My grandson called in the middle of the night, incoherent. Before I had the phone to my ear, he was already talking like we were in the middle of a conversation, his voice one jumbled note, long and low.
I couldn’t remember when I’d talked to him last.
“So about our deal,” he said. “I’m ready. Let’s go through with it.”
My heart swelled and clammered. My years of praying and begging were about to payoff, he was ready to go. Before I could answer, Harlan said, “Tyrone, are you there? I’m trying to tell you, man, I’m saying let’s do it.”
“Grammie Jane?” His voice turned hollow, deflated.
“Harlan?” But he had already taken the phone away from his ear. From a distance I heard him say, “oh shit,” and then he hung up.
I spent the entire next day trying to reach him but his phone just rang and rang. I sat in my aviary and hit redial, redial until my thumb was sore.
Harlan’s cockatoo H-dog sat on my shoulder to look for strands of loose hair which he draped over the limbs of the potted plants like silver tinsel on a Christmas tree.
A week later Harlan called back. I was sitting at the kitchen table keeping an eye on the brisket, but I left it and went out to the porch where I could talk to him in private.
“It’s me, Harlan.” We sat in silence a moment.
“The birds sound good. How’s H-dog?”
“Oh, can you hear them?” I was so used to their constant cheeps and chatters that I forgot how loud they could be. It was one of the reasons Carl never sat out here with me; that and he said it stunk like birdshit.
The phone clicked and the crackle of static came over the line. Then Carl’s voice. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, young man.”
“Hey, Carl, got your RV yet?”
“Carl,” I said, “you get off the phone this instant. You stop this now, you hear?”
“Your grandmother hasn’t slept in weeks,” Carl went on. “Weeks! You just can’t treat people like that, son. I don’t care if it is a disease, it ain’t right.”
I’ll never know if Harlan heard that last part because by the time Carl was done speaking, there was only us and a dial tone on the line.
“Jane, I think your brisket’s burning.”
I did not speak to Carl during dinner until he forced the issue by dropping his fork onto his plate and pushed it away with a disgusted look. “You know,” he said, “I have a mind to change our number. That’ll take the wind out of his sails, you see if it don’t. Can’t just call you when it suits him.”
I stacked Carl’s plate on mine and set them in the basin of the sink and stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter with both hands. Carl gathered the trash and took it out to the bins. We ran out of the regular white bags right after the last grocery run, so we’ve been using Carl’s black lawn bags. Every time I see one of them black bags, I’m reminded of the day Harlan came to live with me, all his things stuffed into one like his life up to that point was just so much trash. A woman my age, but trying too God-awful hard to look like she wasn’t, pushed him in the door and told him he was going to live here now. I didn’t argue with her or try to say that my dead son couldn’t be the boy’s father because one look at those cry-me-empty eyes and I knew he was mine. Seems every time I turned around, a second chance stared me in the face. And like a fool, every time I think I’ve learned the trick to saving someone who doesn’t care he’s slipping away.
Back in the house, Carl brought out sales brochures for various RV manufacturers and lined them up on the dining room table, setting them in order from least favorite to most, just as he had been doing every evening for almost a year. Sometimes he picked one up, looked through the pages again and rearranged the order. Carl wanted one of those forty-foot RV vans, the kind with a full kitchen and a bathroom and neat little squares that bump out on the sides to make you think you had more space than you really did. He thought driving around in an enormous bus with sixty-gallon gas tanks to be the most logical way to spend retirement, whereas I just wanted to sit in my bird room with the phone on my lap.
But Harlan wasn’t Carl’s, so he saw things different. Maybe he hadn’t realized his role as best man at my first wedding would be reprised so often over the course of our lives. That decades of cameo appearances until Jesse’s liver gave out would lead to being a full cast member in this soap opera where I just try to keep the men I love from sinking under the waves.
It was not for another two weeks before Harlan called again. During that time, I performed my phone rituals and tried to hide them from Carl. When your only connection to someone you love is through a telephone, the thing itself becomes almost as dear to you as the person you wish would call. I treated the phone like the temperamental child Harlan had been, keeping it close to me, tucked into a pocket or tracking it down after Carl had used it to put it back on its charger. During those two weeks, I must have dusted that phone twenty times, turned it on to check the dial tone, and scribbled circles with the pen on the pad underneath the base.
When Harlan called again, I was both relieved and bitter mad. “Hello, Harlan. And how are you doing?”
“Hi Grammie. Look–” he began.
“How are things, Harlan? What are you doing these days?”
“Look, Grammie, I don’t have much time.”
“Oh? Have you an appointment or something?” Carl came into the kitchen and mouthed the words, who is it? Harlan, I mouthed back. He opened the fridge and pretended to look for something to eat.
“Grammie, please!” Harlan was whispering but his voice had the force of a scream. “I need your help. Please!”
I was on my feet in an instant, skirting round the kitchen table and moving fast as I could for the aviary. Carl threw up his hands and went back to his chair to watch a show. From the side of my eye, I caught the pale moon of Carl’s face swiveling toward me from time to time
“Ok, Harlan,” I said, “I’m listening.”
“You’ve got to help me,” he said. “There’s a guy. Tyrone.”
“Oh?” I asked, on edge, wary of what was going to come. “And what does Tyrone do? How do you know him?”
Harlan let out a sharp bark of laughter, a crazed, hateful sound. “What do you think a guy named Tyrone does?”
“Is he going to hurt you? Why?”
“Look, that’s not important. I need you to come to the city and get me.”
“The city!” Harlan knew we never went into the city. Too big, too hot. To many bodies moving in too many directions. “Come here, Harlan. Come home.”
“I sold my car,” he said. There was a loud noise over the line like someone had come in and slammed the door behind. “I gotta go,” he said. “Just come to the city and call me when you get here. I’ll come back with you, Grammie. I’m ready now.”
I sat in the aviary trembling. The phone fell from my lap and landed with a thud on the floor where I left it. The cockatiel Spot flew to my shoulder and picked at the pearls of my earrings. The yellow canary I called Carl Jr. hopped from tree to tree, rustling up the other, unnamed canaries into a maniacal chorus of off-key voices. They jumped from the trees to the screen where they tried to grab on like they used to do in their cages, using their scaly feet to clasp the bars, but they could get no grip and began to fall before they opened their wings and soared back to the trees.
Carl had enclosed the porch using a special type of ultra-strong netting he ordered off the computer. When he was done, he told me to try and tear it. I smiled but did not try, afraid I would break my beautiful wedding gift. Wouldn’t have worked anyway, he’d said proudly.
Back inside, Carl called from the living room, “well?”
I could not tell Carl that Harlan wanted me to go to the city, he’d refuse on principle alone, but there were other ways to kill two birds with one stone.
I sat on the arm of Carl’s chair and danced my fingers across his bare scalp. “Oh, Harlan just wanted to catch up.”
“Catch up!” Carl said, shaking his head. “That boy.”
“I’ve been thinking. If you’re serious about this RV thing, you really need to look around inside, see what they feel like.”
Carl turned to me, all ears and eyes, like a boy at his first movie.
“You’ve been going on and on about that travel show at the expo center. Let’s go. Let’s make a weekend out of it.”
Carl looked struck by lightning. “You mean it?” he said. Then his face clouded. “Wait. Doesn’t Harlan live in the city?”
“I don’t know where he lives,” I said, careful not to lie. Carl continued to look at me, his eyes boring into me, spooking me. “Look,” I said, “talking to Harlan just now made me realize what a short leash he has me on.” This was a classic Carl-ism. “Maybe it’s time we get out. See the country before we’re too old and decrepit.”
Carl’s eyes lit up once more. “Hot damn,” he said, slapping his hand over my thigh. “Well, I’ll go and make us some reservations,” and he went off into the computer room, whistling and shaking his head.
We arrived at the hotel Friday afternoon and were told our room wasn’t ready. It was a middle of the road kind of place, right off the highway, a stopover for people needing rest for the night before heading further away.
Not being able to check in did not bother Carl, but I was ready to go lie down. I had not yet figured out how I would meet up with Harlan, how I could manage to call him in secret and take the car to find him. I thought about what Harlan might’ve said, what excuse he would’ve come up with, but he had given up lying years ago, and when I would ask where he was going, he had simply said, “out.”
To pass the time, Carl and I drove to the Shoney’s up the road for second lunches. The Shoney’s had a lounge where they served drinks and that’s where we sat. Carl ordered a beer for himself, and though I reminded him that drinking in the middle of the day sent me to Snoozeville, he made me order something too, so I chose a tropical sounding drink that came with a paper umbrella, two cherries impaled on it, and an over-ripe slice of orange.
“Lighten up,” Carl said, clinking my glass, “it’s vacation.” He brought out his RV brochures and began to talk of them to me. He said we needed to decide what was in our price range and what amenities we could or could not live without.
“Well, let’s not spend too much,” I said. “You never know.” Carl pressured me again for a number, so I thought of the most I could imagine someone spending on some overgrown, tent-on-wheels and said, “fifteen?”
Carl sat back, pushing himself into the booth and looked at me aghast. “Fifteen. Fifteen thousand?” He shuffled through the bottom of his stack and handed me a sheet of paper showing a smallish van-looking thing. The bed was tucked above the driving cabin and a miniscule bathroom with a showerhead attached over the toilet.
Carl poked at the paper. “This one’s thirty-two. No pop-outs. No separate shower stall. Two burner stove and no garbage disposal.” He pulled out a distinguished-looking black folder. Inside glistened pictures of an enormous van, the kind musicians go touring around in, black with silver chevrons down the side. It was called “The Starship Enterprise.” Three pop-outs, a full kitchen with a dishwasher, a living room with reclining leather chairs, also black, and satellite TV. He tapped the pictures gently. “A hundred ten.”
“Thousand?” I said. I had never imagined such a sum. “Carl,” I said, leaning forward, “we can’t possibly afford this.”
“We can when we sell our house.”
“Sell the house?” My mind tripped on the word “we” and “our.” Of course it was “we”; I knew that. But for a very long time it had been Jessie and me, and then Harold and me, and when both of them had sunk below the amber waves, Harlan and me. There had been a lot of we’s in that house, but Carl was the newest of them. I had to remind myself that to him, it was all ours and not all mine. But, Lord, I’d carried all that pain by myself so long it felt like mine, felt like I deserved something more out of this than to see our house get sold so he could buy his dream van. I couldn’t stand these petty thoughts, how they made me feel like that dove I’d had for a bit, all white, a beautiful thing. But you could tell she thought she was so much better than everyone else, wouldn’t eat or drink from the shared bowl, nor make friends though H-dog had tried many times. So I let her go on a December morning and watched her fly up until her wings matched the sky and she disappeared.
“But where would we live?” Sometimes you can’t help yourself.
“We’d live here, of course,” he said. He held his hands out, pretending to hold a steering wheel. “We could drive anywhere we wanted to, all over this continent.”
“But what about my birds? Where will they live?”
“With us,” Carl said, smiling. “There’s headroom above the cabinets for storage and things.”
“I don’t think they’d all fit.”
“Well, maybe not all of them,” he admitted.
“And what about my things? My antiques, my china. They’re heirlooms.”
Now the waitress was bringing our food, setting plates of greasy chicken fingers and flank steak on the table, asking us if we needed anything else. I waved my hand at her and Carl smiled. “No thank you, honey.”
“Maybe you can give them to someone?” He cut into his meat, his knife scraping harshly against the cheap ceramic plate. He avoided my gaze.
“Who, Carl?” I said, dropping my fork to my plate with a loud clatter. “Just who should I give them to?”
Back at the hotel, they gave us a room with two beds. I slept in one bed and Carl in the other, but neither of us said anything about it, just climbed into our beds and watched TV. Carl opened all his brochures and began to make more lists. He fell asleep with the catalogs still strewn over his bed and I listened to them slide down to the floor during the night.
The convention center was too loud, too bright, as if the knob on everything had been turned up too high. The main hall smelled like fried cheese and was enormous, with large drafty doors on each wall. Campers of all sizes, and boats too, were jammed in at all angles. They bore names like Wolf Trekker and Salmon Syndicate 350. The men, even some women, wore a lot of camouflage.
Carl strode through the crowd, the list of RV manufacturers attached to a clipboard like a judge at a dog show. I kept my hands in my pockets, tapping my fingers against the cellular. We rarely took it anywhere, it was only for when Carl or me went to the store, one of us without the other. Carl didn’t know I’d brought it. I was not supposed to call Harlan on it because Carl was afraid he’d run up the bill or give the number to questionable characters.
I needed to find a place to talk, a place that was quiet, a place where Carl couldn’t see me. I went into the ladies room.
It wasn’t nearly as quiet as I’d hoped. The PA system had speakers in there too, and every few seconds, the announcer’s voice came on, booming out the events of the day, where to sign up for raffles, and to remember to stop by the food court for fried chicken and jo-jos brought to you by the Daughters of the Confederacy. I tucked into the last stall, the big one for wheelchairs and handicapped and called my boy.
Harlan did not say anything when he picked up, but there was dead air and the display on the phone kept counting up the seconds. “Harlan? You there?”
“I’m here, Grammie Jane.” His voice was heavy again, his words taking a lifetime to form.
“Tell me what to do, Harlan.” A line was forming outside. The women grumbled about people taking too long. Have your pants unzipped, ladies!, someone yelled out and the room rippled with fidgety laughter. Then the announcer came on again.
“Where are you?” Harlan asked.
“An RV convention out at the expo center.”
There was silence over the line while he absorbed this. “I guess y’all are finally doing it, huh? Sell the place and everything, I guess.” His voice was very small and carried the hurt of a little boy who had not been picked for a team.
“Not necessarily, Harlan,” I said. “Getting you figured out comes first.”
He found this funny and laughed so loudly I had to hold the phone away from my ear, but when I brought it back again, his laughter had turned to weeping. “I’ve always been a puzzle, haven’t I, Grammie,” he said between sobs.
“Just tell me where you are.”
Harlan gave me the address of a place and brief directions which I wrote down on the back of my program. There was no longer a line in the ladies room, but there was a young girl waiting with her mother. The girl was in a wheelchair, her legs like two brittle sticks. She wore a pained expression and wheeled herself into the stall, calling out, “Mama, please!” to the mother who looked like she wanted to give me what for. The woman scurried past me. Soon, she said, “there, there. All better?”
Carl was angry with me for taking so long, for holding him up while he could have been looking. He said nothing when I told him my stomach was bad and I could either lie down or spend all day in the toilet. He handed me the keys and told me to pick him up at Entrance C at six.
Harlan’s directions took me back downtown. Yesterday coming through here, the street kids were everywhere. I watched one pick up a cigarette a man in a suit had dropped and relight it. Their faces seemed to follow me, watching me, and finally I had slouched down so low in my seat, my eyes were level with the dash. This time, I didn’t mind it so much. I was on my way to save my boy and this knowledge made me feel hopeful toward everything. I beamed at those dirty-haired kids, imagining other parents, other rescues, until one of them flipped me off.
From downtown, I turned south and followed the lines of row houses set so close together, you could toss an egg right into your neighbor’s window if she needed it. But this was not the kind of place where you borrowed from your neighbor. The yards and streets were littered with trash. Dogs barked from the backs of houses, and on one corner a man stepped on his dog’s head for no reason I could see except it was a mean-looking dog and a mean-looking man.
I followed the numbers on the houses until I came to the one that matched what Harlan’d given me, a place he said he was sharing with friends. It was not the worst looking house on the block because they were all the worst looking, but it did not have the lived-in quality like how the other houses had fresh trash, cars, or appliances on the lawn. A scrawny yellow cat crept around the corner of the house and slinked all the way round, hugging it’s skin-and-bones body to the foundation.
I went up to the front door and pushed the doorbell, but nothing happened.
I climbed down the steps and peered in the windows covered by thin sheets. The place had a TV and a ratty couch, but what broke my heart, a baby’s playpen off in the corner. Down a narrow hall, a small kitchen sat at the back. Dishes piled on the counter and floor. I walked to the back where that door stood open.
“Hello?” I called, “Anyone home? Harlan?”
The skinny cat was on the counter licking from a bowl and looked up, frightened, when it saw me in the doorway.
“Nice kitty.” I held my palm out as I walked in. “Nice, nice kitty.” It scrambled off the counter, knocking the bowl onto the floor where it shattered and splashed milk and cereal onto my shoes.
I walked to the door of the hallway, calling out, “hello? Hello?” I opened the drawers of the kitchen but they were mostly empty except one that contained some wooden cooking utensils and a lot of spoons. The fridge reeked with the smells of rotting food, but in the door, on a surprisingly spotless shelf sat two vials of clear liquid that could’ve been Harlan’s insulin except the labels had been torn off.
I took the phone out again and called Harlan’s number. For a while nothing happened, which made me think Harlan had just gone somewhere real quick. But then I heard a phone ringing from the back of the house. The phone to my ear went to voicemail and the ringing stopped so I called again and the ringing began again. I followed the sound to a closed door.
Harlan’s phone was in that room. Please god, I said, please god, please god, please. I have prayed many times for Harlan, prayed for many different things, but the thing I prayed hardest for was that I would not be the one to find my grandson dead. This shocked and angered the women at the support group I went to for a while, who said that it’s better to know he’s dead than to wonder every day of your life. They recited their mantra, “release with love”, reminding me that Harlan needed to move out, and until that happened, I couldn’t possibly understand what I was saying. Even after he moved to the city and we lost touch for months at a time, even then when I was up nights wondering where he was, what he was putting into his body, I still didn’t want to find him. I wanted to know, but I did not want to be the one who found his crumpled, cold body.
I stood outside his door for a very long time, long enough for that cat to think I had gone and come back in, resume licking up the milk all over the filthy floor. Finally, I took a breath and pushed open the door.
What I saw was worse, I think, than if I had seen his body: there was no one there at all. I dialed the phone again and it rang from beneath the one sheet covering a bare mattress on the floor. I saw other things of Harlan’s, his John Deere hat, his guitar; things that told me he had been here and would likely come back again.
I went back to the car. I sat with my hands clasped around the wheel and then I leaned forward, letting my head press down on the horn, a note I held while I screamed. After a few minutes, a black woman in a puffy orange shower cap came outside and yelled at me to shut the hell up.
I did not return to the expo center though it was getting late and I was unsure of the way back. Instead, I drove round the block and stopped in front of his house again. I did this eight more times but nothing changed except that yellow cat came out and cleaned his whiskers on the steps.
Carl was sitting alone on the curb outside Entrance C when I pulled up. A plastic bag was looped round his wrist and a neon green ruler poked out from the top. I left the car running as I got out of the driver’s side and into the passenger’s. Carl opened the rear door to place his bag in the back. In the car, he took one look at my face and softened, knowing everything at once in that same, ancient way he had of showing up at my door with coffee and country music, taking my husband down to the basement to sober up and remember we were not punching bags.
On the way back to the hotel, Carl did not ask about Harlan and he did not talk about the RVs. His silence was an acknowledging one, not the angry kind that means someone is too mad to let you have it just now, but wait, it’s coming. No, his was the kind that said he recognized that change was something that happened over a lifetime, and sometimes not at all. I was almost mad at him for not yelling at me, though I couldn’t make sense of that.
We went back to that same Shoney’s and had the same waitress. When she came to our table, she asked if we wanted the same drinks. “That’s right,” Carl said, “and when we finish those, you go right on ahead and bring us another, sugar.” Carl never was the type of person to let his anger show in public. He was much better about putting on a happy-face than me. I sat in the corner of the booth and moved the salt and pepper caddy, the drink menu and desert book into a half-circle around me, like a wall.
The waitress brought us our drinks and Carl ordered for us both the same things we’d had the day before. We drank our drinks, we ate our meal. We drove back to the hotel and when I began to climb into my bed, Carl threw back the covers of his and patted the spot next to him. He held me tight against his soft, round body and stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
It was not another week when Harlan called again. Again in the middle of the night, again high and barely forming words. But this time he had called me on purpose, no mistake. I say this like I know what he was thinking, like I could be sure that somewhere beyond the doped-up haze, Harlan loved me and wanted me to love him back. But how can you know?
I did not answer the phone that night, though Carl was awake with me, ready to share it. We listened to Harlan’s voice on the machine, his apologies, saying that everything was all right, that he would be fine. Time, Grammie Jane, he said, I need more time. I’m just not ready to come home yet.
In the morning, I woke before Carl and took a mug of the previous day’s coffee out to the aviary. I walked very close to the screen and pressed my face against it. As Carl had asked so many years ago, I took both hands to it and tried to tear it down. But there was no give. With my face so close, I saw that the netting was made of very fine metal threads woven together with holes no bigger than the prick a needle makes in the skin.
I went back to the kitchen and came out again with the pen I kept near the phone. I put the ballpoint into one of the holes and pulled down but the pen skittered over the surface. Then I pushed it forward and it made a hole big enough for my pinky. I worked it bigger and bigger, until two fingers could fit, and then I went to the shed and came back with Carl’s pruning shears, the ones with handles as long as my arms and it was quick work after that.
The canaries were the first to fly away, almost immediately, but I did not blame them because they were small birds with small brains and no more loyalty to me than I had for them, plus I knew they had the best chance to survive. The parrot and my cockatiel went next, after a little coaxing, and a few false tries. H-dog was last. He perched on my shoulder while I, forcing myself not to think about what was going to happen to them come winter, encouraged the others to go. He picked through my hair like it was any other day. When he left, he carried some of it with him, coarse grey threads clutched in his beak.
When Carl found me, sweating and sitting with my legs splayed out before me on the birdshit-covered floor, he only said, “oh, Jane. Oh, Jane.”
I held out my hand. “It’s ok, Carl. Help me up.”