3 min

Picking up the pieces

Will Gray sat at his grandmother’s pink linoleum kitchen counter and looked out through the window. Ferns and spider plants.

The mug of chamomile was too hot to drink, but he liked the way it felt, held beneath his face, the steam fogging his glasses. The mug bore the words “I Love Grandma” just under its beaten lip. She passed him the sugar.

“Thanks, Bud.”

“Now Will, why did you cut all your hair off? You have nice hair.”

“I don’t know. I just need a change.”

“So buy some nice new socks. That’s what I do.”

“Is that what you do?”

“Yes. I just say Bud, you get out there and buy yourself some knee-highs. You think that’s crazy, but it works. You’d be surprised, Will.”

He started to cry. Just a cough, a choke, and the embarrassing, sharp heat behind his eyes. He pulled himself back.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must know.” She sipped too early and burned herself, then burned her hand, snapping the cup away. “Oh, shit.” A tea towel materialized from her side and she rubbed furiously at the counter.

“What do you do with your days, Bud?”

She laughed. She rubbed her thumb at an imaginary stain. From the wood-paneled den, the CBC was playing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony for the third time that week. “What a question. What do you do with your days?”

“I asked you first.”

“Well, it’s very boring is all. I watch TV, mainly. I like the cooking shows. I like watching them make things.”

“Anything else?”

“I keep busy.”

“Don’t get carried away now.”

“Don’t be smart. Why did you cut your hair?”

“You know that Tim kicked me out.”

She took a breath, as though unsure whether proceeding would count as trespassing. She always stepped lightly, there, around the lives of her grandchildren-was she making up for some severity in her past? Did she regret being too rough, too rude, with her own? “Yes,” she said at last. “Your mother told me about all that.”

“And then there’s school. I dropped out-did Mom tell you that, too?”

“That I don’t understand. Are you taking a term off? Are you going to go travelling and then come back?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do know.”

The room smelled of Irish setter, still, though Ashton had died last summer.

“Now tell me,” she said, “or you won’t get any cookies. Why did you cut all your beautiful hair?”

“I guess I’m depressed.”

“Yes, yes.” She nodded and closed her eyes in concentration. “Now. Tell me this.” Her hand went out to pat his own. “Why.” Not a question. It sounded more like permission.

His ears went hot. “It’s just. It’s all this shit, you know? I feel like I haven’t ever had a proper relationship. Like everything has been half-assed. It’s just all so… boring.”

“What is?”

“My failure. It’s so predictable.”

“You know I’m not sure that boys can…” She nearly stopped herself but barreled forward a little recklessly: “I’m not sure boys can make it work-with other boys, I mean. What’s there to keep boys together, I mean?”

Will’s heart sank-partially at hearing his grandmother’s mind on the matter, but partially because he suspected she might be right. What could possibly have kept him together with Tim? What, in a family, a world, that expected no family or children from him? And as for the imaginary privilege of marriage-he knew in his heart that his family would never see that as real.

He felt he should be angry with Bud for her political incorrectness, but the anger would not come because he agreed with her.

“What have you really failed at, do you think?” asked Bud.

“School, money, my boyfriend, my body, everything.”

Here she rose, queen of the kitchen, and broke the air with a laugh. It bounced off the tiny porcelain figures that lived on the top of her fridge. It leapt out the window, into her spider plants. It dropped like gravel into his now-cooling tea. “Will. What you’re describing-that’s not a problem. That’s just life.” She laughed again, and gave a great sniff of her varicose-veined nose. “Isn’t it awful?”