Hard Candies in Old People’s Homes

by Travis Bill

      “Why aren’t we going to MiMa’s house? You said we were going to see MiMa” shrieked Dallas from the backseat.
      “We are going to see MiMa baby, but she lives in a new house now,” replied my mother.
      “Why does MiMa live in a new house?”
      “MiMa had to move to a new place. A place with lots of friends for her to play cards and cook apple pies with. You know how much MiMa loves to cook you apple pies right?”
      I had a feeling this might go a ways to satisfy the boy, the half-brother I inherited from my mother’s new marriage.
      “But I want to go to MiMa’s house!”
      So did I, buddy, so did I.
      The places always had a stale smell of disintegration and checkered carpeting in some shade of teal. There were afternoon game shows, floral wallpaper, scuff free wooden furniture from some antiquated office supply catalog. Laminates and polyesters to keep their surfaces both shiny and scratchy from tenants like my slowly disintegrating grandmother. No matter where we went, it all looked the same.
      I wasn’t around when my mother and grandmother finally decided on a location, but I certainly stood witness to the aftermath’s legend. My mother was inconsolable for a week about my grandmother’s “insane bitching” about “all I things I’ve done to try to help her.” My grandmother, in the mean time, called the house three times a week to complain about various looks that her “jewess attendant” gave her and how the “goddamned aerobics instructor always makes me wear shoes in the pool.”
      Okay, so grandma was a little bit racist. The point was that nobody was happy, and I was home from New York after my second year of college. This was not a battle I willingly signed up for.
      Either way, on one Saturday morning I could be found pushing myself as far into the crevice between the backseat of our Ford Escape and its rear passenger door as possible. I did not want to listen to Dallas’ inquisition on Grandma’s whereabouts. I did not want to be driving 45 minutes outside of Chicago to visit her in a cookie cutter retirement community that would likely become her coffin. I wanted to be at home playing Operation Ivy covers and taking drugs with all my similarly dispossessed college half-grads.
      When we pulled up to Green Acres (name validity in question), I unbuckled Dallas’ seatbelt and sleepily ambled out of the car. My mother took the boy’s hand and led him forward towards the building’s entrance, a classical knockoff with shell pink molding and pressure-sensor sliding glass doors. The pathetic aesthetic enveloped me as I braced myself for a sea of overeager seniors questioning my education and fashion sense. For nurses approaching incontinent proof half-human half-wheelchair contraptions designed to keep loved ones breathing a little bit longer.
      We didn’t move my grandmother because we had to. It was a preventative effort more than anything else, one prompted by little run-ins with frailty that we knew weren’t going to disappear any time soon. She fell in the bathtub and took three hours to gather the strength to crawl to the phone to call my mother. She cut herself cooking stew. She refused to stop shearing her shrubbery with a chainsaw despite the fact that she was seventy-nine years old. It was something that had to be done before she hurt herself worse than she already had. As painful as it was for her to leave her home of thirty-seven years, it would have been more painful to us all if unmitigated tragedy finally breached the barrier of frailty and forced its way through. It wasn’t a move anybody wanted to make, but it was the only move anybody could make.
      My grandmother moved out of the home her husband died in as the buds of May turned darling and the April showers faded to mist.
      Of course, I had my own troubles on the day I went to visit MiMa. My sophomore year was my first with a steady girlfriend, and my summer frequently became devoted to cultivating a relationship lacking physical proximity. I had taken up the habit of pressing the unlock button on my phone about every four minutes to make sure that I wasn’t missing a critical text message. I talked to her on the phone at least four or five times a week. We were so fucking codependent that neither of us were allowed to be happy as long as we were apart. This was the worst kind of hell—the self-inflicted one.
      On the day that I visited my grandmother, Jane and I had some type of flare-up just as my mother was pulling out of our driveway. It was nothing critical, but the personal life comprehension of a nineteen year old is, as it turns out, pretty mediocre. Like all kids my age, I made it my prerogative to ruin anybody’s life who stepped in the way of my calamities. Yes, even you MiMa.
      I knew the day wasn’t going to get any better when Dallas walked in the door and immediately screamed “what’s that smell?!? It smells sooooo bad.” An elderly woman clutching a walker and a cigarette strolled by and waved hello as Dallas rebelled against her second hand smoke. I thumbed my cell phone and professed my lust. My vigorous contribution to the canon of love was in danger. I couldn’t deal with this right now.
      My grandmother was waiting in a yellow and white nightgown on a couch covered in green plastic watching a re-run of Married with Children.
      She showed us around the grounds after our professionally emotional introductions, forgetting that my mother and I had already visited and that Dallas was too young to care. As we walked through the sterile hallways, she told stories of field trips to the town mall and of a woman whose grandchildren also played in a band, much like me. I fielded questions about what I hoped to do with my art major and listened intently to the same stories she had been telling for years. She had one joke that we lovelessly told ourselves to laugh at. She wasn’t a relative, she was a chore.
      When she showed us her room, Dallas couldn’t conceal his disappointment. The MiMa he knew once had an elegant backyard full of palm trees and the swimming pool where he had first learned to dog paddle. This was just a room. There was a television and a bed and some clothes and no board games for him to play with or animals for him to harass. This was a definite downgrade, in Dallas’ limited worldview.
      I remember the face my grandmother wore when she saw me graduate high school. I couldn’t help but feel that when she led us into her humiliating sleep space, she showed us the opposite. She could sense his disappointment, and I had a feeling she could relate.
      After a moment of staring out towards her empty bedroom walls, she called her grandson onto her bed, telling him that she had something for him. Her hands reached slowly to the edge of the bed and opened the top drawer of her bedside table, revealing an overstock of various candies, from black licorice to green Jolly Ranchers. Dallas’ pupils expanded and his mouth dropped a little. He hadn’t seen this much candy on any day other than Halloween.
      “I knew you were coming over and I know you’ve been such a good boy lately, so you can pick three treats out of Grandma’s secret candy drawer. But only if you don’t tell anyone! And only if you pick three out for your brother too,” said my grandmother, stroking the child’s smoky black hair as he leaned out over her bed to get a better look at the mother lode. His eyes scanned back and forth, looking for the three best souvenirs to store in his belly. Yet before he reached out to grab anything, he rolled over and up into my grandmother’s arms.
      “MiMa, does everybody in the old people house have candies?”
      I felt a buzzing in my pocket, yet my eyes stayed on the boy.
      “Well not everybody, but I like to keep candies in my room for my boy. The boys I love the most.” As she said this she kissed him on the forehead, her chalky red lipstick flaking onto the child’s skin.
      The colors and shapes burst from the drawer, clouding my vision in a siren of temporality that pulsed off resonant walls. Walls that had grown accustomed to finding life only in momentary battles to dissuade death. Plaster and papering that was cerebrally tied to the last thoughts of hundreds, if not thousands of bodies whose synapses one day decided to stay still. The room stank of culminated lives that had fallen monotonously short of their romantic and political goals. I was meant to maim myself before I would ever succumb to this. Yet the individually wrapped blues and browns muddled into a kaleidoscope as I counted the beats left in my heart.
      As the boy buried himself in the candy drawer, my grandmother looked into my eyes. Her skin softened and meandered, forming into causeways and trailheads where puddles of salty wetness had long since evaporated. The tears that she cried when she found my grandfather asleep in her wedding bed remained etched into her wrinkled skin as she held her hand out to touch mine.
      “Come sit with me son,” she said.
      The crinkle of polyester rushed to my ears as I moved to be with her.

Travis Bill is the next Carlos Santana.