Counting Cars

The highway is slow. It’s morning. Blue cars first. Two blue cars pass by the window.

Grandpa has lung cancer. They told us he won’t make it long and we came to say our goodbyes. 

“God dammit,” grandpa says. He cannot reach the gurney remote. My mom pushes it closer to him. 

Another blue car passes. The window looks over the backside of the hospital, on roads that lead out of the city. There is nothing better to do than count the cars. Blue cars first because it is my favorite color. We have been here for an hour.

“Hey Balboa,” grandpa calls. Balboa means me. Another blue car passes. My mother leads me from the chair where I had perched watching the highway and sets me at grandpa’s feet like an offering of appeasement. “Come here, Balboa,” grandpa’s voice is rust and cigarettes. “Yeah,” he says because there isn’t much more to say. I slide off the hospital bed and back to the window. He doesn’t know my name.

Yellow cars this time. One yellow car passes the window. The nurse arrives and takes grandpa’s temperature and then his blood pressure. His eyelids sag and my mother verges on tears. My sisters, all three, are piled on the patient room couch. The youngest colors grandpa into potato skins and misshapen wrist watches. The others are silent. 

“I will get him some water,” the nurse tells my mother.  My mother nods a quiet affirmation and pushes the gurney remote a little closer. Grandpa reaches out and grabs it with a hand that shakes like a carnival game claw. With a button press his bed tips backward until he can’t see us any longer. He sleeps. His dreams are loud and teach us new words. I am told to cover my ears.

My mother holds my youngest sister to the nurse’s whiteboard. They read the words together in English first. 

Date: Tuesday 

Today’s plan: hydration, comfort, pain management is our goal

A series of faces from sad to happy stretch over the board. The nurse previously circled ‘6’, a mild frown that describes my grandpa well. 

Discharge plan: blank

Six yellow cars in total. It is most likely a coincidence. 

Green cars now. I count three to start; perhaps this will be a new record? My mother finishes reading the board, but my sister is not finished yet. There is more to read. In parenthesis, the board content is written in Spanish. Mother begins again.

Fecha: Tuesday

El plan para hoy: hydration, comfort, el control de–

Grandpa awakes louder than his dreams.

“The girl doesn’t need to hear that garbled shit. I mean, for God’s sake what are you trying to teach her here?” 

Three more green cars. Our minivan is green. Grandpa starts to cough, and he hurls himself into a fetal clutch at the center of his bed. My mother lowers my sister and whispers something in her ear about grandpa “not being himself”. 

By request, we call my grandpa pappy because grandpa is not endearing enough. Two more green cars. A new record. Pappy sounds like papi, but I doubt grandpa ever thinks of that.

Orange cars now. It’s October, so I try. Zero orange cars.

Silver cars are next. There are too many to count. I try to keep up, but I lose track on my fingers. I get a notepad and begin to tally. Before we came to the hospital, my mother made me draw a picture and sign a card. She asked me to draw a picture of a good memory with grandpa. It took me awhile to think of one. Eventually the time he fell into the pool on Fourth of July came to mind. I remember he was funny wet. He soaked pink, a perfect picture of Moby Dick’s uvula. This is before he had lung cancer; this is when he had weight. Now, we could start a fire with his bones. One-hundred silver cars. So much for green. 

It is afternoon. Grandpa snores and my mother rubs his back. The notepad page spills over with tallies. Four hundred and seventy-two silver cars. I am bored again. 

No purple cars, but I won’t give up. Mother had bruises when grandpa was not so sick. She bumped into open cabinet doors. She fell down the stairs occasionally. She didn’t want to come today, but she came. It is moral she says. It is the ethics of family. Surfacing blood should be no deterrent when family calls. Drop everything. Forget everything. Forget the bruises and the drunken nights. Forget the ‘9-1-1′ call that failed to connect and the constant unknowing. Forget the hopefully mistaken lineage and the secret wish for the crows to come in the night. Forget it all because death makes daughters of monsters. It is family law. 

I cannot remember ever seeing a completely brown car. A lady walks through the door in a hurry. She has trash bags over her shoulder. 

“Hello,” she says. “I am Rosie from housekeeping.” Rosie moves quickly and changes a trash can liner then repeats the process in the restroom. “Don’t mind me.” She sings the syllables at the end of each word. “I will be out in a moment.” Rosie leaves and returns with a mop. She wipes beneath grandpa’s bed without waking him up, holds a hushed finger to her lips and smiles. My sisters smile with her. No brown cars still. With a bend of her knees, Rosie is face to face with my sisters. She digs plastic wrapped peppermints from her uniform pocket and drops one in each of their hands. “Such cute kids. How old?” she asks. My mother does not answer because grandpa is awake.

“Get out of my room,” grandpa growls “Get out, you wetback nanny.” Rosie’s smile evaporates and the peppermints are sour. 

“Please, just go,” my mother says. She goes. One brown car.

It’s nearly night now and my mother’s eyes are bloodshot. Grandpa is awake and delirious. I can barely see out the window, but the highway is busier than ever before. White cars I decide. Everything in the hospital is white. The walls are clean, even cleaner since Rosie’s visit. The floors are white too. Grandpa’s sheets are soiled. He wet himself. My mother is on her knees praying at the bedside. She cries. Grandpa’s eyelids flutter and he curses at his daughter for tears. Four white cars I think–maybe five. I fetch a flashlight from my mother’s purse and press it against the window. It does not help. I almost give in, but the street lamps awaken grandpa’s moans. 

Red cars. Grandpa moans and moans. In the light of the dark, every car is a hue of red, a single monotonous blur. I try and count, but it is impossible. I draw an ‘8’ in my notepad and flip it on its side. Infinite red. 

Grandpa gurgles something. My mother leans closer to hear him and he snatches her hair in his fist. She lets him. The red of the street is fast and burning. I close my eyes and I can still see the red silhouette of blinking circles wading in the shallows. Grandpa’s back arches, the weight of my mother’s head beneath his palm. His teeth clench and he drifts an inch only to skid down the gurney. He burns out like a screeching tire scraping the road, explodes in fumes of poisonous smoke. 

With a deep breath, my mother raises her head. A sprig of hair is still entangled in grandpa’s fingers. Her eyes are ecstasy. A trickle of blood slips down her forehead like a lifelong sweat her body finally exhausted.

I see one black car beneath the window. It drives to the doors of the hospital. Grandpa’s bed is empty and has been for hours now. The highway is slow. It is morning.

My mother stands beside me at the window. My sisters sleep on the patient’s couch. “It’s a hearse,” she says. “It is here to take grandpa away.”

We watch the hearse exit onto the highway. We wait until it is out of sight. My mother had been holding her breath and I feel the years pass over my neck. 

I scribble onto the notepad with a single stroke: one black car. 



Michael Reed is an English teacher from Las Vegas, Nevada. He loves his wife and three children and is incredibly grateful for their patience and near-perfect dad joke resilience.