Sofia Benedetto was worried about her grandson. She stood at the window looking down at the backyard where the boy sat in a circle with some hoodlum friends. Just last week a bunch of them were caught scrawling graffiti on the walls of the Methodist church. Sofia wasn’t friendly toward the Methodists in town, who had always disliked “her kind,” so she wondered if she’d somehow passed on hostility and resentment to her grandson like an inheritance. Somebody needed to talk to the boy; he couldn’t talk to his father, her malatesta son-in-law, who was interested only in sports and what he called “home improvement,” about which she could tell him a thing or two.
She turned from the window; she felt tired. Lately all she wanted to do was sleep. Yet when she tried, sleep would not come. She sat down in the wingback chair she’d gotten up from five minutes ago. She really disliked the Early American furniture her daughter had chosen for this “extra” bedroom; it looked like the stuff in her doctor’s waiting room. She regretted having given her nice antique things to her other daughter, the old maid in Forest Hills.
The bedroom door opened and a figure stood in the doorway. Sofia blinked a few times and the floaters that layered her vision floated apart enough for her to see her daughter. Emilia’s lips were moving and sounds emerged.
Yes. sounds became words, as Emilia’s face came into sharper focus, framed by the ugly wallpaper flowers.
“Ma, answer me.”
I just answered you, didn’t I?
But no, she realized, the hum in the throat, the vibration, had not been there. She hadn’t spoken loudly enough, she who used to strike fear in her children with her voice alone.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes. I’m all right.”
Emilia walked to the chair, bent over, brushed some hair away from her mother’s forehead. “Look, your hair is almost back to normal. You always had such beautiful hair.”
Sofia wished her daughter would stop treating her like an infant. At the same time, the touch of the hand felt good and Emilia’s voice was another soft sensation. She disliked her need for so much softness around her.
“Those kids are making a lot of noise out there,” she said.
The softness left Emilia’s voice. “They’re kids, ma, what do you want me to do?”
“Tell them to play somewhere else. Set some rules.”
“Rules are your answer to everything.”
“It shows concern, at least. I think that boy needs some guidance.”
“He doesn’t want guidance. He’s at that age. In the early teens you only want to listen to your peers.”
“Peers, schmeers. You don’t want him to become like those other boys. He’s not really like that, you know.”
“Like what? Boys get carried away sometimes. And we do want him to be like other boys. You know how strongly Pete feels about that. You always encouraged, well, you know, that odd sort of behavior.”
Sofia could read the code in Emilia’s words: encouraging “odd” behavior meant telling the boy stories, talking about opera, about the crazy characters in the old neighborhood. Things like that. Making the kid an oddball like herself, that was their fear.
Emilia stood now in front of the window, arms folded. The late afternoon light caught her short black hair and obscured her face. “Well, he outgrew it. Fortunately. Anyway, we don’t stop him from coming up here to talk to you. He doesn’t want to. And you spend most of your time up here now. Maybe that’s why you worry so much about Larry. You have too much time to think.”
And you take too little, Sofia said to herself. Always worried about fitting in, being normal—even her name, Emilia, was too “foreign” for her, so she had everyone call her Emily.
“Why don’t you come downstairs,” Emilia continued. “I’ll make you a nice cup of chamomile tea.”
“All right, I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Once Emilia had left the room, Sofia carefully lifted herself out of the chair. Her body did not want to leave the comfy cushions but she forced it. She went to the window again and gazed down into the front yard. Lawrence still sat with his friends, laughing, smoking, listening to some guy on a portable radio, screaming foul words with no melody; it all seemed to be about killing and having sex, or maybe both at once. So much anger in it! She grasped the windowsill and leaned over, intending to shout at the circle of boys, but she lost her balance and pulled back in. At the same time, although she had made no sound, Lawrence looked up at her and shouted, “Nana, be careful!” Then: “Why don’t you come outside?”
She had never really liked this town much, if it came right down to it. Oh, yes, it was pretty—a good place to raise kids, or it used to be anyway, and you could garden here. Sofia had always liked the views: from almost every house you could see the river, and she used to love her walks on the path along the banks. She was determined to start walking there again soon. But she had never felt truly at home here, even after almost thirty years. She was a city girl; her memories were all of New York, where her parents had brought her as a child from Italy. She remembered the evil-eye looks people used to give them when she and her daughter and son-in-law first moved here. One comment she’d overheard in a grocery store had remained with her all these years: as she turned from the counter after paying, a woman stepping up said, loudly, to the grocer, “I suppose there’ll be Latinos and blacks moving in here next.” In the 1990s! The words still enraged her today, and she had always regretted not telling the woman off. At the time she felt too ashamed and intimidated to do so.
Sofia sat now at the kitchen table, sipping the tea Emilia had brewed, while her daughter stood at the counter preparing dinner. The macaroni gravy from a jar—her own mother must be turning in her grave to see her granddaughter doing that. Sofia no longer felt up to cooking, another abdication, like her gardening, and the sewing that was once her occupation. Maybe it was just as well she couldn’t see much beyond the patio, only the lawn’s green blur and the fuzzier green-brown of the river-edge trees beyond. Emilia assured her the flowers and vegetables were doing fine, but Sofia never saw any flowers nor ate any garden-grown vegetables, so she figured Emilia must be fibbing. She had to get back to that garden before Emilia ruined it altogether.
She finished the last of her tea and looked awhile at the dregs. They made her think about that gypsy woman on Delancey Street near where she used to live. She read tea leaves in between performing abortions. “You will live a long life, but it will not end happily,” the gypsy had once said to her, as if predicting a unique fate. She’d laughed in the woman’s face.
The slam of the screen door broke her reverie, and Lawrence marched loudly in. The last-born, late-born son, always loudly announcing his presence, now that his older siblings—a girl and a boy—were mostly out of the house. Before that, before last year, he had always seemed dreamy and lost, spending a lot of time alone. He had formed a special bond with Sofia, since no one else in the house seemed to pay her much mind. But that relationship had lately changed. Right now as he strode by he barely seemed to notice her. She felt compelled to say something to him, but her feeble voice could not compete with the relentless noise coming from the TV set Emilia was watching as she threw dinner together. Lawrence too gazed at the TV as he passed.
“Lawrence!” She spoke as loudly as she could.
The boy stood and faced her, with a startled look. “Nana? Are you OK?”
She nodded. “You and your friends. What were you up to out there in the yard?”
“Are you sure?”
He stared at her in silence. She couldn’t read his expression. Anger? Hurt? Fear? Maybe shame. Sofia knew he had been pulling away from her, maybe just from instinct, the young and healthy shunning the sick and old. Larry turned suddenly and walked away. She didn’t call to him as she heard his footsteps on the stairs, and then the slamming of his bedroom door.
That night, in the dream, the aliens came to take him away. They pulled him from his bed and through the open window, into one of their hovering spaceships. But as soon as the metal doors slammed shut, and he was about to see the inside of the ship, and the aliens themselves, he woke up. Cold sweat clung like pondwater to his skin, and his heart felt like a little bug trapped in his throat.
Larry hated his fear. It was all stupid. Frightened about a dream. He pushed the damp sheet away and sat up on the side of the bed. He wanted to shut the window, but if he did there wouldn’t be any cool air. Not that there was much outside. July in New Jersey was shitty, except for those two weeks at the shore, and there was still a month to go until then—if they went at all, with Nana being sick and all. He figured closing the window wouldn’t keep out aliens anyway, if they wanted to get in, and besides he didn’t believe in them. But it would be tough getting back to sleep.
He glanced at his digital clock radio, which read 2:34—the two dots seemed to stare like vertical red eyes. The whole room smelled of his sweat. It was probably cooler downstairs, he figured, and he could get something to drink.
Barefoot, in pajama bottoms, Larry walked quickly into the hallway and headed for the stairs, trying not to look into dark corners. The night-light threw large shadows onto the walls. His grandmother’s door, the next one down from his own, was open and the light was on. He didn’t want her to see him going downstairs in the middle of the night—she would probably accuse him of trying to sneak out. He was afraid to be around her; she seemed so different from the way she used to be.
He thought it over a minute, then decided he could walk by unnoticed if he did it quickly and quietly. As he passed the door, he looked inside, and stopped again. Nana sat up in bed, eyes open, but she wasn’t looking in his direction. She was staring toward the window, open like his to the night. She did not move. Her mouth was open slightly. The skin on her face and her shrunken arms looked bluish-white. A chill ran over him in the hot hallway, and he shuddered. Her eyes, were they blinking? He moved closer to the door, stuck his head inside the room. She remained completely still. No, he concluded, her eyes were not blinking, and her chest was not rising and falling. He couldn’t make himself enter the room; his legs would not move. He whispered “grandma,” then, louder, “Nana” but there was no response. Then slowly she turned her head and gazed toward him, with the same scary, blank look.
“Lawrence?” she said.
“Yes,” he answered.
And she was Nana again, the grouchy Nana she’d been lately.
“What are you doing up so late? Where are you going?”
“Just downstairs. For some milk or something.”
She nodded, surprising him, and turned away again. She said nothing more. He followed the line of her gaze out into the night. But there was nothing out there to see.
Sofia awoke before dawn, with just enough light in the room to make out the huge numbers on the round beside clock. Five-thirty. A feeling of dread like some fine-spun net slowly dropped over her and she felt as if she couldn’t move. She hated waking this early, with everything so quiet, everyone asleep, with hours to go before they would get up.
She tried to focus on something specific, and her grandson came to mind. She had just seen him, during the night. A dream. But so vivid. She was sitting up in bed, in the dream, watching the window and knowing, the way you do in dreams, that something would appear there. And something did—or someone. Lorenzo, her husband, dead twenty-six years. Now almost a stranger whom she did not want to see. She remembered love for Lorenzo, but it was as if the person who felt that love was not herself but someone who was also dead—would she join that younger self when she died, become her again, and so feel the same love again? She didn’t believe that; she didn’t hope for it either. She had wanted to cry out, “Leave me alone, Lorenzo, go away” and to stop him staring at her with those cold gray eyes, but she could only gaze back silently until the phantom with its weird stare faded gradually away. But when she looked toward the door, it was there again, in the hall now, younger but with the same odd look. What did it want from her? As she continued to watch the figure, it changed, became her other Lawrence, her grandson. She thought again of the boy she once knew who was slipping away from her. That silent moody child whom she drew out by reading, talking, telling him stories, playing him music, for hours on end. And the walks by the river from the time he could toddle, when she’d point up through trees toward the stars and he’d stare up with a fixity, even a longing, that sometimes alarmed her. She remembered so well; maybe he remembered too. What would become of him? She knew about feeling odd and silenced among people who didn’t care, but she couldn’t help him anymore. Maybe she never had; maybe she’d drawn him in with her, not out toward the world. Maybe. But she loved the kid.
The morning was sunny, and already very warm. Sofia sat again at the kitchen table looking out at the yard. Emilia came to the table, and looked out the window for a moment, too.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Emilia said. “Nice for the Fourth, for the barbecue. Why don’t we take a walk in the garden? Some of my plants are doing well, although I’m not half as good with them as you are.”
You can say that again, Sofia thought. She couldn’t understand why they were always having barbecues. It was mainly her son-in-law, trying to invent reasons for them all to spend time together, now that his older son had moved in with that puttana girlfriend in New Brunswick. The daughter had fled to college, then the city, and she rarely visited. Peter thought the family was falling apart and he was right. So this afternoon he would put on that ridiculous chef’s hat and apron and proudly throw raw meat on the grill as if he’d just hunted down dangerous animals to feed his family.
“Come, ma.” Emilia grasped her arm. Oh, yes, the garden. She’d grown to love gardening after her retirement: the feel of the soil in her hands, the everyday magic of plants growing. She wanted to feel earth touch her skin again. But she probably wouldn’t get to do so this year: before very long the snow would obliterate everything under clean white mounds.
“Do you think we’ll get a lot of snow this winter?” she said.
“Snow? Mama, it’s July.” Emilia was guiding her toward the door now, but Sofia pulled away.
“I can still walk by myself.” This was true, but it was difficult. Her body dragged at first, then seemed to advance before her as she struggled to keep up. Ahead of her, Emilia’s body, even with all that weight she’d put on, moved quickly through the doorway and onto the patio. Her lazy daughter, with more energy than herself. She followed Emilia to the edge of the patio, where the lawn began, but she didn’t want to go any farther. She sat down in one of the green aluminum patio chairs. Directly in front of her stood a redwood picnic table covered by a plastic cloth with a flowery print. A bit of ground beef and a large brown stain remained on the table from the last barbecue only days earlier. Sofia watched closely as ants gathered on the table, forming a large mass over one of the printed flowers.
From the back door, Larry watched his grandmother. She was staring into space again. What did she see, he wondered. Maybe it was the drugs. Drugs made him feel that way too, especially lately when he’d been doing so much. But how else could you stand to be around this place? He’d smoked a joint this morning just to make it to the afternoon, when he’d have to sit down and eat with everybody. Drugs were the next best thing to being taken away by aliens. He wondered where Tim was with those fireworks. He felt like making major noise. Actually he felt like blowing up the house or setting the yard on fire, but he’d have to settle for the noise.
The front bell rang, and Larry walked fast through the house. He paused to look at the TV, which was playing for no one in the living room. On the screen, a car was zooming along an empty mountain road, through thrill-ride turns. Watching the car, Larry walked backward to the front door. He opened it absently and his friend Tim walked in holding a big cardboard box.
“Got some great stuff,” Tim said.
Larry met Tim’s eyes briefly, then looked away. They hadn’t been able to look at each other for the past couple of weeks, since they did that stuff down by the river. They were high at the time, and decided to get naked. It was late and nobody was around, so they sat bare-assed on the bank and started whacking off. It was Tim who first reached over and grabbed Larry’s dick, and at first Larry pushed Tim’s hand away but then let Tim grab him again and hold him and stroke. They came really fast, put their clothes on fast and walked home without saying anything about it. And they hadn’t spoken about it since; instead they focused on putting together a truly awesome collection of fireworks.
“Shit,” Larry said, looking into the full box. “We could wake the dead with all that.”
“Speaking of which,” Tim said. Larry laughed as Tim pointed to the front walk. Larry’s older brother Charlie was approaching with his girlfriend Rhonda and some of their friends.
“Hi, guys,” said Charlie, as they all entered the house. He pushed his shoulder-length hair behind his ears with both hands. “Where’s Mom and Dad?”
“Mom’s out back with grandma. Dad’s still asleep.”
This was the longest conversation Larry had had with his brother in months. As for Rhonda, she never spoke to anyone, unless she had something to say about witchcraft or vampires or gothic metal. At dinner once, months ago, she’d sat through the whole meal without saying a word to anyone. His father said afterward, “That was like having dinner with the Raven.” Larry had laughed; it was a cool thing for his Dad to say. Usually his father hated any references to poetry or books or things like that; Larry knew the poem from his grandmother, who’d read it to him a few times out of the Young People’s Poetry Book he’d asked his mother to buy him. He’d given up poetry, though, and mostly read science fiction now, or horror stuff, when he read anything. He liked stories about other planets, faraway ones, and creatures that were nothing like human. He felt like he belonged with them.
Charlie and his friends walked past the boys and took all the seats in the living room. They switched on the TV. Some long-haired guy with tattoos was grabbing his crotch and screaming into a microphone. It was okay, but Larry preferred rap these days. He was trying to get away from that opera and symphony stuff his grandmother liked. Rap made him think of the city, exciting and dangerous, so different from this dull place. He’d been there a few times with his father. Once they rode the subway, and had stood at the very front of the front car, watching the rails as the train shot forward into the grim darkness. Larry had enjoyed the press of his father’s body behind him, as they both felt the thrill of the train hurtling through the tunnel, dim and dirty, with God knows what kind of creatures living in it, unseen. Like that movie about the mutant insects in the sewer system, growing larger and larger. When he thought about the city now, he imagined all those things crawling out one day, invading the city, climbing up those tall buildings and eating people working in offices, like Dad.
One of Charlie’s friends, a guy wearing a bunch of medallions on a chain around his neck, started talking about the Rapture. He saw a TV show about it the other day, he said. “One day, all these people will just rise up into the sky—they’ll be like taken into heaven right in their own bodies.”
“I hope my girlfriend’s body is going with me,” another guy said.
“Who says you’re going up?” said Charlie, laughing.
“Well,” the guy with the chains said. “We all better hope we are, ‘cause everyone who’s not lifted up will be destroyed. It’s the Last Judgment.”
“Your last judgment was two weeks ago in court, wasn’t it, Hal?” said Charlie.
“No, no,” said Rhonda. “I saw this thing about witches on Discovery Channel. What’s really gonna happen is women will take over and worship nature and the moon.”
“Oh, yeah, you wish,” said Charlie.
Larry found all this sort of interesting, especially the part about being lifted up to heaven in your own body. He felt his body being lifted up sometimes in those weird dreams he’d been having lately, or just before he jerked off into his rolled up underpants, or when he had just the right amount of pot. He glanced at Tim, who was waiting by the door. He wondered if Tim felt these weird feelings in his own body. Tim looked away. “Let’s go set a few off,” Tim said. Larry, eager, followed his friend outside.
Sofia was still watching the ants. She’d been watching them for at least twenty minutes now. She considered getting up and brushing them away but decided not to bother. Anyway, she found them more and more interesting. They would move about in ways that seemed at first to be random, but gradually revealed patterns. Were they just following their instincts, or responding to commands, or was there some group communication? She’d never really thought about how completely different insects were, how alien, and how we don’t see that strangeness only because they are so common, so everyday. She found herself thinking a lot about things like that since her surgery and treatment, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Charlie and his friends were still draped across furniture in the living room when Larry and Tim returned. Now the group was discussing extraterrestrials. The Rapture guy was talking about some other TV program he’d seen, about a woman who’d been abducted by a spaceship while driving through the desert someplace. The aliens had stripped her naked and examined her body. “But the creepiest part,” he said, “was when they hypnotized her and she started talking in this alien voice.”
“Alien voice?” Tim whispered to Larry, his lips brushing Larry’s ear, the words warm breath.
Larry laughed, but at the same time he felt a weird tickling move up his legs, under his balls, and he felt his dick press suddenly, urgently against his pants.
“Let’s go,” he said, grasping Tim’s arm.
Tim shot Larry a brief, confused look and pulled away. “Yeah, calm down,” Tim said, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking at the floor. His center-parted blond hair fell over his eyes. Larry suddenly saw Tim’s naked pale body bending over his own darker one; it seemed to have something to do with the creepy living room talk but Larry couldn’t say what. He turned quickly and walked into the kitchen, with Tim following.
Larry’s father was up now, standing at the kitchen counter helping with the barbecue preparations. Larry’s grandmother sat at the table. The TV was still on; it was the early afternoon news, which his mother usually watched before the soaps came on. Right now, a newswoman who looked like some movie star was reading a story, her brow wrinkled up like she was trying to appear concerned when she really wasn’t. “A bizarre story now,” she said. “A woman in Nebraska is accused of murder in the deaths of her two young children, whom she allegedly locked inside the trunk of her car. The woman then drove the car for nearly a week on her daily rounds, until the bodies were discovered by her husband. The woman had apparently told her husband that the children, a boy and a girl aged six and eight, were staying with relatives.”
The only person who seemed to be watching the TV was Larry’s grandmother, wearing her usual dazed expression.
“Is she all right?” Larry’s father asked his mother, in that gruff tone Larry hated. Larry wanted to say, “No, you idiot, she’s not all right, she’s very sick,” but he couldn’t get the words out. He grasped Tim again, this time by the hand, and pulled him toward the door. Tim did not pull away, and they walked hand-in-hand past Larry’s father, who gave them a nasty look.
Still clutching Tim’s hand, Larry paused to kiss his grandmother’s colorless face and suddenly felt like crying or screaming or both.
“Be back for the cookout,” his father said.
“I’ll be back for the fucking cookout,” Larry shouted as he slammed the back door. He wanted to keep walking, pulling Tim along, down to the river and beyond.
What is that on the TV, Sofia wondered. Some police thing or a news show? She tried to make out details on the tiny screen across the room. She didn’t much care, anyway, since it was all the same. Murder and sex and drugs. It no longer made any sense to her.
She got up from the chair and started walking toward the staircase; she wanted to lie down upstairs, alone. She wasn’t hungry and didn’t feel like sitting outdoors with the rest of them. As she was walking, Lawrence moved quickly past her, pausing to kiss her cheek. She felt his mouth pressing into her skin with a force that pulled her out of herself. That, along with his defiant shout at his father, made her stop thinking about going upstairs. She would sit with the family outside. She could be with Lawrence, keep an eye on him; she sensed he was plotting something, and she wanted to be there to see it. The idea excited and energized her.
They began to hurl fireworks against the house. Tim would grab the small cylinders out of the box and Larry would gleefully, angrily light them and throw them with all the force he could muster. He felt each thrilling boom in his lower belly; he watched Tim’s flushed and grinning face as the small bombs exploded and the drifting smoke began to obscure the house. Larry saw the patch of lawn around them as a green ship rising on thrusters belching smoke, the fear draining away as they sped toward some strange place he didn’t really understand, but where they somehow had to go.
Sofia had dozed off in her lawn chair. She had been dreaming of fire, explosions, the town glowing red. Now, the backyard light was beginning to slant; the greenness of the trees was deepening. She saw no fire, but could still hear noises, firecrackers like the machine guns in old gangster movies, followed by drum-like booms. And drifting up, white smoke. Through the whiteness she saw two boys out on the lawn: one was clearly Lawrence, throwing objects at the foundations of the house. She could see his arms moving swiftly, in strong hurling motions, in a way he had never thrown a ball. This bad behavior still roused her disapproval, but it was dampened by something she had not felt before, or had not acknowledged: the force and life in the boy’s actions. And seeing that force and power in her grandson, his intensity amid the antic popping of fireworks, gave Sofia a sudden, crazy feeling of joy. She watched the two boys in relentless motion until they disappeared into the white smoke which, as it obscured the yard’s colors, began to look like upwardly swirling snow. Sofia leaned forward, straining to see the energetic boys through the snowy smoke as it rose and dissolved. She felt her strength increasing. She was a little dizzy in the rush of smoke and noise, but she wanted to get up and do something: yell at them or maybe join them.
Frank Meola has published work in a variety of forms and places, including New England Review and the New York Times. His Times travel essay on Rachel Carson in Maine is in the new book Footsteps (Penguin). Two of his stories have been finalists in fiction competitions. He recently completed a novel and is working on a new one. He has an MFA from Columbia University, and he teaches writing and humanities at NYU. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and their two cats.