I have to edge Papa Nate’s shopping cart to the right, always to the right. He’s convinced he parked the Falcon under the trees.
“Damn you good for nothing,” he says, smoothing sweat from his forehead. The slow precision of the gesture reminds me: this is a Jew who once hung with Zoot Suiters. “On a summer day like this, she must be under the trees.”
“Look, Papa, there’s your hot rod. See?”
He sees, smiles his dreamy smile.
“Drives like a cream puff,” he says. “Only sixty thousand miles, and here she is, twenty years old.”
He gives me a bug-eyed stare, knotting his fists.
“Mischief-maker,” he says. “Lying son of a bitch and a bastard!”
Take a deep breath, I think. I pop the trunk and begin loading groceries. Hearts of romaine, butter lettuce, radishes, onion: Papa’s a monster for produce, green grocer that he was and, deep down, still is. He pushes me away, not gently.
“DMV,” he says, every letter a curse. “Gonifs, they can take my license, but damn you, I can still put my own bags away.”
I unlock the doors, roll down the windows, take the driver’s seat, and wait.
Last week, Papa Nate wandered off. Dad told me Papa didn’t get past the watermelon display inside the store. “But you need to watch him, Alex,” Dad said. “Every second.”
So, yes, maybe I should keep my eyes on the rear view mirror, but I’m tired, thirty-hours-of-work-on-two-hours-of-sleep tired, and guess what, the eyelids sag. Mom couldn’t understand why, post-call, the last thing I’d want to do is babysit Papa. “He’s your grandfather,” she said, as if the intrinsic logic of those words should elicit my unquestioning obedience.
And here I am.
My eyes unseal when the passenger door opens and closes. I smell Papa’s signature odor, an aromatic blend of camphor, onion, and Old Spice, and I feel the car sag on that side, but no, I don’t actually look over to see if he’s there, I just turn the ignition and release the parking brake. I’m about to put the car in reverse when a hand slaps repeatedly on the trunk and a stream of Yiddish invective reaches me through the window.
The passenger door opens and closes. Papa sits down.
“Crazy pisher, you want to kill me next? What’s your hurry?”
Now I’m awake.
“Sorry, Papa Nate. I thought you were . . .” Thought you were sitting right there a moment ago. But I can’t say it; Papa’s confused enough without me tormenting him with my sleep-deprived hallucinations.
“I should stand there like a kopf tukhas while you run me down like a dog? Like a dog.”
I’m worried he’s going to call Mom. I can see him white-knuckling his old black princess phone, saying, “Like a dog, Sarah, the good for nothing tried to run me down.” But by the time we get to the Atlantic and Garfield intersection he’s already forgotten my lame attempt at grand-patricide. He’s on to something new.
His eyes gleam. “Know what I found for Monya?”
If I were the mazik, the mischief-maker Papa seems to think I am, I’d point out that I was there, after all: I accompanied him on his mad grocery spree, and ran interference for him when he argued with the checker over the total. (“What did I buy, gold bricks?”) Or I’d remind him that Monya, my grandmother, passed away ten years ago, God rest her soul.
Instead, I say, “What, Papa?”
“Nutella. It’s forbidden for her sugar diabetes, but doctors, what do they know, the bastards.”
And now, the mazik would say, “I’m one of the bastards, Papa, have been since I graduated med school last June,” or perhaps, “You’re right, Papa, what do they know? Dr. Eisenberg gave you medicine for your high blood pressure and you threw it away. And here you are, fit as a fiddle.”
Instead: “That’s nice, Papa.” Nana Monya will be so happy, I should add, but I can’t bring myself to conspire with his fantasy, not to that degree.
We get to Papa’s house and I carry the groceries into the kitchen’s permanent twilight. (“Who needs light? I should keep the power company well-fed? The gonifs.”) I sack the fridge for untouched, past-expiration heads of lettuce, brown-green fluid swelling the corners of the plastic bags like breasts on a blow-up doll. Papa Nate checks the rooms, calling Nana Monya’s name. And my heart breaks.
Just as his heart breaks, every time I’m forced to remind him of the truth.
This is Papa’s hell.
It’s called multi-infarct dementia, this micro panzer blitz that shells my grandfather’s brain, laying waste to grey matter wedge by tiny wedge. Bits of atherosclerotic plaque lodge in his cerebral arteries, starving downstream tissues of blood. The damage is permanent, but further deterioration can be prevented when the illness is due to high blood pressure, which in Papa’s case is true, and the patient takes his medication. Which, in Papa’s case, is not true.
I saw his MRI scan earlier this year. Mom brought a copy home for her son the doctor.
“I’m a surgical intern,” I said, “not a radiologist.”
“You’re a doctor, aren’t you?”
Defeated, once again, by the inescapable logic of Mom. So I held the films up to the yellow glow of the dining room’s faux-gold chandelier and thought, Yup, that’s a brain. And yet, even in that light, even with my not-a-radiologist-but-almost-a- surgeon’s eyes, I couldn’t help but notice the mosaic of irregular smudges. Sub-cortical infarcts, they call ‘em in the biz.
“Nu?” said Mom. When she’s upset, she reverts to her cradle-Yiddish roots.
“It’s not Alzheimer’s,” I said, as if I knew what I was talking about.
“Oh, thank God,” said Mom.
“Just means he has to take his diuretic,” I said, “and his ACE inhibitor.”
“In English, Alex.”
“His blood pressure pills,” I said.
“Like that’s going to happen.” This from Dad in the kitchen, fussing with a beef roast and his new toy, an electric rotary meat slicer, just like they have in the deli.
“Morty,” said Mom, “you tell him, he has respect for you –”
A heartbeat later, I was in the kitchen holding a soapy dishrag tightly against Dad’s thumb, ignoring Mom’s screams of, “Blood, Morty. Blood ” And, “Do I call 911?”
This effectively changed the subject.
He won’t be put in a care facility, declaring, I’ll die first, and by some odd sixth sense resistant to the ravages of his illness, he avoids setting fire to his kitchen, and never once wanders away from the house, either of which mishap would land him in the dreaded verkakteh nursing home. He eats sardine-on-rye sandwiches some nights, scrambled eggs and onions on others. On Friday nights he has dinner at my parents’ house, because it pleases him to see Mom, who hasn’t a single sincerely Jewish bone left in her body, say the blessing over the candles. Mom would like to feed him every night, and to her credit has repeatedly invited him to take permanent residence in my vacant room, but Papa Nate will have none of it. One night in seven, that’s all he’ll spare.
Today is Thursday. Thursday. I’m sure of it. I take call Wednesday and Sunday, so this must be Thursday.
This provides greater depth to my bewilderment when, fifteen minutes after leaving Papa’s house, I stop by my parents’ place to report on Papa’s status, only to find Papa sitting on the couch between Mom and Dad, album opened on his lap, looking over old photos. Papa’s fingertips frame a faded sepia-toned portrait; his eyes are moist.
“The prettiest girl in Lodz,” he says.
“Papa Nate,” I say, but after that I’m speechless. I’m thinking: Quarter hour ago, I left you at home.
Perhaps Dad picked Papa up seconds after I left. That’s right. Then, Dad hauled ass over here, blew his way through the red lights . . .
Mom tells me in her don’t-screw-this-up tone, “Alex, I invited Papa over for ribs, and he said yes.”
“No, it’s not that,” I say. “It’s just — when did you call him?”
“An hour ago,” said Mom. “He said yes, so I sent your father to pick him up –”
“You asked me to take him shopping.”
“I tried to page you,” she said, “but when it’s your mother’s number, you never call. Everyone else you call right away like there’s a fire, but not when it’s your mother’s number.”
“No, no, you don’t understand, I did take him –”
Papa’s head snaps up from the photograph. “What?” he barks. “What’s this, you’re raising your voice?”
“Shah, Papa,” says Mom. “He’s overtired, poor baby, he works so hard. Don’t pay any attention.”
Dad says, “It’s okay, Alex. On the way home after dinner, Papa and I, we’ll hit Safeway.”
And Dad winks at me.
Don’t mind-fuck the post-call surgical intern, I’d like to say.
Instead, I retreat. There’s a pass-through between the kitchen and the dining room, so I can spy on my parents and Papa as I take out my cell phone and call Papa’s home number.
Ten rings, no answer.
And then Papa picks up the phone.
My grandfather’s stock greeting: “What do you want?”
“Who is it?”
That’s what I’d like to know . . . but the voice is unmistakable.
“It’s your grandson, Papa. It’s Alex.”
“What do you want? Why are you mumbling?”
I’m mumbling because I don’t want my grandfather in the living room to hear that I’m talking to him on the phone, that’s why I’m mumbling. I should hang up now, having got what I came for, but Papa would only speed-dial my parent’s number — this number — and bitch about how his good-for-nothing mazik of a grandson has nothing better to do than make prank calls to his poor grandfather. I admit there’s some appeal to this course of action; at least then, when someone else answers the phone and hears Papa Nate, I won’t be the only one losing my mind. But no, that’s not me. I don’t hang up on my grandfather, even if he’s back home clenching the princess phone like a club while he’s also sitting in my parents’ living room filmy-eyed over his long-dead Monya. I can’t hang up the phone. I have to say something.
“Papa Nate, what are you having for dinner?”
“That’s why you call me? You should worry what you’re having for dinner. Don’t waste my time.”
Click. He’s hung up on me, which is a relief. Saves me from having to think of what to say next.
Papa turns the page in the photo album and says, “Look, Sarah, look how beautiful.”
Something electric passes between Mom and Dad, as if they were simultaneously goosed by the same cattle prod: something so new and devastating that the mere sight of their reaction
makes my skin prickle. If my father had sliced his thumb open again, I wouldn’t spring to their side any faster. But it’s not my emergency room response that’s kicked in; it’s far more primal. It’s the irresistible urge to gawk at a fatal accident.
Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself in the instant it takes me to run to the couch; but when I follow their gaze and see what they see — when I blink, and blink again, and digest the contents of the old photo — I realize how thoroughly I misunderstood their reaction.
And, still, I understand nothing.
Tomorrow, I’ll remember how Papa sat beside me on the passenger seat as Papa loaded groceries into the Falcon’s trunk, and I’ll think, So what? Get over it already.
Perhaps after nine hours’ sleep, it’ll all make sense: that I watched Papa sniff nectarines at Safeway while Dad brought him home for ribs. That I uselessly patted Papa’s arm as he wept over the “news” of Nana’s lethal heart attack, ten years past, while at the same instant he made Dad cry with laughter over the tale of his and Monya’s first kiss, a stolen kiss. Like she swallowed a bumble bee — watch! That Papa, in his home on Atlantic Boulevard, hung up on me, just as he turned the page and said, Look, Sarah, look how beautiful.
And maybe, just maybe, when I’m well-rested, I’ll figure out an explanation for the faded sepia-toned photo that fills the page before my eyes: Monya, seated, the eighteen-year-old Polish debutante, her hands folded primly in her lap, her dark lips tightly pursed, as if refusing further fraternization with bumble bees and their ilk; Nate, standing, a twenty-year-old rogue forced to wear a suit, his expression fierce as he tries to ward off the evil eye and fails; and Nate, standing behind Monya, a seventy-eight-year-old man with multi-infarct dementia, his hands resting lightly on the young girl’s shoulders, his face a vision of bliss.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll understand, but for now, I run to my old bedroom, blithering. Once again, I’m an adolescent in a world that makes no sense, a world that seems bent on driving me to madness.
When I left for college, Mom didn’t turn my room into a shrine. She completed the evacuation I began when I boxed my books, rolled up my posters of the Periodic Table and the Horsehead Nebula, and packed all of my clothes that still fit and didn’t scream geek. When I returned for Winter Break, I found my room playing host to a sewing machine, an exercise bike, and a treadmill. She’d mothballed my bedspread. In its place was a pastel floral quilt with frilly lace borders, and a half dozen stuffed animals, poofy blonde doggies with pink bows in their hair.
Mom, like her mother Monya before her, is unsentimental, yet given to fits of kitsch.
Monya’s voice: You gotta roll with the punches, Sarah.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Go away.” By which I mean: Unless you have a damn good explanation for this insanity, leave me alone.
“It’s me, Alex,” says Papa softly.
I open the door. He enters, head bowed slightly, rubbing his bald spot. It’s a familiar gesture. When he was younger, when he still made sense, he used to joke: I’m shining it, Alex. That way I can flash Morse Code signals to the aliens.
We sit together on the bed.
“Tell me that was my great-grandfather in the picture, Papa Nate,” I say. “Tell me that was your father.”
He stares at me unblinkingly, sadly, quietly, so long I wonder if he’s understood my request, or if he’s already forgotten the photo. And if I go back to the living room and look in the album, will that photo still be there? Will he still be in it?
He shakes his head.
“You want me to believe that’s you in the photo?”
He nods, and I wonder, irrationally, why he’s waited until now to spring this on me . . . on us. Couldn’t he have waited until I was better rested? Catch me on a pre-call Saturday night, Papa. You’ll get me at my best.
“This makes no sense,” I say. He lays his hand on my shoulder. His gaze is unwavering.
“I can’t remember when I am,” says Papa.
“When you’re what, Papa Nate?”
“No,” says Papa. “I can’t remember when. I. Am.”
I think back to those gravestone smudges on Papa’s MRI. What spot in the brain binds us to the river of time? Is it in the hippocampus? The pineal gland? How many other victims of strokes, tumors, and gunshot wounds walk the earth in a dozen ages, a dozen bodies?
From college physics, I remember learning about the transmission of electromagnetic radiation down a waveguide, such as a hollow metal pipe. A signal — a group of electromagnetic waves bearing information — travels down the waveguide with a group speed that cannot exceed the speed of light. Yet electromagnetic radiation not bearing information travels at phase speeds exceeding the speed of light. No information is transmitted, so Einstein rests peacefully in his grave. The impossible is rendered possible.
I could ask Papa Nate: For you, what day is it today? Who won the third race at Santa Anita? What were yesterday’s winning Lotto numbers? But he wouldn’t know, and even if he at some point did know, he wouldn’t remember now. No information could be transmitted. The impossible is rendered possible yet again.
But doesn’t Papa’s presence here constitute information?
You’re grasping at straws, I think. You’re being over-rational. And: You’re a doctor. Echoes of my mother’s arctic voice.
In medicine, the unexpected happens all the time. Healthy people drop dead and the autopsy shows nothing. Aggressive cancers explode, peppering the body with metastatic shrapnel, only to disappear without a trace.
My father’s voice from the hallway, creased with anxiety: “Alex. Come here, please.”
It’s the group photo we took on the beach: Sanibel Island, Florida, August 1974. I know this because, for my parent’s thirtieth wedding anniversary, I had the original color-adjusted, blown up, mounted, and framed. On the back of the original, as on the backs of all our photos, the identifying information appears in Mom’s over-slanted, flowing script.
We’re standing in two lines, kids in front, parents and grandparents in back, adults on the side leaning towards the middle so we can all fit into the photo. There’s me, the little pisher, holding my sister Melany’s hand, Melany who died the next year when she was struck by a VW van. The twins, my older brothers Nathan and Robert, kneel down in the front row so they won’t block my parents, who stand behind them. My cousins, Mimi and Cheryl, round out the bottom row. Behind us are my parents, Uncle Sol and Aunt Sylvia (Mimi’s and Cheryl’s parents), Monya and Nate . . . and Nate the Elder, smiling impishly.
“I’d always assumed he was Sarah’s grandfather,” says Dad. “You know, the family resemblance.”
I may be uncertain as to the other photos, but this one I know to the last detail. Where Papa Nate now stands, there used to be a glimpse of sand and sea, and the tip of a palm frond, out of focus. This is not the photo I remember. But Dad — what does he remember? I’d always assumed he was Sarah’s grandfather. Is Dad, even now, editing his memories, splicing in Papa Nate’s presence at all the major scenes of his and Mom’s life?
Maybe, somehow, it makes more sense to Dad if he imagines that Papa Nate was there all along. To have, instead, Papa’s image appearing in our old photos like secret writing, held to the flame: perhaps this is too much for Dad to bear.
Or maybe it’s not Dad’s memories that are falling under the editor’s knife, but reality itself, or rather, the memory of reality, one mind at a time. And tomorrow I’ll wake up recalling Papa Nate lifting me out of my crib.
I always thought he was my great-grandfather. Now I know better.
We’re sitting on the couch again, watching Papa Nate as he relishes one photograph after another. He beams at a photo of the bride Monya at her wedding. She’s dancing with the seventy-eight-year-old Papa Nate; the cameraman has caught her delight as she’s twirled with surprising vigor by this strange old man who calls himself her husband. And why shouldn’t she be delighted? Thanks to Papa Nate, she knows she’ll be adored forever by her chosen. How many brides know that?
I am witness to the transmission of information across time.
I look at Mom. If Mom is grasping at straws like me and Dad, she doesn’t show it. She’s admiring the photo, too, and from her expression she is at peace. She’s rolling with the punches.
Mom touches the photo with one hand, Papa’s knee with another.
“Do you remember, Papa?” she says.
And Papa replies, “Like it was yesterday.”
This story first appeared in Bill Rupp‘s Worlds Apart, #1, Summer 2006
Copyright, Douglas Hoffman — who else?