Mom's always either ten minutes late with plastic bags filled with food or five hours late with her breath like rotting fruit, her eyes glazed, and her all cuddly and calling me Baby Boy even though I'm shaving pretty much every day now.
Grandma has the TV on the kitchen counter turned up too loud. The 5 o'clock news is covering the tornado warning even though we don't need it because Grandma holds the weather in her bones. I'm in the bathroom in my baseball jersey, late for a practice that's probably canceled, rifling through Mom's makeup drawer while Grandma's in the kitchen bleating like a goat.
I yank the cap off a tube of Mom's lipstick and smear my lips and smack. I pucker up and lean into the mirror and smooch the glass and pull away. Two crimson slugs stare back at me. I trace my eyelids with the eye pencil. I understand the lipstick and the pencil, but the brushes and the powder don't make any sense.
It isn't like the Tigers miss me. They have to let me play because Mom paid the dues to the Martha County Jr. Pro Preteen League. I can't catch, throw, or hit, and the only time I get on base is when the pitcher walks me before he throws three strikes. When I do get on base, Coach Donahue stands just off first and pretends like he's coaching, but he's really just whispering about how he wants to keep me late again, and that if I run my mouth about us he'll tell everybody in Martha County the truth about me. I never tell anybody this except Grandma because I know my secrets are safe with her.
I turn off the TV and blow kisses and bob and curtsy. Grandma stares at me, frozen in her flapping skin, her hair like browning cauliflower florets sprouting in patches on her skull. A bowl of Grape Nuts mushes on the table in front of her.
"How do I look?"
"I gossama graybus," she says.
Her black eyes wander and focus on something I could never see. She waves like I'm not paying attention and smacks her palm on the window. Dark boiling clouds gurgle in the sky. Her dead arm drops out of her lap, and with her good hand she lifts the limp limb and slings it across her knees.
"Idda bun dorma," she says.
She groans and shakes her head as the firehouse sirens crank up their weeping warning.
I remember the saying from grade school: Hear the sirens, listen for the train, get in the tub, it's safe when there's rain.
I pull out the chair across from her and sit down. I imagine who she used to be. Mom says before the stroke she sang solos for the church choir. Won beauty pageants at the Martha County Fair. You can still see a withering flare in her eyes sometimes, like after she finishes a 5,000 piece Jigsaw puzzle that's just a photo of a barn or when Mom brings home Taco Bell.
I snatch her cigarettes and pull one out. I like hers because they're longer than Mom's Camels. I put the cigarette in my mouth and we both lunge for her lighter. There is nothing she can ever save me from. I light the cigarette and blow out a cloud of smoke as the firehouse sirens swell in the distance. Outside, the clouds swirl like black cotton and a guttural moan seeps from the earth. Grandma opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. I hear the train. We stare at each other. My mother's mother and I. Home alone together all the time.
I smash the cigarette out in her ashtray and run into Mom's room and yank the covers off her bed and drag the flimsy foam mattress into the bathroom and lean it against the sink. I go back for Grandma and she slaps at me with her good hand while I unlock her wheelchair and roll her down the hall.
"Hear the sirens, listen for the train, get in the tub, it's safe when there's rain!" I yell.
Grandma grunts and grinds her teeth as her orthopedic shoes scrape the tiles. I set her in the tub and sit behind her like we're in a roller coaster car. I pull the mattress over us. The tornado drowns out the sirens. It does sound like a train. It sounds like five trains headed toward us. I wrap my arms around Grandma's waist and cling onto her loose skin as the windows shudder and the walls shake like something's beating the house with a giant whip. Grandma's good hand clutches my baseball jersey. I kiss her on the back of the neck and leave two faint red blotches. I burrow my face into her bony back and pull the mattress tighter.
The tornado lasts no longer than a real train. Everything stills save for the moaning sirens and Grandma's slow breaths and the faint tick of raindrops. The power pops and hisses and dies. I slide the mattress off. We sit there in the dark and I rest my head on her back.
"Will you sing to me, Grandma?"
I think about all the things she might sing if she could. All the music that would swell up from deep in her weathered bones and seep out of her mouth. I listen for Grandma's song, but instead I hear the screen door in the carport slam shut. I hear the rustle of grocery bags hitting the kitchen floor. Drawers open and close in the dark. Mom yells our names. I hold my hand over Grandma's mouth as Mom bursts into the bathroom waving a flashlight, the beam bouncing off the tiles.
BIO: Grant Gerald Miller was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He currently teaches creative writing and book arts at The Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in various journals including Cease, Cows, Qu Magazine, and Fish Magazine‘s 2014 Anthology.