We were on the front porch waiting for the ambulance. Grandma, with her Alzheimer’s, didn’t know what she was waiting for. I watched her rocking in her wooden rocker, her bright and bewildered eyes going from my face to Grandpa’s (I’d called him PawPaw when I was a kid but switched to Grandpa about fifteen years back, after I went to college) and back again, smiling as she tore shred after shred from the newspaper in her lap, dropping each beside her chair in a growing pile that the wind flirted with.
“Where’s the babydoll I got you?” I said.
“What?” she said. She beamed her coffee-yellowed teeth at me. “Me?”
“Where’s the babydoll I got her for Christmas?” I asked Grandpa. I’d gotten it for her after Aunt Gail had scolded her for playing with one of her (Gail’s) decorative dolls. “Those ain’t for playing with, Mom,” she’d said and put it back with the harem of others on top of the old sewing machine table where they stared out—twelve eyes in all, dead as the amber eyes of Grandpa’s three mounted deer and the outraged yellow eyes of his great-horned owl, which he’d killed for stalking his guineas.
“I reckon tearing up newspapers is her thing nowadays,” Grandpa said.
It was a gray afternoon, dry, stale. The October wind was picking up in the hedges, rattling the branches of the old pecan tree, carrying the faint scent of dead leaves. At the sound of a car turning onto our gravel road Grandpa stood up from his bench and leaned against the post. The ambulance appeared from behind the row of magnolias. It turned into the red-dirt driveway, crunching pecan shells as it came to a stop beside the crumpled and bleached wagon remains beneath the lightning-struck tree.
“You want to prop open the door?” he said.
I opened the rusted screen door and rolled a watermelon over against the wood frame. I looked around inside the “old part” to see if there was anything else useful I could do. My great-great grandfather Horace-or-something had built the dogtrot back in the late 1800s, but when Grandpa moved in about seventy years later, he boarded up the trot and added on the “new part” to the rear, which is where he spent all his time. Aunt Gail had been living in the old part for the past twenty years or so, ever since her marriage of a couple days had ended in drunk wailing and a black eye.
I rolled up Gail’s wore-out runner and tossed it to the side so the stretcher wouldn’t get caught on it then headed back out to the porch in case I could be of any use out there. The two EMTs had Gail on the stretcher and were working their way up the concrete steps onto the porch. Grandma, still in her rocker, had stopped tearing her newspaper to watch. Still smiling, though. Grandpa and I stepped to the side to let the stretcher pass. Gail’s hair had no color. None. She was wearing a pajama shirt with fern leaves on it. Her lips were raw, as though someone had tried sanding them away. Feeding tube, I figured. Watching the EMTs fit the stretcher through the door, Grandpa said, “A person has to go through just about everything, don’t they?” I didn’t know if he meant Gail, his daughter, coming home to die, or himself, having to know about it. The wind was stirring the feral box hedges, their leaves flashing their silver-green undersides like baitfish glinting in a riffle. “Well come on inside Judy,” he said to Grandma. “Say hi to Gailee.”
“She come home?” she said. He walked over and held her by her flabby arm as she stood. “What she been up to?”
I watched them go inside and then looked at the chair where Grandma had been sitting as it slowly stopped rocking. Her newspaper shreds were twirling and somersaulting across the porch and into the yard.
At first Gail seemed peaceful enough. I walked up to the hospital bed in the middle of the old part—the bed wouldn’t fit anywhere else in the house—and said, “Hi there. It’s Randy.” I thought I heard her lips crackle as they pulled back, revealing teeth that seemed longer than they should be. I wanted to think it was a smile. She made a sound in her throat that was indecipherable. Her breath smelled—not unpleasant. Like mulch, maybe. But I didn’t really believe it was a smile. I didn’t know what it was. Just not a smile. I was her least favorite relative. Which, since she didn’t socialize with anyone other than kin, made me her least favorite person.
I wanted to show Grandpa how useful I could be. That’s why I’d volunteered to sit with Gail. Maybe I couldn’t change an alternator or shingle a roof—and I refused to clean a catfish—but I knew my way around human death. My mother had died in a car crash when I was a teenager. A few years later my only friend at Eastmill High had died after huffing paint and jumping off of Lee’s Bridge. Sure, since leaving Blacks Crossroads I’d gotten my M.B.A. at the University of Alabama and landed a brand manager position at Procter and Gamble and my life had evened out into a professional-managerial glide. I had a two-car garage to park my Prius in and a Big Green Egg to cook pulled pork and paella on. But I’d done my undergrad in Philosophy and on the weekends led a death row reading group at Chisholm, north of Cincinnati. We read the Stoics and some Eastern stuff. I kept in touch with death and darkness, is what I’m saying, and felt more qualified than any of my cousins to spend the night with Gail.
The hospice nurse arrived a few minutes after the ambulance. While Gail slept we chatted. I was curious if she had any insight into the meaning of all things, considering her work, but after a few minutes I decided she wasn’t someone prone to deep reflection. Eventually Gail started thrashing side to side in the bed, clawing at her chest and groaning.
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