Things were never the same after he left. Grandma Kanye told me that people didn’t have a choice of whether they wanted to leave or not, but this was a different kind of leaving. Somehow, I never really wondered about Grandpa Johnson, but it was enough waiting for my first howling moon on that to-be-perfect midsummers’ day.
Grandma Kanye always said the moon was full like the roundest pearl in all the seven seas on a howling night.
“Why do they call it a howling night?” I would ask, though I already knew the answer. The wolves would come out of their shelters to drink, lap up the moon’s milk so they had enough food to last the winter. Grandma said the milk lasted twelve moons until the next howling moon came along and the wolves howled into the night once more.
“Boy, whenever you see a howling moon, ya gotta make the best of it. Some say they’re even good luck, but I don’ believe in them superstitions.” Always ‘you’ or ‘boy’, never Kwame Johnson-but when she ordered me outside to milk the cow, I didn’t object. Grandma Kanye didn’t go to the grocers, though she had running internet and those doordash things on all three of those tablets lined up in a row next to her wrestling champion poster. Maybe she was too lazy to back that car out of the dirt, or she had better things to do, though she drove me to school each morning.
“See boy, that bus driver could get y’all killed in that hunk of junk, an’ all those kids? Oh, when no adults are ‘round you wouldn’t believe the thing they be doing.”
A lot of things were a mystery about Grandma Kanye, but that night was different. I obeyed all the ‘yous’ and ‘boys’ and eased out onto the grassy fields when I saw it. My first howling moon.
She was wrong. The moon didn’t look like the roundest pearl in the seven seas or a milk dish for hungry wolves-but I’d have to ask Grandma later. I’d tell her that it was like the stars all came together to sing a chorus, and each high note made them brighter and brighter. I’d tell her it reminded me of my ma and dad, and all those faint memories where they sewed quilts for me and put a spinny thing with all the planets on it in my room, slowly revolving. I’d tell her it reminded me of a fantasy, but for now, I scooted onto my favorite boulder, ignoring the cow’s constant bellows.
If I reached up to touch the sky, would it sing to me? Repair me, and find my parents for me? I pressed my palms into the boulder with force, throwing my head back at the moon, and howled because I was hungry. Howled because I wanted to be silly, and I wanted to ignore the cow for as long as I could. Coughing, I found myself dripping in sweat, the only audience to my show the fat cow. A dull croak escaped my lips, expressing my tired and sore mouth.
And throughout the milking, I remembered the story, and I believed it was true. The howling-it gave me a piece of the moon like Grandma Kanye said. Magical. Special. I sat there for a while, the moon, stars, and such providing stable light until Grandma Kanye’s booming ‘boys’ and ‘yous’ echoed across the field.
Running fast, I pulled my thoughts along with me, the milk left forgotten on the boulder, and I wondered about Grandpa Johnson. Was he the one who told Grandma about the howling moon?
“You forgot the milk.”
Milk? Dawn burst through tiny slits in the shutters, and I sat upright in bed. My room was the only one with shutters; Grandma Kanye always put her furniture out on display in front of the biggest 4 by 4 window she could find. I ain't got nothing to hide! She would exclaim, moving about, swaying her hips to some old song nobody remembered except her. But this was about the forgotten milk.
“There was a howling moon last night.”
“I know, boy. Your big lying head’s gotta find some other excuse to get out of this one.” My mind strayed past the milk and back to Grandpa Johnson. Did Grandma Kanye ever have him meet me?
Rubbing my eyes, I stared at Grandma’s apron, sleep latching onto me, dragging me under. The tiny roosters etched on her apron danced before my eyes.
“School…” I mumbled, half-awake.
“You don’t have no school this early. And it’s summer boy. Up. We’re going day erranding.”
Suppressing a groan, I stumbled out of the room, getting dressed quickly. “But I was going to play Raiders with my friends-”
“Naw, naw. That stuff rots yer brain-all that video game nonsense. Day errands only take up five to six hours.” The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened. Five to six hours with Grandma Kanye at the crack of dawn. She said that howling moons gave you good luck. And I did know about those Candy Crush apps on her tablets.
The sun beat down on us from the wild sky. There wouldn’t be a car ride today. Instead, Grandma Kanye half dragged me down the pavement to a small town with some buildings wedged together. The hot wind whipped the signs and ripped blades of grass from the Earth. I tried peeking into Grandma Kanye’s burlap sack, but she shooed me away like she did her chickens.
“I’m here to drop off a few books, boy, so be quiet and do as you’re told.” We walked inside the library, where at least the air conditioning worked, and I could busy myself within the rows and stacks of books. Even though she’d never admit it, she knew I liked it here and brought me to the town’s public library often.
Today, Grandma Kanye took extra long at the register, slowly dragging a finger against the keypad, much to the annoyance of the man upfront. Unknowingly, I found myself staring at ‘the word of the day’, Lacuna.
“Lacuna means that there is a gap, like something missing. Like some pages missing in a book or something like that.”
A girl wearing wire-rimmed glasses with rhinestones on top pointed to the board. I guessed I was feeling lacuna about a lot of things, but it wasn’t the same-like only some pages missing out of a book.
The girl with the rhinestone glasses eventually slipped into the shadows, even though I would always know she existed; more than I could say for half of my family. Were they...lacuna too? A Johnson boy, a Johnson woman, and a Johnson man. That’s who we are. A Johnson family.
“C’mon! Hop to it already-we might miss the happy hours where we get the best deals!”
Miss Delly was never the happy type. Her happy hours were more of a deal with customers-if she got any other customers besides Grandma Kanye and me. I was definitely going to miss the Raiders game, especially with the lost hours at Mr. Jones’s house trying to fix the chicken coop-and finding all the lost chickens.
Grandma Kanye started jogging, her untameable hair flying all over the place as we burst through the small doors.
“You’re two minutes late for happy hour.” Miss Delly sarcastically put her palms to her face, mouthing a shocked expression, barely blinking. The shine of sweat bristling on my palms reminded me how much my hands ached.
“Fishing supplies, I presume?” Miss Delly yawned, making Grandma Kanye bristle. She threw her hands up in the air dramatically and groaned, pointing to the fishing rods.
“A family’s gotta keep up the Johnson tradition!” At this, Miss Delly didn’t respond, staring blankly at the opposite wall. Whenever she did this, I liked to imagine she was thinking up ways to kick us out of the store, or how to fix the peeling paint.
“Boy, you fetch me some of those canisters of sardines. I’m gonna take a look at those rods, you hear?”
Grandma’s voice echoed throughout the room, almost booming, shaking the already wobbly shelves. We were always the only ones here. Instead of responding right away, I crouched down to examine a step-by-step manual on fishing.
Thank the lord for fishing! Grandma Kanye would be dragging out the rickety fishing junk every Sunday to our stream. Thank the lord for fishing-because Imma ‘bout to teach this city slicker how to fish! Even though I already knew how to fish, and the country marked me theirs the moment I was born.
“Boy, answer me!”
“What tradition! You never told me about any Johnson family tradition! Did Grandpa like fishing?”
The only sounds in the room were the click-clack of Miss Delly’s keyboard and the soft whirring of a portable fan nearby. Grandma Kanye’s ruby red slippers clacked down the aisle, leaving me to attend the sardine canisters.
A whirlwind of questions swirled around my head and I could only grab handfuls at a time. They flit through my fingers every time I tried to clamp on an answer. I needed answers. Grandma raised me without answers, the scalding scars of my past almost impossible to dampen or heal. So, as I watched Grandma Kanye haggle with Miss Delly, their bickering clearly audible over the aisles, I willingly carried my sardine cans to the front desk.
“I tell you, 15 and that’s final!”
“I won’t buy ‘em for 15! 8 it is!”
“No, Kanye that’s ridiculous. 8 dollars for a rod and three boxes of large sardines-”
“Ridiculous! I see you’re in no position to bargain. I’m the only customer you got, so it’s 8 dollars or nothing.” We left the shop with an extra seven dollars jangling in our pockets, Grandma Kanye doing that swish-wiggle dance.
“Robert E. Johnson.”
The maroon furniture in our living room gave our house a slightly Victorian look. I took three long swigs of my iced tea, my headset slipping halfway off my face, the sounds of firing machine guns peppering my ears as I launched my battalion. Joey on the other side texted me through the game, but I turned down the volume the second Grandma Kanye spoke. She didn’t like video games, let alone Raiders, so I usually played in secret.
“You wanted to learn about him. Robert E. Johnson. Your grandpop.” I switched off the game, casting my controller and headset to a worn-out couch.
“What are you going to tell me?” I followed her to an upstairs room-the locked room. His room. Holding my breath, I stepped inside, hoping the room would piece together the puzzle, the growing hole inside my heart.
It smelled like aftershave and Old Bay, his room, my grandpop’s room. Maybe a link to everyone I’ve lost. My parents, aunties, uncles, all gone. A small bed with neatly made covers. The paint on the walls was a soft blue, like the sky, though his covers were a checkered red and black.
“Hm, Kwame, wouldja look at that?” The sound of my name gave me a little jolt, and I scanned the room, wondering what she’d have to show me. She was pointing to a dresser, topped with rows of ties.
“Kwame, I don’ want you being nothing like that man. He was a-what did ya call it again?”
“Yeah…” Grandma Kanye trailed off, digging something out of her pocket. Scissors. Slowly, she began cutting the ties, cutting them into small bits, mumbling. Oh, he loved them ties of his. Oh, I want to cut them up and...
We sat there, for a while, and I started thinking of the word lacuna. It had to be more than missing pages in a book. Loss could be lacuna...couldn’t it? A gap where that special something once lived and made a home. I placed my hand on Grandma Kanye’s and gently took the scissors from her.
“Stop cutting those ties” I paused, rethinking my choice. “They’ll burn better in a fire, and we can have a barbecue together.”
And we could be lacuna together, too.