I’d slept for most of the trip up, since my father wanted to leave at four A.M. to get the jump on all the other travelers. My father was always concerned with “getting the jump” when we traveled, obsessed with outsmarting other motorists; once in the car, he flipped the radio dial constantly, checking out his competition, something that drove me crazy since I never got to hear any music.
Before we left I lay awake most of the night, listening for cars outside. I was sure Macon would come by, even just to beep, to say good-bye again. He knew I was upset about my grandmother, but it made him uncomfortable; family stuff was not really his department. I didn’t want to leave things the way we had, unresolved, and I pictured him in the few places I knew he went, with the few friends of his I’d met, and tried to tell myself he cared about me enough not to look elsewhere for what I wasn’t giving him.
The first thing I thought when I walked into Grandma Halley’s room was how small she looked. She was in bed, her eyes closed, and a square of sunlight was falling across her face from the window. She looked like a doll, her face porcelain and unreal, like the Madame Alexander Scarlett O’Hara she’d given me.
“Hi there.” My mother stood up from a chair by the window. I hadn’t even seen her. “How was the trip?”
“Fine,” I said as she came over and kissed me.
“Fine,” my father said, putting his arm around her waist. “We made great time. Really got the jump on everyone.”
“Come outside,” she said softly. “She’s had a hard night and she really needs her rest.”
Out in the corridor a pack of women in wheelchairs was passing, laughing and talking, and next to Grandma Halley’s room, behind a half-closed door, I could see someone hooked up to a machine, a tube in his nose. The room was dark, the shades drawn.
“So how’s everything?” my mother said to me, pulling me close. “I’ve missed you guys so much.”
“How are you?” my father said, noticing as I did how tired she looked, her face older and more drawn, as if just time in this place could age you.
“I’m okay,” she said to him, her arm still around me. I was uncomfortable, my arm clamped in an odd position against my side, but this was important to her, so I didn’t move. “She’s doing much better today. Every day she just improves by leaps and bounds.” Every few words she squeezed my shoulder again for emphasis.
When we went back inside I only spoke with Grandma Halley for a few minutes. At first, when she opened her eyes and saw me there was no flicker of recognition, no instant understanding that I was who I was, and that scared me. As if I had already changed into another girl, another Halley, features and voice and manners all shifting to make me unrecognizable.
“It’s Halley, Mother,” my own mother said softly from the other side of the bed, looking across at me encouragingly, since she couldn’t squeeze my shoulder and pass this off as better than it was.
And then I saw it, flooding across my grandmother’s antique, careful features: she found me in the strange face looking down at her. “Halley,” she said, almost scolding, as if I was an old friend playing a trick on her. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m good. I’ve missed you,” I said, and I took her hand, so small in mine, and wrapped my fingers around it. I could feel the bones in it working, moving to grab hold, as I carefully squeezed it, emphasizing, reassuring, that everything would be all right.
Later, we watched Grandma Halley eat turkey and cranberry Jell-O off an orange plastic, cornucopia-decorated tray. The halls at Evergreen were packed with other relatives now, making pilgrimages; at one point when I passed the room next door, the man with the tubes and machines had a crowd around his bed, all talking softly and huddled together. Outside, in the hallway, a little girl in a pinafore and Mary Janes was playing hopscotch across the linoleum tiles. The halls had a different smell now, of air freshener mingled with hundreds of types of perfumes and hair spray, the outside world suddenly mixed in.
That evening we went to a hotel downtown and paid a flat twenty bucks each for a Thanksgiving buffet, rows and rows of steam tables full of mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Everyone was dressed up and eating at little tables, like a huge family broken up into pieces. My father ate three plates’ worth and my mother, her face tired and lined from lack of sleep, talked the entire time, nonstop, as if enough words could make it less strange, less different from every other Thanksgiving we’d ever had. She asked me tons of questions, just to keep the conversation going, about Scarlett and school and Milton’s. My father told a long story about some listener who’d stripped naked and run down Main Street for concert tickets, the station’s latest coup. I picked at my mashed potatoes, smooth as silk, and wondered what Macon was doing, if he even had a turkey dinner or just a Big Mac in his empty room and another party without me. I missed him, just like I missed the lumpy potatoes my mother made every Thanksgiving.
We settled into Grandma Halley’s house, me in my old room from all those summers, my parents down the hall in the guest room with the blue flowered wallpaper. Nothing much had changed. The cat was still fat, the pipes still wheezed all night, and each time I passed the bell in the staircase window I touched it automatically, without thinking, announcing myself to the empty stairwell.
In the evenings I reread the few magazines I’d brought or called Scarlett. She’d cooked an entire traditional dinner for Cameron (whose family ate early) and Marion and Steve/Vlad, who showed up, she told me, in dress pants, with his clanking boots and medallion necklace and what she said could only be described politely as a tunic.
“A what?” I said.
“A tunic,” she said simply. “Like a big shirt, with a drawstring collar, that hung down past his waist.”
“He tucked it in, right?”
“No,” she said. “He just wore it. And I swear Marion hardly even noticed.”
This fascinated me. “What did you say?”
“What could I say? I told him to sit down and gave him a bowl of nuts. I don’t know, Marion’s crazy for him. She wouldn’t care if he showed up butt naked.”
I laughed. “Stop.”
“I’m serious.” She sighed. “Well, at least dinner went well. Cameron kept the conversation going, and I was highly complimented on my potatoes. Not that I could eat them. My back has been killing me and I’ve been feeling nauseous since last week. Something is rotting in the kitchen. Did I tell you that?”