My grandmother lost her sight about three years ago, just before she turned ninety, and because it happened gradually, and in the context of so much other debility, she adapted very well. Grandma’s love of the outdoors combined with her remarkable lucidity and optimism to keep her cheerful and realistic. And she could get on my ass about as good as she ever could. She was now greatly invested in her sense of smell, so I tried to put fresh flowers around her house while Mrs Devlin, her housekeeper of forty-one years, kept other things in the cottage fresh, including the flow of gossip and the newspaper under Chickie, a thirty-year-old bluefronted parrot that had bitten me several times. When Grandma goes, Chickie is going into the Disposal.
Grandma did a remarkable job of living in the present, something I’d hoped to learn from her before going broke or even crazier than I already was. I’d been away for over a decade, first as a timekeeper in a palladium mine, then dealing cards, downhill all the way. Three years in a casino left me so fucked up I was speaking in tongues, but Grandma got me back on my feet with pearls of immortal wisdom like, ‘Pull yourself together.’ And while I waited for her to give me a little walking-around money, a pearl or two would come to me too, like, ‘Shit or get off the pot.’
Grandma owned several buildings in the middle of our small town, including the old hotel where I lived. I looked after them, not exactly as a maintenance man – I don’t have such trade skills – but more as an overseer, for which Grandma paid me meagrely, justifying her stinginess with the claim that I was bleeding her white. Another building housed an office-supply shop and a preschool, where I was a teaching assistant. That is, a glorified hall monitor for a bunch of dwarfs. I also tended bar two nights a week – the off nights, when tips were scarce, but it was something to do and kept me near the hooch. Grandma had bought the bar, too, back when it was frequented mainly by sheep-herders. Sheep have mostly disappeared from the area since being excluded from the national forest, which they had defoliated better than Agent Orange. I didn’t see much point in tending an empty bar, but Grandma required it. It was part of my ‘package’, she said, and besides she was sure that if we closed it down, it would become a meth lab. Grandma was convinced every empty building housed a meth lab.
The preschool thing was another matter. Mrs Hessler, the teacher, considered me her employee, and I played along with this to keep the frown off that somewhat shapeless face she had crowned with an inappropriate platinum pixie. I regularly fed her made-up news items from imaginary newspapers, and she always bought it. ‘Drone Strike on a Strip Club’, for example. In return, Mrs Hessler made me wear clothes she supplied and considered kid-friendly; loud leisure suits and sweatpants, odd-lot items that gave me the feeling I was at the end of my rope.
Barring weather or a World Series game, on Sundays I’d pick up a nice little box lunch from Mustang Catering and take Grandma some place that smelled good. I was often in rough shape on Sunday mornings, so a little fresh air helped me dry out in time for work on Monday. We’d have our picnics in fields of sage and lupin, on buffalo grass savannahs north of town, on deep beds of spruce needles and in fields of spring wild flowers. I’d have enough of nature pretty quick, but we stayed until Grandma had had her fill; she told me it was the least I could do and I suppose she’s right.
Today’s nature jaunt turned out to be one for the ages: we went to a bend in the river near Grandma’s and set up our picnic under the oldest of cottonwoods, the eastbound current racing toward us over pale gravel. It smelled wonderful. Once out of the car, I led Grandma with a light touch on the elbow, marvelling at how straight and tall she was, how queenly she looked with her thick white hair carefully piled and secured by Mrs Devlin with a broad tortoiseshell comb. I had just settled Grandma on her folding chair and popped open our box lunch when the corpse floated by. Though face down he seemed formally attired, and the tumult of current at the bend was strong enough to make him ripple from end to end, while his arms seemed lofted in some oddly valedictory way and his hair floated ahead of him. The sunlight sparkling on the water made the picture ghastly.
‘Oh!’ said Grandma as though she could see it.
‘That divine smell, of course! I can still smell snow in the river!’
The corpse had rotated in such a way that I could now see the heels of its shoes and the slight ballooning of its suit coat. Just then I remembered that cheap Allegiant flight I’d taken back from Las Vegas. I’d lost so much money, I got drunk on the plane and passed out, and someone scrawled LOSER on my face in eyebrow pencil, though I didn’t see it until the men’s room at the Helena airport. Was I so far gone I was identifying with a corpse?
‘What an awful child you were,’ Grandma said. ‘Already drinking in the sixth grade. What would have become of you if I hadn’t put you in Catholic school? It was your salvation and thank goodness the voodoo wore off in time. It wasn’t easy humouring those silly nuns. They never took their hands out of their sleeves the whole time you were there.’
‘Uh, Grandma, excuse me but I have to see a man about a horse.’ I jogged along the riverbank until I was well out of earshot and, lighting a cigarette, I called the sheriff ’s office on my cell. I let the dispatcher know who I was and asked if the sheriff or one of the deputies was available. ‘I’ll check. What’s the topic?’ The dispatcher’s tone let me know how they felt about me at the sheriff’s office.
‘I’m down on the river and a corpse just went by. Across from the dump. It’s going to pass under the Harlowton Bridge in about ten minutes.’
‘There’s no one here right now. Marvin has a speeder pulled over at the prairie dog town. Maybe he could get there.’
‘Next stop after that is Greycliff. Somebody’d have to sit on the bridge all day.’
‘Please don’t raise your voice. Any distinguishing features?’
‘How’s “dead” sound to you?’
I went back to find Grandma lifting her face in the direction of the sun and seeming contented. A few cottonwood leaves fluttering in a breath of wind onto the surface of the river revealed the speed of the current. Every so often people floated by on rafts, blue rafts, yellow rafts, their laughter and conversations carried along on the water like a big, happy wake following a corpse.
‘Are you ready to eat?’ I asked.
‘In a bit, unless you’re hungry now. It smells different than when we were here in August. I think something happens when the leaves begin to turn, something cidery in the air, and yesterday’s rain stays in the trunks of these old trees.’ It had rained for about two minutes yesterday. Grandma’s got all these sensations dialled in as though she’s cramming the entire earth before morting out for good.
I walked down to the river, took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant legs. I waded in no more than a few inches when I heard my phone ring. I turned just in time to see Grandma groping for it next to where I’d left the box lunches. Oh, well. I kept wading and noticed three white pelicans standing among the car bodies on the far side of the river. I’d have thought they’d have gone south by now. I dug a few flat stones off the bottom and skipped them toward the middle of the river. I got five skips from a piece of bottle glass before going back to Grandma.
‘That was the sheriff’s office.’
‘They wanted you to know that it was a jilted groom who jumped into Yankee Jim Canyon on Sunday. What day is today?’
‘Wednesday.’ Must have averaged a couple miles an hour.
‘Why would they think you’d care about a jilted groom jumping into Yankee Jim Canyon?’
‘Idle curiosity,’ I said sharply.
‘And the sheriff was calling just to fill you in? I don’t understand one bit of that, not one bit.’
I wasn’t about to let Grandma force me to ruin her outing by telling her what I had seen. So I opened the box lunch, spread a napkin on her lap, and there I set her sandwich, sliced cucumbers and almond cookie. She lifted half of the sandwich.
‘What is this? Smells like devilled ham.’
‘It is devilled ham.’
Must have been: she fucking gobbled it.
‘I see you had another DUI.’ You didn’t see that, you heard it, and I could reliably assume that Mrs Devlin made sure of it.
‘Yes, Grandma, drunk at the wheel.’ Of course I was making light of this but secretly I thanked God it had stayed out of the papers. When you work with young children, it takes very little to tip parents into paranoia – they are already racked with guilt over dropping their darlings off with strangers in a setting where the little tykes could easily get shot or groped.
In families like mine, grandmothers loom large as yetis. I always thought having Grandma had been a blessing for me, but still I have often wondered if it wasn’t her vigour that had made my father into such a depressed boob. He was a case of arrested development who never made a dime, but Grandma supported him in fine enough style for around here and at the far end of her apron strings. He was devoted to his aquarelles – his word. The basement was full of them. His little house has remained empty except for the flowers, bunnies, puppies and sunsets on every wall. Grandma says it’s without a doubt a meth lab.
Perhaps I felt some of his oppression as Grandma sat bolt upright holding the other half of the sandwich (‘I trust you washed up before handling my food.’) and inhaling the mighty cottonwoods, the watercress in the tiny spring seeping into the broad, green and sparkling river. I thought about the drowned bridegroom sailing by, his arms fluttering like a bat. It was Grandma who’d taught me that every river has its own smell and that ours are fragrant while others stink to high heaven, catch fire or plunge into desert holes never to be seen again.
I think that at bottom some of these reflections must have been prompted by the mention of my latest DUI, which was a frightful memory. I knew it wasn’t funny. I had left the Mad Hatter at closing, perfectly well aware that I was drunk. That was why I went there, after all. From the window at the back of the bar, as the staff cleaned up, I watched the squad car circle the block until I had determined the coast was clear. I ran through the cold night air to my car and headed up the valley. I hadn’t gone far when I saw the whirling red light in my rear-view mirror, and there’s where I made a bad decision. I pulled over and bolted out of the car headed into a pasture, tearing my shirt and pants on a barbed-wire fence. I didn’t stop running until I fell into some kind of crack in the ground and broke my arm. That light in my rear-view turned out to be an ambulance headed further up the valley. I crawled out of the crack and got back into the car heading for the emergency room back in town. Drunk and driving with one hand I soon attracted an actual policeman and hence the DUI, the cast on my arm and this latest annoyance from Grandma, who may in fact be the source of my problems. I knew that thought was a tough sell which defied common sense but it was gathering plausibility for me.
I looked across the river at the row of houses above the line of car bodies. I heard a lawnmower over the whisper of river. A tennis ball came sailing over the bank, a black dog watching as it disappeared into the river.
Grandma said, ‘When you were a little boy, I thought you would be president of the United States.’ I got that odd shrivelling feeling I used to get when my parents couldn’t handle me and she would have to come to our house. I decided to give her the silent treatment. She didn’t notice. I watched as she took in all she could smell and hear with the same upright posture and air of satisfaction. I unexpectedly decided that I was entitled to a little liquid cheer and began tiptoeing in the direction of my car a good distance away – wasted tiptoeing, I might add, as Grandmother said, ‘Bye-bye.’
I have no idea why starting the car and putting it in gear gave me such a gust of exhilaration that the quick stop for a couple of stiff ones seemed almost redundant. But that’s what happened and I felt all the better for it as I walked into the sheriff’s office just as Deputy Crane was leaving. I caught his sleeve and asked about the corpse. I could tell by his expression that he could smell the adult beverage on my breath. ‘They pulled it out of the water at the Reed Point Bridge. I’m headed there now.’
‘Oh, let me ride along.’
‘What’s the matter with you?’
Deputy Crane would have to get up earlier in the morning if he wanted to be rid of me. By the time he pulled out of town, I was hot on his trail. The interstate followed the river and we sped along doing seventy-five, the river intermittently visible on my left. Thus far the bridegroom had outrun us.
Pulling off the interstate and down into a riverside trailer park, I was convinced that euphoria was the rarest of all prizes, and being as good as anyone at cherishing mine, I started to fear that seeing the corpse up close might be a buzz-kill. A small crowd had formed at the riverbank and the squad car was parked close by. I pulled up next to the deputy who got out and, spotting me, said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ The small crowd parted at the sight of the uniform and I pushed through in its wake, was rudely asked to stop shoving. There within the circle of gawkers was the dead bridegroom. Either his wedding clothes were too small for him or he was seriously waterlogged. I don’t know why they laid him out on a picnic table. The well-trimmed moustache seemed misplaced on the broad moon face whose wide-open eyes were giving me such a bad feeling. The gawkers would look at the face then at each other searching for some explanation. People with sideburns that long were inevitably from the wrong side of the tracks, where me and my family, excepting Grandma, had all lived. I couldn’t say why I felt a corpse shouldn’t have a moustache and long sideburns. It seemed about time to buck up with some more artificial elation. But first I thought it only right to inform this group that it was I who had first spotted our friend floating past. This fell on deaf ears. I looked around me with a bleak, ironic smile undaunted by their indignation.
Somebody at the Mad Hatter had told me there was going to be midget wrestling at the Waterhole. There was a van parked in front with the logo support midget violence, but no midgets unless they were asleep inside. Two horses stood tied to the hitching rack in front by the trough, and beside them four pickup trucks with so much mud on the windshields that the drivers could only have seen through the wiper arcs. Between two of the trucks was a blood-red Porsche Carrera with New Mexico plates and a King Charles spaniel at the wheel. I was able to get what I wanted without giving the others the impression that I cared to mingle. The bartender was a compulsive counter wiper and when I got up the tip I left there disappeared. He pretended to find the bills under the rag as I departed, giving the entire crowd a laugh at my expense as I pushed through the doors. I thought of going back and raising hell but found the Porsche unlocked and released the spaniel instead. It was dark and all I could think of was one word: ‘Grandma!’ The dog headed off through the houses with their lighted windows as I was swept by uneasiness.
Something was making me drive this fast. I was trying my best to reckon where those little units of time had gone. Whatever trouble I was headed for it didn’t feel like it was entirely my fault, just because someone decided to send a corpse through my day. If he’d lived on Grandma’s side of town he would have enjoyed more options with no sideburns to maintain.
It was not easy to find our picnic site in the dark, and I wouldn’t have been sure I’d found it if I hadn’t spotted the remains of the box lunch. I ate the other devilled ham sandwich, the hard-boiled egg, the spicy pickle and the cookie, and staring at the large expanse of the river, breathing mostly with my abdominal muscles, I tried to collect my thoughts and ward off hysteria.
The chair was gone. So, she didn’t jump in the river. Can’t have more than one corpse a day. So somebody must have found Grandma and taken her home. This thought gave me an especially sharp pain as it suggested yet another person looking down on me, the oaf who left his blind grandmother on the riverbank.
I drove back across the Harlowton Bridge and through town heading for Snob Hollow, where Grandmother lived. My watch has a luminous dial, but I was afraid to look, fearing yet another buzz-kill. By the time I stopped in front of Grandma’s I was having palpitations. I rifled the back seat in search of the minis sometimes scattered there but found only a mocking handful of empties. I stared through the windshield at the pair of juniper hedges leading to the door. My mind was so inflamed that when I got out of the car I thought I saw a face. I approached the front door and knocked, and then knocked again. Blood rushed to my head when I heard something within.
Mrs Devlin was fastening her terry-cloth wrapper at the neck. She was no girl herself, and those big teeth and accusing eyes only subtracted from any impression of innocence. She had led a blameless life and wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful, but when backed by Grandma’s authority she could be dangerous.
‘You,’ she said.
‘Just checking in on Grandma.’
Then in the dark behind Mrs Devlin I heard Grandma ask, ‘Is that him?’
‘Yes it is, Meredith.’
‘Mrs Devlin, kindly slap his face for me.’ It sure stung.
I imagined saying, ‘Try this one for size,’ before throwing Mrs Devlin a roundhouse, but of course I just stood there as the door was slammed in my face. I headed back downtown, which in the dark looked abandoned, with so few lights that their silhouettes showed against the night sky, the blank face of the derelict mercantile, the bell cupola of the fire station with its mantle of cold stars. I returned to my room at the hotel, and the view of the mountains through the empty lobby, the old billiard table on which a century ago some surgeon treated the victim of a gunfight, the smells of mahogany and matted carpet, the dimmed lights gleaming off the souvenir cabinet. On my wave of booze and self-pity, one more nobody for the rest of the world to kick around. I pictured myself as the last survivor of my family, except for Grandma, who was left to contemplate what she had achieved over the generations. The thought lulled me into a nice sleep. I awakened to the sound of the breakfast dishes clattering in the restaurant, and for me a brand-new chance for success. As usual, whether I made the most of it or not, it would be fun just to see what happened, because, say what you will, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.
There wasn’t time to eat before going to work, Mrs Hessler being a Nazi about punctuality. I was careful to avoid a long look at myself as I brushed my teeth and looked at my watch. I pulled on one of my work shirts, the one that says your company name here at the top, your logo here in the middle and one child at a time at the bottom. Mrs Hessler had gotten them in some close-out sale and expected to see me in them.
When I first went to work for Mrs Hessler, it was just after my casino years and, knowing about my résumé, she got me to teach her Texas Hold ’Em. She was pretty good but soon got overconfident and went off for a gambler’s weekend to Vegas and lost her ass. Naturally she blamed me. That set the tone. I told her that in a world where sperm donors are expected to pay child support, anything could happen.
Hooray for me! I was actually early. I let myself into the playroom and realized I had never cleaned up on Friday. I had been in some haste to get to the Mad Hatter and so now, with so little strength, I would have to put everything in order before Hessler showed up and let me know by her silence how unhappy she was with me, her drone. I once told her I’d read that some archbishop staying at a five-star hotel in the Seychelles got his ass scorched on a rogue bidet. She didn’t even crack a smile. Chutes and Ladders was all over the floor and I got dizzy picking up all the pieces. Moronic instruments for tiny mites – drums, tambourines, ocarinas – all would have to go on the ‘music’ shelf. The God Made Me Special poster had broken free of its thumbtacks. I didn’t remember so much chaos on Friday – motivational ribbons and certificates, birthday crowns, star badges, alphabet stickers all over the room – but then my mind had been elsewhere.
Frau Hessler closed the door sharply behind her to announce her arrival, made the rounds of the refrigerator, counted out the snacks in a loud voice, put the removable mopheads back in the closet, gave her own your company here shirt a good stretch and greeted the first mother at the door. It was on. They came in a wave of noise as Hessler and I checked each other’s faces for the required cheer. I had mine on good but felt like my teeth were drying out. Two mothers asked for the containers of their breast milk to be labelled and were quite abrupt telling me that Post-its would fall off in the fridge. The room was full of children, nearly babies, little boys and girls thematically dressed according to the expectations of their parents, little princesses and tiny cowboys, some still in pyjamas. Hessler always seemed to know exactly what to do and began creating order. I dove into the sock-puppet bins, trying to find one that felt right, pawing through the Bible-themed puppets, the monster puppets, the animal puppets. I was fixated on getting one I was comfortable with, since I’d ended up with St John the Baptist the previous week and Hessler rebuked me for failing to come up with relevant Bible quotes. Realizing I was running out of time by Hessler standards, I just snatched one randomly and found myself wearing an African American fireman hat and wiggling the stick that operated the hand holding the hose, all for the sake of a surly four-year-old named Roger. Roger was not amused and after a long silence called me ‘Poopoo Head’. I offered up some goofy laughter, and Roger repeated the remark. ‘In ten years, Roger,’ I muttered, ‘you’ll be sniffing airplane glue from a sandwich bag.’ I dropped the fireman on the bench and moved on to nicer children. I made it until Time Out, when I left the playhouse for a cigarette. A cold wind stirred the last leaves on the old burr oaks at the corner. Up on the hill, where Grandma’s house stood, the sun was already shining. Mrs Devlin would be setting out her mid-morning tea and Grandma was sure to feel that things were in perfect order.
Photograph courtesy of Stephen Shore, from American Surfaces, 1972, courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York