Jean is tracing lines in the gravel with her big bare toes. They’re jagged, these lines, because her legs aren’t very strong anymore. The lines she traces cut out patterns, like hash marks, between the legs of her white plastic patio chair. The lines she traces look like Egyptian hieroglyphics on a tomb wall. They look like Roman numerals. If you’re not very creative, they also look like nothing at all.
Grandmother has dementia my mother had told me. “Jean has finally lost her mind” was the precise phrasing. To be exact, that’s how she’d told me: “Jean has finally lost her mind.”
My mother calls her mother Jean. They’re not on familiar terms. And because of it, until today, I’ve never been on any terms at all with Jean, my grandmother. I’d never before met or spoken to Jean. I knew of her, but I didn’t know her, and last Tuesday my mother told me she’d be pulling me out of senior classes for a week so that we could travel to Arizona to “tend to things because Jean has finally lost her mind.” I’d shrugged and later that evening found our flight itinerary in my e-mail inbox. LAX to PHX. It was as simple as that.
Jean’s hair is long and steel wool gray. It’s thin and wispy. She doesn’t tie it back and she doesn’t style it. She doesn’t seem to care. As she gazes into the sky, her hair lays, unremarkably, around her wide shoulders. Motionless. She squints into the sky. Here it’s a barren and empty and cloudless, but not blue, expanse. The sky here is somehow burnt, always burnt; it has a golden glow, a forest fire haze no matter the time of day; and it gives only the impression that the sun is out there somewhere, beyond the sheet of dust and ozone that hide it from view.
“We have apricots,” Jean says to this sky or, perhaps, me. Her leg stops fidgeting and she is still.
“No, thank you,” I reply. I’m not uncomfortable around her.
The patio is large, windswept with small pebbles and tiny leaves that have long since dried and curled inward on themselves. It’s just the two of us. It’s just me, Jean and her set of white plastic patio furniture. My mother took the car to find boxes. “We’ll throw most of this stuff out,” she’d said when we arrived. Goodwill was coming in a few days for the larger items; Mother had scheduled them to take away the bed, Jean’s bureau, the dining set, a china cabinet. “The rest we’ll put in boxes and take with her to Havenhurst.” Havenhurst is the place Mother has arranged for Jean to live now. “It’s not much, Stephen,” my mother had said. “I’ll probably bump up our return flight in the morning. A week was being generous.”
“It doesn’t matter, dear. But I also have apricots. If you’d like some.”
The day nurse that had been helping Jean for the past several months had warned us that repetition was part of her “experience.” She’d forget things she’d just done. She’d forget things like they never happened. Things that’d just happened she would forget. It’s normal of the abnormality. She gets confused then and she repeats herself. She very often repeats herself.
So here Jean and I sit. Strangers. The air is hot and dry. It lays on me like a blanket, an unmoving sheath. My trainers are scuffed and dusty. There’s not much to say and I’m starting to feel bad. I feel bad because this is the extent of Jean and me. This is the extent of us forever. And that’s futile, isn’t it? Because my mother is stubborn. My mother is stubborn and Jean was probably more stubborn (once upon a time) and now it’s futile. Jean and Mom are futile. Jean and me are futile. Even Jean and Jean are futile. We’re futile people sometimes, strange and estranged and strangers.
“Jean? What’s it like?”
She doesn’t stir, as if asleep with her eyes wide open. I realize she’s staring at her reflection in the sliding glass door.
“It’s a park full of rocks, obviously,” she says, not looking at me. I look away from her anyhow, embarrassed for asking and embarrassed for trying and embarrassed for no reason at all. Jean continues: “We’ve been climbing over everything, you know. Climbing all over everything for years and getting dirty by the inch.”
“That’s what you see?”
“Okay.” I slouch further in my broken chair and turn my face up toward the thick amber sky.
“There is no sense, you know. There’s no …purpose to any of it. I tried to keep everyone together, keep them all on the path. Don’t wander off into the rocks, Billy …Trudy, Francine, Peter… Lou—” Jean seems to be pulling random names out of thin air, and I only recognize one. “Stay in line! But what behavior, dear! People all over the place because there’s too many ways to go. Stay together? What’s the use! Separate and get lost. It doesn’t matter.” Jean’s voice is much like my mother’s, only more fluid sounding, with a wet rattling. I think there’s a gurgle in there. Jean’s words are covered in bubbles. “I can go wherever I’d like.”
It’s very hot, two o’clock in the afternoon. I’m not sure anymore why or how we’ve come to be on the patio under so much intense light. Jean, in a pale green sweater, must be sweating!
“Can I get you a glass of water, Jean?”
“It doesn’t make a lick of sense. I keep telling Louise. I tell her, ‘It doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Because the purse is suede and the pinecones—those need to go in the toilet, dear.” Jean is looking toward the sky again. She’s looking toward the sky, though there’s nothing there. There’s not even a cloud there. Her eyes are moving like there is everything there, however. Her eyes are moving very fast like she’s reading a novel. “But I am very free. Very free now.” She clenches her fists. Then, with startling speed and vigor she claps. It reminds me of a child. “Such space!”
From the other side of the house, I can hear the garage door thrum to life. It starts alive, yawning, and I imagine my mother inching the rental car into its shadowed mouth. Jean hasn’t owned a car in years. The garage, like I imagine Jean’s mind now, has been empty for years.
“I wish it made sense for you,” I tell her then. “I guess I wish it made sense for you.”
And Jean, my grandmother, turns to me. It’s the first time all day. She smiles.
“We have apricots, dear.”