Tamara Burross-Grisanti ~ Four Stories

Broken Cakes

Autumn is my bur­den. My morn­ings come mid-after­noon. I crawl out of bed by the light between the pur­ple vel­vet cur­tains from my failed sec­ond-mar­riage bed­room. I take a swig of vod­ka to wet my cracked lips, light a cig­a­rette on the fumes of my next breath.

My eldest daugh­ter is vis­it­ing. She got sick match­ing shots with me last night. I held her hair over the toi­let I have not cleaned in months, sur­round­ed by bro­ken cakes of eye­shad­ow from my teenage years in the sev­en­ties, blue and mul­ber­ry with tiny sparkles, pig­ment­ed cot­ton swabs bent and bro­ken. She stag­gered next door to my mother’s house where she is stay­ing because she refus­es to share my bed. She is too privy already, she says, to the things I still do with her father.

I water my plants, the only things I can man­age to take care of these days. I pull my hair under a cap and pull on my soiled sneak­ers and cut­offs, despite the autumn chill. The trees have undressed them­selves, car­pet­ing the lawn in cop­per, ochre, and ter­ra cot­ta. I grasp the rake and my pack of smokes, and start pil­ing the leaves in the mid­dle of the dri­ve­way. I drown them in gaso­line, light a Marlboro 100 and toss the match into the heap.

I imag­ine my child­hood home engulfed in fire, this farm­house where I both began and end­ed up, mov­ing first away, and then back in my fifties. My two girls bare­ly speak to me. I toss my cig­a­rette into the flames and slip on my work gloves, not mind­ing the smoke in my face as I neat­en the piles.

My daugh­ter comes out on the porch with her mid­day cof­fee. She is tall and pale, like her father, in the sun­light. I prop my hand to my fore­head, man­age, “Morning. Feeling bet­ter?” and she nods in my direc­tion, sips silent­ly, needling me. My moth­er joins her on the porch. I look back down at the flames and rake more leaves into the crater in the cen­ter. The black smoke rises.

She Plays Loud

Everything is per­fect at Mavis Farm until Uncle Ellis comes over, unshow­ered Uncle Ellis stag­ger­ing down the hill to the farm­house. Little Mara and Hilary stay every week­end with Pa and Granny at Mavis Farm, and they glee­ful­ly roam the perime­ter, even cross the creek and tres­pass into Aunt Kay’s corn­field, but they are ver­boten from the hill where Uncle Ellis’s camper sits. Uncle Ellis can­not be trust­ed, they are told, not since that one time.

Mara sits on the piano bench in the evenings, prac­tices her music. She plays loud when Uncle Ellis comes over to watch the coun­try music videos on Saturday nights. He grabs the remote and turns up the tele­vi­sion vol­ume. Mara turns the fray­ing hym­nal pages, props the book open with two oth­er hym­nals. She plays “Mansions Over the Hilltop.”

Girl! Hey, girl!” Uncle Ellis yells over the ruckus, turn­ing in the arm­chair with his sup­per plate on his lap. “Quit play­ing that piano!”

Mara fin­ish­es the hymn and flips through the pages. The coun­try music blares through­out the house. Mara set­tles on “In the Garden,” and begins to play, slam­ming her fin­gers against the ivories.

Uncle Ellis turns around again. “Girl!”

Mara keeps play­ing. The TV speak­ers duel with the wood­en ham­mers beat­ing the strings. Alan Jackson ver­sus Heavenly Highway Hymns.

Uncle Ellis clicks off the TV, flings the remote, and leaves his plate on the kitchen table on his way out the door. Granny fans the stink behind him, takes the plate and fork and dumps them into the trash. Mara places her thumb on mid­dle C and stretch­es her pinky for the C one octave up. Someday her fin­gers will be able to reach.


My mud­dy shoes stamp more dirt into the floor­board. I scoot across crum­pled Vantage cig­a­rette packs on the bench seat of Pa’s pick­up, smear my dirty palm prints on the win­dows. Pa, ignor­ing me, con­tin­ues to light the dry, fal­low field on fire with his Bic. He is smok­ing, as usu­al, as he sets aflame the shoul­der-high brush near the back of his truck.

Usually Pa allows me to be under­foot, but today is dif­fer­ent, and I am scared sober and slight­ly hurt. My hatred for being cooped up soon trumps my hav­ing been told to stay put. I press my nose to the glass and, with sheep­ish pecks on the win­dow, cam­paign to be let out of the truck. The flames leap up, the wind blow­ing them towards the open tailgate.

The emp­ty feed sacks back there will catch first, I think, and clos­er and clos­er the fire creeps. “Pa!” I shout, fran­tic, as the fire begins to inch toward the back tires. I catch a glimpse of black smoke in the side mir­ror. I imag­ine the pain of burn­ing alive. Pa walks back, not hur­ry­ing. He turns the key in the igni­tion, but only a jagged rack­et from the engine and then noth­ing. The flames are dev­il tongues lick­ing at the pas­sen­ger window.

I think we will sure­ly have to aban­don the vehi­cle to the blaze and run for our lives. But Pa doesn’t look the least bit wor­ried. He asks me to pipe down, and the truck cranks. He throws it into gear and speeds across the bumpy bot­toms away from the burn­ing field. Ruts and mud holes jos­tle the two of us, qui­et. Pa removes his cap and wipes the sweat off his fore­head with his shirt sleeve. I look back and swear I can see the tire tracks in the flat­tened grass lead­ing right into the mouth of hell.

My Ponytail Plant

My moth­er texts that hos­pice would be nice, but she doesn’t have insur­ance. All the drunk­en threats have come down to an abscess in her nose and a staph infec­tion. She does not fill her antibi­otics, refus­es to go to the emer­gency room as her doc­tor instructed.

Sick of fight­ing life,” she writes. “All I see are these four walls. You have to think of my feel­ings, too. Do you think peo­ple in a nurs­ing home are happy?”

You’re fifty-eight,” I tell her. “You’re nowhere near a nurs­ing home.”

Love you more than I can say. I wish you had my most pre­cious plants,” she says. “They’ll die tonight in the frost, I guess. No room to bring them in. Told them all good­bye this evening. Plants were my only com­pa­ny. I wish you had my pony­tail plant. It’s very old. Coming here was its fatal mis­take. I feel that about myself so much.”

Do you need mon­ey for the surgery? We can pay for it,” I write back.

Just let­ting you know, baby. Wasn’t expect­ing you to fix it. It’s okay,” she says.

I call her but she sends me to voice mail.

When I was sev­en my dog Peppermint died. He was old when we got him, and one day he sim­ply dis­ap­peared. I called and called. Days lat­er my father found his body under the bush hog on the trac­tor. He had lain on his side and wrig­gled under­neath the blade housing.

I asked my father why he had been in such a place when he died.

He said because dogs go off to die. They hide from their humans so they can be alone.

Do you need me to come down there and take you to the hos­pi­tal myself?” I ask.

Ha. Do not try. I’m not going to the hos­pi­tal,” she says.

My grand­moth­er tries. My sis­ter tries. I book a flight down and stand out­side my mother’s house in the rental car’s head­lights, call­ing and calling.


Tamara Burross Grisanti’s fic­tion and poet­ry appear in New World Writing, Eunoia Review, and Chicago Literati. She is the asso­ciate edi­tor of ELJ: Elm Leaves Journal.