Jack bursts in with a slam of the screen door against the trailer’s inside wall and that familiar metallic whine as it closes behind him. His keys make a loud clack when he throws them at the table. He tosses his backpack on top of the couch’s exposed spring.
“Janice?” he calls out to the house.
He hears clumsy rummaging in the kitchen. That can’t be good.
He rounds the plywood divider to see Grandpa in his mangy pink bathrobe preparing a meal.
“Whoa, whoa, Grandpa. What are you doing?” He rushes to his side and finds he’s poured a box of dried mac-and-cheese noodles into a bowl and is unscrewing the cap of a bottle of fabric softener.
“No, no, no!” Jack says, lifting the bottle out of Grandpa’s reach. He’s at least five inches taller than Grandpa now. “Where did you get that?”
“Leave go of my milk, you brat! Let me eat!”
“Grandpa, where’s Janice?”
Jack thumps his back against the fridge and brings his hand to his forehead.
Grandpa turns slowly to face Jack. “Get out of here! Leave me alone! What are you doing in my house?!” He rattles off a string of insults and reproaches.
Jack blocks them out and tries to remember if he put all the laundry and cleaning supplies in a box in the back closet. He’s sure he did. He looks around the kitchen. There are dishes piled in the sink, a hammer and some nails on the countertop, and an unopened box of once-frozen lasagna in the dish strainer covered in condensation. There’s an upturned laundry basket on the floor and clothes strewn through the trailer.
“Janice didn’t show up today,” Jack says incredulously, more to himself than Grandpa.
“I told you to stay back!” Grandpa turns back to his “cereal.”
Jack marches into the back room and puts the fabric softener in the closet, then marches back, kicking the laundry basket out of his way.
“Everything you need to eat is in here, okay, Grandpa?” He motions to the refrigerator and surrounding cupboards.
Grandpa scowls at Jack, his mouth agape. His wisps of white hair twist up off his liver-spotted dome. “You’re talking crazy. Now where the hell is my spoon?”
Jack puts his arm around Grandpa.
“Get your hands off me!” he yells. Then he softens. “Wait, I think I remember you.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me.”
“You’re the one who tried to feed me the poison!” He starts throwing punches at Jack.
Jack pushes his flimsy fists back and says, “Okay, Grandpa, okay. Nobody’s trying to poison you.” He leads Grandpa to the table and sits him in the torn dinette chair.
He notices one of the sliding doors is open to the back yard and a scattered pile of blown-in leaves has accumulated.
Despite the cool air coming in, Jack suddenly feels overheated after his vigorous walk—okay, run—home from school. He throws off his leather jacket. He remembers he wanted to hang out with Bee after school, but he didn’t see her in seventh period. Everybody got called to homeroom to take some kind of state-mandated test. His mind wandered during the test and he lost track of himself. It was just a bunch of weird multiple-choice questions with shapes. Next thing he knew he was home. He didn’t intend to get so worked up, but it was one of those trips home where his mind got going. He couldn’t stop the spiral of his thoughts. He thought about his life, how he got here. It all traces back to the accident. He doesn’t want to think about it anymore, but it hangs over him like a storm.
“What happened to my breakfast? I made breakfast!”
“I’ll get your cereal,” Jack pivots to the kitchen with a sigh.
He picks up the bowl of noodles. He’s about to pour them back into the mac-and-cheese box they came from, but can’t find it, so he dumps them in the open garbage bag on the floor. He pours a fresh bowl of Special-K, and then opens the fridge and scans for milk. There’s a splash or two in the carton. He twists off the cap and gives it a whiff. It’s okay. He empties it in the bowl and adds a bit of water from the tap to top it off. He pulls Grandpa’s spoon out of the sink and gives it a quick rinse.
Grandpa mumbles angrily about a dog coming into the house and terrorizing him earlier in the day. Jack half-listens, glad at least that Grandpa’s not screaming at him.
He sets the meal on the table in front of Grandpa and sits across from him.
Grandpa spoons the cereal into his mouth, glowering at Jack. “You get away from me. You’re trying to make me sick.”
“Oh, thank you, Jack. That was so nice of you to serve me some cereal so I don’t eat bleach,” Jack says, mockingly. “You’re welcome, Grandpa. Anytime.”
He exhales loudly and sits back, feeling only slightly guilty for unloading at Grandpa, who strikes him at that moment as more of a stranger than he’s ever been. When Gary married his mom after Dad left, Grandpa refused to go to a home, so Gary invited him to move in with them. Gary couldn’t afford any kind of nursing home. Jack’s mom was livid, but kept her mouth shut about it, at least to Gary. Sophie liked having Grandpa around. To her, he was like a new pet.
The thought makes Jack smile.
A heavy pall quickly comes down, however, wiping away his smile and any fleeting joy at her memory. If they turn off the heat this winter, or try to repossess the car, somebody’s going to figure out what’s going on here. And when they do, Jack will be a ward of the state. And there’s no telling what will happen to Grandpa. Sometimes Jack feels like his life is held together with gum and paperclips.
“So how was your day, Gramps? I’m glad you survived it at least. So far.”
Grandpa narrows his eyes, slurping.
Jack waits for a reply. It doesn’t come. He pulls his phone from his pocket and checks his messages. Nothing. He taps Janice’s number.
“Yeah.” She’s somewhere loud.
“Hey, Janice. Jack.”
“Jack. Oh no! Oh, Jack, honey. I’m kicking myself right now. I should have called. Is everything okay?”
Yeah, no shit you should have called.
“Luckily, yeah, though Grandpa was just about to have some bleach with his cereal.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. You know I stop in when I can. Deloris was sick. I had to go in.”
“I was sort of counting on you.” Jack wishes he could be more forceful with her, but it’s not like she gets paid. He feels like if he’s too hard on her, it’s possible she’d stop helping out, and then he’d really be in trouble.
“I come by when I can, like I says. I love you guys, you know that. You’re the best.”
“Just, next time, text me or something? If you can’t make it, you know.”
Jack knows where the conversation goes from here. He’s opened the floodgates.
“I know, I know. I just—I couldn’t. She was crying and there was vomit everywhere. You don’t want to know.”
Jack hears the insecurity in her voice. Grandpa almost put himself in the emergency room on her watch, and she’s got problems. She’s reaching out for someone to caretake for her, and Jack is handy at the moment. He usually is when he gets stuck talking to her. He reluctantly tries to fill the need, to keep her coming by, but keeps his distance at the same time, trying to give her any kind of signal he can that she shouldn’t go too far with him.
“Hope she’s feeling better.” Jack buries his chin in his chest.
“I think she’s going to be all right. Hundred and two fever. Can you believe that?”
“She hates the thermometer. And sometimes there’s no arguing with her, but this time I could feel the heat on her head. She was burning up.” Jack listens. It’s why she helps.
“Good luck with everything. I’ll see you around, okay?”
“Yeah, see ya, hon. And, oh, if you see Jingles outside, could you let him in my place?”
“Thanks, kiddo. You’re the best.”
Jack slaps his phone on the table, face down. He puts his head in his hand and looks at Grandpa.
“You should be in school!” Watery milk drips down Grandpa’s chin. “A kid your age. And your hair’s in your face. You look like a girl.”
Jack feels no need to school Grandpa on his outdated notions of gender identity. He gets up and pats him on the back. “I’m in school. Don’t worry about me.”
He takes a look in Grandpa’s room. He’ll need to give the sheets a wash in time to get him to bed by dark. It’ll be a stretch. He’ll have to help him take a shower, and then clean the kitchen. And somehow squeeze in his homework. And pay some bills. And maybe that gum and those paperclips hold together for one more day.