Because I was with her nearly every day, I stored more love in my heart for Gracie than I did for my own grandmothers. Her living room, and often her kitchen, was a refuge to me when things got crazy at home which was often. Like the day my middle oldest brother hurled a fan at one of my other brothers. It yanked the outlet cover and the metal box behind it out of the wall as it sailed across the room.
My mother squeezed the sides of her head. “Call your father at work,” she said, her voice all quivery. “Tell him the boys have gone wild. Again.”
I did what I always did. Dialed the number for time and acted like I was talking to Dottie, my dad’s secretary.
We had fans instead of air-conditioning. Because Dad was cheap. That’s what Mom said. I didn’t mind too much except when bedtime rolled around and the soaking sponge of humidity would squish me flat against my pillow and steal my breath.
“Come on in, Pet,” Gracie’d said as she opened the door on Flying Fan day. “Things rough at your place?”
I said yes, even though I’d just had lunch, the usual—a fluffer nutter sandwich, Charles’s Chips, an apple from my other next door neighbor's tree, and Kool-Aid made with half a cup a sugar instead of a whole. Because like Mom said, Dad was stingy. When I tattled on Mom, Dad told me he was careful with money because his daddy was a banker and also because he’d lived through the Great Depression. He called it being prudent.
“I baked a strawberry rhubarb pie this morning,” Gracie said.
My eyes bugged and my mouth watered. Behind my jean short waistband, my lunch moved over to make room for more.
I rubbed my hands together and grinned. “Oh, boy!”
In the living room, Gracie clicked on the TV and while we waited for it to warm up she reached inside Dicky Bird’s cage, her hand in the shape of a pistol. Dicky daintily transferred himself from his perch to her pointer finger.
“Do you want him on your shoulder or hand?” she said.
I held out my finger.
“You tell him everything, Pet,” she said. “Talk to him as long as you want, long as you need. I’ll be back with your pie in a jiffy.”
I was licking my plate when Big Mac came in. His face brightened when he saw me. I stood carefully so as not to panic Dicky Bird. I tucked him in his cage but left the door open so he could come and go. Gracie’d trained him to only do his business on the newspaper that lined his house.
I ran to Mac and inspected him head to toe. He worked at a meat packing plant and I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any yuck on him before I strapped my arms around his waist and squeezed. That day, finding him blood and guts-free, I launched myself at him. I knew he’d swing me around in a circle so I wound my legs around his so they wouldn’t fly out and knock my TV tray over.
“I brought you something,” he said after he set me down.
I grinned and clapped. Stuck a finger in my mouth and nibbled a cuticle in anticipation.
He held his fists, big as beefsteak tomatoes, in front of me.
“Put out your hands and close your eyes and I will give you a big surprise.”
I felt something heavy and smooth in my palms and when I opened my eyes, I saw two objects that resembled shiny silver fingers.
I squinted up at him. “What are they?”
“They’re magnets. You see, when one of the guys thinks a cow swallowed a nail, he’ll drop one of these down its throat. It’ll attach itself to the object in the digestive tract and the animal will . . . You know . . .”
My face broke open. “Poop it out?”
Mr. Mac studied his workboots, then the ceiling. “Yes. Exactly.”
"That is so cool! Wait until my brothers hear this!" Off I ran.