(For Grandma Linda)
The contents of the ashtray were nearly spilling over onto the stained and speckled counter-top as he flicked more ash on top of it all. The counter was cluttered with advertisements and phone books and dirty cups and pouches of tobacco and pens and beer bottles and paper towel rolls and the smoke he breathed out. It was a mess, as most things seemed to be. He looked it all over, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. He picked up his cellphone.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hey, grandma, it’s Andy.”
“Oh, well, happy birthday, honey.”
“Sorry I missed your call. I was at work.”
She coughed a sound like train wheels on a serrated track, intense.
“’Scuse me,” she said. “What are you doing for your birthday?”
“Probably not much. I haven’t decided yet.”
“How many are you now?”
“Oh, 21.” She was quiet for a moment. “My, 21 years old. You aren’t gonna go out and be silly, are you? You don’t wanna get into more trouble with the alcohol.”
“I’m not going to drink. I’ve already told all my friends.”
He took a good, strong pull on his beer.
“Well, good,” she said. “You can still celebrate without doing all that nasty stuff.”
She rasped again and took a long drawl on her oxygen tank as he took his own drawl on the cigarette. His face slacked a bit, and he rubbed his temple.
“How’ve you been feeling?” he said.
“Better. I got out of the hospital about a week ago. I’ve been there too much the past few years.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Mom called me earlier today,” he finally said. “She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. She doesn’t have a very pretty voice.”
He laughed a little and so did she, then came more coughs. He took another pull on the beer and gave her a chance to catch her breath. He rubbed his eyes a bit. A little smoke had gotten caught under his glasses and made his eyes water.
“Well,” she said, “I normally sing, but I didn’t think I should…this time.”
“It’s ok. I’ll be home in a few weeks.”
“Ok, you’ll be home the 15th?”
“Ok, well, I’ll see you then, baby. I love you.”
“I love you, too. You better sing to me when I come home.”
“Ok, that sounds nice.”
She hung up. He dropped the phone on the counter amongst the rest of the shit. He took a long drag then stubbed the cigarette out. He coughed a little, a sound like a small wheelbarrow being dragged sideways over gravel, not too intense, but intense enough. He took a gulp of beer and lowered his head towards the filth on the counter. It hung there for a while. He rubbed his again-watering eyes, though there was no smoke this time.
Taylor Wood was born in 1991 and has lived in Indiana most of his life. As if all that isn’t enough to make him completely unappealing, he is a borderline gum-diseased ginger and has a potential beer belly at the age of 21. Wood has somehow managed to get short stories published in Evergreen Review, IUPUI’s Genesis, and Pif Magazine. He is currently working as a professional dishwasher and less than mediocre English major at Indiana University.