by Traci Mullins
The sound of Grandpa’s houseslippers mushing down the carpeted hallway toward the sunny blue kitchen makes my mouth water. I have been eating his infamous animal-shaped pancakes almost every Sunday since I moved back to Riley two years ago, and he has been working on his craft for at least thirty.
Grandpa gives Grandma a good morning kiss as she and I sit at the yellow Formica table drinking coffee and reading the obituaries in the Statesman-Journal. Grandma always reads them out loud first thing—the news headlines can wait. I wonder if I’ll be as fascinated with dead people when I’m eighty-five.
“Oh dear, Franklin, listen to this. ‘Eldon Sullivan passed from this life on Friday. He was 84.’” She reads about Eldon’s military service and his beloved wife Gracie and his fourteen great-grandchildren and wonders aloud about what he died of and how Gracie is doing and whether or not flowers should be sent or maybe she should take a casserole.
“Was he a good friend of yours?” I ask.
“Well, not real close, but some years back we used to see him and Gracie almost every Saturday night at the Elks. Boy, was Eldon a great dancer! Wasn’t Eldon a great dancer, Frank? He could cha-cha like no one’s business.”
Grandpa doesn’t seem to hear; he is well into the serious business of mixing the buckwheat pancake batter.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “You have to promise me you’ll live to be at least 100!”
“Okay, Sweetie,” Grandma smiles, beginning to scan the headlines. “I promise.”
Grandpa pours the first animal on the hot griddle with a sssssst. He always cooks each pancake to a crispy-around-the-edges perfection. I get myself into position with knife and fork. “I’m salivating here, Grandpa.”
He winks as he flips a camel onto my plate. “Here’s a bunny for you,” he chuckles. Camel, bunny—it doesn’t matter to me as long as Grandpa made it. I drench the imaginary powder-puff tail with Mrs. Butterworth’s and fork it into my mouth.
On Tuesday morning, Grandpa and Grandma’s phone number pops up on my caller ID. It’s unusual for them to call; we normally wait until the weekend to catch up. I barely get out “hello” before Grandpa blurts out, “Frances won’t wake up!”
“What do you mean, she won’t wake up? You mean she hasn’t gotten out of bed this morning?”
“No! And I don’t think she’s breathing!”
“Grandpa,” I say firmly, quelling the panic rising inside me, “call 911. I’m coming right over.”
Ten minutes later I barrel up Chemeketa Street and skid into the driveway like a batter into first base. The flashing lights of the ambulance shoot adrenaline through my veins as I pound up the steps and hurl myself down the hallway toward the bedroom. They have Grandma on a gurney. One of the EMTs is popping his gum as they cinch the straps around her. Their movements are slow, mechanical. No rapid life saving measures, no rushing to the ambulance, no words; just Grandma hidden beneath a sheet and Grandpa floating nearby, his grey eyes vacant, mouth loose like he was about to say something but the words dribbled down his chin.
“Grandpa, what happened?” I ask, a sob tearing at my throat. Grandpa just stares at the crisp white sheet.
“What happened?!” I shout at the paramedics, as if demanding an explanation will right our world.
“Well, best guess is her heart just stopped,” the lanky young EMT says casually, as if he’s giving a weather report of sunny skies with high barometric pressure.
“How can that be?” I insist. “She was fine just last weekend!” My eyes plead with the gum-chomping fool for a response that makes sense.
“Well, ma’am,” he says, gazing just above my eyebrows, “we see this a lot in folks her age.” Same monotone. All in a day’s work.
I break down then, the full force of this incomprehensible scene crashing into me like a tidal wave. I stumble toward the gurney and gently pull back the sheet. My beautiful grandmother looks like wax.
After the funeral we bring Grandma home in a small square box and set her on the piano where she used to sing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” I set up camp at Grandpa’s house, and somehow the next few days limp forward in a Frances-less world. It rains. A thick fog settles into Grandpa’s eyes and he drifts away. He doesn’t eat, even when I serve him his favorites—Campbell’s tomato soup with saltines, tuna on rye, scrambled eggs with Swiss and scallions. All I can do is watch helplessly as he bobs offshore.
One gloomy pewter-sky morning Grandpa washes in with the tide and looks at me as if seeing me for the first time. “Where’s Frances?” he asks, bewilderment creasing his forehead. My throat tight with tears, I reach for his hand and remind him gently. The tide recedes; he goes with it. I have lost them both.
Sunday rolls in with clearing skies, and as I pad out to the sunny blue kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, the idea comes to me. I reach into the cupboard for the buckwheat pancake mix and haul out the cast iron skillet. I set two places at the yellow Formica table and place Mrs. Butterworth in the center. When I hear Grandpa mushing down the hallway, I set a cup of coffee by his plate and unfold the newspaper next to mine. Turning toward the stove I begin dropping dollops of batter onto the hot griddle. When the pancakes are nice and crispy around the edges, I scoop one up and flip it onto Grandpa’s plate.
“Here’s a bunny for you,” I say, kissing his bald head.
He chuckles, reaching for the syrup. I begin to read him the headlines. The obituaries can wait.
* * * * *
“Animal Pancakes” was first published in Flash Fiction Magazine.