Excerpt from Chapter Two
What did you make me?”
“I made you eggs and toast.”
“Eggs – fried or scrambled?”
Well, I’m taken aback – even though I know my grandmother’s potential for novelty: one-of-a-kind recipes to utilize greatly disparate left-overs, ingenious home-improvement and repair techniques employing little other than chewing gum and bra straps. The necessities of living alone in old age can’t be credited for this. She impressed the family and neighbors with her jury-rigging abilities at half her age.
“You made me both? Why did you make both scrambled and fried eggs?” I’m sure she’s got a reason. And I don’t want to hurt her feelings so I add, “I like them both the same.”
“I made the scrambled egg first, but it didn’t look like enough, and I didn’t want your toast to get cold, so I fried the next one because it’s faster.”
Of course. I needn’t have asked.
“And I made some Taster’s Choice – even though I know you don’t like it.”
I bend down to give a pat to Rosebud, Gram’s springer spaniel. That furry creature began wriggling with disproportionate joy when I entered the kitchen again. Don’t know where she was when I first came home. Probably on chipmunk patrol. She clearly thinks her life has just taken a big turn for the better now that I am here — me, the god of canned dog food. I usually feed Rosebud so Gram can avoid stooping. Only two things in life get Rosebud excited: edible substances in any form and chipmunks; not to be considered edible substances because she’s never caught one. If the temperature were to suddenly drop forty-five degrees and the June sky fill with snow, she would betray no surprise. But glimpse a chipmunk magically appearing from under a bush, where no chipmunk had been a second or two before, and the liver-and-white, four-legged pile of animated rags, is thunderstruck.
I open the fridge and grab for a can of Coke, drinking off half, standing inside the arc of the refrigerator door. On this sultry June morning I need cool air and a jolt of some harsh liquid before tackling Gram’s creation. And at least Coke – unlike Taster’s Choice – is the real thing. On the table I see a little tent of Kleenex’s covering what I assume is the plate of toast and eggs. As she prefers Kleenex to any other paper product, Gram carries boxes or little packets or clumps of it in the cuffs of her sleeves at all times. I don’t know whether she thinks that everyone needs Kleenex or just expects that everyone knows that she does. She might extend an upturned claw-like hand, while telling me a story, expecting, doubtless, I’ll easily find a Kleenex to put there.
With some trepidation I remove the dampening and delicate paper shroud. But, except for the mildly jarring effect of seeing pure white and deep yellow, and entirely pale yellow, versions of eggs cohabitating on a bed of toast, it does look edible. Gram has by now caught up with me and sees the can of Coke in my hand.
“Alex! How can you drink that horrid stuff so early in the day. You’ll have ulcers in your esophagus when you’re thirty-five.”
“This will be my last one.” I say. But I curb my sarcasm and add, “It doesn’t matter what time of day you have something. If it’s good for you, it’s good; if it’s bad for you, it’s bad.” But, guilt pushes me to say, “I won’t have one in the afternoon today.”
“I saw them take paint off a car on TV with Coca Cola. Watching you do that makes me vomit.”
Most less-than-charming things make Gram “vomit.” It’s her word for gagging. Watching a movie classic with Gram on PBS last night comes back to me. Paths of Glory – with Kirk Douglas. Very early Stanley Kubrick. World War I – the trenches in France. Insane orders to attack on foot into decimating machine-gun fire. Gram got upset, and at one point cried out: “This makes me vomit!” That reaction was not much of a surprise. But then she’d added passionately: “It would be better to be an airline pilot than to be in those trenches!” Curious alternatives, even by Gram’s standards. She probably just meant airplane pilot. But, I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to spoil the movie. I’m making an effort to take her as she comes. Trying to change a 90-year-old woman – or anybody really – is a waste of time. It seems to me people change most when you don’t want them to. After what I just went through with Angela, I feel a little cynical. I’d fallen into a trap with Angela. The “how-do-you-leave-the-no-batteries-necessary-freely-orgasmic-but-otherwise-totally-uptight-beauty-you-happened-upon-just-after-breaking-up-with-the-rather-nice-rather-cute-but-sexually-difficult-normal-girl?” trap. A mythic trial for any male. She was out of control in bed but controlling everywhere else. Well, I think I learned an important lesson: I’m at a distinct disadvantage around high-powered women.
After eggs with Coke, I crave real coffee. The office is downtown and there’s a French-type café-bakery I like that’s within a block. I want to say a nice good-bye to Gram – and thank her for making my almost lunchtime breakfast. I step through the living room doorway and find myself suddenly immersed in an atmosphere of heightened and unnatural color. Vibrant sunlight entering through a brace of mullioned windows infuses translucent red curtains that Gram has drawn shut to spare her sensitive eyes. At first, all in the room appears muted but the curtains. The walls, ceiling, and built-in cabinets are constructed of bead board stained a deep red-brown. The many coats of varnish are crackled with age. As my eyes adjust, I can see crimson tones, reflected from the glowing drapery fabric, everywhere on the surface of the glazed wood. Damp air wafts in and out beneath randomly raised window sashes, turning the curtains into magical, pulsing forms. Across them wavy shadow bands, projections of the mullions, morph long-short, left-right. The room appears to breathe softly. What I see before me is a vision by the French painter Edouard Vuillard. His mysterious interiors, put together from patches of colored light-in-paint, transformed bourgeois sitting rooms into holy places. I realize he was painting them in Paris at about the same time this summer cottage was constructed in Northport, Mass. And if I bring my focus in close, these floating rectangles of light against the deep-toned walls become abstracts – living Mark Rothko paintings; colored shapes suffused with meaning. The beauty before me generates a humming feeling in my chest. My breathing slows and I feel an energized quiet. I have to credit acid for making my vision so much more vivid – or bringing back the vividness it had when I was a kid. But that, like the “too much self-awareness” thing, is losing its intensity, too. This, however, is something I hate to see go.
I’d like to sit down. I’d like to stay all day. But I can’t. Gram isn’t here. One door further on I find her in her rocker on the screened porch, perhaps asleep. Out here, the morning sunlight that she closed the living room curtains to block, bathes her from head to toe. To my presently altered senses, she appears as Vuillard’s mother, his most constant model. A closed book sits on her lap. Her dog lies at her feet. But she only looks like Vuillard’s mother until I realize that her face is covered by a Kleenex that she has spread out beneath her thick reading glasses. And she wears a pair of sunglasses over those, too. As I look at her, she changes position. Now I can tell she isn’t asleep.
“What are you reading, Gram?” I ask her. The humid southwest airflow has those heat buzzers – what are they, some kind of insect? – trilling. But I’m sure Gram can’t hear them.
“I’m reading your book about that explorer, Shackleton. But my eyes keep getting tired.”
“Yes, that one’s really good,” I say. A few nights ago, she watched Carl Sagan – she pronounces it Say-GON, as if he were actually from another planet himself – and an episode of Nova, back to back. After they were over she complained, “I put in too much time about the universe today and now I feel sick to my stomach.” So I worry about her reading Shackleton the morning after Paths of Glory. Shackelton’s true story is one of history’s most harrowing and thrilling survival narratives.
“But stop reading it if it starts to make you too excited. You know – after that movie last night.”
“That movie was horrible,” she says. ‘Horrible’ is not necessarily completely negative to her. Perhaps like awful almost meaning awesome a few hundred years ago. She uses horrid to convey a completely-without-merit experience of horror.
“But was it good?” I press her.
“Yes,” She says emphatically, “It made my skin crawl.”
“I’ll be back in the afternoon. There are plenty of nice leftovers to heat up, so you don’t have to cook anything.”
“I won’t cook,” she says.