When it happens, Carson is reading the obituaries.
It is a habit he started a few years back because it was the only section of the morning paper his graduate-student brother was willing to part with, but now his brother is gone, married with a new baby and his own copy of the Times, and Carson still does it anyway. He couldn’t say why. He doesn’t like the way they are written—a name, an age, a list of survivors—the whole thing crammed with other people’s names as if what matters most when we die are the people who watched it happen. As if there is something proven in knowing a dead person, something of your own somberness and grit and ability to endure. Carson hates this. He wants the obituary of Abigail Bookhultz to tell him about the dull pink scar above her eyebrow that she got from falling out of an orange tree when she was 15, about the novel she wrote and kept hidden in her closet for the rest of her life, about how she secretly never forgave her daughter for marrying a Catholic, though she liked the man just fine. Carson wants to know how she died, if the cut was swift and deep or wide and shallow and slow to bleed out, if she was alone in the room, if it was raining outside. He needs these details, craves them.
He is considering all of this when he hears his mother’s voice from downstairs. “Carson?” She has just returned from a 24-hour shift at the hospital and her voice is slow and dark. He hears her footsteps on the stairs and so he does not answer right away.
“Carson?” She is outside his room now and he rises to open the door. She stands there in her blue scrubs, looking up at him. Only recently has this begun to happen, women craning their heads upward when they speak to him. His height is lanky and awkward, and he tries to slouch out of it.
“Have you seen your grandmother?” It is funny, the way she says the word. Her own mother is grandma, the A’s laced with the hint of Georgia accent she never quite lost. But his dad’s mother has always been grandmother. Even without dad around, even when she no longer responded to any title at all, it was always grandmother. Like a proper noun, but somehow bigger.
“No.” He knows the gravity of his answer immediately. It is written on her slack, silent face. She stares at him with a blankness close to anger, as if she wants to hate him for this but knows she cannot. “She’s not in her room?” He knows it is a stupid question. If she were in her room, his mother would know. If she were anywhere in the house, his mother would know. But he asks because it feels better that way, to have the fear unravel in words, out in the open where he can see it.
“No. I looked everywhere.” It tears at him, the way she says it. He knows she is not exaggerating. While he sat here picking at the edges of the lives of people he does not know, she was walking through their house, whispering his grandmother’s name into dark corners and closed doors. In a flash, her palpable, confused exhaustion spreads over him and he nods. In the open silence coursing between them, he can bring himself to do nothing else.
Carson drives carefully, coming to a complete stop at every stop sign, something he has not done since his driving test. Maybe not even then, since he failed the first two times he took it. But now he moves with excruciating slowness, lingering at each corner until he has had time to probe the entire length of the block. She can’t have gone far. She probably just thought we needed milk or something. His mother said it with quivering, delicate confidence that Carson didn’t have the heart to break, and so he nodded and got in his car without question. But in truth, it has been years since his grandmother left the house without another person, years since they have had any idea where she would go if she did.
As he continues his slow crawl through the neighborhood, Carson makes a list in his head to distract himself: names for the beta fish his friend Sam is going to give him. 1. Capone, 2. Walter. The act is soothing. Its worn familiarity makes this moment, searching for his grandmother like a missing child, less jagged. He continues. 3. Rasputin, 4. Ishmael. He chuckles. That one is clever. Call him Ishmael, Carson imagines he will say offhandedly, as if bored by his own wit, to the beautiful, literarily inclined girl who has somehow landed in his bedroom.
The lists are a habit he picked up a couple of months ago, the first time he went with his grandmother to church. It is the condition of the car he is now driving, a dented blue ’95 Ford Explorer with a missing back bumper, two hours every week of watching her while she prays. They go to the Church of the Annunciation and sit in the first row, all the way to the left. She says the rosary and he waits. At first, the boredom is viscous, physical. He stares at the crucifix, the stained glass. He reads the prayer book. But it always creeps back, the surge of listlessness that makes him feel like he is being slowly buried in sand.
So he tries composing stories in his head. But they are overly sentimental and the dialogue is poor. He trails off before he can get past the opening scene. Beside him, his grandmother sits with her eyes closed. She holds her rosary the way she does apples in the produce section, her fingers working gently along the edges of the beads like she is looking for bruises. As he watches, she pushes another through her fingers. Another Hail Mary.
Lately Carson’s grandmother has forgotten a lot of things: her address, the last thing she ate, the faces of her grandchildren, all whittled away to nearly nothing- but never the Hail Mary. It is a memory that seems to come more from her hands than her mind, culled out by the touch of fingers to beads. For a while, he recalls, she forced herself to remember everything with her hands. She would write details from every scene on scraps of paper that she kept in her back pocket. Alice went out at 2:30 to pick up her son Carson or A man named Stephen came by to return the garden hose. He has curly hair and is our neighbor or The grocery store is the second left on Main St. The order of her life splayed out on crumpled pieces of paper.
The want strikes Carson then as he watches her, to list out all of the important things in his own life. He begins to think of categories. Places I have been. Books I wish I had written. The funniest people I know.
And he keeps doing it through the rest of the rosary, through the rest of the day, and soon, every time he is not concentrated on something else, the want finds him, and he does it again. He likes the way the world looks in lists, the things he knows piled in drifts. Tonight in the quiet car, the hypothetical fish names rattle listlessly through his brain so nothing else has to.
These are the things Carson knows about his grandmother.
1. When she was a senior in high school, she knew an impossibly shy boy who squinted for no reason and had a shrill voice that was always too loud or too quiet. He sat next to her in Mrs. Mulligan’s American history and sometimes gave her his notes when she missed class. He had a thin-lipped trembling smile and his love was transparent in the way it can be only when you are seventeen and not yet aware of how deeply it will hurt. One day when they were leaving class, he spoke to her, his voice haltingly earnest. Would you like to go out with me sometime? She laughed, cold, short, and said she would think about it. Later she comforted herself by remembering the scene populated by a faceless flock of girls and their soft, insidious laughter, but it never happened like that. They were alone in the room and she left him there in airless, compressed silence, watching her back until she dissolved from view in the crowded hallway. She left him there the next day as she ditched history to smoke with her friends on the back lawn. And she left him there through graduation, the war, through her wedding and the birth of her children. She left him there even when her priest asked her at age 60 to confess the sins of her childhood that had always embarrassed her too much to admit. She would leave him there waiting forever.
2. The day after Kennedy died, she bought all the newspapers at the grocery store, took them home, and wrapped them in sturdy brown paper. For 23 years, she kept the bundle in a space she hollowed out at the back of her closet. Then, on the night of their rehearsal dinner, she presented it to his parents as a wedding present. As she dropped the package on their gift table, she said, “so you’ll never think that you won’t die.” His mother smiled, nervous and overly wide, and they waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. She just stood there with her hands on her hips and laughed.
3. After her youngest child, Carson’s excitable Uncle Frank, was grown, she bought a dog. It was a slow, moping thing, an aged gray husky named Bingo with deep wet, breaths that left damp spots on the floor where he slept. During the day, she let Bingo roam the neighborhood and in the evenings she stood on the porch and whistled until he came back. Bingo never got in fights with other dogs or bothered people, but he was a collector. Every evening he carried home a remnant of his day: a warped branch, a newspaper, a pair of discarded panty hose. One afternoon when Carson’s mother was pregnant with him, they went to his grandmother’s house for dinner. She was standing on the porch when they got there, calling the dog. When Bingo trotted up the stairs, a length of flesh hung from his yellow teeth. He dropped it at their feet and wagged his tail proudly. His grandmother gingerly lifted the brown hunk, a turkey leg, and swiveled it slowly in a circle before looking up. “Turkey stew okay with everyone?” she asked blithely. “No,” his mother snapped, forgetting her promise to Carson’s father that she would try to get along, just this once. Immediately, his grandmother’s welcoming smile faded and she looked at his mother coldly. “It’s not up to me to say how you should have been raised, Alice,” she said, “but in this house we don’t waste perfectly good food.”
These are the things he knows, but they are not things he remembers. They exist in the before, a time when his grandmother left the house for a walk and came back 20 minutes later, when she didn’t have to grapple for the names of people and places. The before has a soft normalcy, a rhythmic pitter-patter like rain or a heartbeat. He knows of the before, but he does not remember it.
Carson also knows that soon his grandmother will be dead. He knows this but he also knows he doesn’t, not really. He has never known his grandmother to not exist and he cannot imagine it. Wild white hair and blank grey eyes, crumpled tissues coming out of her pockets, her purse, her sleeves. She is his constant proof that there are some things that never disappear.
After the first hour in the car, the search takes on a new tenor. She is not on their block, the next, or the next. She did not go to the park, the grocery store. She has not wandered into anyone’s gated yard, causing them to call the police or escort her home. Carson and his mother communicate each new place she isn’t in clipped cell phone exchanges.
He wants to go home. It is late and he has a Spanish test in the morning. His mother has not slept in two days and he doesn’t think she should be driving now. He wants to take her back to their house and bury her in blankets like she used to do to him when he was younger, and then stay with her until her breathing turns slow and regular.
In his head, Carson’s thoughts fall into simple pleading. Please please let us find her. Each undirected request is more emphatic than the last. He wishes he prayed. It would make things a lot more focused. Maybe, he thinks, now would be a good time to start. But for all his afternoons in the pews, Carson cannot remember the Hail Mary. He remembers knowing it, and he remembers forgetting it. This is the comfort of memory once removed, like an echo, to remind us of the things we can no longer recall. He has others too. 1. his parents’ anniversary, 2. the name of his first pet (a glossy brown hamster that shivered when he touched it), 3. what his grandfather’s voice sounded like, 4. where he has put his father’s most recent phone number. And of course 5. that prayer, the one that slides out from under him every time he thinks about it. When he attempts to hear the words he sees only his grandmother in the front pew all the way to the left, with her wrinkled eyes squeezed shut and her breath hissing like the hum of an air conditioner. So he stops trying and instead settles for this list—things he has forgotten—holding his breath and hoping it will not collapse under his touch.
When Carson was younger, he always prayed for a bicycle. The deacon at his church said God gives us what we need, and Carson needed that bike. It was the path to untold glory- transporting himself to and from school, getting to his friend John’s house in 10 minutes instead of 25, racing each other down alleys and parks. He asked God, cajoled him, cut deals. I promise to always believe in you if I can just have this one thing. Preferably it would be a blue Schwinn with no training wheels, but he wasn’t going to be picky. Even that weird assemble-it-yourself bike on the back rack at Walmart would be okay. Every night for a month he asked and every morning his room remained bare, a negative space forming in the place where the bike should be, concave and unfilled.
Later, other things would slip into that space too, dragged by the magnetic force of its emptiness. His father’s job, his mother’s laugh, his grandmother’s memory. All of them sucked into a place where no prayer could bring them back.
Still, at this moment, between the phone calls from his mother, it seems possible to Carson that maybe God just didn’t hear him all those times. Or He heard, but the problems weren’t pressing enough. Carson thinks if it’s going to work now, he must make it clear that this is his one thing, that single gesture that God will do as a reminder that He loves Carson. Every proper coming-of-faith narrative has one. Afterwards, of course, Carson will ask for nothing. He will take a vow of poverty. He will be a Jesuit or a Mormon missionary or a Buddhist monk; he doesn’t think God will be picky on the specifics. He will forgive him if he chooses the wrong religion.
And he thinks God will forgive him for this too, that he is not worried for his grandmother now. He knows that wherever she is, she is trapped inside her own softened mind and she is not afraid. It is his mother who he keeps going for. The shaky, faithless way she tells him that they will find her, that is the real reason he needs God to listen this time.
There has only ever been one other night like this, when the dull gray evening swallowed the minutes whole and he felt like he was sliding towards the very edge of things.
He was eight and it was the first time he had the dream. In it, a man with eyes the color of churning mud chased him down the length of an abandoned train. His lungs heaved as he ran and ran. Then the snag. He heard it before he felt it, his pant leg ripping on the outstretched pipe. And before he could steady himself he was falling.
In that moment he woke up, catching his breath in the warm, wet space his tears had left on his pillow. He shivered and pulled his sheet tight around his small frame. Then he turned on his side, determined to coax his heart rate back to normal. That was when he saw it, the flicker of a dark figure in his peripheral vision. He opened his mouth- to scream, to take a deep breath, he didn’t know. But before he did anything, the figure spoke.
“James?” It was his grandmother’s voice, but gentler than he had ever heard it. She was once a chain smoker, and normally her speech had a deep, uneven timber that evoked stones being put through a blender. But tonight she spoke with a softness that caught him off guard. “You had a nightmare,” she whispered, taking a step towards his bed. He saw her clearly now, the ethereal quality of her white nightgown and whiter face shuffling towards him. His nerves still writhed from the dream and so he didn’t move. She reached her hand gently towards his head and pushed a sweaty strand of blonde hair from his face. “It’s alright hon, mom is here.”
“Grandmother?” he asked, his voice still cobwebbed with sleep. She clicked her tongue and shushed him. “Grandmother,” he said again, his voice now a shrill hiss. She didn’t appear to notice. He swiped at her outstretched hand, pushing it out of his face. “I’m not James. This is Carson, grandmother,” he said. He knew about the Alzheimer’s, of course. His mother had showed him the pamphlets that explained in round, bold font how it would happen: first the day-to-day memories, then, over time, words and faces and names. But this was the first him he had felt it.
She shook her head sadly. “That dream’s got all in your head. You need to go straight back to sleep.” He opened his mouth to argue but she put her hand gently over his mouth. He wriggled, trying to push himself free, but she clamped down. “Sshhh,” she whispered. His muscles were rigid now, the tendons taunt like balls of wire. He sucked in hard from his nose and tried to jerk his face away.
That was when they heard it. The sound came upon them with enough force to startle his grandmother’s hand from his face. Carson had heard that noise only once before, when his neighbor’s car backed into a German Shepherd puppy that the couple down the block let loose in the street. The impact was soft, a dull thud, and Carson was not close enough to register the sharp crack of bone crunching against concrete. In fact, he didn’t even notice what had happened until he heard that shrill, unbending wail. There was the mother dog, who had run to her fallen puppy, burying her nose in his broken back and crying a single piercing note that he knew without knowing to be the sound of true grief.
On this night, the sound was softer, and it carried blurred words, but he knew it was the same kind. Ignoring his grandmother beside him, he kicked off his blanket and pushed himself out of the bed. When he reached the hallway, it was empty, but the noise was louder. It came from the direction of the kitchen, and without thinking he ran towards it. Later when he remembered the night, he wanted to think of this moment as sluggish and foreboding, the confusion unfolding in slow motion. There should have been time, he thinks, for his plodding eight-year old mind to run over all the possibilities until they were ragged.
But instead the run to the kitchen passed without tension or suspense. In fact, he remembers nothing of it In his head there is only the moment of seeing her: an instantaneous and jarring impact, like the breaking of a tree branch, that registers only as shock and severed pieces.
She was slumped against the avocado-green fridge, crying so hard that Carson could not believe she was still breathing. He recoiled. He had seen his mother cry only once before, and they were small, delicate tears. This, this was something else entirely, like another person was inhabiting her and wringing her whole body dry.
But before he could decide what to do, he heard someone behind him. His grandmother, nightgown swishing on the cold linoleum. She knelt beside his mother and took one of her hands, which were coiled tightly around her knees. “Alice,” she said. It was the same voice she had used with him earlier, but it surprised him no less the second time around.
His mother looked up. Her eyes were smeared with runny black streaks and for a second he thought that someone had split her face open. She did not stop crying, a hysterical mess of tears and shallow breaths, even when she saw him standing there. As he watched her, the hopelessness packed dense around his face, pushed against him like the pressure of swimming too deep.
“He left,” she managed to stammer. He had known, he must have known, but at that moment the statement caught him in the stomach and he staggered forward, shaking his head. He knelt on the floor beside them as his mother redoubled in tears. With her empty hand, his grandmother took one of his and squeezed it. He looked at her, wondering suddenly who she saw when she looked at him, Carson or his father.
“It’s Carson,” he asserted, as if they were still back in his room. As his mother’s sobs cracked open the dark house, he said it again and again. “It’s Carson, grandmother, it’s Carson.”
It was the crickets that saved them.
They would have been out all night if the crickets had been any louder, if, after three hours when his mother returned home to get another flashlight, she had not heard the faint crinkle of a page being turned over their uneven chirp, and stopped to listen. If the crickets were any louder she would not have caught the tiny shuffle, a body readjusting. She would not have looked under the canopy of the tall Douglas fir in their backyard, and she would not have seen his grandmother there, a bible perched in her hand, praying with her eyes open.
This is how it will happen. They will sit her down, they will explain to her why she can never do this again, they will plead (synonyms Carson will think of: 1. beg 2. entreat 3. besiege). And she will promise. But she will forget. And the man in the green Porsche on his way home from the company picnic will not see the hunched woman shuffle into the street just as he rounds the corner. He will not see her until she is just in front of his car, holding a rosary and staring straight through him. All of this he will tell to the police and eventually to Carson and his mother. And they will nod and pretend at understanding. But back at home they will find the silence is rigid and unpliable. For two days, they will barely speak, so caught up in listening for the sounds of her. On the third morning, they will rise, dragging the slowness from their limbs like a dog shaking water from his coat, and go to her funeral. Together, they will tell everyone a funny story from her life and it will comfort the mourners to laugh, to feel vindicated in the secret relief they feel over the burden that has been lifted by her death.
The next morning, Carson’s mother will return to the hospital and he to the 11th grade, the sharp edges of their grief battered smooth like a piece of sea glass. And when the man from the funeral home calls to ask Carson if they would like an obituary written, he will resist the urge to give the man a list of reasons why this is absurd. Instead he will politely decline and hang up. Then he will go outside and get into his car. He will not know where he is going until he sees the church ahead of him. But he will park and go inside; he will sit in the first row, all the way to the left. And he will pray without wondering who is listening.