Long Reliever by Jennifer McGaha


I am sprawled in the back of my grandparents’ 1972 brown Nova. My
grandfather rides in front, teaching my brother to drive. My brother is
nine, and I can’t even see his head over the seat.

“Now ease up on the gas when you get to the top of the hill,” my
grandfather says.

As the car lurches, I look back toward the house. My grandmother
stands at the bedroom window, wiping her hands on the dishcloth in
her hand.

“Easy, ” my grandfather says as we head down the other side of the

“What if we see a policeman?” I ask.

“Old Hubert’s the law over here in Canton!” my grandfather says.

“Brake, son! Brake!”

The car screeches to a stop.

“Now let’s go up to the top of that hill, and then you can turn around
in the church parking lot.”

My brother is concentrating, and he is careful to signal before he turns. After a couple of days of practice, my grandfather will decide that my brother is ready to drive to town, and that will become one of our rituals—a trip to the store on the corner of Trammel and East Main to buy candy cigarettes and Fruit-Stripe gum.

At the crest of the hill, as the pavement ends, I see the garden below, the cornstalks gently swaying, my grandmother’s pink peonies in the front yard, the June apple tree sagging with fruit. I ease down the driveway and stop to let my grandfather out. He fumbles with his seat belt, then the door handle, gripping the window as he pulls himself onto the gravel. He waits for a moment until he finds his balance. My sons tumble out of the back of the van and gather their bags, filled with all the vital adolescent equipment—DVDs, cell phones, iPods, an Xbox, an entire suitcase full of video games. It is the beginning of what we have come to think of as “our shift,” our time to stay with my granddad while my grandmother is in a nursing home recovering from a broken hip.

Although it is early July, the heat is already oppressive. It has been weeks since it has rained here, and the moisture hangs in the air, sticking to our hair, our shirts, our glasses. The heat is especially hard for my grandfather, who, at eighty-nine, is slowly succumbing to emphysema and congestive heart failure. In addition to that, he is hard of hearing and almost completely blind. It has been three weeks since my grandmother’s fall, and it will be six more before she can think of coming home, so over the next several weeks, I’ll make this trip again and again. Sometimes I come alone, but, more often, one or two or all three of my children come also. On good days, we enjoy this time that we have together—this fleeting summer lull—this unsolicited respite from
our routines.

My older son, Avery, has just turned fourteen, and, in between cell phone conversations with his girlfriend, he plays Johnny Cash tunes on his guitar, his long blond hair falling into his eyes, while my granddad sits in his recliner chewing tobacco and tapping his foot. My younger son, Emery, will be twelve in a few days. He and I wander through the garden among the rows of vegetables my dad planted in the spring. We carry armfuls of corn back to the picnic table, and my grandfather places three lawn chairs close to the bench so that the three of us form a circle. Together we pull shucks from the corn, the only sounds the ripping of the husks, the clank of the cobs against the metal as we toss them into the pot. In the sultry stillness, my mind wanders back to another summer day, over thirty years ago.

My brother and I race into the pet store and stand before the cages, staring at each furry little body, trying to determine which one is the most robust. Finally, we agree on a brown one with especially bright eyes and a long pink tail. The sales clerk hands him to my brother, who dangles him by the tail and drops him into the cage. This one, I think, is going to be a good one.

The gerbil’s cage sits on my lap on the way back to our grandparents’ house. When we stop, my brother reaches for the cage. The gerbil is not moving. My brother reaches his forefinger through the bars and pokes him. Nothing. I begin to cry as my grandfather gets out of the car and goes to the basement for a shovel. My brother carefully lifts the cage and heads to the top of the hill behind the house. I follow closely behind him.

We already have what amounts to a pet cemetery here above the June apple tree, and I cry quietly while my grandfather digs the hole. Then, my brother opens the cage and dumps out the stiff little body. He covers him with wood shavings, then fashions a miniature cross out of two sticks tied together with some dead grass. He pokes the cross into the dirt, and we stand back together, solemnly contemplating the row of crosses…

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