Leigh C. Grant
As we left the highway behind I slowed my car to a crawl. Stretching before me: the road that led to my grandmother’s house—gravel lined by goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, fresh green grass.
“I can breathe easier here,” she said, rolling down the passenger-side window. “Your grandmother sure has it made.” She leaned out, eyes closed, a small smile on her lips. “I don’t even have to breathe—the wind does it for me. Have you ever done that, felt it rush up, like all the way into you nostrils? It comes in and goes out, all at once. You don’t even have to breathe. It does it for you,” she continued. I thought of how we used to lay, bored and full of teenage angst in our sleeping bags, quiet as the night closed in around us. She’d sometimes say: “You wouldn’t know if I was dead ‘cause I stopped breathing,” and we’d laugh, the same sort of laugh we’d let out when she’d say “I’m drawing a heart with my butt.”
The country road was bumpy as we drove up the southwestern Michigan hills and down into its valleys. We were silent for a bit, and then I looked over to her, just to make sure I could see the rise and fall of her chest. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a group of sparrows flew up from a roadside ditch, the last little one straggling behind. With a terrible sound it hit our windshield, leaving little under-feathers and deep red blood on the glass. We looked at each other, mouths agape. For a moment we were silent. It had happened so fast.
“At some point everything has its time. To die. To pass. God hand-picks them,” she said, “it was his time.”
I thought of how she had cried when my tomcat caught a baby jackrabbit, tearing the soft brown fur from its back, hearing its scream of terror. Rabbits scream. A horrible sound. They make no noise unless they fear for their life. She could not accept that noise. It was not the time for it: we were ten, the summer had just begun, the grass still felt unfamiliar beneath our bare feet.
“I suppose,” I said. I didn’t know what to say. Death wasn’t familiar to us.
“Do you remember Jason?” she said. I did remember him—the tension in his face, the little prayer I’d say when driving over that bridge, how the only thing I remember him saying to me in class was how much he liked Mystery Science Theater.
“His time. Was it, you think?” she said, “Is it better, you know, to make that choice, that he got to choose?” I did not answer. I could not erase the image of him walking, shoulders slumped forward, the weight of his teenage world carried in his blue backpack, borne on the soles of his high-top sneakers. Only sixteen-years-old. It was quiet in that car. I leaned out the window, breathing deep.
We did not cross over any bridges. I was sure there were rabbit burrows in the brush at the side of the road. She reached for the radio dial. Rap music filled the car, slightly obscured by the rush of wind from open windows.
“Someone once told me that they had an aunt who took pictures of people in their coffins,” I said, “she sent them over the Internet to all of her relatives, a way of remembering them, I guess. A final snapshot.”
“Wow,” she said. And that was all she said.
“My grandma has a death book. A scrapbook filled with obituaries of family and friends, people that she knows. A whole album,” I said. I pictured her there with her scissors. She didn’t even read the newspaper. I had to squeeze my eyes tight to erase that image.
“I’d like to see it,” she said, “much more than go to any funeral. I hate funerals. When I die I want my casket closed. Like Jason’s. It doesn’t matter what you looked like when you went out, just that you went out,” she said.
I blocked the image of Jason’s shattered body, lying somewhere deep below that bridge, plastered into the pit of the Saginaw Valley. I thought of how last time I drove home Skynyrd’s “Freebird” was playing on the radio. It’s irony like that—sparrows and Skynyrd, roadtrips—that make me believe in a god in a white robe, his bold finger pointing downward, tuning the radio station. The man on the radio said “bitch” just then. Did God pick that one?
“And I want one of those big church social hall deals,” she said after a pause, “with trays of cold cuts, and watered-down punch.” Again she paused, then said, “How close are we?” For a moment I wasn’t sure what she meant, but then I realized she might be thinking about my grandmother’s cooking. It was late, and we had not stopped for dinner.
“Five more miles,” I replied.
* * *
Several weeks later I was driving home to see my parents. I had crossed that bridge. I had not thought of Jason. It was late into the summer, and I had my windows rolled down. The radio was playing—loud.
At the side of the road at the first stoplight into town lay a small bird, legs twisted beneath its young body. Turning off the radio I looked away, held my breath, closed my eyes, and listened to the wind.
Leigh C. Grant teaches writing and literature at Macomb Community College. Her poetry and fiction have been published in Pearl, The Ambassador Poetry Project, The Bear River Review, Controlled Burn, The Paradidomi Review, and Cardinal Sins. She has received Wayne State University’s John Clare Prize for Poetry, endowed by the Academy of American Poets, an honorable mention from the Springfed Metro Detroit Writers for prose, and Saginaw Valley State University’s Tyner Roethke Award for Poetry.