A long row of brightly colored flags greeted Henry Stone as he entered the Indianapolis airport terminal. Drooping one after another like giant, silent birds, the flags reminded him of the United Nations. Except he knew the U.N. was back in New York City.
Grandma Martha waved to him from behind a metal rail, holding a yellow balloon in her other hand. Henry glimpsed a smiley face printed on one side of it, knowing it was meant for him, wishing it weren't.
Brother! He had just finished fourth grade. Didn't his own grandmother know that he was too old for smiley face balloons?
"I'm so glad to see you," she cried, hugging him so tightly that he could smell her hair spray and lemon-scented perfume. "How was your trip, honey?"
"Okay." Henry untangled himself from her smothering embrace and tightened one of the straps on his backpack to hide his embarrassment.
"Not too lonely?"
"Are you sure?"
Henry wished Grandma Martha would stop trying so hard; she was making him tired.
She brushed back a wisp of brown hair that had strayed into his eyes. "My goodness, you're getting so big."
It was something she said every time they met. Grandmother talk.
"Pretty soon I'll be taller than you are." Henry played along.
"Yes, you will."
Shaped like a teapot, Grandma Martha was only a head taller than Henry now and slowly shrinking, while he, though small for his age, had grown two inches since last Thanksgiving and looked more and more like his grandpa, who had always been slim and straight as a saltshaker.
Leaning down so she could look him in the eye, his grandmother quietly asked, "How are you, Henry?"
"Okay," he said, which wasn't really true. But it was the best answer he could come up with in the middle of an airport.
Grandma Martha sighed sympathetically, then held out the balloon.
"Welcome to Indiana, sweetheart."
"Thanks." Henry refused to smile as he took the balloon. If only he had a pin.
They headed down a crowded corridor lined with more drooping flags. If Grandpa Jay were there, he would have made a game out of finding England's Union Jack and the maple leaf of Canada. But he wasn't. Henry's favorite grandparent was gone. Gone forever. Henry hung his head like one of the flags and trudged on.
An escalator carried them downstairs to the first floor. As soon as they stepped onto solid ground Grandma Martha reached for Henry's hand.
"Let's hold on to each other so we don't get separated," she said.
"But you just told me how big I am," Henry protested.
"Henry, take my hand and don't argue with me."
Slowly, they made their way through the crowd. Henry could hear his dad's voice back at Newark airport. "Promise me you'll be easy on your grandma," he had said. "She's had a tough year."
Henry had promised, but he hadn't expected to be treated like a first grader as soon as he got off the plane. He wished his dad were there to see. Surely, he would understand.
His mom had tucked a note into his shirt pocket when she hugged him good-bye. "Read it on the plane," she had whispered. The note was a poem.
Rose are red,
Violets are blue,
Wherever I am,
I'll think often of you.
Roses are red,
Violets are gray,
I hope you and Grandma
Have fun every day.
Who ever heard of gray violets? They were supposed to be blue, weren't they? But the color his mother chose seemed right, considering how things felt. Folding the paper in half again and again until it was the size of his pinky, Henry had dropped the poem into the bottom of his backpack and tried to forget about it as he stared out the plane window at clouds shaped like dragons.
He studied his grandmother out of the corner of his eye. She reminded him of a little steam engine, the way she chugged along, her puffy white hair billowing atop her head like smoke.
"Keep your eyes open for Area D," she instructed, still clutching his hand.
"You're squeezing my fingers."
"I don't want to lose you."
"My hand is getting numb!"
"Is it really?"
Grandma Martha loosened her grip slightly.
Henry knew she meant well and that he should listen to her. But has she forgotten everything she learned as a mother, he wondered, or has she always been like this? Either way, Henry didn't feel like holding hands. When he saw a sign with a big D on it, he pulled out of her grasp.
"There's our area, Grandma!"
As he sped toward the luggage carousel Henry let the smiley face balloon string slip through his fingers.
Copyright © 2003 by Marc Kornblatt
It was a hot, humid June day. The air conditioner in Grandma Martha's old blue station wagon was broken, so they rolled down all the windows and drove along the highway with the air blowing in their faces. The wind made it too noisy to talk, which was just as well.
After catching up with Henry at the baggage claim area, Grandma Martha had grabbed him roughly by the arm. "Henry, how could you run away from me like that?"
"I didn't run away."
"I told you to stay close, didn't I?" She was practically crying. "Didn't I?"
Passersby had stared as Grandma Martha stood hugging Henry so close, he could barely breathe. He wished he could have run all the way back to New Jersey. Not to the home that was there now, of course, but to the one he lived in when life was still good and his parents hardly ever argued.
The highway took them past farmhouses flanked by shade trees, cows grazing in meadows, and field after field after boring field of ankle-high corn. The only relief from the monotony was a faded road sign advertising BIG CHUCK'S CHEWING TOBACCO. The painting of the baseball player on the sign was pretty good, but the idea of chewing a wad of tobacco made Henry feel like throwing up.
If only he had a remote control clicker that would let him change the date and the scenery. Click. Henry would jump back one year to his friend Ben Gellman's tree house where the two of them had spent hours and hours battling Dr. Evil and his army of dweebs. Click. He would jump back to the first day of fourth grade, when his mom and dad had stood together like friends, waving to him from the sidewalk as his bus pulled away. Click. He would jump back to Grandpa Jay yanking a banana out of his nose or singing him his favorite goofy song.
I went downtown to see my girl,
My shoes they were a squeakin'.
Her mouth I missed,
Her nose I kissed,
And found the darn thing leakin'!
Click. Click. Click. Click.
Henry could think of a hundred places and times he would jump to rather than be stuck here in Indiana alone with Grandma Martha. But magic clickers were found only in movies and books. In real life Ben and his family were driving out West to camp in the Badlands, Henry's parents weren't friends anymore, and Grandpa Jay was dead. Henry felt like screaming.
"You need to be with your grandma," was how his mom had explained things earlier that week.
"Why?" asked Henry.
"Because the way things are at home now, your dad and I think you'll have a better summer with her than with us."
"Because it will be more peaceful for you."
"But I don't want to go."
"We understand," said his dad. "But we want you to -- for your own good."
"And for Grandma Martha, too," added his mom. "She could really use some company."
Henry had let the matter drop. His going to Grandma Martha's was one of the few things his parents had agreed about in months. And he had to agree too. It would be more peaceful with her than with them.
His mom had been living in the basement guest room since the winter, but that hadn't helped. Whenever she and Henry's dad were together, there was trouble. They fought about who was busier and who should pick up Henry at After-School Club. They fought about the phone bill and the grocery shopping and about the laundry and the snow shoveling. And about how high to set the thermostat. The fight over Grandma Bessie and Pappa Sam's coffee cups had been one of the worst.
When Grandma Bessie and Pappa Sam died, Henry's dad had inherited their good china. There were eight place settings, complete with large main course plates, cups and saucers and dessert dishes, all of them decorated with fancy pink and purple flowers. When he was in second grade, Henry couldn't understand how china could come from Czechoslovakia. Once he learned the difference between a capital C and a lowercase c, his earlier confusion became a family joke. Whenever they used the place settings for a special occasion, he or one of his parents would always ask, "How can china come from Czechoslovakia?" and the three of them would laugh.
Soon after Mr. Kahn sold his share of the rug store to Henry's dad, the good china stopped being funny. It felt so long ago, but Henry knew it was only a year last spring. Since then, Henry's dad had been spending more and more time in the store and had grown grumpier and grumpier. His mom, too. Between her job, college classes, and her homework, she always had something else on her mind and would run out of patience in the blink of an eye.
Henry didn't even have time to blink the night his dad came home late from work and found Henry and his mom drinking hot chocolate out of two of the good china cups.
"Those are only for special occasions," he said, his voice tight.
"Isn't Henry's bedtime special enough?" his mom asked, scowling.
Just like that, his parents began yelling at each other. His dad banged the kitchen table so hard that one of the cups fell to the floor, smashing into jagged pieces. And his parents still kept on yelling at each other. Henry ran up to his room and hid his head under his pillow, humming as loudly as he could so he wouldn't have to hear them.
He had hidden his head under his pillow a lot since his mother had moved into the guest room. But sometimes, when their shouting got so loud that his pillow and humming didn't help, Henry had to scream to drown out his parents' voices. And once he started screaming, he didn't know how to stop. Even if his mom or dad tried to hug him, he couldn't stop. Henry would scream and scream and scream until there was no air left in his lungs. Then he would fall asleep.
His parents sent him to a child psychologist to talk about his screaming. Dr. Cohen told Henry he had every right to scream, that he would probably scream too if his mother and father were always fighting. Dr. Cohen was the one who had advised his parents to see a marriage counselor. He also had suggested that Henry go away for the summer to get a break from all of their fighting. The fact that Grandma Martha was so lonely without Grandpa Jay, and that Henry's parents thought he was too young for overnight camp, made Greenville, Indiana, the most suitable place for his vacation.
"You're going to have all kinds of fun out there," Henry remembered his mom telling him as she'd said good-bye at the airport. "The air is much cleaner than it is in New Jersey, and your grandma will be delighted to have you."
Oh, sure, Henry told himself now. I'll bet she's already sorry I'm here.
Fed up with the view out the car window, he unzipped his backpack and took out a slim book his father had given him as a going-away present. He turned to the first page. "Juggling is a hobby you can take anywhere," it read. "You don't need a partner to do it, just time and persistence."
His dad had also given him three orange beanbags with which to practice. Henry liked the gifts. He intended to impress his dad with his juggling when he got home.
His mom had given him the poem about the gray violets and a box of fancy stationery. "I hope you'll write often," she had said.
Grandma Martha pointed to a sign on the road that read, GREENVILLE 4 MI.
She turned around for a moment and caught Henry's eye. "We're almost there."
Henry knew that Grandpa Jay would have had him figuring out how many feet were in four miles or maybe started singing some goofy made-up song about driving down the highway with his wife, his grandson, and two flat tires.
Grandma smiled in a shy kind of way. "We're almost there," she repeated, as if she knew what Henry was thinking.
She was trying her best. Henry regretted letting go of the balloon. Grandma Martha hadn't said anything about it.
They slowed down and turned off the highway. Now that the wind wasn't blowing so hard, it was possible to talk. Henry flipped through the pages of his juggling book, waiting for an opportunity.
"Sorry I ran away," he managed to say finally.
"Forgiven," Grandma Martha quickly replied. "I'm sorry I grabbed you like that."
"Forgiven," said Henry.
"We all make mistakes, right?"
"And I have another apology to make too."
Grandma Martha paused, then said, "I couldn't get you into the YMCA day camp. They were all filled up by the time I called."
Henry felt like yelling. Now what am I going to do all summer?
"Don't you worry," said his grandmother. "Whenever I can, I'll close the jewelry store early and we'll do something fun."
"Great." Henry didn't even try to smile.
Grandpa Jay had always been the one to take Henry fishing or play cards with him. Grandma Martha mainly worked in their jewelry store and cooked the meals. Henry couldn't imagine searching for salamanders in the park after it rained or crawling through Wolf Cave with her. As far as he was concerned, Grandma Martha was mostly a stranger.
"Great," he repeated quietly. "Everything is going to be just great."
Copyright © 2003 by Marc Kornblatt