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Michael was staring at the glass of grapefruit juice on the table. He hated grapefruit juice, and proceeded to stick out his tongue just as his grandmother finished saying “Amen.” Slowly he looked up and met her cold, clear gaze. She was watching him.

“I wish you would try harder to be good,” she said. “Sometimes your behavior verges on blasphemy.”

At breakfast the day before, in Kenosha, his mother said: “Grandmother Booth needs you, kiddo.” Michael was assigned the chores of sweeping out his grandmother’s garage and bundling old newspapers.

“Are you listening to me?”

“I’m listening,” said Michael, dousing the oatmeal with sugar and milk.

“Your father loved grapefruit juice when he was your age,” said Grandmother Booth. “Nowadays he debases the juice with vodka. Grapefruit juice, vodka, and something else. Soy sauce? Tabasco? I don’t remember. It’s a horrid concoction.”

She buttered a slice of toast. “Don’t stare at my hands, Michael.”

Her hands are a revealing detail. Later he is concerned about losing her. The writer has introduced age and health in a very real way, without directly telling the reader she may not have long to live.

“I wasn’t,” he said. His grandmother’s fingers were so thin that Michael felt he could reach out and snap them like bread sticks.

He looked quickly away, toward the kitchen window. Two bearded irises stood in a vase on the ledge. Outside, the yard was filled with armies of lilac, iris, and hyacinth. A breeze rich in garden smells — simultaneously subtle and overripe — swirled about the room. Grandmother Booth was up from her chair now and placed the vase on a corner of the table.

“I think they’ll make me sneeze,” said Michael. The flowers were as large as any he had ever seen.

“Nonsense,” said Grandmother Booth.

“I get sneezes from flowers.”

“Your grandfather liked to say irises are the true beginning of summertime.”

Michael poked with a spoon at his breakfast. The oatmeal had hardened into an igloo surrounded by tepid milk. He was trying at that moment to remember if he had ever actually seen a hot-air balloon lift off from the ground. Hot-air balloons usually appeared mysteriously in the sky, moving silently across the horizon, origins and destinations unknown.

“Do you have memories of your grandfather?”

“He slept a lot,” said Michael.

“Well, he was very sick,” said Grandmother Booth. “But he talked to you.”

The irises were inches away and glowing as if radioactive. Michael could detect the pressure in his sinuses begin to build. His grandmother showed him the furry lip that sprouted within each flower’s center. The spot of fuzz looked to Michael nothing like a beard, more like an eyebrow, or maybe the backside of an exotic insect. A picture came to his mind, an image (in slow motion) of his grandfather moving through the house one September afternoon. Michael was visiting his grandparents and practicing at their piano. He had spent hours repeating a simple Chopin waltz. “I love the music,” his grandfather said. The day was wet with rain and the air sultry. Oscillating in a corner of the room an electric fan tick-tocked like a metronome. His grandfather carried potato chips in his shirt pocket, five or six large potato chips, and that afternoon he handed one to Michael and said, “Here’s a chip off the ol’ Booth.” Nearly dancing, his slippers tapping the carpet, Grandfather Booth circled the piano as if he were a heavy old moth drunk with porch light.

A masterful little scene within a scene. We feel we are in the hands of a sensitive observer. This trust is necessary if we are to allow him to take us into more risky, emotional levels.