Goldfish at Midnight
The black Lincoln ’91 hauled ass down the woodchip driveway, turning sharply onto the—thank God—vacant country road. The roaming dogs chased after us a while, and the wild turkeys strutted quickly towards the safety of the high fields. The odometer was rising well past sixty but the posted mile sign just before the junction read in big bold numbers: 25.
“Do you…want me to drive?” I asked, averting my eyes away from the zipping field of stars above us as I clutched onto the car-door hanger with all the strength I could muster. I was doing my best to not appear rude in spite of the position I was in.
“Nah, you don’t know where to go,” my Grandfather said. “Besides that, I know a shortcut straight on down the backroad. Less cars. Boys ‘round here,” he looked at me over the rim of his silver spectacles which should’ve been pointed towards the road, “they’s some crazy characters driving out here.”
I never questioned my grandfather, even at twenty-five with my heart racing in the passenger seat. Because nobody ever questioned him. “Granddaddy” did as he pleased and the rest of us were just along for the ride.
Growing up in California, I was always unprepared to visit the South where my grandparents lived. Compared to what I’d seen in neighborhoods at home, they’d built a mansion out in the woods, on the border between Alabama and Georgia. Every year they would pay for my family’s plane tickets to come out and see them, otherwise we wouldn’t have.
When we would touch down in Atlanta, my clothes, suited for the dry desert heat, would clasp on and start to choke me. My buzzed head—because paying a barber was, again, something we didn’t do—would begin to trickle a stream of sweat. The south was a sauna, both indoors and out.
After swimming out to the car, Granddaddy and my father would talk politics in the air-conditioned front seats while the rest of us—me, my mother, grandmother, and sister—would squish in the back like four wads of play dough smushed together. The Alabama border was another two hours away from the airport. The first item up for debate every year was why I always managed to get carsick. Granddaddy’s driving was only half the reason then.
Granddaddy made the same two hour drive every day for work. He worked in downtown Atlanta as an investment banker, so he was always busy even when he was supposed to be on vacation too. There was usually a cell phone—with one of those big 90’s antennas—towering up from his ear. But he didn’t talk fast like you see investors do in the movies on the crowded floors of Wall Street. He had that southern drawl in his slow, hard voice. It had the sound of an old record player inside of it.
He was built like a bald tree trunk that wore suits and sweaters. When he spoke, everyone listened. When he pulled out his wallet to pay for something, everyone watched. He hated being told things like “thank you for paying,” and he really didn’t like it when someone would slow him down for anything. He was always on the move, whether it was sweeping his porch, walking a mile to get the mail, or driving his Lincoln. Even reading his newspaper seemed like a marathon of three-second coffee guzzles and rapid-fire page turns. In everything he did, there was a sharpness to his silence.
Nighttime was different though. In the evenings my Granddaddy would finally seem to slow down. One time around midnight when I was about ten or eleven, I walked out of their guest room and saw him sitting on his porch swing outside, hunkered over a bowl of something. Naturally, my husky Hispanic senses must’ve been tingling, because I braved a venture across the creaky hardwood and went out to join him.
“What are you eating?” I asked.
“Some goldfish. Here, I’ll get you a bowl,” he said, gently.
I couldn’t tell you why we were eating the little baked fish out of a bowl like dry cereal. This seemed like a normal routine for him, and I wasn’t about to question a free snack.
“Wanna see something wild?” he asked.
He took me inside and went over to one of the kitchen drawers, pulling out a Ziplock bag stuffed with what looked to be peanut M&M’s. He poured half the bag into both of our bowls, then scooped up a handful and began his crackly chewing with a proud look on his face. Honestly, he could’ve just solved world hunger with the way he looked, grinning fiendishly over his recent concoction. It was a wild taste like he said. One I had never considered until then.
Now because we lived so far away, our visits became less and less frequent as my sister and I got older. Sometimes it was simpler just to make a phone call. I liked checking in to see how things were going. Granddaddy would never talk on the phone for long, so I’d get most information from my grandmother. She’d always have some new story to tell about how Granddaddy was driving her up a wall. It always made for a good laugh as I pictured that goofy grin of his. But as the years passed, the stories started to feel a little more real than funny. It soon felt like a visit was almost necessary before too much more time had passed.
After getting married, my new wife and I made the trip down to Alabama for the first time as a couple. My grandparents were so excited to have us visiting. We did just about everything you could do in Alabama short of getting an accent. The whole place felt different as an adult. That house of theirs seemed a little bit smaller. They had always lived off the river, down a tick-filled path through the forest. When I was a kid, I used to go out on Granddaddy’s pontoon boat that he kept docked down by the river’s edge. But on this trip, I noticed that the boat wasn’t there anymore.
“What happened to the pontoon boat?”
“…Sold it. Your uncle helped me get rid of it,” he had said, staring up from his trembling newspaper with a startled expression.
Later that night my grandmother told me the truth.
“He couldn’t drive it anymore. It was better this way.”
I began to notice that there were a lot of things he couldn’t do the same anymore. Conversations were more difficult and scattered. Driving with him to the Wal-Mart to get a movie from the Redbox became a life-or-death scenario. No one ever acknowledged these terrifying moments of forgetfulness aloud, but we all knew they were happening. I think even he knew.
One day during our visit the four of us were going into a town about an hour away. There was a brewery there and a lunchtime beer was called for. Granddaddy was driving. His knuckles were clenched against the steering wheel the whole way. He was sitting up bolt-like straight with both nostrils flaring as he kept looking in his rear-view mirror. Our stomachs churned as we made U-turn after U-turn on the rain-soaked streets.
“You need to turn left,” my grandmother called from the back seat.
“I know where I’m going!” Granddaddy snapped back, with a flash of resentment behind his bespectacled eyes. “I’ve been driving here for forty years. Keep your damn mouth shut!”
We drank our beers that day in the heated restaurant under a cloud of chilled silence between the four of us. It was also the first time Granddaddy ever gave me the keys to his Lincoln.
A few midnight bowls of goldfish mixed with M&Ms later and everyone was smiling again. When it came time for our trip to end, my wife and I were sent off to California with well wishes—and more souvenirs than we could possibly carry. It’d be hard to forget the happy tears and long, never-ending waves. Granddaddy admitted he was going to miss us. I had never heard him say something like that before, even when I was a kid.
The first year of our marriage passed in a flash. By that time, we were both in simultaneous credentialing programs trying to become teachers. Thoughts of further vacations to Alabama seemed like a distant dream. I did keep up with the phone calls though. I got to hear the same stories as my parents. There was the day his keys were wrestled away. Then came the one where the nurse had to move in. The last I heard about over the phone was how he had forgotten to feed himself.
I was sitting in an evening class when I received the chilling text from my mother. GRANDADDY PASSED AWAY. My wife and I booked our next trip to Alabama the following morning. My California life had overnight become secondary.
I’d never been to Alabama in March before. The weather was fresh. Humidity wasn’t a worry yet. The rental car was spacious with just my wife and I sitting in it. Her and I spoke politics in the front as we blasted the air conditioner for the hell of it. It was a shame he’d never gotten to see that moment for himself.
I coasted to the town junction at a cool twenty-five miles an hour. A few days later I drove my grandmother to his services. She complained about my driving the whole way there.
When I got back to the house, I stayed outside late into the night just gazing up at the stars like he used to. Anything was better than going inside, seeing that folded newspaper by the empty chair in the breakfast nook. The goldfish and candy had long been sealed away.