Sunset Years

Katie Cortese

Grams didn’t turn goldfish overnight. First it was just a skin-sheen like gold dust. The Thanksgiving it all started, Auntie Nance sliced a round from the glistening cranberry cylinder and asked Grams for her secret, “You’re glowing, Phyllis. Do tell.” Thirty years sat between them, but Nance’s smile wouldn’t stick to her lips.

“Goodness, it’s just cold cream,” Grams said, cupping her own cheek, a creamy expanse the color of lobster bisque.

But by the end of the month, she couldn’t hide the tail pushing at the elastic waist of her pink velour pants. The pectoral fins had her dropping things, setting them down in strange places, misplacing them so we’d come into rooms and find her spinning a slow circle there, examining shelves, the floor, the walls, just reminding herself, she said, of where she belonged.

When she was too far gone to walk, my brother, the plumber, called in a favor at the aquarium where he was on call. The following Saturday, five men and one woman in jumpsuits installed a plexiglass tunnel on the main floor. It gave Grams the freedom to roam from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to den—thank god for open concept design. Though my brother stopped in every couple of weeks with add-ons and extensions, Grams almost always swam the same circuit ten, twenty, fifty times a day, gills a-flutter with what looked like joy. My mother walked around moaning over “resale value.” She folded and unfolded the water bill. She kept a sharp lookout for leaks.


Gradually, we adjusted to our new, slippery grandma. Because I was studying to be a CNA, I was the one to help her in and out of the tube, and in and out of the tub, and in and out of her quiet, kelp-lined sleeping tank. I assisted with her ablutions, checked her for fish lice, and let her shimmy back and forth against her hairbrush to keep some semblance of her old routine. Every night before bed, I’d tell her what was new with me—the ex I was trying to forget who kept butt-dialing me; the three pounds I’d lost and the five I’d regained; my dream of moving to Denver, 2,000 miles away and a full mile higher than the muggy coast where we’d all spawned and I now felt mired. She couldn’t add much to the conversation, but she bobbed sympathetically, chewing her green squares of nori, fibrous and dense—the only treat that seemed to satisfy her burgeoning brine-tooth.

When I say we adjusted, I mean everyone except my mom, who seemed enraged by her mother’s transformation. On her way to catch her train every morning, my mother would shout out a list of chores “to keep Grams occupied,” then get through-the-roof pissed on returning home to find the windows still smudged and the houseplants smelling of Windex. After I kept finding my mother murder-chopping carrots while Grams swam her circuit in a frenzy, I left them alone only when I had class and practicums.

It was after one of those fights, after I finally got Grams to stop chasing her own tail and settle down in her tank for the night, that I called my mother out. “What’s going on?” I asked her. She was not a cruel woman, or hadn’t been, but she wouldn’t look me in the eye. I followed her from the sink, where she’d been letting the water run into an overflowing saucepan, to the deck, where she lowered herself into a patio chair and pulled her sweater tight around her.

“That’s not my mom in there,” said my newly strange mother, a woman who’d always sprouted empathetic tears when she had to swab my scrapes with alcohol; the same woman, tiny but fierce, who’d called up the parents of my high school heartbreak and threatened to sue their son’s ass for emotional distress. The same woman who’d driven me to every track meet of my mediocre career because the bus made me nauseous; who ushered housebound spiders out of doors; who’d stopped going to the church of her youth when the pastor suggested conversion therapy for my brother, who’s happily married now to a traffic cop named Burl. It was that same woman now disowning her own mother because she’d moved into a new phase of life. Because she couldn’t always recognize her own name. Because she often treated us as strangers, and didn’t seem to miss her own family, wherever they might be.

“She’s still Grams deep down,” I tried, “and besides, she can’t help—”

“Yes, I know, and I can,” my mother said. “I’ll try, okay? I’ll try to be better.” She shook her head and stared into the dark beyond the railing. “An ever-loving goldfish.” It sounded like she was laughing then. The porch lights lent a glimmer to the moons beneath her eyes. Long after she’d thumbed them dry, her rainbow shimmer still gleamed.


I was hoping my mother would thaw after that, but she and December grew colder in tandem. “Since we’re living in a fish tank anyway . . .,” she muttered one night, trading her skirt suit for painter’s whites. I watched her start a mural of cresting waves on one living room wall and within the week, blue-green horizons flooded the entire first floor, seeping along the kitchen backsplash, filling in the powder room, and drowning all four dining room walls.

She took a few days off from renovations, and I thought maybe her anger was spent, but one morning I went down for breakfast and passed a castle in the hallway where Grams lingered, mesmerized. Mom had fashioned the stones from papier-mâché and sheathed half-a-dozen pool noodles in black tights for a gate. I didn’t find the effect realistic, but Grams bumped her nose raw on the Plexiglas attempting to enter, as if she hoped to find something on the other side. Resale value, I couldn’t help thinking.

My father said to give my mother a break. No matter how old you were, he said, losing a parent felt exactly like drowning, but also like falling from an impossible height, and some people never stopped falling, never breathed in fully again. His father’s heart attack at forty-six meant I never met my grandfather, but Nanny lived in Sarasota, selling shark-tooth necklaces three for fifteen bucks online. He looked straight at me then, like I was a stranger, and smiled politely, loosening his tie. “Anyway,” he said, as if waking from a dream. My father wandered to the stove to lift the lid on a pot of marinara, then drifted out of the kitchen, whistling.

My teachers at the community college called it CSS. Caregiver Stress Syndrome. When she wasn’t rage-cleaning or bitching in Grams’s general direction, she’d get out a shoebox of pictures and hold them up to the tank. If Grams showed the slightest confusion or disinterest, my mother would tap the glass, tell her she needed hearing aids, ask her what the use of living was if she couldn’t remember who she’d been. Sometimes after those sessions, it seemed like Grams might be crying, but with all that water around her who could tell.


By the time Christmas clumped around like a drunken Clydesdale, Grams was little more than a wide smile and a pair of bulging, black-and-white eyes. My brother and Burl brought their famous pear tart for dessert, but they’d also made some crispy kale flakes special and Grams showed her appreciation by letting Burl hand-feed her.

My brother found me outside after dinner, sipping my eggnog on the snowy front step. He tapped out a Camel but didn’t light it. “How’s she doing?” he asked, breath leaving his nose in two neat streams.

“More scales gone every day. She’ll be see-through before long.” I didn’t tell him how I found her that morning repeatedly battering the drawbridge spot, or the way she gasped at the surface of the water like she’d forgotten the new way she breathed.

“Not Grams,” he said. “I’ve got eyes. I mean Mom.”

“Oh, right.” I pulled my bare fingers further into the sleeves of the parka I’d thrown on unzipped. She’s cold, I thought, icy. Subzero. But if my instructors had taught me to value anything it was precision of language, and there was nothing wrong with her that a thermometer could detect. “I don’t know. Mom’s…agitated. She’s started grinding her teeth in her sleep. I can hear her down the hall, and it sounds like someone chewing on chicken bones.” CSS, I could have said, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. If anyone was going to come down with that, by rights it should have been me.

He frowned and lit his cigarette at last, but didn’t raise it back to his lips. In the three furrows beneath his hairline, I read the blueprints for our father’s face. “Keep an eye on her,” he said. “All dams have a breaking point.” He held out the cigarette with its column of ash. “Trying to quit,” he said, “in case we have a kid. Looking into adoption.”

I took it and studied the cherry before dragging it back to life. “Wow, that’s huge,” I said, tapping gray snow into the wind. “Bet I’d be a kick-ass aunt.”

“I’m counting on it,” he said, then lingered by the door before going back in. “Watch Grams around the tub drain, okay? You’d be surprised what an old house can swallow.”


It was later that night when I crept down to the living room where the tree pulsed a scrim of green then red then blue over the painted sea. Some people can’t sleep the night before Christmas, but for me it was always the night after—the next Christmas as far away as it would ever be, another year behind me, new presents already on their way to feeling old.

Mom was there, too, down on her knees, the wet vac she’d bought for herself mouthing the carpet where I could see a spreading dark stain. “Tunnel finally leaked,” she said, “over by the hallway. Your brother’s on his way back.”

I examined the place where a gasket had slipped, right across from the castle’s gate. Grandma was stronger than any of us gave her credit for.

My mother had wrapped some duct tape around the leak, but water still seeped out. I gathered towels, a box of garbage bags. My brother’s drive back from the city would take an hour or more.

“I got it,” my mother said, waving me away from the spill, which continued to flow. Behind me, she ran the hose over and over damp carpet, humming while she worked, sucking up the water along with anything not nailed down. A pair of ankle socks, balled up and sodden. One of my father’s woodworking magazines, now gone to pulp. Then she stood and ran the hose over a built-in bookcase’s bottom shelf where a neat row of spines had darkened. A tasseled bookmark flew out of All Quiet on the Western Front and disappeared down the hose. Higher, she sucked up a pair of candlesticks, one after the other, and a lumpy clay ashtray I’d made at camp before any of us smoked. Next, my brother’s wedding picture in its frame, my father’s cap signed by Mo Vaughn, her own father’s dog tags, which rattled through the tube like birdshot.

“Mom,” I said, as she moved down the wall, sucking curtains from their jingling grommets. Ornaments from the tree threatened to clog the corrugated hose before being gulped into the humming beast’s belly. “Mom,” I said, raising my voice above the machine, grabbing for the hose as she moved toward the castle’s tallest turret, where she would have sucked fake stone from plaster and plaster from drywall and drywall from plywood if I hadn’t wrested the hose away. “Mom,” I said, “please stop. Let me clean it in the morning.”

“My daughter, the saint,” she spat, slapping away a tear before it could hit her cheeks.

“No one deserves this, Mom. Any of this. Grams doesn’t deserve it. You don’t either.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” she said. “Yes, I do. It’s a good lesson. She tried to be a good mother. Made me feel special, like someone who would make a mark.” She pointed to me now, and then upstairs where my dad snored, where my brother used to sleep. “But that’s a fairy tale. None of us are special, darling. No one is unforgettable, given enough time.”

“I’ll always remember you, Mom. What are you saying? We all love you—”

“So what? She loved us, too, and now look. If that’s going to happen to me, it will happen, and love won’t slow it down. One day all this will be gone in a flash. She might be the only one swimming, but we’re all stuck in the same damn tank.”

She waved her free arm in an expansive gesture. I took in the brown carpet squelching like mud, our sagging sofas of crushed velvet, the piano where Grams used to give us lessons with keys tucked behind its cover like a kid with fingers in her ears.

She was right. It was all going already, both the room and my mother, disintegrating, fading into the past before my eyes. Her skin had been thinning for some time. Eyes bulging behind her glasses, chin receding into her neck. I hadn’t imagined that gleam around her eyes.

“You should get some rest,” I said, flipping off the vacuum. But I couldn’t look at her straight on. I’d never met her father either. Five years after returning from Vietnam, he’d taken his life one spring morning on a dune at Nantasket Beach. Grams went to work as a waitress, memorizing orders and working doubles to keep my mom in Catholic school. If he’d gone goldfish instead of Grams, my mom might have seen two parents live into their sunset years, but it doesn’t work like that. We can’t choose who or what to forget, even if it’s all we want to do.

In the new silence, my mother regarded her castle, hands on hips. “You always wanted to be a princess growing up, right?”

“That or a paleontologist,” I said, and found I could smile.

“I wanted to be exactly what I am,” she said. “A lawyer. A mother. It’s not always a picnic, getting what you want.”

The sound of agitated sloshing came from behind Grams’s door. She’d been having a hard time lately, especially in the evenings. Thrashing and sloshing from corner to corner until someone came to calm her down. I moved toward her door, but my mother stopped me with a hand on my arm. It was warm and she squeezed me gently.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Really. You’re the one who needs some sleep.”

She’d spent nights up with my fevers, dispelled my nightmares, eased my brother’s monthly earaches until he got the tubes. And Grams used to sit with us, too, before she moved all the way in. She’d come over so that my parents could eat somewhere with low lighting, take in a movie, linger at a bar like the college kids they’d been when they met. I remember waiting for them to return, camping out on the bottom stair, leaning my head against the newel post, just like I was now, cool wood against my temple, but I always woke up in my bed. Was it my mother or Grams who carried me up? Why did I never think to ask?

I woke stiff and drooling on the step to the clicks of my brother’s ratchet. Enough water had collected on the floor to cover my ankles, and now the tunnel was only half full. If Grandma tried to go for her circuit now, she’d have to do it sideways, exposing her pale underside. My brother’s face was stormy as he worked, and he waved me off with a string of colorful swears.

In Grams’s room, Mom sat slumped in the rocker. Her head hung forward, lifting occasionally with a powerful snore. From the closet, I retrieved the best, and ugliest, afghan Grams had crocheted for Grandpa while he was in Vietnam. She’d sent dozens, but their earth tones made for good camouflage, so he kept losing them in the field. The three we had left were loved nearly bald. I lay this one across her knees where it wove its sloppy zigzag in shades of brown and yellow like a syncopal EKG. In her tank, Grams’s gills wrung air from the water like clockwork. Her pectoral fins kept her upright, fluttering out from her sides like wings.

Goldfish don’t sleep like the rest of us. They’re either active and swimming or hovering in place, more at rest than asleep. Grams’s eyes were always open, round and staring, and now they seemed to fix on me, but just as when she was awake during these last, long days, there was no way to know what she saw.

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Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Editions, 2015) and Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Her work has recently appeared in Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Blackbird, and The Baltimore Review, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.