By Quinn Everett
“Toaster Strudel is totally overrated.”
Jeff looked despondently at the half eaten rectangle-shaped pastry. A red, speckled slime oozed out of the two bite-marks.
“Just eat it,” his mother replied. She was in no mood for this shit again.
“Yeah, I don’t like this cereal either!”
The 19-year-old’s kid brother was close enough in age that they didn’t get along, but young enough that he didn’t see a problem in mimicking the actions of his only sibling.
“Oh whatever,” Jeff scoffed as he got up from the table, “you love those stupid Bran flakes. Nobody knows why, but you eat them all the damn time.”
“Jeffrey Alexander. Watch that mouth.”
Like I said, Mom was having none of it.
Ignoring his mother’s warning, Jeff continued to his younger brother, “They aren’t even for you, Spence. They’re for Grampa.”
Mom was making Spencer’s lunch in between sips of her morning coffee. She popped the lid off a jar of grape jelly and reached for a knife from the drying rack in the sink with one hand as she snapped her fingers with the other.
“Sit back down and finish that. You think this is the kind of house where you can just take a couple bites of something and throw it away? Hm?”
“Maybe Gramps will want some…” Jeff mumbled as he looked around. “Where is the old man anyway?”
With a knife now streaked with peanut butter, she gestured over to the faded blue rocking chair in the corner of the room, which was normally vacant. But this particular morning, a man who looked to be in fairly good shape despite his old age and unshaven face was slumped over, asleep in the rocker. His thick-rimmed bifocals teetered on the tip of his nose with every gentle snore that left the small gap between his lips. His plaid shirt was adorned with several colored pens in his chest pocket and a small drool stain near his collar on the other side. Maroon corduroy pants that matched the shirt, yet somehow still looked out of place were tucked into plain white tube socks. You know, the kind you can get like 10 pairs of for a friggin’ dollar at Wal-Mart…with the gray toe and heel…you know the ones.
Jeff smirked and Spencer giggled after noticing him. And as if he somehow knew he was being talked about, Grampa lifted his head from his shoulder and blinked himself awake, smacking his mouth as if to remember the taste.
Grampa muttered as if he was just asked a question. He began looking around the chair for the crossword he had been working on before nodding off. It was only after slowly standing up to continue his search did he see the newspaper page was lying face down behind the chair as if it knew it was temporarily forgotten.
“There ya are. C’mere,” he said as he carefully bent down to reach for the page, bracing his knee with his hand and holding the chair steady with the other.
“Getting some shut-eye in the rocker this morning, Gramps?”
Jeff could be such a smartass.
“No, I uh, was just resting my eyes,” Grampa groaned as he stood back up and straightened his back.
“Yeah, okay.” The smart ass replied.
“C’mon over here, Dad. Jeffrey was just saying he was going to pour you a bowl of cereal for breakfast,” Mom said.
With a half-hearted snort, Jeff went over to the sink and grabbed a bowl and spoon out of the drying rack and brought them to the table.
“I didn’t hear him say that?” Spencer questioned.
“You know what Spencer, I didn’t hear me say that either.”
Jeff glanced over at his Mom, and in true Mom fashion, she made a kind of guess-how-many-shits-I-give duck-face right back at him. As Grampa made his way over to the table, he remarked.
“I don’t really care who makes it, as long as what I’m being offered is actually cereal.”
“It is cereal, Dad.”
“These tiny cardboard ovals are not cereal. It’s dog food,” he said, holding up the box.
“Dad. Eat it, it’s good for you.”
“I’ve got god knows how many years to live. I want some Captain Crisp or Cookie O’s or whatever sugary stuff the kids eat these days,” he said as he poured himself a bowl of the Bran flakes. Spencer giggled again at the mistaken cereal names.
“You might as well serve this Bran-crap in the dang doggie bowl!”
“Dad, the dog…” she looked over at Spencer, helping pour milk into his grandfather’s bowl. “Went to that farm last year, remember? You knew that.”
“What farm? You don’t know anyone who lives on a…”
“Alright Spencer!” She said, cutting him off. “Here’s your lunch. I’ve got some extra cookies packed in there for you,” She said as she set the brown paper sack into the middle shelf of the fridge. “I know things have been tough so far at your new school.”
“Yeah, and a few extra cookies will make it alllll better,” the smart ass said as he returned from the other room with his backpack.
“Jeffrey, please. I know it’s been hard on both of you. But we all decided this was better than staying at the old house.”
“Oh yeah?” He said as he grabbed his plate and popped it into the microwave for a few more seconds. “I don’t know if that was something I’d call a ‘we’ decision, but whatever.”
“Jeff, not now, okay?” Mom was now pacing back and forth, getting her briefcase prepared and glancing in the hallway mirror to check her makeup and push a couple hairs back into place with every couple of passes.
“By the way, I haven’t heard anything about your classes this semester. And have you made any progress with your job search?”
“Mom,” Jeff shot her a glance. “Not now, okay?”
She returned his glance with a soft look, “I was just wondering if you were finding your way, honey. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset. I’m just… I’m working on it. God.”
Grampa looked up at Spencer from his crossword that he had set next to his cereal bowl. “Teenagers…”
Spencer’s cheerful smile quickly disappeared as he looked up at Jeff to see that he found it much less funny than the two at the table.
“Halrighty,” Mom said with a nervous exhale. “I think I’m off. Dad, can you make sure Spencer gets to his bus this time.”
Now Spencer piped up, “I can do it myself, Mom!”
“You had some trouble on Monday though, right?”
“The stupid bus was early. It wasn’t my fault…”
Grampa got up to clear his bowl from the table and said,
“I was thinking about going for a walk anyway,” giving Spencer a reassuring smile.
From the driveway, a few quick honks signaled the arrival of a worn-out looking silver Honda CRV.
“Who could that be?” Mom asked as Jeff popped up, grabbing his bag.
“I’ll see you cats later,” he said as he made his way toward the front.
“Excuse me, where are you going?” his mother inquired. “You have a class this early?”
“Yeah kinda. I decided to start my days earlier. You know, to be more productive and stuff.” He said as he turned but continued backing away.
“Kinda..? Well I suppose that’s a good idea… as long as they actually let you in looking like that,” She said, eyeing his outfit and wearing a disapproving expression.
Jeff was wearing a black 21 Pilots t-shirt that had shrunk in the wash a little too much for him to still wear it, but he loved it enough not to care. His jeans on the other hand, were ripped at both knees, one hole slightly larger than the other, but bearing a red bandana patch that was sewn on as best the boy’s handiwork would allow him. Poking out the very frayed leg holes to the jeans were a pair of Vans that had perhaps been white or beige at some point, but were now a grayish tan, with black streaks and a couple unidentifiable stains.
The car honked again.
“Yeah, they don’t care. See you guys,” Jeff said as he turned to leave.
“Wait, what’s the class?” By the time she got the question out, the front door was already shut. Mom turned to the two at the table with a half annoyed, half disbelief look. Grampa and Spencer both shrugged. After a giant eye roll, a headshake, and “what-ever”-type hand gesture, she grabbed her briefcase and walked around the table, kissing her son and father on the tops of their heads.
“My three favorite men, have a great day today.”
“What about Dad?” Spencer asked.
“I love all you guys, Spencer. You know that.” She managed the closest thing she could that resembled a smile, which really ended up looking like one of those smiles white people make when they see a stranger, where they pull the corners of their mouths up a little bit but mostly just to the sides, without showing any teeth. And with that she said,
“Okay, have the best day guys!” and left.
Grampa continued his crossword as Spencer finished off his bowl of cereal. The silence lasted a minute or so.
After drinking the rest of the milk in the bowl, he poured himself some more of the cereal and added more milk once again.
Grampa watched him pour the second bowl and grumbled, “You’re eatin’ more of those crappy Bran things?”
“You.” Pointing to Spencer, “Are eating.” Making an eating motion, “Those” pointing to the cereal box, “On purpose?”
“Oh, yeah, I kinda like them.”
Slightly, taken aback by this, he asked, “Better than something sugary?”
“Um, I don’t know, like what?”
Now having to think of the name of a cereal Spencer would eat, he rubs his forehead. “Like, better than Captain Crisp or whatever?”
Giggling at the misnomer again, “Ehhh, prolly not better than Captain Crunch…”
Scoffing, he replied, “Ya damn right they aren’t.”
Another short silence went by as Grampa turned back to his crossword and Spencer spooned himself some more Bran flakes, but looking a little puzzled.
“Why don’t you eat those then?”
“Because of diabetes.”
He grinned at his grandson, but at the same time contemplated how to explain the concept of diabetes to someone who had never heard of it. After a few moments to think, he said,
“She’s this evil lady who wont let me eat cake and pizza.”
“Oh, I just call her Mom.”
Grampa couldn’t help but laugh, after which, he returned to his point.
“I just can’t believe you’re eating those.”
“What’s wrong with them? They’re good. I’ve been eating them all week.”
With raised eyebrows, “Wow, and you aren’t sick of em?”
“No, why?” He said, between bites of cereal and slurps of spoonfuls of milk.
“They’re just not my favorite.”
Looking up at his grandpa, he asked,
“Well what is your favorite?”
As he thought about his answer to the question, Spencer asked again,
“And why don’t you eat those? Cause Misses Diabetes?”
Before Grampa could even answer, Spencer chimed in again as he set his spoon down, which was too short for the diameter of the bowl and whose handle slid off the side and disappeared into the off-white liquid.
“Be right back, I gotta poop.”
With another warming grin, Grampa adjusted the glasses on the end of his nose and watched the boy waddle to the bathroom.
“…But they are incredible, aren’t they.”
Grampa looked around the room, allowing his mind to wander as much as he wished his body could. It felt heavy in his old age, and his arthritis was a real pain in the ass. And everywhere else. The poor old arthritic bastard was having a good moment though. These mornings spent surrounded by his daughter and grandsons were the reason he slipped on those cords each day. In the back of his mind, though, he cursed himself for falling asleep and missing part of this morning. How many more mornings do you even have left? He’d ask himself. And you wasted half of this one because you were tired…shouldn’t have stayed up watching Desperate Housewives reruns…. His mind began to wander again, until however, his eye caught the round clock hanging on the wall beside him. Five minutes until Spencer has to make his way to the bus stop.
“Hey Big Dog?!”
“Almost time for the bus, you ready?”
“Are you still sitting?”
“Well what are you doing then?”
Grampa sighed and looked around for Spencer’s book bag. It wasn’t in the kitchen, as far as he could see. He put the heel of one hand on the table and the other on the side of the chair next to him as he hoisted himself out of his seat. Spencer came back in the room, stuffing papers into the big pocket of his Jansport bag while unsharpened pencils and cap-less pens threatened to make their escape out of the unzipped front pocket.
“I’m ready.” Spencer said with a sunny smile.
“Well let’s hit the road then, sport.” Grampa said, zipping the front before its contents spilled all over the kitchen floor.
Grampa offered his hand as they made their way toward the front door. Spencer had to think about it, considering the thought that he might be too old to be holding the hand of the nearest adult. Noticing his hesitation, Grampa looked down and considered withdrawing his hand before Spencer decided he didn’t mind and returned the gesture. As soon as Spencer got on the bus, he wished he was back holding his grandfather’s hand.
The bus driver looked tired and, though Spencer didn’t know it, was extremely hung over as she rubbed her eyes waiting for the 4th grader to find a seat. Spencer was also ignorant to the timeless classic known as Forest Gump, but if he weren’t, he’d recognize little Forest’s struggle to find a place to sit on a bus full of other kids with whom you aren’t yet friends. He didn’t notice any open seats, so he shifted his eyes to look for faces that might seem open to the idea of sitting with a “new kid.”
“Take a seat!” the bus driver barked.
Now more frantically, Spencer searched for eyes that weren’t afraid to meet his, and as soon as he made eye contact with a longhaired kid sitting in the middle of his seat, he leapt his ass at the section of it that was still left vacant. With a groan, the bus driver pulled the doors closed and pressed down on the gas hard enough to suck everyone back against their seat. The longhaired kid didn’t look like he was popular per say, but the scowl on his face kept Spencer from engaging him. Spencer sat with one Velcro shoe crossed over the other, his wide-striped polo shirt tucked into his denim shorts just like Grampa had taught him.
The bus stopped again to pick up more students.
“Alright,” the longhaired boy said, “Scoot out so I can have the aisle. I’m not sitting against the window for some dumb little third grader.”
I’m in fourth grade. Fourth, Spencer thought but he did not say out loud. No need to start trouble this early in the year. But then again, no need to start getting pushed around this early in the year either.
“Actually I’m in fourth grade,” Spencer mumbled just loud enough to hear as he stood up in the aisle, holding his Pokémon backpack to his chest.
“What did you say?”
“Fourth. Fourth grade,” Spencer said, a little bit more audible as he slid across the seat to the window.
“Fifth. Fifth grade,” the longhaired boy said, pushing his finger into his chest with his index finger.
With a sigh, Spencer held onto his backpack with one hand and doodled on the window condensation with the other. Once they arrived at the elementary school, everyone exited the bus, and a few kids from the back looked over at a poorly drawn Charizard on one of the windows, already starting to drip at the edges.
As soon as the bus pulled away, Grampa wished his grandson was still outside, holding his hand. He made his way back to the house, finished his crossword, and sat in silence for a few minutes. He looked down at the kitchen table with the filled-in newspaper page in front of him, and noticed a little pasta sauce from the night before had dripped on the table and dried there, like a tomato tear drop. He went to get a washcloth and noticed that the other, much less used end of the table was already a little dusty. Wiping down the kitchen table turned into vacuuming the carpets, which turned into washing the windows and most of the rest of the house. Before he knew it, his department store watch started chiming, signifying that it was noon, and time for him to catch his own bus. Despite feeling capable of driving after two cataracts surgeries, his driver’s license was still revoked because of his “steadily declining vision.” So now the only way to get to the “part-time senior care facility” his daughter enrolled him in, was to catch a shuttle bus they send to various locations around town. His stop was just outside the neighborhood. He shuffled down the sidewalk; his knees were now almost useless and rarely without pain. The sun felt hot on the back of his neck as he grumbled about the inconvenience of this whole routine, especially at such an expense for his daughter. The shuttle was 20 minutes late, and once it did arrive, the driver gave a
“What’s poppin’, Harry. Betsy, good morning” without even looking up from his text as he half-heartedly greeted Grampa and another older woman.
“It’s well after noon by now Trevor.” Grampa grumbled as they pulled off.
“He’s an alright kid. He’s dim but he means well.”
Grampa turned around to see Betsy had taken the seat behind him.
“He drives worse than me, and I’m going blind.” Grampa responded, almost loud enough for others to hear.
“He’s not so bad when he isn’t messing around with that cell phone.” said a scratchy voice from behind Betsy. An African-American man wearing a red floral Tommy Bahama shirt with all but the bottom button undone offered a handshake in the gap between the seats.
“Name’s Carl. You?”
“I’m Harold. Harry, if ya want.” He said as he gave a firm handshake to the outstretched hand.
“Whattaya in for, Harry?”
“Hah! My daughter wants me to ‘be more social.’ Grampa said, shaking his head.
“Yeah? My good fer nothin’ son thinks I need help staying busy.”
Overhearing this, Betsy joined in; looking at Carl but glancing over at Grampa, “My third husband just died. I’m here to get back out there.”
Both men caught a flicker of eye contact before nervously fading back into their seats and facing the aisle.
Carl waited until they arrived and began exiting the bus to reach over to Grampa without Betsy hearing.
“I’m in room 26 if you ever wanna watch the game or something. My son might swing by too.”
“Thanks, Carl. I don’t have many friends around here. Maybe I’ll swing by.” Grampa said with a grin.
Lunch couldn’t come soon enough, as Spencer spent the morning trying to answer questions he didn’t know how to, in hopes that someone in the class would be impressed enough to talk to him. He sat at the end of a table of kids he didn’t know. He didn’t quite participate in the conversation, but he listened and imagined himself chiming in.
“Hey, the lunch lady says there’s extra chicken nuggets if you want some.” One kid said as he climbed back into the cafeteria table with a tray of nuggets and some ketchup.
Opportunities like this don’t come up every day. You have to earn these. And then seize them. And they aren’t even presented to everyone. Only those who have to rub their growling stomachs until the last lunch period of the day get this chance, and rarely on chicken nugget day. I’ll get some more and share them with those kids. Spencer thought as he made his way up to the lunch line. There were already too many kids, and after a few had gone by, “Alright, that’s it kiddos, none left,” was the eulogy at the funeral of Spencer’s latest dream. Wait, are those more?” Maybe the lunch lady was saving a few for herself… he wondered as he crept around the side of the rolling counter.
Darn it. Caught already.
“You can’t be back here.” The lunch lady snarled.
“Sorry.” Spencer said as he turned to return to his table, which was now empty.
The bell for recess rang out. He looked around the playground, and then up and down the field next to it. Circles of kids took up activities at the monkey bars, at the swings, at the baseball diamond, and some just standing around talking. Knowing which group to approach was just as hard as the decision to carry it out. Spencer swung his arms at his sides to make it feel like he was playing as he looked around at the bubbles of friendships he couldn’t seem to pop.
The longhaired boy. Yes, him again.
“How’s fourth grade?” snorted a chubby kid with a homeschooled haircut.
“Aren’t you in my class,” He asked the Cheeto dust-fingered punk.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty much a fifth grader cause all my friends are.”
“Oh,” said Spencer. Spencer had trouble spotting the bullshit logic.
“Was that a Pidgeotto you drew on the window?” The longhaired boy asked.
“Charizard, actually, but close!” Spencer said with a smile.
“You losers like Pokémon?” The Pokémon-hating buttface said.
“Yeah?” retorted the longhaired boy. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Pokémon is for nerds!” said Buttface.
“I like it, and I’m an older, much wiser fifth grader.”
“I hang out with other fifth graders and even some sixth graders from the other school, and they said it sucks!”
“Well we don’t think so, so why don’t you go hang out with them then.” Said the longhaired boy, stepping next to Spencer.
“Fine, maybe I will.” Buttface said as he marched off.
“Thanks,” said Spencer, “Pokémon doesn’t suck.”
“I don’t think so either. What’s your name fourth grader?”
Spencer. Spence sometimes. What’s your name fifth grader?”
“Cameron. Never Cam.”
“Oh, cool.” Spencer said as he put his hands in his pockets and tried to think of something cool to say.
“Is Pidgeotto your favorite Pokémon?” Spencer finally asked.
“Nah, I just thought that’s what you drew. I like Charizard better, but Blastoise is the best.”
“No way, he can’t even fly.”
“So what? He can shoot water and put out Charizard’s flames. And then body slam him!”
“Flying is more cooler than that. Flying is…Flying! That’s the most cool thing ever.” Spencer said, his eyes staring off.
“Wrong.” Cameron said. “Flying isn’t better than fighting.”
“I think it is; I want be able to fly when I get older.”
“Like on the back of a Charizard?” The Cameron gave him a funny look.
“No, like Charizard himself.” Spencer said, with an excited look blooming onto his face.
“You’ll never fly like Charizard. It’s impossible.”
“My mom says, ‘never say never.’” Spencer offered.
“Yeah, well, its impossible, so don’t get your hopes up.”
“I don’t think so. They have gliders and flying squirrel suits. I looked it up! By the time we’re my brothers age, we’ll be able to fly.”
“Humanly. Impossible, kid. How old’s your brother?”
“Almost 20.” Spencer said proudly.
“Still,” Cameron replied.
One of the bigger fifth graders had driven a dribbling, miserable kick ball pitch past the outfield, and was now headed straight for the two students. Before either had time to move, the ball hit Spencer in the back, causing him to fall and scrape his knee, before rolling in the opposite direction of the school. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he fought them off as he felt the fifth grader looking at him watching the ball bounce away.
“Sorry!” The pitcher called from across the field.
Just then, the bell rang for the end of recess, and everyone started to run back inside. Spencer started to as well, but stopped to look back to see if anyone was bringing the ball back in. Nobody was chasing after it.
“Whoever touched it last has to get it!” one of the asshole kickballers called.
Spencer looked back at the ball, hesitated, and then decided he might as well go get it so no one, including him, gets in trouble.
“There you go!” The nurse said as she smoothed a bandage over his scraped knee.
“Good as new.”
“Thank you.” Spencer said as she tore him off a hall pass.
“You can’t be playing so rough out there, okay? You gotta be careful.”
“Alright darlin’ off ya go.”
She patted him on the back and held out the pass for him to take.
The folks at the “retirement facility” were nice enough. Nobody seemed particularly happy to be there, but most of the residents seemed to make the best of it. Grampa was not one of these people. He was roaming around, slowly moving from watching a game of bridge to join the group circled around the soap opera. One group occupied a table with an empty seat, but they were knitting together, and that brought up bad memories. Before he could mosey over, his watch beeped again three times, indicating it was the second time of day he needed to take his medication. He found an available wheelchair, knowing it would get him to his room faster than his feeble, throbbing knees. He pushed himself to the third to the last door at the end of the hallway and turned to go inside, but saw someone sitting on his bed.
“Hey, I think you got the wrong bed, buddy.”
The occupant was an older woman, but she was asleep.
She turned her head, eyes fluttering as she readjusted to her surroundings. Then she turned and saw Grampa, sitting there in a wheelchair.
“Time tah go… It’s fine an all, but I need this bed now,” he said.
“You can’t make me leave… YOU CAN’T MAKE ME LEAVE!
The woman burst into tears as Grampa sat in shock. He made a slow movement to stand up and calm her down but in her flailing panic she smacked the call button for an attendant who popped in the room after not much time at all.
“Excuse me, sir! What are you doing here?”
“I’m not trying to upset her, okay? I just want some privacy and my own bed.”
“I understand sir. But I think you should go back to your room, okay? Thank you so much…”
“This is my room, alright? I’m payin’ ya an arm and a leg for the stupid thing. Besides, I only need my medication out of the prescription sack on the night stand.”
“Sir, this room is occupied by this woman and another woman a little older than herself. There isn’t a night stand over there.”
Grampa wheeled himself over to the other side of the bed and noticed that indeed nothing existed over there but a dead plant. Well where the hell am I then? He wheeled himself out of the room, now noticing the picture frames on the walls and details that would have clued him in. Then he noticed the name placards outside the room.
“Dorothy A. Baker, Mildred T. Toothman.” He said out loud. “…This isn’t the north wing?”
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry sir but this is the south wing.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t know, I musta just made a wrong turn or somethin’. Sorry ‘bout that.” He turned to wheel away when the attendant zipped across the room and began pushing his wheelchair down the hall.
“That’s okay, you just got a little confused. I’ll help you find your room, no problem.”
“I don’t need help, I just…well, I guess I made a mistake for a second but I know now.”
With a smile, the attendant said, “Don’t worry sir, we all get a little mixed up every now and then. I’ll help you remember. Just look for that little sign that says ‘North Wing,’ okay?”
“I know, I’m fine, alright buddy?”
“Nonsense, sir. What’s the room number?” He said with wide smile.
“What number sir?”
“39” Grampa said as he rolled his eyes and let his head flop back as he was wheeled all the way to his room and asked repeatedly if he needed help taking his 7 pill cocktail. After taking his medicine, he found himself accidentally watching a Friends rerun before he snapped to and headed back out to the common room to return the wheelchair. On the way there, he decided to stop by Carl’s room. He wheeled himself in room 26 only to find a nurse changing the linens and throwing out a few dead flowers.
“Is this Carl’s room?
The nurse was a little startled as she turned to see Grampa sitting there, but she collected herself quickly and politely asked,
“Carl. Negro fella I met today on the bus over here. Nice man.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry… That man…his name isn’t Carl.”
“His name is Fred. He stays here full time ever since his son passed away in the war. He has trouble with his memory and has been sneaking onto the shuttle bus lately.”
“Oh, uh, alright. Well where is he?”
“I’m afraid he suffered a stroke this afternoon, and is being treated in the hospital at the moment.”
“Aw Jesus, is he gonna be alright?” Grampa’s boney hands began to wrap around one another.
“I can’t say that I know. But I sure hope so,” she said kindly.
With that, Grampa wheeled himself back down the hall. He rolled slowly as he stared off into the distance, thinking about Carl, or Fred… whoever he was. He arrived at the commons and parked the wheelchair right where he found it. As he stood up out of it, another orderly noticed him and whipped around.
“Hey BUDDY! That wheelchair is for folks who NEED it, okay?”
“Relax, fella. I got bad knees and I was only gone a few minutes.”
“I’m not here to argue with you, SIR. Just stay off equipment that someone else might need. Okay?”
Now Grampa was getting frustrated. “And did anyone, need it, buddy?”
“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to return to your room. It is not my job to deal with your bad attitude.”
“I’m not goin’ back to my stupid room.” Grampa said defiantly.
“Am I gonna have to call security?” The orderly said, unclipping the walkie-talkie from the waistband of his scrubs.
After a few long seconds of staring each other down, Grampa grumbled and turned to shuffle back toward his room. A minute or two went by and he arrived back in what felt to him like the perfect operating room for lobotomies. He was not alone, however.
“Excuse me, Miss Darcy?” Spencer said toward the end of his math class that afternoon. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Is it about the homework?” Miss Darcy had seen Spencer’s raised hand across a room of quietly working students, walked over, and asked her question before noticing Spencer hadn’t solved a single equation yet.
“It’s about flying.”
“Well Spencer unfortunately this isn’t flying class.”
“I know but…” He paused, deciding if he should ask or not. “Will we ever get to?”
“Sure, I flew to Florida just last summer, dear.” She gave an encouraging smile.
“No, like really fly, not on a plane.”
“But we don’t have wings, Spencer.”
“I know, but if we did. Or even fake wings.”
“Maybe we could fly if we had wings, but we have arms instead. And I don’t know about fake wings.” She paused, watching his mind trail further and further into dreamland. “But I do know about this division assignment, and how whatever you don’t finish will be homework.”
Spencer groaned a little to himself, and reeled his attention back in to his assignment. I’ll fly someday, he thought to himself.
The girl that allowed him to sit with her on the bus ride home was pretty cute, but not really my type, he thought.
“Do you always take the bus?” She asked him, breaking the silence of the ride.
“Not always, sometimes my brother comes and gets me.”
“Your brother can drive?” She looked amazed.
“Oh yeah.” He said, doing his best to seem unimpressed. “Has been for years.”
“Wow. You’re lucky.”
“It would be better if I could drive.” Spencer said, watching the trees float by.
“Does you’re mom ever let you?”
“No, she says I’m too little.”
“Yeah. Well. We kinda are,” she stated, very matter-of-factly.
“We aren’t grown ups, duh!” She giggled.
“I wish we were. Fourth graders don’t get to do anything cool.”
“What else do you wanna do?”
“You know, grown up stuff. Cool stuff. Drive and have my own house, and no bed time!” Spencer smiled, proud of the adequacy of his answer.
“No bed time?! That’s great. Being a grown up is gonna be awesome.”
“I know. I wish I already was. Being young is taking forever.”
Betsy was sitting on his bed, waiting for him.
“Hey there.” She perked up as soon as she saw him hobble through the threshold.
“What is it, Bets? I’m kinda tired.”
“Well that’s no way to greet your guests,” she said as she held his arm and helped him to his bed.
“Thanks,” he said as he finally made it to the still-warmed butt print formerly occupied by his visitor. “I’m sorry. The jackass down the hall was givin’ me grief for borrowing the wheel chair for five minutes. It’s not you.”
“Well that’s much better. I’m sorry he was rude to you, Harold. Are you sure you didn’t start anything with him first?”
“No! I didn’t, thank you.”
“Well I’m just checking… you know you can be…sassy at times.” She poked at him.
“Yeah, well…I wasn’t asking for nothin’,” Grampa grumbled.
“I believe you. And don’t get me wrong Harold… It’s not like I don’t like your sass,” She smiled coyly at him. “You know I made ya something…”
She squeezed her lips together with excitement. It was then that Grampa noticed her bright red lipstick that he wasn’t sure she was wearing when they got on the bus. It matched her bright red denim jacket with embroidered flowers on the back. She wore white Capri pants that just barely revealed the winding varicose veins around her calves that she was clearly trying to hide, plus a pair of purple Crocs that perfectly matched the purple flowers on her red jacket.
“Ah, Bets, I really don’t want anyth…”
“Here ya go!”
Betsy whipped around from her Vera Wang, duffle bag-sized purse holding a pair of maroon gloves and matching hat. They were clearly hand-made, but also looked put together enough that they were obviously carefully knitted. Grampa stared at them for a second, taking in what she had been working on for quite some time apparently. His cheeks and face started to flush as he hesitated to take them from her outstretched hands.
“Why did you do this?” His face suddenly turned from surprised to serious, even a little angry. “Hm?!” He expected an answer.
“Do you mean, ‘You didn’t have to’ or something?” Her smile started to slowly melt.
“No. I mean you really shouldn’t have. You wont listen to me…I’m not interested. Leave it alone.”
(Shaking off the insult.) “What’s wrong with a little gift?”
(Raising his voice) “You know damn well what’s wrong with it!”
With this, Betsy threw the hat and gloves down on the floor, exasperated.
“Sheila’s gone, Harold!”
“Don’t you call me that, either!”
“SHE’S GONE! Okay?! We’ve been taking the bus together every day for how many years…and not once did you even look at me. Not once did you pay me any attention!”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been so forward!”
Betsy turned her back to him.
With a furrowed brow, Grampa twists her shoulders around and looks her right in the eyes.
“I’ve told ya more than once, and I wont tell ya again. I’m not looking for a girlfriend or…partner or whatever ya call it. And you KNOW Sheila used to knit for me. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but it’s plain disrespectful.”
An awkward silence hung in the air. As he stared into her face, he watched a tear from each eye slip down her face, following a path already carved by the deep wrinkles in her face. He began to feel some guilt creep in his chest and decided to wrap his arms around her for a hug.
“I’m sorry okay. I appreciate the gift. It’s very nice.” He paused. “And I noticed your lipstick… looks pretty.”
The hug lasted a few more seconds as Betsy gripped him tighter and smiled at his kindness. When they finally separated, Betsy went in for a kiss. She just barely made contact with Grampa’s lips before he reeled back, wiping his mouth.
“HEY! What the hell did I just say?!”
“That I was pretty…” She tried not to continue to smile, noticing his anger.
“No, I said the lipstick was pretty, AND that I wasn’t interested in being another one of your husbands!”
Her eyes began to well up again. “How dare you. I loved all three of those wonderful men.”
“Not like I loved my Sheila. Clearly.” He noticed how upset she was getting, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care anymore. “Now get outta here. Go find a diff’rent number four!”
Betsy finally burst into tears and grabbed her purse as she stormed out. Grampa held his ground for a few minutes even after she left, in case she came back. Eventually, he realized she was long gone, and he took a seat on his bed. There he sat, reflecting on everything that happened that led to this moment. He felt terrible, about everything. He was tired, and not just today. He was tired in general. Just then he looked down and saw the carefully made hat and gloves, still lying on the floor. He brought his hands up to meet his face, and for the first time since Sheila’s funeral, he cried softly.
Spencer arrived home in a huff. He was still mad. I don’t know why everybody thinks they know everything about everything! He thought. He rang the doorbell, but didn’t hear the scuffling of Grampa’s slippers against the tile, even after a minute. He rang the doorbell again. Still nothing. Maybe he’s with his Roder-E Club. He bent down to move the “Bennett Family” rock away from the spare key underneath it and let himself inside. He set his backpack on the chair and went to get some gummies from the pantry. Time to take advantage of the empty house. He grabbed a pack of gummies and headed up to his room. The smell of Pine Sol filled the house- someone must have been sanitizing a part of the house for the first time. Then he thought, a little Pokémon Red version would cheer me up. As he bent down to get his Gameboy from under his bed, he flipped the overhanging bed sheet back up onto the bed. It fell back down before he could grab the drawstring bag his game was in. He tossed it up again, and it fell back down immediately. Spencer felt the frustration of the day boil up inside of him as he grabbed the sheet with both hands and pulled it as hard as he could out from under the comforter. As he stood, holding the sheet, he tried to decide how much trouble he’d get in if he ripped it. But then he looked down at it and thought of an idea. With one hand on each corner, he spread his arms as wide as they would go, holding the sheet with either hand. Even a little room on each end, he thought. He brought each end down to the ground and set them near his feet before tying each corner to each of his ankles. Wait, I should get my helmet. Then Spencer proceeded to untie himself, retrieve his helmet, kneepads, and elbow pads from the garage, put them on, and tie each corner of the sheet to the end of each of his four limbs. He was surprised to be able to step out onto the roof of the two-story house, since there were usually screens on the windows that were hard to get off. His legs were a little woozy as he felt the breeze already start to catch his new sail. He carefully stepped out to the edge of the slightly inclined roof, his toes now pushing on the front wall of the gutter, making it squeak a little when he shifted his weight. I think this will work. It has to work. I’m gonna fly. Spencer spread his arms straight out to either side, clenched his teeth, and closed his eyes.
It felt like an hour went by before an attendant popped into the doorway. It was the same jackass that threatened security on him before.
“Hey! You again.”
Grampa wiped his face before he brought it up.
“You again.” Grampa repeated.
“Are you the reason Miss Betsy is locked in her bathroom right now, crying her eyes out?!”
“It’s complicated, okay? She made a move on me.”
“Oh-ho-ho… you poor old thing. Somebody around here actually wants to spend time with you and you call her a whore…”
“I didn’t call her anything!”
“Well what am I supposed to do? Hm? Take your word for it?”
Now Grampa’s sadness was becoming mixed with more frustration.
“Over the word of the hysterical woman locked in the bathroom? Yes!”
“I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you? But that’s not how this works. You are constantly irritable and show little to no intention of interacting socially with the other guests. And now you’ve made one of them cry.”
“Listen, I didn’t want to make her cry, I just didn’t want to kiss the woman.”
“Well maybe if you’re gonna be so ungrateful of your time with the other guests, you can do without recreation time for a week or two.”
Grampa tried not to plead, “You can’t do that! I’m only here for half days… if I don’t have recreation time…”
“Then I guess you’ll just have some time in your room to think about what you’d rather do and how you would rather treat your fellow guests.”
“I’m not a child, you little shit. You are! I was a parent with three kids and two jobs by the time you were born. You can’t put me in time out!” Grampa said, now standing, fists clenched.
“You better watch that temper, Mr. Tompkins, or it’ll be three weeks,” the orderly said as he pulled the door closed.
What did I do to deserve this day… Grampa thought to himself. He rubbed the back of his neck and still looked shocked at what had just happened. He thought about getting in bed and staying there until it was time to leave. He stood, debating for a minute. Instead, he decided to visit his special place. It wasn’t the best special place he’d ever had, but Grampa had always kept a special place to himself, somewhere no one would know where to find him, and that was the point. He shuffled down the hall, almost excitedly, but he was too exhausted. At the end of the hall, there was an emergency door with a red handle and several signs warning that an alarm would sound if it were opened. At the base of the door was a little joint where a silver cable that ran out of the inside of the door connected to another cable with some black electrical tape. He slowly and somewhat painfully bent down and disconnected the two from each other, only to stand back up and disappear through the doorway.
He climbed a flight of metal emergency stairs, not as nimble as he once could, but he got to the roof hatch all the same. His knees may have been wobbling, but his shoulders flipped the hatch door open without any trouble. As quickly as he hoisted himself up and stood on the rooftop, he felt the comfort of his special place wash over him like a warm breeze. It wasn’t anything special- a few air conditioning units and vents, a couple skylights over the commons that he would have to avoid, plus some kind of bird nest in the corner. He didn’t even need to look around- he already knew the landscape. He went straight for his corner. Two old plastic folding chairs sat in the corner of the building that overlooked the intersection where his favorite diner was located. The diner where he first met his late wife. He stood, gazing at the diner and didn’t even feel himself start to lean in. He wished he could be back down there with her and his favorite plate of steak and eggs. Nowadays he couldn’t have either. He stepped his left foot onto the edge of the roof. He could feel the wind tunnel from between the two buildings push a small gust of air up his shirt as he picked up his other foot and found himself standing on the edge of the building. He brought his gaze from the diner across the street to the toes of his Velcro, posture-correcting shoes which were now hanging over the edge. Normally he’d feel nauseous or afraid to be where he was, and his knees would start to tremble, but he didn’t. There was a calm in him that he hadn’t experienced in a long time, maybe ever. He closed his eyes and felt the silent peace flow through him. He couldn’t even feel himself leaning forward again.
Jeff was almost trembling with excitement. He looked down at his shaky hand as he reached down and put the car in drive.
Everything is going great, he thought to himself. He knew the rest of the family had no idea about his change of plans. A few minutes of winding country roads put him back out near the highway, where he accelerated through the merge with a smile on his face. For a second, his happiness seemed to falter. He hadn’t ever felt like this. It almost made him want to cry. Hold it together, he told himself, almost home. He pulled up in the driveway in his mom’s car. She wasn’t entirely in on the plan, but he told her he was “finding his way,” or whatever she liked to say, and at the moment of asking to borrow the car, that was good enough for her. Jeff reached across the seat to grab the strap of his backpack and glanced at the car’s clock. Spence and Grampa should be home already. He swung the bag over his shoulder and proceeded to the front door when he heard some creaking from overhead.
“SPENCE?! WHAT THE HELL?!?!”
Spencer was standing, eyes closed, at the edge of the gutter.
“GET DOWN YOU IDIOT!”
Spencer opened his eyes.
“Okay, get out of the way then, idiot!”
“No, get back in the window. What are you doing?!?”
“I’m gonna fly!”
Spencer said, stepping off the roof, arms extended.
Jeff quickly adjusted his position below just in time to catch Spencer. Well, not really catch him- Jeff pretty much just cushioned the blow as the kid landed on him. Jeff rolled out from under Spencer onto his stomach, wheezing as he did his best to catch the breath that was just knocked out of him.
“What…is…your…problem…” He said, gasping.
“I thought I was gonna fly…” Spencer sniffed, with tears running down his face as he rubbed the ankle he twisted on the landing.
“Don’t do that ever again, okay? You can fly, Peter Pan. But not with a freaking bed sheet tied to your wrists,” Jeff said as he got to his knees, and then his feet, still holding his stomach.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to show people I could do it.”
“I know what you mean. I feel the same way all the time.”
“Really?” Spencer sniffed.
“Really. As a matter of fact, I’ve got something to show you. Where’s Grampa by the way. He should have been here keeping you off the gutters.”
“I dunno, he wasn’t here when I came home…” Spencer mumbled guiltily, as if his lack of supervision relieved him of the responsibility for his actions.
“Maybe he missed his bus like you did. Why don’t we go get him?” Jeff smiled.
Spencer smiled back at him, and the two climbed into the car.
“Is your ankle okay?” Jeff said, noticing Spencer shift his weight a little to keep it off the twisted ankle.
“Can I pick the radio?” Spencer was already happy to ride in the front seat.
“Whoa. Get in back.” Jeff said, taking his hand off the ignition.
“You’ve tested your luck with the laws of physics enough for one day. But yes you can pick the station.”
Spencer slid out of the passenger seat and climbed up into the backseat.
“What happened to your knee??”
Jeff shook his head. “What a little trouble maker.”
The boys arrived at the retirement facility and found Grampa’s room empty. They looked around the commons and the back, outdoor area before finally asking an attendant if they’d seen him. Overhearing the conversation, Betsy waddled over to the boys with her eyes already welling up.
“It’s my fault boys. I tried to kiss him and he must have ran away.”
“What?” Jeff said as Spencer let out an “Ewwwww.”
Jeff started looking around at all the doors to try to think of which one Grampa would have left from. Not north, there’s no reason to go north. Jeff thought as he shifted his eyes from the north door. He was turning to looked from the east door to the south door when he noticed the emergency door a little ways down from Grampa’s room. It’s not latched. But no alarm? He looked down at the separate cords and hoped that he hadn’t gone far.
At first, Grampa thought it was a vivid memory of Spencer’s voice. I guess your brain reminds you what you love in this world before you leave it. But he heard it again.
“Grampa! You wanna fly too?!”
He turned around to see the shining face of his grandson staring back at him. Jeff looked scared, wondering what his grandfather’s intentions were as they found him standing on the edge of the building.
That uncertainty and probably dark reality hung in the air while the three of them rode out into the country. Grampa knew Spencer didn’t grasp the situation, but Jeff was aware of what they’d walked into.
“I just like that corner.” Grampa finally said, breaking the tension. “I don’t know if I was even really gonna do it, I just had a really rough day.”
More silence. Jeff was trying to think of how he should respond.
“When you’re old like me…” Grampa started, but he realized that wouldn’t help his case.
Another 5 minutes of silently staring at the rows of corn whizzing by was broken by Jeff’s response.
“It’s okay. I feel like that too sometimes. …Not old, but sad. Beaten down.”
He thought about what to say next, and continued.
“You just gotta think about the good stuff; the stuff that’s worth living for. And even look for more good stuff if you need to. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I want to show you.”
Jeff turned onto another county road that eventually ran into what looked like a big parking lot. At the end of the parking lot, there were a couple cars and a small, private plane.
“What is this?” Spencer asked.
After they parked next to the other cars, Jeff got out and shook the hand of a big-shouldered man with feathery gray-blonde hair.
“I haven’t told mom yet, but I figured out what I want to do with my life…I want to be a pilot.” Jeff said with a smile that he could help but let beam out of him.
“When are you going to start learning?” Grampa asked.
“I’m already done! Well not done, but I can fly this little guy now.” Jeff pointed to the 5-person plane. And my instructor has to go up with us. But I’m making progress.”
“You can fly that?!” Spencer looked amazed, staring at the (to him) giant plane and then back at his big brother.
“But how? When did you have time?”
“Well that’s the thing…” now Jeff looked a little nervous. “I dropped out of school and have been doing this instead. Mom doesn’t know yet. I want to tell her once I can fly on my own. But I can show you guys now, so I got here early today to set this up.”
“Set what up?” Grampa looked confused.
“WE GET TO FLY IN THAT THING? THIS IS GONNA BE CRAZYYY!” Spencer was jumping up and down.
“Oh no… I’ve seen how you kids drive these days, and if you think I’m climbing up there and risking my life while you do donuts in the sky, you’re more senile than I am!” Grampa crossed his arms across his chest. Jeff started to look discouraged.
“C’mon Grampa, please? I’m certified now…”
“I’m just kiddin’ witcha! What are we waitin’ for?!”
Grampa skipped past the instructor as fast as his knees would let him and helped pull Spencer, who followed close behind, up into the back row of seats. Jeff smiled as He thanked and followed his instructor to the plane.
“Everybody hang on!” Jeff checked to make sure everyone was strapped in before he started the engine. Spencer gripped his seat harness and bared his teeth in a wide smile.
“I’m gonna FLY!”
Grampa looked over at his grandson, who was as happy as he’d ever been. He looked up in the rearview mirror and saw the joy in Jeff’s eyes just before he put on a pair of aviator sunglasses and smiled as he pushed the gas and started them down the runway.
A tear fell from Grampa’s eye as he thought about how close he was to missing this experience, and promised himself he’d stick around as long as he still had moments like these to look forward to.
The four men sailed up into the sky, soaring past clouds, pointing out to each other familiar landmarks they saw as they flew by. And despite a day that so easily could have been one of the worst, became the very best with every puffy cloud they passed.