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The telephone rang in the living room. He turned off the coffee machine and carefully balanced his grandmother’s cup, which was full to the brim, and walked with it across the hallway. He set the coffee cup down beside the telephone and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” said Michael.

He recognized the voice, but there was a wavering of the signal, a crackling like potato chips, like burning leaves.

There is no doubt after the competence of the first few paragraphs that an editor would read on. But the piece could go either way, that’s the chance it takes. Believe it or not an editor is cheering that it will succeed. In this story, this phone call supposedly from the dead grandfather, clinches the decision. There is a creative leap here, like the last line of a great poem, yet it has been beautifully set up by everything that has gone before. Even if the ending were to be flawed or there were some dialogue that needed tightening, the editor is committed to publishing this piece and now looks at it as part of the magazine, not as a submission.

“How’s the visit with your grandmother?”

“I don’t know,” said Michael.

There was silence on the other end. Michael held the phone tight against his ear.

“Hello?” he said.

“Michael, don’t ever be afraid.”

He watched the steam from his grandmother’s coffee cup rise and filter into the air. He thought of the balloons that were somewhere overhead, kept aloft (he now knew) by the thunderous roar of fire tanks.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” said Michael.

“Think ‘calcium.’ Think ‘iron.’ ”


“Her bones are brittle. I think you can understand that.”

“So what if I can?”

Michael could hear a heavy, bottomless sigh that seemed to echo deep within the phone line.

“Let’s step outside the world of the Froot Loop and the Frosted Flake. Can you do that, Michael?”

“What’s that s’posed to mean? I mean, I hate Froot Loops. Frosted Flakes are okay — ”

“Listen, there’s more to your existence than warm blood and cold soda pop. Don’t you get it? Heaven is in your head, but you’ve got to peer beyond the corpuscular threshold. Turn off the claptrap and the time clocks. You have too much fight in you, too much anger. Your grandmother is the same way.”

He had only been in one fight — or near-fight — in his life, a gym class altercation. A student named Brillo was accidentally beaned in the head with a volleyball and blamed Michael. No fists were brandished, only threats and hostile glances. He remembered feeling not anger, but rather astonishment that someone could bestow malicious intent upon an innocent act.

“Grandma doesn’t need my help.”

“That’s where your dumb kid logic breaks down, because you’re wrong. What I’m asking is this: Would you stay a few more days with her? Keep an eye out?”

“Why would I do that? Is she gonna die or something?”

“I would imagine so.”

A sudden rage flashed across Michael’s consciousness. “I don’t live here!” he shouted. And he thought: I’m talking to a dead man. I’m talking to a dead man. I’m talking to a dead dead dead dead dead man.

“C’mon now. Is that really the issue at hand? Hang in there two more days. Read a book, watch a movie. Keep an eye out — ”

Before Michael heard another word he slammed the receiver back in its cradle.

The telephone began ringing again. Michael was out the back door with his grandmother’s coffee splashing his arm. Grandmother Booth was climbing the steps. “I’m hearing telephones,” she said, taking the cup from Michael. He jumped down the steps as his grandmother disappeared inside the house.

Searching the yard for Kimberly-Ann, he finally noticed her running between houses some distance away. An overpowering fragrance of lilac welled up before him and poisoned the air. He stood at the garden’s edge, near the large riverbank stones his grandfather had hauled from Merrimac twenty years ago. An ocean of green encircled Michael’s feet: hosta, sedum, juniper. Grandmother Booth’s garden was a maze of layered plants and flowers that were timed like a Disneyland diorama to burst forth one after another, wave upon wave throughout the spring and summer. Faded daffodils and tulips were offset by the nascent bloom of poppies and honeysuckle. Irises — flowered in dense, wrinkled flesh — currently ruled the land with the sheer heft of their presence.