When we pulled into Grandma’s driveway in our rental Kia, she was sunbathing in a black bikini, stock-still in one of those sticky white slatted plastic lawn chairs. Mom and I both got out of the car and waited for one of us to start walking. She picked at a spider bite on her arm. I opened my mouth to ask once again why I’d flown out here, making me miss an Algebra test and Hello Dolly! practice, but I shut it before asking anything. For the last few months, I’d been home with Dad, but that pretty much meant I was home alone, because he was always working. So I guess I kind of missed her, and I also felt bad for her because Mom kept telling me on the phone that dying Grandma hadn’t been as nice as not-dying Grandma had been.
Mom’s a shrink and she had the look I imagine she gets when she sees her crazy-ass patients—all hard eyes and flat lips. It’s how she looks when she’s upset. So I decided to do this one thing for her. I crunched gravel and headed over towards the lawn chair and peered down at Grandma. Was she asleep? Was she okay? I didn’t see her chest moving. It was impossible to tell if her eyes were open because you couldn’t see them behind her big Jackie O shades. But also, she was mostly deaf, so even if she was resting her eyes, she might not have heard us pull up.
I spotted a mailbox on the cheap plastic table next to where she was sitting. It was my favorite piece of art she’d ever done. There were two plastic nicely manicured feet sticking out the front of it, glossy after being in a kiln and glazed, and you could move the left one up and down to tell the mailman there was outgoing.
“Hey,” I whispered, leaning over her. There was no reaction. She always used to joke that getting old made her smell like the bathroom of a Marie Callender’s, and this would’ve been a kind thing to say, on that day. I reached out to touch her shoulder. I braced myself for the worst.
Before I could touch her, she jumped up and nearly clocked her head on my chin.
“Christ, Cal,” she said, lying back down. “Give a lady some room.”
When I took a step back, she grinned up at me like she’d never been happier to see anyone in the world. That’s how she grinned, my grandma.
Loud enough for her to hear, I said, “How you doing?”
“How am I doing?” she screamed into my ear, and then chuckled at me. “I’m fuckin’ dyin', you nitwit.”
I forced a smile. Grandma had always been jolly and fat, like Santa. Now I saw the bones in her face and her old lady bikini top hanging off her body, too big for her now. I could see purple veins popping down her neck, all over her stomach, her legs.
“It’s okay for you to be sad,” she said.
Behind her was a flock of hummingbirds. She’d let all the other stuff on her property go to shit, all the trees die. Green stuff doesn’t last in Redlands, California if you don’t water it. The backyard was a sea of brown dirt. So was the hill in front of her little patio, which cousin Nate and I used to roll up and down, back when it was covered in grass. But she kept these two old Australian willows alive right by her patio, which left a lot of room for hummingbird feeders.
For the last fifty-three years, pretty much since my mom has been alive, she’d been feeding these hummingbirds. Grandma taught me that when they get together like this, they’re called a charm. She was smiling. She was dying and she was smiling. Have you ever heard the sound of a charm of hummingbirds? It’s a chaotic sort of orchestra, all high pitched chirping and wings beating so fast you can’t quite catch the rhythm.
Grandma said, “You fuckin’ anyone yet?”
Mom flinched behind me and walked up next to me to remind her mom she was there. Anyway, I didn’t answer Grandma because I didn’t think she would like the answer to that question very much. She wanted me to say yes. Being a virgin was appalling for a junior in high school, for Christ’s sake. My best friend had slept with like five people already. What’s worse, I was interested in a blond jock boy and a dark-haired rich girl, and I didn’t stand much of a chance with either. Even if I did, Grandma wouldn’t think much of them. The girl was too proper. Grandma hated proper. And though I didn’t know how Grandma would react to me liking boys, I’d heard stories of how she ripped into my uncle for having a kid with a Mexican girl, and I thought that this was a bad sign.
“Should we get our stuff?” I asked Mom.
Mom had somehow, without me noticing, walked over and taken a seat in a lawn chair across from us.
“We’re not staying here,” Mom explained. Outside of the car, in the light of the sun, I saw that her usually spotless white jeans had food stains all over them, and the bug bites she must’ve picked up cleaning Grandma’s house were bleeding.
Grandma said, “You’re at the Motel 6. And I asked if you were fucking anyone, Cal.”
“Why are we at the Motel 6?” I said.
Mom turned to Grandma. “Stop it.”
“What? What’s wrong with the Motel 6?” Grandma said. “And where’s Bill?” Bill’s my dad.
“Stop pestering Cal,” Mom said, not answering the last part of the question.
Grandma shook her head at my mom, and then she smiled at me.
“We’re having a party for Grandma tonight,” Mom said, kicking at some of the rocks under her chair, “and it’s better if we stay at a hotel.”
Grandma let out a hiss. “Hey Viv, go grab us some sandwiches from the fridge?”
Mom shot Grandma a warning look, but did as she was told. Grandma told me to have a seat in the lawn chair next to her reclining chair.
“You’re a grown adult, now, Cal,” she said.
“I’m sixteen,” I said.
The kitchen window was open, and it was just a few feet from us. “Viv,” she yelled, “bring out a couple glasses and the bottle of gin, too.”
Now this was an idea. I loved booze, and even though my mom didn’t like it, she didn’t fight me when we were in California. What I wanted more than gin was a cigarette, but my mom and I had an understanding about that. If she didn’t see it, it wasn’t her concern. Generally, over the last year, this seemed to be her approach to parenting.
“Should you be drinking, Grandma?” I said.
“Calvin Clapper-Everhart,” she said. “I don’t want me to die, either.”
I sat in the chair, spinning my wheels as hard as I could to figure out how to respond to that, but Grandma, say what you will about her, she never felt awkward once in her life. She was happy letting me just twist in the wind.
“Why won’t anyone tell me why I’m here, Grandma?”
Even in her shades, I could almost feel her close her eyes. “Your mom’ll kill me,” she said.
“I don’t care. I just flew a thousand miles and no one will—”
She put her hand up to stop me. “What are you, Cal?”
For a quick second, I was afraid she was expecting me to say fag, but then I remembered that Grandma always said our family had coyote in the blood. “I’m a coyote,” I said. I pronounced it the way she did. Ky, like the end of sky, and oat, like your breakfast.
“Good boy,” she said.
“I don’t feel very coyote.” I said.
Over and over, she’d beaten this coyote thing into the whole Clapper family. You can’t get rid of us, no matter how many traps you set, she always said. We’re persistent and we’re mangy and we’re tricksters and we’re everywhere you don’t want us to be, she said. Sometimes I thought Mom went and married the most boring guy she could to get away from all the coyote talk.
Grandma said, “You’ll be a Clapper yet.”
That’s when Mom came out with the sandwiches and the gin.
Grandma’s sandwiches were always the same amount of disgusting. She had three ingredients in her household at any given time: White bread, canned ham that was older than I was, and wasabi mayonnaise, which she’d recently found at Von’s and was a little too happy about. Mom handed me one and handed one to Grandma. To my surprise, Mom poured two gins and took a seat in the shade. I thought she might give one to me, because she never drinks, but then she handed one to Grandma and tossed the whole second drink down her throat.
“Now Viv,” Grandma said. “Don’t be rude. Pour a drink for your son.”
Mom looked liked she was about to angry spit, but she poured a drink in the glass she’d just drank out of and handed it to me. It had a little bit of her pink lipstick on the edge. I took a healthy swig from the other side of the glass and felt its burn in my throat and I stared down the sandwich.
Mom reluctantly headed back into the house. Grandma looked at me expectantly, while I eyed it. She took her sunglasses off, even, and sat up in her chair. She loved watching me eat, especially since she’d been sick.
“Are you going to have yours?” I asked Grandma. I regretted the question as soon as it came out.
“Not hungry,” Grandma said. The making of her sandwich was a formality. Not making the sandwich would mean admitting the truth: the cancer had spread to her throat, and she couldn’t eat much more than shakes anymore. I opened up the bread, looked at the shine on the ham, saw the green specks on the mayo, took a deep breath, and bit into it. It was like a spicy leech covered in soggy plaster of Paris. I chewed and watched two hummingbirds flirt and chewed and looked at Grandma watching me, and then I chewed some more. Grandma had a big old grin on her face. I looked at the bottle of gin, thinking about whether it would work to wash it down, but I was experienced enough in eating Grandma sandwiches that I knew that combination would mean throwing up right there, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I chewed, and I chewed, and I chewed, and Grandma watched me, and I moved over to another lawn chair so we could both look down the hill onto the street, enjoying the shade under the willow, listening to the birds and the cars pass below.
I swallowed the last bit down, and I said, “So who’s coming to the party tonight?”
Grandma pointed to what was on the table and said, “Might want to put the mailbox somewhere safe for now.”
“What do I do with it?” I said.
She smiled again. “You put it up at your house.”
I stifled a laugh. No way in hell Mom would let me put that outside as our mailbox, and the neighborhood kids would smash it in a second anyway.
As I stood up to bring it inside, she shrugged and said, “I spent a lot of time making that. Lose it and I’ll kill ya.”
I nodded and went into the living room, which is right off the entrance and where I usually sleep. The futon in there was made up nicer than I’d ever seen it. The comfy chair had a nice blanket rested on the back. The TV had been replaced with a picture of my Grandpa. He looked regal, in his Army Corps uniform, a few metals on his jacket. He died a long time before I was born. Candles were placed about the room: on the table next to the bed, on the dresser, on the steps, on the TV stand. Though they weren’t lit yet. The stairs to the second floor, which Grandma usually rented out, had been cleaned of thirty years worth of National Geographics. There were no rat droppings. The shaggy carpet looked like it’d been vacuumed. Mom had cleaned the fuck out of this place.
I shoved the mailbox behind the futon, walked outside, poured two more gins for me and Grandma, and said, “Does the Motel 6 have a pool?”
Grandma didn’t know. I would not go to the Motel 6 to find out until much later that night. We spent the rest of the afternoon putting up streamers and stuff. Grandma told me to pretend it was her birthday.
My cousin Nate was the only other person to show up to the party, but that made sense, because he was all the family there was left, really. Grandma had pretty much raised him since his dad—my mom’s brother—disappeared on some Oxy bender never to be heard from again, a couple years after his mom died in a car accident.
And sure, people feel bad for him when they hear that, but also there is the him-being-a-Nazi thing. It’s extra fucked because Nate’s Mexican; his mom was the daughter of a Nazi Lowrider, which is a Nazi biker gang where there are a bunch of Mexicans—it’s a real thing, you can look it up.
We heard Nate coming a mile away from the sound of his chopper—I mean a Harley chopper—and we were surprised because he was early, though we weren’t surprised that he showed up on the porch with a few twelve packs of cheap beer stacked up so high in his arms we could barely see his face.
“Sup Cuz,” he said behind two cases of Bud Light. His arms were huge, and it looked like he’d added a dragon below a kanji symbol for dragon above an SS tattoo. Sometimes, I’d wondered if I could undo the evil behind his tattoos by getting good ones of my own. I don’t know what they’d be: angels, Stars of David, the symbol for Amnesty International. But the fact was I didn’t have any tattoos because, sure, I was too young, and my mom wouldn’t sign off on it, but even if she would, I was terrified of the idea of forever. That’s the thing about him, Nate had no problem with forever.
When Nate returned from putting beers in the fridge, he whistled and said, “Some setup. What the fuck happened in here?” He looked at the futon and all the candles, which still weren’t lit. He went over and gave Grandma a big hug. Then he looked over at me. “How’s my favorite cousin doing?” I was his only cousin. He hit me in the shoulder, but then he gave me a hug. Good hugs are a family business. And he’s the kind of guy who knows to put the exact right amount of pressure in the right places, the kind of hug where you feel all warm and secure and know no one is ever going to get to you, ever, because he’s got you.
It’s a mindfuck, getting a hug like that from a Nazi.
“I love you, cuz,” he said, taking out a bottle of whiskey from his jacket pocket. “You know you can ask me for anything. Anything.”
I nodded at him, forced another smile. Everything in me hated this. “Can I have a nip?” I asked.
“Unless you go fag,” he said. He lisped at me, let his hand go limp.
I made my face hard to hide a blanch. “Course not,” I said, “Now shut the fuck up and give me a nip.”
“Man after my own heart,” he said.
I let the whiskey burn my throat, taking more than a couple gulps. Then I said, “Will you tell me what the fuck is going on?”
He snorted something fierce. “Your mom didn’t tell you? You have to be—”
As if on cue, Mom showed up out of nowhere, shooting him a warning glance. He didn’t lose the smile but it wasn’t genuine anymore, and he looked through me really, his brown eyes bearing down so hard I wanted to look away.
“Are we ready?” Mom said.
We always did this, when we got together: family story time.
The four of us went back out onto the patio, in a circle of lawn chairs, everyone drinking beers but Mom, who was now—it was so unlike her I almost wanted to check the back of her neck to see if she’d become a pod person—drinking gin straight out of the bottle.
“There was this one time,” Nate said, yelling, we were all yelling so Grandma could hear, “when Grandma caught me going out to blow up cars. This was maybe four years after my mom died. I had a rag with gasoline all set to go, figured out how long the cloth had to be so I didn’t blow my own ass up.”
“Why would you blow up a car?” Mom asked, not bothering, for once, to hide the look of horror on her face.
Nate didn’t pay any attention to her. “Anyway, I even told her what I was going to do. You know what she said? She goes, ‘Make sure whoever gets it deserves it.’”
Nate, Grandma, and I were laughing and hooting and hollering, but my mom sure wasn’t. She was sitting with her arms across her lap with those thin lips again.
I hadn’t heard this one before. Nate scared me but the way he got up to mischief charmed the hell out of me. I took a sip of Bud Lite, wished Nate had better taste in beer, and I asked, “Whose car did you blow up?”
Grandma laughed and answered for him. “Well, mine, of course.”
Nate laughed so hard he snorted beer.
“I have the newspaper clipping from that downstairs,” Grandma said.
Nate stuck out his tongue. “Guess who didn’t get caught?”
“Car was a piece of shit. I made out with the insurance,” Grandma said.
Mom’s eyes were filling up and she took a deep breath and said, “I remember, there was one time right before I left for Denver, when I was studying under that Piagetian guy, remember that, Mom?”
“English!” Nate said.
“It’s a kind of psychology,” Mom continued. “Piaget. Jean Piaget. Anyway, this guy knew Piaget, but he also knew Jasper Johns personally, so I got Mom invited to this party—”
“Who the fuck is Jasper Johns? For Christ’s sake. English, Viv,” Nate said.
Jesus, why wouldn’t anyone tell me what was happening? I wanted to stand up, scream why am I here? What did I fly a thousand miles to hear a stupid story about Jasper Johns?
“Rich and famous artist. Like, even I’ve heard of him,” I said.
Nate looked sideways at me and threw an empty beer can at my head. I ducked and it hit the gravel in the driveway behind me. He smiled big at me, and I shook my head at him, grinning just as big back at him, knowing if I showed any fear, he’d throw a full six pack.
Mom was holding her purse close to her. It was a huge leather tan thing I’d never seen her wear before.
Grandma said, “He painted an American flag.”
“That’s it?” Nate said. “He paints an American flag and he’s famous and rich?”
“Something like that,” Grandma said, nodding, her face still flushed from laughing.
“I could paint an American flag,” Nate said.
We all were thinking of the art Grandma did downstairs. It was weird as fuck but it seemed like it took more work than that.
Mom said, “So she goes to this party in LA, and Jasper Johns, because of this guy I knew, came up to talk to her to ask her about her art.”
Grandma was holding her head in her hands, and Mom looked like she was about to bust up laughing, but Nate was yawning so loud it was more act than yawn.
“But she doesn’t recognize him, so he comes up and introduces himself, and she says, ‘And you are?’”
“So?” Nate said. I kind of had to agree with him.
“Well,” my mom said, “It’s just that people who get famous like that, you’re supposed to know who they are.”
“I don’t get it. What’d Grandma do wrong?” said Nate.
Grandma winked at my mom. “Yeah, what’d I do wrong?”
“It’s just when you meet people like that,” Mom said, “good things happen when you say the right thing. Grandma didn’t say the right thing.”
Nate nodded and took a sip of his beer. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “A guy paints an American flag and gets famous, and Grandma doesn’t recognize him, and that’s your story? That’s the story you tell today?”
My mom’s eyes got wet, and I didn’t like when he treated my mom this way. What was so special about today? I wanted to ask, but Mom didn’t look like she could take a question like that. So instead, I said, “Go fuck yourself, Nate.”
Nate’s eyes bulged near out his head and I thought for a second he was going to kill me. I’d never said anything mean to him before, but the whiskey and the gin and the beer gave me courage.
“If you thought I was gonna tell you what we were doing here tonight,” he said, “forget it.”
“Don’t,” my mom said to him.
Jesus Christ, I thought. These people. “I’m sitting right here,” I said. “Why are you treating me like I’m eight?”
“Kids,” Grandma said, “please behave,” and then everyone was looking at their feet. Whatever this was, it wasn’t worth upsetting Grandma.
“I got one,” I said, finally. “Remember, Nate, when Grandma would take us out onto the porch. We’d just sit there for hours watching cars. She’d tell us green cars were yellow, blue cars were pink.”
Nate took a healthy swig of whiskey and perked up, looking less murderous. “I remember when you pissed your pants once on that you were laughing so hard,” he said.
If only I knew how to throw a punch, I thought while I smiled at him. If only he weren’t so goddamned buff and covered in swastikas. Grandma took one look at me, knew what I was thinking, and shook her head no.
Mom took another big gulp of gin. “When Mom first came to visit your dad and I, Cal,” she started. I couldn’t help but notice her bag, though she was still holding it tight, was horizontal and facing towards me. A box of medical syringes poked out. That had to be what they were, because it’s what it said on the side of the box, but why in the name of fuck would she have those? Grandma couldn’t take pills anymore because of the tumor in her throat, it was true, but any syringes were handled by nurses that came to the house. And why would she—?
“We drove to the mountains to see a buffalo in real life, and she decided to do a sketch, but she found the one buffalo with just the biggest pair of balls I’ve ever seen in my life, and she drew it as true to life.” Mom was slurring her words now. “And then she framed it and gave it to us. She told us to put it up, and we did, and what do you know, we were pregnant soon after.”
Everyone was laughing at this one, even Nate, and everyone but me seemed to be in a great mood now. Her “birthday” decorations. The sunbathing. Grandma giving me the mailbox. The fact that they had flown me out for what seemed like no reason. The syringes. I laughed to keep them from knowing that I knew. I touched my face thinking I might be crying, but my face was dry.
She had asked us to kill her. Or euthanasia her. Whatever.
I almost got up and started throwing fists, to hell with what would happen. Mom flew me out to say goodbye before she killed Grandma, I thought, and made me think about her and Dad fucking under Grandma’s buffalo sketch right before she did it?
I was about to lose it when Grandma started talking in earnest. I knew that once she got going, nothing was going to stop her.
“None of you were there for my favorite memory,” she said. “I never told any of you my first night with your grandpa.”
We all groaned. “Spare us the details?” Nate said.
She ignored him. “1949. I’d just moved back from Vassar. Your grandpa and I met downtown. On Rose Street.”
My mom and I nodded. Nate yawned. He probably couldn’t count the number of times he’d heard this story, having lived with her all those years. I’d never heard it, not once.
“He was with that dog. You know that dog. Martin. Well damn it if I wasn’t wearing this sexy skirt that day, and Martin just loved me from the first time he saw me. Ran right up to me and licked me in the —”
“Okay, Mom,” my mom said.
“Shins, Viv. He licked my shins.” She paused. “Well, anyway, you’d guess how awkward that was. People were a good deal more proper back then. He took me to dinner that night. He bought me wine, I could never afford wine then—I drank cheap gin, packed more of a punch—and a big juicy tenderloin steak.”
She paused again, catching her breath.
“We waited, you know, until marriage. Even back then people didn’t do that. But we did. That night, he started talking. He started telling me things he’d seen in the war, men missing heads, men getting shot out of the sky just as they jumped and their blood spraying the next people who were jumping, fourteen year old boys who’d lied about their age to get in but refused to jump out the plane when the time came. And I’ve always liked talking, you guys know that—” all four of us in the circle nodded “—but my hearing wasn’t as bad back then, so I just listened and listened and I could just feel him pouring out into me. I loved it. I loved listening to every minute of it, even though what he was saying was so horrible. I loved it because it was coming from his mouth. And I never felt the need to say anything back. I had things to tell, things that happened to me, and I told him them, over time, in bits and bits. But the fact that someone would open up like that and tell me everything, and I mean everything, meant more to me than anything else ever has.”
Grandma looked straight at my mom.
“I’m ready,” Grandma said.
My mom handed me the keys. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
Mom took a syringe and a little glass bottle out of her purse.
Why didn’t Grandma want to spend her last minutes with me? Why them, and not me?
“I’ve had too much to drink,” I said. It was true.
“I’ll call you a cab,” Nate said.
“I’ll call ahead to the hotel, let them know you’re coming,” Mom said.
I tried to say a few things all at once, but it didn’t come out, so instead, I said, “Forget it. I’m okay to drive.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “Just go.” Any other day, my mom would’ve made me walk a straight line. That day, she was asking Nate to help her get the morphine in the syringe.
I stormed out the door to the driveway and got in the car and put the keys in but only turned it far enough for the radio to come on.
“Shit,” I said, and I rubbed at my eyebrows.
I lit a cigarette in the rental car. To hell with my mom. To hell with whether they smelled it and give us a fine.
I changed the station and “Love Cats” by The Cure burst out the speakers.
Before I knew it, I was dancing. They were helping our grandmother die in that room ten yards from me and I was dancing. If there was one thing I did well, it was car dancing. I threw my arms all around, shook my hips around so much it made the Kia jump.
By the time the song was over, I’d taken the keys out of the ignition and was hoofing it back to Grandma.
When I opened the door to Grandma’s, she was laying back in her comfy chair, eyeing the needle like it was going to bite her. Mom stood over her and looked more than ready.
“Ha,” Grandma said, looking grateful for the distraction.
“I said leave,” Mom said when she heard the door open, not even turning around to look at me.
Nate sat on the futon. He did not get up when I entered.
“For Christ’s sake, let him stay if he wants,” Grandma said. “I want to—”
“I won’t have Cal see me do—” my mom said.
“Viv, don’t ruin this,” Grandma said, like she was talking about the weather. “It’s my day.”
“I’ll do it,” Nate said.
Everyone looked up at him. I was still standing in the door. Nate stood up to grab the needle.
“Mom?” my mom said.
I took Nate’s seat and kicked something under the futon. It was the mailbox. On the top was a note from Grandma. “You forgot this, asshole.”
“I said I’ll do it,” Nate said.
“I’ll—” I started, but Grandma stopped me before I could even get the first word out.
“Nate,” she said, “You.”
“Close the damn door, all the bugs are getting in,” Nate said. Then he muttered something under his breath that might have been faggot or it might have been fuck.
I closed the door. Nate picked up the syringe from my mom and my mom took his seat. Mom helped him tie the arm off, and he tried to coach Nate about how to find a vein, but Nate said, “I know how.”
Nate found the vein and tapped at it with his finger to bring it to the surface.
“I’m all veins,” Grandma said.
Everyone moved at once. My mom stood behind Grandma and rubbed her shoulders. Nate rubbed Grandma’s arm and then found a vein and plunged. I scratched at the little bit of hair that’d sprouted out on my face.
“Are you ready?” Mom asked, but it was too late for that.
Grandma almost said something, but her eyes were already closing.
No one spoke, and time passed. Her breathing slowed, and then she shook like I shake before I fall asleep. I took out another cigarette and put it in my mouth but didn’t light it. Mom saw me do it but she didn’t even double take. She was still rubbing Grandma’s shoulders. Nate rubbed his tattoos, and I looked at him and wanted to hug him again but his muscles were tensed like an abused dog and I knew it was a bad time. I thought about how happy I’d soon be to never have to see him again in my life. Then I thought about the Motel 6 pool, and whether there would be one and if it would be heated or cold and full of leaves, and I knew that if it was there I was going to jump in just as soon as we got back.
After a long time, Grandma let out a hiss, which startled everyone in the room. Mom put her head on Grandma’s shoulder and made a sound like a New Year’s noisemaker. Grandma’s eyes opened. They’d been closed, but when she died, they flipped back open. Nate smiled because he knew what to do, and he opened his wallet and took out some circular Band-Aids. He closed her eyes with his palm and put them over her eyelids.
“Gotta do that,” Nate said, “Or she’ll be staring at us ’til they come to get her.”
Excerpted from the manuscript "The Mabel File."