At fifteen, going on sixteen, you board the Boston-to-Baltimore alone for the first time. It’s pure liberation when you wave goodbye to your over-protective mother and overly-handsy stepfather. Your eyes flick past old brick factories, ferry docks, kids diving off wood pilings into trash-and-jellyfish-studded waters, fishing boats, tenement buildings, rusty fire escapes, the George Washington Bridge, skyscrapers, and the rocking, clickety-clacking sends you dozing until the train whistle and the conductor announcing Baltimore, Baltimore Maryland wakes you and then you’re there and in a cab and at her stucco house with its redbud-dogwood-fern plantings and scent of tea roses.
She’s been in a wheelchair since a mishap with black ice last spring. She seems older than last time you saw her. Limbs like branches, long veiny fingers clutching a cigarette, smoke curling up around squinting eyes. Every day the local grocery delivers a steak or chicken breast in butcher paper, a few new potatoes, asparagus spears, fragrantly fresh-ground coffee she’ll drink black. Maybe a pint of peach ice cream. If she’s in a sweet mood. You lean down, smell nicotine and unwashed hair as she kisses your cheeks, says you’ve gotten awfully pretty, haven’t you? You shrug.
Five o’clock. Martini time. Two shots gin, one vermouth, an olive in a V-shaped glass. One for you, too. She winks. She won’t tell if you don’t. Earlier she’d called the neighbor—Tom-or-Jim or something—for help with a cranky light fixture. When he arrives with his toolbox, you zigzag to the door, let him in. She introduces you, makes small talk. Offers him a drink he declines.
My granddaughter’ll show you, she says. You swim to her smoke-infused bedroom in eely waves, point to the faltering lamp, taking in his English Lavender scent. You study Tom-or-Jim’s middle-aged profile and slightly-rounded midriff as he kneels by the lamp. Maybe I will show him, you think. Everything about him says family man but your brain is swirling like a roller coaster ride and you want to stand up in the bucket and feel the wind rushing at you, the whole world staring. What if you say hey Tom-or-Jim, stand in his path on the floorboards whose knots and grains are eeling now too and you dare him to you-don’t-know-what, but you’ll think of something. Now he really does look up, sees that fevered look in your eyes, smiles just a bit and rubs the back of his blotchy neck.
He keeps looking at your swaying self and after, like an hour, he chuckles—not unkindly, but in that annoying, all-knowing adult kind of way—and you know you don’t stand a chance. He unplugs the lamp, takes out his tools, fiddles, fidgets, plugs it back in, snaps his eyebrows and says let there be light and there is.