and chucked it at the bear. I missed, and it flew right over the bear’s head. Without even hesitating it continued to walk towards me, closing the space between us.
“Stop!” I yelled again, grabbing another shoe. Determined not to miss, I carefully aimed the shoe at the bear’s feet and flung it forward with as much power as I could. It bounced off the ground in front of its feet and struck the bear directly in the face, knocking it on its back, motionless. I slapped my hand over my mouth in shock.
“Oh my god, I killed it,” I said, removing my hand. The denim bear was lying lifeless on the floor. I waited a couple seconds to make sure it really wasn’t moving. I slowly began to scoot across the floor towards the bear before stopping a couple feet away from it. When the bear’s button eyes started to squint, I felt my heart skip a beat, and I think I almost passed out. I contemplated trying to find a knife so I could stab it or something, but I didn’t want to take my eyes off it. I watched the bear slowly stand up.
“Stay away,” I warned, raising my fist in the air. It acknowledged my warning and sat back down disappointedly. Its button eyes drooped in a pleading way. I have no idea how it was possible, but the buttons looked sad.
“What do you want?” I asked. The bear raised its arm and then reached out to me.
“My hand?” I extended my hand to the bear, but it shook its head. The bear brought both of its arms up to its face.
“You want my face?” I questioned, pointing to my cheek. The bear nodded its head excitedly.
“That’s a little weird,” I accused skeptically. The bear brought its arms up to its face again, tapping it gently.
“No,” I declared, crossing my arms. I didn’t care how cute the bear looked; I was not going to let it touch my face. I had no idea what was going on.
The bear dropped its arms to its sides in defeat. It looked around my room like it was thinking. Its gaze stopped when it reached my nightstand next to my bed, and it started to wobble over to it. I stood up slowly, following a couple feet behind the bear. I wondered what it was trying to do.
When it reached the foot of my nightstand, it flung its arms backwards again and leaped up onto it. It knocked over almost everything I had on top of it, pushing my pencils, a bag of Cheez-its, some pieces of paper, and an opened water bottle off the edge.
“Watch it,” I said, quickly picking up the bottle before it could spill all over my carpet.
When I stood up to look back at the bear it was standing over the memorial card of my grandpa. I had left it there after the funeral, and it must’ve been hidden under all the stuff on my nightstand.
“How did you…” I pointed at the card. I don’t know how the bear could’ve known that it was there. It turned and looked back at me, its eyes wide. It brought its arms up to its face again. I let out a frustrated sigh, finally letting my guard down.
“Fine,” I relented. If a bear made of my dead grandpa’s jeans was trying to tell me something about him then I might as well let it. I took a step back from my nightstand and plopped down on the floor with my arms crossed. The bear jumped down in front of me, and I glared down at it, wanting to get it over with. It reached its arms up, asking to be picked up. I complied, grimacing as it moved in my hands. I brought it up to my face, and it reached out its arms.
I can’t explain how it happened, but when the denim touched my face, the room faded away around me. When everything came back into focus, my grandpa was kneeling in front of me, holding my face in his big, gentle hands that the chemo never got to. I brought my hands up to my face and placed them over his. My mouth dropped open when I realized that I could feel them.
He smiled, his eyes crinkling as always, and he nodded his head as if he knew I was going to ask if it was really him. I stared into his bright blue eyes and could see my reflection in his irises. I couldn’t believe he was there.
I started to cry for the first time since the funeral. It was okay to cry in front of him. Tears streamed down my face, and I kept trying to blink my tears away so I could see him clearly.
When I saw him in the casket at the service, he was barely recognizable. Chemo had run its course through his body, and the makeup they put on his face couldn’t hide how disfigured it was. But now, sitting in front of me was the grandpa I had always known and loved. His face was full and soft, and his big nose held his glasses perfectly in place. Sobbing, I buried my face into his chest, and he wrapped his arms around me. He held me as I twitched and shook, trying to get air in in-between whimpers. Neither of us said a word, and we stayed like that for a little while until I calmed down. He hugged me tightly before gently pushing me away.
He held me by the shoulders an arm’s length away from him like he used to do when I was a kid. He shut his eyes, bowed his head down towards me, and lightly touched his forehead to mine. I closed my eyes too, and we just listened to each other breathe for a while.
When I opened my eyes, he was gone. I was sitting alone in the middle of my dark room, holding the denim teddy bear up to my forehead. I lowered it slowly, looking around the room as if my grandpa would still be there before looking back at the bear. Its black button eyes had returned to their regular round shape.
I brought its arms up to my face, trying to see if I could bring my grandpa back for a couple more minutes, but nothing happened. I took a second to gather myself, wiping the tears off my face.
I willed myself up off the floor and back into my bed. I buried myself under the covers again, this time with my grandpa’s bear next to me. I laid my head down on my pillow and hugged the bear so that it was close to my face. It was still stiff and cold, but now I could smell it.
It smelled like winning hide and seek, like building pillow forts in the sunroom, like dancing under the kitchen lights.
It smelled like the car ride to Brigantine, like jumping through puddles with a rainbow overhead, like running along the beach.
It smelled like him.
Katie Smith is a junior majoring in Chemistry and Writing Intensive English with a minor in film studies. Outside of class, she loves to play soccer and consume multiple forms of media at the same time. She hopes to publish a collection of short stories or make short films one day.
Yatin Thomas Marneni is a student studying in the Accounting Program at the College of Business Administration at Marquette University. He spends his time studying for class, visiting his family in Illinois, and working on various drawings and paintings.