I WAS STILL HEARING GREAT-GRANDPA’S VOICE. GRANDMA AND I WERE SITTING ON THE GRAY PORCH, THOUGH IT ONLY MADE US THINK OF DYING.
“Grass under my head,” he’d said. “When I was a boy, grass at my feet, grass in my hands. The baking, prairie-smell inside,” he’d said.
There was nothing but grass in the yard to look at, and grass on the other side of the low fence, and farther than we could see.
“It was sure quiet when I was a girl. Hardly any folks came by.”
“That’s the same as it is now, Grandma.”
“Things don’t change much, outside of telephones, and plumbing,” she said.
“And people,” I added.
“No. Not people.”
“Yes they do. They die,” I said. “That’s not changing.”
We weren’t changing anyway. The two of us had looked the same our whole lives. If you painted garnet earrings into my grandmother’s baby picture it would look just like she does now.
My grandma doesn’t understand exaggeration, and doesn’t use it either. That’s why the summer I was 17, as soon as she picked me up at the train station in Sidney I knew something was wrong. She wore her yellow-and-brown-checkered housedress and didn’t say a word. When she hugged me I felt the bones of her wrists press against my spine. We climbed into her green pickup, and she waited until we’d crossed over the border into North Dakota before she would speak. Grandma doesn’t like discussing important matters out of state, although half her cousins live in Montana.
“Your great-grandfather sat down on the porch four days ago and hasn’t moved or eaten since,” she told me.
I watched her brownish lips pause before saying four, hesitating to make sure she was correct. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just looked out the clean windows of her pickup, out and out, and every once in a while I saw a low house behind a windbreak, or some dusty cows huddled in a heap like one of my brother’s chummy sports teams.
When we walked around the house to the backyard porch I saw my great-grandpa still as a museum mannequin on the blue paint-chipped chair, one hand on each whitened knee of his jeans. He had all his hair; it was so dark it looked nearly black. He never spent a whole day indoors, and the skin of his face was tan and red. He was Norwegian, but people around Skar called him Chief. Under his sleeve, the skin of his shoulder was as white as an oyster shell. Great-grandpa didn’t twitch or budge when Grandma and I walked up the porch steps, but I trailed my fingertips against the back of his hand when I walked by, to see if he’d notice. His thumb lifted and lowered back down to its place on his leg.