When the school bus shrieks to a standstill, Lucy knows.
Her toes do.
Her toes are psychic and when they know things, they tingle.
She cranes to see, along with the other kids, but unlike them, she does not stand up, does not step a single psychic toe out into the black rubber aisle, laced with bits of gravel, tracked in and deposited by the kids, because this is rural Iowa, and most of them live on long gravel lanes. Lucy notices details like this, sometimes for too long, daydreamer her teacher’s call her – or dumb. Lucy’s gaze now riveted on the gravel, hypnotized by the little gray rocks strewn the length of the bus aisle, those gray rocks, floating her a little bit out of her head, out of her body, the gravel, releasing her from the fear of what her toes predict.
Then Mr. Gladly the bus driver lays on the horn and Lucy reenters her body with a jolt, clutching her worn denim backpack to her chest, the beads on her friendship pins pressing in like fingernails. The kids scramble out of their seats, pushing their faces to the windows.
Mr. Gladly’s Santa Claus eyebrows fly to the top of his hairline. “Stay in your seats!” he screeches, spit spraying from his mouth. Lucy presses the toes of her shoes together, shiny silver sneakers with rainbows and Velcro straps, and, like her backpack, arrayed with friendship pins.
“You’re all going to Mr. Edmundson’s office, you hear me? Every one of you out of your seat, I’m writing your names down right now!”
Lucy notes, he does no such thing.
The kids pry open the bus windows, lean out.
“Drunk! Drunk! Drunk!” they chant.
Her toes were right. Lucy stays in her seat, obedient to the core, but sits up on her knees, cranes her head. And yes, there he – stumbling his way across Great River Road in Princeton, Iowa, with his grizzled beard, big ears, Hawkeyes sweatshirt and worn out jeans, about to fall down in front of the bus, and look he’s got a bib on, because one of the town drunk’s quirks (besides the fact that he lives in a houseboat that floats on 50 gallon oil drums on the Mississippi) – he’s got a whole collection of bibs, and the bib he’s wearing now is black and white, like a tuxedo.
The town drunk looks very nearly dapper!
A star – of sorts – tripping over his feet –
Lucy’s classmates, singing at him, an admiring chorus.
Then pelting him.
Out of the window fly thin, yellow pencils, and plump pink erasers
Lucy is fifteen –
She will be in geometry, and the triangles will have become unbearable, so she’ll lose herself in the eraser her classmate is scrubbing across her paper, not a pencil cap eraser, one of those big pink beveled erasers, and hypnotized by the eraser’s frantic back and forth, Lucy will recall – she will watch in her mind, as though it’s happening again, one of those beautiful pink erasers – bounce right off the drunk’s forehead, right between his brows – and Bert McCollough (now North Scott High’s star pitcher) flinging a fist in the air. “Direct hit!” high-fiving his friends.
Lucy will see, again, the way the town drunk had smiled, lifting a finger to the place where the eraser had hit, like it had been a benevolent touch, even holy.
– like roses!
Mr. Gladly heaves himself from the seat, hikes up his sagging jeans, and roars: “Sit down or you’re all getting paddled!”
The kids push each other over to get back to their seats.
The town drunk waves at them as they leave.
Lucy might call it ironic, except, she doesn’t have a solid grasp on that term.
Even though words are kind of her thing. Like, her only thing.
Still, she’s just a 6th grader, and doesn’t trust she understands the full nuance of ironic.
Then she wonders if anyone does, and if that’s the case – is that ironic?
Lucy gives her head a shake. She’s doing it again, the wandering mind that gets her in so much trouble – lost in class, confused by assignments, crying during homework – low grades in everything, even music. Even art! But then also, she thinks, isn’t it nice to know that the mind can scamper off on little spirit feet when the body is stuck and trapped and can’t breathe?
Lucy looks at the board again. The assignment is – she squints –
Make invitations for Grandparent’s Day.
Oh yes. That’s right.
Lucy supposes it is the right time for a nonsensical celebration, as it is May, and the teachers are running out of ideas.
Lucy drops her gaze to the red and pink construction paper on her desk, the colors she must have chosen, although she can’t quite remember lining up at the art supply table, choosing paper, colored pencils, surrounded by her happily chirping classmates. Her classmates –not paddled by Mr. Edmundson, even though he has a paddle, one that hangs in the window of the main office, on full display as students walk to lunch, to gym, to recess – Lucy’s classmates let off the hook, and now with such sweet earnestness, these same classmates – why, just look at Bert McCollough with his perfect aim, now folding construction paper with the zeal of a Hallmark card artist, snapping lids off markers, sitting up in his seat and leaning in to draw hearts and flowers with unmitigated zest.
Lucy rises, finds herself walking, finds herself standing at Ms. Sawyer’s desk, which is big, like a mansion, like the desk of a queen, and Ms. Sawyer is a queen, though not a scary off-with-your-head one like the math teacher, Mrs. Bentschneider, who calls on Lucy, on purpose, when Lucy doesn’t have the answer, commands her to work out the problem on the board, in front of the class, and when Lucy makes an error crows, “Duhhh!” inciting the class to moblike laughter, while Lucy both freezes and sweats, clutching the chalk so hard it snaps.
No, Ms. Sawyer is a benevolent queen. One who believes there is a special thing about Lucy, even when Lucy’s report card says flat out – no, there is not one special thing.
Ms. Sawyer says, “Yes, Lucy?” her large brown eyes warm, seeking.
Lucy shifts from foot to foot. “Ms. Sawyer – one of my grandparents is dead.”
“Oh, Lucy. Oh. I’m sorry.” Ms. Sawyer sets down the packet she was about to staple, along with the stapler. She tilts her head. “Would you still like to make invitations, or…?”
“Yes. But I’d like to invite – “ here, Lucy sagely invokes teacher lingo, “a substitute.”
Recently, Ms. Sawyer had taken the class on a visit to Riverview Nursing Home, which did not have a view of the river, and was not even close to the river. Lucy and Tabitha Coley were assigned to interview a 77-year-old resident named Margot Lang. They’d sat on their knees, on the rug alongside Margot’s bed, in the room that looked and smelled like a dingy and cramped motel room, faintly medicinal, the blinds drawn. Margot’s room-mate slept fiercely in her wheelchair, head dropped to her chest. Tabitha grew fixated on the roommate, frightened by her sudden and frequent loud outbursts of snoring, as well as the drool that spun in long strings from her lips. Tabitha had, finally, called it quits. She’d crept out, the fastest tip-toeing Lucy had ever seen.
Margot, meanwhile, told stories about her childhood. Her family’s farm, her loyal dog, Shep, who waited for her and walked her home down the long dirt road from the old schoolhouse each day. She raved about the magically delicious cold water from the well, and confided to Lucy, in a low voice, how, for a long time, she’d believed the windmill on their farm was alive, a friendly, industrious companion she’d named Theodore. Margot said, she would give Theodore pep talks when storms blew in. And Theodore, she said, never faltered, never broke, and always held up in even the worst winds and rain – a source of strength as Margot endured the many gut punches of the Great Depression. Be like Theodore! She’d cheer herself on, through cold, hunger, and most devastating of all, forced to drop out of school in 8th grade to go to work, cleaning house for a wealthy family to help save her family’s farm.
Lucy wrote so much, so fast, her hand cramped. Then Margot got to talking about Stefan, a German immigrant she met, fell in love with, and married. We were married over fifty years and in all that time, I want you to know, Stefan never said a hard word to me, and he was the best friend I ever had in my life, along with Shep, and Theodore – all of them now gone. Margot had turned away to gaze out the window, though the blinds were drawn. Lucy had watched them, the tears, long and glistening, and rather beautiful, Margot’s hands worrying a tissue she held. Lucy had lowered her pen, sat, without speaking, in quiet presence. After five minutes or so, Margot had turned back, and face wet, had smiled at Lucy, kneeling there at her feet on the floor, and said simply, “Thank you, dear.”
Lucy went home and typed up Margot Lang’s life story in a storm of love and sorrow.
Ms. Sawyer had entered Lucy’s narrative into a state wide writing competition and Lucy – shockingly! Was awarded third place. She had never imagined herself capable of such a thing, and couldn’t quite make it real to herself. Ms. Sawyer had distributed copies of the essay to all of Lucy’s teachers, plus the school secretaries, the nurse, and even the principal, Mr. Edmundson. At an awards ceremony, for which she had worn a skirt, Lucy was given a small gold trophy, a precious weight in her two hands. Ever since the interview, Lucy had penned fervent letters to Margot Lang, and sent her copies of the narrative, along with photographs of the awards ceremony, Lucy looking nervous and awkward, her braces glittering more than skirt and trophy combined. Margot had written her back in small and painstaking cursive. She had quoted Charlotte’s Web: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
“I want to invite Margot Lang,” Lucy tells Ms. Sawyer.
On Grandparent’s Day, Lucy wakes up to a stormy downpour.
Mr. Gladly hates driving the bus in rain. He leans forward, squinting through the water sloshing across the windshield, hands white knuckling the steering wheel. The kids sit, quiet and tense. The rain blurs the cornfields into a soft green sea.
When the bus doors shriek open at Virgil Grissom Elementary, the kids stampede, flinging open umbrellas, stomping through puddles. Mr. Gladly yells and swears at his steering wheel, since he’s been warned by Mr. Edmundson on numerous occasions not to curse at the children.
Lucy’s nervous system starts screaming like a parrot chased round the jungle by a cheetah. Her mother talks a lot about nervous systems, since her mother is similarly afflicted, accosted by sounds as though they were dark alley attackers, leaping upon her. She calls Lucy’s skittish nervous system a genetic curse,
Lucy is seventeen –
She will be at her first job and while receiving instructions – off her mind will go
And she won’t know what to do. Just like in school. Only this is a job, and the stakes are much higher! Her managers will begin to think of her as slow, or possibly stupid, just as certain teachers did. They will treat her with contempt when she takes a long time, longer than anyone else, to pick up a skill. She won’t get ahead in the world and she’ll be crushed. Lucy will confide her fears to a coworker who is a college student and seems to know a lot about psychology and the coworker will listen carefully to Lucy’s laundry list of what she thinks of as defects – the daydreaming, the sensitivity, the hyperfixation, etc. and the coworker will say, “Huh! Sounds like ADHD.” Which will blow Lucy’s mind.
She will cry, “But only boys have that!”
one of several lurking in their family tree.
But when Lucy steps off the bus, shaking, sweating, and close to hyperventilating, someone is there, like a heroine, pulling her from a burst of drenching rain, under an umbrella that feels more like a shield. They hold hands and skedaddle together toward the covered walkway, where they stop. The flow of kids, shrieking, shaking wet from their hair like dogs, parts around them, a stream of bright rain jackets, bouncing Care Bear and Gremlin backpacks.
Lucy looks up at her rescuer, and beams. Grandma Sheila! What a vision. So surreal to see her at Virgil Grissom Elementary – the very separate world, the entire other planet, where Lucy spends her days.
Grandma Sheila, who lives just down the road, over the railroad tracks, in a tiny, dilapidated home she refers to grandly as her “cabin on the Mississippi,” now retracts the umbrella – a bold zebra stripe with red roses –replacing it in her favorite satchel, blue suede with an embroidered peacock, the peacock’s feathers a wild, dazzling array of rhinestones. Lucy, taken with love, throws her arms around Grandma Sheila and after a moment of ardent hugging, they make their way inside, shuffling with arms interlinked like a single creature, half young, half old.
Inside, the commotion continues, kids running, sneakers squeaking and slipping on the vinyl flooring, teachers shouting, scolding, and in the ruckus, looking lost and dazed, a dozen Rip Van Winkles – the Grandparents – blinking awake after a hundred years sleep, wondering why they have gray hair and beards and unruly grandkids when, just moments before, they were the ones frisking like yearlings, driven to gorgeous madness by the rain.
The kids and grandparents are at last corralled and herded, by a frustrated Mr. Edmundson, to the cafeteria. Lucy compares and contrasts Grandma Sheila to the other grandmothers and puffs up a bit. Grandma Sheila is by far the most glamorous, what with her blonde hair whipped into a sassy ponytail, big hoop earrings, bright red lipstick, and false lashes that flutter as she leans in, whispers to Lucy, “That principal of yours is peeved! Ooh, he’s steaming! And by that I mean, wouldn’t I like to grab hold of those hot cross buns!“ Grandma Sheila flexes her fingers, chomps her teeth.
Lucy smothers her giggles as they’re ushered into the cafeteria. They maneuver into line for a special Grandparent’s Day breakfast, eggs, bacon, and French toast. Lucy glances at the clock and thrills from head to toe. Margot Lang should arrive soon! Miss Daphne, the school nurse, kindly offered to pick her up.
Lucy, reaching for a milk carton, is lost in a fantasy where she reunites with Margot Lang, and leads her to Ms. Schwartz’ classroom where Lucy’s little gold trophy is on display. Lucy gives the trophy to Ms. Lang, as she’s planned, and says, “This is for you and Stefan, and Theodore, and Shep.” Lucy fills her tray mindlessly and forgets where she is, until Grandma Sheila nudges her, then guides her to a table, where sits an old lady who looks like she’s crafted herself with painstaking care in the archetypal image of an old lady, gray hair in a poodle perm, spectacles with a chain, dressed head to toe in a green polyester suit, the color of soggy peas.
As Lucy and Grandma Sheila approach, the old lady lifts her chin, an imperious tilt. The light bounces off her spectacles so her eyes can’t be seen. Lucy heaves a deep, inward sigh. “Good morning, Grandma Tupper,” she says, and sits alongside her. Grandma Sheila sits opposite. The two women patently ignore one another. Grandma Tupper grumbles, “Unlike you all, I wasn’t about to stand outside in that mess.” She eyes Lucy. “Did you get drenched, or did your mother not remind you to brush your hair?”
Insult #1, and only 8:30 am. The day stretches ahead like a long desert road. Lucy’s dad dropped out of engineering school at Iowa State to marry her mother and now lives in a mobile home trailer and cleans carpets for a living. Grandma Tupper has never forgiven him – or any of them.
The locket! Lucy’s eyes are drawn to the old woman’s deeply wrinkled and saggy neck. Lucy’s mother likes to tell the story of how “Old Lady Tupper”, in an obscene fit of temper, once ate her own locket. Lucy doubts the veracity of the story and yet returns to it for solace, just as her mother had advised her that morning: If that battle-axe is rude to you, remember the locket!
“Is Grandpa here?” Lucy asks. She sincerely wonders. He is a man firmly ensconced, either in his tractor or his La-Z-Boy chair. Lucy is not sure she’s ever seen him standing.
“Who knows.” Grandma Tupper waves her hand. “I lost him in the fracas.”
A burst of male laughter issues from the hallway and Grandma Tupper frowns. Lucy recognizes Grandpa Tupper’s distinctive, brash hee-yukking leading the chorus. Grandpa Tupper is a successful corn farmer and popular man in the river and farm town of Princeton, Iowa. The school secretary, Ms. Knowle, makes a point to ask Lucy about him, or rather, his cornfields, each time Lucy is sent to the office on a teacher’s errand. “How’s your Grandpa’s crops, Lucy?” As if Lucy knows. As if Grandpa Tupper shares confidences with her about his cornfields. She’s never, in fact, had a single conversation with him.
Mr. Edmundson strides up to their table. “Good morning, ladies!” Mr. Edmundson taught 6th grade science before being promoted to principal and Lucy thinks he is probably still young, what with his swoop of black hair, Superman chin, and lean, swaggering physique. He is the object, Lucy knows, of prolific crushes, both student and faculty. And currently, Grandma Sheila, who is beside herself, swooning up a storm. She offers her hand, “Well, hello there, handsome, I’m Sheila Sheridan. They sure didn’t make principals like you when I was coming up!”
Mr. Edmundson shakes her hand with unflustered geniality as though he doesn’t see that she’s just shrugged off her rain jacket, let it puddle to the floor, revealing a leopard print blouse, the first three buttons undone.
Grandma Tupper glowers. “When do the festivities begin?”
“Oh, but they have!” Grandma Sheila unleashes a dazzling smile at Mr. Edmundson, leaning in with her shoulders pressed together, her bounteous wrinkled cleavage on full glorious display.
Mr. Edmundson quickly steers his gaze to Lucy. “Lucy, Ms. Lang should be here shortly. The rain caused some delay. Miss Daphne didn’t want to risk exposing her to the dense liquid precipitation falling ceaselessly from stratiform clouds.” Lucy smiles. Mr. Edmundson, she suspects, is still a little homesick for his science class. He salutes and walks off, rolling up his suit coat sleeve to check his watch. Grandma Sheila picks up a wad of napkins and fans herself. “Lord, Lucy, if I were you, I’d be getting sent to the principal’s every day.”
“You wouldn’t want to.” Lucy eats a forkful of eggs. “He has a paddle.”
“Stop! Don’t tell me that!” Grandma Sheila nearly slides off the bench.
Grandma Tupper snaps, “Who is this Ms. Lang?”
“Margot Lang. The lady I met at the nursing home.”
“Helga Tupper, where have you been?” Grandma Sheila smacks her palm on the table. “Lucy’s story about Margot Lang won a prize! Everyone knows about Lucy and Ms. Lang. Why, even Merlin knew about it when I went to get my pickle loaf and Braunschweiger.” Merlin is the owner of Boll’s General Store in downtown Princeton.
Grandma Tupper’s lips look like they’re being slowly sucked down a drain. The truth is, she did know, Lucy’s dad had told her at their last visit to the farm, but Grandma Tupper had appeared bored, offering a dry congratulations to you Lucy. Now, in a hostile manner, she spits, “So! She’s invited a woman who is no blood relation to Grandparent’s Day?”
“Oh, don’t get your granny panties in a knot, Helga. You don’t want to traumatize all the children with a cardiac event.”
Grandma Tupper faces her. “Sheila, pardon me, it’s been so long, I forgot to inquire. How’s your boyfriend?”
“Which one?” Grandma Sheila takes a crisp bite of bacon.
“The one with the wife,” Grandma Tupper drives the word in like a dagger, and Lucy takes a long drink of milk.
“Treats me like a queen.” Grandma Sheila lifts her hand, shows off a new diamond. “What about your boyfriend?”
Grandma Tupper winces at another burst of boisterous laughter from the hallway.
Ms. Sawyer makes her way toward their table. Her long, sandy hair is woven in a beautiful braid, draped across her shoulder. But – she isn’t smiling. Her eyes have a look, a look that makes Lucy’s toes tingle. “My toes are tingling,” she tells Grandma Sheila. Lucy inherited her psychic toes from Grandma Sheila, along with panic attacks.
“Uh oh,” Grandma Sheila says, setting down her toast.
They lock eyes.
Ms. Sawyer kneels beside Lucy. Ms. Lang, she says. She takes Lucy’s hand, which has gone cold, and everything begins moving very fast in Lucy’s head, a commotion, something happened to Ms. Lang, words a flock of birds rising up, wings flapping and fluttering, good thing she was with the nurse, Lucy can’t focus, can’t hold onto meaning, the words flying away, and it’s just like when instructions start in class and Lucy doesn’t return until it’s too late, she’s missed it all, is left with no idea what’s happening.
Grandma Sheila startles Lucy, taking her hand, pressing it. “Aw, honeybun. I’ll pray for your friend.”
And on the other side of her
Lucy is nineteen –
a college student in Kansas City, and enroute to her dreadful geology class, she will stop by the campus post office to mail a letter (her last one, but she doesn’t know that yet) addressed to Margot Lang, Riverview Nursing Home, Princeton, IA.
Margot lost her ability to write when she had the stroke. She’d wept in the hospital when Lucy came to visit, bringing her a trophy, instead of flowers. Margot couldn’t move her hands to take the trophy. She’d cried, I’m so sorry, dear, I can’t write back to you anymore. And Lucy had said, that’s okay, and meant it, writing letters to Margot Lang, faithfully,
for seven years, with no response
and at Margot Lang’s funeral,
Lucy will find, on the Memory Table, a large, splendid photograph of Margot and Stefan on their wedding day, along with a very old picture of a big, beautiful lassie dog sitting beneath a windmill
And with these, her letters,
Lucy’s letters, each and every one
Grandma Tupper mutters, “A terrible stress on her, I imagine, trying to make it here.”
So that Lucy gathers something very bad happened to her friend – and it was likely Lucy’s fault.
Lucy moves in a stupor as the Teacher Meet and Greet begins.
Then, in the hallway outside Lucy’s art class, Grandma Tupper breaks her sad trance. “What on earth, Lucy? Did you paint a crime scene?”
Ms. Foster has added Lucy’s art to the wall, even though she gave it a D.
“It’s a pepper print,” Lucy says.
“Pepper print!” Grandma Tupper huffs. “Looks like gangrenous wounds.”
Ms. Foster, overhearing, jumps in. Ever since Lucy placed in the writing contest, Ms. Foster is one of the teachers suddenly paying attention to Lucy as if she matters. “We were all so taken with Lucy’s essay! We had no idea she was so gifted.”
“Why the hell not?” Grandma Sheila snaps. “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Well.” Ms. Foster laughs, wiping her palms up and down her art apron.
“Art sure isn’t her calling.” Grandma Tupper shudders at Lucy’s print.
Locket, locket! Lucy thinks.
“And why do you have these kids squishing peppers onto paper? Why don’t you have them draw people? I’m telling you, Lucy can draw a bimbo like no one else!”
Ms. Foster’s smile freezes.
Grandma Tupper wheels, stalks off down the hall in her squishy bunion shoes.
Quickly, Lucy says, “Grandma Sheila taught me how to draw glamorous ladies…” Thanks to Grandma Sheila’s early art lessons, Lucy can draw teased hair, abundant cleavage, and stiletto heels in ten seconds flat – though she thinks it better not to say this.
Instead, Lucy herds Grandma Shelia down the hall, where at last, she spies him.
Grandpa Tupper, in the flesh, at the center of a group of old guys, all decked out in ball caps and farmer bib overalls. Grandpa Tucker looks snazzy in a white dress shirt, Wrangler jeans, boots, and bolo tie. Though he’s hunched and near ninety, his hair remains thick, dark, and wavy, and he’s tan, still out in the cornfields every day of his life. Essentially, he’s an ancient homecoming king holding forth in her elementary school hallway. “And that beauty was this wide and goddamn could she move, goddamn!” He spreads his arms out, clicking his false teeth.
“His tractor.” Grandma Sheila smirks. “Pretty sure, that’s all he rides these days.”
They halt outside Lucy’s math class. “Next stop, honeybun?”
Lucy plants her feet, shakes her head. “I’m not going in there.”
Grandma Sheila’s face darkens. “This is her, is it?” She yanks her blue suede satchel up onto her shoulder. The peacock’s tail feathers glitter up a rhinestone storm as she charges into the classroom.
The next thing Lucy hears is:
“I’ve come to meet the woman who gave my granddaughter an F+! What was the + for? Failure par excellence?”
Grandma Tupper, just emerging from the girl’s restroom, throws her hands in the air, and heads back in.
Lucy can’t help herself. She goes to stand in the doorway.
Ms. Bentschneider, built like a giraffe, is cornered by petite Grandma Sheila, literally. The other grandparents in the room, seated at their grandkid’s desks, watch the spectacle unfold, leaning back with their canes tucked between their knees, hands folded on bellies.
Grandma Sheila snags a math book from one of Lucy’s stunned classmates. “Listen here, Ms. B,” Grandma Sheila opens the book, licks her finger, flips pages noisily. “I want you to go up to the board right now and work out this problem. This one right here, with the triangles.” Grandma Sheila steps closer and Ms. Bentschneider, with her long face and crooked nose, her implacable smug contempt towards the slow kids and daydreamers – Ms. Bentschneider flinches.
“Right, everyone?” Grandma Sheila works her audience. “Don’t we want to see Ms. B do some impromptu math? Wouldn’t that be a hoot?”
The grandparents clap, whistle, pump their fists.
A grandma in a wheelchair nearly rises to her feet with the shout, “Do it!”
“Madam,” Ms. Bentschneider says, with an extreme dignity that nevertheless fails to camouflage her fear, “please step out, or I will call Mr. Edmundson to have you removed.”
“Only if you want to make me the happiest woman on earth!” Grandma Sheila clasps her bosom and groans.
Ms. Bentschneider’s mouth opens, but for once, nothing comes out.
Grandma Sheila slams the math book closed. “Well! I see you don’t like being called on when you don’t have the answer. Maybe you should think about that, eh, when you’re dealing with young minds? My granddaughter, Lucy Tupper,” Grandma Sheila swings her arm out toward Lucy, a wide-eyed statue in the doorway, “will be a famous writer with stories in all sorts of big wig publications and when she writes about you, Ms. B, she will not change your name!”
Grandma Sheila charges toward the door, takes Lucy by the arm, pulls her into the hallway, only stopping to yell over her shoulder, “I take that back! She might call you Bitchschneider!”
It is an uneasy lunch.
Thunder shakes the cafeteria followed by another roof rattling downpour. The lights flicker as the lunch ladies serve hot bowls of chili paired with expansive and generously frosted cinnamon rolls. Grandpa Tupper and his farmers fan club are now, it seems, permanently installed in the hallway, the staff, having failed all day to shoo them along, have now given in, bringing them chairs, along with a card table the librarian found, and currently they’re engaged in a raucous game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Grandma Tupper breaks off pieces of cinnamon roll, throwing them into her chili, her fuzzy chin shaking with a simmering fury that, Lucy thinks, makes her look entirely capable of ingesting a piece of jewelry. Then Grandma Sheila spots an old friend and they take off together in a flurry of girlish giggles – so that when lunch ends, the worst happens.
Lucy ends up alone with Grandma Tupper.
All outdoor activities canceled, the old folks sit and watch their grandkids play games on the library’s brand new Apple computers. The keyboards waft the smell of fresh plastic and the screens emit a soft buzzing glow while rain tap-tap-taps against the windows. It’s all so computer-lab-cozy – aside from the fact that Grandma Tupper’s every move sets Lucy’s nervous system on fire.
Lucy takes a deep breath, tells herself to focus.
Oregon Trail. She’s good at it.
She’s particularly savvy at hunting and, truth be told, a bit keen to prove herself to the woman beside her who thinks of her only as a shameful product of a shameful union. Lucy, the disappointing fruit of her son’s shabby choices. Well, but Lucy can shoot! She’s figured out that the best time to fire the gun is when the deer is about to leap off the right edge of the screen. Lucy takes out a bunch of deer and also three bison, their legs sticking straight up in the air. Grandma Tupper whispers, “Wow!” and Lucy can hardly believe her ears.
Then the screen reads: From the animals you shot, you got 895 pounds of meat. However, you were only able to carry 100 pounds back to the wagon.
“No!” Grandma Tupper protests. “That is not fair.”
“It’s okay, Grandma.”
“Not by me, it isn’t!” Grandma Tupper’s face goes red. “You did the work. You should get the meat!”
“I did get some.”
“Only 100 pounds! What a waste!” Grandma Tupper smacks her fist onto her palm.
Lucy is now genuinely alarmed. The extra flesh on Grandma Tupper’s neck is shaking. Lucy knows that she takes medication for hypertension, a fact that Lucy’s mother offers up, along with the locket story, as evidence of Grandma Tupper’s foul temper and general insanity. Gently, Lucy redirects her grandmother back to the game, explaining to her the five options at the Big Blue River crossing. Grandma Tupper leans in, squints, chooses attempt to ford the river, which is a surprise, since Lucy assumed she would choose wait to see if conditions improve, aka, hide out in the girl’s restroom until lunch.
Lucy watches in dismay as Grandma Tupper’s wagon overturns in the middle of the Big Blue River. A black box on the screen announces: The Wagon tipped over while floating. You lose: 527 bullets, 2 wagon wheels, 251 pounds of food.
“Drat!” Grandma Tupper cries, rising from her seat, then with a grimace, grabbing her back and plunking down.
“Grandma? Are you okay?” Lucy’s trusty nervous system supplies a terrible vision of Grandma Tupper and Margot Lang hooked up to tubes and oxygen in hospital beds, side by side. What a Grandparent’s Day!
But Grandma Tupper places her hands on her green polyester clad belly and laughs and laughs. She leans back in her chair, laughing. She swipes a Kleenex from her stiff, black, mothball smelling purse, and dabs her eyes. “Oh, Lucy. Oh, darn it!”
Lucy is moved to reach over, and lay her hand on Grandma Tupper’s. Other than cold and formal hugs exchanged dutifully at the farmhouse, this is the first time they’ve touched. Her grandmother’s hand freezes, like a little wild animal.
Lucy waits a moment, then says, “You did a good job fording the river, Grandma. It’s tricky! You just need to practice, is all.”
Grandma Tupper watches Lucy’s hand patting her own deeply wrinkled and veiny one. She blinks. “I’ll say it to the end of time, Lucy. You should have gotten all the meat. You’re a good shot! A regular Annie Oakley. Seems to me, from what I can tell, you could do something in the world. Write, hunt, ford rivers. Who knows. You might have a chance.”
Now. it’s Lucy’s turn to go very still.
“Your other Grandma and I, and your friend, Ms. Lang (God help her) we all came up in the Great Depression and well, it’s hard to explain what that time did to us, what it took from us, but let’s just say
Lucy is twenty-two –
On the verge of becoming a first generation college grad, when her father will call to let her know that Grandma Tupper passed. She’d dropped dead at the doctor’s office, during a routine visit.
Lucy will feel this keenly on her grandmother’s behalf
All those years, such strict maintenance of pride and dignity, just to go like that
So public. Lucy will inherit all of Grandma Tupper’s old journals from her early married days to the present. Most of the entries are hum-drum, about the weather and crops and baking. But one entry on a particular May day in 1987 will catch Lucy’s attention, and she will read, breathless:
Lucy shot so many deer and bison and could only keep 100 pounds! Dear Lucy, I married at eighteen, and shortly thereafter, your Grandpa Henry told me I had to help him with the farm. He forbade me to go to college, which was my life’s one dream. He sold my car, then my bicycle, and when I tried to walk, he held me to the ground and tied my hands behind my back with twine. That man always had twine on him! Then I got pregnant, and gave up. The farm was struggling. But I got so mad at your Grandpa, Lucy! So mad, I ate the locket he gave me on our wedding day. Believe me, Lucy, nothing’s tasted half so good since.
we women became what we could, and took what we could get.”
Grandma Tupper’s hand gives Lucy’s hand a squeeze.
Only a moment, before their entwined fingers part ways.
The grand finale of the day is “Guess the Grandparent!”
The grandparents have each brought a childhood photo. The staff has displayed these, transforming the hallway into a vintage art gallery. The grandparents mill and talk, leaning on each other, sitting down to close their eyes, rest, while their grandkids scan the photographs and try to guess which old person was which child.
“Bet you can’t find me!” Grandma Sheila performs a slow and sassy little twirl in the hallway, the peacock feather on her satchel sending up sparkles.
“Easy!” one boy shouts. “Look for a blonde with big –“
A teacher thwacks him on the head.
“What! I meant her earrings!”
Grandma Sheila laughs, shakes her head so her hoops swing.
Lucy scans the photos, moved and charmed by all the black and white, faded faces that look like her classmates – why, there’s a photo of Bert McCollough’s granddad, sure as can be, and Lucy would be able to tell by the cloud of freckles, the dimpled grin, and the cowlick, even if the boy in the photo didn’t have a catcher’s mitt and ball – perfect aim, no doubt.
The photo right beside Bert McCollough’s grandad – is this ironic? Well, if not, it at least makes Lucy stop – nearly kicks the breath right out of her.
He’s just a grinning little boy with a fetching plaid shirt, and big sticking out ears.
Lucy touches her own ears. Lucy swallows hard, consumed by obliterating shame. She is just about to peel the photo from the wall, hide it in her backpack, when Grandma Sheila shows up beside her. “Well, Lucy,” she says. She uses the brusque tone that means sadness is pressing on her, and she is pressing back. “Well, I just thought I’d go ahead and bring it. He’s a mess, but
Lucy is twenty-five –
and a new teacher at an elementary school in Kansas City, working with kids who have diagnoses of ADHD, autism, and dyslexia,
when she goes back to Princeton, Iowa, for a visit. On her way to get Grandma Sheila’s pickle loaf and Braunschweiger from Boll’s, Lucy will see a man fallen in a mud puddle – and her toes will tingle
the town drunk
his bib drenched in filth
another man stands outside the tavern across the street, and jeers
Hey, old drunk! Hey, old man! Takin’ a spa day? Gettin’ a mud mask?
Before Lucy tears into the post office to call 911
She will rise up onto her psychic toes and shout
You shut up! You shut your mouth!
That’s my grandfather!
he’s still your grandfather.”
Ssssh. Lucy hisses inside. Ssssh. She looks around at the other kids, her nervous system jumping from limb to limb with high-pitched warning whistles like a Tamarin monkey.
Grandma Sheila says softly, “I can take it down, if you like.”
“No,” Lucy says, quick and fierce, blinking tears. “Leave it.”
Grandma Sheila nods, gives Lucy’s elbow a tender squeeze. “Granddaughter, you don’t have to take a backseat to nobody.”
“Aha! Found you!” A triumphant shout. They all turn to see Mr. Edmundson, suit coat slung off at the end of the day, shirt sleeves rolled to elbows, pointing to a photo of a playful baby, shine in the eyes, fists balled to mouth, legs kicking out. “This is you, isn’t it!” jabbing his finger at Grandma Sheila.
Grandma Sheila claps her hands, and you can see her then, the baby – still with the shine, the kick. “You win, Mr. Edmundson! Want to know what the winner gets?”
She moves toward him, a slow sashay, satchel swinging from her arm, and Lucy’s dashing young principal looks slightly less alarmed than he should. “Uh – a trophy?”
“That’s right,” Grandma Sheila says, winking. “You get a trophy.”
It happens too fast for poor horrified Grandma Tupper to run and hide.
In front of everyone gathered at Virgil Grissom Elementary – teachers, staff, grandparents and grandkids, in a moment engraved on even the most derelict of memories –
Lucy is 43 –
And going through a rough stretch. A very rough stretch. Like a school bus on a long gravel road in the middle of a Midwest sized spring downpour.
Lucy’s lost her inner compass, and desperate for guidance, she will visit a medium for the first and only time. Shortly into their session, the medium will shield her eyes as though from the sun. “Wow. Know anyone who loves rhinestones?” And then, “Oh, she’s saying, she wants to remind you, you don’t have to take the backseat – does that make sense to you? She wants you to write. She says, make sure to write about that old math – ope – bad word…” here, the medium will break into a big smile. “She’s got this very particular laugh.”
Lucy – will bring her hands to her face.
Lucy’s Grandma grabs Mr. Edmundson’s butt, and pinches, hard.
“Wheeee!” Mr. Edmundson squeals, just in time for the North Scott Press photographer to snap an award winning front page photo – one that the principal will keep framed in his office for forty years, until the day he retires.
Grandma Sheila laughs her gleeful cackle – one that Lucy will take with her throughout life, like a souvenir.
Summer Hammond grew up in rural east Iowa, on the bend of the Mississippi. She earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Texas Review, Sonora Review, and StoryQuarterly. Her fiction was named a 2022 semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and 2022 finalist for the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Summer and her kindred spirit, Aly, currently live in Wilmington by the sea.