Over the River

Claire doesn’t think much of those kids. That much was evident even before I met her, and it’s plain to the kids, too. I imagine Tank-Top lady telling the girl after their visit, “Grandma Claire wasn’t feeling well today,” but she’s old enough to know better.  “Grandma just isn’t an affectionate person,” Tank-Top probably insists to the boy while he stares at the television and nods his head to her, silently wondering if his mom is really that clueless about Grandma’s obvious disinterest in his conversation and company.

The boy obviously must have had his suspicions because he asked Claire point-blank one day: “Grandma, do you like me?” The way Claire tells it, she took a long drag on her Virginia Slim, exhaled to the sky and told him, “I like you as much as anyone. That’s a fact.”  She laughed when she told me the story, adding, “The kid didn’t get the joke, but that kid clearly isn’t smuggling any extra gray matter, so that’s no surprise.”

I’ve never met the boy myself. I come over after Tank-Top and the kids are gone, and all I knew before I started visiting was what I learned looking out my kitchen window at the tiny circus that takes place over there every weekend. Tank-Top is Claire’s daughter-in-law, and she always finds time – probably wedged between the tanning bed appointment and dinner at Burger King – to bring the kids to see grandma on Saturdays. They come like clockwork, 2:00 pm, so Claire developed a ritual of coming out to the stoop a few minutes early with her leather cigarette case and a throw-pillow from the couch. She drops the pillow on the short flight of faux-granite steps the building manager inaccurately calls “the porch,” lights her cigarette and stares west, waiting for the gold Chrysler to materialize from behind Hachey’s Market. The car always arrives before the cigarette is finished, so everyone has to stay outside, and she usually starts another before anyone thinks to ask her to go into the house. “They never stay longer than an hour,” Claire told me, “and I have to clean for twice that long every time those kids go inside.”

I’d lived across the street for nearly a year without getting beyond “good morning” with Claire, but one day Tank-Top was so loud she even stressed me out, so when the Chrysler drove off, I grabbed a couple of tallboys from the fridge and introduced myself. “If you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with me, you’re on the right track,” Claire said with a smile as she took the beer. She offered a cigarette from the case  and that’s how it started. For a few weeks now, or maybe it’s a few months, we’ve been getting to know each other one beer at a time.

She calls the boy Oliver Wendell Holmes, though she admits she has no reason to. “I must have seen a picture of that guy once, stored it somewhere in the tangle of wires” – she tapped her head – “and something about that kid conjured a memory. It’s not the right name, ‘cause no way Junior’s headed for the Supreme Court, but I can’t shake it.” I had nicknamed him Britches when I was only looking at him from across the street because he seemed like a character from a Dickens book, sort of awkward and old-timey like a pre-teen Bob Cratchet. But now I call him Oliver, too. It suits him.

Claire calls the little girl Delilah, which I think might be her real name. I never had a nickname for her because she’s always nearly invisible, quietly playing out on the fringes, out of anyone’s way. Maybe she thinks that’s the best way to navigate the waters at Grandma’s – compact your body and hope to quietly float through. Or maybe it’s Tank-Top that she’s afraid of. I can’t tell, and just about the time I start to think about it, Oliver Wendell Holmes screeches about this or that and draws the attention back to himself. He’s as erratic as the girl is steady, prone to sudden bursts of noise like pinging the yield sign with whatever projectiles he can find in the gutter or yelling for someone to watch him do something unspectacular.

Tank-Top talks on her phone for most of her visits, one hand to her ear and the other punctuating the conversation with busy hand gestures. “She walks to the corner like she needs some privacy,” Claire once told me as she popped the top on the Hamm’s one afternoon, “then talks loud enough that everyone can hear it.” She took a gulp of the beer. “If she’s talking sweetly, it’s a new guy; if she’s bitching, the new guy is about to become theold guy.” I shook my head at the rudeness of Tank-Top flirting right in front of her mother-in-law, but Claire waved it off. “Life goes on. I’m sure my son is getting laid in heaven, so I can’t complain that she’s doing the same down here.”

I laughed. “You think people are hooking up in heaven?”

“I sure hope so. I don’t want my boy waiting up there for that 40-watt bulb.” She took another long drag from her cigarette. “Sorry if that sounded harsh. I didn’t think much of her from the moment my son brought her home, and my opinion never changed. He could have done better, and I hope now he is.”

“But won’t they be reunited in heaven? I’m not exactly religious, but I always hear people saying how we’ll all reunite with our loved ones up there – though I always wonder how that applies to a guy who got married twice, or even four times? I mean, awkward, right? Someone’s going to have some explaining to do.”

“I think there’s going to be plenty of awkward to go around. Truth is, I don’t really miss my husband, so it’s hardly going to be a joyous reunion. If I make it through the pearly gates, the last thing I want to see is Frank standing there saying, ‘So you still haven’t quit smoking?’ He nagged me to death about that when he was alive.” She sipped her Hamms. “To hisdeath, I mean.”

“I never got married, so I guess I’m going to spend my eternity doing crossword puzzles with a pot of Folgers. I hope I can tell the difference between the afterlife and the life I’m living now.”

Claire laughed. “I could handle that. Though my concern is what body I get when I get up there. You wouldn’t know it now, but I was hot stuff when I was 25, before gravity starting mauling me. Great tits and hips that could work it. Now my hips barely work. I’m going to be the woman permanently slamming her hand on the customer service counter if I have to spend eternity hobbling around like an old lady.”

“You seem to do okay for your age. I see you walking all the time.”

“A girl’s gotta get out. When you’re old, it’s a fine line between an apartment and a prison.” Claire took a drag from her cigarette. “I wish I could go further, but me and my hip made a negotiation. I said, ‘Keep getting me to the Safeway and I won’t ask you to go further.’ So far, we’ve both kept our end of the bargain.”

“If you ever need to get further, let me know. I can drive you.”

“Thanks hon, but I already have a car.”

“You do?” I scanned the cars parked in the block, wondering which of them she’d look right driving. Not a pick-up. Maybe one of those little compacts? Or maybe that big boat of a Buick? “So are you going to make me guess?”

“That Chrysler you see driving away every Saturday just before our tea time? That’s my car.”

I stared at her, smiling. “This story I’ve got to hear.”

“There’s no story to tell. Tracy’s got those kids. To each according to their need, right?”

“I suppose. I just got the impression that – well, I know they come every week, but I never got the feeling you were very close to them. She hasn’t got any family here?”

Claire raised her eyebrows to me. “I am family, hon.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean disrespect. I mean is Tracy from around here?”

Claire was staring across the street at an old man walking a tiny dog. “It’s not something we’ve ever talked about.”

I followed her gaze to the old man. I’d seen the guy before, though he’s not from our block. He’s always tethered to that little Chihuahua, the dog constantly sniffing everything and the old man never hurrying it along. Most people, the dog stops to sniff and it gets dragged by the neck like they’re making the owner miss a deadline. I like how this guy lets his dog define the pace. We watched silently for a minute before Claire spoke again.

“Dogs don’t seem to get bored with people. Ever notice that? Every day they endure the small humiliations of baby talk and bastardized nicknames and on-demand parlor tricks, and yet they just keep loving. Hell, their love actually grows. Do you think we deserve it?”

I paused a moment to make sure she was done. “We as in you and me?”

“Any of us. Like that old man, has he earned that dog’s love? Or does the dog just have boundless love and the man is simply standing in the path of it?”

“Did we change the subject? I thought we were talking about family.”

Claire sucked in on her Virginia Slim, still staring across the street. “It’s an interlude.”

“Hmm.” I watched the dog lift his leg and water Bankerman’s sage and thyme pots. “Well, I like to think that dogs see the good in people. In fact, it’s more than that – they seem to expect good from people, even if they rarely get it. So maybe it’s not boundless love as much as boundless hope. I’m no expert on that subject, but hope seems like a pretty good antidote to boredom.”

Claire turned to meet my eyes and smiled. “Way to get into the spirit of the tangent, hon. That’s an interesting way of thinking about boredom.”

I watched the man and his dog moving further down the block. “So who’s the dog in the metaphor?”

Claire furrowed her brow a bit. “In what metaphor?”

“I thought you were making some kind of analogy. Isn’t that why we were talking about dogs?”

She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head. “I was talking about dogs because I’m watching a man and his dog.”

I didn’t know what else to say to that, so I took another sip of beer. Without the sound of our voices, the volume of all the other noises of the neighborhood seemed to go up – a television droning through an open window, a few kids arguing about some call in a baseball game, silverware clanging as tables were being set for dinner. I was imagining that gold Chrysler with Claire behind the wheel, glove compartment full of Virginia Slims, left hand holding her cigarette between the door and the steering wheel so it was out of the wind, gray hair tangled into knots just minutes into the journey.

“I hardly drove that the car anyway,” Claire said as if she knew I was thinking about it. “I tell myself I don’t miss it, but I tell myself that because – really, what good does it do to miss something? There’s the way it is, and that’s all there is.”

“But it’s your car, so you can get it back anytime, right?” I shook my can to get a feel for how much was left and poured the last of it into my mouth.

Claire grinned. “I’m not really talking about the car, hon.” She winked at me as she methodically tamped her cigarette out on the edge of the steps and dropped the butt into her empty tallboy. She grasped the wrought iron railing with a thin, pale hand and groaned as raised herself up. “Thanks for the beer,” she said as she opened the screen door. “Same time next week?”

She was inside before I could respond, but she knew the answer.


(c) 2014 William Reagan
“Over the River” will appear in the forthcoming Along for the Ride, a collection of imagined stories about random cars and their drivers.

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