The rain finally made good on its threat, breaking into a gentle, steady shower at ten minutes after midnight. Dale was still awake, puttering around the kitchen now that her grandmother had finally gone to sleep, leaving her the fleeting illusion of having some space and privacy to call her own. Dale was making the most of it, which, at twelve-thirty in an apartment that stood virtually unchanged since 1968, consisted of making a cup of tea and listening to the rain. She danced around the kitchen a little while the water heated, and inspected her grandmother’s tea assortment, arranged by some system into no less than eight separate receptacles that lined the counter and adorned the ancient range. The only decipherable, branded tea bags were in a screw-top jar that had probably once held jelly; next to that was a second recycled jar stuffed with artificial sugar packets, which Dale had watched her grandmother steal, stealthily but unapologetically, from the diner where they had lunch once a week.
“Why should I buy that stuff?” she’d demanded, when Dale suggested the moral grey area in her action. “The only one who ever uses it is Kitty, and she doesn’t come to visit but once in a while. I’m not going to pay for a whole box of it!” Dale shrugged and silently conceded the point, but she kept an alert eye trained for any suggestion that her grandmother had extended the help-yourself policy to include salt-shakers or cutlery.
In the coffee pot there was about two inches of dregs-coffee sitting cold. Dale had once made the mistake of pouring this coffee out, sending her grandmother into a near-apoplectic state. Once she’d calmed down, her grandmother had explained that the coffee was to be recycled into iced coffee – it was still good, after all! – and showed her the jar in the refrigerator that had probably once held spaghetti sauce where she accumulated the leftovers.
“The Depression,” Dale’s mother said, when Dale made mention of this and other behaviors that struck her as irretrievably strange. “She’s always been that way, because of the Depression.”
“Are you going down today?” Dale’s grandmother asked the question as though people who were not 90 years old spent all Saturday sitting in a faded apartment. As though Dale was not holding her purse and putting on her coat and standing next to the front door.
“Yes,” said Dale. “You know Sandra’s in town; I’m meeting her for brunch in 20 minutes.”
“Wait, wait, wait – take some bottles with you to Associated,” her grandmother struggled to her feet and went rummaging in the coat closet, shunting plastic water bottles one by one into a grocery bag. “You get a nickel apiece for them.”
“Here, let me do it,” Dale said, with a touch of impatience. She was already running a little late, to be honest, and was pretty sure the 5-cent return process involved standing in a long line with a bunch of Chinese women with shopping carts full of salvaged recycling that they used to supplement their income. On her way out she deposited the bag of bottles in the building’s communal recycling bin, counting them carefully and pocketing $1.20 to give to her grandmother later.
“The Depression,” her sister said, over brunch. “Mom says it makes her weird. They had nothing, I guess, when she was so young. It leaves an impression.”
“You aren’t living with her,” Dale said. “It’s beyond weird.”
“She’s just old,” Sandra said. “So many things are beyond her control. She has to feel in charge of something.”
“Well, she’s not in charge of me,” said Dale, thinking about the bottles and feeling petty, but still incapable of not-being petty. “That line would have taken me half an hour to get through. That’s like getting paid $2.50 an hour.”
“Maybe that was a lot back then,” Sandra said. “And isn’t living with your grandmother to save money a lot like turning in bottles for change? It’s not pleasant, but it’s a living.” Dale had nothing to say to that. She encouraged Sandra to talk about her extravagant trip to Italy for the remainder of brunch, and made a hasty exit after they’d settled the check.
She walked home feeling gloomy; the sudden overcasting of the afternoon sky only deepened the feeling. This was not uncommon, in fact, she was accustomed to intermittent spells of sadness, anger, and generally negative feelings, but this was the first one she’d had living with her grandmother, and not having a place to hole up alone and wait out the bad mood was wearing on her. She continued to walk, restlessly, without any clear destination.