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American

They say it’s the freeze-thaw cycle that makes the roads fragile and sends the concrete crumbling down toward the rivers. It opens up craters in the cliff-side highways, catches half-frozen tires and launches drivers into a frenzy of frayed nerves and foul language.

And Gina always forgets. Zones out and lets her guard down, like she’s somewhere with an actual road-maintenance budget, only to be slammed back to reality.

She’d thought, for second, that this time was it. That her elbows would freeze up, forget to keep the wheel turning, and send her car straight through the barrier wall and tumbling into the Monongahela. But it wasn’t. Not this time. This time, like every time before, she grits her teeth and turns the wheel, though she feels the lurch and the smack of the tires echoing all the way through her spine. And maybe, because she’s dramatic, she feels the ghost of the imagined impact, too.

Pittsburgh sure has a way of welcoming its children home.

Until the infrastructure of the city proper smacks you in the face, it’s not so bad a drive. Six hours from New York, where she lives now, to here, where she lived then. Hills and cows. Chance after chance to Call Now! 1-800-JESUSCHRIST, to Save her Soul. Maybe one day she’ll call. If she ever makes the drive again.

Nobody lives here anymore; even her cousins have moved away. Mom and Dad, too. Aunts and uncles, flown south. Grandparents, golfing in the sky. Better to think of them and smile. Golfing in the sky. With all the Christmas trees they brought out to curbs over the years, all the turkeys they’d shared, and all the Easter eggs they’d never found. Birdying Hole 3 on the course of the lord.

It’s only when she thinks of her grandparents that Gina believes in god. And not for any deeper reason than not being old enough, at 35, to really let them go.

What would her siblings say, if she told them that?

Lizzie would roll her eyes. Tim would just stare, waiting for the punchline.

So when Gina arrives, last as always, she doesn’t tell them. The thing about Gina, and Lizzie, and Tim, is that they never age, emotionally speaking. Not permanently. As soon as they lock eyes on each other, it’s like all the work they’ve done to grow into real adults flies out the window. And they are ten, and eight, and five, and always will be, for the rest of their lives.

“Let me guess,” Lizzie says, and Gina imagines her with her hair short and eyes big and mean like they were, “Got stuck behind a tractor?”

They haven’t opened the unit yet. Its big orange garage door sits tight against the ground. Gina fishes the key from her pocket – no, her other pocket – no, that one – and tries to remember the breathing exercises she learned in that podcast near Altoona.

“Actually,” Gina corrects, turning the key into the lock and pulling the door open, “I just didn’t want to come.”

Lizzie scoffs. Tim still hasn’t looked up from his phone. Full-grown man, nearly thirty years old.

“I’m just here for the card,” He says, like he can feel Gina judging him.

The card. Jesus Christ.

Long ago, when the three of them were kids, their grandfather had gotten an idea. Cheeks rosy from sherry and holiday cheer, he’d pulled them close and said,

“I got a Honus Wagner card tucked inside my Bible.”

One of those rare ones, he’d assured them. Worth a fortune.

“There is no card,” Gina says. Just a bunch of dust and old lamp shades, by the look of things. And mothballs. Pittsburgh has always smelled like mothballs.

Tim shrugs.

They haul everything out, piece by piece, pile by pile. Down the hallway, into the elevator and out again, through the doors into a waiting van. Goodwill, Gina, Lizzie, Tim. Tim, Goodwill, Goodwill, Lizzie. Lizzie, Gina, Goodwill. The old grandfather clock that will cost Gina an arm and a leg to get to New York. The dining room table that Lizzie fought to keep, like its sharp corner hadn’t sent her to the ER for stitches as a toddler. A quilt, stitched by their grandmother on long school days, with the girls in school and Tim playing at her feet. It’s not a baseball card. But he folds it gently.

Their parents used to take them here as kids. The Strip District, not the storage unit. Shopping for candy and knock-off Steelers jerseys, running wild through sidewalk throngs. The Strip District hasn’t been industrial for years, not really. But smokestacks still dot the neighborhood skyline. Against the cold air in the winter, dried out and frigid, the smoke hardly even looks real. Looks instead like it was drawn by hand, with love. Like an artist reflecting on misremembered days, when factory smoke danced and breathed with dignity.

“Where do you think he hid it?” Lizzie asks as the hour ticks past six. The smell of pot trickles into their unit from somewhere around the corner. Maybe they should give up now, follow the scent and forget about Honus Wagner and pranks of Christmas past.

“Hope they didn’t bury him with it,” Tim frowns, hands on his hips.

“I hope they did,” Gina laughs. She can’t help it.

Nobody laughs with her.

Gina quiets her laugh into a smile and goes back to sorting. So many old memories. Scrapbooks and birthday cards. Wedding invitations and baptism announcements. Front pages of Superbowl wins and World Series pennants.

How are the Pirates doing these days? Still losing?

She remembers when they tore down the old stadium. The last game, and the fireworks. The Pirates lost to the Cubs, but at least it had been close. Anyway, it wasn’t the point.

Now she doesn’t know a single player. Are her grandparents turning over in their graves?

In the end, it’s Lizzie that finds the Bible, wrapped in a Roberto Clemente jersey in the very last box. She’ll probably hold it over their heads until they die. It’s that middle-child instinct: cling to notoriety.

But for a moment it’s not the finder and the followers, it’s just the three of them. Sitting on the floor of a dusty storage unit in a dusty city, elbows touching like they’re huddled on the stairs, trying to overhear their parents gossiping.

Wordlessly, Lizzie turns the Bible on its side. Out falls an envelope, clattering onto the floor. Tim flinches.

“Better not have dented it.”

“Shut up, Tim.”

In their grandfather’s faded writing, his old green fountain pen ink:

To My Grandchildren.

Gina picks up the envelope and, carefully, breaks the seal. Tim and Lizzie lean in close. Their heads touch. Gina reaches into the envelope, and her fingers brush against plastic.

“Holy shit,” She whispers.

“Oh, my God, is it actually in there?” Lizzie presses.

Gina takes a deep breath, and pulls the card into the light.

Dear kids,

Thanks for cleaning out the storage unit. Hope you don’t mind one last laugh.

Love always,

Grampy.

March 20, 2021 03:10

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1 comment

21:12 Mar 24, 2021

This is a great story! I can totally see this happening as my grandmother survived the depression and WWII. She kept everything. I loved the ending. Perfect.

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