The brick lived in the bottom of my daughter’s owl backpack, which sagged on her eight-year-old frame. She carried it to school every day, promising me it stayed in her bag. Not even Ms. Henley will know it’s there, Imogen said. Though as soon as we got home, she’d sit in the living room in front of the television, running her hands over the rough, grainy surface and the hardened globs of mortar that stuck to it.
My father recovered the brick last year when they demolished our old apartment building. He saved it for Imogen, gifting it to her on her birthday. Your grandmother’s dust is on that brick, he told Imogen, like the dust she left behind when she stood in front of our kitchenette and sang along to the opera station, forgetting to stir and add broth to the risotto.
My mother died years before Imogen was born. I inherited my mother’s vinyl collection—mostly Puccini and Verdi, some Wagner. Whenever she was in a second-hand store, she flipped through the records in search of an opera she didn’t own. It was the closest she ever got to the Met. In high school, I lugged our portable player on two crosstown buses so she could listen to La bohème in her hospice room.
The albums should have been covered in her dust, even more than that old brick. I should have been able to feel her.
One day Erin Whitman took the brick from Imogen’s bag and hid it. Ms. Henley eventually found it during art hour, behind one of the toilets in the girls’ bathroom. She told Imogen she could have the brick back at the end of the day, though she wasn’t allowed to bring it to school anymore. Imogen continued to cry snotty tears onto her watercolor garden painting. The nurse called me at work to pick her up.
I walked with Imogen past the car to the playground and sat down near the swings. Several feet away I could see a faded sock with superheroes on it sticking out of the sand.
Only a few strands of hair were keeping Imogen’s braid intact. I untied the blue and white ribbon and combed her hair with my fingers like my mother used to do with mine, then wove Imogen another braid, looser this time.
I asked Imogen to take the brick from her backpack. She braced herself on her knees before unzipping her bag and pulling it out. It was the same sun-bleached rust, unscathed by its stint on the bathroom floor. With her nails, Imogen dug into the chipped corners of the brick until the pads of her fingers turned pink and smooth.
She placed the brick in my hands. Grandma hums for me sometimes, she said, but only if it’s really quiet.
Imogen leaned into me and pressed her ear to the brick. I put mine to the opposite side, trying not to think of the germs the brick had picked up as my cheek grazed the surface.
Do you hear it? Imogen asked. It sounds like hmm, hmm. Or shh, shh.
I listened for my mother, for her silky contralto voice. Instead, I heard the whistle of Imogen inhaling and exhaling through a stuffy nose, unaware she was hearing herself breathe.
There she is, I said.
ALEXANDRA M. MATTHEWS — is a teacher and writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work appears in Fractured Lit, Bending Genres, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere.
Art by TCLARE — TClare is a greater New York area artist who currently is creating works that express and celebrate the healing energy of the natural world around us. Tee grew up in New York and spent half his life in the San Francisco Bay Area where he taught “Expressing Grief through Art and Music” workshops. When he isn’t creating art or listening to music, he can be found wandering the deserted marshes and bogs of the Northfork, East End of Long Island, along with his faithful black lab, Karma. More of his work can be found at www.tclare.com.