Sit and Be Fit

The winter my father’s mother moved out of our home was nothing short of fanged, for where we lived on the Gulf. The roads froze. My father drove us to visit the seniors’ facility after school twice a week, a 10-minute drive away. Her private suite had a little TV deep as it was wide; I could just barely wrap my arms all the way around. While she puttered around her stoveless, ovenless kitchen to fix us styrofoam plates of no-bake cheesecake she’d set in the fridge the night before, we would sit on her sofa and wait for the early-afternoon soap opera programming block to end and the late-afternoon game show programming block to begin.

During commercial breaks, between osteoporosis medication ads, the station would sometimes play these seated-exercise video guides for people with limited mobility. My father liked to follow along, snapping his own stiff fingers in mock to the beige elevator jazz. We’re going to lift the heel twice. Lift, lift, change. Lift, lift, again. Shoulder roll, bring them back. The older lady leading the demonstrations had a perm and wore sweatbands for no discernable reason. I liked her accent. She sounded like most people on TV except for how she said back, almost like how I say bake. She only ever used the same hundred phrases or so in these interstitials, so each time a new word came along and her pronunciation surprised me was a thrill, a novelty I could repeat, embalm in whisper until our shows came back on.

Both my father and his mother pretended to humor me as we tried to beat the players onscreen, more for their pride than mine. We always left when the second half-hour ended, to make it home in time for dinner with my mother before her shift. My father’s mother waved goodbye down the hallway as she’d used to from the porch of our shotgun. She still had her eyesight and driver’s license then, only no car.

The facility did not allow pets, even to visit, so I think she missed her old Alsatian more than me, whom she saw at least twice a week, which is more often than never. She’d taken Penny with her when she left the farm, and my mother, jaw tight, allowed the dog free rein in the house, in inexplicit compromise for my father’s mother looking after me when both my parents had to work. Penny liked climbing into my bed. I was underweight and short for even a younger kid’s age, and Penny often let me use her as a pillow while I read. I read somewhere that their temperaments made Alsatians good police and guard dogs, and, then, I thought, it made sense; their sweetness would put people at ease. She was nearly all black and left fur all over my sheets.

After my father’s mother moved, my parents had the floors of our home replaced. We’d flooded the September just prior, when that year’s hurricane season ended with the worst storm in all my then-eight years. It was the reason my father’s mother had named for leaving in the first place, to be out of the way so my parents could try to fix up the house, but even now, I still don’t see the causality, what either endeavor had to do with the other. Those weeks the contractors were around, I did my homework in a coat hunched outside on the concrete back steps, away from their plastic blue tarps, the TV audible through the window and Penny’s warm, napping mass beneath my knees, autumn dimming around us. I misunderstood why my mother looked so hard at us, Shepherd and breakable child. The men finished, and the kitchen was unfamiliar the first time Penny wet the new floor. My mother allowed me to clean it up twice before insisting my father take the creature to the vet.

He did and for something, the ugly name of which I can’t remember, my father was recommended a course of treatment for the dog that he wouldn’t have paid for himself. I don’t remember why he was, subsequently, recommended what he was, but I remember the word obvious because it wasn’t to me. Many words, whose they were, I don’t remember—the vet’s, my father’s, mother’s, every- and no one’s. I might misremember altogether. The roads froze again. Penny wet my bed. My mother found us both damp a Sunday morning, my arms around Penny’s great neck. She carried me to the tub and helped me wash, slowly.

The last afternoon, Penny was already in her carrier in the truckbed when the schoolbus dropped me off. I hauled myself up, feeling on the way leftover warmth radiating from the exhaust pipe, and knew my father had just gotten home. She woke up when I reached through for the notch in her right ear, scratched. I went inside, sat at the new counter, and turned on the TV. Staring at a Meatballs and Mozzarella Hot Pocket®’s orbit in the microwave, my father explained that I could come with, if I wanted. I felt many possible selves stir, nod, leave with him, but my father drove away and returned alone during an ad break, and as the woman started an overhead stretch sequence onscreen, I heard his keys scrape in the lock. I wished myself, harder than anything else I ever had or have, on the other side of the door, but: I listened to them turn. 

About the author

From Houston, Texas, Som-Mai Nguyen works in Berlin, Germany. She is entering JD studies at Penn Law. Her work can be found in The Letters Page, The Cormorant, and elsewhere.

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