The skin of my toes chafes inside my tube socks, toes flexing in search of little white balls mined from cheap, synthetic material. Pearls of irritation. My work-boots are caked with snow. Brown snow from muddy grass. Only recently has it turned cold. I’m curbside, outside the hospital’s massive cafeteria window, and I’m looking in, wind gusts funneling my hair into short-lived peaks, the cartilage of my ears threatening separation from my body as my eyes leak thin, fast-moving streams. I’m in that state, and all I can think is, I should have had the root beer float.
Mom’s inside with Grandmom. They’re seated at an orange Formica table. It’s crowded, the way hospital cafeterias are. Windows fogged. I said I needed air, but really I went out just so I could look in.
A boy in a sagging snowsuit writes with a stout finger on the inside surface of the glass. He draws a heart. Adds a smile and eyes within the heart. Admires with his own onyx eyes, sees mine, then smears it all with the fat palm of his miniature hand.
“How ’bout a root beer float, Janey? I’ll have one if you have one.” Her voice was tender, old. Like her throat hurt. Like she knew what was coming.
They admitted Grandpop two days ago. Heart racing, he told Mom. Making him panicky. Grandmom found him in the barn, hunched over his tractor. Over one of those enormous black tires, stubbled cheek against wide grooves.
“I’m sorry, Grandpop,” I say addressing a sky of tarnished silver, one that forebodes snow, more snow. Deep, deep snow for days.
They’d asked me to visit more often. Said it was what grandchildren do. “We won’t be here forever, you know.” I didn’t visit more often. I thought about it. How I should be doing it, and wasn’t.
Grandmom’s hair is unwashed. I noticed when I first saw her. It’s usually perfect. Blonde and wavy, like Grace Kelly. There aren’t any roots, but it’s flat on one side, curls like pressed flowers. Looks slept on, though probably not.
When we were children, Grandpop would pile us into the tractor’s wagon, haul us through every field. Each summer, we’d watch crickets jump from blade of grass to blade of grass, catch ’em, let ’em go. Hawks would soar, we’d yell, “Hey! Over here!” They’d ignore us. Cry ke-yaah, wings wide with arrogance. On short legs we’d scoot ’round the wagon. You could fit a dozen of us in there, but we were only three. The soles of our sneakers on the rough planked floor, kicking the freshly cut mounds of grass, the green of it mixed with burnished straw. We’d look for bugs, for gold, for each other. Jab our reckless limbs, pull hay from socks, socks rich with stashes of dirt embedded in the lumpy folds, evidence of an adventurous day. Sun, white and high in the sky, burnt our cheeks and the translucent skin of our childhood arms. Certain sights we knew we’d see and sought out with eager, beating hearts: the snag the bats favored, the old pine’s holes creating an inverted totem up the length of its branchless bole. The limestone walls, one here, one there, crusted with lichen, the walls shape-shifting over time. And here and there we’d stop and walk a bit, and Grandpop would tell us a story, of how the Civil War was fought here, how the bats come out at night there and dance with the stars; how he met Grandmom once, just by chance, walking across this very field with a basket in her hand and a picnic just for him. And with the tolling of a cow’s bell off in the distance, Grandpop would pile us all back in, fire up the engine and crank that spindle of a wheel; turn us right ’round in a wide-curving “C”, and we’d travel back, sun warm on our shoulders, shoulders itchy with blades of drying grass pressed in soft, sticky skin, feet restless in damp socks locked inside tightly knotted canvas so we’d pull the whole thing off and lose those socks in the grass never to be found again; back we’d travel toward the farmhouse in wetted anticipation of Grandmom’s roast chicken with gravy and blueberry pie. The luckiest of us would sit high atop Grandpop’s lap as he navigated meadows specked with Chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace, his left arm wrapped around our waist, content we were, hands flat atop the soft, warm grey fluff of his forearm, his right hand fast to the wheel. We’d locate tire tracks to retrace, that was our job, and then tread some new. The crunch of gravel signaled our arrival, and the tractor was returned to the barn, beloved dragon to its lair, to rest for rides again another day. I’d been the luckiest many times, to sit high up top and ride up front. We all had.
The snow of my boots is melting quickly so I take advantage of the safety runners, navigating the lobby atop the tightly-woven black and grey rubber-secured trail, back to the cafeteria. The air is even warmer, spongier than I recall. A mix of creamed soup and toast. I remove my coat, quickly fold it and latch it in the crook of my arm. The din is tin ware, plastic plates and the shuffling of shoes, clicks and squeaks, the swish of tired bodies into too-tight booths, the breathy emoting of a wide array of states of affairs. A man in a Hawaiian shirt destroys a turkey club with a single bite. I scan, but no sign of the little boy in the snowsuit. No sign of his art remains.
Mom and Grandmom haven’t moved. They’re in that tight, curved-back booth, and I advance, taking note of the now drained beige ceramic cups laid out before them, strangled tea bags and unused lemon wedges on saucers. They look up at me in unison and Grandmom is the first to wiggle over, her faux silk top and faux fur boots moving sideways in silent coordination. She indicates the available space beside her with a pat, knuckles thick, no rings on account of arthritis. I hang my coat on the booth’s obliging hook and sit. Mom slips a menu beneath my raw hands. Soon, my hands will once again feel too warm and sweat. Grandmom’s eyes reach to mine and, within that gaze, we recount the years. A waitress stops by and speaks abruptly. I do not open the plastic-coated menu.
“We would like two root beer floats,” I say and then look at my mother, who confirms my choice with a slight lift of the corners of her lips.