The summer my grandmother’s fugues started, my mom was working two jobs, one as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital and another as a freelance secretary in a small translation house that sent her home with complimentary poetry collections that she read late at night by the weak light in the kitchen. When she’d taken on the second job at the start of the summer, she told me that, as the oldest child, it would fall to me to keep an eye on Grandma.
“She’s losing a bit of her orientation”. She stood by the window, her thin back to me. “Sometimes it happens when people get old.”
I was used to looking after my brother, Miguelito, as we were often alone and left to our own devices, but the idea of looking after my grandma seemed wrong; she was an adult, and I was twelve. I also wasn’t sure what Mom meant by “orientation,” though I assumed it had something to do with Grandma’s recent odd behavior. Things like watching Divorce Court and Maury Povich all afternoon with the sound off or shelling piñon and munching them then taking her teeth out and staring deep into her dentures. Miguelito and I found it disgusting, the way she smacked her gums at us—and we’d run from the room. Other times, she’d mention Chihuahua, where she was from, but as if it were in the backyard, like “vamos a tomar el sol allí en Chihuahua,” or “Look there’s a bike allí en Chihuahua.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked. I loved my grandma, but I didn’t want to prepare her breakfast or help her with her shoes.
Mom stepped from the window and put a hand in my hair. “Just pay attention. Make sure she’s okay.”
During the first weeks of summer, keeping an eye on Grandma was no big deal. Mostly she stared at the mute TV and hardly paid us any attention. We’d sit around the living room with her, playing with Ninja Turtles on the thick brown carpet. After certain battle sequences, Miguelito had taken to engineering sex scenes, letting the plastic figures hump under the coffee table: "Now April has been saved by Michelangelo.” Luckily, though, I didn’t have to worry about Grandma rating us out, telling our mom Miguelito was being a sucio. She seemed to pay us no attention whatsoever.
Sometimes we left her alone in the apartment so we could play on the swing set in the courtyard, or so that I could sit on the front steps with my green-bound notebook. I was often doodling or writing things that summer: comics, stories, scripts. One afternoon, we decided to leave Grandma inside for a while and were sitting out front of the apartment when a neighbor kid told us about the first dead dog, found lying on a sidewalk up by the bodega, cause of death unknown. Soon there were others. The culprit would turn out to be dog food poisoned with antifreeze, but for weeks it was a mystery. Miguelito and I drew chalk outlines of dog corpses all throughout the neighborhood and posted handwritten flyers warning about the killer and asking for “awareness” and “love” in the matter of canine cruelty. Then I wrote a script and made a film in which Miguelito was a detective in our deceased grandfather’s trench coat, looking at a chalk outline, taking notes, interviewing a teenage girl from the block who wore braces. I hadn’t asked my mom if I could borrow her camcorder, but later, when I put the little tape into the playback VHS and showed it to her, she was happy. Sitting there in her jangly copper bracelets, she encouraged me to keep following my creative soul. Point being, a bit of fantasy seemed such a natural part of our lives that I couldn’t really understand Mom’s sudden concern with Grandma and her occasional oddness.
One sweltering afternoon, I brought Miguelito in from the courtyard and got us our usual snack, orange Fanta and chocolate chip cookies. Then I went to the back room to give Grandma a glass of milk, which she drank each day around 3 p.m. The room stank as usual, but I didn’t see Grandma. I thought she might be under the covers, or in the closet, or maybe even under the bed, given her strange habits of late. The last thing I would have guessed was that she had gone out. Grandma never left the apartment without Mom. She had difficulty walking and didn’t even venture to the corner bodega on her own.
Miguelito and I searched the building and our block, and then we returned to the apartment to wait for her. After about an hour, I was worried enough to consider calling our mom, though I was also afraid about what she would say.
Miguelito shrugged. “She’ll be home soon anyway.”
When she got home, she was confused. “What do you mean Grandma is gone?”
“We were playing on the swings,” I said. “When we came back, she wasn’t here.”
Miguelito added quickly, “She wasn’t even on the stoop or something like that, nor in Chihuahua.”
Mother held her hands on her hips, her mouth tightening. She wore a white frilly blouse and dark lipstick. In the evenings, when she worked as a nurse, she wore no makeup. “How long has she been gone?”
“A few hours.”
“A few hours? R—” she stopped herself and adopted a more measured tone. “I told you to watch her. What happened?” Mom pushed her black hair back behind her ears. For a moment it seemed like all the air went out of her; she just collapsed on the couch and sat there, eyes closed. Then she knelt down in front of me and took me by the shoulders. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I don’t know. I thought she’d come back.” I was trying not to cry. I looked to Miguelito then back down.
Mom took a deep breath. “It’s okay. We need to find her.”
She got up and started opening closets, went out into the hall and down to the dingy basement area with its communal washer and dryer; she knocked at neighbors’ apartments. One of the older guys who lived there kept watching us through his cracked front door, the chain still connected. After driving through the neighborhood, going into grocery stores and parks, she was forced to call the police. They stood in our living room awhile, speaking into their shoulder radios, assuring us that they would find her. That evening around 9 p.m., Mom asked the neighbor girl Lucretia to come over so she could drive around some more.
The apartment felt strange without Grandma in it. She’d lived with us since Grandpa died when I was five, and I took her presence for granted the way I took our furniture for granted. But I was young enough to be more excited about her disappearance than worried. Upheaval is always interesting to a kid. Plus, with Lucretia, we were allowed to stay up late watching TV, because she was twenty and couldn’t care less about our bedtime. The thing that really troubled me that night was seeing Mom upset and feeling like I’d let her down. Also I didn’t like the thought of her out there in the dark with a dog murderer on the loose.
It was after midnight when Mom came home with Grandma. We were watching Letterman, the fan was tick-ticking across the room. Despite it being warm, Mom had a gray scarf up to her chin, and she looked tired. Grandma just looked like Grandma—those liquid black, weary eyes, the big dentures when she smiled, the thick black-and-white hair like a matorral. The police had picked her up at the 4H park a few blocks away. Where she’d been before that was anyone’s guess. The important thing was that she was okay, and Mom seemed okay too.
The next day was sunny, and the open windows brought smells of manzanilla and flowers. The neighbors below us had the radio on loud despite the early hour. Mom sat us down at the kitchen table to talk about Grandma. She held a coffee mug, cupping it with both hands. On the corner of the table was a small pile of translated books she’d brought home from work. She explained that Grandma had experienced a “fugue,” the consequence of a disease called Alzheimer’s.
“According to the doctor,” she said, “a fugue is like losing a sense of where you are. It can make you want to wander away from home.” She rolled the mug in her hands. "Do you have any questions?”
Why did she not put Grandma in a home? It didn’t occur to me to ask, but surely it was too expensive, and perhaps she wanted to keep our small family together, that or maybe Grandma wasn’t ready. I watched Miguelito mouth the word “azzhayma” to himself.
“I’m sorry that I put so much on you, R.,” she said. “I’m looking for help. But until I find someone, we need to make sure Grandma stays in the apartment. Not even the yard, yeah?”
For a moment I could only look at the colored spines of her books gathered at the edge of the table. Then I glanced up and said, “Yes, mama. Sí.” What else could I say? That it was more responsibility than I wanted?
That evening, after Mom had left for the hospital in her scrubs, Miguelito and I sat on the couch watching cartoons while Grandma bent over an issue of People Español at the kitchen table, a small mound of piñon shells gathering before her. The light in there was even dimmer than usual; a bulb had burned out, and no one had noticed.
“Are you okay, Abuelita?” I called to her
A half wall separated the kitchen and living room, and I kept an eye on her. Sometimes she stared off into the distance, though she wasn’t facing the window. Other times she leaned into her magazine, whispering to herself and nodding. She moved the plant on the table, putting it next to her and then farther away, back and forth. These were the sorts of things we were used to, but now that I was supposed to monitor her more closely, they made me feel hemmed in, unable to enjoy the show with Miguelito.
In the days that followed, though, we started to discover there were certain behaviors that we could take advantage of. If we gave Grandma a teddy bear while she was watching TV, she no longer cared if we changed the channel. Sometimes she would stand in the shower stall fully dressed, with the water off; if we told her to stay there, she would, buying us enough time to sneak down to the stoop to visit with the neighbor kids, who caught us up on the latest rumors about the dog murderer. “Vamos Abuelita,” Miguelito would say, taking her by the hand and guiding her to the bathroom.
Did we feel bad about this? Yes and no. In our logic it was part of the game, or part of the world the way we could arrange it.
About a week later, Lucretia was back. Mom couldn’t find anyone else. Lucretia was about to start her last year at the university and needed the money. This time, she seemed more serious, less relaxed than that previous night. On the first day, she arrived wearing gray jogging shorts over her massive hips, a gray cut-off sweater, and a bandana on her head. As soon as Mom was gone, she told us to “put away all this chingadera,” signaling our mess of toys, and to be quiet. Then she made herself busy around the house, as if she were properly in charge now: drying dishes, organizing Grandma’s magazines, watering our houseplant, leaving in her wake an overpowering scent of perfume and hairspray that made our small apartment feel even smaller. She was solicitous with Grandma—pouring her milk, taking her arm as she moved around the apartment—but impatient with Miguelito and me. She even tried to deny us our Fanta and cookies, saying it was an unhealthy snack, which burned more for the hypocrisy.
Eventually I convinced her to take a break and watch my video about the dog murders.
“You made this?” she said, putting her hands on those hips.
“We did.” I nodded to Miguelito. “The two of us.”
When she had nothing else to say, I asked her what she thought. She was running the feather duster over the bookshelf in the living room.
“You really want to know?” she said, smiling, and then asserted that it lacked the fundamental qualities of real cinema, and told me I should maybe check out some Godard.
She just rolled her eyes, let out an exasperated breath.
I took Miguelito outside, and we sat under the Cottonwood in the garden where two of the neighbor boys liked to box, though no one was there now, the heat surely having driven everyone inside. I proceeded to rip Lucretia apart—her fat ass, her dumb outfit stolen from some ghetto hip hop video, her rotten fruit smell, her habit of chewing with her mouth open. At first Miguelito was surprised, but then he began to laugh, egging me on. It felt good having him cracking up, there under the tree’s shade.
By the end of that first day, we were calling her Culo de Pera behind her back.
A week later, Culo de Pera was at the kitchen table with Grandma drinking manzanilla tea with the radio on low, bragging about “college life”. Grandma responded with the occasional “bien.” Eventually Grandma got up and drifted to the living room where Miguelito and I were playing cards. She did her dentures thing, taking them out and popping them back in, then went down the short hall to the bathroom. Culo came into the room and made a face before trailing Grandma into the bathroom.
Then Culo came out alone. “She’s standing in the shower.”
“She does that,” I said.
Culo walked back down the hall and peeked through the bathroom door, which was ajar, waiting to see what Grandma would do next.
Soon Culo came back into the living room. “Go play outside,” she said. “I’m going to take a five-minute power siesta.”
A half-hour later when we came back in for our snacks, she was still on the sofa, snoring, the hood of her sweater pulled up against her eyes. She soon woke up and prepared another manzanilla tea for herself, humming along to the radio. Then she sat on the couch and called her boyfriend. I heard something about Tucson and worried that she was making a long-distance call. I knew they were expensive because Mom rarely called her sister in Texas.
It wasn’t until just before Mom was supposed to get home that Culo went into the bathroom, took Grandma by the hand, and brought her back to the couch.
As the summer wore on, the heat and the monotony of it, my annoyance with Culo grew. Though I’d once felt galled at having to look after Grandma, I now missed being in charge when Mom wasn’t around, the sense of moving in a relatively self-defined space. I began to feel more emboldened, reasserting myself by breaking Culo’s nitpicky rules, turning Miguelito even more against her. But something darker was itching at me; it scared me, and yet, I knew I would scratch it.
One afternoon in August, she left Grandma in the shower stall. By then it had become almost routine. Sometimes I’d walk by the door to the bathroom, that strong scent of mildew and stagnancy rising, and peek at her. I longed to tell Mom, but of course Grandma in the stall also meant more freedom for Miguelito and me. On this particular day, Culo had caught Miguelito enacting a lurid sex scene with the Ninja Turtles. And after yelling at us, she had taken them away, leaving him in tears. When I protested, she ordered us to take timeouts in separate rooms. Later, after she left Grandma in the shower and fell asleep on the couch, I ventured into the bathroom with a clear idea. I opened the shower door.
“Grandma,” I said, “you have to go outside now.”
I went back to my room to play with my other action figures and see what would happen. I didn’t fully consider the possibilities. All I really wanted was to get Culo in trouble.
When Mom got home, Culo met her at the door, trying not to panic. “She was right there a minute ago, te lo juro.”
Mom brushed past her, picked up the phone, and called the police. No preliminary searching around this time. When she hung up, Mom put her hand to her mouth, as if she would yell or cry. Culo was still making excuses, her voice getting high-pitched and as if it would break. Mom looked at her and said something low that I didn’t get.
Culo shouted, “No me chingues,” but then she turned and looked at the wall and said, “I don’t know what happened.”
"Tú no me chingues,” Mom said. “You didn’t do the one thing I asked you to?” I’d never heard Mom curse before.
“I left her in the shower. She likes it there and—”
Mom slapped Culo and told her never to show her sinvergüenza face in our house again. Miguelito held onto my arm, and we took a step back as Culo, flustered and teary, grabbed her backpack and fled. It was more than I’d bargained for, and I felt bad for her, though not bad enough to confess my role in Grandma’s disappearance. Still, there was a horrible tensing of guilt and disappointment in me, like nothing I’d felt before.
Miguelito squeezed my arm again.
Mom picked up her purse and went to the door. “I’m going to look for Grandma,” she said, then let her eyes rest on us for an extended moment. “Try to stay calm, hijos. And I’m sorry you had to see that. I shouldn’t have hit her.”
She came back from the doorway and kissed each of us on the head, which only made me feel worse. Then she was gone.
After Mom left, we remained staring at the door for what felt like a long time. Miguelito let go of my arm then and walked to the window, looking out. It was usually hard for me to tell when he was truly upset. He was the quieter of the two of us. But he seemed shaken. With the void that opened in the living room after all that noise, the slap, Mom huffing out—everything seemed extremely quiet, unsettling. There was the vague pounding of the downstairs neighbor’s music.
I suggested we go sit on the stoop. “We can’t just wait around in here.”
Miguelito turned around and nodded, letting the curtain flap back down.
Outside it was brutally hot, the sun intensifying everything in me like a spotlight. I felt a swirl of fear at waiting, at having to stay here hoping everything was okay and that Mom would find Grandma. At least outside there was movement, traffic, birds, a few kids. The air was already helping me get my bearings, despite its furnace-like edge. Miguelito sat next to me picking at a spot on the concrete steps that was crumbly and cracked.
“We’ll find her, right?” he asked.
I knew I should say something, but I didn’t know what. So, I vaguely nodded, made an unclear gesture with my hand.
The girl with the braces, Lisa, who Miguelito had interviewed in our movie, came walking up pushing a scooter and said, “Hey.” Then she told us there were no new dog deaths, smiling metallic and wide as she knew we’d be thankful for the info. And we were. But also, it was hard to think about anything other than Grandma or the feeling of guilt roiling in me; the flashing sun off a passing car made me think of the police the night they’d come by. I closed my eyes and thought about our film, then about how unreal this moment felt, perching here with Migeulito, like we were filming again, setting up a shot, though this time of ourselves.
I heard the girl ask if I was okay.
I hadn’t realized I was crying, but now I felt how hard it was coming down. Miguelito took my hand again then leaned his head against my shoulder.
My mom would of course find Grandma, though only after hours of searching, at a derelict bus stop in the South Valley. But we didn’t know that yet. Didn’t know we’d be lucky again. I stood up and went inside, not caring if I seemed rude to the girl, or like a cry baby. I clomped up the steps to our third-floor apartment and looked around at the empty living room. Then I walked past the couch and the hall to the bathroom. When my mom finally got home, I’d have stopped crying, but she would find me still sitting in the shower stall, probably clarifying to her all she needed to know.