Four Sci-Fi Variations on a Grandmother
by James Brubaker
I. The Alternate Universe
I am in the break room and my lunch hour is almost over when my grandmother calls my cell phone. She is upset, whispering. At first I can’t understand her. I ask her to please slow down and speak up. When she talks again, her voice is slower, though she is still whispering. She says, “Jim, I’ve been taken.” I say, “Taken?” And she says, “I’m in a strange place.” I ask if she means she’s been taken from her nursing home. She says, “I’m in a nursing home.” I tell her I don’t understand. Then I ask her if she has been taken to a nursing home different from the one in which she has been living for five years now. She says, “I am in a nursing home like my nursing home, but it is not my nursing home.”
I ask her what she means. “Are you in the wrong nursing home?” Right then, one of the summer interns from our engineering division walks in and puts a bag of popcorn in the microwave. He sets a technical manual, for one of the ham radios our company used to make in the seventies, before I was born, on the table and starts doing jumping jacks. I don’t hear anything my grandmother says. I put an index finger in my ear and ask her to speak up and repeat whatever it was she was saying.
“I can’t speak up,” she says. “I don’t want them to know that I know.” I ask her, “What do you know, Elger?” I use her first name because that sometimes helps her focus on what’s real. Still whispering, she tells me how she has been taken from the universe where she lived all her life to an alternate universe, like her own, but slightly different. I ask her how things are slightly different, using vague words, like, “How are things different?” to avoid peaking the curiosity of the intern whose popcorn is cooking in staccato bursts in the microwave. “In this universe, Jeanette MacDonald was never famous. And Joan Bennett was never famous. And neither was James Dunn,” she says. “Nobody knows who any of them were,” she says. I say, “You were taken to a different universe where nobody knows Jeanette MacDonald?” My grandmother confirms my interpretation of her current circumstances, but I immediately regret stating it so plainly because the intern, who has finished his jumping jacks and is preparing to eat his popcorn, is staring at me, clearly interested in my conversation. I ask my grandmother why she is confiding in me. I say, “Elger, if you were taken to another universe and dialed my number on one of their phones, then right now the version of me who is talking to you on the phone is from that other universe.” My grandmother says, “Oh no,” and then doesn’t say anything else, probably because she no longer trusts me. I imagine her clutching the phone to the side of her face, frightened, not understanding what is happening to her. Despite her confusion, I am surprised by her ability to think of things like alternate universes. This isn’t the first time she has become confused like this. It won’t be the last. I ask my grandmother if she is okay. She doesn’t answer right away.
While I wait for my grandmother to speak, I look over at the intern, his mouth full of popcorn. It squeaks on his teeth. I cover the mouthpiece of the phone with my hand, say to him, “Your popcorn, does it have butter flavoring?” The intern looks at the bag, nods. “Does it have diacetyl in it?” He looks at the bag, but it doesn’t have the ingredients listed so he says he doesn’t know. Later, I will tell him he should find out because diacetyl, in high enough quantities and over the course of a lifetime, can facilitate the entrance of toxins into the human brain and cause Alzheimer’s disease. For now, I watch as the intern shoves another handful of popcorn into his mouth.
I remove my hand from the bottom of my phone. I say, “Elger. Are you still there?” She says she is. Her voice is small—smaller than her previous whisper, even. I tell her I know who Jeanette MacDonald is and that I’m the same version of me that she’s known for the last thirty years. She says, “Maybe you were taken to the other universe, too.” I tell her we’re both in the same universe where we’ve always lived. Then I ask her, “Who doesn’t know about Jeanette MacDonald?” She tells me it’s the nurses and orderlies who take care of her. I ask her how old these people are. She tells me they are young. “Younger than you,” she says. I ask my grandmother if maybe she thinks the nurses and orderlies just don’t know who Jeanette MacDonald and Joan Bennett and James Dunn are because those stars died a long time ago, and the nurses and orderlies just haven’t seen their films. My grandmother says, “Don’t be silly. Everyone has seen their films.” The intern licks salt and grease from his fingers and watches me. My grandmother says, “None of this is right.” I look at the clock on the microwave. I’m expected in a meeting soon.
I ask my grandmother to put one of the nurses on the phone. She asks me why. I tell her I want to ask the nurse questions. My grandmother asks why I want to ask the nurse questions. I tell her it’s to see if we can trust her. My grandmother agrees and puts a nurse on the phone. Her name is Cindy. I tell Cindy where in my grandmother’s room she can find a box of old VHS tapes. I tell her to put on San Francisco and to pretend she knows about Jeanette MacDonald. The nurse says, “Who?” I ask her if she has a smartphone. She does. I tell her to look her up on IMDb. “Jeanette MacDonald,” I repeat, and then I spell it for her. When we’re done, I ask to speak to my grandmother again. “You can trust Cindy,” I say. “You’ll be safe,” I say. “Cindy will take you back to the correct universe, and I will join you later,” I say. She asks me if I’m sure, and I tell her I am. I tell her to go with the nurse and if she still doesn’t believe me after that to call me back.
When I end the call, the intern says, “You seem young for your parents to be in a home.” I tell him it was my grandmother. He says, “Do you always indulge her?” I tell him sometimes it’s the only way to make it better. The intern says, “That seems selfish—to let her live in a fantasy so that things are easier for you.” I tell him he misunderstood me: “It’s the only way I know to make it better for her.” The intern crumples his empty microwave popcorn bag and tosses it across the room into the garbage bin. He says, “Wouldn’t it be better if she knew the truth?” I don’t think the intern knows what that truth entails. I tell him that she knows enough. Before I leave, I tell the intern that someday he’ll be lucky to know the same.
II. An End Times Scenario
My mother and I take my grandmother to see the house where she grew up. My mother navigates and I drive her van. My grandmother sits in the backseat because it is easier for her to get in and out of the van’s sliding side door. We are doing this because a doctor at the nursing home suggested that a day trip might do my grandmother some good. A visit to a familiar place from my grandmother’s past might help her focus on what is real, what is now—something about seeing the difference between the past she remembers and what the present actually looks like. We’re driving from South Dayton, where my grandmother’s nursing home is, to North Dayton, where she grew up.
We avoid the interstate in case we need to make sudden stops. We manage most of the trip on SR 48, which gets us to Shiloh, where the old house is located. The closer we get, the more my grandmother remembers. She begins asking if we’ll get to see her old neighbors. She lists people from the neighborhood where she lived with my grandfather, where they raised their five kids. I recognize most of the names she lists. I even met a few of them when I was younger. They are all dead. Then my grandmother starts listing older neighbors, men and women I know only by name, people from the neighborhood where we’re going, where she lived before she met my grandfather. I tell my grandmother we won’t be able to visit any of her friends. My grandmother says, “Maybe just Helen. Can we just go and see if Helen is home?” My mother says, “Mom, you know we can’t do that.” My grandmother says, “Of course we can.” And my mother says, “Elger, you know that Helen is gone.” My grandmother says, “Can we visit Ethel?” My mother explains that Ethel is gone too. This continues for some time until my grandmother runs out of friends to name. With no more names to try, she says, “Oh dear.” I look at her in the rearview mirror. She rests one hand on her temple as she looks down at her lap. None of us say anything for the rest of the drive. The next person to talk is my mother, who says, “Shit,” when we arrive at what is supposed to be my grandmother’s old neighborhood but is now a construction site.
Today being a Saturday, the site isn’t active, so I stop the van on the dirt driveway. I read a sign sticking out of the dry earth and say, “They’re building an office park.” My grandmother says, “This isn’t where I used to live.” My mother turns around in her seat and tries to explain to my grandmother that, yes, this is where she used to live, but the neighborhood has been torn down. My grandmother says, “This is where I used to live?” And my mother says, “Yes.” My grandmother says, “It looks like hell.” I look out the window at the cracked, sun-baked clay of the construction site. Heat warps the air around the car. She’s right—this place looks like hell. I say, “Elger, this isn’t really hell, it just looks like it,” and then my grandmother starts crying and telling us that God has forsaken her. My mother unhooks her seatbelt and puts her hand on my grandmother’s knee. She says, “Don’t be silly mom. God hasn’t forsaken you.” Then my grandmother says, “It’s the Rapture. It’s the end of the world.” My mother says, “This isn’t the Rapture.” But my grandmother only cries harder, harder than I would have thought her frail body capable, and says, “Everyone else was taken, but I’m still here.” She says, “God doesn’t love me.” She says, “Why didn’t He take me?” My mother says, “Mom, the Rapture didn’t happen—the Rapture will never happen—and this isn’t the end of the world.” And I look at my mother, and my mother looks at me, and we know what one of us has to say, but neither of us wants to say it because it feels cruel. I look away from my mother to show her my weakness. She is the one who needs to talk now, because she is good enough to be a mother to her mother. And then my mother says, “Elger, nobody has been raptured—all those people you used to know are gone.” She still hedges—says gone instead of dead. She continues, “And now the house where you grew up has been torn down by developers who want to build offices where people can work.” She waits for a moment as my grandmother sniffles in the backseat. My mother asks, “Do you understand me, Elger?” My grandmother asks, if everyone is gone, where did they go. My mother sighs and says, “They’re just gone.” Her voice is tired and heavy. My grandmother continues to cry and my mother asks again, “Do you understand?” Finally, my grandmother says, “I understand,” even though we’re not sure she really does. I ask my grandmother why she is still crying and immediately regret the question because the answer seems so obvious—of course she understands what gone means. The answer must be obvious to her too because she doesn’t answer, and we ride the rest of the way to the nursing home in silence.
III. Genetic Experimentation
I visit my grandmother at her nursing home, and she tells me she isn’t a human being anymore. At first I think this is because she was recently moved to the nursing home’s memory-supported care ward because she sometimes gets confused. Her new room is a little bit smaller and seems a little bit darker because its windows face east, and the sun is on the other side of the building by the time I’m done with work and can visit. I say, “Just because you were moved to a different part of the nursing home doesn’t make you any less of a person.” She tells me that the doctors are running tests and experiments on her. She believes they have made her, literally, into a nonhuman life-form. She talks quietly because the door to her room is propped open to let in extra light and keep the room from growing stuffy. I tell my grandmother that any tests they are running are to monitor her health, are for her own good. She says, “You’re wrong.” She tells me that the doctors’ tests and experiments have turned her into a reptile or an alien, she isn’t sure which. “Elger,” I say, “you still look like a human being to me.” She says, “But I am not a human being. Not anymore.” She tells me she is cold all the time, and restless, and her blood has changed color and is yellow, like lizards and aliens in movies. I tell her that some lizards have green blood but that I don’t know of any with yellow blood. Then I ask her, “What do you mean your blood is yellow?” She says, “Sometimes I throw up, and all that comes out is blood, and it’s yellow.” I say, “Elger, that’s bile or stomach acid.” I’m not really sure which is which, but I explain that when people throw up those things, they can be yellow. Then my grandmother says, “Then why don’t I feel like a person anymore?” I don’t know how to respond to this. I don’t know if my grandmother is better off thinking she is being turned into an alien or a lizard, or knowing that she is still human, even if she doesn’t feel like one. I ask, “Are you scared?” She says she is. She picks up a tissue from the table next to her chair and squeezes it in her hand. I ask her what is really going on, what she is really scared of. She says, “I want to be a person. I don’t want to be a lizard or an alien.”
I walk over to the china hutch that my grandmother’s children bought for her and root through its drawers looking for a sewing kit or something comparable. The hutch was purchased so that my grandmother would have a place to display things that she might want to look at often, without having to handle them—fragile things, delicate things. That said, the hutch’s drawers merely serve as a reservoir for the detritus and junk that accumulates around everyone, even if they live in nursing homes. While I dig through the drawers, I ask my grandmother what color human blood is. She says, “Red.” I don’t find a sewing kit, but there is a straight pin, probably from a piece of clothing given to my grandmother as a gift. I wash the pin with soap and hot water in my grandmother’s bathroom and close the door to her room. I kneel down in front of my grandmother and take her hand. I ask, “Now Elger, do any lizards or aliens have red blood?” She says, “Of course not.” I don’t think that’s true, but she believes it, so it will work. I say, “So if I were to prick you with this pin, and your blood came out and it was red, then you’d be human, right?” She nods in agreement. I can hear the tissue rustling in her other hand. I ask her if I can see the tissue. She hands it to me. I ask her if it is okay if I prick her with the pin, just a little bit. She looks at me kind of funny, like she’s trying to decide if she can trust me, and in that look I see a flash of the woman she used to be. She nods, and I stick the pin just underneath her skin, drawing a tiny drop of blood. I dab the blood with her tissue and hand it to her. “What color is this blood, Elger?” She examines the tissue, holds it up to the room’s single lamp. “It’s red,” she says, and then she sighs and smiles and begins to cry. She presses the tissue up to the corner of her eye and thanks me. She says, “Goodness.” Then, “What a relief.”
IV. Time Travel
I am taking my mother to retrieve her car from a mechanic when my grandmother calls. Elger says she is traveling through time. I tell my grandmother that time travel is impossible, that she isn’t traveling through time. I put my phone on speaker. My mother asks, “Elger, why do you think you’re traveling through time?” My grandmother tells us that earlier that morning, her husband dropped her off at the hospital for tests on her gallbladder. He was supposed to pick her up around noon, but before she knew it, it was almost two, and not only did her husband not pick her up, but she wasn’t in the hospital anymore—she was in a nursing home. She says, “And your father still hasn’t come to get me.” My mother says, “Elger, you know that Dad is gone.” My grandmother says, “But I saw him this morning.” And my mother says, “Dad died in 1986. You were at his funeral.” My grandmother says, “But I rode with him, just this morning, in his green Monte Carlo.” After a beat, my grandmother adds, “I think he might have left us for one of the nurses at the hospital.” My mother tells my grandmother not to move, that we’ll be there soon.
When we get to the nursing home, my grandmother is sitting on a bench by the front doors. A nurse I haven’t seen before sits with her. When we approach, my grandmother says, “Hi Susie,” to my mother. My mother asks the nurse why they are outside, and before the nurse can answer, my grandmother says, “Your father is supposed to come pick me up.” Then my grandmother looks at me, asks me who I am. My mother says, “That’s my son.” And my grandmother says, “J.R.?” which is what people called me when I was a boy. She adds, “That’s not your son. J.R. isn’t that old.” Then my mother says, “Elger, do you know what year it is?” She says, “1981.” I would have been two years old then. My mother says, “It is 2011, Elger, and this is your grandson, and he is thirty-two years old.” My grandmother says, “You’re pulling my leg.”
We try to move my grandmother inside, but she resists. She says, “I have to be here when your father comes to pick me up.” My mother says, “Didn’t he drop you off at the hospital?” My grandmother nods. My mother says, “But you’re not at the hospital now, right?” My grandmother nods, again. My mother says, “So he doesn’t know to pick you up here, and there’s no reason to be waiting outside.” My grandmother looks away from us. She says, “I think your father left us.” Then: “Can we wait a little longer?” We give her five more minutes then move her.
The nurse, a kind woman named Becky, helps my grandmother stand and guides her inside. At my grandmother’s room, Becky leaves the three of us alone. My grandmother eyes the nurse suspiciously as she leaves. She says, “He didn’t come back. I think he left us for Becky.” My mother says, “Dad didn’t leave us.” While my grandmother worries a tissue into a ball, my mother goes to the china hutch and opens one of the glass doors. She reaches behind a picture frame and pulls out two pieces of paper. Whatever she has found, she knew exactly where to look for it. I can tell she has done this before. I watch as my mother kneels down beside my grandmother. Her hands shake as she offers the pieces of paper to her mother. My mother explains that one of the pieces of paper is the prayer card from my grandfather’s funeral, the other is his obituary. My grandmother’s hands start to shake in time with my mother’s. The brittle paper crinkles in her hands. My mother says, “Elger—the year is 2011. Look at the date on that obituary.” My mother asks my grandmother to read the year from the yellowed piece of newsprint. My grandmother says, “1986.” My mother says, “Elger—you are alive, and the year is 2011. My mother points at me and continues, “That man there is your grandson, and he is thirty-two years old.” She says, “Your husband, my father, didn’t leave—he died twenty-five years ago.” My mother reaches up and puts her arms around her mother. My grandmother says, “He’s dead,” and it’s as if she’s just learned of her husband’s death for the first time. I wonder how many times this ritual has been enacted, how many times my grandmother has had to learn of her husband’s death. I struggle to imagine what it might feel like to have to learn such news even once, let alone day, after day, after day. My mother and her mother embrace each other for several minutes.
About the Author
James Brubaker is the author of Pilot Season and Liner Notes, the latter of which won Subito Press’s Book Prize for Prose in 2013 and will be published later this year. His stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, The Normal School, The Collagist, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. James also co-edits The Collapsar and recently finished a collection of short stories called (Science) Fictions.