Everything about Mamaw Connie and Papaw Darby’s house was red.
Deep and dark red wood-paneling on the walls of a living room that held tacky red shag-carpeting to match. My preschool years were stationed in that reddish back room of my grandparents’ quaint Tampa bungalow, watching and then re-watching the same Nat Geo Kids documentary on VHS that Mamaw bought for me. The video cassette featured the two Orca brothers, Bernard and Big Mouth, playing “No Net Volleyball” with seals, staining the shallow beaches off the coast of Argentina a deep and dark red as well.
After videos, I swim in the bright white, PVC-lined swimming pool in Mamaw and Papaw’s backyard. The light reflects perfectly off of my own personal Argentinian beach making me squint while trying to see Mamaw in the porch hiding from the unrelenting Florida sun. The sun is far too bright to see her completely, but only a small red light glows in the shade.
“Mams! What should I be?” I ask, belly-flopping on a water plushie just as Bernard and Big Mouth would do if it were a small seal.
“How about an Orca that doesn’t get burnt to a crisp? Come on up here and get some lotion,” she says.
My eyes adjust to the shaded porch. Mamaw sets the bottle of Australian Gold SPF 75 down by the astray and her Tampa Tribune.
“The higher the SPF, the better the chance of not getting skin cancer,” she says, rubbing the lotion on my already reddening shoulders.
Interestingly enough, Mamaw had her hair dyed a reddish back then too, and was often found at the kitchen table after my swim with the burning red tip of her cigarette to match.
I watch her drag the rolling ball over the perfectly printed black and white squares of the crossword puzzle that she looked forward to completing every morning. I try to help her, offering different words that found their way into in my limited vocabulary, and attempting to match the clues as I sit sipping from a glass of chocolate milk that she called Ack-Attack. She always made sure to squeeze in a few extra drops of syrup in the milk because she knew that was how I liked it. I sit beside her, watching the billowing char rise from the lit Winston that sat in the ashtray, never really touching her lips except to be lit, but turning to a red cindering ash all-the-same.
“Let’s see here,” Mamaw taps the pen to her lip. “Six across, ‘the type of carcinomas found in the lungs’ and nine down, ‘a disease that causes shortness of breath due to the over-inflation of the alveoli’.”
At seventeen I see only two colors. Gray everywhere, like the leftovers in Mamaw’s ashtray by the pool when I was younger. It’s smeared over my vision. It’s in the hallways, the elevators, the waiting rooms, the hospital suite, and the tiles on the floor that I could see through my clenched fingers at my forehead. All gray except for a deep and dark blue piece of tubing hovering over a now faded red head of hair.
I remember the smoke trails that danced their way around the curio cabinet situated next to her while I sat drinking my chocolate milk. That cabinet was meant to house fine dishware, but curiously, it held more aging and smoked stained pages of Stephen King novels than it had ever held china.