Mom called last night to say that when she and my brother went to Good Sam’s yesterday, they found Grandpa John totally naked in the bathroom, his butt basically stuck in the toilet seat, unable to get up, and it was a good thing my brother was with her, Mom said, because dealing with her father when he’s naked is one thing she just can’t bring herself to do. “I can’t deal with his penis,” she said. I told her that I understood, which I do, as often, in recent years, when I’ve been in the position of having to deal with his penis myself, I’ve thought the very same thing, viz., “I can’t deal with his penis.” Mom said that she went into the other room — Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — while my brother and a nurse hoisted him from the toilet seat, cleaned him up, and got him dressed. Mom was trying not to cry while describing this scene to me, I could tell; I believe Mom fears crying while talking on the phone with me, worried that if she were to cry, I might get annoyed. Apparently, I am content allowing her to believe that I would get annoyed were she to cry, so she doesn’t. When Grandpa John dies, a death which his GP has suggested is now imminent, I have no doubt that Mom will cry while relating the news to me, but it remains to be seen whether I will or will not get annoyed.
Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time at Good Sam’s with Grandpa John. A primary topic of discussion has been Grandpa John’s so-called itch.
“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I’ve often asked him.
“Not good,” he’s often replied. “It’s this damn itch again.”
We’ve taken him to several doctors to see what can be done about the itch. When the doctor asks Grandpa John to describe his symptoms, Grandpa John replies thus: “I itch!” And when the doctor asks him to elaborate, thus: “Everywhere! All the time!”
We took him to a dermatologist who told us we ought to see a neurologist. We took him to a neurologist who told us we ought to see a dermatologist.
Grandpa John’s GP finally told me there’s no reason he should be so itchy all the time. She pulled me aside in the exam room to say, “I’m convinced that the itchiness is all in his head. You might consider taking him to see a psychologist.”
“A psychologist!” Grandpa John said, riding shotgun in the minivan on the drive from the GP’s back to Good Sam’s. “But it’s an itch!”
“I’m just telling you what the doctor told me.”
“Do you know what doctors do? Evan, do you know what doctors do?”
“You’re goddamn right they practice,” he said. “And that’s all they do.”
I suggested that maybe we should give the topical route another go, maybe stop off at Walmart and try to find something there, as none of the various pills he’d been prescribed had seemed to have any effect on curbing the itch.
In the Walmart parking lot, Grandpa John turned to regard me with his amber fit-over sunglasses. “I’ll wait here,” he said. He fished in his wallet, handed me a one-dollar bill.
“Generic, then. Travel size. Good. We’ll see how it works and go from there.”
In his lenses my reflection remained still for a long moment. He fished in his wallet again, pulled out a hundred. “Don’t bring back any change.”
Standing shirtless in his kitchenette later that afternoon, with his arms raised as high as he could get them, Grandpa John said, “You’ve got to get the whole back. And get it low. Yes, like that. Get it lower. Here.” He unbuckled his belt, pulled his pants and underwear all the way down. “Get the cheeks. Get all over the cheeks and then hit the tops of the legs, the fronts and the backs. Get everywhere. And get the crack. Get it good. Yes, like that. Use the whole bottle, we’ve got ten more. We’re going to snuff out this itch if it’s the last thing we do.”
“Grandpa John told me you cured the itch,” Mom said to me on the phone that night. “I can’t believe it. All those doctors! What’s this special itch ointment you found? He said it was expensive.”
“Johnson’s Baby Oil. I bought a hundred dollars’ worth. No itch-relieving properties whatsoever.”
“I don’t understand,” Mom said.
“I think he just wants to be touched.”
“He’s already got me penciled in for an hour and a half tomorrow, between church and poker.”
“Gosh,” Mom said, struggling to suppress a laugh, “it must be hell getting old, right?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Nude massage sounds pretty good to me.”
“Evan, I appreciate you so much. And so does he. And so does the itch, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “The itch.”
On the days I drive over to Good Sam’s I always take a few minutes to come up with a list of things to talk about to which I can later refer while Grandpa John sits in his reclining chair staring at me blankly. Driving over earlier today — the A/C on full blast, fending off yet another sweltering New Mexican early-November afternoon — I considered the possibility of discussing the Republicans’ foreboding sweep of the midterm elections; my predictions for the upcoming Panthers-Eagles Monday Night Football game; my son’s lack of progress at piano; my daughter’s enrollment in hip-hop dance class; the Yankees’ qualifying offer to D-Rob and the likelihood that he would turn it down; the comical nature of our family’s recent trip to the annual Renaissance Faire; the comical nature of our family’s continued failures to housebreak our new puppy; and, if Grandpa John seemed up for it, Mom’s newly established plan for moving him from his assisted-living place at Good Sam’s over to long-term care at a local nursing home called The Aristocrat. My mental list of conversational possibilities would generally consist of even more items, maybe a dozen or so, but my son and daughter, who’d agreed to accompany me to Good Sam’s this afternoon, would serve, I hoped, as they had during past visits, as readily available means of conversational diversion were things to get silent and awkward between Grandpa John and me, or, were Grandpa John in an especially bad mood — were things to get combative between us, as they occasionally do — as conversational wedges, conversational shields.
“So,” I asked the kids, lowering the driver’s side visor to spare my eyes the afternoon sun’s harsh glare, “what are you guys going to talk about with Grandpa John?”
“Probably politics and stuff,” my son said.
“Probably just football and stuff,” my daughter said.
“Not good. Instead, I should like for you,” I said to my son, “to talk to him about stuff besides politics, because I’ve already decided that I’m going to talk to him about politics, especially about the midterm election results, and, besides, you don’t really know anything about politics. And you,” I said to my daughter, “I want you to talk to him about something besides football, because everybody knows you hate football, and because I’ve already got some stuff planned to talk to him about, about football.”
“So what should we talk to him about then?” my son asked.
“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “what should we talk to him about then?”
“What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying,” I said. “Try to come up with stuff about what it’s like to be a kid, to encourage Grandpa John to conjure up images from his childhood and reflect on them with feelings of satisfaction and contentment about a life lived completely. Maybe think about something that happened recently on the playground at school, or in the cafeteria, or in the classroom, or at PE or something. Poignant interactions with other kids, your frustration with curricular requirements, the developmental travails of prepubescence. Something you did that got you in trouble. I know Grandpa John used to get in all sorts of trouble when he was a kid.”
“He did?” my daughter asked. “Like what sort of trouble?”
“Yeah,” my son asked, “what sorts of things did Grandpa John do to get into trouble when he was kid?”
“Talking in class, forgetting his backpack at home,” I said. “Not taking the puppy for long enough walks in the evening.”
“What kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?” my daughter asked.
“Yeah,” my son asked, “what kind of puppy did Grandpa John have when he was a kid?”
“I don’t remember. Maybe a Yorkshire terrier?”
“A Yorkie? You mean like Bucky?”
“That’s right. His puppy was the exact same breed as Bucky.”
“Cool,” my son said.
“Yeah,” my daughter said, “cool.”
“Not so cool, actually. If I remember correctly, Grandpa John’s Yorkie died at a very young age. Nobody ever took it for long enough walks in the evenings so its muscles atrophied and it just sort of withered away. Please don’t mention that to Grandpa John, though. I know he’s worked hard to forget it.”
A stoplight ahead of us turned red. I decelerated, bringing the minivan to a halt. None of us spoke for the duration of the red light.
After we’d started moving again, my daughter said, solemnly, “I’m going to take Bucky for a really long walk tonight.”
I scanned the rearview mirror to find that my son’s face had flushed red. “Dad,” he said, also solemnly, “I think we ought to take Bucky on a really long walk tonight.”
the old man and the outhouse
(as recently narrated to me, for the umpteenth time, by Grandpa John)
Can’t remember who he was, some old geezer from the neighborhood. I’m ten, see, eleven, still in my short pants. The old man’s trudging up the hill to the outhouse on his way to take his morning dump, newspaper in one hand, roll of tissue paper in the other. And I’m in the mulberry bushes with my buddies, see, watching, hiding out. And then I says to them, after the old man shuts the door behind him, I says to my buddies, real quiet-like, “OK, boys, now let’s tip the shit house over with the old man inside.”
Did Grandpa John have a dog as a kid? The image I have of Grandpa John’s father, given the former’s disturbing tales of abuse suffered at the latter’s hand, the intensity and immediacy of which has always been compounded by Grandpa John’s fondness for the historical present, does not at all jibe with the image of a yapping puppy running around the house. I guess I could imagine them owning a Doberman pinscher or a pit bull, maybe a German shepherd. I suspect that Grandpa John became a serious dog person only later in life, after his wife, my grandmother, the mortally emphysemic Grandma Blanche, died. While Grandpa John is not the type of man to admit of such a correlation — I can’t hear him saying, “Daily cuddles with this shih tzu eases the pain and anxiety associated with the unfortunate early passing of the love of my life” — it seemed obvious enough: during the twenty or so years intervening between Grandma Blanche’s death and Grandpa John’s matriculation at Good Sam’s, he was to be found without a canine cuddling companion for never more than a few days, that being the amount of time it took to have someone come in and dispose of the old dog’s dead body and then have someone else come in with an assortment of new puppies from which Grandpa John would proceed to make an unceremonious and often ill-advised selection.
What you guys should do is try to think of stuff to talk about that’s going to make Grandpa John feel better about dying.
No pets allowed at Good Sam’s, however. With Grandpa John’s escalating depression and his fondness for super cute dogs near to our minds, we decided, a couple of weeks back — associating Grandpa John’s contentedness, even Grandpa John’s happiness, with Grandpa John’s proximity to a real puppy’s wet nose and a real puppy’s rough tongue and a real puppy’s real soft puppy fur, as opposed to these things’ mere photographic representation all over the walls of Grandpa John’s bedroom / dining room / living room — to smuggle our new puppy into Grandpa John’s apartment at Good Sam’s. But, alas, Bucky’s little contraband nails kept puncturing the heavily bruised, grotesquely translucent, tissue-thin skin on Grandpa John’s hands and arms and cheeks. “Your puppy’s claws and my old-man skin aren’t the best of bedfellows,” Grandpa John said. He sat in his recliner, lesions along his arms oozing dark blood, Band-Aid wrappers strewn across his lap.
“They’re not claws, silly,” my daughter said. “They’re fingernails.”
“They’re not fingernails, stupid,” my son said. “They’re pawnails.”
“Nails, claws, whatever. Words don’t matter,” I said. “What matters is Buck’s tearing the shit out of Grandpa John’s old-man skin. Now, you two, put down your iPads and get him off.”
Grandpa John, bleeding, said, “Buck.” He stroked Bucky’s back, giggling.
“That’s right,” I said. “Buck. We named him after you.”
“No we didn’t,” my son said, playing on his iPad. “You said we named him after Starbuck from Moby-Dick.”
“No we didn’t,” my daughter said, playing on her iPad. “We named him after Starbucks. Dad took me there to get a cake pop right after we got him from the breeder.”
“You got a cake pop?” my son asked, incredulous, looking up from his iPad. “Dad, is that true?”
blind par three
(which often follows “TOMATO” in the manner of a coda)
So me and my buddies, we’re twelve, thirteen, see, and we’re hiding out in some bushes, right beside the green, waiting for a threesome to tee off at the bottom of the hill from where they can’t see the flag. As soon as that last ball hits the green, we all of us scramble to gather them up. They trudge up the hill, the golfers do, take about five minutes searching around for their tee shots. Then somebody thinks to check the hole. The looks of disbelief on those men’s faces, Evan, I’m telling you, their hoots and their hollers. Dancing around the green, hugging each other, kissing. They’re over there crying real tears of joy.
And we’re in those bushes crying a few of our own, too.
While driving over to Good Sam’s this afternoon, we approached a stoplight. Although we were the only car at the intersection, the stoplight still turned red.
“How come we have to go to Grandpa John’s all the time, anyway?”
It used to be that Grandpa John could drive himself around. A few days before Mom’s official revocation of Grandpa John’s driving privileges, the kids and I found ourselves in the harrowing position of having to trail Grandpa John in our minivan as he drove his own car, a Toyota Solara, across town, from Mom’s house all the way back to Good Sam’s. It reminded me of watching my son play a racing video game called Gran Turismo shortly after we first got it for him: dashed white lines on the asphalt signifying nothing, other cars on the road existing not in relation to the lives of humans and human families but only to that of the POV car’s maniacal caprice.
Grandpa John’s driving privilege coup de grace occurred after we pulled up behind him at a red light and the sound of a police cruiser’s siren issued from somewhere beyond the intersection. I suspected that Grandpa John wouldn’t be able to hear it, given the recent debacle involving his $5,000 hearing aids, the result of which was that he’d been left with only the left-ear one. As the police cruiser came into view, I flailed my arms wildly in the minivan and repeatedly mouthed the word no, hoping, I guess, that Grandpa John might look up at his rearview mirror and see me, causing him to pause long enough — curious as to why his grandson was acting the fool in his minivan — to allow the cruiser to pass through the intersection unimpeded. The light turned green; Grandpa John stepped on the gas. The police cruiser’s tires screeched; its front bumper came to rest only inches before the driver’s side of Grandpa John’s car, which continued to slowly, nonchalantly traverse the intersection. Aghast, I looked on as the officer flailed his arms inside the cruiser, as he repeatedly mouthed what I presumed to be the word no. Beyond the cruiser, off in the middle distance, the driver’s side tires of Grandpa John’s slow-moving Solara left a dashed white line in their wake.
“Yeah, how come we always have to go to Grandpa John’s? Why can’t he ever drive over to our house?”
Grandpa John sometimes says to me, “It’s hell getting old.”
“You know what my biggest problem is?” Grandpa John sometimes asks me. “What’s that?” I say. “Old age,” he replies.
“Today the doctor finally gave me some information I can work with,” Grandpa John says to me. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah,” he says to me. “She told me that I’m old.”
“Evan, I have some advice for you,” Grandpa John says to me. “Don’t ever get old.”
“Don’t worry,” I says to Grandpa John. “I won’t.”
I lived with Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche for a summer back in high school. Grandpa John was a senior VP at Waste Management, Inc., and he procured for me summer employment at a local dump.
I recall a torn wrapper from a packet of peanuts lying on the living room floor, Grandma Blanche telling Grandpa John to pick up the wrapper and put it in the trash. “What do I look like to you?” Grandpa John asked, watching televised golf, popping peanuts in his mouth. He wore an immaculate dress shirt, pleated slacks, ribbed socks, sparkling shoes. “You’re a garbage man, John,” Grandma Blanche said. “Do your job.”
When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed. I deposited the bag in the laundry room and raced across the house in my underwear — fearful that Grandpa John would catch a glimpse of my bean-pole figure and make a gibe about it — to the bathroom, where I showered and then sat on the toilet for twenty or more minutes enjoying the bathroom’s cleanliness, its spaciousness, its austerity . . . a far cry from the state of our cramped and often filthy bathroom back home, let alone that of the Porta-Johns at the dump. I would listen expectantly as the soles of Grandpa John’s oxfords tapped toward me from the hallway, as he knocked on the bathroom door to inquire as to whether I’d fallen in, as Grandma Blanche averred that teenagers require privacy of toilet and he really ought to leave me alone.
There was a rumor going around the dump that all of us worked for the mafia. “You mafia?” we’d ask each other, knee-deep in mounds of trash.
I was supposed to be saving up all my paycheck money for college, but I put aside a little each week for a portable CD stereo, which, maybe halfway through the summer, I finally purchased, positioning it on the marble-top dresser well beyond the foot of my bed. In the evenings, after Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche had released me from further familial obligation, I popped Nasty Nas’s groundbreaking Illmatic into the CD player’s tray and kicked back on that glorious California king with my elbows splayed out on either side of my head as it rested comfortably against the bed’s massive mahogany headboard. My hairless legs were crossed, my bare toes wiggled. In the huge gilt-framed mirror hanging above the dresser on the far side of the room, I studied an image of myself rapping along with Nas. Grandpa John’s house in Palm Springs was immense, palatial, nothing at all like his place at Good Sam’s; the guest room was in a whole other wing from where Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche’s bedroom was, so I was afforded the luxury of appreciating Nas at such a volume as Nas was intended to be appreciated: loud. “The World Is Yours” became my anthem. I recall lying on my bed in the guest room, slipping an eager hand beneath the elastic band of my boxer shorts as I watched myself in the mirror — the world was mine. I immersed and projected myself into the music of black culture, spending every weekend afternoon poring over the hip-hop CDs in the music section at the Palm Springs Barnes & Noble, memorizing track listings, taking assiduous note of rappers’ wardrobes — the world was mine. The large metal label on the back pocket of my Karl Kani jeans had scratched the absolute shit out of one of Grandma Blanche’s Windsor armchairs — the world was mine.
A loud banging issued from the other side of the door. Grandpa John entered the guest room, nude, livid. “Turn down the jungle music!” he yelled. His penis looked like a miniature human being.
We watched a movie together, something racy. During a sex scene, Grandma Blanche briefly removed the oxygen mask from her face to ask Grandpa John, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?” She returned the mask to her face; I listened to the cadence of compressed oxygen being released into my grandmother’s lungs. Grandpa John steadied his gaze on her. He replied, “Why don’t you ever make love like that to me?”
When I returned home from work in the evenings, I was not allowed to enter the house until I had stripped down to my skivvies in the garage, placed my reeking work clothes in a trash bag, and cinched it all the way closed.
I remember Grandpa John’s forearms resting on the dining room table, straddling his dinner — as if protecting it from some phantom threat: theft, mice, the swaying of a boat — fork in one hand, knife in the other, or, when not grasping cutlery, his fingers in loose fists, his thumbs pointing ceilingward.
And Grandpa John whiffing a three iron, swearing. Grandpa John repeatedly whiffing a wedge, chipping the ball with his foot.
Grandpa John kneeling in the pew, fingering a rosary, supplicating, trembling, the skin above his socks showing. Grandpa John smelling of Brut cologne, shoe polish, dry cleaning.
Grandpa John muttering curses under his breath while steering Grandma Blanche’s wheelchair up the ramp to the pulmonologist’s.
Grandpa John placing a finger above his left cheek, pulling down the skin, widening his eyes, asking, “Do you see anybody in here who cares?”
The three of us watched Jeopardy! together. Alex Trebek said, “He takes a green group of cowhands, prepares them for the drive, and then leads it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche shouted at the TV, simultaneously, “Who is James Cagney!” Alex Trebek: “He watched the eighteen fourteen bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship and wrote a poem about it.” Grandpa John and Grandma Blanche, simultaneously: “Who is James Cagney!” “The name of this two- or three-toed mammal comes from Middle English for —” “Who is James Cagney!”
Grandpa John awoke at 4 a.m. every morning and set to work at doing the dishes, as Grandma Blanche no longer possessed the strength required to load the dishwasher without breaking stuff. The kitchen was on the other side of the house, and yet, as I lay in the guest room bed vying for more beauty sleep before having to get up and get going to the dump, it was as if the racket Grandpa John made in the kitchen sink was happening in my ear. I now believe that the cleaning of those dirty dishes was Grandpa John’s cross to bear; he was announcing his frustration with the conditions of his life — viz., the unassailable fact of his wife’s imminent death — via an exaggerated clanging of pots and pans.
On my last day of work at the dump, Grandpa John insisted on picking me up, giving me a break from the long bus ride home. He rolled up to the chain link entrance in his DeVille, all the windows rolled down, the back seat plastered in thick plastic sheeting.
My coworkers, eyes bulging, mouths agape, looked on.
“He mafia,” one of them said.
(specially requested on the kids’ birthdays, in hopes they will better appreciate all the good things in their lives)
My old man, that would be your great-grandfather, he says to me, “No way, Buck.” He says, “Buck, you are fifteen years old.” The old man says, “I seen some war myself and it ain’t pretty. No way am I sending a son of mine off to that hell.” But his answer doesn’t go over too well with me, see, so every day I get up out of that bed and I sit down at that table and I have another go at him. “Don’t forget my birthday’s coming up,” I says. “You gotta sign for me.” And every day the old man says back to me, “No way, Buck, I’m not signing it.” But I don’t let it go, no, you bet your ass I don’t. “Ask your mother,” the old man says. Evan, you did not know my mother. If you’d known that woman you’d know there’d be no chance of her ever signing it. So I keep pestering and pestering the old man every day, see, and when my birthday finally rolls around I get out of bed real early and I head over to him with the form and the pen and I says, “Sign it.” The old man looks up at me, it’s the one time in my life I ever seen that man scared. His hands are shaking, like this. The old man looks down at that form, takes up that pen, signs his name to it with tears in his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” he says to me. I grab the form and I run out of that house as fast as I can.
“Yes, it’s true, I got her a cake pop. In fact, I take her there to get cake pops all the time. Whenever you’re not looking, we hop in the car and go to Starbucks for cake pops. Now, I would kindly ask you to get your puppy off your great-grandfather before he skins the old man alive.”
Grandpa John giggled. Bucky sat in his lap chewing on a Band-Aid wrapper.
“Buck’s named after Grandpa John,” I said. “End of story. Another word about it and no screens for a week. Now, Grandpa John, explain to these two rabble-rousers why everybody used to call you Buck.”
Grandpa John dabbed at crimson blood on his arm with a monogrammed hankie, set the hankie down, returned to stroking Bucky’s back. He cleared his throat. “I believe it was on account of my teeth. But then they gave me new teeth in the navy, better teeth. The name stuck.”
“Did you guys hear that? Grandpa John was in the navy. He fought in the Pacific to preserve the freedom and the way of life you two so enjoy today.”
“Thanks, Grandpa,” my daughter said, without looking up from her iPad.
“Dad, can you sign me in?” my son said, handing me his iPad. “Yeah, thanks, Grandpa. It’s a free app, Dad, I swear.”
The first episode of Ken Burns’s 2007 WWII documentary, The War, is entitled “A Necessary War.” Despite having watched this entire documentary three, maybe four, maybe five or six or maybe even seven or eight times — I watch documentaries on my iPhone to help me fall asleep at night — I can remember little of it beyond what the episode titles call to mind. “A Necessary War”: the United States’ entrance into WWII was necessary, unlike so many other wars in which we’ve found ourselves embroiled, because, in the case of WWII . . . but I’m unable to paraphrase Ken Burns’s argument as to why the U.S. involvement in WWII was necessary; I can’t remember it. Although I can, if put to, knowing Ken Burns’s politics as I do, attempt to fudge a summary, with no small confidence in my attempt’s resemblance to Burns’s thesis as I imagine it’s laid out somewhere in the documentary’s first chapter. Thus: Hitler, the persecution of the Jews, to preserve the way of life all of us so enjoy today; contra Vietnam, contra Persian Gulf, contra the so-called War on Terror, wars that involved the U.S.’s largely unnecessary engagement, viz., there was no Hitler involved, there were no millions of Jews being murdered, and, most importantly, there was no actual imminent threat to those many existential comforts afforded the U.S.’s middle and upper classes by means of our country’s hegemonic, globally oppressive late-capitalist regime.
One morning, a couple of weeks back, after a night spent watching and/or sleeping through the first few episodes of The War, I arrived at Good Sam’s eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about his necessary involvement in WWII’s Pacific theater. Upon arriving, I found him asleep in his recliner with his mouth wide open, the TV on full blast, his raucous snores duking it out with exclamatory constatives from obnoxious local TV ads. I have been repeatedly admonished by both Mom and Grandpa John to wake up the latter whenever I arrive at Good Sam’s to find him sleeping, as they believe that the palliative effects of family interaction trump those of beauty sleep for Grandpa John, but, as I consider sleep a precious resource, one that should never be squandered, doing so remains rather difficult for me. My first recourse is to lower the TV volume and sit down on one of Grandpa John’s barstools in his kitchenette, pretend to play with my iPhone, simply wait it out. If only I possess the patience to wait long enough, Grandpa John will eventually wake up, I know; but, despite possessing great patience, as Mom’s often told me I do, I do not possess such patience as to sit contentedly amid the sound of Grandpa John’s sporadic grunting, the sight of his spittled chin, and the stench of his apartment’s moldy carpet for very long. My next recourse is to silently approach sleeping Grandpa John, kneel down beside the recliner, and whisper sweet nothings into whichever of his ears contains a hearing aid. My next recourse is to pat him gently on the leg. My next recourse is to grasp him by the shoulders and gently shake him. My next recourse is to pull his hair, gently. My next recourse is to yell at him, gently, or to gently pluck out one of his few remaining eyebrow hairs. My next recourse is to dispose with all gentility and retrieve from one of the cupboards in his kitchenette a pot and a pan, which was my final recourse on this day, the morning that found me eager to pick Grandpa John’s brain about the U.S.’s necessary involvement in WWII.
Standing above an openmouthed Grandpa John, studying his fake teeth, I clanged the pot and the pan together. He awoke, scanned the room to get his bearings, assuring himself that he was still alive. “Evan,” he said, wiping spittle from his chin, “thanks for waking me up.”
“Not a problem.” I sat down beside him. “So, Grandpa John, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. In my opinion, World War II is the only truly necessary war the U.S. has ever been involved in, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Horseshit!” he replied, spewing saliva in the direction of my mouth.
I placed the pot and pan on the carpet, retrieved a hankie from my pocket, wiped my lips. “What I mean to say is,” I said, “it was necessary for the U.S. to get involved in World War II, in order to preserve the way of life we so enjoy today, in contrast to our engagement in other wars, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, the so-called War on Terror, wars which posed no imminent threat to our way of life. But, in the case of World War II, Hitler was on the march, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, so it was necessary for us to get involved, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You bet your ass it was,” Grandpa John said.
“And so you fought in the Pacific, then?” I said. “At the age of sixteen? And so that’s how you lost your teeth or what?”
Grandpa John did not immediately reply. I’ve often attempted to bait him into telling me about the time he spent, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, fighting in WWII’s Pacific theater. I’m not sure why this interests me as it does. It may be that the details concerning a teenage Grandpa John fighting for his life in the Pacific feel important to me because they contrast so starkly with details concerning my son’s enjoyment of his life: affixing brightly colored plastic interlocking bricks together, depressing buttons on remote controls, gesturing on touch screens. Could it be that I harbor a secret desire to learn of the horror of Grandpa John’s Pacific theater existence if only to project it, in my imagination, onto an imaginary mode of existence suffered by my son, transferring onto my son’s chubby preteen visage the horrors of war as once experienced by Grandpa John, in order to bring tears to my eyes, in order to watch as my son, in my mind, struggles in the face of wartime atrocity to retain some semblance of continued attachment to the peace of mind he so enjoyed back home while playing with his Legos, playing with his PS3, playing with his iPad mini? Yes, it’s true, I am very eager to place my young son’s life in jeopardy, in my mind. Or could it be that I want to know about Grandpa John’s life, to know as much as I can, before he dies? Grandpa John is dying, he’s been dying for some time, but Grandpa John once lived, too, and it’s important that knowledge of his life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind — in mine.
“Maybe the itch really is psychological,” I said, “maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that? Maybe you should tell me about all of those horrible atrocities you witnessed in the Pacific, Grandpa John, and then maybe the itch will finally go away and I won’t have to keep giving you those full-body nude massages all the time.”
“I may be eighty-eight years young, Evan, but I’m not in short pants anymore.” Grandpa John motioned toward the urine- and spaghetti-stained heather sweat pants covering his legs. “Your parenting tricks won’t work on me.”
It could be, also, that I’m eager to hear Grandpa John tell his war stories simply to afford me an opportunity to throw on my narratologist’s cap and study his use of the historical present a bit more. I’ve always been especially attracted by Grandpa John’s manner of narration; while I’ve never considered myself a particularly gifted storyteller, hearing Grandpa John tell his stories evokes in me a hopeful sense that the gifted-storyteller gene yet resides dormant within my genotype, and perhaps the cadences and the colloquialisms and the excessive use of detail associated with Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery will finally trigger the gene’s phenotypical manifestation in me, in my writing, and at long last I will enjoy that role so often fulfilled by Grandpa John over the course of his eighty-eight years — viz., the life of the party — as I will that of the commercially successful novelist whose gruff, vernacular, and largely transparent prose style finds his reader tearing through pages, having fallen inescapably into the world of story.
‘Maybe the itch really is psychological,’ I said, ‘maybe it comes from holding in all that stuff about World War II for all these years, never telling anyone about all the innocent people you killed or whatever, ever think of that?’
“Grandpa John,” I said, “you’re dying, you’ve been dying for some time, but you once lived, too. And it’s important that your life is given an opportunity to live on, at least for a time, in someone’s mind. Ever think of that?”
“In whose,” Grandpa John said, “yours?”
“That’s right,” I said, “in mine. And then I can later transfer memories of your life, as you’ve related them to me, to my kids’ minds, and then they can later transfer those memories to their kids’ minds, and so on, affording you and your memories a kind of immortality. Ever think of that?”
“Here’s what I think,” Grandpa John said. “Let’s cut out the middleman. Bring those kids of yours over here and I’ll tell them my stories myself.”
“Even better,” I said. “To be honest, the itch stuff and the immortality stuff was all a ruse, you’re right. What I really want is for the kids to hear your stories of wartime atrocity and have the shit scared out of them. I want those kids scared straight, Grandpa John. They need to start appreciating all the good things they have in life. And, moreover, I think it’ll be good for my writing to have one last opportunity to carefully scrutinize your use of the historical present.”
Grandpa John asked, “You’re going to do what to me?”
tell carl arenz
(a companion piece to “Happy Birthday,” which I’d heard only dribs and drabs of over the years until a few weeks back when Grandpa John, feeling magnanimous after my curing of his itch, finally agreed to narrate it to me in its entirety)
It’s my sixteenth birthday, see, I already got the form signed by the old man, I’m standing in line at the recruitment office in Ottawa, Illinois. “Army or navy?” the officer asks me. “Marines,” I says to him. He looks me up and down. Back then I was a bean pole, Evan, just like you. “How about we go with navy?” the officer says to me. “That’ll work,” I says to the officer. They put me on a train to boot camp up in
Michigan that same day, I don’t even go home for my things or say good-bye.
(“What?” I says to Grandpa John. “Is that true?”)
You bet your ass it’s true. Six weeks later my mother and the old man show up in Michigan, come by the barracks, but it’s already lights-out so the old man tells me through the window they’ll be back the next afternoon to take me out for a steak dinner. I can see my mother out there weeping, she can barely stand to look me in the eye, she’s got both her hands on the window, moving them around like, trying to get at me through the glass. My folks head on back to the motel. Come morning word arrives we’re shipping out that same day, nobody knows where to. My folks show up to get me
that steak but I’m already long gone. For all they know I’m on my way to France.
(“Are you kidding me?” I says to Grandpa John. “That’s crazy!”)
You’re damn right it’s crazy. From the age of sixteen and one day to the age of nineteen and one day I saw my parents’ faces for exactly two minutes’ time. So now I’m on the train, see, and word is we’re headed to Californy to catch a boat to the Pacific, nobody knows where to, and I’m seeing in my mind my mother standing outside those barracks banging on that window, weeping up a storm, falling to her knees and praying to God, “Don’t let it be true, my baby boy’s headed off to war and I didn’t even kiss him good-bye.” Evan, you did not know my mother. That woman’s heart was bigger than . . . that whole refrigerator there. So I’m on the train a few hours, feeling real sore about it, all tore up inside, crying my eyes out, and then, all of a sudden, I start recognizing places I know, some familiar landmarks out the window. “We’re in Illinois,” I says to myself, “and we’re coming up on Ottawa.” I can’t believe my eyes. We pass through Joliet, Morris, then head down into Streator. You know Streator. The train pulls in at the station to pick up some folks, it’s the dead of night, and I’m home, see, we’re just down the road from Ottawa, but what can I do about it? I’m looking out the window, and right as the train’s fixing to go, I make out in the distance this old hobo strolling through the grass. So I calls out to him, leaning as far out the window as I can, with my hands cupped around my mouth like this, I calls out to the hobo, “You know Carl Arenz?” And he calls out back to me, the hobo does, like this, “Sure I know Carl Arenz, who don’t know Carl Arenz?” See, everybody knew Carl Arenz, even the hoboes, he owned the only automobile dealership for miles around, and he’s also my uncle, see, my mother’s younger brother. So then I calls out to the hobo, like this, “Tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender’s headed to Californy where he’s gonna catch a boat to the Pacific and fight them Japs!” “OK, will do!” the old hobo calls out to me. And then I calls out to him, I calls out to the hobo like this, “And tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender misses his mother!” “OK, you got it, no problem,” the old hobo says, “anything else I can do for you?” So then I calls out to him, right as the train’s pulling away, I’m choking on my tears because I’m headed off to war and I didn’t kiss my mama good-bye, also because I can tell the old hobo’s already four sheets to the wind and he probably won’t remember any of what I’m saying, so I cup my hands around my mouth like this and I calls out to him as loud as I can, in a mean, threatening way, like he’s in big trouble if he don’t do it, like I’m a real soldier, like this. “You better tell Carl Arenz tell his sister John Lavender loves his mother! You better tell that Carl Arenz give his sister my mama a kiss good-bye from her baby boy John Lavender!”
That old hobo’s eyes go real wide. I think he gets the message that time.
(“Grandpa, that’s incredible. That’s amazing!”)
You bet your ass it’s amazing. Now, I want you to guess who’s sitting on that porch rocking in that rocking chair when my mother gets home from Michigan.
My uncle quits his rocking, stands up, and the minute she’s stepped onto that porch he places his hands on his sister’s cheeks, gives her a kiss. “From John,” Carl Arenz says to my mother.
When we finally arrived at Grandpa John’s this afternoon, we found him in his reclining chair, earsplitting shrieks from the TV bouncing between his bedroom / dining room / living room’s four walls, his mouth wide open, his body unmoving. My son and daughter stood before him awhile, heads lowered, arms at their sides, trembling hands precariously holding on to their iPad minis.
“Should we go tell a nurse?” my son finally asked.
“Yeah,” my daughter asked, “shouldn’t we go tell somebody?”
“Guys,” I said, “come on. He’s just not snoring for some reason. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Dad, it’s totally obvious. Look at him. He’s dead.”
“Yeah, Dad, look at him. He’s totally dead.”
He did look very dead, they were right. And yet often I’d arrived at Grandpa John’s to find him thus, absolutely certain of his death until such time as he’d awaken with a start and call out my name, to ask — as I pilfered his drawers for hawkable keepsakes and spare change — why I was going through all his stuff.
I leaned over Grandpa John, listening for his breath, examining his fake teeth. “Sweetie,” I said, extending my hand toward my daughter while training my eyes on Grandpa John’s shriveled uvula, “take your barrette out. I need to borrow it for something.”
“No way,” my daughter replied. “My hair looks fabulous today.”
“Yeah, Dad,” my son said. “Her hair looks really great today.”
“Do you guys still have that dog whistle app on your iPads?”
“But Grandpa John’s human,” my son replied. “He won’t be able to hear it. And even if he could, it wouldn’t matter anyway.”
“Yeah, Dad,” my daughter said, “it wouldn’t even matter. Dead people can’t hear things.”
“He’s still got his hearing aid in.” I pointed toward Grandpa John’s droopy earlobe. “Turn up the volume all the way and position the iPad’s speaker directly against it. I guarantee you that’ll wake him up.”
“From the dead?” my daughter asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
My son flipped the cover from his iPad mini and swiped to unlock. He opened the dog whistle app, placed the iPad mini’s Lightning port against Grandpa John’s ear, fired up the inaudible whistle. After a few seconds, Grandpa John’s eyelids fluttered — and then they opened very wide.
“It’s just like in that book,” my daughter whispered, “with the guy.”
My son whispered, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
“How are you feeling today, Grandpa John?” I asked Grandpa John.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Grandpa John replied.
I shot the kids a knowing glance. They raised their palms and shrugged their shoulders. Grandpa John wiped the spittle from his chin. The kids sat on the floor, crisscross applesauce, positioning their iPad minis in their laps.
“Guys, Grandpa John is more interesting than an iPad,” I said. “How many more chances are you going to have to come over here and socialize with Grandpa John, on the one hand, versus the other hand, the hand which holds not just these iPad minis but which will, doubtless, hold many future-gen iPad minis? There are no next-gen Grandpa Johns on the horizon. Put them up or else. I’m serious.”
The kids grudgingly closed their smart covers. Embarrassed, Grandpa John fake burped. And then he said: “Evan, today’s the day I’m going to tell your kids my war stories.”
“Kids,” I said, turning to the kids, “today’s the day Grandpa John is finally going to tell us his stories of wartime atrocity.” I grabbed the iPads out of the kids’ laps, sat down on the love seat, pulled my pen and notepad out of my pocket, licked my finger. “Grandpa,” I said, “why don’t we start with the story of how you lost your teeth. Do you need some water? Are we good to go here?”
Grandpa John cleared his throat. “The only thing I need, Evan, is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.”
“Yeah,” my son said. “Get the heck out of here, Dad.”
“Dad, out,” my daughter said, “right now. Or else.”
“Grandpa John,” I said, “seriously?”
“Hallway,” Grandpa John said to me. “Right now.”
“Out,” Mom said. “Right now, you two,” by which she meant Grandpa John and me. “I’d like to have a minute alone with her,” by which she meant her mom, Grandma Blanche. “Wait in the hallway,” by which she meant the hallway at the hospital, outside Grandma Blanche’s room.
Grandpa John and I shuffled out. We sat on folding chairs beside the door.
“Don’t you ever smoke,” Grandpa John said to me.
“I won’t,” I replied, pretending to massage that portion of quadriceps beneath the right pocket of my jeans in order to assure myself of the continued presence of my pack of cigarettes.
“Those two women in there,” Grandpa John said, turning to me. “They’re the loves of my life.”
He regarded my slightly askew baseball cap, my XL hoodie, my unlaced Timberlands. His eyes teared up. He patted the leg of my Karl Kani’s, right near where my cigarettes were.
“Those two, plus you,” he said, gripping my hand, “are the three loves of my life.” He squeezed my fingers really hard. “Plus your brother. That makes four.”
I remember sitting in the hospital room after Mom told us it was OK to come back in, receiving eyefuls of the afternoon sun’s harsh rays as they made their way in through gaps in the window blinds. I remember Grandpa John kneeling bedside, fingering a rosary, trembling, supplicating, and I remember Grandma Blanche’s body beneath a long white sheet. I remember her rhythmic, cartoonish jaw movements, like a goldfish breathing.
I remember the window blinds. Crazy knots in the drawstring, bends in the slats, a couple slats missing. I remember Grandpa John getting up to futz around with the blinds’ drawstring, Mom telling him to cut it out or else. As Grandma Blanche inhaled one last time, Grandpa John was still over there at the window trying to coax the mess of slats into place, as if darkness were more amenable to life. After silence greeted Grandma Blanche’s final exhalation, Grandpa John let go of the drawstring. I remember him turning toward us to say, “To hell with it. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”
After returning home from Good Sam’s and eating dinner, the kids suckered me into accompanying them on their walk around the neighborhood with Bucky. We took him all the way to the stop sign at the top of the street, then turned to make our way back home, west — and there was the horizon, and there, atop it, a big fat setting sun, and everywhere a regal New Mexican sky with quilted streaks of lavender, orange, and green.
“Guys,” I said, pointing at the horizon, “there’s no app for that.” I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture. “Eat your heart out, Apple,” I said.
“Yeah, Apple,” the kids said. “Eat it.”
As we began to make our way home, I instructed the kids to relate to me everything that Grandpa John had said that afternoon at Good Sam’s concerning his experience in WWII’s Pacific theater, when I’d stood outside in the hallway with my ear pressed against the door attempting and mostly failing to discern the familiar cadences of Grandpa John’s historical-present narrative delivery.
The only thing I need is for you to get the hell out of this room. I’ll tell these kids my stories on my own.
“No way, Dad,” my son said, zipping up his lips. “Grandpa John told us we had to keep it under lockdown.”
“Yeah,” my daughter said, throwing her arm forward, flicking her fingers. “And he told us to throw away the key.”
Bucky stopped, sniffed at some petrified dog poo, maybe his own. I offered to make the kids a deal. If they would be willing to tell me what Grandpa John told them, then I would be willing take Bucky on his nightly walk, sans their accompaniment, for one week’s time.
“Nope. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Something way better, Dad.”
We continued walking. A quarter or so of the sun left above the horizon, I told the kids that if they told me every last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, then they could have an additional hour of screen time on Saturday of the upcoming weekend.
“Are you kidding? That’s practically nothing!”
“Yeah, that’s not a good deal at all, Dad!”
Bucky stopped to sniff at a discarded condom. I offered the kids a final deal. If they didn’t tell me every single last detail of what Grandpa John had told them, not only would they lose all their screen time for the upcoming weekend, but I would never again, for as long as they and/or Bucky lived, accompany them on their walks around the neighborhood in the evenings.
“OK, fine, we’ll tell you. But are those other deals still on the table?”
“Yeah, we’ll definitely tell you, Dad, but what about those other deals you offered us before?”
We stopped at the top of the driveway. The other deals’ continued validity was contingent upon the narrative quality of the story they must now proceed to relate to me, I told them. We sat down together on the short crumbling rock wall athwart the drive, and what little light remained at the horizon illuminated Bucky’s tiny teeth and the kids’ lips and cheeks and eyes as they proceeded to relate Grandpa John’s story of orthodontic wartime atrocity, culminating in an instance of highly questionable divine intervention, thus:
how grandpa john lost his teeth
(as told to Bucky and me by the kids last night, at the top of the driveway, right as the sun was setting)
So Grandpa John’s job on the boat is to help aim the big gun at the sky and try to shoot stuff down.
Yeah, Grandpa John’s a gunner’s assistant. His job’s to help gun down them Japs.
(“Don’t say Japs, guys. Please call them the Japanese.”)
And he’s out on the ocean in that boat, in the Pacific Ocean, in the ocean near to where the Japanese live, the island of Japan.
Yeah, he’s out on that ocean, Dad, and then all of a sudden these planes start coming in. Bam bam bam bam bam! It’s crazy! There’s planes everywhere. And those planes are shooting at Grandpa John and his friends. Grandpa John is only sixteen years old during this story. That’s barely five years older than me! Isn’t that crazy?
(“That’s totally crazy, yes. I hope that makes you appreciate all the good things you have in life.”)
So everybody’s running around on that deck and everybody thinks they’re going to die.
Yeah, Dad, everybody’s super scared. Everybody thinks they’re totally goners, even Grandpa John.
And so then a bunch of them boys start heading belowdecks. There’s just too many planes in the sky, see. When you look up at first you think all those planes are birds, like seagulls, because you’ve never seen anything like it before, because the only thing you can think it can be is a bunch of seagulls flying around.
But they’re not seagulls, Dad. They’re Japanese fighter planes trying to kill Grandpa
Yeah, and all of Grandpa John’s buddies, too! All them boys!
And so then Grandpa John’s buddy, the main gunner guy, he, like, totally bails.
Dad, the main gunner guy gets so scared he pees his pants. He has to go belowdecks to get a new pair of pants.
No, that’s not what happened.
But that’s what Grandpa said. He said the main gunner guy had to go change his pants.
He was just joking about that part, stupid.
No, you’re stupid!
So Grandpa John is all alone up there with the big gun now because his buddy got scared so he has to start shooting the gun himself. Dad, we’re going to have to tell you all about how those guns work because you won’t understand this story if you don’t know anything about how those big guns really work.
Dad, there’s this thing that can get super hot on the gun, see, and it’s the assistant gunner’s job to take that thing off the gun when it gets hot and replace it with another one of those things that’s not super hot so that thing doesn’t get too hot and explode the whole gun.
But Dad, now that the main gunner guy peed his pants and Grandpa John took over the main gunner’s job to shoot, there’s nobody to take off the thing when it gets super hot.
Yeah and Grandpa John’s aiming the gun up in the sky without any help and shooting it all on his own!
And he’s shooting them seagulls down like crazy!
What? No. He’s shooting them Japanese.
Yeah, he’s shooting them Japanese. That’s what I said.
No, you said he’s shooting the seagulls.
(“Guys, come on. This is important. Please.”)
And Grandpa’s shooting so much that the thing on the gun starts getting super hot, but there’s no one there to take the thing off now because that was Grandpa’s job but now he’s shooting the gun on his own because everybody else totally bailed and went down belowdecks.
He’s shooting that gun at those Japanese planes so much and the gun starts getting super hot and now it’s burning his hands off but he has to keep shooting it or else we might lose the whole war out there!
Yeah, Dad, we’re about to lose the war out there in that Pacific!
And then the gun starts turning bright red like the bottom of the fireplace. But even redder than that, Grandpa John said.
Yeah, way redder. But he still keeps shooting that gun even though his hands are getting totally burned.
His hands are totally on fire, Dad!
Yeah, Grandpa John’s hands are on fire for real now then the whole gun explodes right in his face because there’s nobody to take off the hot thing and that’s how he lost his teeth.
Dad, the gun exploded right into Grandpa John’s mouth! It melted all his teeth!
Not melted them. Knocked them out.
Yeah, that’s what I said. It knocked out all his teeth.
But then this is the really crazy part.
Yeah, this is the really crazy part, Dad. You’re not going to believe this part but it’s true.
Dad, Grandpa John died for a little while out there in the Pacific.
Yeah, Grandpa John died for a little bit. He went to heaven. Did you know about that part, Dad?
(“No, I don’t think I was aware of that.”)
Yeah, Grandpa John totally died. Isn’t that crazy?
Grandpa John totally died and went to heaven and that’s when he had a little one-on-one with God.
Yeah, Dad, Grandpa John had some face time with God, for real, up in heaven.
But Dad, now this is the part that Grandpa John made us swear never to tell you.
Yeah, our lips are totally sealed on this part. You’re going to have to offer us something really good this time.
Like new iPads.
With retina displays.
And not minis.
Yeah and not minis. With expensive cases, too.
Yeah, Dad, deal?
(“How about I take away your current ones only for an evening, rather than a fortnight?”)
Deal and so Grandpa John says to God, “I sees what’s going on here, God, I sees what you have in mind for me, and I’m not too happy about it.”
Yeah and Grandpa John says to God, “God, listen up. I’ll make you a deal.”
Grandpa John says, “I’m not too happy about any of this because I’m only sixteen years old, see, and I haven’t even barely lived yet and already you have it in mind for me to die.”
“And so here’s the deal, God,” Grandpa John says to God. “You let me live today and I promise I’m going to do something real special for you.”
Yeah, Dad. Grandpa John says, “If you let me live, I’m going to marry a woman named Blanche, and with this Blanche I will have a daughter named Gail.”
He meant Grandma Gail, Dad. That’s your mom!
Yeah, Dad, totally! And listen to this. And then Grandpa John says to God, “God. And my daughter Gail will have a son named Evan.”
That’s you, Dad! Grandpa John was totally talking to God about you!
Totally, Dad. And then this is what Grandpa John says next. This is for sure the best part. Grandpa John says to that God, “OK, God. And then my grandson Evan will have two children of his own. And their names will be Jackson and Sofia.”
That’s us! Grandpa John totally told God about us! Can you believe it?
But now wait, this is totally the most amazing part. Grandpa John says, “Now you listen up, God, and you listen good. I’m making you a real good deal here. If you let me live, there are going to be two kids in the world named Jackson and Sofia, and that Jackson and Sofia are going to be just great, they’re going to be the best kids in the history of the world, even if they fight a lot. So what do you say, God, because this is my final offer. Deal?”
And Dad, you’re not going to believe what happened next. You’re not even going to believe what God says to Grandpa John.
God puts his hand on Grandpa John’s shoulder, like this. And then God says, “Deal.”
Dad, God told him he’s got a deal! And he even touched Grandpa John on the shoulder! Like this!
Yeah and then Grandpa John woke up in a hospital somewhere on some boat.
Yeah, but Grandpa John totally died, Dad, for real.
Dad, it’s true. But Grandpa John totally lived, too.
This essay first appeared in The Southern Review, the venerable quarterly journal of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry published by the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge. Our thanks to the author and The Southern Review staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.