A year ago I got grandma one of those drug dealer phones from CVS. It would cost me twenty bucks a month to buy a card to make phone calls – ten times cheaper than what the crooks at the nursing home charged for a room phone every month.
She lost it within a week. She was convinced one of the nurses took it. She called them ‘The Hatians’ even though they were from West Roxbury, had graduate degrees, and spoke perfect English. I think there was a lady from Trinidad, but it doesn’t matter. Then she lost her second and third phones. I got those when I learned she could get a free phone by the council for the elderly and destitute thanks to an initiative President Obama started. I had to have a talk with her nurse and her social worker about the fallout from her when they went missing. She’d violently berate everyone, cut off her wander guard with a pair of nail clippers, and somehow escape to Saint Anthony’s Shrine downtown when no one was looking. I’d get the call when she disappeared, and I’d get another call when she was found a couple hours later. I wanted to attach one of those chains that hold the pen to the desk at the bank to make sure she didn’t lose her Obama phone.
Then it became easier to keep the expensive landline after all because I was too far away to micromanage it all and it took up too much of my time.
Her nursing home is a nice facility that overlooks the bay. The building sits on a peninsula with a beautiful view of Southie, UMASS, and the old Gillette factory. She was only a few blocks from where she grew up on Freeport Street in Dorchester after her family emigrated from Ireland in the thirties. I couldn’t afford to live in a building like hers, with the view and the access to college. Instead, I moved almost a hundred miles west when I graduated, married one of my classmates, had two boys and became a second-grade teacher. It’s an urban district of low-income, under-nourished, intellectual and emotionally delayed kids. They didn’t have books in their house. Some teachers used to make the joke that they probably had a telephone book, but they stopped printing those a decade ago.
Obviously, when a few police officers show up to your classroom door with a dog in a city like this triggers some deep trauma in those poor little kids. My principal accompanied the detail to my room. She shot me a concerned look before offering to watch the children while I talked to the officers just outside my classroom door.
The biggest of the three introduced himself in a deep voice as pockmarked as his cheeks. “Detective Palmer,” he said, “and this is officer Gonzales and officer Jackson. I’m here from the drug task force.”
“Who’s that?” I asked, gesturing toward the German Shepherd.
“It’ll calm the kids down when I go back in.”
“You’re,” he ignored my question and looked at his steno pad, “Glen Kearney?”
“Know why we’re here?”
“Do you know a,” back to the steno pad, “Shannon?”
“She called us.”
“I don’t know.”
He nodded. He pursed his lips. “Well, we gotta follow up with every call. She got to my desk. She mentioned you.”
“What’d she say?”
“That we had to check up on you. Some other things. It made no sense.”
“So you came, anyway?” I looked at my students through the tiny window reinforced with chicken wire. My principal comforted Sheileen. She was crying. Her black kinky poufs held with elastics and little pink plastic balls bobbed over the principal’s shoulder.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “She lives all the way in Quincy. Once she gets on that phone…”
“She calls the police?”
“She calls everyone.”
“Well, see if you can do something about that,” he offered. “Is there anything else?”
“No, no. Everything’s fine,” I said. What I meant was, ‘you’re the idiot who listened to her and came to check on me. I could get in your cruiser and detect some meth dealers and pimps of baby prostitutes at the train station in five minutes instead of investigating the elementary school’s ruthless mastermind of subtraction and shoelaces.’
They turned to leave.
“The dog?” I asked.
Jackson spun around with the leash in his hand. “Pippy,” he replied. I heard the highest voice I’ve ever heard issue from a man. Just to hear it again, I shook my head and gestured my hand to my ear that I hadn’t heard him. “Pippy! Pippy!” His soprano squeaked. The dog’s mouth was sloppy for a treat by the third mention of her name.
I reentered the room. The students seemed calm.
“Those nice police officers had the best helper,” I told the class. “Her name was Pippy, and she was a German Shepherd working dog. Pippy the police puppy!”
Principal Davis whispered in my ear, “everything better be okay, Glen.”
“Yeah,” I said. “My grandmother.”
“Such a nice woman.” She smiled. Grandma called my principal for a weekly conversation about how I was doing at work. Davis humored her. “She’s okay?”
“Don’t listen to a word she says,” I replied.
The principal left, and I picked up Stuart Little to resume our reading. Deyquoine raised his hand from the huddle of children on the blue rug in our reading nook.
“I hope you di’int snitch, mister.”
After this, I made the decision to kill the phone line. I had spent hours on damage control, managing the fallout from each of her angry calls and manipulative tirades. She harassed the funeral home where she had her pre-need plan all set until she got them to give up her account and transfer the funds to a second, and then a third funeral home. She called the police on Cape Cod to do wellness checks on my mother. She had weekly premonitions that mom died alone and her cats were eating her fingers. She called the state police in Fort Lauderdale and got them to visit my father. She hoped that they’d arrest him for abandoning his family and running off with the busty woman he’s been married to for twenty years. And why didn’t he ever visit his kids? Or call? Or care?
Her calls were enough to prompt anyone to action. Sure, there was nothing illegal about a dad leaving his family thirty years ago, but persuading two uniformed officers to bang on his door thirty-five hundred miles away was impressive. We didn’t talk, but I had to after the intrusion. He was rightfully upset. But the wounds were reopened. The festering pus of our relationship was exposed to the daylight once more. Perhaps grandma thought something like this would bring us back together. I didn’t understand how someone makes it eighty-eight years on the planet without learning you can’t change people. I learned that when the ribbon spool of my love ran out, following my father’s escape over silent state borders and just as many silent birthdays. She didn’t understand that his punishment for that crime, years later, was worse than any court in the land could devise. That very same, lonely, loveless silence.
It took a month to find the time to drive several hours to Boston to confront Grandma and tell her about the phone. I left on the Sunday morning following the police visit at work. It avoided the complicated obligations and routines of a widower father’s weekday managing the boys. Shane and Larry, five and two. I gave the youngest an early nap and we left just after noon. During the drive I prepped Shane about what to expect at the nursing home. There would be a lot of old strangers acting like they knew him, or angry, or unpredictable. They might smell, they might touch him, they’ll all want to talk to him. It’s a weird place, Shane, you’ll just have to smile and do your best. When your great-grandma talks to you, just be friendly and answer her questions. Talk to her about whatever you want, and she’ll be happy. Kiss and hug her. That’ll be weird, too. Do your best.
I exhausted the selection of the car’s music an hour into the drive. The children had a strange affinity to the music I still listened to from my teenage years. I knew this would be a problem when they got to middle school, but for now they were comfortable with the complete catalogues of Kate Bush, Beastie Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. If you haven’t seen a five-year-old boy scream along with ‘Closer’ using a revised, friendly libretto of I’m just a funky little animal, you’re missing a great parenthood experience. Katie would’ve had a problem with it. Without these little private pleasures, desperation crept up my body like a spider to maintain its dark web in my brain.
We pulled into the facility a few hours later. I did my best to manage the children; it’s an environment poorly suited for their little spirits. Some Matchbox cars and coloring pages are a wonder in a situation so unfamiliar and strange.
“You’re right. You’re allowed to call whoever you like, grandma,” I said, juggling the two-year-old from hip to hip. “But you need to stop with the police. They have important things to do.”
“This is important,” she replied.
“I understand it’s important to you, but when you call them to check on your daughter-in-law’s brothers-”
“They didn’t go to Paul’s funeral.”
“They didn’t have to,” I replied. She was upset about the number of people that attended her son’s funeral. He died a year earlier of a heart attack. My aunt’s brothers weren’t close to anyone in her husband’s family. Like anyone, it was unexpected when the police visited their homes. Learning the call started with the mother-in-law of their sister they didn’t want to talk to made even less sense. Trying to explain it to them over the phone was the first time I ever spoke to any of them in my life. I tried to apologize for grandma’s behavior, but I was a stranger. Grandma wasn’t even at the funeral. We filmed it and brought the video of the small affair to watch a couple weeks later. In hindsight, I should have told her everyone but the pope came to pay their respects. Maybe I could’ve included the pope, except the fact that it was a secular memorial service. That didn’t go over well, either.
“That’s not right,” she said.
“You can only worry about yourself.”
“I think…” she changed her tone to hushed whispers. “I think they had something to do with it. Don’t you think someone wanted his gold coin collection? Don’t you think his wife being so… and his kids? Do you think it’s drugs?”
“No.” The homicidal accusations weren’t new. She had no less than five official copies of Uncle Paul’s death certificate and autopsy report sent to me. Who knows how many my poor aunt got. Every version of her murder conspiracy involved some nonexistent family fortune in gold coins, jewelry, and furs, as if my uncle was a swarthy pirate amassing a fortune in shady Caribbean ports.
“That reminds me. Here.” She eyed the room for spies. When she was sure the coast was clear, she reached under her pillow and produced a men’s bracelet. “Bob gave it to me when he died. He got it from his ex-wife. It’s solid silver. I want you to wear it. Keep it safe for me.”
Bob was a Rodney Dangerfield-type guy she hung out with for years. He died of lung cancer from chain smoking in his late sixties. He brought my sister and I to the Raynham dog track when we were kids. The bracelet was the kind of cheap stainless steel men’s jewelry from a mall kiosk. A black plaque was glued to the face of the piece, with Bob etched out in gothic letters. On back, Love Always, Ann in machined cursive. I put it on. It was heavy. I didn’t wear jewelry, but I figured if anyone asked I’d reply with ‘you ever see Twin Peaks?’ That beat the real story of my bedside inheritance of a dead stranger’s cheap gift.
“I’m glad I have my diabetes under control,” she said, changing the subject again. “I called the housing authority and got back on the list. They sent me the paperwork. I said I wanted to be back in the building on Clay Street.”
“When did they do that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “Don’t tell anyone. Take care of your mother.”
“Yes.” My mother was on disability and lived in public housing on the Cape. She hardly left her bed. My mother needed to get up from bed, take walks, eat well, but she didn’t. A decade of my nagging was doing nothing to change that. Grandma’s phoned-in wellness checks seemed to increase her habit of eating jars of cake frosting in bed.
“She could take better care of herself,” I said. “I have no control over that.”
“She’s your mother.”
“I have to take care of these kids, grandma. They’re my priority.”
“I don’t know why your wife left you,” she said.
My wife Katie died from an aggressive thyroid cancer we discovered when she never bounced back from the fatigue of childbirth and nursing. She got more and more tired, lost weight, and died last summer. She left me to raise our two boys. The lady that runs the daycare only charges me for one of the two kids, now. She knows I can’t afford anything. She thinks there’s the possibility that I’ll make a move on her adult daughter that works there. I have no interest in relationships anymore. I don’t show her any emotion either way. I don’t want to sound like it isn’t affecting me at all. My dead wife isn’t part of this story.
Heat rose in my throat. “It’s hard,” I finally said to her.
“I had to take care of my mother. Jesus said respect your mother.”
“No he didn’t.”
“Don’t tell me what Jesus said.”
“You have all the answers, huh?” She said. With every new subject she danced to, I became less sure of which topic she was accusing me of neglecting. Grandma looked out the window. She whispered, “She’s your mother. I need to get out of here and go help her.”
She wasn’t going anywhere.
Larry wiggled and wanted me to put him down. He joined Shane at the table by the end of the bed working on coloring pages. Once the two-year-old got wiggly, there wasn’t much time left. Now or never. I wasn’t looking forward to this part, even though it was the whole point.
“Grandma, I have to take your phone away.”
“I’m going to give you the building.”
“You apologize. You tell me all the time that you’ll stop making your phone calls. I’m sorry. I don’t have any more time or energy. With the kids and work and trying to figure everything out. It’s too much.” She watched the children. “What building, grandma?”
“The building on Hancock Street.”
In the eighties, Grandma was a successful businesswoman. Throughout Boston, her real estate dealings and her salon businesses allowed her the capital to construct an office and retail building in downtown Wollaston. She taught classes in cosmetology in the classrooms above the salon on Hancock Street on off-hours, and her students interned at the salon when they weren’t learning the trade. It was extremely profitable. The building had additional storefront rental space with an independent bakery, insurance company, and a Papa Gino’s on the corner.
She lost the business after a scandal emerged. Twenty years ago, she falsified some student’s enrollment and kept the federal financial aid coming into the beauty school. There was an investigation. She lost everything. The feds auctioned it off for reparations to the victims. The grand jury found her incapable of standing trial when she testified as Jesus Christ and found she was organizing her feces-smeared panties in the office’s filing cabinets. The nervous breakdown was diagnosed as early onset dementia. She was hospitalized for many years.
“Those boys are so good. Beautiful.” She looked at the boys coloring at the end of the bed. “Sean. Sean?”
“Conor?” She was calling the name of Uncle Paul and Aunt Kathy’s kids. They were adults in their forties, like me.
“Grandma, that’s Shane and Larry. Shane is the big one. Those are my kids.”
“How’s Cathy? I wish she wasn’t angry at me. I wish you didn’t move away.”
“Cathy is fine, grandma.” Katie was my wife. Cathy is my aunt. I had two young boys. My wife was dead. I only had one sibling; a sister.
“You and your brother can get a job at the pizza place. I know who owns it. It’s a good start. A good job. You’ll need a job” She didn’t take her eyes from my children. She continued in a dream, “it will be good for you to know what it means to earn money.” As she spoke, gravity pulled the tiny invisible fish hooks of her toothless mouth to the earth. It slowly occurred to her that she didn’t know who was here. At one moment I was me, the next my uncle, the next my dad, and the next, one of my cousins. I was practically everyone but me.
“Mind your own business,” she said to no one.
“When I ran for office,” she said, “I had nothing to hide. I tell these people here that I’m on the silver-haired legislature. I’m a senator. That’s why I like the president. He says what’s on his mind.”
A nurse entered with a tray. He was a large, kind-looking man with dreadlocks and a soft voice.
“Shannon, I’m here with your dinner,” he said loud and slow. He noticed me. “You have a visitor!”
“See? These Hatians,” she said to me. “It doesn’t matter to them.”
“Hi, I’m Glen, her grandson,” I said to him.
“Nice to meet you. Shannon, this is your grandson!”
“Don’t talk to them,” Grandma said to me. She cut a glance at the nurse. “I can’t eat this. Bread is bad for my sugar.”
“Don’t worry Shannon,” the nurse said. “Everything is all set for you here.”
“They know what they’re doing,” she said to me. The nurse operated the bed into a sitting position, and left. “They’re trying to kill me. They’ll kill me with my sugar. Here, give this to the boys.” From her tray, she handed me a little lemon Italian ice pop in a wax paper envelope. My Bob bracelet jangled as I offered it to the boys. Neither were interested. To be polite, Shane held it in his hand and thanked her.
“They haven’t killed you yet, grandma.”
“Just keep talking to your friend David.” Grandma was back to why I was visiting but now I was brewing a senicide plot with the Nursing Home administration. David was her resident social worker. “Pretty soon I’ll be out of your hair and you don’t have to worry about me and my calls.”
Dusk settled over the bay. The windows dimmed. I had to leave before she started eating. I held the children up to give her a hug and a kiss. She wanted to hold the baby. I held Larry over her. He started crying. She held him like she didn’t know what to do with him, like I piled the individual ingredients of a cake on her lap instead of the cake. And why was I giving her cake? She was diabetic, after all.
We craned over the railings of her bed for a selfie. I made sure to include both the children and my weird Bob bracelet. I collected all our stuff in our backpack.
I changed Larry’s diaper in the bathroom and promised Shane that he could have dinner and a sundae at McDonald’s for being so good. In the elevator on the way out he told me it wasn’t as bad as I said it would be.
On the way out we were stopped in the lobby by Irina, a kind resident who told us she immigrated from Romania in the seventies. She insisted on talking to the children. I humored her even though I was worried about how long it’d take us to get back to Western Mass. My patience was rewarded with a brief story of her life as a journalist covering the complications of the Soviet occupation. She came with her husband because her life was threatened. She apologized for keeping us up. I thanked her, and noted the children weren’t getting to bed before midnight, anyway.
I became one of ‘those dads’ when I pulled into the McDonald’s at the Concord Rotary at nine or nine-thirty that night. When we walked in, the chairs and high chairs were upside down on the tables or stacked in the corner. I got a couple happy meals and extra fries. The children giggled their way through the meal, hours past their bedtime. The baby’s shoes and socks ended up on the floor. Exhausted joy in an anonymous, late-night fast food restaurant next to the highway.
We were just across the street from Concord Prison. I never ate fast food and tried to avoid it with the kids, but I thought if I escaped, this would be my first stop. I’d hold the place up, or force the dad sitting near the door to buy me some food with a veiled, impossible threat against his kids. I’d steal his car keys and make off with as many paper bags of the intoxicating garbage as I could carry. This probably never happened the whole time the restaurant was here.
People change in prison, and they can leave enriched like wine or festering their wounds to infect their lives even worse than before. I was certain many damaged souls behind those walls were finding more freedom than they had ever found in the lives they lived on the expanse on this side.
Why did grandma use her time and agency at the end of her life the way she did? I wished I had the time and the freedom she had. She could spend it however she wanted. I would read every neglected book on my shelf. I’d write everything I’d been keeping in. I’d write to people I loved, people I never met and tell them, I love you. I’d write my autobiography. She could spend her time penning hers. Her words wouldn’t be localized to the mind of a woman in her late-eighties. Her words would span the new considerable catalogue of the flowery truths, of the various sins against those she loved. Dementia would bludgeon lies into new, acceptable truths. Maybe she did it for attention; even negative attention is attention. Maybe it was having control over something. But these words, if she allowed them to escape, would imprison the truth and free her mind. Free her spirit. If she used her time like this, she might even find grace.
Some teens arrived at the restaurant with a soccer ball. They dribbled and batted it around the dining room. They played a game of keeping it in the air with their feet, knees, and chests. My kids were mesmerized by a girl. A spindly pony-tailed soccer player whose short shorts emphasized her nimble legs scrambling to keep the ball aloft. A boy in a uniform of a polo and khakis ordered a McFlurry at the counter. They told him the ice cream machine was down for the night. That meant no sundaes for us, either. The boy returned to his group, snatched the soccer ball, and went through the door to the foyer and started kicking the ball against the fire alarm system box on the wall. My oldest looked back to me with a sour face. He knew the boy was misbehaving.
On the drive home my headlights painted the pavement, curving through the Berkshires evergreen-bordered bobsled track. I played podcasts of old timey Burns and Allen radio shows that always lulled the kids to sleep in the back. The frame of my windshield, a David Lynch drive. The desolate concrete visuals brought a milky sense of freedom to my heart, tainted with a black inky droplet of regret. I revoked my grandmother’s one connection to the outside world. Her hospital bed command center, her sweeping emotional carpet bombings, her independence, gone. One’s end surely deserved more dignity, but what if this independence actually came at the cost of one’s dignity?
Two golden lasers shone back at me in the darkness of the dark highway.
I stopped the car in the middle of the road. We were alone. I turned down the radio to silence. The engine idled. I tried to make out what I was looking at.
A lone, grey coyote stared back at me. Hunched. Its posture braced for impact, or an attack. Its head pointed at me, parallel to the ground like a gun. Defensive. Angry. We were alone on the two-lane highway until four fluffy bodies stumbled up behind her. They lumbered through her legs, passed up through the divider, and into the blackness. The coyote took a few tentative steps. She didn’t take her eyes from me until she joined her babies in the black.
“What’s that?” My oldest son asked from the back. He awoke from his sleep.
“There was a coyote.”
“Oh,” his tiny voice replied.
I turned the radio back up. We started driving again.
This coyote had a time. It may not be in the near future, but eventually she would die. She must have a plan. Some natural hum would sneak up in her mind when the time is right. The babies would already be gone from her care. She’d face a new primal feeling behind her slim ribcage as she stalked through tree trunks. In my version, they’d be illuminated by ominous lightning followed by the terrifying crack of thunder. Maybe she never got used to the terror of nature when the storms came in the night. These old fears would be tamped down by new, and the predatory prick on the back of her neck never came for the first time in this life. She thought about her own mother, weaving between her legs and playing with her sisters and brothers. She wasn’t hungry. She walked. Alone. The coyote wouldn’t necessarily wander off by herself. She’d simply fall behind. The cruel secrets of the wilderness would stay hidden.
Now, nature was more cruel to man, it seemed. I looked at the boys in the back as the street lights on the French King Bridge passed over them in a strobe, and thought, ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’ What was that from? Yellow light brushed their sleeping faces like chamois.
A few minutes from home, the two-year-old stirred in the car seat. He coughed a couple times. Splashes. The sharp aroma of vomit and fast food quickly filled the dark cabin. A bouquet of half-digested apple juice rounded out the offensive cloud. Both children woke and started crying. The horrors I imagined awaiting me as we pulled up the driveway at close to one in the morning weren’t as awful as the reality. Still, nerves stabbed up my neck with the sound of their wails and the putrid effervescence of digestion. I cleaned the children up in the middle of the night. A fast, steamy tub. I put them to bed. I tossed the car seat parts in the washing machine. When all was finally quiet in my head, hands flat on the kitchen counter, I closed my eyes and breathed.
I splashed water on my face. Poured a scotch. I replayed and analyzed my reaction to the day’s events. Grandma. A late night fast food. A coyote. The vomit and crying. The circumstances were awful, but I did what I had to do with what patience I could. I took a second scotch upstairs. I peeked in their room. My breathing children were very much alive in their bed dreaming of the unburdened joys of youth and living.
I got between the cold sheets. I was alone in my once connubial bed. I read. I finished the scotch. I put my bookmark in my book, and shut the light.
When I finally slept, my dreams were that thankless void of the dead or the not yet born.
Garrett Zecker is a writer, actor, and teacher of writing and literature. He holds an MA in English from Fitchburg State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA. His fiction and nonfiction work has been featured in many publications, most recently Black Dandy, Porridge, and Assignment. His story Rachel is a semifinalist in the Machigonne Fiction Contest and is forthcoming in The New Guard Review Volume IX. He is the cofounder of Quabbin Quills, a nonprofit foundation focused on publications, free writers workshops, and high school scholarships for writers in Central and Western Massachusetts. You can follow Garrett on Twitter at @mrzecker or learn more about him on his website.