Gramps had been getting worse over the past few months. Aunt Janet called and left detailed messages. She went on about his most recent fall or scrape and the toll it was taking on Nan. She had to lug him out of bed sometimes when he got confused. Her back couldn’t do it much longer. It was getting to be too much.
I took the train down on a Tuesday. Aunt Janet bought the ticket. I had the time. I wasn’t exactly working and my roommates were doing a lot of complaining about it. I guess I was getting to be too much.
From the start it was fascinating, spending time with my long lost grandfather. Aunt Janet went to work and Nan would sleep and that left the two of us to fend for ourselves. Gramps would wheeze and mutter only to go on a tangent if I asked if he was okay. In that way he was like a few of my friends when they were nice and sauced.
Obviously, this was not the grandpa I’d known. This Papa didn’t hold back. He didn’t chuckle at corny classic sitcoms and he never watched golf. He bobbed along to hip-hop videos. He cursed freely and openly about neighbors long since passed. He drank beers in the morning. He wore a thin v-neck t-shirt and always had a bruise under either or both eyes that gave him an edge.
This Papa didn’t give a shit. And neither did I. We got on just great.
We settled into a routine. I’d find him in the den, the TV on some morning court show Aunt Janet thought he liked. He took a while to warm up, like an old car in the winter. He never noticed me at first, only stared out the window. Then, once the engine was all warmed up, he’d say, Oh hi Darla.
The first time he did it, I corrected him. But this threw him for a loop, made his eyes wobble. So the next day, and the day after that, I went with it. I started being Darla.
How was school? he’d ask me. I’d shrug, sip my beer (why should Gramps have all the fun?), tell him it was okay. He’d start in about Mrs. Thompson, Home Economics, ask if Mr. Gerald was still a pest. Of course I didn’t know these people, but why correct him? When I did he’d just sink back into himself or gaze out the window, to the past, to snowstorms that happened years ago. About his Buick that by now was probably sitting in a junkyard, picked apart by tools and rust.
So yeah, school was okay. Same for my grades. Yeah, at first it was strange, when he’d ask if I’d done my chores, the dishes, when he’d marvel over how much I’d grown. But he never asked why my hair was blue or why I’d put all those holes in my ear. He never once asked about the burns on my arms, the pinkish scars on my wrists. He would simply turn to me, eyes brightening like the morning sun, and call me Darla.
My mother’s name.
I’d smile and he’d sit back, talk politics (President Ford, or Carter, Reagan), sometimes work or weather, the vent he needed to fix in the kitchen. He’d talk about hauling down the screens from the attic. How the garden was coming in so well. I’d nod and wonder what he saw out the window besides the trash whipping down the sidewalks, the above-ground pool next door, slumped over, half covered in snow and mud.
I told him Mr. Gerald was on my case, about medication and therapy, what I was going to make of myself. How Mrs. Thompson was always after me about being such a slob, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, rent and responsibilities. Gramps got a kick out of that, and soon we were laughing it up and I was about to get up for another beer when he asked about that boy Tony I’d been seeing. Said he had a bad feeling about that one.
That one. My father. Well, the best thing about chatting with Gramps was how there were no awkward pauses. Social constructs didn’t pertain to us. Gramps didn’t notice cues. Gasps, stifled sobs, how my voice broke when I pulled my knees to my chest and told him Tony was great–just a great boy–not the kind of boy who would get a girl pregnant and ditch her. Not the kind of guy who would never once reach out to his daughter despite her numerous letters and phone calls. Not even come to the funeral. Not give much of a shit then now or ever.
Grandpa shook his head, took his bad feelings back to the window, to the garden growing in his mind. I wiped my eyes and fell apart. He gazed out the window.
The tomatoes were really going to do well this year, he thought.
Wonderful, as usual, Pete.
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