Naked As We Came, by Miriam Toews

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Readings]

Naked As We Came

Adjust

From Fight Night, a novel, which was published in October by Bloomsbury.

Almost every day Grandma gets a call about someone she knows being dead. You can tell because she pours herself an extra schluck of wine to watch the Raptors and she stares at me for long stretches and quotes poetry at me even though I’m not doing anything, just sitting there watching the game with her. Dead men naked they shall be one/With the man in the wind and the west moon. On the days she gets the death calls, she grabs at me when I walk past her and I know she wants affection, but I hate always having to be the embodiment of life. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone. Usually I deke to the right when I pass her chair and she misses because she’s really slow, but then I feel bad and I walk really slowly past her again so she can grab me. But then she feels bad about having tried to grab me when I don’t want to be grabbed and so she doesn’t grab me and I have to sort of just plunk down in her lap and put my arms around her. She says she’s knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door and she is at 110 percent peace with that. She says that when she kicks the bucket I should just put her in a pickle jar and go outside and play already.

Grandma likes to tell Mom we’ve accomplished household tasks every day because Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy. She’s too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted and when she comes home from rehearsals she’s all, god, what a mess, god you guys, what a dump, you can’t pour fat down the drain, these pipes are ancient, you can’t overload the toilet with toilet paper, why are there conchigliettes everywhere, can’t you two pick up a dish or put this shit away or have you ever even heard of household tasks?

When Mom goes scorched-earth she swishes oregano oil around in her mouth to prevent her from saying horrible things she’ll regret and to boost her immunity even though there’s no scientific evidence that it does.

Grandma loves to be naked. She proudly tells the same story to every new person she meets about how she inadvertently did a striptease for a guy in Mexico City and he really, really enjoyed it. Grandma has a long scar that runs down almost her entire torso like a zipper. When I help Grandma get undressed for her shower I run my finger down the scar and go zzzzzzzzip! Step out of your skin, ma’am! She sits on a plastic shower chair that Mom found in someone’s garbage—when Mom brought it home Grandma said, Ha ha, obviously someone around here bought the farm—laughing and laughing and I lather her up with French lavender soap her friend William gave her for helping him fight his landlord and write a letter to his arrogant brother. I have to soak up the three inches of water on the bathroom floor so she doesn’t slip and fall because that would be the end, my friend, she says. Then I dry her off and brush her soft white baby hair. And I have to help her get dressed in clean cotton underwear and her tracksuit or her cargo pants which she likes because they can carry all her painkillers and her nitro spray. Then I hold her hand all the way to her bed taking slow, slow steps because she’s dizzy from the heat of the shower and the exertion of laughing so hard.

Naturally there’s a fucking conchigliette in my shoe! Those were Mom’s last words this morning before she slammed the door on her way to rehearsal. Almost every day Mom finds a conchigliette in her shoe or stuck to her script or somewhere else. It’s Grandma’s favorite food but when her arthritis is bad it’s hard for her to open the box and then when she finally gets it open the conchigliettes fly everywhere. Grandma loves them because they’re small and if she’s having one of her trigeminal neuralgia days she doesn’t even have to chew them, they just slither down her throat. Grandma is trying to find someone who will drill a hole into her head because she’s heard that’s the most effective way of getting rid of trigeminal neuralgia, which is nicknamed the suicide disease because it’s the most painful physical experience a human being can have and you just want to kill yourself. But nobody wants to drill a hole into Grandma’s head because of her age. They stop drilling holes into people at around age sixty. Remember that, Swiv! Grandma said.

After Mom left, Grandma asked me to write down a list of her medications.

It’s funny that it says “OD” after every drug, I said.

That’s my backup plan, she said. Just pulling your leg. She said it means One a Day.

Today Grandma finally remembered I was supposed to be in school even though I’d already been home for fifty-nine days. Why aren’t you in school? she asked. I didn’t say anything because she sounded like a cop and she never answers their questions so why should I. Fighting? said Grandma. I didn’t move. She said she already knew it must be about fighting because I kept coming home with dried blood on my face and bruises on my neck and tufts of hair ripped out of my head and my jacket missing an arm.

I’m glad you’re here with me, she said.

Madame said I had one too many fights, which if I knew the exact number of fights I was supposed to have then there wouldn’t be this bullshit, I said.

Grandma said she wanted to go onto the flat part of our roof that’s over the kitchen and dining room upstairs and spell out the words rebel stronghold with rocks. We don’t have rocks, I said. How about we use books instead?

That was not a good idea, holy shit.

Mom came home from rehearsal and noticed that her books from the special shelf on the third floor were not on the shelf at all and she went into full-on scorched earth. She was yelling that if I had pawned books from the special shelf she’d fucking lose her mind! Those are books that help me to live! Those books are my life!

Get down here! I yelled back. I’m your goddamn life!

When she came downstairs I held out her oregano oil. Take it, I said, but she threw it at the living-room wall and the bottle broke and oil trickled down the Diego Rivera print I got her in Detroit. Then she started to cry and told me she was so sorry, so sorry. I hugged her and said it was okay because the dripping oil added character to the print which is what she always says about things that get damaged, and also her books weren’t gone, they were just out on the roof.

After dinner, me and Grandma helped Mom with her lines, which made Mom laugh so hard she peed a small amount, a teaspoonful. Grandma drank two glasses of William’s homemade plonk. When she read Jack’s lines she stood up from the table while Mom was laughing her head off to say: “I kiss you, but it’s as though my kisses hurtle off a cliff. You take off your clothes, but you’re not naked. What can we do, then? What will happen?”

Then Grandma said, Oh that reminds me, that reminds me! She had another story of epic nudity. One Christmas centuries ago Grandma was young and squatting on the sixth floor of an auto-parts warehouse in West Berlin that was right beside the Wall. You know the Wall, Swiv, the Wall! (No, I don’t.) And she looked out the window into East Berlin and saw a young German soldier all by himself marching around with this giant coat that was too big for him and his giant rifle dangling awkwardly off his little shoulder. Grandma watched him for a while until she could get his attention and then she waved and he waved back and smiled and stopped marching. Grandma breathed on the glass and wrote Fröhliche Weihnachten in the steam backward for the soldier to read and then the soldier hastily spelled out a message of his own to Grandma in the snow which was Ich bin ein Gefangener des Staates and then she slowly took off all her clothes while he stood there by himself in the dusky square with light snow falling and all his heavy artillery and coat and little shoulders. When she was totally naked she curtsied, and then the soldier blew her kisses and clapped and they waved goodbye. Mom said, Oh my god, that is INSANE! I thought so too but not in the way the two of them thought it was but in the way you go to a locked-up hospital with guards. Well I was young, said Grandma. I’m young and I don’t do that, I said. Not yet, said Grandma. It’s a memory now. I wonder if the soldier remembers that night. Mom got up and hugged Grandma. I’m sure he does, she said.


More from