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“It’s going to be a thick night tonight, and last night was a thick one,” Grandma said sitting in her rocking chair on the veranda. I sat with a Tonka truck, zoom-zooming along the boards. The top of the yellow vehicle was wet from the clamminess of my hand. “Where’s your grandpa?” she asked.
“In the garage.” Grandpa was always in the garage with old car parts, old tractors, 100 times the size of my Tonka truck. I was not allowed in there alone.
“Always in that garage,” Grandma said, shaking her head. Her neatly painted nails gleamed at me as her feet pushed her gently back and forth in her rocker. “Do you want some more lemonade?”
“Yes, please,” I said. She poured some into a sweaty glass and passed it to me. It made my face pucker but I tried not to show it. I smiled because I saw how my face looked in the window. I looked like Grandpa when he took his teeth out at night. Grandma was always sad, or sometimes angry, because, as she said to Ma, my grandpa paid her no mind anymore. Ma always told me to mind Grandma when she left for work so I tried to do as I was told.
“You’re always smiling,” she said, tousling my hair. “It’s going to be a thick night tonight,” she said again. “We’d best make the cellar ready before long.”
“But the cellar’s dark,” I said. “I don’t like going down there.”
“We’ll take the lanterns down, Joby, don’t you worry.” Grandma always called me Joby instead of Joseph, except for when I didn’t mind her and then I was Joseph Russell Brant.
Grandpa came out of the garage. He was oily up to his elbows, his face was dirty and his cap was pushed right back. His forehead shone.
“We’d best get the cellar ready,” Grandma said to him. “I feel it’s not going to hold back tonight.” Grandpa reached to open the screen door. “Don’t you be going in there with those boots and coveralls on,” Grandma said. “I’ve already washed the floor and there ain’t no way I’m doing it again.”
“You fuss, Beatrice, you fuss.” He trudged away in the grass. “We’ll do the cellar later.” I heard him unlock it as he passed the double doors in the ground at the side of the house. The padlock on them was old and heavy and made a loud pop as Grandpa unlocked it with a key from his enormous ring. When I was still in a stroller, he’d let me play with his keys as he pushed me along but there were so many, they barely jingled. A few minutes later we heard his boots thunk one at a time onto the back porch and then a swish as his coveralls landed on top. He ran himself a bath.
Grandma sighed, her rocker squeaking quietly on the boards. “I remember the last time we had nights like this, Joby. Your ma was a teenager, so you weren’t even thought about then.”
“Was I with Jesus?” Earlier that day in Sunday school, I had heard again about how if I was good and said my prayers I would be with Jesus when I die. I wondered if I was with Jesus before I was born and had time to do bad things but the Sunday school teacher glared at me and said such questions would get me into trouble. I asked if it was the sort of trouble that would be enough to stop me from going to heaven. She pretended she hadn’t heard and asked everyone to repeat John 3:16 by heart.
“Maybe, Joby, maybe. It was a long time ago now. It got so bad, we had to help the neighbours rebuild their house. Some folk were homeless for a spell. Our house wasn’t touched, thank the Lord.”
“Is Mamma coming home tonight?”
“Not tonight, Joby. She’s got to work tonight. Come, help me get the cellar ready.” She pushed herself out of her rocker, shuffling for a few steps before she got going, like one of my toy cars that had to get pulled back for it to go on its own. I followed her into the house. She went to a kitchen cupboard and got out a list. “Here’s what we need to take,” she said. “Let’s put things near the front door and then when your grandpa’s had his bath, he can help us take them down.”
“Why do you have a list?”
“It’s my emergency list, so I don’t forget things,” Grandma said.
“Do I need a list too?”
“No, I’ll remember these things for us.”
Blankets. Pillows. Flashlights. Wind up radio (“Wind it and make sure it works, would you, Joby?”). Batteries. Candles and matches (“Just in case, but don’t you play with those matches.”). Grandma made sandwiches at the counter. Ham and cheese for her and Grandpa but peanut butter and jelly for me. I don’t like ham and cheese.
“Get those chips out the cupboard and we’ll take some cookies down too.” I did as I was told before I got distracted by one of the flashlights. It was shiny silver and had a big button that popped when I pushed it on and off. “Joseph,” Grandma said sharply, “put that up now.”
Grandpa came downstairs. He came to me and picked me up. He smelled of white: soap and aftershave and clothes dried in the sun. “Whatcha doings Joby?” he asked.
“Helping,” I said.
“Come help me carry the things,” he said. We carried things to the cellar. The clouds had thickened since earlier and the sky was a darker blue than Grandma’s Sunday dress. I handed him the things I could manage from the top and he took them down the steps into the cellar. As we moved things, it began to rain. I could hear the thick drops plop onto the veranda roof. Grandma had turned on the lights in the kitchen and I heard the hum of the radio. She always turned the radio on when it stormed. She said it calmed her nerves if she knew where it was. She came out onto the veranda and gave me a half a sandwich. Grandpa got a whole one and poured us more lemonade, putting an extra spoonful of sugar into his own when Grandma wasn’t looking. He winked at me.
“Do we have to go to the cellar now?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “Only if it gets bad.”
“How will we know that?”
“Feel it in the bones,” Grandpa said.
“And there’ll be a siren,” Grandma said.
Lightening bounced around in the clouds, causing rumbling thunder in the distance. It sounded like the distant trains that went past the reservoir where Grandpa and I went fishing. Grandma went in and out of the house several times. The screen door clacked behind her. Grandpa looked at the thermometer nailed to a pillar on the veranda.
“It’s no cooler.”
“It won’t get cooler,” Grandma said on one of her passes along the veranda. She was making dinner at the same time as she tidied things up. My Tonka truck got parked under the swing bench.
After dinner, there was a lull and we sat on the veranda looking at the storm clouds. “It’s raining in the distance,” Grandpa said, pointing. “It’s moving our way.” Sure enough, rain started to fall again, this time mixed with hail. I moved to the edge of the veranda to pick some up.
“Don’t you stick your head out there, Joby,” Grandma said.
A while later, the phone rang. It was Mamma.
“Hey, Joby,” she said.
“Hi, Mamma! It’s hailing.”
“I know baby. It’s hailing here too.”
“Are you coming home tonight?”
“I can’t, the patients need me here. Are you minding your grandma?”
“I’ll come home early tomorrow. I’ll be there when you wake up.”
“Ok. Good night, Mamma.”
“Good night, my love. Let me speak to your grandma.” I handed the receiver over and stood next to her.
“Hi, Mona,” she said. I went to the sofa to get my bear and when I came back, she was saying, “He spent all day in the garage again. Been out there most days actually.”
We went up to my bedroom. I got into my pajamas and Grandma helped me choose a story for her to read to me.
When she closed the book, I asked, “Grandma, if we have to go to the cellar, will you come and get me?”
“Of course I will, child. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Are you scared?”
Grandma stood up and inhaled sharply. She took her time, humming a song about pretty horses as she folded up my clothes from the day and laid out clean underwear and socks on my red chair. “Not right now.”
“Do grown-ups get scared?”
“Of course we get scared. But as you get older, you start to have methods.”
“Methods for what?”
She sucked her bottom lip. “Dealing with it. So you’re not so scared anymore.”
“You mean like Grandpa in the garage.”
“Yes, just like that.”
“What’s Grandpa scared of?”
“Your grandpa is scared of getting old.”
“No, Joby. There’s nothing to be scared of. We all have to get old. We all have to die.”
“Good night, Grandma.”
She kissed my forehead. I could see myself reflected in the lenses of her glasses but my fear was reflected in her eyes. “Good night, Joby.”
“Joby, wake up. Joby! Wake up now!” Grandma was shaking me. I could hear Grandpa in the bathroom next to my room. “We have to go to the cellar.” She helped me sit up on the edge of the bed and pulled my feet into socks that didn’t match. “Let’s get your shoes on.” She put my Velcro shoes on that I was not allowed to wear except in the yard because Mamma said I should wear real shoes. She gave me my bear. I could hear a siren in the distance, wailing in between thunder claps.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Go. But be fast.”
When I came out, she was waiting at the top of the stairs. “Hold Bear,” she said taking my hand. We went down the stairs together. Grandma picked up a flashlight off the table near the door. I was now awake enough to hear the wind. It felt like the house was moving, pushing back against the wind like I did when I was walking to the school bus stop. There were creaks coming from the walls and the thunder was loud.
There was a flash of lightning. “Let’s count it,” Grandma said.
”One 1000, two 1000,” I said and then the thunder. “Where’s Grandpa?”
“He’s gone to open the cellar door.”
Grandma opened the front door. The screen door was flapping on its hinges, smacking the doorframe the way Grandma would go after flies with the red swatter. The wind was so strong I could barely breathe. There was rain mixed with hail. More lightning flashed in the distance. The sky looked green.
“Hold my hand, Joby. Do not let go.”
We went out into the wind. Grandma’s hair was in rollers and I could see it begin to unravel in the lightning flash. Each time it flashed I would start to count but it must have been very close because I could barely count to one 1000 and the hair on my neck was standing up. We walked very quickly around to the side of the house, as close to the outside walls as we could. Leaves and branches were in the air at the cellar end of the house. Part of a fence cartwheeled past. Grandma raised her voice over the wind, telling me to keep my arm up to protect my head. She tucked Bear in the waistband of her pajamas and we ran together to the cellar door.
“It must have blown closed,” she said. I crouched around the opening as she pulled it back. “Watch your step,” Grandma said, shining the flashlight down. I took the first few steps in and Grandma pulled the door shut. “Martin,” she called out. There was no answer. “Martin, where are you?”
“Grandpa,” I said. Grandma went past me on the stairs and shone the flashlight around the cellar. Old dust stared back at us. The wind outside had increased. It was so loud as it whistled through the handles of the cellar door that it sounded like Grandpa was in the cellar with us. He liked to whistle. And then there was a sound that reminded me of my Velcro shoes being undone but it was louder and deeper. I thought the house had gone from above our heads. Seconds later, there was a crash.
“M?” she said again. Again, there was no answer. Grandma tried to push the cellar door up but couldn’t.
“Where’s Grandpa?” I asked.
“I don’t know, baby. I don’t know. I can’t open the door. Something’s on top of it.”
“Are we going to die?” Grandma was silent. I looked at her. She had tears on her face and shook her head.
“No. We’re safe down here. Let’s try to open the door together. You’re a strong boy.” We pushed at the door but it wouldn’t budge.
We sat down on the steps. The whistling had stopped and was replaced by a regular knocking sound on the door. Grandma thought it was Grandpa again and called as loud as she could through the door but there was no reply.
It was cool in the cellar. Grandma wrapped me in a blanket and I rested against her. She was soft but I could tell from how she was sitting that she was upset.
Quietly, I sang the lullaby she always sang to me. Grandma put her arm around me and sang with me; there were tears in her voice and I felt her shaking. Drops from her eyes plopped onto her lap. I could see them fall, flattening out and soaking into the rose pattern. I felt like falling asleep but didn’t think I should.
“Grandpa’s going to be ok,” I said. “He knows how to keep safe in storms.”
“He’ll be fine,” Grandma said. She never allowed me to use the word fine. She said it disguised lies.
“Ma! Dad!” I heard my mother’s voice. “Joby!” My neck hurt as I sat up. I’d fallen asleep leaning against Grandma, who’d fallen asleep too, elbow on her lap. Bear was sitting next to me.
“Mamma!” I shouted. I heard her cuss. Mamma never cussed unless she was really upset.
“Hang on, Joby.” For several minutes there was a lot of scraping and cussing outside. With a cry, Ma opened the cellar door. Grandma had stood up and was next to me, a few steps behind.
“Mamma!” I ran to her. She was still wearing her hospital clothes and her white coat. She was wearing the colours of the sky and the clouds. Her stethoscope was slung around her neck. Grandma followed slowly.
“Mona, where’s your dad?”
“Part of the maple had fallen on the door. What do you mean where’s dad? He’s with you isn’t he?”
“No. No. He was with us in the house and he went out first and I thought he’d come to open the cellar door but he wasn’t here when we got here and I couldn’t open the door when it was shut.”
Grandma ran to the front of the house, calling Grandpa’s name. Mamma picked me up and followed. “Are you ok, Joby?”
Grandma cried out. “Oh Lord. Oh Lord!” The garage was gone. The house was there, not a shingle out of place, although the banging screen door was gone. Grandma’s rocker still stood on the veranda. My Tonka truck was still in its spot. The big maple tree was split in two, half of it on the ground near the cellar door. The garage was just gone.
Ma put me down heavily and ran into the house. “Dad! Dad?” she screamed. There was no answer. She came back out. “Mamma, did Dad go to the garage?”
Grandma didn’t say anything for a long time. “He must have baby. He must have. He never minded me and now he’s gone and got himself killed.” My mother held her mother in her arms. They cried together. I held Bear in one hand and hugged Grandma’s leg. She petted my hair. “Always mind, baby,” she said to me. “Always mind.”