Grandmother’s pipe still smoked on the shelf above the TV. Beside the urn that held what remained of her in ash, it let off a thin trickle of smoke. It perfumed the air with the scent of her. If you leaned over and inhaled, your lungs would fill with her, your lips taste of her. Sweet and acrid. She remained in floral puffs and crackling tobacco. And I remained with her.
Over the weeks, I’d given up on the fire hazard it presented. No longer keeping it under a cloche. No longer dousing it with water or tea. No longer explaining away the peculiarity of it. It sat and smoked. Perhaps, unfamiliar with grief, it waited for me to move on. Instead, I mourned and moved around it. Perhaps it wanted me to scatter her instead of hoarding. To turn my eyes forward instead of behind. To get rid of it. But it was a pipe, unaware of the depths of grief and how, once spent, souls do not simply continue as they had. Burning though it was, fragrant and cloying, she was dead. It was a pipe. It was simple.
Nothing else of her remained. Her wicker chair and notebooks met the bonfire the night of her wake. I’d become frequent at the pawn shop, unfurling jewelry rolls and splitting open discolored boxes, laying plated trinkets out and taking whatever was offered. It wasn’t the money that mattered; it was the purging. Bit by bit. Ring by ring. Piece by piece, until I was rid of it. Until there was only the pipe.
The pipe. In the morning I’d greet it as I tiptoed downstairs. I called to it as I once called to her. “Hello, Grandma,” I would say. The pipe took no notice. I’d hover near, gazing into its bowl as if looking for the ember beneath the ash. I would wave whatever wafted from it towards me as though bathing in incense.
My hair always smelled of tobacco, of fire and smoke. I imagined plumes of it that would dislodge as I leaned over my desk, clouds that would billow out in even the slightest of winds. It was something I could carry with me, even when the pipe smoked alone at home.
At night, instead of turning on the television, I would fix my eyes on it. I would watch the smoke waft to the ceiling. I would imagine nicotine stains creeping into the white corners, staining even the dullest grey a thick, browning orange. I would imagine scraping away the color to see what lay beneath. If only I hadn’t sold grandmother’s pocketknife, I could have recreated her courtship in my living room’s walls, carving initials through stain and plaster, pining and settling and puffing away. Instead, I had the pipe. Burning, always burning. The smoke curling up and away.
Sometimes a gust of air would make it surge, as though invisible lungs puffed short and fast. “Hello, Grandma,” I would say. Sometimes it would nearly sputter, as though invisible hands waved away my greeting.
What do you do when even your ghosts are indifferent?
“How much will you give for it?” I asked the man at the counter. He’d taken so much already. There, glittering beneath the glass, was Grandmother’s emerald, her wedding band, a pendant with my picture still fixed within.
He offered me little more than a nibble on the long hairs of his mustache, a single note to tuck into my wallet, and a tap of Grandma’s pipe within his crystal ashtray beside his smoking cigar. He was careless with it. I looked at the ash he’d knocked out, watched the gust from the opening door turn it into a brief tornado. But it was done. I wouldn’t be haunted any longer.
I opened the windows on the car ride home, rolled them down until the motors squeaked, until the wind whipped the smoke from my hair and the sound of the radio from my ears. It was done. I wasn’t haunted.
Grandma had always been a mean old bitch. There were no sirens to greet me. Nothing but smoldering ruins, still dripping. I stood and watched them wind their hoses. Neighbors with their kind blankets and their eyes that still reflected the glee of fire attempted to soothe me. I could still smell smoke in my hair that was sweeter than melted plastic and insulation, furniture and photo albums, and a refrigerator of uncooked food. I could still smell her wafting above me.
Dylan Kingsley is a historian, writer, and artist who enjoys examining various forms of intimacy within his fiction and nonfiction writing. He currently lives in northern New Hampshire with his partner, two dear friends and housemates, three black cats, and a loving rescue pug. Find Dylan on twitter at @DKingsleywriter
The Treachery of Objects is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine January Flash Fiction Challenge