“Meet me at the Red Lobster.”
I looked at the clock; it was just after five. I brushed my hair and teeth, put on clean underwear. There was a half-empty glass of orange juice in the kitchen sink. I swigged it. My jaw clenched: Tropicana and Colgate.
It was pitch dark out. I picked my way through the knee-deep snow to my car, sat with my hands in front of the heater until the window defrosted enough to see out. I drove to the Red Lobster.
We parked driver’s door to driver’s door. I gnawed at my lower lip, wished I hadn’t lost the lip gloss I’d almost got caught shoplifting from the CVS last weekend. Strawberry. I asked, “Did you bring it?”
Of course he brought it. He was younger and thinner than I thought he would be. A little bit handsome with his curly hair and bushy beard. I reached out, he reached out, my hand like ice and his like fire. Then it was in my hand, solid and slick and heavier than I remembered it.
I held it up to the dome light. Not a scratch on it. I shook it, waited for the bubbles to settle. I closed my eyes and thought, Tonight? It replied, Ask again later. I set it carefully on the seat next to me, resisting the urge to buckle it in.
“Money,” he said. I handed him a new fifty-dollar bill. He handed back a crumpled ten. “You know you can walk in there and get a one new for like eight bucks, yeah?” He lifted his chin in the direction of of the Wal-Mart, the parking lot flooded with orange light.
“Vintage,” I replied.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and drove away.
Visiting hours didn’t start til nine thirty, so I went to Denny’s and spent the ten on a Grand Slam, extra bacon, and black coffee. In the booth under the fluorescents, I slipped it out and asked, Tonight? The blue liquid slid away. Cannot predict now.
“You’re here!” Gramma smiled. She was full of tubes and wires. “Sit, sit,” she insisted, patting the edge of the narrow bed with her thin fingers.
Gramma asked about work (I’d gotten laid off two weeks ago), about the kids (DJ and Iris had moved in with their dad), about Donnie (he sent the divorce papers through a messenger). I showed Gramma my teeth and said everything was great. She fussed over the condition of my hair (frizzy) and skin (blotchy) and nails (ragged). After that, we watched The Price Is Right.
After Gramma had her lunch, it was time for meds. Gramma slept. I ate some stale cashews I found in the bottom of her purse, and then the watery applesauce she hadn’t finished. Gramma snored. She looked smaller, weaker. The doctor said a month at most.
I pulled it from my purse and asked, Tonight? I flipped it upside down and back again, slow. Concentrate and ask again. I did, my eyes squeezed shut. Better not tell you now.
“Tease,” I told it, and Gramma woke.
Dinner was freezer-burned fish sticks and green beans alone at the kitchen table. I finished the wine last night. I got out the checkbook and the stack of bills and the folded up want ads. I called Donnie’s. Iris made the Dean’s List. DJ got in a fist fight in gym and had a split lip.
“Can I talk to him?”
Donnie said, “He’s not here.”
It sure sounded like him in the background. “Iris?”
“Make DJ put frozen peas on that lip,” I said. Donnie hung up.
I shouldn’t have spent forty bucks on it, but it wasn’t just a Magic 8 Ball. It was the Magic 8 Ball, the one that I couldn’t find when we cleaned out Papa’s house, the one that went up for auction with the cars and the furniture and the gold-plated silverware, the whole shebang bought by some guy from down in Watkins. It took some sleuthing to find him, the thin kid with the bushy beard. And it took him so long to find it, wrapped in newspaper in a box full of stuff from Papa’s office, I nearly gave it up for lost.
In the picture, I’m on Papa’s knee, he’s holding the Magic 8 Ball, and we’re both looking at it hard, willing it to give us the just-right answer we need. And it did, that day and every day after. It told Papa It is decidedly so, and sure enough the very next day Uncle Karl came home from the war in one piece. That was what Papa asked it, that first time, the ball fresh out of the box on Christmas morning: Is my son coming home alive? It is decidedly so.
It was a joke to the rest of them, but not to Papa and me. Gramma tried to toss it, once, and that was the only time I heard him raise his voice to her.
Should I sell the farm? No. Papa waited a year, til the ball said, Yes, definitely, and sold it for twice that first offer. Will Carly have a baby? You may rely on it. A little girl, nine months later. Will the Bills make the playoffs? Outlook good. A well-timed bet turned into steak dinners for the whole family. Should Dick take the job? My reply is no. Eleven miners died in the cave-in.
When I found out I was pregnant with DJ, I asked, Should I marry Donnie? My sources say no. I should have listened.
I woke with a crick in my neck and the electric bill stuck to my cheek. I looked at the clock; it was just before midnight. I picked up the ball, squeezed the hard plastic to my chest. Tonight? Reply hazy, try again. I can wait.