At around ten thirty Link went ahead and lit a new cigarette. He could only smoke in the house after his grandmother had gone to bed. She went to bed every night at precisely nine o’clock and that’s when Link could smoke in the house. At nine o’clock Link could also watch his porn on the big living room Sony (he only had a crummy little black and white TV in his crummy little black and white bedroom). Link was not a heavy smoker but he was a heavy consumer of porn. His favorite porn genre was spitting. Watching naked people spit (and drool) on each other. After a spit-porn session Link would smoke a joint to cool his fervent brain. He never had to worry about his grandmother coming out of her room and surprising him. She operated like a clock.
Link worked as a short order cook at a small family restaurant called Cornbread. He had the beat, dead-nerve hands of a veteran cook. He’d singed the hair (permanently) off his knuckles long ago (something he was grateful for – he didn’t want caveman hands) and could pick things out of boiling water with his bare fingers. He had earned a lot of scars over the years. He’d lost the end of his left thumb cutting shiitake mushrooms and when it happened, Josie, a pretty young waitress who was training to be a nurse patched him up and Link relished the brief but momentous feminine contact. He still thought about it sometimes, turning the temperate memory over and over like something precious, fragile.
Link was still a virgin at 36. He had no friends to speak of (unless you counted pot dealers). He was a man alone but rarely felt lonely. He had his porn and his pot and his silly little cat, Miffy.
And he had his grandmother, Estelle.
Link went ahead and used his cigarette to light a leftover half a joint and sat in the flickering cobalt glow of the TV, smoking both (the cigarette and the joint) with a pumpkin-shaped ashtray in his lap, listening to the churning whirr of the old top-loading VCR as it rewound Saliva-Swapping Spit Sluts #6. When the VCR stopped grinding he pressed EJECT and sat back, getting high and absently watching The News. Everyone was still talking about the Clinton impeachment. Link didn’t care, politics bored him. He went ahead and flipped around the dial, finally lighting on St. Elsewhere. He let his thoughts float away from the TV and into a syrupy headspace that was all melting memories. He remembered getting lost at a campground in South Carolina when he was five, standing in a swaying field of ferns, feeling like he was the last person on the planet. It was a good feeling. A feeling of warm consolation. He remained lost in the woods for two days. His parents would never take him camping again.
Meanwhile, in the next room, Link’s grandmother’s heart stopped beating. She just up and went ahead and died at 87 years of age. She died with her eyes and mouth open (Estelle frequently slept with her eyes open which used to give her late husband Edgar the creeping willies). The warm, dry summer air began drying her eyeballs and the inside of her mouth right away (immediately).
Estelle liked to let the radio lull her to sleep and at the moment her heart stopped, it was playing Honeysuckle Rose by Fats Waller. The song was the last thing that informed her last dream. She was dreaming of elephants invading the assembly line at Tantalus Tech, the company where she’d worked for forty-seven years. She was sitting at the conveyor belt, placing black plastic screwcaps on lollipop-shaped stands but the elephants kept knocking the caps off the stands with their trunks, disrupting the line, the flow. People screamed around Estelle, panicked by the pachyderms but she went ahead and stood up and walked away, away from the line, away from the elephants and a warm glow suffused the factory floor and everything began to break apart into loose atoms, drifting like dust into the black void beyond. And all the while, Fats Waller played Honeysuckle Rose...
Meanwhile, Link went ahead and went to bed at midnight.
When he woke up at seven and realized his grandmother hadn’t come out of her room yet (she was always up at the crack of dawn and always had coffee waiting for him, always) he felt a suffocating dread press his chest. The threat of her impending death was an inevitability he lived with every day but actually dealing with it was another matter entirely. He knocked on her door. “Grandma?”
The silence that answered him was like the cold edge of a razor blade.
He went ahead and pushed the door open. There was no doubt she was dead. Her face was a ghastly mask - eyes wide, mouth agape - frozen in death into an attitude of pain and fear. The whole world lurched and tilted and Link’s stomach dropped and a strangled whine escaped his throat. Before he began to cry, he backed out of the room and closed the door.
Then he went into the kitchen. He knew he should go ahead and call the police but instead he went about making coffee, moving in a strange slow motion. Every movement he made, every moment stretched ahead sluggishly, like cold rubber. He poured a cup of coffee and it seemed to take an hour. He decided not to go ahead and drink it because the thought of swallowing carried a tense, ominous weight. Every second that passed felt laborious and fraught with significance. He placed the cup on the kitchen table and then walked into the living room, turned on the TV and pushed Saliva-Swapping Spit Sluts #6 back into the VCR. He didn’t know why he did this, only that he could. Now. He went back into the kitchen and found his cigarettes. He lit up and then realized he was already taking liberties, taking sad advantage of the old woman’s death before her corpse turned cold. Did this make him a bad person? Should he take his cigarette outside out of respect? He loved his grandmother but he felt the elevated lift of this new freedom. He returned to the living room to masturbate. He did this frantically and without pleasure and because of a sudden pinch of guilt did not complete the act. He spit on the floor instead. What was wrong with him? His thoughts felt unthreaded and vague. Miffy came mooning around for food and he wondered how long she’d starve before she started to eat his grandmother. The thought shocked him but he indulged it anyway. Would Miffy eat her eyeballs first? Her face was the only part of her body not covered in a blanket. She’d have to eat that first. He thought about the old woman’s brain, full of dead memories, everything she had been breaking down like cinders in the rain and he finally felt the kind of profound sadness her death deserved.
It was then that he went ahead and called the police. Called the police. Called the police.