She had sleep for dinner. Sometimes for breakfast and lunch, too. Her older son would often wake her, screaming. Rediscovering her empty stomach, Agnes would wipe crumbs of dreams from her eyes and hold him through his fits. He was thirty-five years old, and she was approaching seventy. The younger son, who lived in the living room with his daughter, would leave early in the mornings and take his bike with him on the subway ride downtown where he zipped food from place to place. Agnes walked the older one to therapy sometimes, granddaughter in tow, even when it was blisteringly hot because she saved bus tokens that way. If he had another fit, she could splurge on transit. Sometimes she argued with the bus drivers, but they rarely got on for free.
$773 a month from social security. $16 each week in food stamps. Surely they deserved more, but her case worker referred her to the bureaucracy, where she voyaged from line to line, saddled with multiplying folders of paper, with no extra penny to show for it. She sold plasma even though it made her faint. She tried selling the older son’s plasma too, but he was afraid. A cyst ached in her left ovary but that was fine. Her blood pressure was a different matter. What if the light flicked off inside her, just like that? A squeeze of the heart, just like her father? Her doctor suggested she make an end-of-life plan, to be safe. She did not. She had always thought she would outlive her eldest.
The younger son twisted his ankle one day. He hadn’t fixed his brakes and a car had almost flattened him, speeding away as he writhed on the curb. Now how was he supposed to work? He punched the wall. Why did he do that? Agnes took her screaming granddaughter in one hand and her whimpering older son in the other, and down to the lobby they went, where, after some time, a young woman named Borjana, taking pity, invited them into her apartment. She served them a bowl of chips and Agnes cried. Between inhales from her cigarette, Borjana cursed the world. The poor would have their revenge. She noticed her guest eyeing the designer clothing strewn over her couch. Yes, she sold her body online. It was good money. “How much?” asked Agnes. An obscene amount.
A few days later, Agnes borrowed the family laptop and donned her new lingerie. It was cheap nylon salvaged from the thrift store. She had sold an old watch to buy it. It looked terrible and fit her poorly, but it was there. Borjana had helped her set up an account on a website where men could subscribe to her videos, tossing money her way. Agnes saw herself on the laptop screen, flabby and bespectacled, her hair delicately coiffed. She could do this. She had been young once. Rubbing her hands down her thighs, she gave a sultry rasp, “I need a strong man to come and fuck me. I need it so bad.” Then she pushed her breasts together and jiggled. After a pause, she continued. “Beat up grandma’s thirsty pussy.” The line had been Borjana’s invention.
Within a week, she had five subscribers at $9.99 per month. Four of them were secretly Borjana’s referrals, who, having chained these men to her through their own lust, used them as she liked, and threatened to abandon them if they did not do this favour for her. When the first payment came in, Agnes bought vegetables and crushed tomatoes, and made soup for her granddaughter and sons. No more counterfeit soup made with ketchup. She even bought fresh basil because she could. An errant bill was paid, though many others still hung over them like knives. The younger son, who by this point had returned to work despite his throbbing ankle, was suspicious. Where did his mother get the money from? Oh, it was a government thing. Money from the government just came like that sometimes, then went.
Things went on like this for four months. Agnes made more videos and got used to it. It didn’t seem so bad now, though her stagnant audience bothered her. Wasn’t she supposed to have ensnared more men by now? She would never make good money like this. Perhaps she wasn’t good enough. Perhaps there wasn’t a place in the world for a lusty grandmother. Spotting Borjana in the lobby, she shared her concerns. With an exalted tone, Borjana invited the older woman to film the next video in her apartment and receive her sagely advice.
Leaving her granddaughter at home, safely hypnotized by the television, Agnes took her older son down with her to Borjana’s. They put him in the other room, where they could hear him if he needed help. When Borjana saw the ratty lingerie that Agnes owned, she was repulsed. Her poor men, having to see that. She wanted to lend something of hers, but got a whiff of old lady smell. What would she be like at that age? Perhaps this was her destiny. Borjana suddenly felt indignant, though she couldn’t explain why. No, she was not Mother Teresa.
Soon after, one of Agnes’ subscribers made a strange request. Agnes had to go to the grocery store, where she bought an apple pie. In the privacy of her room, she did things to it that cannot be described, before mailing its remnants to an address. He paid her $300. She asked if he wanted another pie, but he didn’t respond. The following week, she went to the mall and filled her trolley with more groceries than she knew what to do with and bought her granddaughter a toy. At the lingerie store the saleswomen accosted her, thinking that she was a shoplifter. She had to tell them she was buying lingerie for her daughter-in-law.
When she got home, the youngest son was asleep on the couch, decimated by work as usual, his ankle burning, while his older brother and daughter were playing on the carpet. The younger son wore himself out more each day, especially since they had lowered the delivery commissions. His limbs ached and some days he could hardly move them once he lay down. Agnes slipped into her room, jammed the door, and excavated her new lingerie from the trolly. It was lavender and satin, adorned with frills and lace. She’d never owned anything like it before. She was sad to entomb it in her drawer, beside the nylon which seemed beneath her now.
Oh, what the hell. She quietly retrieved the laptop from the other room and put on her purchase. It was so soft against her skin, and when she looked in the mirror she was astonished. Yes, she was a vixen. Her five men would tremble at her geriatric bosom, sculpted now with luxury. The decades slid off her, taking with them the disappointments that had unmercifully battered her family. It was power. She had to capture this moment. The danger of her sleeping son only inflamed her, as if anyone had a right to tell her what to do. The laptop awoke and opened its little green eye. “Grandma needs a big boy to come and love her.”
Dinner was a feast. In her happiness, Agnes whipped up dishes she had almost forgotten how to make. Chicken was wrapped in bacon, and as it broiled it glistened and dripped with fat and salt, as steam filled the apartment with decadent scents. She even had real parmesan. Her poor boy, paralyzed by work, stayed oddly silent on the couch. She would make him whole again. When they sat at their cramped table, her granddaughter and older son surveyed the extravaganza, eyes wide and salivating. Down their chutes the food went, yet the younger son sat there, sullen, hardly saying a thing.
“Is something wrong? Is your ankle hurting again?” asked Agnes.
“The government really went all out this week.”
“Yes, we’re very lucky that way.”
“I have a question, though.”
“Is it about the chicken? I thought I cooked it okay.”
“When will I have to explain to Lily that her grandma is a whore?”
The table went silent. The granddaughter sensed that something bad was happening, though she didn’t understand what it was. The older son couldn’t comprehend what had come over his sibling.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t lie to me! I went through the laptop. I saw it with my own eyes. And now you have the fucking gall to feed us like this, with food you made through… through that. How can you sell yourself that way? Do you have any shame?”
She tried to explain but what could she say? He interrupted.
“Do you want to show them? Do you want to show them what you’ve done? Let’s do it. Show them how you paid for this food.”
By now, the granddaughter was crying and the other son was hyperventilating. Agnes could see that this was serious. She needed to destroy the laptop first or get it away from them. She stood up and so did he, and they both rushed to the bedroom and arrived at the doorway at the same time. She tried to block him, bracing herself against the frame, but he was younger and stronger. He grabbed her arm, but she kicked him in his swollen ankle and he shrieked in pain. Collapsing, he hit his head against a table and was knocked out. All went quiet, except for the granddaughter’s crying which continued unabated into the night.
For three days, Agnes stayed beside him as he faded in and out of consciousness on the couch. She couldn’t call the hospital as there was no telling what he would do or say there when he woke up. If he woke up. What had she done? The family survived off the leftovers of the feast, and when that was finished, Agnes made pathetic meals, grey and tasteless, to appease their hunger. She slept beside him each night, in a nest of dirty sheets. The bedroom was left empty as if it were haunted. On the third day, the younger son had a moment of lucidness and muttered, “I’m sorry,” before falling back into his fever.
Everything was ruined. Where would they go from here? Not only had this calamity ripped through their family, but how could this boy work again? How would they feed themselves? There was almost no money left from the apple pie. She had wasted so much of it on the satin lingerie, which she had bought because of Borjana. None of this would have happened were it not for Borjana. It was all her fault. She did this. She was the one who ruined them. Who did she think she was, with all of her obscene designer clothes strewn about her apartment? The clothes were soaked with semen.
Agnes’ despondency imploded into a rage that echoed until her ears rang and she could feel nothing except its vibrations. She stormed down to the lobby, not even bothering to change out of her fetid clothes, and knocked on Borjana’s door. When Borjana answered, her face went pale with fear.
“It’ll blow over!” she said, hiding behind the door.
“How? How could it possibly blow over? Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“Everyone will forget. It seems important now, but it really isn’t.”
“How can you say that? My son is dying because of you. You murdered him.”
“My son. You killed my son!”
“Your son is dead?”
“No, but you killed him anyway!”
“What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The article! I don’t know a damn thing about your son.”
Borjana, still hiding, told Agnes that an article had been written about her. Someone had shared her latest video, in the lavender lingerie. It had been a riot. Everyone was laughing at her. It was being reposted everywhere and for two days already the internet could talk of nothing else except this ridiculous grandmother, with her strange sultriness and unexpected confidence. Agnes felt dizzy. She rushed back to her apartment and, opening the laptop, realized that it was all true. There she was, everywhere. The comments went on and on. “Damn Mrs. Claus really be nasty as fuck,” wrote someone named chroma_papixoxo.
She wanted to tear her own skin off. The tsunami of cruelty nauseated her. If only she could die, but she still had to take care of the children. She logged into her video account, determined to deactivate it and end this carnival. Perhaps she could salvage things. She had always persevered. But wait. 839 subscribers? When had this happened? She refreshed the page. 840 now. She opened up her inbox and saw dozens of messages from men requesting all kinds of strange things. $200 to drink her bathwater. $800 if she would send her old dentures, which did not exist as she had all her teeth. The human imagination seemed limitless. All these men were ready to throw themselves at her feet. It wasn’t worth it, though. Wasn’t her son dying in the other room? She returned to the deactivation page, but then heard her granddaughter whimpering. The poor girl. What was there to eat?
Agnes shut the laptop. She soothed the child and spent an hour making an elaborate meal from what ingredients were lying around. As the night wore on, she held vigil over her son and her laptop, sometimes feeding her progeny, sometimes watching the armada of men at her disposal grow.
Adam Zivo is an LGBTQ activist and professional writer. He is currently a columnist at the National Post and IN Magazine.