By Jennie Kaufman
It took me 18 min 12 sec to do the crossword puzzle Wednesday morning. The hardest clue was “They may hang by the neck,” which turned out to be “boas.” That gave me some meanings to think about.
Grandma was curled up in bed, making those sounds. She was always curled because of osteoporosis. She looked like a pillbug. She said it, not me. It made me think of her being trapped in a shell. A pillbug isn’t trapped in a shell, but you can’t take things so literally if you are going to be a crossword star.
When I finished I looked over at her, and she fixed me with her hawkeye. She has two eyes but it’s just one that does this. She said to me, “The cereals I leave to you.”
“The serials?” I was still in crossword-head.
“My collection of breakfast cereals.” She made her slow transformation out of bed and I followed her into the kitchen. She was almost a perfect ‘C’ shape, but she had her cereal with milk every day. She had six different boxes.
“Grandma,” I said, “I can’t take your cereal. It’s too much.”
“It’s no use to me now,” she said, as I followed her back to her bedroom.
“Dr. Poston said I should tolerate no morbidity from you.”
“That old pompous pimple has been telling me I’m not dying since 1957,” she said with scorn. “But today he is wrong. Tomorrow, I’ll be dead. But on the bright side, you won’t have to buy cereal for a month.”
“You’ll have to buy milk. I can’t help you there.”
“I’ll send your picture to put on the milk cartons. Except instead of ‘missing,’ it will say, ‘sorely missed.’”
“I’d like that,” she said with a cackle and a gleam, “but I’ll be dead, so don’t waste your energy. Now, you should feel free to ransack, but do it respectfully. I just want to be sure the cereal is safely in your hands. I’ve seen you children fight over cereal before.”
“Over Froot Loops,” I admitted. “Not over All-Bran.”
“You were just stupid children, but now you know that your colon is one of your most valuable possessions.”
“I don’t believe you’re going to die today. You look just fine.”
Grandma made an indelicate sound with her lips. “I haven’t looked fine in decades! What you’re seeing is relief. I feel as if my body almost doesn’t exist, already. I am entering the pre-death trance.”
“You entered the pre-death trance when I was seven,” I reminded her.
“But did I give you my cereals?”
She had me there. It looked like Grandma really was going to die. I helped her get settled under the covers again. She was bright-eyed and expectant.
“My last meal was Smart Start,” she said.
“But you might last until dinner,” I hoped at her.
“That would only mess me up.”
“I should call Dad and everybody. You want to say goodbye, don’t you?”
“Well, I do. But you see, if they knew, they’d think they have to do something. To stop it. Everyone would get all agitated.”
I couldn’t imagine no goodbye. “I’ll bring you the phone, and you can call, just to say ‘what’s new?’”
I brought her the phone. She looked at me the way she often did, when she was using my face to think on.
“Your dolls had all those little shoes,” she said. “They always got lost, and those dolls couldn’t even walk in the first place.”
“But I loved those little plastic shoes. They were so pretty. So much prettier than my shoes.”
“Your mother was a head person. Maybe you realize that by now. She didn’t care about foot things. She cared about barrettes for little girls, and bows and bonnets. She cared about curling irons, and earrings with shiny glass jewels, and watching out for head lice, and movie-star sunglasses, and you liked movie-star sunglasses, too.”
I knew about all that. “My brother felt she loved me best, but it was only because his head was so boring.”
“Most of all, she loved a tiara.” Grandma made some of her noises, and her voice slowed down. “I knew the day they married what she would be like, when I saw her in that tiara. I didn’t say anything. There are worse girls than tiara girls.”
That may be true, but it seemed Grandma had forgotten that Mother ran away to marry a prince. She wasn’t just anybody, my mother.
“I should call Harold and tell him to marry a britches girl next time,” said Grandma.
“Then he’ll know you’re dying.”
Grandma patted my hand. “You tell him tomorrow, before it’s too late.”
“I don’t think we live in a britches world anymore,” I said. I shouldn’t have. It was bad news she didn’t need to hear.
“Some explosions are to be expected,” is what she said next. This was a good clue. “How many letters?” I asked.
I got a piece of paper to work it out. “What’s the theme of the puzzle?”
“Ways to die,” said Grandma.
“Die, die-no-mite, nine letters. It fits!” I gnawed lightly on the pencil like a beaver-fairy. “Another one could be die-cast-into-the-sea.”
“All right, that’s the last one I’ll do. Pewterfy? No, that’s horrible. That doesn’t even make sense. Aluminum divers’ quest?”
I scribbled excitedly, the only way I knew how to scribble. “You can’t stop now!”
“Yes, the death trance is very good for crossword puzzles. Die-tary deficiencies, die-verse symptoms.”
“Die-verse symptoms! Epitaph indications!”
“There you go. You don’t need me. I’m done, crazy child. I have to call Harold.”
She picked up the phone and slowly pushed the buttons. I began to feel really, really bad.
“Harold,” she said into the phone, almost shouting. “Do you see what kind of day it is outside?”
Dad had windows in his office. Of course the question wasn’t much of a challenge for him. I could hear him in the receiver saying, “It’s a gorgeous day, Ma.”
“I’m going out today,” she said, chirpy and confident. “So don’t worry.”
She hung up the phone and smiled at me. Part of me, a big part, didn’t want to be there right then. In fact, this part was so big it felt bigger than I was altogether. I thought my chest might explode.
But it still wasn’t all of me, because another part wasn’t going to let go of her hand for all the cereal in the world, for all the Froot Loops, for all the crossword clues and Barbie shoes.
I didn’t know what to say and I needed to say something. I said the new thing I had learned: “Aluminum divers’ quest.” For some reason, it didn’t make sense at all anymore. I felt her slip away, and I couldn’t understand anything.
After some time the phone rang and I screamed. Then I answered it. Dad said, “Oh, good, are you and Grandma back? Did you go outside?”
“Grandma was speaking in clues,” I said. “I should call the hospital or something now.”
And Dad knew then. He didn’t have to batter me with question marks. He said he would call and then he would come over. That was a relief. I must say, it was a relief. I got the plastic grocery bags out and put the six boxes of cereal in them. There was also half a quart of milk, which I would take if I remembered, when it was time to go. She probably thought I wouldn’t want to bother with it, but I did.
Jennie Kaufman's essays have recently appeared online in Eclectica and Great Big Magazine and on her website, and her fiction has been published in several literary magazines. She is at work on her second novel.
Photo "Porcelain Beauty" courtesy of Jenny W., Honolulu, Hawaii.
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