Fiction - Third Place
Much as the boy strove to prevent it, through Christian prayer, attempted devil bargains, and the like, these hands had visited his dreams since the first night of his ongoing big-boy sleep-over at her boxlike house. His great-grandmother's arms, mango pink and fat, weren't exceptional to look at either, but at least they appeared to be living. In his sweaty nightmares, Ali saw her fingers tickle themselves off the coffee table--the antique one with the folding panels, where his great-grandmother liked to display glass birds and coasters, where he used to wreak havoc three years back when he was merely a toddler, according to his great grandmother. In the dream, her hands would plummet to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. Still dreaming, he wondered if he was expected to clean up the mess. And if so, where, pray tell, did finger shards belong?
Yes, true, he had been studying her hands when she asked him to pay attention, stop staring, eat his meal, and then snapped one-two-three snaps quite close to his ear. But the reprimand felt unjust and caused the boy to grow an egg-sized lump at the back of his throat. He had not felt like himself since the evening of his emergency drop-off. There had been one bedwetting incident, his first in months, gone unmentioned but almost certainly not unnoticed--that is, unless the helper fairy he'd prayed for had been the one to change his soaked sheets--and his generally sterling behavior was perhaps not quite up to par. But he simply did not feel like Ali, full name Alistair, more like his dog Jesse's black-and-white mutt puppies his father sold to the cattle farmer last summer. To be sure, this attitude was no good, and he regretted it. Now was the time to be the best young man he could be. Otherwise, why would his father have briefed him so specifically on nothing but matters of etiquette before they climbed out of the car? His behavior at the box house would surely affect his mother's condition, and he must improve.
"We know it's last minute, Lillian, and I apologize, but this is an emergency--she's early," his father had said. "Early." He'd said what he'd said and been on his way, without thinking to tell the boy what early meant. To Ali, early was an alarm radio, a bowl of sweet flakes, a tussle with the hairbrush; early was thunderstorms, crawling back to bed with his mother and her pregnant stomach. It had nothing to do with blood in the hall, nothing to do with an ambulance, and screaming and crying.
Would he like a bowl of homemade tapioca custard? His great-grandmother wanted to know for the fifth time that day. Nutritious, nourishing, loads of benefits. Ali shook his head--he refrained from eating foods she prepared with her own two hands, for reasons obvious enough. Perhaps a can of chicken soup, a peanut-butter sandwich, something store-bought, french fries, in his wildest dreams, anything clean and nonpoisonous at this point, but he wasn't about to ask for it. People weren't to ask out of the blue for special snacks, that much he knew. That much he'd been briefed on. That, and don't ask personal questions.
His great-grandmother sighed and switched on a reading lamp, the shade a cheery thing of silken tassels and beads, then flipped her attention to the twilight-dim backyard, the tiny square of it. All of the old people in the gated neighborhood inhabited tiny shreds of space, as though it had been decided that they would never again need room enough for birthday parties, extravagant flower gardens, dog kennels, or anything very good. As she peered out the window, a squirrel scurried up an oak tree to nibble food from a wooden bird feeder constructed by his great-grandfather, who'd since taken up building bird feeders in the far reaches of outer space, according to his father.
Squirrels were nasty, despicable blackguards, if you asked his great-grandmother, and she knocked upon the window with such sadness, such sound and force, that the egg in the boy's throat descended enough to bring tears to his eyes.
Ali sat at his great-grandmother's feet flipping through a gigantic picture book of North American birds. Because her television set didn't receive a clear picture, he had already completely three thick books of mazes and connect-the-dots, and was left now with nothing but birds. In case it might save his mother's life, he made a firm commitment to refrain from moaning or stomping. He would look at the book, the book would do.
"Please don't get your fingerprints on the pages, dear heart," his great-grandmother warned Ali, prompting him to blink and drop salty tears on a color photo of a hummingbird in midflutter. He flipped the page and discovered a nest of newborn blue jays, veiny and wet. It was his baby brother's fault his mother was in the state she was in, that much was sure. He couldn't explain it in terms of medical facts, but there it was.
The moment he'd dreaded. The egg broke hard. It bruised his throat, and he hid his face in his knees and cried full force. Life had been so wondrous up to this point, if only he'd realized how lovely it had been. Holding his mother's soft hand, assisting his father with the grilling of hot dogs and hamburgers. If only he could concentrate hard and make time reverse. The yellow house on Bryker Street was a heaven on earth, or had been two days ago. Who could say now if it was still standing? Fires and floods may have struck across town. What if Jesse ran out of chow? She might be forced to eat the walls. Every question running through his mind could have been answered by his great-grandmother, he suspected, but how did one define the term "personal question" exactly? Was it a personal question to ask after the health of a person's bleeding mother? Was it a personal question to inquire after the whereabouts of a person's formerly stomach-dwelling baby brother? Likely so, he reasoned. And the tears came, tears and ugly crowlike gurgles.
"Lamb," his great-grandmother said, putting a gray hand on his back. "What's the trouble? Nothing to fear."
He shook his head.
"Would you like some pudding?"
It was too much to answer. He let her rub his back in circles--what could be the harm through the thick fabric of his sweater?
Soon enough he was able to halt his convulsions.
When he woke, splayed on the Oriental rug with its pretty ladies toting jugs and sharp-tongued snakes nipping at their heels, the telephone was ringing. He knew it must be his father, and his heart leapt. But his great-grandmother was asleep in her own chair, snoring, fists curled in a knock-ready position lest the blackguard squirrel haunt her aviary dreams, and he wasn't sure how to proceed.
Ring, ring . . .
The only phone in the box house, a green one with numbers positioned on a hoop, was mounted high on a wall in the kitchen. He would need a footstool to reach it.
"A-hmmmm," he cleared his throat, hoping his great-grandmother might shake herself to life.
Ring . . . Dear God, how many rings would his father attempt? Someone had already called twice that morning while his great-grandmother squeaked in the tub. Was he foolish to dream the call was meant for him? Desperate times called for desperate hand-squeezing measures, and, as incredibly much he didn't' want to, he saw no solution other than clamping his small round digits round his great-grandmother's gray fist. Expecting it to break, expecting it to shatter, Ali closed his eyes and held his breath. But the hand did not crumble, it felt sturdy, warm to the touch, and sent a message to his great-grandmother's brain to open her eyes and frown down upon the boy.
"The phone is ringing," he said.
"Oh my," his great-grandmother said. "News."
This house did not have anything in the way of an answering machine--if she didn't get to it in time, he was concerned he might never be reunited with his parents.
"The phone," he said.
She got to her feet and plodded toward the kitchen, toward the green telephone, and scooped it up with a breathless hello.
"Who's it?" the boy asked.
"Hello?" she said. "Hello!"
"Who is it?"
"Why, there's absolutely no one on the line."
His hope wilted; he collapsed on the rug. What could he possibly do, climb out the window? But where would he travel, to which hospital had the flashing van delivered his mother? He was skilled at mazes but didn't have enough spending money to buy more than a gumball. Another concern: He might run into bad people who wanted to slit his throat. He'd overheard his father warn his mother after people like that. The great-grandmother took a pack of cards from a drawer and began to shuffle.
"Your mother experienced a most difficult labor with you," she told the boy, and he thought he understood what she was getting at. Clearly, his mother had grown tired of toiling and slaving where he was concerned. It must be difficult to take care of a boy--nothing more difficult. He wouldn't know how to take care of a boy. And now that this other boy was on the way to town and kicking her around a good bit in the morning, noon, and night, she probably thought it best to jettison the larger fellow. He could accept this news, it made sense. He didn't like it, but it made sense. It would be nice to ask his great-grandmother if he would ever see his mother and father again--his father had been in such a violent rush the other night, his last words to the boy had been, "Listen, I've got to go, champ," which conveyed no clues--and he wouldn't mind knowing where the blood had come from.
"I suppose it's just about time we had our supper," his great-grandmother announced, arranging a game of solitaire. "How's tuna fish on rye?"
Ali nodded in surrender.
In the kitchen, he watched his great-grandmother's hands mix tuna and mayonnaise in a plastic bowl. They'd napped such a long while, the night had sneaked up on them, wrapping the house in thick black casting, cuffing them off from civilization, or at least the sight of it.
It was then a terrifically uplifting surprise, a miracle of Biblical proportions, when the telephone rang, and his great-grandmother actually heard it.
"What's the situation?" she asked the receiver. "Oh, my stars. Oh."
He didn't ask who it was. He stepped into that trap before--"Who is it?" had to be a personal question.
After she hung up the phone, his great-grandmother cut his sandwich into four neat cubes and dropped a dome of gag-provoking tapioca on his plate. Lest it possibly improve his situation, he held his breath, opened his mouth, and swallowed a large mushy bite.
"That was your father calling," she said. "You've got yourself a new brother called Edward. He's very small, even as babies go, so they'll be keeping him at the hospital through the week. Your dad will be around to fetch you later, so eat up."
"And my mother?" he blurted.
"Worn out." His great-grandmother whistled. She winked.
Her hands, to give you some rough idea, were the color of hippopotamus hide. Perhaps they were not hands, Ali considered in his giddy state, perhaps they were misshapen figs. But he didn't care, not one dot, he took them in his own and kissed them.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201