Chapter One: Reno, Nevada May 1975
The bus pulls into the Reno terminal and I hold the dirty duffel bag in my lap. People stand on the sidewalk and all the faces are just faces with eyes that don't look for me.
Inside my chest is a heavy alone feeling. Maybe no one will be here for me. I get off the bus and look around and my eyes stop on Grandpa Ed, Daddy's daddy.
"There she is," Grandpa yells.
I squeeze my fingers around the bag strap and walk until we are face to face, me small, him tall. Grandpa has his hands fisted on his hips like he has something to say but he just looks at me and shakes his head.
"Well, give your old Grandpa a hug," he says, kneeling down, arms wide.
I drop my bag and hug around his neck, the smell of coffee mixed with peppermint. He's just like I remember -- round cheeks, wide nose, white hair, and bushy white eyebrows. Grandpa laughs deep and warm against my face and stops hugging first.
"My goodness," he says, hands on the top of my shoulders, holding me back, "you're a young lady now."
My throat hurts, a lumpy kind of hurt and I smile and nod since I don't know what else to do. My arms and body still feel Grandpa's hug. I wish I was still hugging him.
I look at my tennis shoes with the hole worn through that shows my big toe and the silver key for the pink trunk is tucked safe under the laces.
Grandpa picks up my duffel bag and stands up then. "Is this all you brought with you?"
"No," I say. "My trunk is under the bus."
"Under the bus?"
A man unloads suitcases and boxes on the sidewalk.
"There," I say.
My trunk is pink and silver with flecks of gray and inside is everything I could fit. There are the wedding photos of Momma and Daddy, her pearls and wedding ring, stuff from my princess bedroom and my books.
I run up the sidewalk, pat the side of the trunk and it makes the solid sound of something packed tight. I put my hands on the black handle and lift, cool metal against my legs. The trunk is heavy but it's not too heavy to carry.
"Hey now," Grandpa says, "don't go and break your back."
"I can do it," I say. "I've done it a hundred times."
Grandpa moves his golf hat around on his head.
"That may be so, Jennifer Lauck," Grandpa says, "but you put that darn thing down and let me get it for you."
It's funny how he says my whole name, all serious, and I roll my lips together to keep from smiling. Grandpa bends, puts his hand on the black trunk handle and lifts like it's going to be easy.
"Be careful," I say. "It's heavy."
He makes a deep grunt sound and lets go of the trunk, stands straight, hands pushed into the low part of his back. He looks at me, at the trunk, and then laughs out loud.
"You're right," Grandpa says. "It is heavy."
Maybe it's the way he says those words, so surprised, maybe it's how he looks at me like I'm crazy for trying to carry the trunk myself or maybe it's how long it's been since I've seen him and how good it is to know he's here. I can't help but laugh at Grandpa and the two of us laugh so hard right there in the Reno bus terminal, I think I am going to cry.
Reno air is so hot, it's like being slapped across the face and it is this dusty color, not brown, not gray, but in-between with the lightest shade of green from the sagebrush bushes that grow everywhere.
Grandpa and me ride in his big car called a Tornado. Grandpa says he just had it painted to match his golf cart back home. He calls the color metallic green.
The air conditioner is on full blast and the smell of the air is wet and cold.
I look out the window at everything, the wide blue of the sky, the sagebrush, the flasher signs with the names of casinos in bright lights. come to the mapes, win at the nugget.
I know I'm here, but I can still feel L.A. in my body, dirty pavement under my feet, homeless people holding up their cups and asking for a nickel and in my stomach, that hungry feeling that never goes away.
I can still see Deb with her green cat eyes and her angles and edges and I can still hear her kids laughing and calling me names, happy I was finally leaving.
I rub my hand over the goose bumps on my arm and look over at where Grandpa sits. He wears wrap-around dark glasses that go over his regular glasses and they make him look like a superhero. While he drives out of the bus station, he asks about the bus ride, did I meet anyone, if I ate. I tell him the bus ride was boring, no one sat next to me, and I ate a whole roll of hard cherry candies I bought when we stopped in Fresno.
Grandpa laughs when I say that about the hard cherry candies and it's nice to make him laugh. He drives under this big arch that says reno in big letters and under reads the biggest little city in the world. Grandpa stops at a red light and then looks over at me again, a funny tilt to his head.
"I'm just trying to remember the last time I saw you," he says. "Was it '71?"
In the reflection of his wrap-around shades, I can see myself shrug my shoulders.
"It couldn't have been that long ago," he says, rubbing his hand over his face and then pinching his wide nose. "Maybe '73?"
"I don't know," I say, tucking a bit of hair behind my ear.
"Hmm," he says, both hands on the steering wheel, lower lip pushed out, face set to thinking.
This is something grown-ups do, using the years to remember, but I don't think about time that way.
Time is the last big thing that happened, how it was L.A. this morning, one-way ticket and twenty bucks in my hand, good luck and good-bye.
"No, no," Grandpa says, "I think it was '74."
How I rode from L.A. to Fresno without anyone sitting in the seat next to me. In Fresno, I got off the bus, looked over the desert, and thought I could just walk down the road and disappear into that empty wavy space of heat on asphalt.
" '72?" Grandpa says, talking to the windshield.
How I got on the bus instead, hard cherry candies in my hand, nineteen dollars and some change in my back pocket.
"It had to be '72," Grandpa says. "The year your dad married Deb."
I kick my foot up and down on the floor mat.
"The last time I saw you," Grandpa says. "1972, the house in Fountain Valley."
The light changes from red to green and Grandpa makes a left onto the freeway.
"That's it," Grandpa says, "I'm sure of it."
The only sound is the fan blowing cold air and out the window, Reno slips by at sixty miles an hour, sagebrush and blue sky. The air in the car is cold and I squeeze my arms around myself.
Grandpa's seat is adjusted so he sits straight up and close to the steering wheel, those funny glasses on his face. He looks down my way, smile on his face, and I see myself bite my lip.
"Something on your mind?" he says.
"I was just wondering," I say.
"What, honey?" he says, leaning toward me like he can't hear.
I sit up in the seat and clear my throat.
"What's going to happen now?"
"Oh," he says, leaning back to normal sitting, eyes out on the road.
"I'm going to take you home to Grandma," he says, "and then, well, we'll just have to see."
"See about what?" I say.
"Oh, this and that," he says, head side to side, "complicated things you don't have to worry about."
"Is Bryan there?" I say.
"At the trailer? No, no, he's over in Carson with Georgia and Chuck for a bit, but not for long."
"Why not for long?" I say.
Grandpa smiles then, something about that smile that makes me think of Daddy. He puts his hand on my leg, pat-pat the way grown-ups do.
"I forgot that about you," he says.
"You like to ask questions," he says.
I bite the edge of my thumb, that soft spot past the nail, and look out at Reno again. It's true about the questions; Deb used to say I ask too many questions but I can't help it. Questions are like air, always there, even when you don't stop to notice.
Grandpa gets off the freeway, drives up a long road and ahead of us are rows and rows of mobile homes, metal siding shining under the sun. We go past the sign that says welcome and then up another hill past a pool so blue compared to all the dusty brown. Grandpa says the pool is for residents and their families, says I can swim whenever I want.
"You do know how to swim, don't you?" he says.
I watch out the window until I can't see the pool anymore and then shift in my seat.
"I can hold my breath under water for three whole minutes," I say.
Grandpa nods like that makes sense.
"That could come in handy," he says.
He makes a hand-over-hand tight turn, goes past one, two, three trailers. At number four, he makes another hand-over-hand turn, moves his big car in a narrow spot next to his golf cart painted metallic green.
He turns the Tornado off, says he'll bring in my trunk later, says to be careful getting out.
"Don't want to ding the paint," Grandpa says.
I twist to the side, slip myself between car and golf cart, shut the door extra careful.
"Is that my little girl?" a voice says. When I look up, Grandma stands on their porch wearing a long dress, fabric like I imagine Hawaii, flowers of pink and green and purple. She reaches out, loose skin trembling under her arms, and one hand holds a thin brown cigarette.
"Come here and give Grandma a big hug," she says.
I scoot sideways between the car and cart until I reach the chain-link fence and the gate. I push the latch up and swing the chain link gate open.
She's older than I remember, shoulders more sloped, more lines on her face, but the rest of her is about the same, white hair cut short like a man's, glasses on her face, bright blue eyes.
Grandma puts her arms around me and presses her cheek to mine. Her body feels so soft it's like hugging too hard would hug her apart so I keep myself to myself, my hands patting through her dress to the softness of her body.
She sets me back then and holds my face between her hands. The skin on her fingers is dry rice paper and I can feel the cigarette filter on my cheek.
"After all these years," she says, "as pretty as a picture."
"Doesn't she look great?" Grandpa says.
"She looks great," Grandma says.
"Hasn't she gotten tall?" Grandpa says.
"She is so tall," Grandma says. "What are you, eleven now?"
"Twelve," I say.
"You can't be twelve," Grandma says.
"It's true," I say.
She laughs a deep laugh that sounds rough, lets go of my face and puts the thin brown cigarette between her lips.
Grandpa comes up the steps, holds my bag out to me.
"We were just trying to figure out when we last saw this one," Grandpa says, winking like we have a secret. "Got it down to '72."
"That can't be," Grandma says, head back to blow a line of smoke up.
I take my bag from Grandpa, put it over my shoulder. He pulls open the screen and then pushes open the front door, the two of them debating the whole thing again.
"They were in that Fountain Valley house," Grandpa says. "We had a barbeque."
"I don't remember any barbeque, Ed," she says, going in first, one hand holding up her dress, bare feet under.
Grandpa waves me in and inside is a cool green world -- green plaid sofa, two green Barcaloungers, and a shiny green globe lamp on a table between. It's green carpet, green paneling and green plastic plants in green pots.
"It was the year he married that Deb," Grandpa says, closing the door on the hot Reno day. "I'm sure of it."
"Deb!" Grandma says, hand waving over her head, cigarette ash floating off the end of her cigarette and down to the carpet. "Worst mistake he ever made."
"Now, Maggie," Grandpa says, one hand to my shoulder, shaking his head on something.
She picks up an ashtray, jabs out her cigarette, mouth set up mad, pink color from her lipstick in the lines around her mouth.
"Your grandma is a little peeved at Deb right now," Grandpa says.
I look at Grandpa, at Grandma.
"It's okay," I say, "I'm always mad at her."
They both look at me, no expressions on their faces, and past that is surprise in their eyes like I'm not quite what they expected.
Grandma sets her ashtray down.
"Let me get a better look at you," she says and reaches one hand out, palm under my chin and fingers on the bones of my jaw to my ears. She moves my face side to side and her hand smells like cigarettes, coffee, and some kind of medicine.
Anyone else tried to touch me this way, I'd kick them in the leg, but she's held my face before; I can feel the memory of it under my skin. It's the memory of people who've known you always, even though you haven't seen them in a long time.
I hold my breath, arms against my sides, and wait.
"Well, one thing is clear," she says, letting go of my face just as quick as she got ahold of it. "You are too skinny, you need a bath, and your hair needs a trim."
I touch my fingers to the side of my face, just under my ear, the feel of her hand still on my skin, and I almost laugh out loud since technically, those are three things.
Grandpa puts his hand on my back, pats one time, and winks.
"See," he says, "Grandma is going to have you shipshape in no time."
After that, Grandma goes off to the kitchen to fix martinis for them, ginger ale for me, and Grandpa shows me to the guest room, where the fold-out sofa is already made into a bed.
"Just make yourself comfortable," Grandpa says.
The end of the fold-out bed is against a green desk and on top of the desk is a bunch of golf stuff. There are a handful of white wooden tees, white golf balls, and a tiny gold trophy with the words hole in one on the metal tag.
I come all the way into the guest room and set my bag on the floor.
"What's that mean?" I say. " 'Hole in one'?"
Grandpa takes off his golf cap, bald on top with some white hair around his ears and the back of his head.
"In golf," he says, "you get so many hits to put your ball in the hole -- usually takes three or four -- but a hole in one means you did it in just one."
Grandpa sits down on the edge of the fold-out and tosses his cap next to the trophy.
"It's an accomplishment," he says, "like bowling a perfect match or winning a race."
"Wow," I say, hand cupped over the gold ball on top of the trophy, the cool metal against my hand, "congratulations."
"It was a while back, but thanks," he says. "I understand you have a few trophies yourself, for running, right?"
I sit down on the edge of the bed, close to Grandpa, my hands on the end of the fold-out mattress and there's a strange feeling of how I know him but don't know him at the same time.
"Sure," I say, "but I never won first place or anything."
"Your dad told us you were a good runner," he says. "Olympic quality."
I laugh out loud in the quiet room.
"I don't think so," I say. "Maybe Deb's kids, but not me."
"Hmm," Grandpa says.
"Daddy was probably just being nice," I say.
Grandpa is quiet for a second and then puts his arm around my back, hand squeezing my shoulder.
"But you did go out there and run?" he says.
"Sure," I say.
"So you did your best?" Grandpa says.
I look up at his face, wide smile, wide nose, glasses with these gold metal frames.
I'm not sure I get what he means, "did my best." I did what I was told but the whole time I hated it and when no one was watching, sometimes I even walked. I'd think doing your best would be doing something with your whole heart and soul but I don't think that's what Grandpa means.
He watches me, waiting, and I can see Daddy in the cinnamon spice color of his eyes.
"I guess I did my best," I say, looking away from him.
Grandpa squeezes my shoulder again.
"That's what counts," he says.
Down the hall is the sound of ice against glass, and Grandpa's eyes search past me.
"Cocktails," Grandma calls to us.
Grandpa clears his throat, fist to his mouth.
"Well," he says, "I could use a drink. How about you?"
"Sure," I say. "Why not?"
Cocktail hour is really an hour and a half that starts at four with Merv Griffin and ends at five-thirty after the news.
Merv Griffin interviews a hoochie-coochie singer named Charo and she shakes her shoulders and laughs with her head way back so you can see all of her neck.
Grandma sits in her chair, a glass full of ice and two olives on a toothpick balanced on her lap.
"She's a wild one," Grandma says.
Grandpa sits in his chair too and reads a golf magazine. He looks around the side of the magazine to see the television.
My ginger ale is in a tall glass with a bunch of yellow stripes and I tilt the glass side to side ice clink sound against glass. Grandma has a plate of crackers and cheese set between her and Grandpa. I have my own plate, and it's on the long coffee table in front of the green plaid sofa.
I act like I know all about cocktail hour and crackers with cheese and Merv Griffin. I sip my ginger ale and on the TV is a commercial for Pepto-Bismol, pink stuff in a see-through stomach.
Grandma rattles the ice cubes in her glass.
"Refills!" Grandpa says.
My glass is still half full of soda and I hold it in both hands, the cool through my fingers.
"Need more ginger ale?" Grandpa says.
"No," I say. "Thanks."
"So polite," Grandma says.
"Very polite," Grandpa says.
Grandma looks at me and the light from the green globe lamp shines off her glasses. She claps her hands and the sound snaps me to sit straight on the sofa.
"So," Grandma says. "Tell me about you. Tell me everything."
"Everything?" I say.
Grandpa comes back with the glasses filled again and two new olives in each glass.
"I think your grandma means," he says, "tell us how you are doing, what you've been up to."
He sets the martinis on the table between their big green chairs. On the TV is a commercial for crescent rolls, that puffy white guy with the little-kid voice.
Grandma sips her drink, Grandpa sits back down in his Barcalounger, and I don't know if I should laugh or cry or what since all of this so different than what I've been up to.
I set my ginger ale on the special coaster Grandma put down just for my drink.
"Well, there's been a lot going on," I say.
Grandma watches me, Grandpa too, and I look down at my own hands as if they hold the version of things I want to talk about.
"Yep, there's been a lot going on," I say.
I look at her, at him, and tuck my hair behind my ears, clearing my throat.
"I'm just pretty tired right now, you know?" I say.
Grandma sets her drink down on the big table that separates their chairs and puts her hand over her heart.
"Of course you're tired," she says.
"Well sure," Grandpa says. "You've had a heck of a day."
The two of them look so serious and worried, and it's been a long time since anyone has looked at me that way.
"You just set back and relax," Grandma says, reaching for her cigarettes, shaking out a long brown one from her pack that says more on the outside. "We'll have a nice dinner, get you off to bed and there will be plenty of time for chitchat later."
"That's a good idea, Maggie," Grandpa says.
Merv Griffin comes on again and some singer is on the stage with a microphone in her hand singing, "My Eyes Adore You."
"I love this song," Grandma says, eyes going soft behind her glasses. Grandpa shoves back in his Barcalounger with a grunt and opens his golf magazine.
That night, after dinner, I'm tired but I can't sleep, new place, new sounds, new smells. I lay in the back room on the fold-out bed and the sheets are cool and soft and smell like flowers. Grandma made me take a shower, told me to wash my hair two times and scrub everywhere else good with a washcloth.
My skin tingles from being so clean and my hair is softer than I knew it could be.
The curtains are open over the bed and moonlight is around the corners of the room, over the desk with its Hole in One trophy, the cushions from the sofa balanced in one corner and my pink trunk on its side in the other corner.
Grandpa brought that in after dinner, shouldering it down the narrow hallway to the back bedroom, knocking over pictures on the wall and scraping against the door frame on the way and Grandma warning him to be careful of his heart. He finally got the trunk into the room but had to push it upright and back into corner, saying it was such a tight fit that it might be a while before I could get inside.
"That's okay," I said. "I don't need to open it."
"Aren't your clothes in there?" Grandma said.
"No, no," I said. "My stuff is in my bag, that trunk has other things in it, stuff from my bedroom -- you know, lamps and books and my bedspread."
Then, Grandma made me dump out all the clothes I did bring which added up to a couple of pairs of shorts, my long velvet skirt, and a few T-shirts, holes and stains and rips. That made Grandma angry with Deb all over again, asking what kind of mother sends a child off with no clothes.
I almost laughed out loud at the idea of Deb as my mother.
Deb was never my mother. She was mean to the core even back when she first married Daddy, just after Momma died. Deb just acted all sweet to Bryan and me in front of Daddy. After Daddy died, she was 100 percent mean. Deb told us Daddy's death was his own fault, bad energy he brought on himself.
Not much later, she dumped me in a commune house -- said it's called survival; figure it out -- and didn't come back for almost a year.
One month ago, my fingers dirty from checking phone booths for extra change, Aunt Georgia and Uncle Charles, family from Momma's side, showed up from Nevada and took both Bryan and me to their hotel. On that day, Deb showed up, screaming, "What the fuck is going on," accusing Aunt Georgia and Uncle Charles of kidnapping even though technically that's not what happened.
Bryan says Deb only kept us with her in California for the money that came every month, Social Security death benefits, and maybe the money ran out or it just wasn't enough anymore. One thing I learned about Deb, there was never enough of anything for her.
She sent Bryan off first, and then it was me -- pack your bags, one-way ticket and good-bye.
Far off, I hear the TV and the sound of Grandma and Grandpa's voices talking quiet in the living room. Here in Reno, safe and clean and in the fold-out bed, Deb's starting to fade away like a story you can close the book on, turn off the light, and, finally, go to sleep.
Each day with Grandma and Grandpa is about the same.
In the morning, Grandpa makes coffee in the Mr. Coffee machine and Grandma makes sourdough toast. Grandpa, Grandma and me sit in the living room, eat toast, and watch the Today Show. Every half hour, the local weatherman cuts in to talk about Reno weather, saying it's going to be hot and windy, which makes Grandpa happy. Hot and windy are perfect for a round of golf.
Grandpa plays golf every day.
On Tuesdays, I go with him, driving his cart up and down the path that runs along the course and after, we go to the grocery store to get eggs, milk, orange juice, and real butter. Grandpa always stops in the cookie aisle, lets me get whatever I want, and I always get the angel chocolate-chip cookies in the pink-and-white package.
After shopping, we drive to the liquor store and Grandpa buys one bottle of vodka and one jug of red wine and then we drive back to mobile home for cocktail hour that's really an hour and a half.
On Thursday, he plays golf and after, takes Grandma and me to the library. She turns in her old books, soft-cover romance novels, and then checks out a bunch of new ones, enough to fill a grocery bag. I help pick a few based on the covers I like, mostly the ones where the lady and man are wrapped in each other's arms so close you can't tell where one begins and the other ends.
On the other days of the week, I stay at the mobile home with Grandma. In the mornings, she reads soft-cover romance novels and I watch television. At noon, it's lunch, and after we eat, Grandma says I can have a couple of the angel chocolate-chip cookies. When she isn't looking, I end up taking more than two and push them into my pocket for later. In the afternoon, she reads some more and that's when I walk down to the swimming pool.
Most days, it's just me, the pool and the faraway sound of cars on the flat line of freeway in and out of Reno. I never swim, just sit on the pool edge, kick my feet in the water and eat my chocolate-chip cookies.
On Sundays, Grandma, Grandpa, and me spend the day together, going to the Catholic church where the pews are made of dark wood and there's a pad you pull out for kneeling. I sit between Grandma and Grandpa with a prayer book on my lap and Grandpa points out what page we are on and what prayer we're supposed to say. I keep my finger on the page, follow along, stand up, kneel, and sit down just the way everyone else does.
There's lots of talk about God that I don't understand but the music is nice and there is a time every Sunday when you get to ask God to forgive your sins. In my head, I always ask God to forgive me for taking the cookies but I wonder if He hears, if He's up there at all.
I have all new clothes now, matching shorts and T-shirts, a great bathing suit that's yellow and a lime green color, white buckle sandals, and a pair of tennis shoes without any holes in the toes that actually fit my feet. My long hair was cut at a beauty parlor, all one length to my chin, and since being in the sun by the pool every day, it's even a lighter color of brown. I've been eating all the time too, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then a bowl of ice cream after dinner. Grandpa says I eat like a horse; Grandma says I'm filling in.
It's normal and it's boring, but I like being here with them. Each day fades away what was before and when I close my eyes, Deb is finally gone. I can't even remember what she looks like or the sound of her voice.
Instead, there's a quiet and a calm in me, a slowing down, and I'm tired all the time. I fall asleep by the pool, take a nap in the afternoon, and always fall asleep on the sofa after dinner. Grandpa says I sleep like the dead, but Grandma says I must be catching up.
When it's time for dinner, Grandpa always turns off the television and plugs in the electric fireplace, which is this hunk of white plastic molded to look like a mantel and bricks. Where there's supposed to be a real fire, it's a plastic log with a light behind, and the log squeaks as it turns around and around. After she puts the food on the table, Grandma always pulls open the sheers that hang over the big dining-room window and out that window is a pretty view of Reno that changes from day to night as we eat.
The three of us sit in the dining room with bowls of Grandma's homemade chicken noodle soup. Grandpa sits at the head of the table, Grandma next to him, her back to the big window, and I sit across from her.
Grandpa puts his face over his bowl, steam on his glasses.
"Smells delicious, Maggie," he says.
"You can't get this out of a can," she says.
The soup has celery, carrots, and chicken, and it does smell good, even if it's strange to eat soup in the summer.
Grandma sips at her soup, eyes up to the ceiling.
"Needs more salt," she says. "Hand me the salt, Ed."
"I don't think it needs more salt," Grandpa says.
She sips again and moves it around in her mouth.
"No," she says, "it definitely needs more salt."
Grandpa moves like he's going to get up but I get up first.
"I got it," I say. "I'm closest to the kitchen."
Grandpa nods at Grandma, she nods back at him, and I can feel them watch me. In the kitchen, the salt is over the stove. I take the shaker back to the dining room.
"Why, thank you, honey," Grandma says.
"Sure," I say.
"Jenny was a big help today," Grandpa says. "She steers that old golf cart like a pro."
Grandma shakes salt over her soup and puts the shaker down on the table.
"She did all the breakfast dishes for me this morning too," Grandma says.
They say how I did this and did that, and I sip soup and listen, as if they are talking about someone else.
The sun goes behind the mountains, sends a pink color up to the bottom of the white clouds, and a few lights of the city start to sparkle.
Grandma sets her spoon in her bowl, and just like that, it's quiet except the squeak of the log in the fake fireplace.
They look at me and I look at them, and all the quiet sends a bad feeling up the back of my neck.
"We thought you might like to see your brother," Grandpa says. "What do you think of that?"
I hold extra still, spoon in my hand and over my soup.
I should have thought about Bryan before, but the truth is, I haven't. Bryan is behind the tired feeling that's in me all the time now, the memory of him not much better than Deb and her kids.
I put my spoon down in the soup, sit back in my chair, hands in my lap to the cloth napkin spread out over my legs.
Grandpa leans his elbows on the table and adjusts his glasses higher on his wide nose. "You haven't said much about your brother since you got here," Grandpa says. "Aren't you kids very good friends?"
"Friends?" I say.
"Didn't you do things together in California?" Grandma says. "Weren't you close?"
Grandma's dress has the kind of neck that shows part of her shoulders and her collarbones and I look at where her dress collar ends and her pale skin begins.
Up until now, they haven't asked much about before and what I've told them is very little. I even made up a few things so they'd think everything was normal. They don't need to know how I dropped out of school or begged on the streets for money or saw a homeless man jump in front of a bus. No one needs to know that stuff. They sure don't need to know about Bryan and me, how he ended up siding with Deb's kids and tormented me into crying more times than I can count.
Right now, I wish I could make up something nice to say about him, but I can't.
I bite my lips together and look at my soup, just the soup.
"You haven't really told us much about your time in California with Deb and her children," Grandpa says.
Grandma nods and frowns.
"We know some things," Grandma says, "but you've told a very different story than what we heard from Georgia and Chuck, not that they are the most reliable people in the world."
"Of course, Deb has her own version of things," Grandpa says.
"Oh, Ed," Grandma says, hand flat on the table between them, "we both know that woman is certifiable."
Grandpa shakes his head at Grandma, Not now in his eyes.
I look at Grandma, at Grandpa.
"You've been talking to Deb?" I say.
Grandma opens her mouth to say something and closes it again.
"Just a couple times, really," Grandpa says. "She's not the easiest person to talk to."
All the calm and quiet of being here is gone, and in their place is a mess of the real past and the one I made up. I never thought about Aunt Georgia and Uncle Charles telling a different version of the story, I never thought about Deb having her story too.
I feel backed up in a corner, trapped and mixed up, the sting of tears in my eyes.
Grandma reaches across the table, squeezes her hand over mine.
"We know it's hard, honey," she says, "but if you tell us a few things, we can decide what to do."
"Do what?" I say.
Grandpa takes his napkin off his lap, sets it on the table next to his bowl.
"Let's put it this way," he says. "We want to help you have a normal life."
Grandma takes her hand off my hand and pushes her bowl of soup away.
"As normal as you can, considering," she says.
"What Grandma is trying to say, honey," Grandpa says, "is it's up to us to find a home for you."
"I don't understand," I say.
"What?" Grandma says.
"I don't know," I say. "I just thought, you know...Can't I stay here?"
Grandma shakes her head, sad and slow.
"That's what we were afraid of," she says. "That you'd get the wrong idea."
"Did I do something wrong?" I say.
Grandpa laughs, but the sound of his laugh isn't right. "No," he says, "you didn't do anything wrong."
"It's just you need a family," Grandma says, "you need young people."
The log in the fake fireplace squeaks, and what's left of the pink sunset is almost all gone now, a dark gray about to turn to night. Grandma and Grandpa talk then about the future, about stability, about options. Grandpa says Bryan and me might be better off apart since we're not that close anyway. Grandma says I could go live with Auntie Carol except she's getting a divorce from Uncle Bob. Grandpa says there's Aunt Peggy and Uncle Dick and since they have a two-year-old daughter, I'd have a brand-new little sister to look after and grow up with. Grandpa says Bryan gets to decide since he's 15 years old, but they have to decide for me since I'm so young.
The sound of their voices is just sound and I know the truth. All this was just pretend, too good to be true, and they don't want me -- they probably never did, not like I thought they did anyway.
I want to tell them I'll try harder, do better, only I can't through the tears that come up and out of me.
Grandma comes to my side of the table and puts her soft arm around my shoulders. I put my face into my hands and my shoulders shake under her arm.
"We know this is hard," Grandma says. "You go ahead and cry."
She pats my head, and Grandpa clears his throat.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Grandma says.
"We had to tell her," Grandpa says.
They talk like I'm not here at all and I take a deep breath and wipe my hands down my face. Grandma moves her hand into the pocket of her Hawaiian dress and pulls out a ball of tissue. She presses the tissue into my hand and I hold it in my fist.
Grandma and Grandpa look at me, eyes wide and worried.
"I'm sorry," I say, sniffing.
"No, we're sorry," Grandma says, hands into her dress, wadding up the Hawaiian material and then letting it go again. I look up at her face, at her bright blue eyes.
"I don't want to go anywhere else," I say, new tears in my voice.
"We know," Grandma says, patting my shoulder, and she looks over at Grandpa, tears in her eyes too. "We know, honey."
"You've got to understand, Jenny," Grandpa says, pressing his hand flat on the table, "we're just trying to do what's best for you."
"That's right," Grandma says.
Grandpa waves his hand for her to sit down, but instead, she goes back to her chair, standing behind it with her hands on the back.
Out the window, Reno is dark now. The sunset is long gone and the white lights of the strip are like stars that have fallen to the ground.
"It's hard now," Grandpa says, "we know that, but you'll see it's going to be the best in the long run."
"You're going to be just fine," Grandma says.
"That's right," Grandpa says, "you're going to be just fine."
Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Lauck