Surrounded by a burgundy interior, Clem and his grandmother are stopped in the high speed lane in dead stop traffic. Between Clem’s feet is a medium soda with no ice and a bag full of fries. He’s eating a burger next to his grandmother, still wearing her nurse’s uniform.
“How’s your lunch?” she asks.
On Fridays Clem and his grandmother make this pilgrimage from Rhode Island to Cape Cod together. Clem, done with school and his grandmother done with the work week. They each have the summer off–which starts today. Clem’s grandmother only started taking the summer months off when Clem began staying with her and her husband. The second grader is eating a square hamburger and even though his grandmother believes them to be unnatural, she agrees the fries are better at the square-burger-restaurant. And today they didn’t have time to go to both places so Clem’s summer begins unnaturally.
Clem’s grandmother was late because she stayed with one of her patients she found crying and on principal, she thinks no one should cry alone. Last year Clem saw his mother crying alone. It was the same night she slept in Clem’s bedroom. After that Clem moved into his brother’s room and his brother moved into his aunt’s house in the next town over. And now Clem spends as many nights as his family can manage with his grandparents.
Last summer Clem spent the days working in his grandfather’s garden and then he was paid in fishing trips. Each morning he would walk hand-in-hand with his grandfather and say “good morning” to each flower. Then he would take another lap and water each plant. Some flowers were bigger than Clem and those were his favorite. Some mornings Clem would crawl between them and pretend they were trenches. At first, Clem’s grandfather was very angry and yelled at Clem, but soon he was crawling on his belly between the leaves and fighting the ant army too.
The sedan holding Clem is cut with all right angles on the outside and Clem wipes the salt from his fingers on the coarse burgundy interior. His suitcase rides in back with the stuffed bunny his grandmother gave him. It wears a small blue sweater his grandmother knitted for the bunny. The ears are lined with the softest white material Clem has ever touched and that is why it still travels with him mostly everywhere. In front Clem’s grandmother wears her white blouse tucked in to a waist high skirt. Her hat is in back on top of Clem’s suitcase and occasionally the wind will push it, but not enough to knock it over. Clem is riding next to her because the car doesn’t have a passenger-side airbag.
When Clem’s finishes his food he sticks his hand out the window, but with traffic slowed to five miles an hour there is no excitement.
“Do you know how I met your grandfather?” Clem’s grandmother asks.
“Nope,” Clem says.
“Nope isn’t a very nice word.”
Clem shakes his head and sips his straw.
“Your grandfather owned his own wool mill and he refused to hire any one else to work on it. He was rewiring a light fixture and he was electrocuted–do you know what that means?”
So his grandmother tells him to imagine lightning and instead of it coming down from the sky it comes out of a light bulb. Except when the bulb isn’t there to hold it in and illuminate the room it shoots right out.
“And this time it shot into your grandfather and it came so fast it pushed all of his teeth right out. And it burned your grandfather pretty good. He was covered in bandages from the head down.”
Each night, Clem’s grandmother would go in and change the bandages on his grandfather. She was the night nurse back then because she was still going to nursing school full-time. After the bandages were all changed she would give him sleeping pills. And his grandmother told him how each cross hatch of the gauze looked and how the wax was like a melted candle so Clem could see it. Next to her, Clem closes his eyes and tries very hard to imagine his grandfather wrapped like a mummy. He looked so sad and helpless, his grandmother says.
“So very sad,” she says.
And now she switches lanes to the one that looks like it’s moving faster and then it slows and the lane she changed from picks up in pace.
“That always happens,” she says. “I’m always moving to the slower lane. Is it me?”
But Clem has only driven toy cars before and he tells his grandmother he rarely hits much traffic. The wrappers from his meal are balled up and rolling around by his feet. This is Clem’s favorite car to ride in because his grandfather always takes it fishing so it smells like the beach. And burgundy is his favorite color, but only because of the way it feels like a broom on his fingers. If Clem rubs his fingers across the bristles of a broom, though, he gets yelled at.
Last summer Clem got used to seeing his grandfather’s teeth in a sudsy cup. If Clem woke up before his grandfather, which was almost always, he would go into his room and watch the garden until his grandfather woke up. Across the road were the woods and then a small, single lane road separated the garden from it. And the small front yard had one tree all the way to the side and then a little stoop for Clem to sit on. Most mornings there wasn’t much to watch because Clem’s grandparents lived on a small road that only had four houses on it and led to a private beach. When he got bored he would take the cup full of teeth and place it on the window’s sill. He’d watch as the bubbles would float to the top and then pop. Once, Clem had a nightmare that he floated to the ceiling and popped on the roof.
On the steering wheel, the swollen fingers of Clem’s grandmother thud with the music. Her knuckles are bulbous while her fingers are thin and Clem watches as she taps. After a time she stops and wrings her hands together. Always smoothing from the bottom up. And when she presses on the break and comes to a complete stop she closes her eyes and sighs. Her dark curls don’t wave in the breeze and eventually she has to put the window up because she’s cold, but it’s okay for Clem to leave his down. The curls aren’t as dark as they used to be either, even though her grandfather says she shouldn’t worry as much since she retired in January.
“I almost liked him better when he was sleeping–your grandfather,” Clem’s grandmother says. “He was such a talker. Any time I went to change his bandages I would be in there for twenty, thirty minutes after talking to him. Everyone would be. Before he was there a week he knew every nurse by name.”
She tells Clem that after that first week his grandfather was on his feet again, but he had to remain in the hospital. Back then, she tells Clem, how handsome his grandfather used to be–
“Not that he isn’t now,” Clem’s grandmother says.
His hair was combed to one side and parted very neatly, even when he still had bandages wrapped around his fingers.
“He was such a pain then,” Clem’s grandmother says. “Every night when my shift started–that’s when I gave him the medicine–he was supposed to be going to sleep. But after I gave him the sleeping meds he would go and get a cup of coffee. He was so rotten. Whenever I left he’d be smiling and I never knew why. But that smile of his. You have it too. You smile just like him.”
And now Clem’s grandmother smiles and the corners of her mouth push more wrinkles to each side. She tells Clem that everyone has to learn how to smile from someone and she’s glad it wasn’t his father that he learned from. Clem looks in the mirror at his smile, but his braces are in the way. Then he looks at his grandmother’s smile, but her skin is lighter and Clem feels guilty for looking so he looks at his feet. But he still thinks of the way the skin is slipping from her neck.
“How long did you date grandpa before you got married?” Clem asks.
His grandmother said she “went with Bob” for a year and a half and were married at the end of two, just like Clem’s own parents. But Clem knows from his mother that he should date someone for three years before he gets married. His grandparents would have waited longer if Clem’s grandfather didn’t enlist in the army.
On the freeway they haven’t moved much closer to Harwich, the little part of Cape Cod Clem likes to call home. His grandmother has given up on trying to change into the faster lane and resides in the right lane, inching along with the rest of the road’s population.
Clem’s grandmother doesn’t die her hair any longer and in some places it’s so thin the scalp is visible.
“When it was close to the time he was going to be cleared to go home he started asking me out. But I always said no,” Clem’s grandmother says. “On principle I just didn’t date younger men. And his chart said he was four years younger. So I told him, ‘Sorry, Bob’. And then he cut me short and he’d say I wouldn’t need to apologize and he would smile.”
The next night, Clem’s grandmother said, that she told Bob he was too young for her. But that didn’t stop him from asking her out every day until he left. That Friday night, after Clem’s grandfather was released from the hospital he was there waiting at the front desk.
“I still remember what he was wearing–blue slacks and black loafers. He had a yellow button-up with a brown jacket. And he was leaning against the desk until he saw me and then he stood and he took his hands from his pockets and asked me if I was working. When I told him I was he just shook his head.”
Clem’s grandmother has a tear rolling down her cheek. And Clem is frustrated because it takes too long for the tear to rise and fall with his grandmother’s wrinkles and he feels the tear is strolling. Which to Clem, seems very disrespectful to her person. But maybe that’s because he knows how much she hates crying.
They pull into a rest stop and when the rest is finished Clem helps his grandmother into her seat. Her blouse is one that he bought for her birthday last summer and it hangs loosely to her body.
“Are you cold?” Clem asks.
Clem knows that she is, but he also forgot her jacket at the doctor’s so he pulls a sweatshirt from his bag and pulls it over her shoulders. Before they start off for the road Clem throws out the wrappers from two hamburgers. He gets into the driver side and pulls the seat belt over his waist.
“Are you tired?” Clem asks.
Clem pulls onto the freeway and gets back onto the route to bring him to his Grandmother’s home. This summer is Clem’s last before he goes off to college. He asks his grandmother where he left off in the story and his grandmother just says “anywhere”.
“After grandpa got your shift off from work you went dancing. You were still wearing your ugly nurse’s uniform–even though grandpa always said you looked beautiful. And Grandpa was wearing a blue shirt and a red tie with dark blue stripes. He gave you his brown jacket to wear while he walked with you from the hospital.”
Then his grandmother gets quiet, and Clem realizes she’s crying. So he turns the radio on and they drive without speaking for a time.
And in the driver’s seat, his grandmother beside him–her eyes closed and mouth open, Clem remembers tearing the edges from his grandmother’s nursing papers. While he sat at the table with her she would fill out patient sheets and the top was white and beneath it were yellow and pink carbon copy pages. And from the edges, Clem folded squares one on top the other. While his grandmother took bites of her cream cheese and tomato sandwiches Clem played with the perforated caterpillars until she went to work and he was alone.