Josh was stuck inside the new house while his mom drove back to the old house for another load. He was supposed to be babysitting his grandma. It was raining—not a good day to move, but at least Dixon and McCoy couldn’t go street skating without him. His dad had already moved all his own stuff—into a condo up in South Hills, overlooking UC, where he taught biology. The mystery person taught at UC too.
Josh’s new bedroom was a converted garage off the kitchen, with unpainted sheetrock walls and Astroturf glued to the concrete floor. The back wall had a shelf made of scarred and oil-stained boards laid across L braces, and a peg board with hooks for hanging tools. It looked rough and Josh liked it. The Astroturf smelled of mildew but was perfect for practicing on his board.
The driveway stopped at his outer wall, where the garage door used to be. There was a wall and a regular door there now, his own private entrance to the house. The wall by the kitchen door was once the outside wall of the house and was red bricks. Two cement steps lead up to the kitchen doorway.
He left the door to the driveway open with the screen door closed so he could watch for his mom. Tree limbs sagged wet over the drive, dark leaves slick and dripping. Mist hung in the air, thick and white as an aerated glass of water. A funky, low-intensity sewer stench was beginning to seep in from the side yard—probably the neighbors’ septic tank burbling up in all this rain.
The ceiling of his room had a hole cut in it where the previous owner had put in a skylight to match the one already in the den. Josh dragged his bed directly under it so he could lie there and look up at the sky through an overhanging tree branch. He’d already made up his bed with his bedspread of Picasso prints, wild distorted faces and bodies—women’s titties that looked like they were drawn by a child.
His mom came back with the twelve sturdy boxes she’d gotten from the coffee shop where she stopped every morning. Vie de France was printed in blue on the side, with a French flag, and white stickers reading multigrain dough blocks. The boxes had handle holes cut in them for easy carrying. They were heavy with the books his dad didn’t have room for in his new place. Old textbooks, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton. Stuff like that. Josh liked some of it. He’d just finished A Clockwork Orange, and he and Dixon and McCoy were talking about their yarbles right in front of teachers at school. It was hilarious.
Josh and his mom went out the door that opened on the driveway and carried two of the boxes into his room from the minivan.
“How’s grandma?” his mom asked. She grunted as she squatted and eased a box down just inside the door. His mom had taken Imodium for her nervous bowels since this started. Twice recently they had gone out to eat and she’d had to sprint for the restroom in the middle of dinner. She’d lost over twenty pounds and her skin was starting to sag at her neck. Josh found it hard to look at her without a mild feeling of disgust.
“She’s fine,” Josh said. He scooted the box against the wall with his foot. “I guess.”
His mother straightened up and put her hands on her hips and said, “Son, where is she?” She had on a tattered gray U.C. sweatshirt—Josh’s dad’s shirt—and her loose old-woman jeans with elastic at the top that exaggerated her sagging pear shape.
“In her room maybe?” he said. His grandma had Alzheimer’s. She sometimes thought Josh was her brother Jerry, who had died in a car wreck before Josh was born. One time, at the old house, she had walked into the street and almost gotten hit by the mail lady pulling away from the box. She was always so quiet he’d forgotten to check on her.
His mom said, “Son.” She looked at the ceiling and chewed on the inside of her lip. “Get the books in.” She bounded up the two cement steps into the kitchen.
He turned his ear toward the kitchen door and listened. He heard a box slide against something on the table. Glasses inside the box clinked.
His mom said, “Aren’t these pretty, mother?” Plates made a deeper, solider clinking than the glasses. Paper crumpled.
Her voice sounded normal. He relaxed.
“They look brand new,” his mom said, “don’t they?” She said, “They’re really quite old.”
Josh propped the screen door open and brought in another box. The mist collected into rain. There were two boxes left in the minivan. He ran out and slammed the hatch closed and bolted back inside with his head down. He was trying to mat his long blond hair into dreadlocks and didn’t want it getting wet yet. Raindrops popped like pebbles on the skylight, then settled into a hard steady pour.
He picked up the box his mom had left by the door, carried it to the stack against the wall and hefted it up. Inside were some dusty old National Geographic videocassettes. Down among the cassettes he saw a baby blue book. The title was The Denial of Death. Josh picked it up and flipped through it reading here and there, not really taking much in. He flipped a page where, between two fat blocks of writing, was a line of poetry:
No wonder how I lost my Wits; Cealia, Caelia, Caelia shits!
A poem about a girl taking a poop. Page thirty-three. Josh thought he was onto another good one to take to school for kicks. Page thirty-three.
“What?” his mom said from the kitchen door.
“What?” He glanced up.
She had a bemused smirk on her face. “You were laughing.” Her hand was curled loosely over the frayed shirt neck at her collarbone.
“Was I?” He couldn’t tell her what the poem said. She’d become even more religious since his dad left.
“What?” she said again.
“Just something in one of dad’s books.”
The poem was by Jonathan Swift—Josh knew Gulliver’s Travels, and they’d read “A Modest Proposal” in AP English—and this blue book claimed that what Swift was saying was that beauty was always linked to basic animal functions. Dixon and McCoy were going to have to see this.
The book also said that humans wanted to live forever, but “man is a worm and food for worms…housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.”
His mom was still standing there. She wanted to be in on his joke. She was clingy since his dad left, wanted Josh to take her side, be her bud. She said, “One of your father’s books is funny?”
Josh closed the book slowly. He said, “It says we don’t like poop because it reminds us that we have to die.”
His mom shook her head and sighed. “We don’t like poop because it stinks.” She turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
He stared at the sky blue book cover.
Rain poured outside. It ran over the gutter and pounded against a box he’d tossed out the door earlier, and drummed on his skylight. It sounded like a cattle stampede in stereo.
The smell of mildew in his room swelled and mixed with the sewer funk from outside, made the air seem thicker, harder to breathe. Josh’s chest got tight. He tossed the book on his bedside table and got the Scotch tape from his dresser and unrolled his solar system poster on the floor, white-side-up. He held it spread with his knees and flattened tape loops in the four corners and the center. He carried the poster to the wall by the driveway and pressed it to the wall above the stacked boxes.
As he backed up to make sure the poster was straight, a new noise started. The rain still drummed, but this noise was inside his room, and it sounded like somebody taking a piss. From inside the skylight above his bed, a steady thin stream of rainwater wiggled, and it caught the dull overhead light and looked like a glowing piece of yarn shaken from above. Water soaked dark across his Picasso bedspread.
“Shit,” Josh yelled. He ran to his bed and pulled. The legs caught on the Astroturf and the mattress slid half off the box springs and slumped toward him. He fell on his ass.
“Language,” his mom yelled from the kitchen.
He yelled again. “Shit.” He yelled, “Damn it.” He shoved the mattress back on the box springs and banged his shin against the metal frame. “God damn it,” he shouted. He squatted down and grabbed one leg and dragged the bed in jerks from under the wiggling stream. Water pooled shiny on the Astroturf. The stink of mildew rose heavy as fog.
“Joshua Dalton,” his mom shouted. “Stop that this instant.”
He saw her in his peripheral vision, standing in the kitchen doorway with her hand on the rail, ready to come down.
He turned and looked. His grandma’s gaunt face floated over his mom’s left shoulder, unkempt brown-gray hair, waxy skin taut over nose and cheek bones. Her hollow eyes registered no comprehension as she looked at the leak that was settling into a steady drip. She slowly turned to Josh. She stared down at him, her eyes blank as a cow’s.
It was supposed to be Josh’s weekend with his dad, so the next day, Sunday, his mom loaded up his grandma and drove Josh into town to his dad’s apartment before she went back out to Cross Lanes for church.
The night before, his grandma had stood at the top of the stairs and gripped the door frame and watched while his mom sopped the water up from his floor with bed sheets because it was the first thing she could find in a box. She set a plastic pitcher, stained brown from iced tea, under the leak, and then put a washcloth inside it to dampen the sound of the drops. After taking the sodden sheets to the washing machine, and getting his grandma in bed, his mom had sat in the kitchen with a glass of wine and cried, Josh though purposefully to make him hear her. He had put on his headphones and turned up the Dream Theater and wiggled into his sleeping bag on the dry part of the floor.
His dad’s front door was locked. Josh rang the bell and shrugged up his backpack as he turned around to survey the area. Across the parking lot, apartments rose row on tiered row, perfectly spaced up the hillside. White with black shutters. Green rectangles of rolled-out sod lay sharp and neat, like Lego grass in front of Lego buildings.
His dad answered the door in purple paisley boxers and a yellow tank top. His hair was flattened above his left ear and his unshaven whiskers, a lot grayer than his brown hair, made him look old. Chest hair sprouted around the tank top and his arms were hairy up to mid-bicep, and suddenly bald from there to above the shoulders.
Inside smelled like new carpet chemicals, and the carpet was so thick the door dragged hard as he pushed it closed. But as he walked in, the smell of coffee overtook the carpet smell.
“How’s the new digs?” his dad asked. He walked back to the bar between the kitchen and the dining area.
“Okay.” Josh looked around. The mystery person had been doing some serious decorating. There was a golden-framed print on the wall of blurry flowers. Monet’s Water Lilies it said at the bottom.
There was no table in the dining area and the chandelier hung as low as Josh’s forehead. The Sunday paper was spread across the bar. His dad was working the crossword. He scooted the stool closer and hefted his foot up on the rung. His hairy knee pulled up between them. Josh’s dad had gotten testicular cancer three years ago. Josh remembered hearing him sob and cry to Josh’s mom inside their bedroom. It had made Josh flee the hallway in embarrassment and disgust. Looking at that hairy knee, Josh got an image of his dad’s ball sack—with a hole punched in it and one nut sucked out—squished against the stool. He turned away.
His dad’s mug was a strange one—the mystery person’s mug. It had picture of a Golden Retriever half worn off of it.
“Where’d you get that?” Josh flipped his hand toward the mug.
His dad shrugged. “Yard sale?” he said.
Josh carried his backpack down the dark hall to the room that had been designated his. When he flipped on the light, he saw that the mystery person had been decorating in there too. Another golden-framed picture of flowers above the bed, the entire room posed and spotless like a guest room.
He came back out and said, “My room looks pretty cool.”
“Cool,” his dad said. “You like your mother’s place?”
“The skylight leaks dirty water that looks like piss.”
“I heard.” His dad chewed the top of his ink pen. He held his index finger on a crossword clue and leaned closer to look at the puzzle. A new coffeemaker clicked and hissed beside the kitchen sink.
Josh ducked around the chandelier and stood at the counter.
“Coffee?” his dad asked.
Josh slid the sale papers around with his fingers. He said, “I’ve been reading some of your books.”
“Last night I started The Denial of Death.”
“You’re reading Becker?” His dad glanced up and smiled, then looked back at the crossword puzzle. His chin pulled into the whiskered roll of flesh at his neck. “What do you think?”
“You believe we’re just animals?”
“I’m a scientist, son.”
If vomiting facts at students made you a scientist, he was a scientist. If overseeing the butchering of formaldehyde-soaked sheep eyeballs makes you a scientist.
“But you don’t believe there’s anything else?” Josh said. He got a sudden sharp itch under one of his forming dreadlocks. He scratched it hard.
“All these politicians who say they believe—hell, they have to lie.” His dad waved his hand. The pen was between his fingers like a cigarette. “They aren’t idiots.”
Josh said, “Mom’s an idiot?”
His dad reached under his tank top and pulled gently at his chest hair. “I did not say that. Do not tell your mother I said that.” His dad took a long drink of coffee, poured himself some more. “Your mom is a liberal-arts type.” He tossed the pen onto the crossword and said, “We could go to Blue Moon for some bagels.”
Josh shook his head.
“Sutton Lake sound good today?”
“I was thinking I’d meet Dixon and McCoy down at the skate park.”
“Some colleagues have a house out there and a boat.” He slurped at the fresh coffee from the Golden Retriever mug and set it down. He said, “You can work on your slalom.”
“I’d rather skate.”
“You can skate anytime.” His dad rubbed his face, folded up the paper and shoved it under his armpit. He picked up the mug. “We’ll have a blast,” he said. He held the mug out in front of him and headed down the dark hallway to the toilet for his Sunday morning marathon shit.
The next Sunday Josh went to church with his mom and his grandma. Going took less effort than fighting with his mom about it.
When he filed into a row in the youth loft behind Stephanie Long and Miranda Waters, from his AP Calculus class, he forgot about all that though. Stephanie was wearing hip huggers that showed her thong. She was directly in front of him. Not even five feet tall, she had little cone titties and a round pumpkin butt. She had black streaks dyed into her dirty blond hair. And her purple silk thong: it arced from her jeans in both directions and looped over her hips like a stick drawing of bird’s wings. Her face was good too: a big white smile, clear soft skin.
She and Miranda were holding their hands to their mouths as they leaned to talk into each other’s ears while the praise and worship band played. Josh stared at Stephanie’s thong. Every now and then she hooked her thumbs into her waistband and pulled the jeans up, but they slid back down.
Stephanie’s mom and dad were divorced. They both had new partners—her dad was with a man now, which Stephanie said somehow made it easier for all of them because it was her mom who had left—and the four of them had holidays together. Stephanie said it wasn’t as strange as it sounded. It was actually kind of cool. She was into singing and theater. Got the lead female part in Phantom of the Opera.
When they sat, the padded backs of the stackable chairs were low so that Josh could only see a thin strip of her jeans. He stared at the back of her hair during the youth sermon. And the back of her arm with tiny white pimples on it. The side of her face when she turned to whisper to Miranda, her big mouth. He pictured the purple silk flossing down into her butt crack and scooping into a soft little cup over her muff. He could feel his heartbeat throbbing in his stiffy.
After church, Josh stopped Stephanie on the front sidewalk. Miranda said she had to use the girls’ room and went back inside.
He asked Stephanie, “Did you do that Calc’ yet?”
Adult church hadn’t let out, and the front of the church building was quiet. The men in orange vests who directed traffic were making their way out across the parking lot to the highway entrances.
Stephanie shifted her weight and stood on one leg. She giggled and said, “Something’s making a nest in your hair, Josh.”
“It’s dreadlocks,” he said. “A skater thing.” He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
Two ushers pushed open the doors. Adult church was over. People started coming out.
Stephanie’s stomach made a long, low growl and she put her hand over her tummy. “Don’t know why I’m hungry,” she said. She pushed her streaked hair behind her ear, which was glowing red. She said, “We went to Waffle House before church.”
“I’m starving too,” Josh said.
She reached up and pinched at one of his dreads. She said, “How long will it take?”
Josh shrugged. He saw his mom coming out, walking slowly. His grandma held onto her arm with both hands and scuttled along beside her.
Josh’s mom was beside him now. She said, “Morning, Stephanie,” and smiled at Josh. Stephanie waved nervously. His mom and his grandma kept walking. His mom said, “How about Shoney’s breakfast bar?” to no one in particular.
Another noise came from inside Stephanie, a long groan that sputtered out in a gurgle. She put her youth loft bulletin over her mouth and laughed nervously. From behind the bulletin she said, “I’m sorry. I’m really hungry.”
But the noise was not coming from her stomach at all, but lower, in her intestines: food inside her body breaking down. Gas.
Her mom came out. She smiled and said hello to Josh.
“Good luck with the dreads,” Stephanie said to him as she turned to walk with her mom. “See you tomorrow.”
Stephanie hooked her arm in her mother’s and leaned into her body. Josh’s mom and grandmother walked arm-in-arm too—his grandma held on for support as they made their slow way. A long brown nylon jacket hung on her frame. In bright white support hose, her legs, as shapeless as paper towel tubes, went from her purple dress hem into her black rubber-soled shoes.
The following Thursday, Josh’s mom had to work late. She called and asked Josh if he would sit with his grandma for a few hours. She said she would pay him, that it would not become a habit and she was very sorry.
At five Josh went to his grandma’s bedroom and got her. He led her into the kitchen and poured a can of Ensure into a glass for her and sat with her as she sipped it. He led her into the den and sat her in the recliner, grabbed the remote and crossed the room and sprawled on the couch to channel surf.
The couch was under the den skylight. It was identical to the one in his room, except it was close to the wall instead of in the middle of the room. It was dark outside. He could look up and see himself lying on the couch staring back.
Josh flipped past PBS, then went back to it. There was a show called Lawrence Welk, an old music program: horrible old songs and people with big fake smiles and embarrassing costumes. Josh glanced sideward at his grandma. She was watching it, though it was impossible to tell whether or not she was enjoying it. A man and a woman did a duet, and three women dressed like farm girls sang a song that was new then, called “Georgie Girl.”
When that was over, Josh stopped on a cartoon he used to watch called Dexter’s Laboratory. He thought maybe she’d like cartoons.
His grandmother worked herself out of the recliner and crept into the kitchen. Josh got up and followed her to make sure she didn’t fall down the steps into his room.
“Jerry?” she said. She stood in the center of the kitchen, staring at the sink.
“Right here, grandma,” Josh said.
Her tight face looked like a newly hatched chick, but the skin hung in wattles at her neck. Her gown pulled tight over the middle of her jutting breastbone.
“Grandma,” Josh said. “What do you need?”
She stared at the window.
“Need a drink? A snack?” He was getting hungry. “I’m going to nuke some mini pizza bagels. Want some pizza bagels?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Grandma, what do you need?”
“I have to go,” she said.
“You need the bathroom?”
She nodded and held her hand up in front of her.
He took her arm and led her through the den and into the hallway and turned her into the dark bathroom. He flipped on the light, closed the door and plopped himself back on the couch. The cartoon Samurai Jack was on and Samurai Jack was learning how to jump high by exercising with a boulder tied to his back. Josh surfed the channels and stopped on ESPN2, where they were talking about the X Games. He dozed off.
He awoke and realized that his grandma had not come back from the bathroom. He turned off the television and called out, “Grandma?”
She didn’t answer.
He stepped into the dark hallway and said into the bathroom door, “Grandma? You okay?”
He heard nothing.
He turned the knob and pushed the door open a crack. The smell of shit was overpowering. He said again, “You okay?”
He heard her move. He peeked in. She was sitting on the floor with her hands in the toilet. She was playing in her own shit, squishing it between her fingers like it was Play-Doh. It lumped on her fingers and was smeared on the tile wall and on her gown. She looked up at him, her mouth pulled into a confused half-smile.
He stared at her. She stared back.
Josh ran into his mom’s room and through it into the master bathroom. He flipped on the light and pulled open the top drawer under her sink and dug around: hotel shampoos and soaps, packets of Vivarin, a Band-Aid box with the bandages spilled all over, Ricola lemon cough drops so old that the drops were stuck to and seeping through the wrappers, a jar of Vick’s VapoRub, a bag of cotton swabs. He closed it and opened the bottom drawer. In it was a white plastic basket with a bottle of nail polish remover and a scissors-like contraption for curling eyelashes. He shoved things around and found his mom’s fingernail brush.
Back in the hall bathroom, he got water running warm in the sink and leaned to the toilet and lifted his grandma from under her armpits.
He put her hands under the water. “Is that okay?” he asked her. “Doesn’t feel too hot?”
She turned and looked at him.
He rubbed the shit off her hands with his own hands. The water swirled brown and chunky into the sink. He rubbed the nail brush on the bar of soap that was light green to match the light green tile. He worked up a lather and scrubbed his grandma’s fingernails. She looked at her hands and back at him. She looked down at the smear on her gown.
He took the hand towel off the rack and pressed her hands into it. “Is that okay?” he said. “Feel alright?”
He walked her to her bedroom and unbuttoned the back of her dressing gown. The vertebrae made a reptilian ridge down her humped back. He got a fresh gown from her dresser with sunflowers printed all over it and tossed it on her bed. “Arms up,” he said.
She didn’t move, so he lifted her arms and pulled her gown up off her body. He balled it up and threw it sidearm into the hallway.
She started lowering her arms.
“Wait,” Josh said, and she stopped. Her skin hung loose over her skeleton. Josh pulled her fresh gown on her and buttoned the back.
He dropped the soiled gown down the hall chute. He walked her to the couch and eased her down. “Rest right here for a minute,” he said. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
All he could find under the sink was a bottle of Lysol Mist Away daily shower cleaner. It was disinfectant, so he squirted down the tiles beside the toilet and unrolled toilet paper and wiped off the smeared shit. He flushed it all and stood. When he turned around, his grandma was standing outside the bathroom door watching him.
He washed his hands with the decorative soap. “Are you sleepy?” he asked. “You want to go to bed?”
She just stared at him.
“Come on.” He led her back into the den and again eased her onto the couch. He grabbed the remote and sat down beside her. She held out her hand and it hung like a gnarled claw, and the nearly translucent skin looked thin enough to rip open with a good thumb rub.
Josh took her hand. He interlaced his fingers in hers. Her body relaxed into his side. He didn’t turn the television back on, just rested his head on the back of the couch and looked up at the dark bubbled skylight. He could see himself and his grandma from above. Her head was turned looking at the television, her wispy brown-gray hair like an outline of the full head of hair that used to be there.
They sat there holding hands. His grandma nodded off. He dozed too.
The screen door hissed open and the door lock clacked. His mom came through the front hall into the den, her laptop case thumping against the door frame, making her turn a little sideways.
“Everything go okay tonight?” she asked. She cocked her head, looked puzzled, worried.
Josh said, “We’re cool. Aren’t we grandma?”
His grandma was awake beside him. Their fingers were still interlaced on his leg. She looked at him. She looked at his mom. She didn’t say anything.
“Really,” he said.
She still looked doubtful, puzzled.
He said, “It’s all good.”