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GRANDMOTHER by R.E. Hengsterman

A low metal growl rises, and I leap from the bed.

Ten… nine.

By seven, she’s reached the cornered hill of Fletcher and Fields. Her brakes protest with a tinny squeal. By five, I’m half dressed. At three, the throaty rumble of the eight-cylinder engine grows. 

By the time I reach zero, Grandmother has arrived. She slides from the bench seat of her station wagon and navigates the piles of dog shit left by our beagle. 

Her pink, black-strapped handbag drapes her forearm. Her coifed hair is motionless. She has pressed her clothing into fine lines of order. 

Mother, Father, and Grandmother have a silent, transitory meeting on the lawn amongst the dog shit.  

***

In the kitchen, Grandmother unpacks her handbag; Kleenex, three pieces of bread, Pop Tarts®, a small change purse, cheese and crackers, a sleeve of thin mints, and a handful of peppermint candies. She is squat heavy and gray but determined to ignore the angry pop of gas trapped within her arthritic joints as she prepares my breakfast. On school days, Grandmother feeds me Pop Tarts® or Thomas’ English Muffins® slathered in butter. On the weekends, when without Grandmother, I resort to sneaking dry oatmeal from the kitchen cabinet. 

While I am at school Grandmother tackles the laundry and cleans the house with meticulous detail. In the afternoon, with her chores complete, she appoints herself to the living room couch to watch General Hospital. After school, Grandmother chatters nonstop. She’s upset that Mikkos Cassadine has a plan to freeze the world using a weather machine.

***

The following Monday Grandmother was ill. There was no rumble. No tinny squeal. No announcement. Just Mother heavy-footing her way around the kitchen, slamming cabinets and cursing. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Grandmother is unreliable. I’m going to be late for work.”

Mother goes on to tell me Grandmother had visited Grandfather in the Army when they were dating and never left. 

“Hung around,” Mother says. “Like a stray dog.”

Your Father says Grandmother is the reason he gets angry. But I believe Father enjoys being angry. 

Mother tosses some crackers in my lunch box and says that years back Grandmother drove a red convertible, smoked cigarettes and killed her unborn baby in a car crash. The Grandmother I know is wrinkled and kind. Not a baby killer.

Mother talks all the way to school.  

The next day, when Grandmother is feeling better, I tell her what Mother told me. Grandmother says Father is an asshole and Mother is clueless. I’ve never heard Grandmother be foul-mouthed.  

Grandmother never missed another day for the entire school year. 

***

In the summer Grandmother and I take the old, ugly wagon everywhere. I sit in the rear facing, third-row way-back seat and watch the faces of terrified drivers who follow to close behind Grandmother, and her sudden, unplanned stops. I lip-read as their blood drains. Sometimes a smile jostled by fear escapes my lips. Most don’t smile back. Instead, they honk, shake their fists and flip me the bird. Grandmother flashes a wolfish grin in the rearview before tapping the brakes again. 

“Keep them off my rear,” Grandmother says.

***

Today we have lunch at the Apple Knockers on Pawling. Grandmother and I are regulars. They have the best battered, deep-fried fish in town with large pieces of naked Cod poking from the tiny bun. Apple Knockers should buy bigger buns.  

Grandmother likes the house-made tartar sauce with her fish. I order the semi-sweet tangy chili sauce, a milkshake, side of homemade cinnamon-flavored applesauce and unsalted fries (you have to salt your own). 

We sit in our favorite corner both varnished with a permanent layer of vegetable grease. As Grandmother wipes tartar sauce from her lips, I realize how ordinary we are. 

After lunch, we shop at the Price Chopper. For Grandmother, it has the better coupons. For me, the better toy aisle; filled with jacks and paddle balls and weird gum that you stick to the end of a straw and blow into lopsided, ugly bubbles.

On the way home, Grandmother and I pass the Pentecostal Church. Grandmother says I attended daycare there when I was younger, and she still worked at the department store. There’s sadness in her voice. I search my memory but have no recollection of daycare or God or Grandmother working. 

“I don’t remember,” I say, and her face brightens.  

***

We arrive home in time for Grandmother to settle into her soap. As General Hospital demands her attention, I sneak into the basement and unlock the metal door housing the water well pump. The pump sits in a small stone room cut into the earth. The air inside is dank and reeks of musty dishwater. Using my father’s wrench, I loosen a valve and let water spill onto the dirt floor.

When my parents return home from work that evening, and Grandmother has darted from the house, I ask why they are so mean to Grandmother. Mother brushes me aside, and Father swats at the air above my head.

They prattle. Work this. Work that. There’s no mention of the spotless house, the folded laundry or waxed linoleum floors. I wait several minutes and then interrupt. 

“I think I hear water in the basement. Come quick.” I say. 

Father rushes into the basement while Mother grabs a handful of laundered towels. It’s the most excitement our house has seen in weeks. Standing at the top of the stairs, I hear wet cotton socks slapping the concrete floor.

“Where’s my wrench,” Father yells. 

I say nothing.  

Mother and Father submarine into the low-slung pump room. The stone tomb muffles their cursing.

“Come here,” Father screams. 

I slip to the threshold of the pump room door, and Father tosses me a flashlight. 

“Shine the light here,” he says. 

I position the light. “Not there, here!” 

As Mother and Father scramble to stop the water, my hand hovers over the brass lock.  

***

Days later, Grandmother and I are on the couch. Mikkos Cassadine and his brothers Victor and Tony are held up at Wyndemere Castle on Spoon Island. Luke, Laura, and Robert Scorpio are desperate to stop the weather machine.

Grandmother pinches her eyebrow into a curious arc, smiles, and turns up the volume as Mikkos is seconds away from flipping the switch and destroying the world.  

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