LouCille, my grandmother on my mom’s side, works at Preston Scientific in Anaheim, California, wiring computer components for NASA. Her apartment on West Ball Road serves as our family’s base of operations for Disneyland trips. The apartment complex has a hot tub, and around the corner stands a Fosters Freeze.
She’s kinda scary to me. A big woman, she wears gold bangles in her ears and on her wrists. I don’t think she likes children. Every year she buys a new car: a blue Camaro, a gray Cavalier, a white Impala.
My mom, Carla, is LouCille’s only child. My mom did not inherit LouCille’s stocky frame. My mom looks like a SoCal beach girl – like an extra from an Annette Funicello movie.
Grandmother lives with her own mother. My brother and I call Grandmother’s mom Grandma-Grandma. White curly hair crowns Grandma-Grandma’s head. She wears nightgowns in the daytime. Grandma-Grandma is kind to my brother and me. She pulls chocolate chip cookies out of the oven just as we arrive at the apartment.
LouCille says, glaring, “You boys sleep in the living room.”
We say, “I know.”
“You don’t know nothing.”
Grandma-Grandma dies from pancreatic cancer. LouCille lives alone. She works overtime.
After twenty-five years at Preston Scientific, LouCille is laid off. The company gives her a one-week notice. There is no retirement package. No “we’re sorry.” All Grandmother gets is, “Your last day is Friday. Please turn in your badge.”
There’s little reason to stay in Orange County. LouCille sells whatever luxury automobile she owns at the time and moves in with my parents one thousand, one hundred fifty-six miles north in Lakebay, Washington.
I’m ten years old when she arrives. Grandmother moves into the bedroom across the hall from mine. The room was previously occupied by my brother, but he moves in with me when we know LouCille is coming. The room becomes a haven of sepia-toned photographs and elephant collectibles. The photographs show distant relatives I will never meet. The collectibles are tchotchkes in bone, wood, and brass depicting both African and Asian elephants. Some hold their trunks as if sounding an alarm. Other sit on their hindquarters with a silly grin across their large, leathery faces.
Every day after middle school I perch on the edge of LouCille’s bed. She lays on top of her covers. We watch reruns of Alex Trebek’s Classic Concentration or Wink Martindale’s Bumper Stumper.
I give her a hug before I go to bed. At first, she isn’t used to all the hugging. Over time she gets better.
Grandmother gets a part-time job wrapping copper wire for radio circuits. She buys a manual-transmission Geo Metro.
We go out, just the two of us, to Red Lobster. She wears her gold bangles. I order trout. She buys me one of those red, slushy drinks in the commemorative glass that looks like a lighthouse. After dinner, we see Die Hard with a Vengeance. We sit in the movie theater for twenty minutes before the over-the-shoulder camera work starts teasing the trout in my stomach. I throw up on the guy in front of me. I throw up in the theater bathroom. I throw up in the parking lot. LouCille takes me home.
Grandmother moves into a one-bedroom with a kitchenette at the Laurelwood Apartments in Gig Harbor, Washington. An emergency pull cord hangs in the bathroom in case she falls in the shower. She starts receiving Social Security checks. LouCille buys a couch and a forty-inch television. She plays bingo with the other apartment renters.
On Sundays, we walk to the Harbor Rock Cafe and order BLTs.
While waiting for our check Grandmother says, “When I was a kid, my parents moved from Oklahoma to California. We lived in a converted train car in Death Valley. My brothers and I would sleep outside during the summer because it would get too hot in the metal house.”
I say, “They made houses out of train cars?”
“When we were driving across the desert in my dad’s Chevy, my stupid brothers pushed me out of the car. I rolled into the road.”
“While it was moving?”
“Were you okay?”
She shrugs, furrows her brow, “I’m still here.”
In the winter, Grandmother is walking from her apartment to the café. I’m not with her. She slips on a patch of ice and breaks her leg. Her distal femur is smashed into fragments. The doctors put her together again. She doesn’t walk for a few months. It gets better. It gets worse. It gets better.
I learn to drive.
Grandmother tends to the two-by-four-foot patch of earth outside her apartment. She grows basil and pink sea thrift. She goes on walks with the other ladies at the apartment. She attends farmers’ markets.
I ask, “Why all the elephants?”
“I like them.” She thinks about it more. “People just started giving them to me.”
Sometimes I sleep on the couch. I help her with her word searches. We stay up watching reruns of Law & Order.
She won’t let me leave without giving her a hug.
For Christmas, I buy her White Shoulders and a box of See’s Candies.
LouCille breaks the same leg. This time the doctors put in a titanium plate to replace the bone.
Carla cries. She says, “I’ve don’t want to see my mom go through this.”
I go to the hospital and sit with Grandmother. Whatever is in the IV makes her seem distant. After the surgery, she’s admitted to Cottesmore of Life Care. She stays for three weeks. When she’s released, she goes home with a walker.
The doctors prescribe her pain medication. At first, she takes Percocet and Roxidone. Then she takes five milligrams of Oxycodone. Grandmother buys pharmaceutical digests and keeps them on her coffee table. She doesn’t walk or tend her garden. She continues to play bingo.
“Next time you come over, bring me a book.”
“Bring me a trashy one from the checkout line at the market.”
“I’m not getting one of those with the half-naked man on the cover.”
“Why? You embarrassed?”
LouCille asks, “Can you bring me some of that mary jane?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
I do, but she doesn’t smoke it. She looks at it.
She says, “I’ve never done that sort of thing before.”
“You don’t have to.”
She never smokes, but she asks me about it every few weeks when I visit.
In autumn, I tell LouCille my back hurts from standing at work all day. She gives me one of her pain pills. She’s trying to help. To her, it’s like handing me a Tylenol. I don’t argue.
I stay on my grandmother’s couch. I read her pharmaceutical digests. The effects of Oxycodone are listed as “relief from severe pain” and “dampened nerve response.”
I say, “Mom said you used to work at Knott’s Berry Farm.”
“That’s right. At the Ghost Town Grill.”
“I was a teenager. My mom knew the Knott family. She worked at the fried chicken kitchen at the park.”
Grandmother is sleeping in her bedroom. Her medicine in stored in the bathroom. I stay up. I wait to hear her snoring, then pretend I’m going to the bathroom. My heart is pounding. Every variation in sound makes me jump. I take two pills. They read “OC” on one side. They read “10” on the other.
I take the pills with a friend of mine. We drink cheap beer.
A week later, I come back to LouCille’s apartment to get more pills. I do it the same way as last time. I stay on the couch until I hear snoring. I go into the bathroom. I find the pill bottle in her medicine cabinet. I unscrew the childsafe lid and fish out two pills. I don’t notice the snoring has stopped.
LouCille leans on her walker in the doorway to her bedroom. She wears a nightgown that reaches the floor and reminds me of Grandma-Grandma. “I know what you’re doing.”
The way she doesn’t look at me breaks me inside. I apologize. I say, “Don’t tell my mom.” I put the pills back in their bottle.
I don’t go to visit because I’m ashamed.
My mom tells me on the phone that Grandmother’s prescriptions were increased from forty to eighty milligrams.
“I don’t know if I like that she’s taking so much of that stuff. She doesn’t seem like herself anymore.” She says, “you should go visit her.”
I, too, have increased my dosage to eighty milligrams.
Grandmother suffers a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. I sit with my mom in the waiting room. Monitors chirp intermittently from a deep, echoing hall. We sit for three hours and no one tells us anything. I’m scared. My mom is a mess.
I hear over the intercom, “Paging Dr. Blue.”
The activity in the hall picks up and a swarm of people in gowns rush past us. They look featureless, like white mummies.
Carla gives a deep sigh. Her dyed-red hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She looks at me.
I say, “I’ll go see what’s happening.”
I follow the gowned mummies through double doors and down another short hallway to an open pod of eight glassed-in cubicles. The team scurries to the cubicle farthest from the entrance.
Grandmother is lying on a table. A frosted-white drain tube sticks out from a flap of gauze below her ribs. Two gray cords run into her nose. There is no movement. A solitary machine next to the table emits a steady buzz.
The gowned mummies take positions by her side. One hand takes the gauze off; another checks her airway. A small mummy rolls a defibrillator cart. A hand wipes my grandmother’s chest, while another sets the paddles of the defibrillator.
Another gowned mummy steps to my grandmother’s bedside. She takes the paddles and pushes them onto LouCille’s flesh. She flops into the air as rigid as a board. The mummies stand still. The buzzing continues. They hit Grandmother again with the paddles. Her body flops again. This time the buzzing stops and is replaced by rhythmic beeps.
One of the mummies looks at me. “Get him out of here.”
I’ve stopped taking pharmaceuticals. The friend I used to do pills with is in rehab after being in jail. I keep clean because I have a good paying job that tests for drugs.
Grandmother lives at Cottesmore following the heart attack.
It’s hard for me to be with her at Cottesmore. Maybe it’s the drugs. She’s on a regimen of pills I can’t pronounce. I understand what my mom meant when she said, “She doesn’t seem like herself anymore.”
My mom doesn’t give up LouCille’s apartment right away. After a few months, she can’t pay the rent on an empty place. The elephants go to Cottesmore. Grandmother’s forty-inch television and couch go to my parents. I take the blue stoneware dishes. My brother takes her dining table. We move her antique vanity to her new home.
LouCille says, “When I get out of here, you gotta take me out to lunch.”
I say, “Of course. I’ll take you to the steakhouse on the hill.”
“You make money now. You can pay for it.”
“If we can’t do that, what do you want me to bring you next time?”
“A big, greasy hamburger.”
“What would your doctor say?”
“What’s he gonna do?”
Grandmother wears a purple track suit. Her thinning gray hair is cropped tight to her head. With help from the on-call nurses, grandmother gets out of bed and into a wheelchair. I push her to the therapy center, then back to her room.
She says, “You know your grandfather wasn’t a bad man.”
I’ve never talked to her about her ex-husband, my grandfather. I barely know him.
“He’s not a bad man. We just didn’t work out. Those things happen. I can’t complain too much. I got Carla out of the deal.”
I say, “It wasn’t all bad then, huh?’
“Things were good once, I guess.”
“Mom said you got remarried.”
“For a month.”
“We were drinking a lot. It shouldn’t have ever happened.”
I push her wheelchair outside into the garden. The early summer sun beats down on us. She turns her head like a sunflower and closes her eyes.
I find it hard to make myself go visit her at Cottesmore. LouCille has lost so much weight her cheekbones protrude from her face. I make up excuses not to go. I’m a father and a husband so it’s easier to come up with excuses.
My wife and I adopt a son. I bring him to meet his great-grandmother. He calls her Lu-Lu. My son asks her, “Why do you have to be in here all the time?”
Lu-Lu says, “I don’t know anymore.”
My son presses the buttons on Lu-Lu’s bed to make her sit up. Lu-Lu laughs.
She falls asleep sporadically during our visit.
Grandmother wakes up with a start. “Someone is taking my medications.”
“They think I don’t know, but I know. I know when things are missing. Someone took one of my sweatshirts.”
“Are you sure it’s not in the laundry?”
“They think just because I’m stuck in bed I don’t need my clothes.”
LouCille stops talking when a tall, Sudanese man in mint-green scrubs comes in with lunch. She turns on the television to watch Duck Dynasty.
As hard as it is to bring myself to visit, it’s even harder to leave. I kiss LouCille on the forehead.
I say, “I love you.”
She says, “I know.”
“You don’t know nothing.”
Time runs out for LouCille. She passes away in her bed from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I’m not there when it happens.
At her funeral, I’m handed a microphone. The room stares at me. I tell my wife and son, my brother and his family, about watching game shows with Grandmother. I tell the bingo players from Laurelwood about her elephants and her stories of growing up in Death Valley. I tell the nurses from Cottesmore about how LouCille and I become friends. I do not tell my parents how my grandmother gave me my first dose of Oxycodone.
Joshua Swainston has worked as a mechanic, merchant sailor, courier, loan shark, club promoter, Ryder truck-rental agent, McDonald’s-grill cook, taxi driver, valet, coffee roaster, wine distributor, psychologist assistant, UPS man, Disney Store stockboy and played Santa Claus. His short stories and flash fiction are printed in The First Line, Open Thought Vortex and The Seattle Star.