W.A.R. Part One - Black Summer
Chapter Three - Morning at Grandma's House
by Jeff Wilson
"William Aaron Roberts get your butt out of bed this instant!"
It wasn't until I heard the angry voice of my mother echoing down the hallway that I realized that I had forgotten to set my alarm clock. It was 9:15 and I was supposed to be at my grandma's house at 9:00 to relieve mom for the morning. I jumped out of bed and slipped off my underwear from last night and quickly tried to gather my clothes for the day when mom opened my door.
"Let's go, Billy!"
"Mom I'm naked in here!" I cried, covering my privates with the shirt I'd pulled out of the drawer.
"You don't have anything I haven't seen before, Billy," mom replied. "I used to change your diapers. Now hurry up. I'm already going to be late and your grandmother is all alone over there because I have to wake your lazy butt up."
"Sorry mom," I replied. She disappeared down the hall and I breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't yelled at me too bad. I understood why she was mad at me. I had promised her I'd be over there early today so she could have a morning hair appointment and go shopping. I was more embarrassed about her seeing me naked than anything else.
I grabbed a pair of cargo shorts and a black Steelers t-shirt and tugged them both on at the same time while slipping my feet into my Reeboks that were probably the dirtiest pair of shoes in our neighborhood. I swiped a slice of ham and cheese from the fridge and shoved them into my mouth before I locked up the house and jogged across the street to grandma's house.
When I walked in the door, I could tell that grandma recognized me that day. She looked beautiful sitting ever so slouched in her wheelchair. Even though the stroke had so cruelly stricken her mind and body, she still seemed like the proud woman who had always taken such care in looking her best. Mom had neatly combed her silver hair. Her glasses were slightly askew but not so much that they hid her striking green eyes. That was one feature that my grandmother and I shared. On most days, our eyes were dark green like a pine tree. Not hazel. Green. I was the only boy in my school that had my eye color. Depending what kind of mood I was in I was either proud of or embarrassed by that fact.
"Billy," mom said, "grandma has had her breakfast and lunch is in the fridge." She gathered up her car keys and purse. "I really need you to be more reliable. I'm going to be late for my appointment because of you. I don't have time to deal with you right now. I really don't."
"I know. I'm really sorry," I apologized.
"This is a tough time for all of us. Your father and I are depending on you. When you say you're going to be somewhere, you have to do it. If you can't, then there won't be any more baseball or video games. Maybe Brett will have to stay home for a change instead of coming over. None of us want that, so you have to be more reliable. Understand?"
"Yes," I said through gritted teeth. I hated getting lectured, especially when I deserved it. Why couldn't I be more reliable? It's not like mom was asking for a lot. I wanted to kick myself.
Mom gave me a kiss on the forehead and told grandma that she'd be back for lunch then she was out the door. I watched as she backed up the car and sped off down the street.
"I know," I said as I walked back to grandma, "you think I need to be more reliable too, huh?"
Grandma smiled as best she could at me. Half of her face was out of her control.
"I guess if I was more reliable, we wouldn't be in this mess. Would we?" I asked. "I could have kept all of this from happening."
Grandma groaned as if trying to speak. But, of course, she was unable to say the words that were in her mind. She just looked frustrated at me. Like she wanted so much to say something, but she just couldn't.
"Don't look at me like that. You know it's true. It's all my fault all this is happening." I sat down on the couch and grabbed the television remote. "You're not watching this, are you?" I asked as I began flipping through the stations, hoping to find some cartoons. I absent-mindedly ran my tongue over my braces. I still wasn't quite used to feeling a bunch of metal on my teeth, and I'd had braces for almost a year. In a few more years, they would fix the gap between my two front teeth that had for years made me the object of jokes from my classmates. Brett seemed to think my braces were cool for some unknown reason. Brett's weird.
Thinking about Brett made me think about how I'd treated him the day before. I'd been so mean to him and he didn't deserve it. He was only trying to make me feel better. I always had a problem controlling my mouth. I was never shy about letting people know whatever was in my head, even if it was insulting. In the last year, that frankness had turned into a sharp sarcasm that had made more than a few of my friends tell me I was a jerk. But I was just so stressed out. I'd always had a bit of a temper if the right buttons were pushed. Lately it seemed like everything pushed my buttons, and I didn't like it. I would lose my cool and say things I'd regret almost as soon as they'd leave my mouth. My temper was nothing compared to some of the epic explosions Brett had been known to unleash. There was a reason he'd been kicked out of private school. If I was a firecracker, he was a nuclear bomb when he got mad. He was especially known for throwing things when he lost his temper. But while I would stay mad Brett would get over it fairly quickly. He always felt terrible about it afterward. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he was so good at reading people. When he used his empathy for good, he was so sweet and caring you couldn't help but love him. He could make you feel like you were the only person in the world. But when he was mad he knew exactly where to hit you to really hurt you when he wanted. I'd been a witness to his temper a few times. One time he made a teacher cry. That's right, a teacher! For as sweet as he could be, he could be a vicious little brat when he wanted to be.
"Antoine, you ARE NOT the father!" Maury Povich announced from the television. Apparently, I'd drifted off into la-la land thinking about Brett and had stopped clicking channels on a paternity test day on Maury's show. Antoine appeared to be quite ecstatic to not be the father as he was yelling "I tol' you! I tol' you! That baby don't look nothin' like me!" at anyone who would listen. The skank who was had accused Antoine had run off the stage in tears.
"This is the stupidest show I've ever seen," I said. "Grandma, why are we watching this crap? It's killing both of our brains."
Grandma just looked at me. She was used to hearing me go on and on. Even before the stroke I'd had whole one-sided conversations like the one I was having now with her. She just let me ramble as if she was waiting for me to begin making sense someday.
I found a channel with one of those peppy morning shows just to have some background noise and asked grandma if she wanted to play cards. Her face lit up as best she could make it and I knew that she thought it was a good idea. I wheeled her into the kitchen so we could sit at the table together. We used to play all sorts of card games together and I usually won. I just always had a way of knowing what cards my opponents had whether we were playing spades, gin, or poker. It was kind of weird really. Nowadays, all we were able to play was a game called war. It was pretty much the most boring card game of all time. You divide up the deck and each lay out one card at a time. The higher card wins and you take both cards. It was mind numbingly simple to play and involved no strategy. But it was the only game that grandma could play anymore, and she always laughed when she beat me.
There was a knock at the door and I was surprised to find Brett on the porch. I thought that after I'd yelled at him he wouldn't be around, but there he was, wearing that same Yankees ball cap that had been plastered on his head for almost as long as I'd known him. He smiled slightly, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to, but couldn't stop himself.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," I replied.
"We cool?" he asked.
"I am if you are," I answered.
"Then we're cool," he replied, his smile now fully revealed. "Want some company?"
He didn't wait for me to say yes and simply invited himself inside. Before he got too far beyond me I stopped him. "Hey listen, I'm sorry about what I said yesterday."
"It's okay. I understand."
"No. I was a real asshole. Oh shit! Sorry grandma!" I knew that grandma didn't approve of that kind of language in her house. "I mean, I was a real jerk yesterday. I didn't mean what I said and I feel really stupid about it."
Brett slipped his hat off and ran his hand through his sweaty brown hair. He put his hat back on backwards and smiled at me. "You don't have to apologize about what you said, Billy. I know why you're so stressed out. I think you're beating yourself up too much."
"Dude," Brett interrupted, "look at me."
I stubbornly refused to look him in the face and stared at the floor. So Brett put a hand on each side of my face and made me look at him. It was like something my mother would do when I was in trouble. His blue eyes locked on with my green ones.
"Billy, nobody blames you for what happened but you. You won't let anybody help you. You don't have to be alone. Don't shut out the people who love you."
"So what, are you saying you love me or something?" I joked.
"No..." Brett replied. "God you're such a smart ass. Why you always gotta do that, dude? You know what I mean, though. Don't try to deal with all this stuff by yourself. Mom always says you need your support system to keep you healthy."
"My support system? What is that, a bunch of psycho-crap?"
Brett slipped past me and plopped himself at the kitchen table with grandma. "Yeah, I thought so too. You know how my mom is. Every time she writes another book... She thinks everybody's mental. I guess I'm supposed to keep you from shooting yourself or something. I don't know. My mom's an idiot." He looked at the cards on the table. "Wow Ms. Helen you're kicking his butt!"
Grandma beamed. She loved Brett, sometimes even more than me, I felt. She had insisted that he call her Helen instead of Mrs. Cunningham like he did when they first met. But Brett had too much respect for her to call her by her first name so they settled on Ms. Helen.
"She didn't have that many cards before you got here..." I said, "Grandma! You cheated!!" I was aghast! She'd stolen my cards while Brett and I talked. She and Brett shared a laugh at my expense.
We played cards together for a while, or rather grandma and Brett teamed up to play against me. It was getting close to lunchtime and mom would be returning soon. We wheeled grandma back to the living room and watched "The Price is Right." It was always grandma's favorite show, and I could tell that she still enjoyed it. I sat in my grandpap's old recliner and Brett stretched out on the sofa. As the show went on, Brett made all kinds of jokes about the contestants and the prizes. He was always making me laugh, and that's one of the things I liked most about him. He had a great sense of humor, and it seemed like there was always a smile on my face whenever he was around.
While he was interested in the show, took the chance to watch him as he lay there all relaxed and happy on the couch. He was more interesting than the television show could ever hope to be. Brett was always dressed well. His mom could afford to buy him stuff that made him look cool. His clothes were all made by companies that had names like Abercrombie or Nike. Even his cargo shorts and his socks were made by some cool company, I'd imagine. It once occurred to me that since his mom was Catholic and had money that Brett shouldn't be going to public school when his mom could afford better. But Brett told me that he got kicked out of "the best private school in New York City" in second grade for what they called "oppositional defiant behavior," a term which he was quite proud of and wore like a badge of honor. When they moved here his mom just put him in public school and that's where he'd been ever since. He liked going to public school because of the lack of nuns and the fact that all his friends were there.
He could lay on the couch fully stretched out and fit comfortably because of his short stature. I could no longer fit. I guessed that I was about five or six inches taller than him, and it was mostly in my legs. I definitely outweighed him. If he weighed ninety pounds it was because he was soaking wet. I was somewhere around a hundred twenty pounds or so. He was built pretty sturdy though, unlike myself. A strong breeze could have toppled my skinny butt over. With a little bit of weight lifting, Brett had the kind of body that would really look good when he got older and taller. That is, if he had the patience to go to a gym.
He was lucky to be blessed with some good genes. Whether they came from his dad, I'll guess we'll never know. Nobody knew who his dad even was. Even Brett was clueless about his identity. When he and his mom moved to Donora all those years ago it was just the two of them and neither of them ever talked about it. At first we thought it was divorce. But then we got to know Brett and found out that he'd never known his father. Any time he asked his mom she would either change the subject or say when he was older she'd tell him everything. The mystery just made everyone more curious, especially Brett. I was betting he was a sperm bank baby personally. His mom could certainly afford it. Whatever the case, they had certainly created a cute little boy.
All of the speculation about Brett's parentage was one of the things that really made him angry. Brett was usually pretty easy-going and while he had a temper you had to really work to make him snap. One of the few things he was extremely sensitive about was his absent father. Brett could be pretty vicious with his mouth sometimes, and his hat had been known to be launched when he was really pissed, but one of the few times I'd seen Brett physically go after somebody was when he pushed a kid up against a wall in the school bathroom when they picked on him about his father. It was kind of scary to see him lose it like that. But, it was kind of funny to see a kid who looked about nine years old do that to one of the bigger boys in the class who looked about sixteen. That put the word out that you didn't want to mess with Brett about his dad. You didn't want to get beat up by the kid who looked like a fourth grader. The funny thing about the whole bathroom incident is that the kid who was picking on Brett has a father who's in jail. He just thought he was going to pick on an easy target and never expected Brett to react like he did. Aren't kids great people?
During a commercial, I realized that we had been silent for a while and I had kind of been lost in my thoughts for a while. I then realized that Brett was looking at me in sort of the same way I'd been looking at him. He was kind of lost in his own world, too. I thought of something to break the awkward silence that had developed.
"Your mom ever walk in on you changing clothes?" I asked.
"No," Brett replied. "She knocks before coming into my room. Trust me, she doesn't want to know what goes on in there when I close the door."
"My mom did it to me this morning," I admitted.
Brett laughed, "Really? You were naked?"
Brett laughed, "I didn't think it was possible! I figured you changed clothes in like a dark closet or something. It's no big deal though."
"Yes it is!" I protested. "Who wants their mother to see them naked?"
"My mom sees me naked all the time," Brett replied. "Who cares? You worry about things like that too much. You're such a prude. Okay, so what did she see?"
"Everything, I guess. I was totally surprised when she walked in. I tried to cover my thing, but I'm sure saw it. She said it's nothing she hasn't seen before, but who wants their mom to see their wiener?"
"Yeah... I guess. So, were you hard when she walked in?"
"What? No!" I replied indignantly. "Why would I be... you know... like that?"
"What's to be embarrassed about? It's just your dick. You're acting like she caught you spanking it. You don't think your mom's going around laughing about it with her friends? She's probably like, `My little Billy's not so little anymore.'"
"Shut up! My mom wouldn't do that," I replied. "Mom doesn't talk about stuff like that."
"You don't think your parents have nasty, dirty sex? It's always the uptight prudes who are the most wild in the sack."
"You're embarrassing grandma," I said.
"I'm just messing with you, Billy. You're such an uptight prude... I'll bet that means you'd be wild in the sack too!"
"Shut up, Brett!" I was mortified.
"Seriously, Billy. Have you ever even seen your dick get hard? Would you even know what to do with the thing? You still call it a wiener."
"Brett! I swear..."
"I thought you brainy people call it a penis." Brett explained. "That's the technical term: penis."
"No wonder your mother sends you over here." I said. "You're hopeless."
"Did you know your nuts are called testicles? Penis and testicles. That's what they're called. I prefer dick and balls myself," Brett continued, ignoring my humiliation. Of the many things you should never talk about in front of your grandmother, I'm pretty sure that your dick and balls would be near the top of the list.
"I'm sorry I brought it up!" I said, exasperated.
"So you `brought it up' eh William? Guess you're not so innocent after all! Must have been a fun morning."
"Oh my god, shut up, Brett!" I replied, humiliated by Brett's persistence in talking about my penis in front of my grandmother.
Brett finally let up on me and we went back to watching television for a while. It was showcase time on Price is Right. If I'd have been a contestant, I'd have beaten Brett. We'd always try to guess the prices before Bob Barker announced the winners. After that, the news came on and Brett's attention was quickly on to other things. Brett didn't want to accidentally learn something outside of school.
"Oh yeah... I quit the team," he announced.
"Really? That stinks."
"Nah, it's cool. I called Frank while Dustin and his mom were getting his cast taken off at the doctor's office."
"Was he mad?" I asked.
"He was drunk, I think. So I just told Amanda. Anyway, I told her I have summer school and couldn't play anymore she was all like, `Whatever.' And I was all like, `Cool.' And then she was like, `Okay.' And then I was like, `See ya.' So now I don't have to worry about that anymore."
"You didn't tell me you had to go to summer school!" I said.
"I always have summer school. It's part of the contract I have with the school. They love me so much they like spending as much time with me as possible."
"You know, if you'd just do your homework..."
"Don't you start, too!" Brett warned.
"Maybe paid a little bit of attention in class..."
"I'm just dumb, okay! My brain's all fucked up, you know."
"Being dyslexic doesn't mean you're dumb," I replied. "You're really smart in other ways besides school."
"Easy for you to say. School's easy for you. For me it's a stupid waste of time."
"Would you even care if you got kicked out?"
"Only because I wouldn't get to see my friends," Brett admitted.
"I bet Mr. Smith's going to be mad when he finds out that you quit. You know how he gets."
"What's he going to care? It's not like I was any good. He called me a stupid little runt and a crybaby for wanting some ice when that ball hit me. It fucking hurt! I still have a bruise. Anyway, it's not like I'm suddenly going to grow a foot taller. Seriously, the longer I'm around him the more he pisses me off. He even treats his own kid like shit. I don't know how Dustin deals with it. I'd kill myself if I had to live with him."
"Frank's okay," I said half-heartedly. "He's just a little intense. It's not going to be any fun without you."
"You'll still have Dustin."
"I know. But he's way too serious about playing because his dad is there."
"Then just quit too," Brett offered. "We can play video games in the air conditioning instead of sweating like jerks."
"Nah. I don't want to do that. I like being on the team even if I don't get to play. And he'd never believe that I have summer school."
"Whatever. Just don't complain to me when you're bored."
"Are you still going to bowl?" I asked. Brett was in a youth bowling league with Dustin as well. They were both pretty good, and their moms took turns taking them to the lanes.
"Of course I'm still bowling. Why would I quit a real sport?"
"Knocking down pins is not a real sport."
"You only say that because you suck at it," Brett replied. "How many gutter balls did you throw the last time?"
"I can't remember," I lied. I knew exactly how many times I'd thrown a gutter ball.
"So the math genius can't remember that he threw nine gutter balls?" Brett laughed. "What's the average on that one, smartass?"
"Why did you come over here again?" I asked.
I was saved from further teasing when my mom arrived. She looked a lot more relaxed. She had gone to the hairdresser, yet her hair looked exactly the same as it had before she left. I guess that means she has a good hairdresser. I didn't have a hair person. Every now and then mom would break out the clippers and mow my hair down. I'd inherited my dark blond hair from my mom's side of the family. Actually, I'd inherited almost all of my looks from that side of the family. People often told me that I looked just like my mom, and she looked just like her dad. The Cunningham side of the family were descended from England and the Roberts side was mostly French and German. In my baby pictures my hair was pure blond. But the older I got the darker it got. Now it was more of a mixture of dark blond and light brown.
Mom didn't seem at all surprised to find Brett at the house. She would probably have been more shocked to not find him there. Brett practically lived with us in the summer. Brett's mom was always at work at one of the big hospitals in Pittsburgh, which was about a forty-five minute drive from our town. She was almost never home in the daytime, and sometimes at night. And often when she was home she was working on her next book. She had chosen to live outside of the city itself because she had grown up in downtown Manhattan and she wanted a quieter life for Brett. Brett didn't even know what a tree was before he moved to Donora. Grandma had taken care of him a lot until she had the stroke. Now he was either hanging out with me or was home alone playing on the new computer his mom had bought him for his birthday. Next on his wish list was his own cell phone or a cat.
We had lunch together. Mom fed grandma and Brett fed himself as if he'd been starved for a week. The only way to shut him up was to feed him, it seemed. Brett could eat and eat and eat and never gain an ounce. Watching him eat was always an experience. It was like watching the sharks on the nature channel.
"So, what are your plans for the afternoon, boys?" Mom asked.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be nuts," Brett said, smirking at me. I wanted to tell him to shut up, but mom was right there.
"Well, I'm sure you'll find some kind of trouble to get into."
"I don't know," Brett replied. "So, Mrs. Roberts. You're a nurse, right?"
"Of course, Brett. You know that."
"So how many penises do you see in a day?"
"Oh my god, Brett, shut the fuck up!" I exclaimed. Brett laughed his butt off. I couldn't believe he would say such a thing in front of my mother!
"Billy! Language!" She scolded. "So he told you about our little incident this morning," mom said. "I don't see as many naked people as you might think, Brett. But if a certain thirteen-year-old boy was worried about what his mother saw this morning he doesn't need to worry. I didn't see anything I haven't seen before. The only thing he needs to be embarrassed about is the way he swears in front of his grandmother."
"Sorry mom," I apologized. "Sorry grandma."
Brett was holding his belly because it hurt to laugh so much. He was even worse than a brother when it came to torturing me. We cleaned up the dishes while mom took care of grandma. Then mom reminded me that dad was planning to come see the baseball game later that evening and we were free. I gave grandma a kiss and she smiled. Then Brett gave her a kiss and she absolutely beamed. Even for all his orneriness he was still one of the kindest and sweetest people I'd ever known. It was a shame I had to slug him in the arm when he wasn't paying attention for all the trouble he'd caused at lunch!
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