Outside the swaying, flashing windows, the snow gleams in bands of white. The silver train track lies along the line of houses, shining in the dark that has descended in the middle of the afternoon.
“It’s funny to go down in wintertime,” I say.
“What?” mommy says. She is a trillion miles away.
“To Florida.” We always go in June, when school is out.
“What has grandpa got?” I ask.
In a voice that I don’t recognize, my mother says, “He had a heart attack last night.”
I think about how when you play heart attack, you say Boing! and you clutch your chest and fall down dead. Tears spring to my eyes.
“But they’re taking care of him in the hospital,” says mommy.
I don’t ask if he’s going to die because I’m afraid that saying the word will make it happen. I look out the window instead, as though I have lost interest. We’ve left behind New York’s black tunnels, all the smokestacks and electric factories of Elizabeth, the chemical stink of the Jersey flats, and we’re clacking south toward Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington. “I love the train!” I say.
After a while my mother registers my words and smiles. “You love the train for about a minute. If I remember right.”
I smile back at her, because although this trip seems an adventure—we have left real life behind, out in the blurred world we go racing through—I know that by the time we get to steamy Florida tomorrow I will feel incapable of sitting on my buttocks for one second longer, I will hate the books and games I’ve got, I will be bored with all the new train friends I’ve made, my arms and legs will feel like twisted strands of gimp, and even though I’m ten years old, when mommy hisses through clenched teeth, Stop that whining right this instant! I won’t be able not to whine that I am tired and hot and itchy and hungry and I’ll never take a train again.
“Enjoy it while you can,” smiles mommy. Then her face goes back to being strained, strange, pale as milk. She turns her head away. I feel the pressure of her arm against my own, I feel her body start to tremble, feel her sharp intake of breath and then her silent weeping.
But my mother never cries, except for that time she hit her head on the corner of the cabinet. I don’t want her to be the way she is right now, I don’t want grandpa to die, I don’t know what to do.
Just then, a black man in a starched white jacket comes clanging his way down the aisle. “Dinner is served in the dining car!”
A rustling everywhere. The man across the aisle stretches. Mommy straightens. I see her separate parts slide into place, as if she were Willy the Wizard, who lies in pieces until you lift the wooden T and pull the strings tight. Mommy clicks her compact open. She moves the mirror around her head like a geiger counter to check her hair. She outlines her mouth in bright red lipstick, powders her nose, checks to make sure her stocking seams are straight.
“Will I be as pretty as you someday?” I ask.
“You already are.”
That’s not true. My front tooth is chipped, I’m all paint-streaked from school, where mommy suddenly came to get me after lunch, my hair is coming out of its braids.
“You first,” she says.
So I forge up the aisle, thrown side-to-side by the speeding train, bracing my palms against the velvety seats I pass, until I reach the shiny silver door at the far end of the car and I call, “Get ready,” over my shoulder.
“Go!” says my mother.
I take hold of the metal handle with both hands and yank until I feel the heavy door click open. A sudden flood of sound, a burst of cold air. I plunge across, I yank at another heavy metal handle, nothing holding up my feet but speed. Then I’m inside, and in the warmth and silence of the new car mommy smacks right into me. “Oops!” This to be repeated, four cars in a row.
The black man in the starched white jacket meets us in the dining car and shows us to a white-starched table, set for four. “Thank you,” my mother says. When I request a Coke, she makes the speech she always makes about how it dissolves your teeth, then orders a martini and a Coke and lights a Lucky Strike.
She doesn’t seem to be here really, even though she is.
I drink my soda silently. I think about how supper on this trip is not much fun. The only thing to see, when I look out the window, is my face. I haven’t brought my Archie and Veronica along. There aren’t any strangers at our table I can talk to.
When I simply cannot manage to be quiet anymore, I ask if mommy wants her olive.
She doesn’t hear me.
“Mommy?” Urgently calling her back. “Can I have your olive?” I don’t even want it anymore.
She looks up, tilts her glass in my direction, and abruptly leans toward me and says, “I’m so glad that you know your grandpa!”
I stop rinsing off the olive in my melted ice cube water. “Well of course I know my grandpa.” Whose speckled skin looks like the speckly brown shell of the egg he eats soft-boiled for breakfast, every morning, with a tiny spoon that pops out of his pocket knife.
He’s gruff and sweet and bounces me on his knee to the rhythmic chant about the old lady and her goat: Half-past mid-night, al-most moon-light, time kid-and-I were home, half-an-hour a-go!
It was always dawn when my grandpa and I went fishing. I followed him on calloused summer feet to the end of the dock where the black bait bucket hung. When he hoisted it into the boat, it sprang a million leaks. We rowed out on the glittering river, where he baited my hook then cast my line for me, and we two sat companionably rocking to the quiet slap and suck of water and the distant song of shore birds. I could see a bright peach rising in the sky.
In Florida the salt air smelled of steaming seaweed, hot wood, melted tar. I jumped away from roaches big as little turtles. Turtles the size of coffee tables lumbered along the road.
“How can it be so big?” I asked. We’d sighted a loggerhead across the dunes.
“It’s been growing for a long time,” grandpa said.
He laughed. “Look at the snowy egret!” he said (he was always naming things), and pointed toward the water’s edge at a white bird, thin as thread, in a feathery white hat.
Once, out on a distant beach, the two of us discovered a concrete room, half-buried in the sand. I asked him what it was.
“It’s from the war. We used it to watch for German submarines.”
“In Florida?” I glanced out at the ocean where I’d just gone swimming.
“Pieces of ships washed up here on the beach, sunk by the U-boats. Terrible.”
“Were you scared?” I took his knobbly hand.
“You bet,” he said. “We expected they’d invade us. But we were even more scared for our men. We heard the troop trains passing back of the house all night, and every train we’d think how it was carrying hundreds of boys to Europe. We wondered how many would come back.”
“My daddy did.”
“He came back, yes.”
I swung my grandfather’s hand out in a glad arc. “How come you weren’t a soldier?”
“Too old. But I trained to be a plane spotter. I’ll show you my commission from the Government.”
He pointed out across the ocean, toward the faintest line of land, way out on the horizon, and said the army had its practice beaches there, on that atoll, for the D-Day landings.
Closer by, down at the water’s edge, a mob of birds was strolling in the twilight.
“I hope you never have a war,” my grandpa said.
We walked back in our footsteps. The sky flamed crimson. The herring gulls slid up and down the wind as though they were on wires and shouted their raucous laughter in the air.
My grandmother’s domain was inside, under the slow-turning ceiling fans, in the low broad rooms shaded by blinds.
Grandma was as sharp as scissors. She was always giving me little tests.
“Come here,” she said, when I was seven years old. “This is a photograph of all the men who want to be our President. Which one do you vote for?”
I looked at the newspaper. All the gray men stood in a gray line. “Nobody.”
“You have to pick,” she said. Her false teeth made a clicking sound, as though to emphasize what she was saying. “We all have to pick.”
So I found one with a black mustache, at least, and put my finger on his face. She laughed and laughed. “Lillian!” she called out, clicking. “Your daughter’s voting for Dewey!”
It was clear I had disgraced myself.
Sometimes, however, grandma took out all her hairpins and let me brush her gleaming hair a hundred careful times. Or played taxicab: “Take me to Buckingham Palace!” and I grasped the back of her rocking chair and shook it, both of us laughing crazily until we arrived.
But the greatest game we played was to perch on the bench at her miniature organ and teach each other songs. I sang Come all ye young fellers, so brave and so fine!Then she sang O Sacred Head once wounded, with grief and shame weighed down!
“Couldn’t you find something more cheerful?” mommy asked.
“The melody is Bach,” said grandma.
Grandma’s shoes had tiny holes all over them, just like grandpa’s bait bucket. Her blue dresses glimmered with white polka dots. Her rimless glasses shone. Whenever she went into town, she wore a little black hat with a veil and clean white gloves.
One day, in town, she taught me about drinking fountains. I was bending down to take a drink when she said that I couldn’t: “That’s the Colored water fountain.” I looked at her. She pointed. “Use that one over there. For Whites.” I wondered if this was a test.
Just then, mommy arrived. “Are you teaching her Jim Crow?”
Grandma said I might as well know about evil in the world.
“I’m thirsty!” I said.
“Down here,” she said to me, “they separate people by the color of their skin.”
So I crossed to the other fountain, where a skinny white man covered with tattoos was drinking.
Afterwards, I asked, “Why do they do that?”
“So they can keep the Negro down,” said mommy.
“It isn’t Christian,” said my grandmother. “It is unjust. Remember that.”
I remembered how the three of us had been standing by the road another day, and here came a school bus filled with noisy, laughing black children. As it passed, mommy said, “Wave at the children!” and we waved, and everybody in the bus froze. They passed us in total silence.
“There is the fruit of oppression,” grandma had said.
In Florida we used to play a game in which you had to guess someone’s identity by asking If this person were a flower, what kind of flower would she be? What kind of music? If you could eat grandpa, he’d be a piece of toffee, but my grandmother would be a ginger snap. She kept a jar of them in her kitchen, spicy peppery circles that crunched sweet explosions on the tongue.
Each June, the sun turned me the color of a ginger snap, my eyebrows bleached invisible. Summer after summer, I could count on this, my grandparents’ world belonged to me, its thoroughbass the rhythmic tumbling of the surf, the creaking of their wooden windmill and the clacking of the trains on the savanna at the edge of grandpa’s lawn.
In the dining car, my mother says, “Grandpa will be fine, I know it.” She signals to the waiter for another round of drinks.
When dinner comes, she takes one bite, then stops and clasps her hands in front of her on the white tablecloth. Her short fingernails for teaching piano are shiny red like fire engines. Her hairdresser said a manicure would stop her from picking her cuticles, but now her hands look like somebody else’s. Suddenly they make me feel like crying. Instead, I eat a piece of greasy drumstick.
During dessert, the waiter seats two men at our table, and I notice how their arms bulge underneath their short-sleeved shirts with dolphins on them. We begin to chat, and when I tell them I’m going to Florida, they say that they are too, they work there, they’re The Flying Lombardinis, and as soon as they get down to winter headquarters, they’ll send a picture of themselves and all the other Lombardinis flying through the air.
Mommy and I lurch back to our car, where the seats have changed into red-curtained beds with nothing but the aisle between them. Everybody in the sleeping car is getting ready for the night.
Usually this is the highlight of the trip: I always get the upper berth, I love to disappear into it, like a seed climbing into its shell. But tonight I ask if I can visit in the lower berth, and mommy says five minutes, and there I snuggle against her warmth, breathe in her breath, familiar, comforting, toothpaste and alcohol and cigarettes. She strokes my hair. “I got lost once,” she says, “when I was four. We were in London for the year. I decided to go walking one day, all by myself. I had no idea where I was. But it didn’t worry me.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“After a while, a bobby with a splendid handle-bar mustache came up to me and asked me where I lived. Mother had made me memorize our address, so he took me home. I wasn’t at all scared. Not until I saw my father. Then I suddenly burst into tears.”
I lace my fingers in and out of hers.
“That day,” she says, “he took me for a hot fudge sundae. I’d never tasted anything so delicious in my life.”
“I like butterscotch.”
“Butterscotch is good. But hot fudge!”
Somebody comes rustling up the aisle on the other side of our closed curtains, swaying the length of the sleeping car. “I love it in here,” I say, lying curled up like a snail beside my mother, underneath the heavy railroad blanket.
“It’s comforting,” she says.
“Nobody can find us.”
The engine moans up ahead, its voice carried back along the length of the clacking cars. In the berth across the aisle, a man blows his nose in a loud snort and belches. We laugh, we hold our hands over our mouths.
“You have to go to bed,” says mommy.
So we kiss goodnight, and I peek through the curtains to make sure no one is out there, I climb up and jump between my freezing sheets, propping myself on one elbow to look out my tiny window. I can see the moon above us, brimming the places we race through with light, fast and beautiful.
Next day, just when I think I’ll have to have my buttocks amputated, we arrive. The train slows, mommy’s face goes white. I clamber down the metal steps ahead of her, into the heat, and turn to see her hesitate for a moment before she follows. But once she’s reached the platform, she’s all business. “Come on!” she says, and picks up the yellow suitcase and walks fast, toward the taxi stand.
The hospital is not like the big dark hospital where years ago I had my tonsils taken out. It is a small, white building, its lobby filled with sunlight. However, the lady at the Information Desk, who has round orange circles on her cheeks just like the tabs of dye that grandma used to mash into her margarine during the war, announces, “No children allowed inside.” So mommy goes to find grandpa, and I stay in the lobby, playing an imaginary game of hopscotch, till a nurse in sparkly glasses comes out, beckons me, and puts a finger against her lips, nodding in the direction of the lady at the desk. She then leads me secretly, by an outside way, to grandpa’s ground floor room.
When I enter from the terrace, I’m so sun-dazzled that I can’t see a thing except black crimson flashes. But then my eyes adjust, and I catch sight of a little old man, much smaller than my grandfather, lying on a high white bed. The nurse must have brought me to the wrong room, but I’m too embarrassed to say anything. The little old man is asleep. He has a plastic mask over his nose and mouth. Tubes come from underneath the sheets. Something is beeping.
Then I see my mother standing on the far side of the bed and my grandmother in a plastic chair beside her. “Hi, grandma,” I say, and go to kiss her on the cheek.
“Hello,” she says in a sweet polite voice, as though she’s speaking to a stranger.
I glance at mommy, but her eyes, full of tears, are on the old man’s face. “Daddy?” she says, bending down very close to him, holding his right hand in hers. “Your granddaughter’s here.”
Slowly he opens his eyes.
Then I can see he is my grandfather, kind of.
“Come closer to the bed,” says mommy.
I move closer, even though I am afraid and how it smells makes me feel sick.
“Hello, darling,” says grandpa, behind his plastic mask, and smiles. He’s pale as a seashell. He closes his eyes.
Then I feel more desperately sad than I have ever felt in my life. “Can I hold your other hand?” I whisper.
But he doesn’t answer.
“He’s not wearing his hearing aid,” says mommy. “Go ahead.”
I take hold of grandpa’s knobby left hand. The skin of it is very cold. I stand like that for a while, and then I whisper to my mother, “Can I sit down on the end of the bed?”
But when I give a little jump backwards, up onto the bed, the blanket pulls tight over grandpa’s feet, and he cries out in pain.
“Get down from there,” the nurse says.
“It’s his circulation,” she explains to mommy.
“Mrs. Slate?” she says to grandma. “Mr. Slate needs his rest now. Why don’t you come back in the morning?”
That night, my grandpa dies. My grandpa who took me fishing in a rowboat as the sun rose on the silent water.