Authors: Virginia Hamilton
To Etta Belle Hamilton, 1892-1990
“YOU HEAR THAT?”
Cammy asked Gram Tut. “Otha Vance is building a hog house. And asking you to help him.”
She thought she heard Gram Tut crow thinly. But she wasn’t sure. Gram was over there, in the bed by the window. And the sound was like a rooster from way across the barnyard.
Tut didn’t turn her head to greet her grandchild. She didn’t move at all.
Cammy walked across the darkened room and turned on the light above the sink. She tiptoed to the bed, hopped up on the side rail and leaned close. Gram Tut’s eyes were closed. Already the smell of the place, of old people, was up her nose. Cammy smacked a big kiss on her grandmother’s cheek.
“There! I planted it, Gram. Now don’t wash it. Let it grow.” Something about her Gram brought out the best in Cammy.
Tut couldn’t wash her own face. “Poor old thing,” Cammy’s mama said.
You’re not poor anything, Cammy thought, looking down at her Gram. She touched the lines of crisscross wrinkles on Gram’s cheek. “You’re my Gram and you need me to snuggle your face once in a while,” she said.
Cammy didn’t snuggle against Gram now. She would do that before she left. It always made Gram cry. But Gram Tut liked her to do that all the same.
“Gram?” Cammy leaned closer. Gram Tut’s eyes were still closed. “You’re not dead yet, are you?”
There was a long moment in which Cammy held her breath. But then, Tut gave a grin; said weakly, “Fooled ya!” and shot her eyes wide open.
It was a rough game that Tut managed to play with Cammy. Pretend dead-as-a-doornail was what Cammy called it. Gram Tut thought that was a riot. She was usually half awake when Cammy came. She would hear her granddaughter tiptoeing in and she would at once play dead.
“Don’t tell Maylene,” Tut had said. Maylene was Gram Tut’s daughter and Cammy’s mama. “She doesn’t have a fingernail bit of humor in her.”
They never played the game when anybody else was around.
Now, Cammy grinned. “Gram,” she said, “you didn’t fool me. I knew you was here, and always will be, too.”
“Expect so, the rate I’ve been here,” murmured Tut.
“Ninety-four years!” squealed Cammy.
“Oh, surely, not that long!” Tut said, softly.
Cammy let it go. “Gram Tut?”
What, honey? Tut’s throat moved but she hadn’t the strength right then to speak.
“Did you hear what I said? Otha Vance is building hisself a hog house …”
Him. Himself, honey. Not hisself, Tut thought. Doesn’t Maylene or that school teach you a thing?
“He needs some help, Mister Vance says,” Cammy explained. “Me and you could help him, if you want.”
Cammy knew better than that. Mr. Vance lived at the Care, also. She knew he wouldn’t build a hog house, nor could Gram Tut help him at anything. But it was part of the game, like saying to Gram, “What did you do today?” And Gram Tut saying back, “I’m worn out. I cleaned the whole house,” when everybody knew she was mostly bedridden. She had no house now.
“Did you hear what I said, Gram?”
This time, Tut did get the words out before the strength left her completely. She hoarded her energy every morning after breakfast, knowing that Cammy would come see her later. And the child, talking a blue streak.
Tut’s dry lips parted, “Tell that old fool he’ll never make another pig sty … nor wallow in the mud-manure, either,” Tut said. Her voice was just above a whisper, getting stronger, now that she had someone to talk to.
“I hate hogs,” Cammy told her.
“But you love the sound of spareribs knocking … their taste in your mouth,” Tut murmured.
“And with sourdough bread, good and hot, with the butter dripping out of it! Ooooh!” moaned Cammy.
“Mom has made her last meal on this earth,” Cammy’s mama, Maylene, had said one day about Gram Tut.
They all missed Gram Tut’s cooking. When it first happened that she no longer could cook, before the Care, she would sit in the kitchen. Maylene would do the cooking with Tut at her elbow. “Put a little ketsup in with the chicken and flour. You don’t need to fry it, Maylene. Do as I say,” Tut would tell her. “Just stick it in the oven with a little vinegar and honey. You never do listen to what I tell you.”
Her mama had to do it her way. Said the idea of ketsup and vinegar made her want to upchuck. She fried everything. The chicken she made, though, was all right. But greasy.
Not as good as my Gram doing it, herself, in the oven, Cammy thought now. Not never that good, yummy-yum.
“I always stir a little love and kisses into my food,” Gram said.
Oh, Gram! “Maybe you can make us something good-tasting for Christmas,” sighed Cammy. And then: “You asleep?” Tut went in and out of sleep easily. Her mouth lay slack, drawn to one side of her face.
“That’s no kind a Christmas dinner—chicken,” Tut said, suddenly wide awake. She had been thinking about her summer curtains. Better had get them up, and the screens in, too. Get up just after dawn, before I start in baking pies. What month is it? Where am I? she thought. Oh.
It surprised Cammy when Gram’s voice became so young and fresh.
“You want turkey and duck … for Christmas, like in the old times,” Tut said. She remembered her Grandfather Sam shooting fox. Pretty little things.
“Truly, Gram? Will you come home when its Christmas and make it for us?” Cammy asked, all eagerness, forgetting that Gram was old and might not live that long.
“Child … you wear me out … in five minutes. I swept the grass … no … I swept the porch. I mean … the whole house. What more … where is Thy light!” Gram’s voice quavered on the last words.
“Gram,” Cammy said. She knew her Gram was helped out of bed twice a day for lunch and for dinner. She watched Gram Tut closely.
Sometimes, Gram’s mind took a wrong turn, Maylene said.
Tut closed her eyes and opened them. Her gaze wandered, found the portrait of her husband, Emmet, high up on the wall.
Gramper Em-un-Ems, Cammy had called him when she was five or six. Tut had thought that was so cute.
Now Tut was whispering at the portrait. Cammy thought she was speaking to her. “Don’t talk, Gram, ’cause it wears you out. Just listen. I was telling you that Mister Vance wants your help. Hear him outside?” Cammy went on. “His chair squeaking? I think he’s coming in now. Gram! Shall I let him come in?”
“Does he have his … pajama bottoms still on?” Tut said. Her voice had wheezed from her chest. She turned her eyes toward Cammy. She could turn her head sometimes. But she didn’t then.
“Sure he has them on. They don’t let him walk around silly,” Cammy said.
“They say he takes his night clothes off all in the hallway,” said Tut.
Cammy knew that had happened a month ago and hadn’t happened since or she would’ve heard. Gram lost plenty of time. She could speed it up, though, when she felt like it.
“Let him on in,” Tut said. “Mebbe he knows me today.”
Cammy went to the door and directed Otha Vance in. She spoke grandly but in a soft voice so as not to alert the nurses. “My Gram will see you now, kind sir.”
Otha Vance looked Cammy up and down, but didn’t answer a word. He rolled in. He was a sagging, pale little man in a wide-brimmed farmer’s straw hat, surrounded by his wheelchair. He had moist, beady eyes and no hair to speak of under the hat. He was kept in the chair by a sash around his waist attached to a harness across his shoulders. The harness and sash were tied together at the back of the chair.
Otha seemed to shrink farther into the chair each time Cammy saw him. He had stopped beside Gram’s sink to take in her “home.” He looked over at the television at the foot of the bed. It was tuned to a talk show. He gazed at the bed crank to judge Gram’s condition today. The top of the bed was raised, an aid to keeping her lungs free of fluid.
“Got a cold?” he hollered. He never could speak softly. He didn’t get an answer, either. He didn’t expect any, and didn’t listen, anyhow. He took in the bed last, with Cammy standing there on the railing. Her neck was craned around to watch him. She eyed him suspiciously.
Swiftly, Otha rolled up behind her and pinched her waist.
“Ouch! You old—I knew you were going to do that!” He had been so fast. Cammy made a spitball. Otha saw her mouth working and raised his hand to her. She parted her mouth just so he could see the spit a minute. He dropped his hand at that.
I’m eleven, Cammy thought. I know better than to use a spitball on an old farmer in a wheelchair. But he don’t know I know! Mom would whip my daylights out for doing something like that. Don’t know what Andrew would do to me.
Andrew was Cammy’s big brother. She was usually in his charge, when he could find her. He never told when she slipped off. It was his fault anyway, for not watching her closely enough. If he told their mama she’d run off, he’d have to admit he’d go looking for her only about half the time.
Andrew was sixteen and hard as nails, people thought. But Cammy knew better. Maylene had been warned by her own sister, Effie Lee, that Andrew could be a drinker. Cammy never ever told on him, either.
Otha gave Cammy one of his blind kind of looks, although he wasn’t near blind. He wore glasses that were rimless and always so dirty, he might as well have been blind. He would fall down when he tried to stand on his feet. That was the reason he was tied in the chair. And he was too feeble to live alone any longer in his huge farmhouse. He’d fallen too often and couldn’t get up by himself. His children moved him to the Care home.
“Got sixteen cent?” he was asking Tut.
“What for, Otha?” she said. “You forget how to say good morning to me?”
“Gram. It’s after four o’clock in the afternoon, goodness sakes,” Cammy told her.
“To get a bus so’s I can go home,” Otha said. “I’ll give you a dollar if you call the law.”
“What for?” asked Gram, breathless a moment.
“For to arrest that boy of mine. Putting me in here,” Otha told her.
“There’s no bus,” Cammy cut in. “They don’t run the bus hardly, least, not to your house. Anyways, your house is been sold.”
“You better get outta here, little girl,” he said. “Nurse! Nurse! The kid is messin’ around!”
“Hush up, Otha,” Gram said.
“Oh, be quiet! Don’t see why everybody’s so cranky,” he said. “The wife’s stayed away all day. Mad at me, too.” He looked glum.
“He’s forgot his Betty has passed,” Maylene had told Cammy.
Her mama also said that it was weird the way Otha “fitted to his gravity,” was the way she put it. Without warning, he would drop things and fall in a heap. Cammy had seen him standing in the door of his “home” once, that being what they called their rooms at the Care. Most residents had a “home” all to themselves. Some few men shared their “homes” in big, double rooms. But one time, somehow Otha blew himself forward like out of a cannon. He’d shot himself across the hall. His head hit the railing the elders held to when they walked, when they could walk, and which they pulled themselves along when they were in wheelchairs.
It hadn’t hurt Otha. “Farmer,” Maylene had said, “hard-headed as he can be.”
Gram said, quietly, with her eyes closed, “So, Otha … what you … up to?”
“He’s building a hog hut, I told you,” Cammy said.
“Oh, will you be quiet?” Otha said. “I’m talking to your mother.”
“No, you’re not!” Cammy and Gram said almost at the same time.
Cammy squealed with laughter, just as Lilac Rose, the best attendant on the wing, stopped to study the three of them.
“Party time,” she said, coming in to check on Gram Tut. “Hello there, Miz Tut,” she said. “How’s my favorite lady this afternoon?” She lifted the blanket and looked and felt under Tut to see if she was still “comfortable,” was the way she put it. That meant dry, Cammy knew. Cammy turned her face away from what Lilac was doing. At the same time, she blocked Otha’s view.