Saturday, April 26, 2014
Fiction: "Childhood Playmates"
[The piece of fiction here, which may or may not work as a short story, is the result of the joining of two different chapters in a YA novel I worked on a few winters back and never finished. The girl in the story, Nora, is living temporarily with her grandfather because her father has lost his job, and he and her mother are traveling to different parts of the country looking for new employment. This is not the summer Nora had looked forward to, and she experiences a lot of frustration, boredom, and confusion at first. In this section, however, she is beginning to make peace with her new situation.]
* * * * *
Nora pestered her grandfather all week to take her to the nursing home. It was funny, really, because she wasn’t even sure she wanted to go. The place would probably be depressing, full of old, sick people in wheelchairs, like in that movie she’d watched back home, with her brother Kevin, on TV one night. In the movie the old people got some kind of drug and came back to life, and everyone was happy for a while, but then the drug stopped working, and they went back to being zombies.
Maybe Grandma will be a zombie, Nora thought. When she tried to picture her grandmother living in a place she had only seen from the outside, Nora had no idea what it might be like inside, and she just needed to know. Even if it was bad, knowing would be better than imagining the worst.
“She probably won’t know you,” her grandfather said over and over. “She won’t recognize you, and you’ll be disappointed. Wouldn’t you rather remember her the way she was?”
“Does she know you?” was Nora’s challenge.
“Not always,” he admitted.
“But you go, anyway, right? She’s my grandma, and I want to visit her, too.”
Would she be in a coma, all hooked up to tubes and wires and machines? How would she feel, seeing her grandmother like that? Nora didn’t know, but she kept after her grandfather to take her to the nursing home.
Finally one Sunday morning he gave in.
Nora decided to go all out and wear a dress, a pink and white checked gingham sundress she had promised herself, when her mother brought it home for her, that she would never wear in public. She certainly wouldn’t wear it anywhere except the nursing home! I look like a cartoon character, she thought, gazing at herself in the mirror, but Grandma likes dresses. She put on a pair of white sandals instead of her usual rubber flip-flops, and a white lace headband to hold her hair back from her face, the way her grandmother liked it.
Okay, she said to herself grimly, you’re finally getting something you said you wanted.
Did she want this visit? Too late now to tell her grandfather she had changed her mind!
When she appeared in the kitchen all dressed up, her grandfather looked at her with surprise but didn’t say anything about the difference in her clothes. He was wearing his usual blue plaid shirt. Maybe he had more than one blue plaid shirt, but if he did, they were all the same. It was blue and black plaid, actually, with a pocket that held reading glasses and a pencil stub.
“You all ready? You sure you want to go?” he asked. He didn’t look sure himself.
Nora nodded, hoping her nervousness didn’t snow. “Is Sport coming?” she asked to change the subject.
“Is the pope Catholic?” he countered. That was one of his old-fashioned sayings. It meant she had asked a dumb question.
Leading the way to his old pickup truck, carrying his dog in his arms, he did not say “Hop in, princess,” as her father would have said, just, “Open the door for me.” When he spoke, she noticed that he sounded a little out of breath.
“Does Sport have to come with us? Can’t she stay home just this once?”
“She could stay home, but she doesn’t have to. Sport goes where I go. Now open that door before I drop her!”
Nora did as she was told, opening the passenger-side door, and her grandfather arranged the dog on a ragged woven rug in the middle of the long, worn bench seat. Her grandfather slammed the door behind her, and she wedged her rear end as closely as possible into the corner made by the door and the seat back, as far as she could get from the old beagle.
Smelly old dog! Bad breath, body odor and gas! Nora breathed in through barely parted lips and out through her nose, right elbow out the window, hand over mouth and nostrils.
“Does Sport ever get a bath?” she finally venture to ask. By this time they were out on the dirt road, her grandfather concentrating (or so it seemed) on hitting every bump and chuckhole, and he didn’t answer her question. Maybe he hadn’t heard it. She wasn’t sure sometimes if he heard everything she said.
Grandpa’s dog s-s-s-s-s-sTINKS! she shouted in the secret freedom of her mind. It would be a mean thing to say out loud, but it couldn’t hurt his feelings if she only thought it. She turned to look out the window, to breathe in the fresh evening air, to feel on her face the welcome breeze of movement, to drink in the passing scene of jungly green woods and fields, at the same time mentally repeating over and over the mean word describing Sport, her mind’s voice drawing out the long hiss, then biting off the T, making the single syllable into a satisfying woosh and chop inside her head.
“Ready for blast-off,” her grandfather remarked as he turned the key in the ignition. That was another one of his corny sayings.
She had been with her grandfather for almost two weeks now, and the roads to town were starting to feel as familiar as the house itself. First was the dirt road, full of holes and bumps, dusty on dry days, muddy in the rain. At this time of year it was lined with big clumps of bright yellow flowers that looked something like daisies except for their color. There was one real farm with a dozen young calves, black and white. Nora had called them “cows” the first time she saw them, but her grandfather corrected her, explaining that they were something called “feeder calves” and that they were raised for beef. They’re clueless, Nora thought each time they drove by and she looked at the calves enjoying themselves outdoors. They don’t know they’re going to be someone’s dinner. Right now they were frisky and cute, like pets would be.
Most of the scenery on the dirt road was fields and old woods, and only the calf pasture had good fences. All the other fence posts were either leaning or rotten, sometimes both, and old barbwire was sagging where it wasn’t totally missing.
“I remember Grandma’s cow,” Nora heard herself say suddenly.
“You do? You remember Beulah? You were just a little thing then,” her grandfather answered. “What else do you remember?”
“I remember when I was real little, Grandma had chickens. Black chickens. In my storybooks, all the chickens were white, but Grandma’s were black.”
“Well, chickens come in different colors, just like people. Yes, those were pretty birds. Your grandma wasn’t raised on a farm, you know. She wanted chickens, but she wanted them for their looks as much as for their eggs. Those were black Minorcas.” He added, “That breed came originally from Spain.”
“By themselves?” The words popped out before she thought.
He looked over at her, startled. “Are you pulling my leg? Is that a joke?”
“No! I’m just making conversation!”
“Well, chickens can’t fly across an ocean! No, they were brought here from Europe.”
They turned now onto the paved road. It was kind of a highway, Nora supposed, because it had a number instead of a name, but it was only wide enough for one lane of cars to go in each direction. On both sides of the road from here to the edge of town were old ranch houses, some wood and some brick. There were also three really old, big, two-story-with-attic houses. These had barns in back and separate garages. The ranch houses had attached garages and only garden sheds in their backyards. One of the big houses, red brick with a huge front porch, had chickens that walked around the yard, anywhere they wanted to. They were white chickens.
“Were the Min-, minna—?“
“The Minorcas. Were they kind of like slaves?”
“They were brought here, you said,” Nora reminded him.
“All kinds of poultry and livestock and trees and vegetables were brought here! Animals and plants didn’t just decide to come of their own accord! But—slaves? Where do you get your ideas, Nora?”
She didn’t know where her ideas came from. She saw something, or someone said something, and the sights and words connected to something else, and out popped a new thought. Also, right now she just wanted to keep her grandfather’s mind jumping around so it couldn’t have time to get worried. She didn’t want her own mind to have time to get worried, either. She continued, “Well, what about people? Everyone came here from somewhere else, right? And some were brought here, and the people brought here were slaves, right?”
Her grandfather’s hands on the steering wheel were firm and sure as he guided the truck around the only curve in the road. They were almost there.
“First of all, Nora, there were people here in the Americas for a long, long time before anyone else came or was brought over. Remember? Native Americans. And then, yes, I’m sure you remember the Pilgrims from England. And later people from Africa were brought over as slaves. You know all this! You study history in school, don’t you?”
She wanted to keep him talking but didn’t want to look like a fool. “Yes, Grandpa, we had all that in history. But what about the black chickens?”
“Chickens aren’t people!” He paused, shaking his head, then asked, “Do you know where your ancestors came from?”
“Yes. Your family came from Poland, and my dad’s family came from Ireland.”
“And your great-grandmother Darga, my father’s mother, was brought to America by her parents, but as a child, not as a slave. If she had been brought as a slave, though, it wouldn’t have been her fault, would it?”
Fault? Well, of course not! “Who said anything about anyone’s fault? Grandpa, where do you get your ideas?”
Both of them were nervous, and the nervousness was making them sound silly, Nora thought.
Here they were at the edge of Everett, and her grandfather slowed the truck to the village speed limit and signaled his turn into the nursing home parking lot. There was a row of cedar trees planted on the south side of the parking lot, and that was where he liked to leave the truck, so the tall trees would be shade for Sport. To make double-sure the dog wouldn’t get too hot, he backed the truck into the row of spaces, facing the front away from the direction of the sun.
When she met him around the front of the truck, the nursing home in front of them, Nora looked up at her grandfather, and he took her hand.
“Nora, I’m not used to having a little girl around. Sometimes I tell you things you already know. But I don’t know what you know! So bear with me, okay? I’m doing the best I can.”
“You’re doing fine,” she assured him, and they turned toward the building, Nora’s heart thumping.
Her grandmother’s room turned out to be sunny and cheerful. There were flowers and a birdcage in the window. There was a parakeet in the cage. There were two narrow beds, two dressers, a small table and four armchairs. Her grandmother sat in one of the armchairs, wearing light cotton drawstring pants, a sweater, and socks and tennis shoes on her feet. Not a dress, Nora noticed. But her hair was grey and curly, and her eyes still blue, just as Nora remembered.
“Grandma?” Nora said, approaching slowly, as her grandfather had told her to do.
A worried look came into the old lady’s face. “Who are you?” she asked. “You look familiar.”
“I’m Nora,” Nora said.
“Did we used to play together?”
“Yes, we played together a lot,” Nora answered. That was the truth. Her grandmother had always played with her a lot.
“Who’s that man? Is he your father?”
“He’s my grandfather.” This was weird but so far not as awful as what she had imagined.
“Is it okay if we sit down with you?” her grandfather asked her grandmother, politely.
“Yes, of course! Where are my manners?” They sounded like two strangers talking, but her grandmother smiled brightly all of a sudden. “It’s nice to have some company,” she said. “Now tell me,” she said to Nora, “did you and I play with those Kirby girls? What did we play? I like to remember, but sometimes I need help.”
Nora’s palms felt clammy, and she swallowed hard past the lump in her throat, looking at her grandfather for help.
“Jump rope?” he suggested.
Yes, Nora remembered. Grandma always said she had played lots of jump rope games as a girl! That helped Nora remember something else. “Hopscotch?” she suggested.
“Oh, yes, I remember!” The old lady’s smile was big now, and she tipped her head back as if to laugh. “And sometimes we sneaked into the boys’ tree house when they weren’t around!”
“Sounds like those were good times,” Nora’s grandfather suggested.
The woman nodded. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” she agreed. “I just wish I could remember more of it.” She stood up then, carefully, holding onto the table with one hand. “Well, I do thank you both for coming to visit. Maybe you’ll come again sometime.”
Nora was taken by surprise. They had just arrived! But her grandfather was already on his feet, shaking hands with his own wife and assuring her that he would bring Nora back to visit again!
As they walked back down the hall to the reception desk and the exit, he gripped Nora’s hand tightly, and neither one of them said anything at all. Then outside in the sunlight, he stopped and turned to her.
“Thank you for insisting on this, Nora. It was a wonderful idea! Your grandma was very glad to see you.”