“This is one of my favorite episodes,” Grandpa Joe grunts, his voice the gutteril sound you’d expect from a lifelong heavy smoker or a preteen Ragen MacNeil, “Marshall Dillon leads a cattle drive through Apache county and all hell breaks loose.” He works the controls of his electric wheelchair, pivoting to ensure he’ll have good view of the ensuing gunfight. “A herd of them red n*****s gonna get killed.”
“Please don’t use that word.” Mom says, though we both know it won’t do any good.
“Fine, Native American n*****s then.” A grin curls up his stumbled cheek.
“Marshall Dillon is the one in front?” I ask.
Joe doesn’t answer, his eyes fixed on the TV.
“Yes, that’s Dillion.” Mom says absently. She’s panning the mess around us, an explosion of magazines, empty beer cans and full ashtrays. Joe’s living room is as inviting as a minefield.
The TV, a vacume tube filled monster with knobs and buttons covering it’s front and a large pair of rabbit ears protruding from it’s top, flickers as white cowboys on brown horses chase cattle across the screen. A small black box marked ‘digital converter’ rests on a bookcase a few feet away. It’s green power light winks at me from it’s center.
Minutes pass. I hold my breath, timing myself with my phone. Two minutes thirty-two seconds, not bad.
Joe grunts something as the tube pours out a half dozen lines of cheap cardboard dialogue. The only other sound is the lonely tick of the grandmother clock resting on the mantel and the low hum of the central air. Somewhere in the house Oliver and Morgan are playing on their phones, hoping for a quick gettaway. On the long drive down we drew straws to decide which of us would sit with Mom through the ordeal. It’s the Nolan family tradition I hate most, especially when I come up short.
“Do you ladies need anything?” Mrs. Dot, Joe’s former day-nurse and current wife, pokes her head in from the hall. She’s a terrifying sight, all blue hair and too much makeup. “More sweet tea or a jigsaw puzzel?”
Both Mom and I shake our heads, sending her Cheshire grin away.
We’ve learned how to get rid of her quickly, keeping our contact to an absolute minimum, but I doubt it does much good for Mom. Resentment floats around her like the stink of an old fart. Dot, married to Grandpa Joe for over a year, has replaced just about every photo of my long dead grandmother with portaits of herself; here’s Dot visiting Niagra Falls with her first husband (was his name James or Jim?); there’s Dot graduating nursing school, Class of 67′; look it’s Dot posing with her multitude of kids and grandkids, all biological, each yellow haired and stumpy. The two sets of twins in the last photo belong more in a Stephen King novel than on the wall of a dated ranch style in Corpus Christi, Texas.
I turn back to the TV. After a day dodging rattle snakes and fording streams the cattle drive settles in for the night. Soon commercials for Centrum Silver and Depends roll.
Joe clears his throat. “So the boy didn’t want to come?” He fumbles with the chair’s controls, raising the seat then lowering it again, making himself comfortable. Near his feet a catheter bag peeks out at me, it’s full of what I’m sure isn’t vanilla cream soda. “Your husband,” he tilts his head towards mom, “where is he?”
“He wasn’t feeling well.” Mom says, a well practiced lie if there ever was one. Mom and Dad are on the brink, with Dad sleeping on the couch most nights and spending every spare moment driving aimlessly around town. He’s already changed the oil in the truck twice this summer. “His stomach, we didn’t want to have to stop at every gas station between Greenville and here.” She laughs, attempting to give life to the fabrication. “He really wanted to come though.”
“I’m sure.” Joe grunts, fingering the TV remote duct tapped to his chair’s armrest, “You know how that boy loves me.” He coughs a smoker’s raspy cough and spits flem into a used tissue.
“He does.” Mom doesn’t waver, her smile is so sweet it could give you a toothache, “He really does.”
“And where are those other two? The girl and the boy?” Joe asks, looking around to emphaise Morgan and Oliver’s absence. The only other things surrouding us (besides Dot’s family photos and the massive TV) are mounted deer and elk antlers. They arn’t perserved with the heads like you’d expect but protrude from portions of skull and reach out from the walls like the mandbibles of some giant insect. I shrink back.
“They’re probably on the porch. They’re allergic to ciggerette smoke.” Mom says, her voice strong, confident. “Both are poping Allegra like Tic-Tacs. You should see them after they do yard work.”
“Really.” Doubtful, Joe scratches his head. I’m sure he’s heard more lies than truths in his life time.
“It’s costing me a fortune.” Mom’s smiles headed, her cheeks red, and I have to give her props. June once told me that lying is all in the details, like the plastic ficus trees in the teacher’s lounge. With their realistic leaves and fluffy faux moss you don’t notice anythings amiss until you go to piss on one of the damn things. I didn’t ask how she came up with this anology.
“Well, I’d like to see them before you go.” Joe says. He runs his nicotine stained fingers over the TV remote, it’s small black buttons have been worn smooth, their symbols erased forever. “This damn prostate cancer may get me before long.”
“You’ll be fine.” Mom says. The concern that filled her ten years ago, when he first phoned and told her of his imminent demise, has long since evaporated, not even leaving a residue. “What does your doctor say?”
Joe pulls a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket. “He says to stop smoking!” He laughs as smoke fills the room and our nostiels.
“You should.” Mom says. She looks at her phone (it’s only 11:13 in the morning!) then back at Joe. His eyes are once again glued to the TV set, having already forgotten us and the cancer nibbling at him from underneath. “They’ll kill you.”
I know what Mom’s thinking. Some people, even horrible people, have all the luck, while Grandma Patricia had none at all. It took less than six months for her cancer (starting as a pea sized lump in her left breast, found Halloween morning) to spread to her spine and throat. Within two more months it’d biten into her brain.
The last photo taken of her (a Poloriod Mom keeps hidden in the folds of an old high school year book) shows my grandmother a frail, hairless creature, thin to the point of weightlessness and connected to a resparator. You’d think her punctured balloon pressed to the lips of a dim but patient child and not a thirty-six year old women.
We watch as Apaches creep forward, moving among the indifferent bolvine with the ease of a fish in water. Someone calls out, arrows fly, there’re gunshots, the fray begins.
“How was school?” Joe turns to me, the carnage he’s waited forty-five minutes for fading into the background. “How were your grades this year?”
“Uh, good.” I had five A’s and one B last semester. Go me!
“Good?” He looks me over. The whites of his eyes are a dirty yellow. “You play sports? Girls play sports now.”
He grunts something, disapproval maybe. I know he played varsity football, somewhere there’s a photo of him wearing his pads and jersey, sporting the same stiff crew-cut he keeps now. But why bring it up? Just looking for a subject more interesting than Pre-calculus?
Dot pokes her head in from the hall. “Morgan and Oliver are working on a jiggsaw puzzle if you want to join us. It’s of Mt. Rushmore.”
Mom and I shake our heads, again sending her away disappointed.
“How are your teachers.” Joe asks. He hasn’t taken his eyes off of me. “Alot of them Obama people are getting into schools, teaching everything backwards.”
“My teachers are fine.” I want to leave, flee to the porch and help piece together Lincoin’s face until it’s time to go back to the hotel. Having this man ask about my school life is like having a stranger ask my underwear size. None of your damn business, that’s my size!
“Any gays? Kids want to be gay now.” His eyes narrow into suspicus slits.
“No.” I lie, wondering what he’d think of Shannon Van Warren, the junior with a shaved head and rainbow ‘Legalize Love’ bumper sticker on her pink Prius. The old bastard would proabley try to strangle her with his own liver spotted hands.
“No gays?” Joe ask again. His eyes could belong to a water moccasin.
“No. There arn’t any gays at West Greenville High School. Not one.”
He looks at me for a moment longer, leering his satisfaction, before turning back to the TV set. “Good.” He says to no one inparticular, or maybe to the cowboys, their Winchesters bleating out fire and death.
The grandmother clock ticks on, measuring out time by the drop when I’d perfer it by the gallon. My eyelids are beginning to sag. I want to fight it but don’t. I know I should, but it doesn’t seem rude to drift off. It even feels right somehow.