by Geoffrey Forsyth

Appears in Other Voices #40

This morning I found my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table. She had been dead almost five years, but here she was now, sitting in my wife’s old seat, covered in mud. I almost didn’t recognize her because the mud had flattened her hair and darkened her normally pale skin. She said it wasn’t easy digging her way out of the grave and that it took most of the night, and wasn’t I going to at least offer her a glass of tomato juice?

“I don’t get it,” I said. “You’re here?”

She said, “Am I going to have to ask twice for that juice?”

While alive, my grandmother’s biggest pet peeve was having to ask twice for something she wanted. I poured her some juice.

“Grandma,” I said. “I hate to say this, but today is not a good day. I have to be at the office early for a meeting, eight sharp. People are counting on me.”

She stared at me, as if the tie I had on was all wrong.

“I have responsibilities and commitments that I can’t get out of. It’s a big day. They need me there today.”

It was then that I heard the television in the living room.

“Who’s watching the television?” I asked.

“Your father,” she said.

“He’s here, too?” I walked into the living room and found him sitting on the couch, mud all over his face and his arms and his hair.

“Dad?” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Is that any way to greet your father?” he said. Turning to my grandmother, he said: “In seven years he hasn’t seen me, and this is how he greets me?”

“You’re getting mud on his remote, dear,” said my grandmother.

He glared at his mother and rolled his eyes.

“Excuse me, Dad,” I said, “but you’re supposed to be dead.”

He handed me my remote, mud all over the buttons. I held it away from my suit so I wouldn’t get dirty.

“There’s nothing on,” he said.

When my father was alive, he loved watching television. He watched two hours of it before he went to his job at the phone company, then five more hours when he came home. His favorite show was All In The Family. He loved that show. Seeing him there in front of the television, hunched over with his hands resting flat on his stomach, injured me in the best possible way.

“I want to hug you,” I said to my father. “But I have a meeting to get to. I can’t afford to be late.”

“You look sharp, kiddo,” he said. The way he called me kiddo made me forget about work for a second. I had forgotten about kiddo. “Really, kiddo,” he said. “You look like a million bucks.”

“You think so?” I said.

Both of them nodded.

“I’d hug you guys, but I don’t want to ruin my suit, you know?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Grandma.

“I am worried about it,” I said. “I never got to hug you goodbye, Grams.”

“I was in Cleveland,” she said.

“Still, I wish that I could’ve given you a proper goodbye.”

“It’s O.K.”

“No it isn’t,” I said.

I spread my arms and walked towards her, but she backed away.

“Better not, kiddo,” said my father. “You’ll get dirty.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

I turned to him and tried to throw my arms around his muddy neck, but he backed away from me as well.

“You’ve got a big day ahead of you,” he said. “A really big day.”

The phone rang. It was my boss, reminding me not to forget the reports. He sounded nervous. I asked him if I should bring anything besides the reports. He told me to bring my good sense and my sound judgment and the right frame of mind. Then he hung up.

While I was on the phone, my father and grandmother moved to the couch, tracking mud all over the carpet and the furniture. It tired me to look at it, gathering at their feet.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “Not now.” I didn’t know what exactly I couldn’t do.

“Yes, you can,” said my father. “You can do this.”

He raised his arm, as if he meant to give me a high five, but then he remembered the mud, and folded his arms at his waist.

I gathered all the reports that were stacked on the dining room table and placed them neatly in my briefcase, then buckled it shut.

“I’m so sorry,” I called to them. “I have to leave. I wish that I didn’t, but I have to go now.”

“We understand,” said Grandma. “Don’t you worry, darling.”

“I can’t help it,” I said. “I always worry. Always. Always.”

“Take a deep breath,” came a new voice from the study.

It was my wife. Two years ago she died of cancer, but now I heard her voice from the study. I froze. Then I held my briefcase to my chest, wrapped my arms around it, and squeezed.

“Honey,” I said. “Is that you?”

“You bet,” she called back.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” I said. “But I have to leave.”

“I know,” she said. “You’ve got a big day.”

The next moment held a thoughtful silence.

“I’m not coming in there,” I said finally.

“I know,” she said.

My chest tightened. I wanted to run into the study and throw my arms around her and kiss her mouth and tell her how much I couldn’t stand not having her around, but I knew if I went in there, she’d be covered in mud, too, and I had my life to think about, the life that was, any minute, going to start without me.

I went back into the living room and stood in front of my dead father and grandmother, briefcase still pressed to my chest. My briefcase had become like one of those square cushions that can also be used as a flotation device. Though I stood still, I felt like my legs were kicking.

“Show me the way out of here,” I said.

My father got up and came within a few inches of me, making sure none of his mud touched the sleeves of my blazer. He leaned in, breath smelling like damp earth, and said: “I’m sorry we brought her here. She wasn’t supposed to say anything. That was the deal. She was supposed to listen and not say a thing.”

“It’s O.K.,” I said. “I’m glad she came. I just hate running out like this.”

He nodded, then said, “Follow me.”

I followed him to the front door, bow-legged over the wake of mud, so I wouldn’t get dirty. Last night, after finishing my final report, I had used a half a tin of black Kiwi on my shoes. Buffed them until I thought I could see myself in the leather. I don’t know why, but now the whole idea of rubbing black junk on my shoes to make them look better confounded me. It made me think: does anything really get clean?

My father opened the door. There must have been mica in the mud because his legs sparkled when sunlight entered the room. I thought for a moment that standing there, framed by the doorway, he meant to use his body to wall me in and keep me from going outside, where now I heard birds and passing cars and, every few seconds, the sound of a hammer, rapping in the hollow belly of someone’s garage. But then he moved to the side, and I looked back towards the study, wondering if I should go in there, if it would be wise to go in there on the biggest day of my life. I listened for her, but all I heard was her silence. Her silence gave me a mother of a headache, like someone pounding a nail in the back of my head. If she’d spoken again, I’d have gone to her, but, lucky for me, I think, she didn’t, and what I heard instead was my neighbor’s hammer, calling me out.