Grandma opened the box, pulling out a yellow feather boa. Tiny, amoeba bits of feather floated up and out. “I used to wear this onstage.” She flung it around my neck, causing a faded clump to drift to the floor. The limp boa tickled my neck and smelled like book mold. It had been a long time since Grandma quit showbiz—or since it quit her.
“Sing!” She ordered me happily. But I was far too shy. During my seventeen years of life, I had never sung solo in front of anyone. Grandma didn’t look sad—she never did—but I could tell she was disappointed, as if she’d thought the boa would somehow transform me.
“In the second act, I would exchange this boa for one of these.” She took me to a terrarium and lifted out a snake. It was fat, at least two hands around, and longer than I was tall. Its yellow and white coloring made it look unreal to me. “A yellow boa constrictor,” said Grandma. “Her name is Debbie Harry.” If I didn’t know it was real by the slow, powerful way it turned its head towards me, I could tell by the musty smell of the terrarium.
Grandma began to sing in a sort of a punk style, harsh and dramatic.
I used to wear t-shirts and denim,
But I traded them in for scales.
Now my body produces venom,
And I don’t have to do my nails.
I’ll squeeze you if things get ugly,
Then leave you and shed my skin.
Then come back and wrap you snugly,
Either way you could say we both win.
She handed Debbie Harry to me, whether I wanted her or not. I was startled by the weight and sheer strength, like she could wrap itself around the world and squeeze it in two. Debbie Harry turned her head, spurning me. I returned her to Grandma, spurning her back I suppose.
My grandmother used to be a side show performer. Along with her snakes, she had tattoos and piercings before it was the thing to do. She had traveled the world, but now mostly tended her garden. There was something odd about seeing this emaciated, blond/white-hair-dyed black, skull-tattooed woman patting a dahlia. I couldn’t tell you why.
I heard her act was witty. She told jokes, teased the audience. Pretended that the snake was tight around her neck, that it would eat her. The whole premise horrified me. The reptile part was bad enough, but add in the audience and my mouth went dry with fear just thinking about it.
Grandma had lots of stories, but I never knew which were true, because Grandma lied constantly, even when it didn’t benefit her. She couldn’t stop herself.
“I dropped you on your head once,” she told me. “You started spinning like you were break dancing.” She felt the top of my head. “Yep, still flat up there.” It wasn’t flat up there. But the way she said it, so believably, gave me pause.
I knew grandma really was a side show performer, that was true. We had pictures to prove it. We also had newspaper articles, but they contradicted each other with Grandma’s lies, which changed over the years. She was born rich. She was born to gypsies. She was born in a monastery. She was found in a rowboat on the Limmat River. She was raised in the Outback—by Americans, which was why, of course, she lacked an Aussie accent.
In spite of her lies—or maybe because of them—Grandma was my favorite relative. I believed I was her favorite, too, though I didn’t like the way she showed it, letting no one touch her snake but me.
When she died, just after I turned eighteen, I was inconsolable. So much so, that when we gathered at her apartment, I picked her snake up and put it around my shoulders, something I’d never done. I wanted so badly to have Grandma there, and that seemed the next best thing. In fact, catching my reflection in a mirror, I felt as if I was her. With the same narrow chin, skinny bare arms, and black sleeveless shirt, I almost could have been.
Without thinking about it, I began singing grandma’s lyrics about denim, venom, and shedding skin. I poured all my feeling into it, and Debbie Harry loved it, holding her head up level with mine as if she was singing too, squeezing me ever so gently. My family was all encouragement, and so were audiences, when Debbie Harry and I started performing publically. After a year we were touring Europe.
At first I wondered, out of all her children and grandchildren, why grandma seemed to choose me to carry on her calling. But then I realized Grandma didn’t choose me. Debbie Harry did.
Photo: alegri from 4freephotos