He said, after he’d sat us down next to him, that his name was Kenny. His daughter, little, blond, five, was named Emily. This was one of those unreal experiences, when the ground seems to slip out from under you, so you can’t do anything but smile and nod because suddenly all the rules have changed and you can’t figure out how the game works now.
We were at the burger joint. The 24-hour burger joint. It was me, my aunt, my uncle, and my grandmother, who is one hundred and one. She walks on my aunt’s arm, and sometimes on both my aunt and uncle’s arms. She’s missing her two front teeth, and her hair looks like iron, or snow on a smoking mountain.
She used to be terrifying.
Now, she’s hardly even a presence.
I stepped into the restaurant, last, and grandma’s other arm was being held by someone I’d never met. Blond(ish), ball cap. A tattoo that said ‘Emily’ on his neck. A Humboldt person. All soft edges and ragged jeans, and no shine at all. He kissed her cheek.
She didn’t seem to notice.
Uncle and I ordered while Aunt and soon-to-be-introduced-as Kenny walked grandma down to sit. Did anyone ask him if we wanted this service?
No. But I suppose he was being kind, and we were all whisked away. It was his turn, and we couldn’t figure out when it would be ours.
“How old are you?”
But grandma doesn’t talk much.
“How old is she?”
“One hundred and one.”
“One hundred and one? One hundred and one! Emily, did you hear that? She’s one hundred and one.” He turns back to grandma. “You’re beautiful. Emily, come sit here, give her a hug. Give her some of your energy.”
Grandma hugs her back. I don’t know if grandma is just this chill, or if she thinks these must be relatives. People related to her hug, touch her, all the time without asking her first.
(I have regrets. They sit right here. I regret not being able to act on other people’s turns. I regret not being strong enough to ask my grandmother questions. It’s like a wall, knowing she won’t respond.)
“Wow. One hundred and one. Emily, she’s one hundred and one. That’s nearly one hundred years older then you! You’ve got a long way to go.” He turns back to grandma. “Wow, one hundred and one. That’s, when where you born, the 1920s?”
“1915. She was born in 1915.” Aunt says.
“1915? That’s- wow…” He was looking for a landmark in time, swimming in it.
“Word War One.” I said. His eyes went wide, wild. The way they get when someone tells you that its more years from Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period to Alexander the Great’s conquest then it is from Alexander the Great to now.
“Wow. Did they even have food back then?” He asks her. He’s joking.
Aunt says, “She grew up in a log cabin in New Mexico.”
“Wow.” (I’m not trying to make fun of him. There was something moving about his awe. But it took second place to the feelings of discomfort and uncertainty.) “1915. A log cabin! That’s like, Billy the Kid! Billy the Kid! New Mexico? That’s even the right place. Did you meet Billy the Kid?”
Aunt laughs. “No, no, I doubt it.” And I realize, we don’t really know, do we?
Uncle says, “She ran a trap line in her teens.”
(I remember this story grandma told me. She used to work on a ‘dude ranch’, which is a ranch which does a lot of tourist stuff. One time, they had a bunch of ‘city girls’ visiting, and they were learning how to shoot. Grandma comes up, she’s doing chores. The girls try and convince her to shoot with them. Grandma says no, she’s busy, really. They ask again. Grandma picks up a pistol and shoots the can right off the fence. Then she walks away and gets back to work. Everyone is suitably impressed.
Grandma starts to laugh. “That was the only time I made a shot like that!”)
He sat there for an hour, talking to his daughter, talking to grandma, occasionally turning around and talking to his friend. Something important, I got the feeling. Trouble, and gambling debts. Emily sat, or turned and told grandma she was beautiful, or got up and asked questions.
Eventually, they left.
Grandma looked at me and shrugged. Her ‘I don’t know’ shrug, all eyes and shoulders.