I called my grandmother today. She said she’d been waiting for me to call her back for the last two weeks. She said she’d left a message on the answering machine at the beach, a message I’d assumed was already old when I heard it because I’d talked to her the day before. The date stamp on the answering machine was no help. Sunday 2pm, the tinny robot man informed me on Wednesday. I pictured her sitting by her phone unmoving while the sun rose and set in the sky, again and again.
My grandmother launches right into politics and world war III. She says “I know you won’t believe me” which makes my ears perk up like when I hear my name mentioned in another room. She uses some word that isn’t really a word – castrophy? astrosy? It’s familiar enough that it rolls around on the tip of my tongue, waiting for the correct combination to fall out.
She asks after me and the kids and Joe and moves onto childhood friends I still keep in touch with. I tell her about one friend who had surgery and another who suddenly became gravely ill and she says “You know what that means?”
“I’m next?” I ask.
“It means you’re the HEALTHIEST one,” she says, her voice strong and proud.
She asks if I still smoke and I say no too quickly and then remember the time in high school she walked right up and reached into my pocket and pulled out a pack of smokes I’d thought were hidden. I think I was smoking Benson and Hedges then because, you know, sophistication. She let me smoke at her house once and we lit our cigarettes on the stove and stood in the kitchen chatting like old friends. I cherished that moment until she ratted out the smoking to my parents. Some wounds are hard to forgive.
My grandmother tells me about an AARP luncheon she went to that cost $3.37. She has no idea why that oddball number but says they couldn’t provide change so she wound up giving them a sixty-three cent tip. She points out the lunch included unlimited coffee and declares it a “good deal” even for $4. The speaker during lunch joked how old the crowd was and said no one could hear him but they were all nodding at where they thought he might be because they couldn’t see him either. My grandmother says they almost fell out of their chairs they were laughing so hard. I picture overturned walkers and canes askew, broken hips and $3.37 plates everywhere.
When my grandmother learns Joe is out of town, she tells me she wishes I would come down to visit even though she knows I can’t. She says it just like my kids do when they point out a wonderful toy they know I won’t buy them. I launch into a lengthy excuse involving our cat’s new medication regime for asthma. My grandmother suggests maybe we adopted a defective cat and spends five minutes detailing how she came to the decision to put each of her long-gone cats to sleep.
Her cats all had funny sounding names because they were Lithuanian, like my grandmother. One of my friends used to ask me to tell her the cats’ names because she could never remember but thought they were hilarious. We used to prank call people and I would ask confused old ladies if my grandmother’s cats were there.
“Yes, may I please speak with Snujuki Ryunuki?” I would ask in some terrible accent while my friend trembled with laughter. Kids these days don’t appreciate how caller ID ruined everything, really.
My grandmother and I talk about how hot it’s been and how much worse our storms are than anybody else’s storms anywhere, ever. She tells me she can’t go outside in the afternoon because it’s too humid and there’s nothing to look forward to. For a moment, I can’t remember if I’m old like her. It feels like we are the same person, even.
I say these are the dog days of summer. They’re supposed to be lazy and easy, but mostly they feel deflated and bleached out. We bide our time sprawled across the cool tile, waiting for some sweet breeze we don’t even believe is coming.
My grandmother tells me she’s going to make sauerkraut though she doesn’t know why because no one is coming to eat it. She sounds happy before we hang up, bright with anticipation of cooking for an army of none. When it’s time to say goodbye, she makes a kissing sound through the phone. I do the same and the asthmatic cat looks up expectantly. My grandmother and I say our goodbyes and I pad off into the kitchen like a lazy, aimless dog.