It was 98 degrees F. at 8:00 P.M. as I drove onto Main Street, entering the town for the first time in three years. My car windows were down. Nauseating heat rolled through them in waves along with the sounds, the familiar sounds and sights—horns honking; friends calling to each other from cars; boys whistling, waving, and hooting; sidewalks full of people two hours after all the stores had closed; tires screaming; police cars waiting; theater lines lengthening.
Sweat collected on the back of my neck under my straight, blonde hair, some of it soaking into the long strands and sticking there, some of it dripping down the middle of my back. I lifted the hair off my neck for a moment, holding it to the back of my head. Coolness hit damp. I sat at a red light and felt the hurt in my eyes, the tightness in my chest, and looking around, feelings all too familiar, all too close, reminded me all too clearly why I was here.
This was the second time I had entered this town, and I remembered the first time 17 years before when I was seven years old. It had been a little cooler, a little later; the streets had been darkening, street lights shining, but the sounds, the noises, had been the same.
Only the feeling was different because then it was all new and I was frightened. Instead of my very own, hard-earned, bought-and-paid-for sports car, I had been sitting, small and still, in Grandpa’s black and white sedan with the worn, creaky seats, the dusty dashboard, and the smell of Grandpa emanating from every corner, every fiber, circling around me, descending on me, yet all culminating on the person of that tall, broad figure sitting beside me. The car seemed to live and breathe as if it were a part of the man who had driven it year after year, smelling always of the same shaving lotion, the hot chocolate he drank for breakfast every morning, the solution he soaked his teeth in every night, the mints he sucked on after every meal. Clean smells, sweet smells, Grandpa smells that had been woven through his clothes, grown into his scratchy face, and soaked into the ends of his fingertips.
I didn’t know him. We had lived far away. Every year my mother and father had talked about going to see Grandpa and Grandma, but money was short, and we needed a new bathroom. The next year I broke my arm. The next year … well that was the year I had come, without my parents, who lay, to my bewilderment, in pretty boxes called caskets under the ground. The car and the night had claimed them. I didn’t understand.
Grandpa had waited at a red light, perhaps the same one I was waiting at now, and looked down at me. I must have looked very tiny to such a man, my skinny legs sticking out from my little skirt, my thin hands clutching my eyeless teddy bear, my pale face turned toward him, round, red eyes waiting.
Then he smiled that smile, that special smile. Not a broad one, not a hearty one. Such a slight upturn of lips, a simple rounding of cheeks, a curving of heavy eyebrows. But it was mostly his eyes that, dark as they were, shone deep into mine, sparkling dark like black diamonds. I sat startled, my mouth dropped, and for just a moment I felt certain that he was this Heavenly Father that my mother had told me about so often. He put his big hand on my neatly parted hair, touched the side of my face, then lifted one long blonde braid with his fingers. His words were simple, like the rest of him.
“Move closer, Blondie.” He put his arm around me, pulling me close. “Grandpa’s gonna take care of you now. Don’t be afraid, little Blondie Boo.” The light turned green and he drove on.
The warmth of his body helped me forget how cold my mama and daddy were in those boxes, and the tears that fell were no longer frightened but relieved. With my wet face against his side I slept.
The next morning I sat shyly, uncertainly, on a big wooden kitchen chair, Oscar, my teddy bear, on my lap. I looked across the table at a long, tall newspaper with a strong hand clutching each side. I knew it was Grandpa because when I had walked down the stairs and peeked timidly around the corner, he had lowered the paper and winked at me.
“Would you like some hot chocolate, dear?” Grandma had asked in her quiet voice.
I jumped slightly at her question, chewed on Oscar’s ear, and tried desperately to think of an answer. It shouldn’t have been so hard, but you see, Grandma was very quiet, and I was a little afraid of her.
“Yes, dear,” I heard the deep voice from behind the newspaper answer.
Oh, I thought, embarrassed. I was glad I hadn’t answered. I soon learned that Grandma would never ask me if I wanted some. If I did, I had to ask her.
I drove thoughtfully around corners, through child-infested residential areas, almost afraid to arrive at my destination.
Grandma had sounded as quiet as ever on the telephone. “You’d better come,” she had said. As usual her voice confused me. She gave only words. I could never see what was in her mind, in her heart. If only she would cry or something to give me a clue.
“Come now,” she said. So I came. But I was afraid.
What if Grandpa looked less than majestic? I didn’t want to remember him the rest of my life as small and shriveled, perhaps even senseless. Oh, how I longed to sit on his lap once again, to place childish arms securely around his neck, hear a story, share a laugh. Why hadn’t I come back last year when I had planned to? Why had I waited till now when … I shook my head angrily. I had been having too much fun. And in my mind there had been no rush. Grandpa would be there forever. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. And his lively, colorful letters brought him into my apartment weekly.
Suddenly I saw a flash of blue before me. My hands gripped the steering wheel; my foot reached for the brake. Screeching, I stopped just inches short of the boy on his blue bicycle. My head pounded, my palms sweat, but he just pedaled by, his hands in the air, unafraid, cocky. It seems like everyone has a nice bike these days. With a smile I remembered mine.
It was the most beautiful bicycle I had ever seen. Next to it the twinkling Christmas tree looked dim. It was shiny lavender and white, with coal-black seat and tires, sparkling spokes, and what surely would have been the envy of every kid at home—lavender plastic tassles dangling gaily from the handlebars. My eyes laughed. My mouth didn’t utter a sound, for there was more, even more, and my little heart could hardly stand it. There in the center of the handlebars, strapped securely in place, was a dainty, white, woven basket with two purple plastic flowers on the front. It was too much, really too much. Why, I knew kids back home who would’ve been glad to come in Christmas morning and find anything that had two wheels and could move by their Christmas tree. I used to have a friend named Sara who never sat down while riding her scratched, squeaky bicycle because it had no seat. In fact, I knew an older boy back home, well he was at least 12, who had picked up junk from the junkyard and made his own bike. It was a strange looking thing, but it worked.
I caressed my shiny new handlebars. I turned and grinned at Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma stood quietly, with a hint of a smile about her mouth. Grandpa beamed. I had been suspicious lately of this man, Santa Claus. I mean he never did get anything right and he always gave more to the kids whose parents had money than he gave to poorer families, and it seemed like it should be the other way around. Seeing Grandma and Grandpa like they were that Christmas morning, I decided once and for all that Santa was not responsible for this wonderful surprise. Grandma was too pleased, Grandpa too proud. This was one of those times that my mama had told me I’d have someday when I would cry with happiness and wisdom.
The difference between me then and many kids now is that I knew how truly lucky I was to have that bike.
I remember another morning, a summer morning that dawned slowly on me, slow and dimly gray … different. I pulled my blankets over my shoulders. My room felt cool and clammy. The sunshine that fell across my bed seemed shrouded, not glorious like a Saturday morning. My mind was foggy. My eyes studied the room, wall to pink wall, corner to corner.
“Is this Saturday?” I blinked and tried again. A clear, glassed window answers all kinds of questions. I hated the window in the bathroom. It was made of some fuzzy, bumpy kind of glass, and you couldn’t see through it at all. My bedroom window was my world. I could see green through it. I could see blue. I could vaguely see the colorless, transcendental, sparkly shine, but it was having a hard time getting through those raindrops on the window. Raindrops! I threw back my covers, swung my feet to the floor, and ran to the window.
“It is Saturday and it rained last night!” Tears sprang to my eyes, and I knew, I just knew that my bike would be nothing but a big pile of rust.
Who would have thought last night when the full moon fell all over the yard and the clear, black sky stretched on forever that clouds would sneak in and drench everything during the night? I ran hysterically down the stairs, holding my big, poofy nightgown in one fist around my waist so I wouldn’t trip. I ran to the kitchen window and threw back the curtain. A little bubble popped in my chest—my bike hadn’t disintegrated to rust yet. I grabbed a dish towel from Grandma’s apron. Grandma looked up questioningly from spattering bacon and eggs. I ran out the door.
Oh my bike, my bike, it was wet! Wet all over, wet white and lavender, wet droopy tassles, wet little basket, wet, wet, wet! I could hardly see it through my tears as I wiped madly with Grandma’s dish towel. Soon the salty droplets were one with the raindrops. My face was wet and cold.
I didn’t hear the door bang shut. I didn’t hear the footsteps. I only saw the hand, the big, masculine hand clenched around another dish towel gently wiping up raindrops. I looked up. He hooked a bit blurry. No questions, no amused grin. Grandpa helped me dry my bike.
The hospital was tall, five stories tall. It was a new building with hundreds of windows in uniform rows. I stood before it, my head bent back as my eyes scanned the top row of windows. So many windows, each with a personal story behind it. Which one housed my grandpa, my childhood, my life? I looked to the pavement below my feet and slowly shook my head. My hand wiped away a tear, and I entered the modern, colorful house of birth, of joy, of pain, of loneliness, and … I shuddered … and hoped I would never have to come here again.
“Room 363, intensive care.” The woman’s face was blank, expressionless. Again I felt the tightness in my chest. Something wanted to explode there. I leaned against the elevator wall, my eyes shut tight.
The nurse was a little more human. “You’ll have to wait a moment, dear. The doctor is with him,” she whispered. The hall, the air was hushed and still. At the end of the hall in the corner, a quiet bottle rack stood with rows of empty pop bottles. It made me think of Grandpa’s store. Grandpa kept all the empty pop bottles in a bushel basket just inside the back door. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I went in the back door, took a couple of bottles, went out the back door and around to the front door, I could give Grandpa the bottles and buy a candy bar. Then Grandpa would take the bottles out back and put them into the bushel basket to wait till the next time I got a craving for a Hershey bar. Back home we had to search up and down the streets, in and out of alleys, through garbage cans to find an empty pop bottle. Life was just easier all the way around here with Grandpa and Grandma.
Thinking of Grandma made me feel a little apprehensive. She was in with Grandpa now, but sooner or later I would have to see her, I would have to say something. It doesn’t seem possible that two people could live in the same house together for 13 years and still be strangers. How could she be so unlike Grandpa? She’d never been cross or impatient, but I couldn’t talk to her. I secretly suspected that she’d been relieved to see me go. I sighed tiredly. Grandma wouldn’t understand my hurt. How could she? She didn’t know me.
I had finally come to know myself. I remember a day when, 15 and confused, I borrowed Sandy’s jeans. Sandy was everything I wished I was—cute, popular, self-confident. Somehow I guess I thought that if I wore her jeans, I’d be more like her. But her body, shapely for 15, was about three sizes bigger than my wiry one. I guess I looked pretty silly with her pants hanging on me like a bag, held tight around my waist with a belt, then ballooning out like a clown’s costume. I remember Grandpa’s face, so serious, so gentle: “Honey, why do you wear Sandy’s clothes? Why do you talk like her and laugh like her?” Embarrassed I looked to the floor, at the pants that hung inches past my feet.
“Why not be yourself?” he said.
“Oh, Grandpa,” I sobbed. “How can I be myself? I don’t even know who I am.”
Grandpa held me on his lap as if I were a child again, quietly, till the crying stopped and the tears dried. With a smile he looked into my eyes. “You used to know,” he said. “But we all forget sometimes. Take Sandy’s pants back to her. Together we’ll rediscover you. Then you can be yourself.”
Grandpa knew me. He hadn’t forgotten who I was. I soon remembered who I was. But Grandma had never known.
The door swung silently open. The doctor walked through the doorway and looked kindly at me. “You must be Janie,” he said. “Your Grandpa has been asking for you.”
I let out a long breath and stood. I felt light-headed. My legs felt like jelly. I looked to the doctor for strength. But he didn’t know me either. He smiled and walked down the hall.
I entered the room. Grandpa was not small and shriveled. He was not senseless. He smiled at me. He looked very pale.
“Oh, Grandpa,” I cried and ran to his open arms. He held me, patting my back.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “I have no regrets.” I looked at him with a teary face. His eyes were clear. He looked tired.
“Don’t cry, Blondie Boo. Don’t cry.” His eyes closed. He held me a moment longer, then his hands, his arms, relaxed. They lay heavy on my back.
“Grandpa,” I sobbed. I could see him lying still. But someone’s warm hands were on my shoulders. I turned to look into Grandma’s face.
“For the first time in his life he was wrong,” she said. “It’s all right to cry.” Surprised, I saw that she was crying, too. I could only stare.
“Come stay with me for a while,” she said suddenly. I was confused.
“Please,” she said. “It will be kind of like wiping up raindrops. I’ll help you … and you can help me.” I couldn’t believe it. She did understand. And in her quiet way she probably always had.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll stay.” I had a grandmother to get to know.