It Won't Be Long Now
December 4, 2016
“It won’t be long now,” my grandmother sighs, studying the November sun. It’s been so lazy this afternoon that she can look it in the eye, can scowl with disapproval as it slinks across the western sky and into last summer’s rice stubble. No point in expecting a late fall 4:00 PM to feel like anything other than a July 9:00. She thinks this to herself, I’m sure.
Her hands are all knuckles and taut veins against a trembling cane. She stares down at them from in front of the screen door, says Uncle Rick lost a piece of his finger in the drill press last week. He planned to retire this year but changed his mind. Got scared he’d die with nothing to do. The cancer in Aunt Carol’s stomach ain’t calling it quits yet either. Some days she’s in agony and other days it only hurts a lot. All she prays for now are days. Maybe then her kids could visit. Maybe them seeing their mother as something less than eternal is just as painful.
Apparently, my cousin Nathaniel got enough of a raise this year that it’s worth bragging about. It’ll go great with the brand-new baby girl his fiancé’s about to have. They’re gonna name her after a sad Irish folk song. Another cousin, Martha, she recently lost a baby boy she couldn’t afford anyway. She thanked God for that one night not long after it happened, when no one else was listening. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike. I believe Matthew said that. Sometimes I get confused about which one we all are.
My grandmother lowers her shapeless frame into an emerald chair in the corner of her living room. She’s small, but this house makes hard work of judging just how. The ceiling, which sags under a roof that saw the first flyover of Sputnik, is only seven feet above the sloping linoleum, if that. This is where my mother grew up, where she was brought the day after she was born, when the now-bathroom was still a back porch. This is what I think about less than thirty-six hours later, as I chase an orange peel around a $12 glass of bourbon, adjust my blazer, and look out over the New Orleans skyline. A text from a friend bemoans our non-celebrity status, and I respond: “We’re doing okay.” I ain’t Tennessee Williams, but at least I have running water.
Gerald used to be my uncle. My grandmother tells me he died this year. I hadn’t heard, and finding out didn’t make me feel one way or the other. She also tells me that Cheryl stopped coming by six or seven years ago. “Cheryl said that people were after her and she didn’t want to lead them here.” This woman was my grandmother’s niece or second cousin many times removed or something like that. She went blind then died a few years back. My grandmother found out only yesterday. Cheryl left behind thousands of acres that Standard Oil leased for ninety-nine years and a son who’ll spend his whole life in prison for murdering his lover. And nothing else.
At some point, my grandmother adds: “Hell, your pawpaw’s been passed for damn near a decade now.” I don’t want to believe her but I know she’s right, and that all this talk’s a hollow proxy for a subject I refuse to acknowledge. She dances around it again half an hour later. “Come visit me for Christmas,” she implores. “It’ll be my present.”
We stopped by today so she could see us, but it was under the guise of dropping off a Thanksgiving hambone for her to simmer with black-eyed peas. I spent much of my childhood collecting foodstuffs for her—shrimp shells for stock and snapping turtles for stew. Now my little sister is asking for her praline recipe. She recites it from memory as best she can, and my mother fills in the gaps. She means one stick of butter when she says a block, one tablespoon when she says a tea. I wonder if she can recite the names of all her great grandchildren from memory. I think so, but I’m too afraid to test her. I can hardly name all my cousins. It occurs to me that my grandfather made mainly girls, and that his boys got that from him. There’s twenty-two grandchildren but only one that can carry on his name. And my grandmother says he has shit for brains.
I let myself out the front and take a seat in the stoop-side chair. From here, my grandfather would smoke cigars and say hello to every Sunday visitor. Across the yard still stands, just barely, my late great grandmother’s house. It’s full of cobwebs and rotted window frames and curious objects the neighbors can’t bear to throw out. But there’s no one left on this end of the world to drive a bulldozer over what remains of it.
Behind it sits a patch of ground where a stray German Shepherd nearly tore my eyes out. I was four years old, and through the foggy lens of twenty-four years gone, I can still feel my big sister's palms digging deep into my armpits, dragging me to safety. And the blood, wet and warm, rolling down my tattered cheeks. It’s a vision void of pain, which doesn’t surprise me. By now I’ve learned that it’s wounds of the spirit, not the flesh, that scar what we remember. My grandfather never sat in this chair and talked about Okinawa, but it wasn’t because of shrapnel. Sometimes Uncle Jack would tell us about Khe Sanh, when he had enough to drink, and those stories were always so full of mysterious plot holes. We pretended not to notice.
The girls walk out and we say our goodbyes. I suddenly realize that the road back here is paved now. And pine trees push against the ditch, twenty-feet high at least and dense enough to dim the underbrush. They used to be saplings planted in neat rows. Before that, they were a hay field. From the passenger seat of my family’s SUV, I survey a southern landscape that I haven’t seen in what seems like four lifetimes. Fence lines leaning at fifty-five degrees. Grass growing out the grills of chopped-up trucks in unkempt lawns. Destitution. Neglect. Indifference. It’s too much to take.
We get old and the earth becomes cold and lonely. Lines fracture—through families, across the parched ground of another dry winter, and down faces that have seen one too many of them. Dear friends slowly become strangers to one another. Or else they pass through the veil before anyone is ready. Bodies go before minds, as far as I can tell, but sometimes minds go first. The only order of things is that there is none.
I can’t say how life’s gonna go for me or anyone I give it to. On this frontier, wealth and tragedy, progress and the same-old can be neither untangled nor foreseen. Sometimes our cruel prayers get answered, and sometimes we need a tablespoon but all we get is a tea. Best I can do is try to make it easier for my kids the same way my parents did for me. And maybe in return they’ll bring me a hambone now and then, once my field becomes a forest. It won’t be long now.