My friend, Mel, is as direct as they come, so it was no surprise when early Saturday morning I answered the phone and was greeted with, "Grandma Berta's convinced squirrels have snatched her chocolate. She's distraught."
"Okay, give me an hour to—"
"I'm in your driveway."
Whereas most people's speech exemplifies sound waves—dipping, rolling, weaving, Mel's is more akin to light waves—intense and scorching. Or they're nonexistent. We often occupy the same space sans gab. Thus was the ride down to Grandma Berta's—me with no make-up, coffee sloshing in a to-go cup.
It's ironic then that Mel, the non-brilliant interlocutor that she is, made an observation once that I've been mulling ever since. She said that when Christians talk with one another, they were really talking with Jesus—as He lives within us. Hmmm.
I took a last gulp of what had become lukewarm coffee. "Mel," I said, "I know you believe the Holy Spirit indwelling you is probably having a grand ole time conversing with the Holy Spirit indwelling me, but could you give my flesh-and-blood self some audible speech?"
"I didn't come up with that," she said. "St. Augustine did."
"What?—I should've known." I tried to elbow her, but she swatted my arm away.
"Knock it off, Lauren. And don't humor Grandma like you did last week when she swore Princess could flush the toilet."
"It could happen!"
Mel actually took her eyes off the road. "She's faking incompetence so she can move in with us. And Lord knows, I'm not ready."
Silence reigned till she pulled the van into the driveway of the brick rambler. I noted the boxed hedges and the neatly-edged grass strips at the sidewalk. Every Monday after kids boarded the school bus, Mel drove the half hour to do yard work or wash windows or take Berta to appointments. Sometimes I tagged along; sometimes I made excuses. I could come and go at will.
"Don't humor her," Mel repeated as Berta burst forth from the garage cavity, arms flailing. Her elastic-waisted jeans rode up her middle. It was odd that she'd tucked in her sweatshirt—the one airbrushed with a coy-looking cat. The missing rhinestones at the collar were probably lodged in the washing machine, biding their time, till the day Mel would get a call about a basin that wasn't spinning right.
"The chipmunks took every piece!" Berta cried into my ear.
"How could they?" I said, squeezing her in a hug.
Mel looked on. No one did droll like Mel.
"I don't think the 911 people believed me."
"You called 911!" Mel's voice shot up. "Your son's an officer of the law—are you trying to get him fired?"
I laughed. "At least the squirrels are innocent."
Mel ignored me, instead steered her mother-in-law back into the garage. "Chipmunks did not steal your chocolate."
"Oh, but they did—the caramel ones I bought at Schneider's yesterday."
We glanced at her Camry parked at a slant. "You drove?" Mel asked.
"Just a smidge."
"What happened to the side-mirror?" I held up the object in question; it dangled from a single fat wire. "Did you hit something?"
In the dim light of the garage, I almost missed the old girl's eyes dart down and left. "There were pedestrians—"
"You did not hit a pedestrian." But Mel wavered. "I'm calling Doug."
While Doug checked police blotters for hit and runs, Berta showed me where she thought rodents were sneaking in. For twenty minutes we wandered the house. She stooped and pointed; she stood on tip-toes and pointed. Then abruptly she stopped, cupped a hand over her mouth. "You know—I think that chocolate's in the car."
We found Mel in the kitchen blowing her nose. "No reported incidents," she breathed.
Berta began tapping the end of the counter. "Where're my keys? I set them here. I always put them right here." Her tapping intensified.
"Maybe the chipmunks got them." Words I was thinking, but they came from Mel's mouth—with not a trace of harshness, only uncharacteristic forbearance. "Grandma Berta, I don't think it's safe for you to be living all alone anymore."
Berta's fingers, covered in oblong liver spots, slowed to a tremble. "Are you sure? I can be…difficult."
Mel nodded. My insides welled—my meager contribution to a conversation which I sensed included more than the three flawed humans standing on the warped linoleum.
Ah, St. Augustine—what a wise guy.
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