I’m late. Cigarette smog hangs inside the van. Mom, riding shotgun, announces that we’ll now be twenty minutes behind schedule. “We told you to be ready,” she says, eyeballing me in the flip-down visor mirror.
“There’s a schedule now?” I ask, settling in. She flaps her notebook over her shoulder at me.
“Want a smoke, hon?” Aunt Lou asks, shaking one from the mouth of a soft-pack.
“No, thanks. I quit.”
“When was this?”
“Five years ago.”
“Oh, good for you.” I sit alert like a cocker spaniel, absorbing the windblown prairie landscape outside the window as if I haven’t seen it thousands of times. Somehow, this time, it’s imbued with meaning. This is the last time I’ll see it BG, Before Grandpa, a new epoch of our lives scheduled to begin tomorrow. In my mind, he’s a vague pastiche of Walter Brimley, Walter Matthau, and Captain Kangaroo. He left for greener pastures when Aunt Lou was six months old. I stopped holding that against him years ago.
In Indiana, while Aunt Lou fills the gas tank, Mom rocks the van back and forth. People stare.
“It helps the gas settle,” she says. She flips open her walker and goes inside to purchase three extra-large slushy drinks, which tremble in the flimsy basket on the way back. The flavoring runs down my hand and stains my skirt. I blot and blot. It shrinks to the size of a pimple.
* * *
Indiana looks exactly like Illinois. We say this to each other at least a dozen times while crossing the state. “If they didn’t put signs up, you’d never know,” Aunt Lou says, pressing a fresh cigarette against the cherry of her old one.
“I’d know. I can feel the difference,” Mom says with a bit of disdain. I wonder what she’s thinking, if she’s rehearsing.
My rehearsal is careful, studied. We must exude an air both of fulfillment and yearning, competence and need. He must understand that while we are obviously well-adjusted, contributing members of society, there’s still a place at the table for him.
“After all, you’re the paterfamilias,” I practice in a mental singsong, thinking the word might impress him.
We take a double room in a motel outside Richmond so close to the Ohio border we can smell the change in the cattle flatus. While we get ready for bed, we play a game called “I Wonder.” The premise is to make my grandfather gallant enough to make up for The Abandonment.
It goes like this: I say, “I wonder what he used to do for a living.”
Then Mom says, “I wonder if he was a businessman.”
Then Aunt Lou says, “I wonder if he was a musician. Mom said he played the accordion.”
Then I say, “I wonder who he looks like.”
Then Mom says, sort of spoiling the trajectory, “I wonder if he’s disabled. But we could tell that from outside. We’ll just look his vehicle over for handicap stickers.”
Then I say, “I wonder if he ever tried to get in touch with you. Would Grandma let him?”
The game stops. My aunt, sitting on the bed and stabbing her curlers with pins, looks into the middle distance. She lights a cigarette and slathers cold cream into her wrinkles. With a pang of guilt, I remember reserving one of the proverbial genie’s wishes, nearly every time, for a new family. I dressed them, groomed them. They were tan, lived in California, and everyone smiled all the time, even when they were just pouring Cheerios.
Aunt Lou and I lie cheek by jowl in one bed. Mom sprawls across the other, something that sounds like a bee hive humming under her blankets. We listen to each other breathe. This is family, I think. I will become these women. No, I won’t, I argue. I won’t because they were never like me, or at least, they were different in their time.
Mom was a carhop — roller skates, miniskirt, the whole shebang. She took accounting classes at the junior college and started toward that career before sliding back into the embrace of the recliner, the Braille of remote controls. Aunt Lou worked in a glass factory. She’s got a mothy tattoo of a butterfly on her bicep. I have a similar one on my hip. In the moonlight streaming in around the drapes, blue smoke hovers over the bed like a ghost.
In the morning, we fuss over outfits. Mom is having a belt crisis. She’s packed nine belts, none quite capturing her grief/vulnerability vibe well enough. Aunt Lou clicks her partial denture into place then frets because she thinks it looks wobbly. She smiles awkwardly at herself in the mirror in a psychotic-looking way that I hope doesn’t enter her repertoire. I tell her it’s not wobbly. I try to initiate another round of “I Wonder,” but nobody’s interested.
I scrutinize the skirt from yesterday and a pair of khakis, the only other bottoms I brought being a pair of old gauchos for the return trip. Suddenly the khakis are all wrong. They don’t say “fill in the blank” like I’d hoped. They fill in the blank themselves. They insinuate suburbs, soccer games, Friday nights at Olive Garden. While that all may be true, I realize that now, for some reason, I must project a more urbane impression. Urbane equals success. Khakis equal sippy cups.
Aunt Lou swings by again to confirm that her partial is not wobbly. She sticks her fingernail between the clasp and gum to wiggle it. “Well, when you do that,” I say. She hurries to the bathroom.
I inspect the skirt again. I blot. It bleeds subtly. I dry it with the hairdryer tethered to the wall. So what if the stain sets? This skirt’s life span isn’t the priority. I need an impression. Aunt Lou emerges from the bathroom, pink adhesive oozing around her plastic teeth. “Ready, ladies?” she asks, affecting bravado with her upturned chin. “Into the fray.”
Ohio doesn’t look so different, a tad more rolling than Indiana, in turn only a tad more rolling than Illinois. My mother’s father left Illinois to live in a place almost exactly like it.
What else did he barely upgrade? I stub out the thought.
“I can’t believe how different Ohio seems,” I say as if enraptured.
Nods all around.
Aunt Lou navigates the side streets of a bleak, little town. It’s depressing even by Midwestern standards. A couple sporting outdated hair wait with a stroller on the corner. The man drinks out of a brown bag. I congratulate myself that today, at least, with my reasonably polished hairdo and minimal makeup, my snug, trendy skirt, I look firmly middle-class, maybe even upper middle-class. Except for the stain.
I rifle through my bag, climb into the back seat of the van, and wiggle my legs into the khakis. “What are you doing back there?” Aunt Lou asks.
“We’re almost there. Jesus Christ,” Mom says, fanning the mirror to get a lock on me. I smile and apologize, wishing a genie would plume from the ashtray.
The van whines to a stop on a block of sad-sack houses with sagging and, in some cases, badly-amputated porches. Aunt Lou double-checks the address in Mom’s notebook. She lights a cigarette and stares out the window opposite of 451, disappointment creasing her eyes. I slide open the door to air out the stinks of hairspray and smoke. I know exactly who lives in this tiny house:
He’s got a gob of used Q-tips and Kleenex on the end table by his chair — a swivel rocker, no doubt. His television’s perpetually muted. He wears house shoes all day, even to the doctor’s office. He’s not a retired businessman. He’s not an aging musician.
Aunt Lou squeezes my mother’s hand. They look at each other. I don’t intrude. I step outside to stretch in the street. Suddenly I don’t mind what his neighbors think. I relax.
Mom turns the buzzer. She’s up front, bolstered by her walker, her notebook in the basket to signify she will be asking questions. Aunt Lou smoothes the flowers of her dress, smiles over her shoulder. “Here we go.”
He answers the door wearing a shirt and tie. Bouquets of hair jut from his ears. He has Mom’s eyes. They crinkle when he smiles. “Come on in,” he says, backing out of the way, “I just finished the spaghetti.” As we stand there, I very slowly start to forget what it was like to not know his face, and life Before Grandpa begins the business of revising itself.
Marcelina Vizcarra has stories published or forthcoming in The Molotov Cocktail and Bananafish.