By Jon Frank
Danny pulled into the parking lot of the nursing home.
His grandmother was nearing the end of a full, beautiful life. He felt ashamed because he hadn’t seen her in over a year, even though she was his only parent. When Danny was an infant his father left his seventeen-year-old mother homeless and alone to care for Danny. A year later she overdosed, so his grandmother became his mother as well. She taught him how to cook, clean, pray, and be a man. He never met his grandfather, Chuck, who had passed away two years before he was born. Nevertheless Danny grew up in Chuck’s shadow, for his grandmother expected him to be the same caliber of man. And oh, how he tried his best to emulate Chuck, a man his grandmother repeatedly insisted was kind, strong, faithful, and courageous. Danny could still picture her face as she spoke of her husband and the respect he showed his dear “Dimples.”
So Danny was certain his unseen grandfather was angry at the way Danny had ignored his grandmother this year. No, not ignored, he told himself. Just gotten too busy. The kids had needs and he was working all the odd jobs he could muster in today’s economy.
Carolyn was understanding to a point. She tried to support his dream of becoming a writer, stopped short of calling him lazy – but she had her limits. Twenty years of marriage, a half-dozen jobs, and a busted college degree settled on Danny like mortar between bricks. Now he was nearing fifty, a sedentary, stagnant pool while the river of his life and health flowed swiftly past. Solid jobs were becoming harder and harder to come by. It seemed no one wanted to hire an old man for the pay he was worth when they could hire two younger men for less than half that.
He and Carolyn had fought over money once again that morning. She was the most understanding, caring woman Danny had ever known, but her love was clearly strained to the breaking point and he knew he was losing her. His “I’m sorry, I’m doing all I can,” wore thin months ago. The truth was he had lost the ability to talk to Carolyn. He felt constantly on the defensive and didn’t know how to start the mending process. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was gone when he returned. So Danny came now to visit the only woman who might be able to help him, if she remembered him.
Danny pushed open the door to the nursing home and made his way down the hallway. He found her room empty and inquired worriedly at the front desk. The nurse was a short woman named Oksana with close-cropped hair. She sported multiple, albeit currently empty, piercings in her ears and nose. A rose tattoo peaked over her hospital scrubs at the collarbone.
“Oh sure, Amanda’s in the kitchen area. She’s in there just about every afternoon. It’s part of her therapy, and anyway it’s about all she can do nowadays. Just follow me.”
Danny’s worry intensified. His grandmother was near ninety! Why was she anywhere near sharp objects, never mind a stove? His anger seethed as they walked the hallway and turned into the kitchen area, but immediately dissipated when he saw his grandmother leaning against the stainless steel table, talking away at two young nursing assistants seated on bar stools nearby. Arranged before her were cooking implements and various bottles, tins, and cartons. Her soft, slender black hands, strong as ever despite her advanced age, were gently crushing a package of cookies still in their wax wrapper. She then tossed the crumbs into a pie pan. Danny knew this recipe well and on many occasions had helped his grandmother make it. It was her Chilled Cookies and Cream Pie. How often had those hands caressed his face or swatted his behind?
“Hi, Gran’manda, it’s me, Danny,” he said timidly.
“Baby! Come on over here and give me some love,” she motioned. “Ladies, this is my baby boy! Ain’t he handsome? Looks like his granddaddy he does. Oh, Law, now there was a man. Looka here at this picture.”
His grandmother had brought along a framed picture Danny knew well. Chuck had been a massive man, strong of jaw and face, with smooth dark skin and a smile of slightly-crooked white teeth. In the photo he was wearing bib overalls and leaning on a long-handled bush axe. Standing next to him was Danny’s grandmother, a gingham kitchen towel in hand, her diminutive frame pixie-like next to the mountain that was his grandfather. They had married just after the war, and the photo was taken on their farm.
The old woman set the picture down with reverence and returned to her baking. “Did I tell you ladies about my man?” Both caregivers shook their heads automatically. “No? Law, let me tell you then. I met him when I was but a girl at Stephens Lee, right here in town. School ain’t there no more, but it was the only school that black folk could go to. Now that don’t mean it wasn’t a good school though. No, sir. Chuck was this big ol’ strapping boy. Mmm-hmm. All us girls wanted to kiss him. We used to joke that we’d have to buy a stepladder first.” She chuckled to herself. “He had them big broad shoulders and that smile that could melt cold steel, oh, Law yes. Well, them other girls all had their ways to try and get his attention see. Mary Watson had herself a little money so she bought fancy dresses and had her hair did. She was a pretty girl, but she never got more than a look now and then. Pansy Graham could sing like a songbird and tried to show it ever chance she could, but Chuck wouldn’t have it. Now that nasty little Dixon girl would sleep with anything that walked, but she didn’t have anything my man wanted I guess. Now me, I knew what a man needed. He needed some good cooking. I’d slip around to where I knew he was working of the afternoon and bring the work crew he was with pies and such, especially this here cookie pie I’m making. That was always Chuck’s favorite and soon I was his favorite gal, too.”
Danny’s grandmother paused and added a few more ingredients, whipping them together with a wooden spoon. Then she continued, “Now that damned ol’ war came about and them Nazis was killing our boys off by the hundreds. Chuck was too young really to join up but that didn’t stop him. He says to me, ‘I got to go, Amanda, I got to go.’ And he did. He went to the army recruiter and told him he just had to go and would do about anything to get there. The recruiter looked up at this big ol’ black boy and asked if he could drive a truck. Chuck lied and said he could drive an airplane if it would get him in. So they fixed up his papers and off he went. Served with the Red Ball Express, he did. Helped Patton whip them Nazis good.”
She paused the story to catch her breath and finish up the pie. She shuffled over to the stove with it and Oksana helped her open the oven door. “Is that preheated to three-fifty? It has to be preheated you know, or it won’t cook right. Danny, come check this oven.”
“Yes, Gran’manda.” He made a show of checking it and helped her place the pie crust on the oven rack. He then assisted her to a chair.
“Set that timer there, baby. You know how long. Law, what time is it, anyway? I have to get the rest of supper fixed before Chuck comes home. Always has his supper at six. Now where was I?”
“The war, Gran’manda, you were talking about the war,” he supplied.
“Oh, yeah. My man came out all that without a scratch. Can’t say the same for a lot of other local boys. But Chuck felt personal satisfaction that he had helped speed up the victory.
“I was just glad to have my man back. We got married the day he came home. My daddy did the ceremony. Nine months later I had me a baby girl, Danny’s ma. Now, Chuck he didn’t believe that a baby should come between a man and his wife, no sir. Every Friday after work, we would eat supper at six, and he called that little pig-nosed girl up the street to watch Grace. I’d slip into that yellow dress with the split up to here and down to there, and we’d go dancing at the James Keys Hotel. Oh Law, that place. It had a band of boys that used to play for Stephens Lee. They could play anything, any style you wanted and my man could dance to any of it too. That boy used to dance my feet off. I’d have to quit sometimes and sit out one or two. He never stopped though, kept right on going. Some of the girls would jump in my place, but I didn’t worry none. I knew who he was coming home to. He was something to see though. That big ol’ boy up there moving and grooving better than any man alive. He was dancing up until the day he died.”
She looked up suddenly, “Oh, Law, what time is it. I’ve got to have supper finished by six. Chuck will be home any minute. Danny, go fetch that girl to come watch Gracie.”
Danny started to tell her that his mother was dead, but Oksana placed her hand on his arm and softly shook her head. “Amanda, we’ll help you with supper. It’ll be all right.”
“You know we were supposed to go out that night? Chuck had gotten this job working on that new building downtown, you know that big old bank building. They hired him cause he could work up high in the steel. My man wasn’t afraid of nothing. He could run them girders like a squirrel. I guess it was all that dancing that made him light on his feet.
“It was that job that killed him though.” She took a big breath and pursed her lips. “Weren’t his fault though. He could have let that boy fall, but that wasn’t who he was. He just dove over that rail and pushed that boy out of the way, he lost his footing though.”
She stopped again. Danny knew the rest of the story. The construction company had “done her right,” as they say, setting her up with a sizable pension because it was the right thing to do in light of Chuck’s heroic act. What they did for Amanda was actually amazing, given the times and their skin color.
Amanda stood and checked her timer. “Danny, get that pie crust out when the timer rings. I have to go and get dressed before Chuck comes home.”
The two nurses helped his grandmother to her walker, and Oksana followed as they made the slow shuffle to her room.
“I want my yellow dress now, baby. Chuck will want me to wear it.”
“Okay, Amanda.” said Oksana, helping her into a bathrobe. “How’s that?’
“Oh, that is fine,” Amanda said, admiring her reflection in the dresser’s mirror. “Now put me near the window so I can watch him come up the walk.”
Danny waited as the three women helped her into a chair by the window facing the inner courtyard.
“What time is it?” Amanda asked, “I have to have supper ready by six for Chuck. It’s Friday, he’ll want to go dancing tonight.”
“He’ll be here any minute, Amanda. Just sit there and we’ll be back with your supper.” Oksana walked over to Danny.
“Is this everyday?” he asked.
“Yeah, most days. She sundowns about this time everyday and lapses into the past. She’s pretty much settled in for the night now. If you want to talk to her, you need to come in the morning when she’s more lucid.”
Danny acknowledged her with a nod. He walked over, bent down, and kissed his grandmother’s forehead. She patted his face.
“Such a handsome boy,” she said. Danny wasn’t sure who she meant, but he took the affection anyway.
He leaned against the car and dialed his cellphone. “Hey. I am really sorry for this morning. And listen, I called your sister, and she said she can keep the kids tonight. Do you want to go out? Maybe go…dancing?”
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