by Cath Schaff-Stump
My granddaughter sits on a soft wool blanket I spread out for her in the middle of the living room. She stares into the wall like she’s trying to see through a window. She’s watching nothing. She’s uncommon quiet for a toddler. Her staring lasts long enough for me to finish my Bud. As I swig that last gulp out of the can, she snaps back to the present like a rubber band pulls her back to our house.
I am a young grandma. Rita had Tori when she was sixteen. The three of us did just fine. Tori waddles to me, her pudgy hand gummy with a coating of saliva and graham cracker crumbs. I wipe it off with a pink kleenex after putting the empty on a coaster. She totters back to the blanket. I paint that goofy grandma grin on my face. My baby can do nothing wrong.
Really, it’s more like Tori is my daughter than my granddaughter. Joe, my boyfriend, thinks I should buy Tori a little leather jacket to match mine. I think that is the idea of a total pothead. I like dressing her in bright colors, pink dresses and bright sleepers. She loves driving, just like me. Last spring, I bought a side car for my bike. It rides low to the ground, a smokey egg with a rod that attaches to my Harley. From inside Tori can see everything she wants through the tinted plexiglass door. We never go on the highway, just on the paved county road behind our development when we ride. Safety is concern number one.
Tori’s little hands try to pull my new beer off the coffee table. In the summer heat it’s left a ring of sweat. “No honey,” I say. “Not for you.” My granddaughter doesn’t drink. Tori’s just experiencing the world the way little kids do, dragging everything to themselves. I empty the can, then stack it with the ones I’ve replaced in the box to move it out of her way. Six in there.
I pop a new can open. A six-pack doesn’t make much of a dent anymore, but I know my limit. I watch Tori over the can’s rim. She falls on her diapered butt. “Good one, sweetie.” I drain about half the can, bitter and fizzy.
There’s Tori’s spooky stare again. Me, Rita and Tori, we all have those spooky pale eyes, you know, the ones that are clear blue and don’t look like any color almost. That makes Tori’s space out more spooky. Of course, my eyes aren’t freaky unless I’m looking in a mirror. Rita spooks me out in pictures all over the house.
Maybe when Tori’s spacing out, she’s talking to her mommy. I don’t see any reason why we should be haunted. No one told Rita to get in that damned car.
I bet Tori has ADD. I read this article about how mothers that drink heavily during pregnancy make kids with ADD. Tori’s eyes are flying saucers. That’s another sign something’s not right in her head. She can’t stick with anything for more than a minute.
I crawl off the couch toward her. Her mouth opens, little teeth perfect in a delighted smile. We play with her cloth-covered string for a while. You pull it, and the crinkle sort of straightens out, and it tinkles out “Pop Goes the Weasel” which I sing along to, and which makes Tori wave her hands. I shake my bike keys at her. She’s not interested. So I throw an episode of Dora the Explorer into the DVD player. She watches the picture, eyes opened like full moons.
I slug back another can while Tori’s eyes unfocus. I wonder what her mom is putting in her head. Tori and I were fine. Nothing would’ve happened if Rita hadn’t gotten all maternal. Tori knows I wouldn’t hurt her. Her mommy can’t poison her against me. I wonder if Tori’s gonna need some extra help in school. She’s just slow. Or not.
There’s nothing wrong with Tori. She’s a baby. All those welfare people in and out. I stayed clean and sober for them, one day at a time. I ran out of days is all. I tip my beer upside down. Empty. And I’m at my limit. Enough beer to relax, but not so much that I’d lose control or couldn’t take care of Tori. I take care of my baby granddaughter. I take that responsibility seriously.
Tori’s teetering across the shag toward the kitchen. I chase her and this excites her. She squeals gleefully and picks up the pace. Her tiny tennis shoes slap the linoleum. I catch her and swing her toward the tall ceiling, just shy of the fan. Her tummy’s in front of my face, and I blow on her tummy, making raspberries. She giggles and babbles.
The idea hits me. I heft her onto my right hip “Wanna go for a ride with Grandma?”
I open the door into the garage. My motorcycle is American, thank you very much, not some rice burner that will put one of my friends out of their job. Joe and I prefer Harleys. This one is new, which I don’t like, but nothing lasts forever. I trundle Tori into the side car, and I close the little egg hatch. She’s my little chick now, staring and staring at me with those freaky blue eyes, but I’m not going to think about that.
I rev the bike into action. We sputter out of the garage, down the slope of the driveway, out of the cul-de-sac, and into the muggy summer evening. County Road 16, right behind our development, is where I do my driving. Not too many cops on County Road 16 to ask about my license. I love the way my hair ruffles around me. Helmets are for fascists.
A glance down at the side car shows me that Tori is sleeping. Finally. Rita has shut up and Tori is getting some rest. The bike wobbles a little, but I correct.
The rushing air is cool around us. I love it. We slope gently around the first bend. The cross is still by the side of the road. Its plastic flowers are fading and the cross itself looks dirty. I accelerate. We shoot down the road like a bee on No Doze. Now that Rita’s not talking to Tori, she’s lecturing me all over, how I can’t take Tori on the bike, her colorless eyes flashing. Bullshit. Tori likes to ride. Tori is grandma’s girl.
I hook the bike around curve number two, a little sharper, but I lean into it. The front wheel stutters a bit. My old bike was poetry in motion. I hypercorrect and weave across the center line. We pass a car. At first I think it’s a cop, but I realize it’s Rita, chasing me. I’d clean that cross and put out some fresh flowers if she wasn’t such a bitchy nag all the time.
Rita’s horn blares and I flip her the bird. I ramp up the bike. We are a rocket speeding into the setting sun. I feel Rita’s eyes boring into me. She’s behind me, yelling at me, slamming on the horn, telling me to stop. The noise pierces like a siren. I close my eyes to squeeze her out of my head. You stay dead and you shut up! You don’t tailgate a motorcycle like some establishment pig.
At the next tight curve, the bike folds sideways underneath me. The sidecar bounces like a rubber ball on the concrete. I skid across the road like a rock skipping across a pond. Burning leather Evaporating flesh. A solid slam into the silver guardrail. My skull caves; my eyes blur. The world fills flashing blue and red. Where did the trooper come from? He’s a looker. I’m a mess.
The sidecar twists and spins to a halt in front of me. Blood slicks the tinted window, but I can see those little eyes staring at me. Rita’s not talking to me anymore because she’s too busy talking to her daughter. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Little girls like to be with their mommy.