There were 21 steps from my Grandparent’s front room to the first bedroom upstairs. 21 steps up. 21 steps down. I counted them over and over…each step. There was a creak in the third step and the 19th. I memorized each number, like the multiplication tables Mrs. Paulson gave us at Washington Elementary. She said if we memorized them, they’d stay with us forever. That was the permanence I was looking for. I counted up and down. Forward and back.
“…three…two…one.” I turned around and started back up again. My grandma touched my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
How could I explain to a person who had lived in the same house for a thousand years that I was planning to memorize each room, each picture, each step? Memorize my own home, so that I would always have a place to go to…to call home, in my head…a place, to take with me.
“Nothing, Grandma,” I replied.
“Do you need something?” she asked, still intrigued with my behavior.
I needed her to hold me…hold me so tight that my head would get lost in her apron-covered belly..so deep that I could feel her heart beat against my cheek…so close that the floral pattern of her dress would imprint on my face. I needed her to tell me that I could stay forever…that I never had to leave this home that had twenty one steps.
“No…I don’t need anything. I’m just counting the steps.”
“You’re so busy,” she tussled my hair. “Well, go on then, just don’t wake the others.”
It was early. Grandpa was getting ready to go into the fields. Grandma was making breakfast. Two of my cousins, Vicki and LaWanna, were upstairs sleeping. They were seven and nine years older than I and as far as they were concerned it could have been twenty. They slept in the room farthest down the hall. It had two beds, a rug loom and a walk-in closet that held old clothes, including somebody’s father’s navy uniform…which when I told them about it, they each gave me a look like I had just asked them to play paper dolls with me or something trivial like that. I didn’t think it was trivial at all…but they did, so I didn’t even bother to mention the photographs or the letters. They had been here a thousand times.
I came down the steps for the fifteenth time. “Go wake your cousins,” my Grandma said, “Breakfast is almost ready.”
Twenty one steps…nineteen straight…two to the left…two doors down on the left…it was their room. I knocked on the door very softly. No one answered. I knocked louder. “We’re sleeping,” one of them replied.
“Grandma says breakfast is almost ready.”
“You should come,” I opened the door. Vicki threw her pillow at me. It barely made it passed the end of her bed.
“Did you guys know that there are twenty one steps from downstairs?”
“You’re a weird kid,” Vicki said as she got up. I was just happy that she was talking to me. I liked having people around in the morning.
Neither one of them made their bed. “What are you guys gonna do today?” I asked.
“Nothin’ with you,” LaWanna said as we walked into the hall. She was the meaner of the two. My Grandma said it was just hormones and to ignore it.
Grandma stood in front of two pans on the stove. I joined the others at the table…there was my grandpa; my Uncle Tom and his son Scott – they had come to help in the fields; three other men I didn’t know, – I assumed they were there to do the same; LaWanna, Vicki and me.
“Hard or soft?” my Grandma asked around the table. She had a pan for each. I didn’t really like eggs. I actually had never had them before. The question was getting closer to my seat. What would I say? I didn’t want either, but…What? Me? Already? “Scrambled.” Vicki laughed out loud. Where had that answer come from? LaWanna leaned over…”You’re an idiot.” Everyone stared at me. My Grandma stopped. Why had I said that? I don’t think I knew then that I was giving her the big test, to see just how far she’d go, to see if she really loved me. She bent over to get something. “You’re gonna get it now,” LaWanna said. I held my breath. My grandma arose with a third pan. For some strange reason she loved me that much. Vicki gave me a smile that was quickly cut off by LaWanna’s stare. I got up from my chair. “It’s ok, Grandma…I’ll just have cereal.”
“It’s in the cupboard below…”
“I know, below the silverware,” I finished her sentence having already memorized the kitchen. She was the kind of grandma that bought the six packs of cereal, the kind mothers think too expensive. I reached in and grabbed a box of Sugar Pops.
My Uncle Tom was the last to finish. He ate the most and couldn’t button the top button on his overalls. Vicki and LaWanna ran off upstairs to get dressed. I followed the men outside. My Uncle Tom blew his nose without a Kleenex…just by holding a finger to each side. I couldn’t believe it. My mother would have passed out. My eyes must have been as wide open as my mouth.
“You don’t do that??” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Ever stuck your hand in a cow’s mouth?” he asked me, already knowing the answer.
“Come here then.”
I looked at my grandpa, who was giving me the raised eyebrow go-ahead.
I approached the electric fence with my Uncle Tom. He put an apple in my hand. “Now hold it out. They’ll come.” And slowly they did. My hand shook. I looked up at him.
“Just leave it out there. They won’t hurt you.”
One came closer and closer. It’s eyes were level with mine. I had never been this close to such a big animal. My elbow began to bend, bringing my hand closer to me than the cow. “Stick it out there,” he said. And then I saw it…the longest, pinkest, slimiest tongue ever. Get closer? I was sure if that cow wanted to, he could wrap that thing around my entire body, even if I was in the house. Uncle Tom pushed my hand out and before I could scream, that black and white beast had that apple eaten and his tongue wrapped around my pointer finger at least fifteen times, or so it seemed. I drew my hand back like it had just touched one of the hot pans on Grandma’s stove and began shaking the white sticky stuff from it. My uncle laughed. It wouldn’t come off. I shook harder and harder, apparently a little too close to the fence, because suddenly he grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back. “Not so close to the fence, kid. It’ll flatten you.”
“Yes, sir.” He wasn’t your normal looking hero, but he had saved me from the electric fence.
I went back into the house. Vicki and LaWanna were upstairs. I went to find them, up the twenty-one steps. I went into the second room on the right…my grandma’s sewing room. It was a mess, scraps of material everywhere, drawers open, patterns on the floor. It looked like a giant puzzle. My grandmother made quilts. She took scraps from everyone…baby blankets, clothes for kids and adults, all kinds of things, from her children and theirs. She cut squares and pieced them all together, like they were all a part of something bigger. She had bags and bags of clothes, some labeled with magic marker according to the family they came from. It was all so disorganized, but yet she brought it all together to make something beautiful. I went to my suitcase down the hall and grabbed my oldest shirt. Back in the sewing room I cut it up into squares and threw the pieces into different bags. I was going to be a part of it all too.
“What are you doing in here, Squirt?” LaWanna entered the room, with Vicki close behind.
“Nothing. What are you guys doing?”
“You wouldn’t be interested,” LaWanna said.
“Yes I would.”
“You’d be afraid.”
“No I wouldn’t.”
“You’d do whatever we did?” she asked.
“Yes, yes of course I would.” I wanted to belong so badly I hadn’t considered what they were about to do.
Just off the sewing room there was a door. It opened to a three foot square ledge, with a small railing. I guess my grandma hung rugs out on it and stuff. There was really only room for one or two people to stand on it at a time. They both went out. Peering from inside I could see it was a long way down. What were they going to do? Had I really said I’d do whatever they did?
“We jump off,” LaWanna said proudly.
“On purpose?” I asked. Vicki laughed. It wasn’t supposed to be a joke. I just couldn’t believe anyone would want to do it.
“Of course on purpose. And you’re going to do it too.”
“You said you would. Now watch.” LaWanna put one leg over the railing and then the other. She was really going to do it. Thud. She hit the ground. It seemed so far down. But then she was twice my height, she had less to fall.
Vicki was up next. “It’s not so bad really. It’s kind of fun,” she tried to reassure me. She went over the railing a little slower and looked at the ground a little longer. “Hurry up,” LaWanna shouted, and down Vicki went. She hit a little harder, but got up.
“It’s your turn now.” LaWanna hollered up. I looked down at both of them. The ground seemed too far away. I held on to the railing tighter.
“Come on,” she shouted.
I tried to lift my leg. I could barely reach the top of the railing. I put it back down.
“Come on, you big baby,” LaWanna shouted. I began to sweat. I thought I would lose my Sugar Pops. My feet wouldn’t move.
“Come on, we haven’t got all day,” she shouted. That was a lie. It seemed they had all the time in the world to watch me sweat. I put one foot up on the railing. My hands were so sweaty I was afraid that they would make my decision for me, before I was ready.
“Do it already!” LaWanna shouted.
“That’s enough.” I looked down. It was my grandpa. “Get inside…now,” he shouted at me. I was saved. “And you two go home. I’ve had enough of this for one day.”
I stood there and watched Vicki and LaWanna run faster than they had moved all day. I was so relieved. I looked down at my grandpa. “Go inside then, if you want.” Suddenly I was disappointed. It would have been stupid to jump, but still, for some reason I wanted him to know that I could.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked.
“I could have made the jump. If I had wanted to.” I don’t know who I was trying to convince more, him or me.
“Yeah, right.” He seemed less convinced and started to walk away.
“I could have,” I shouted to his back. He turned around and I raised one leg to the top of the railing again.
“Well, you’re never going to do it that way. Slip through the bars and hang on to the other side.” I did just as he said. “Now bend down, hang on to the bottom of the ledge and let your feet dangle. You’ll have less to fall that way.” I looked down at the ground. “Go on now,” he said. I hung on for what seemed like hours. “Just let go, the ground’s just a few feet away now. Do it if you want to do it.”
My hands were so sweaty, I knew it was just a matter of time. My heart was pounding so fast. I could do this. I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. I had never risked anything before, well except for at breakfast, when I had asked for scrambled. I had to let go. Boom, I hit the ground, first feet, then hands, then knees. I was covered in grass and dirt, but I never felt better. I looked up…all smiles. My grandpa just stood there. I began brushing myself off. He started to walk away. I couldn’t believe he was just leaving, after my big accomplishment. This was the biggest chance I ever took and he was just walking away? How could he do that?
Without turning around he held his hand out and said, “You know it wouldn’t have mattered to me either way. You could have just taken the stairs down inside.” I ran up to him and grabbed his open hand. For some strange reason he loved me too.
“You know, there are 21 steps to those stairs,” I said.
“Is that so?” he said and kept on walking with my hand in his. He stopped at the garage and picked up some sort of a tool. “I have to walk this back to the boys. You’ll probably want to go back to the house.”
“I can walk with you.”
“It’s a long ways.”
“I’m not tired.”
“I can’t carry you. You’ll have to make it.”
“I can make it.”
It took two of my steps to keep up with one of his, but I didn’t care. I kept up. “You know, Grandma doesn’t keep all the Sugar Daddies in the kitchen corner cupboard,” I said.
Grandpa just kept walking.
“Nope, she has her own personal stash. I found three in her top dresser drawer. And she has two brushes and five bottles of perfume and fourteen pictures on top of her dresser.
“Is that so.”
“Yep, and she has three hat boxes, but only two hats. Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“And in the bathroom downstairs…there are two bottles of lotion, one that smells like peaches and the other like roses. I put some on my hands this morning, one smell on each hand. I think the cow licked off the roses. Here smell the…”
“You talk a lot. Maybe you shouldn’t be messin’ with your grandmother’s things so much.”
“I didn’t hurt anything. I just wanted to see it,” I said.
“It’s ok if you look. Just don’t…it’s ok, really.” He squeezed my hand tighter and I knew he meant it.
We kept walking in the dirt. It seemed for miles. When we reached the others, Grandpa fixed the “jing” that needed to be “jangled.” And for the rest of the afternoon we rode in the truck alongside the tractor. The truck was white with red vinyl interior. It stuck to my sweaty legs. The sun beat in through the cracked windshield and dust filled the air. But at that moment, I couldn’t think of anyplace else I’d rather be. I fell asleep against my grandpa’s shoulder.
We drove back to the house late that afternoon. I rode in the back of the truck with the beans we had collected. I must have had 100 of them in my underpants and I couldn’t keep from laughing. I jumped out of the back when we stopped and they fell around my feet. It was the first time I had heard my Grandpa laugh.
The slam of a car door stopped us both. It was my mother’s car. She had come back. My suitcase was packed and sitting by the passenger door.
My grandpa pushed me on my back in her direction. “I’ve packed your things,” she said. ”
I gave her a smile.
“You seem to be missing a shirt, though.”
I didn’t say anything.
We got in the car. There was so much I wanted to hold on to. Grandma ran out with a kiss and a Sugar Daddy.
We started to pull away when Grandpa put his hand on the car door.
“She hides them downstairs by the washer and dryer too, the Sugar Daddies.”
“I didn’t get downstairs,” I said.
He looked down at the ground. I wanted him to tell me that I was a part of it all…the family breakfasts, the fighting with cousins, the dirty knees, the unmade beds, the photographs…the feeling of home.
He raised his head. “There are 18 steps from the main floor to the basement,” he said – his way of giving it all to me.