I always found her there, sitting in the dark quietly sweating in front of her ancient, browning air conditioner. The slowly brightening tip of her lit cigarette belied her breathing. Somehow she kept doing it no matter the medical condition: Arthritis, emphysema, heart failure, laryngeal cancer – those filtered sticks would be burning in her mouth, one right after the other, hour after hour.
When it was sunny, when it was rainy, when there were five inches of snow on the ground and rising, she would send me on a mission to the little Chinese market on the corner of Lima and Southern. I was eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, her gold lamé coin purse in my jean’s pocket, quarters clashing together in 7/8ths time. Mr. Chen knew me by name, always happy to see my young face there to buy.
I would grab a small treat for myself, foil wrapped pecan pies, Little Debbie snacks; I would then stand at the counter and wait for the last customer to leave before performing the daily routine. “A pack of Marlboro 100s please,” adding as I always did, “they’re for my grandma.” He’d smile understandingly, knowing that the ritual must be performed the same way each time.
The day before we moved from Toledo to Michigan I made my last run to the store. I explained to Mr. Chen that we were moving and I would never see him again. He teared up and told me to be a good boy. I have always tried to be.
Grandma continued to live despite her horrible habits. She’d still sit in her room, a new air conditioner this time, either drawing angels or weaving together Indian dreamcatchers. She would remind me and anyone who would ask that she was one quarter Blackfoot. Dreamcatchers and angels were two competing philosophies in her Christian world view; the holy and the pagan before God and man. I moved away as soon as I could, leaving my younger sister to care for her (or really to put up with her borderline insanity). I never regretted leaving.
Sis didn’t have my phone number, always conveniently forgetting to leave it with her when I’d call, so I didn’t find out that grandma had died until a few months after the fact. She was buried in the Maple Hill Cemetery outside of East Lansing. I managed to get some time off of work and flew out from Peoria.
It was drizzling. I ducked between the birches (no maple trees at Maple Hill), trying to avoid total saturation. She had a pink granite marker that her church helped pay for. I placed my hands on the top, trying to feel a connection with her spirit, but all I felt was cold, wet stone. At the base of the monument someone had placed a pack of Marlboros, soggy in their cellophane.
I laughed, looked up at the gray sky and let my tears run with the rain.