A short story by Soili Smith
If you were to ask me what exactly happened to him or where he is now, I couldn’t say. I have no legitimate faith and a waning confidence in science. If you asked me where to begin looking, though, I would say, without hesitation: in the books. Plus, when I think about them in this way, the books, the writing inside loses some of its gruesomeness and it helps.
The joke, of course (what love isn’t laughable?), is that neither you nor others have asked, and yet here I am, head bent, digging around for traces like a wild pig, just as if you had.
So here, unprompted by anyone but myself, is a book—
Grandpa. Sitting at his dining room table, surrounded by cups with varying amounts of water left in them, as if he were about to chime them with a spoon, play a bedtime song. Along with the cups, he has in front of him several composition notebooks with torn pages, and in his hand: an embossed pen. The skin along his thin hairline is flaky, so he scratches. His mouth is dry, so he swallows. Through the French doors that face the green and faded patio, the valley’s drop, the endless velvety wilderness, comes the mid-morning sun. Grandpa squints against it. His pale face ripples. The brightness and speed of the bloated clouds make it feel to him as if the house were actually a boat, gliding. The long-armed cottonwood in the yard swims alongside, a front crawl like an Olympian. He presses his lips into a concentrated grimace. Grandpa thinks he used to like boats. Sailboats mostly, but motorized ones too. He once sipped cocktails on one that was 3 feet short of a yacht with other coolly dressed men. Friends. Their high, freckled cheeks and straight teeth, their loose hair blowing every which way but down. The ocean all around them, glimmering.
If Grandpa focuses—gets the paper weighted with some hefty books, old picture dictionaries and the like, leans his weight on his elbow—he can hold the tremor down enough for the writing to come out. And when it comes does it ever. Into the newest, cleanest notebook. With speed like confidence, like intent, like Truth with a capital T. Double spaced. Erratic margins. A faint, crooked, but holy and legible cursive—
AUGUST 4TH, 2015
JUST GOT A BRAIN WAVE
—He is fairly certain that he once told someone that the tremor is like an engine, like a Mustang. I got too much horsepower, he said to the person. They might have laughed. They should have; some things are not lost to age, and Grandpa was/is a hilarious man. He pauses his writing, tries to conjure the person’s face, but it’s amorphous, a blur. Heart shaped though, like his. Young. A relative he figures. He gives up, goes back to scrawling. He’s been forgetting so much lately, like he’s being hollowed out. Less a man now than a vessel for the Lord, Who’s in Grandpa’s head again, loud as ever. His hands like leathery star maps, curl tighter around the pen. Its embossment reads: Bart the Fart. A thirty-some-odd year joke at the dealership. Grandpa likes jokes. Enjoys a playful kind of British humour, he thinks, and then forgets again. His tongue pokes up and out of his gummy mouth.
Sometimes if he tries too hard to remember, and can’t, featureless faces twist into a great black hole, and a sound emerges like a coughing moan—scrambled, terrible—like someone trying to siphon oil out of a hollow drum. The Lord, too, is deafening. A kind of thumping, erratic rhythm behind his pink eyes. A tear shakes out of one as he suddenly recalls how a dark-skinned woman, mulatto maybe, a daughter maybe, certainly daughter-aged, stood in front of him once. In a familiar room like a kitchen, or one with a bed. He was seated or she was just taller. Taller, but he won’t admit it. Grown. Thick veins ran the length of her neck, her lips twitched as if they were being jerked by tiny hooks. What did you say? she said, with not an ounce of openness, of reception. What did he say? He didn’t know. A moan and a scream. Terrible—
REVELATIONS 18:1 FOR I WILL DIE UPON THE ALTAR OF SOULS (CHRIST’S) AND YOU WILL BE KILLED THE YEAR 2018 BY 6 MILLION ANGELS OF LUCIFER’S ARMY
ALSO: I WILL BE IN TOWN FOR FISH AND CHIPS AT 7:00 PM THIS FRIDAY. YOU SHOULD HAVE NO TROUBLE GETTING THERE IN THE CAR I GAVE YOU. IF YOU COME I WILL FORGIVE YOU THE AFOREMENTIONED WHORING
—None of this is very surprising yet. Grandpa’s the kind of man who tells a thirteen year old she’ll never go to university because she got her nose pierced. The kind of man who tells it like it is. A man that leans across the red leather front seat of his 1967 black Mustang, on the way to pick up some apples for the pie the girl’s mother’s going to make them for dessert, and says that men like him are the ones that read those scholarship letters, old-fashioned men of conviction, and they don’t like metal piercings mussing up an otherwise good looking girl’s face.
But isn’t he also the kind of man to later, after the pie, sit and help her finish her homework? And after reading it through and telling her how effective her conclusions were, didn’t he flick the paper, didn’t he hold his hand up and give her an A-Okay sign? Wasn’t that a good feeling? Yes, a good feeling. Yes, that kind of man. The kind of man that sits and watches a post-homework John Cleese movie with her. That laughs along with her to all the wonky parts. Playful and British. The kind that leaned across the paisley couch and pointed out to the thirteen year old girl the timeless beauty of Jamie Lee Curtis’s un-pierced face. Which means he was the same kind of man all along, I guess—
REV. 26:10 BLOOD ETC.
—It’s not like he’s so wrapped up in the remembering these days anyway. He has other concerns, other interests. He closes the blinds using a hook he devised from a cane and some chicken wire—acquired from a shed two doors down. Grandpa has been gathering treasures from his neighbours’ trash bins, garages, and backyards for some time now. So far, no one’s been any the wiser. Save for that black girl-woman who keeps coming by. She mentions the items from time to time, points at them, shakes her giant, blurry head, takes them out of the house. Usually Grandpa is able to find the items again in his own bin out front. Or in the dumpster behind the convenience store down the highway where she usually drops them on her way home or to work.
The collecting is a matter of space. The house is too big by far, with its three-car garage and cedar staircase. He got it for next to nothing when he first moved up north from Vancouver to this mid-sized industrial town, known for its giant, converging rivers, for its small, green university, for its pulp and paper. Fort Albert, it’s called. Though nobody is entirely certain who Albert was, except for Grandpa, just not anymore. A pioneering prince, he’d be willing to bet.
The house is up the highway’s steep hill, a fifteen minute drive North out of the city’s center. It was built in the 70’s in what they call Coastal Style. Long, flat-shingled roofs with large skylights and angled hard to the ground, so that snow or rain might easily slide down and off the sides. In the winter the sound of the snow slips and piles around the house like a wall, makes a rolling sound like thunder. Grandpa used to find it calming, and then eerie, and lately: intrusive. Thank the Lord for summer, though it brings the equally aggressive trees and light. The remains of a chandelier in the front foyer scatter brightness, there for God knows what reason in the first place. Silly, gaudy, a woman’s touch to be sure. Not his choice, to be sure. Grandpa thrashed it a time ago with a chair until the chandelier was half its original girth. He cut his feet up on all the shards in the carpet and they took months to heal right, which had brought him satisfaction. Broken glass, bloody feet. There’s order in consequence, he’s always said. He skittered to and from on the soaked and then crusted bandages. He always gave the stairs a wide birth. They had grown too much for his heart, so he stopped attempting them altogether, and then the dark rooms at the top where he had once slept, and others too, likely, had started behaving ugly.
Thinking, thinking, he scratches away in a newer notebook, and then there’s that woman-girl’s face shape again, her filthy hands on his feet, checking the bandages. Guiding him toward the foot of the stairs, as if she couldn’t feel what he felt about the rooms at the top. Or, more likely, she could but didn’t care. Help, he had cried out. She held him by the shoulders like she was grown. Her nails were long and painted coquettishly. On purpose, of course. She knew better. Don’t you want to go up and watch a movie? She had said. Let’s go watch a movie. He stumbled, fell down to the floor on his knees. Help. Help. She turned to face him, bent down, Oh Grandpa, was the last coherent thing he heard her say before those grotesque sounds belched up and out of her. Louder and louder they came, making him tear at the thin strands of his hair, until eventually he was able to gather himself, was able to muster enough balance to level his fist at her open, foreign mouth—
REV. 1:2 JUDGMENT ETC.
WANDA. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. I HAVE LIVED A LONG LIFE. I HAVE MANY STORIES AND WISDOM TO SHARE. DON’T THINK I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU’VE BEEN OUT GALAVANTING WITH AT NIGHT. DON’T THINK I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE HIDING
—This same bright day, in the even brighter afternoon, police arrive with their tight fitting slacks and hilarious little handguns and city order to forcibly remove the garbage from Grandpa’s home. There have been complaints from the neighbours about the smell, they say, for weeks now. Something dead in there, they suspect. Putrefaction.
The police do not alert Grandpa’s family at this point—in truth, there is only me, but still, seems like they should have. Instead, one of the officers sits the shaking Grandpa near the foot of his stairs, while the other pushes past with a handful of city workers through the foyer, carefully through the newspapers and books stacked like hoodoos, into the garage, breaking open the padlock as they do. There, they find the pile. Grandpa’s mountainous heap of stolen, rotting food, nestled between the river boat and the ATVs. One of the cops throws up. Grandpa laughs and laughs, thinking, What a farce.
He doesn’t remember this now, though his daughter does and will never forget it, but once Grandpa bought the house next door because a Sikh couple had put in a bid on it. She was horrified, the daughter said recently, because the wife was her Grade 8 math teacher, whom she loved. Grandpa’s major reasoning for the purchase was that those people smelled—
THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR AGES IS ONLY A PROBLEM OF THE MIND DEAR (REV. 4:10). WHERE ARE YOU? (REV. 19:93-101) WHEN CAN I EXPECT YOU THEN? (REV. 1:1) I THINK YOU ARE NOT CONSIDERING THAT I WILL FAIRLY COMPENSATE YOU FORTY DOLLARS PER WEEK TO DO MY WASHING AND MORE
—In the holding room at the new police station downtown, the one with all the sky lighting and wooden beams, just a five minute walk from the Pinewood strip mall and Scotiabank, Grandpa sits in the dimmest corner, his spine straightened firmly against the back of the chair. His hands rest warmly in the white strip of light that lays across his lap. Occasionally a redheaded social worker comes by, refills his Styrofoam cup with cool water. She’s the flirty type, he thinks, tells her she’s got a smile brighter than the sun. She laughs and squeezes his wrist like all the girls do. All the girls in all those cities across the country. After the car shows at the bar. One of them had eyes like a puppy and a gap between her teeth he joked was like a penny slot. How many to get you going? he had said. Gone and got herself in trouble by now. Not that he’s got anything to do with that mess. Any of those messes. When the social worker walks away, Grandpa pours the contents of the cup into a nearby tropical plant.
Loudly, a herd comes tumbling into the holding room. Some wack-job space cadet and a bunch of officers half wrestling, half dragging him. Grandpa can see through the tangle of bodies the red burn of the cuffs against the space cadet’s wrists. The kind of aggravated marks that might scar. One of the officers trips and the whole lot of them go crashing to the ground in a pileup. The space cadet’s teeth get smashed up through his bottom lip and he starts wailing and spitting blood everywhere. Grandpa’s body does not react to the scene, no muscle memory. He thinks he might never have been a fighter. Thinks he might have talked his way out of a lot of fights. Pretty quick the boys roll away together like a wave, and there in the wake is that damned empty-faced brown girl. In a sharp blue skirt and blazer, a silver name tag pinned to her chest. Gold pierced through her pig nose. More height on her than ever before.
Hey, says the social worker, Look who’s come to get you. No, says Grandpa, pushing harder into the back of the chair. No. Bart, she says, sexy, sweet, disgusting, Don’t you want to go home with your family? He really loses it at that. Scoffs so hard foamy pieces of spit fly out and onto the ground. Good God, no. He says, No way. Look at her, he says. No goddamn way. He doesn’t look at her. By now her face has opened up carnivorously, the devilish sound getting ready to heave itself out. His eyes follow the blood streaked like a road, like order, past his feet and through a set of double doors. Take me in, Grandpa says, turning to face the social worker, groping at her sleeves. He nods toward the doors. Take me and put me where that space cadet is—
IT’S THAT BLACK TRASH ISN’T IT WANDA? REV 46:1 THE COWARDLY THE UNBELIEVING THE LIARS THE FILTH THE FILTH THE FILTH. LUCIFER IS NOT KIND. THERE IS NO KINDNESS BUT MINE AND THE LORD’S
—Not clear whether the following reveals that he remembers sitting side-by-side at the kitchen table with the girl in the evenings, or the afternoons, any chance they got, really, their shoulders hunched and touching, one of those old big dictionaries that was half her height, half her weight, opened to some random page, together and copying down all the words and their definitions, ooh-ing at the longest, giggling at the twisted and absurd. Crunching on salt and vinegar chips until their tongues burned. But one could probably read it that way—
FOR SO LONG I HAVE LOVED YOU WITH ALL MY MIGHT
—It seems likely that at some point he thinks about Grandma, seeing as guilt resonates throughout his writings. Grandma doesn’t visit him, but doesn’t talk about him unkindly either. Once, at a family dinner, she bent over his shoulder and cut up his roast for him into thin strips, just the way he likes it, which their daughter hated and scolded her mother for it later at the bottom of a darkened stairwell. You’re enabling him, she said. We don’t have to do this anymore. Lately, Grandma and her second husband spend much of their time gardening together or going on cruises. Grandpa hated cruise ships. Carnie boats, he called them.
Grandpa arrives home from the police station, slams the car door in that girl-woman’s loud mulatto face and runs inside. The place is gutted and obnoxiously sterile. Everything moved, wiped down with a heavy hand. This is how he thinks of her: Grandma. Or any of the women, really. Not as a person or a face, but as a kind of tone. As a force or pressure against his existence. Like a physical law acting without his permission or sight. Once or twice or many times before he had come home to a gutting. Clothes ripped out of a closet. Discoloured outlines of missing wall hangings. Furniture rearranged for the pillage. A violent reordering. Tectonic shifts. Revelation. Where did these women run off to? What would they ever do without him? And where, where, were all his goddamn things? And for some reason, the girl there, yes, still a girl, still mixed-race, still there, standing in the doorway between the foyer and the kitchen. Teary. Singed. Chewing on her fingers like an idiot.
The Lord returns to him in the night, when he’s alone again, knocks him out of his sleep. His astral voice more urgent. More clear. He gets up from the couch and turns on the lamp beside the table in the kitchen. Sits in his same, worn chair.
Write, says the Lord. Write—
AUGUST 5TH, 2015
I DID NOT ASK FOR THIS BURDEN. THOUGH I AM GRATEFUL FOR THE CLARITY BOTH NOW AND THEN.
GOD’S THRONE IS WHITE, WANDA (REV. 4:20). BE SURE TO WRITE THAT DOWN
—Grandpa is not sure whether or not he was a hunter, but either way a stranger—short, thin, blonde—is screaming and pointing at his gun. He had brought it out for a cleaning, as a mental break from the writing. He would read a book or watch a movie but everything is up the stairs. They make him sick. Like static against the skin, but in the stomach, the heart. No, wait. The TV was moved downstairs one day. Somebody had come and moved it behind his back. Christ, Grandpa thinks. He also thinks that historically, he was not a religious man. This is probably why the writing takes a harder toll on him than it might on others. He’s sure to keep his body purged to help with this, to be a cleaner vessel, fasting, no food or water, but still, this is a lot, would be a lot for anyone. Perhaps he went to a parochial school as a child. Or Sunday school at a local church. Who knows. The blonde is still screaming. Christ, he screams back, Christ!
He’s not remembering things right. He had not taken a break from writing, he wouldn’t do that. He had, for the first time, acted with the Lord’s hand beyond the page. Had, just moments before, crept along the back fence he and the neighbours shared, had ducked and stepped quietly up the hill of their yard. He did used to be a hunter. A nice change from selling cars. He used to sell cars, you see. He was so good at it. Grandpa’s the kind of man that can wink at you without making your skin crawl. He’s got a smile that comes out toothy and a little sideways, eyes that disappear when he does. Many people, who he does not remember, have described this smile as playful. Infectious. The kind of man that takes up a whole room. So much so that when he makes a quip that’s off-colour, that cuts, that hurts, even then they all find it in themselves to smile.
When that ethnic daughter-faced girl-woman was small, she’d sometimes be out on those hunting trips too. The blonde woman standing in front of him is not her. She is the neighbor, and this is not his house. This is not his gun. In the moonlight this neighbour looks like a siren, white-skinned and swaying. Once, the girl looked straight into his camera, holding up the head of her first moose, a toothless smile. Don’t slouch, he said. She straightened up. He smiled. Say Cheese, he said. It was daylight then, no moon. Like that other time when he sat with her at the table, staring at the dictionary’s final page. Zyxt. Kentish dialect. Past tense of zi: “Seen.” I always wished I’d gotten into the Newspaper business, he said. I was too smart to be selling cars. And I’ve got a lot to say, you know? Should’ve been a writer, a news man. He poked his finger down at the oversized letter Z. Don’t you dare get stuck doing something you’re too smart to do, he said. The girl promised. She always promised. Good, he said, then looking down at her chest. For Christ’s sake, please button up your shirt. The times were much much different then. Or not, I don’t know. Another tangent. I don’t know why I’m pointing any of this out.
At the police station again, for the break-in and attempted gun theft this time. The girl finally appears, wearing sweatpants and taller still than before. Maybe in this moment Grandpa is sure she is a granddaughter. Likely his, he thinks. She is black, he can’t help but notice, very overweight, but the only thing he knows even vaguely. He falls sobbing into her arms. They won’t put me away, he cries, won’t take me anywhere I want to go. I know, she says, rubbing and patting his back, I know. He smells her sweatshirt then, her laundry detergent, and thinks of his daughter, her mother. So clearly does he remember his daughter’s face, her freckled cheeks, the sheen of her beer-coloured hair, and the way it all hardened one day. Something out there poisoned her against him. Her mother, his wife, he guessed. Or the boyfriend. Some African rebel she met in an activist club that spent his time before getting rightfully deported plunging his tongue in her mouth until she spat all Grandpa’s words back at him in choked, bitter shrieks, flapping her arms like a Corvid. Called him a racist and a woman-hater. Told her own father who would never leave her, sincerely and often, to go fuck himself.
When the granddaughter-woman’s hand gets close to his face, attempting to dab away the tears, he bites it until she bleeds. This time, she’s very upset—
AUGUST 10TH, 2015
MURDER AND WAR. WHAT I HAVE TAKEN IS WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN
MEET ME FOR FISH AND CHIPS NEXT FRIDAY THEN. I CANNOT ALWAYS BE SO FORGIVING. I HAVE A PLAN TO SHARE WITH YOU. THOUGH YOU HAVE NO FAITH IN ME.
KILL KILL KILL DEATH ETC. YOU KNOW THE DRILL
—I have to stop now. Put the pen down, take a break. This seems dishonest. A mockery, maybe, in its reconstruction. I still don’t know where he is. I should start again without forgetting that—
Okay, yes. Grandpa wasn’t perfect. When I dropped out of my Journalism degree and got the job at Scotiabank, he had looked at me with general disappointment. As if he had known that something in me wasn’t meant to make it and that it wasn’t my fault. Perhaps he blamed himself. I don’t see how he could see it that way. But also, please take into consideration that he had, up until that point, been nothing but supportive of my writing. Not everyone’s got a head on their shoulders like you, he said. Not everyone’s whip-sharp like that.
Once, when I was small, he had brought me back a stuffed E.T. from one of his trips to California to see a car show and a mistress. Elaborate networks of women he had, though that wasn’t all the way clear until recently, at least not to me. People don’t tell children these things, or teach them to be unforgiving. And then they are surprised when suddenly you are older and so fierce is your love that no amount of humiliation can wedge it out of you. I had not known about the women. Though the women, piled up in him like knives, had known me. My mother, too. They came out at us in low criticisms. Didn’t we think before we acted? Didn’t we know what kind of men are out there? His daughter came home to him young and angry as his last mistress, with me, an out-of-wedlock brown baby. A farce and not the kind he enjoyed. She stayed with him until Grandma left and I was graduated and so no longer needed his money enough to put up with him. That was her calculus. I came home to him in the evenings though, left my E.T. there for safekeeping. He’d pat me on the head and maybe sing me a song. Remind me to wash my face and keep my bush of hair tidy. And later, in the mornings before work, too, I went to him, poured his untouched glasses of water out. Swept. Dusted. Stuffed the pages back in the books. No one else came. Especially not Mum. She’d hold open her palms to me, tell me he made his bed, let him lie in it. Which is rich, isn’t it? If anyone should be mad, it’s me. And I’m not, that’s not what this is. So I never had a baby, a serious boyfriend, maybe I never will. But once I was a child who nobody explained love to and now it’s too damn late—
LISTEN. IT IS LAUGHABLE FOR YOU TO SUGGEST I HAVE BEEN THOUGHTLESS IN MY ENTERPRISE.
THINGS THAT I ENJOY:
SO YOU SEE REV. 2:10 DO NOT BE AFRAID OF WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO SUFFER (CHRIST’S CROWN) BE FAITHFUL EVEN TO THE POINT OF DEATH
I ALSO ENJOY WHEN WE RIDE IN THE CAR TOGETHER ON SUNDAY AFTERNOONS. DO NOT FORGET
—At the nursing home downtown where the Ministry made me put him, walking distance from many great amenities said the brochure, including the Scotiabank where I worked, I sat in the family visiting area and went through the notebooks, looking for meaning. Don’t, said one of the staff, don’t try to make anything of that. Just the ramblings of a dying mind. Nothing more. She hovered near the pillar adjacent me with a worried expression, chewing gum. What did she know? She wasn’t there when we watched the movie, together. A Fish Called Wanda. She had no idea. You look alike, you know, she said, scratching her eyebrow piercing. I said nothing, turned more pages until eventually she left. Decided to buy a Bible and read the Book of Revelations. Uncover his logic, as if she hadn’t suggested the opposite. I was going to figure it out.
When I walked into his room, Grandpa shuffled toward me. Got close enough to spit. It hit me in the forehead, and I caught it before it slid down and into my eyes. It should’ve been impossible. The staff said he had not drunk any water in two days. He was dehydrated, they said. Shit-skin, he hissed at me. His gums and eyes were grey. He turned and ran back to the small desk in the corner of the room and his writing. I began unpacking boxes and sorting his things into piles on the floor, the way that I knew he liked them. His Monty Python VHS’s of course. I picked up some added stuff too to occupy space. Plastic bowls and plates and cassette tapes from the thrift store. Some old clothes I needed to get rid of. Various stuffed animals he brought back to me from various trips, E.T. included. And a special treat: a toy rifle still in its box, similar to the one he used to own. The nurse came by again and told me I couldn’t put the stuff on the floor, it’s a safety hazard, she said, her gum smacking loudly. Watch me, I said. These island women, Grandpa said, pointing at a Filipina nurse walking by, generally pretty dirty, but they do a good job.
Sitting there, I remembered how once he looked me dead in the eye and asked me to go down to the massage parlor, the one with the foreign girls that he liked. Make him an appointment, etc. Grandpa’s lonely, he said. He’s a lonely, lonely man. What did you say? I had asked, like I couldn’t believe it. I had thought that was the first time he had slipped. But maybe not. It’s difficult now to say what was and wasn’t out of character. I folded more of his clothes into their pile. Added some VHSs to the top to steady it. Behind me, I could hear Grandpa’s pen tearing through the pages as he traced over his previous writing again and again.
Honestly we are both failures. Failures together. Or, come to think of it, maybe it’s just me. While he found divine inspiration by which to write, a purgatory-like loop of verbal incontinence, I found nothing. I’m ten deep at the bank now, and in return I have chapped hands from scrubbing the filth of money away with antibacterial soap, a gold pin commemorating my years of work behind the counter. I’ve received no such accolades for my essays or reporting. Probably because there is none. There’s hardly even reading, aside from his notebooks. Though I’ve stared until my eyes ached at a form rejection or two. In my university classes they had all shouted loudly over each other. Offered clear thoughts and solutions. I stopped speaking, because I couldn’t stop feeling embarrassed about the sound of my voice. The weak incoherence of it. I tried all the baby steps the internet recommends, but each time I pitched a personal essay to whatever irrelevant online magazine I imagined who might be on the other side of the screen, a real writer, and felt a kind of shrinking all over. I am not who either of us had hoped—
REV 4:18 WHEN THE SEVENTH ANGEL SOUNDS THE TRUMPET, YOU’LL KNOW. I AM GOING TO BRING YOU SOMETHING VERY SPECIAL INDEED
—Grandpa escaped the home during the nurses’ shift change. I ignored the calls because I was sitting in my manager’s office, handing in my two weeks notice. I listened to my mother’s frantic voicemail outside, as I had a smoke to clear my post-quitting nerves before starting work. They called her because I wasn’t picking up. I can’t with him, she cried, I just can’t anymore. It’s been my whole life, this shit. This struck me as odd, pathetic. As if she had ever with him. The smoking is a secret I’d kept from Grandpa for years. Smoking yellows the teeth, he’d always said. You’ve got enough working against you, don’t need to add yellow teeth to the list.
I imagined him ducking behind a laundry cart as it rolled by, like the clever characters of my childhood cartoons, like a Monty Python bit. Or smooth talking the woman at the front desk into issuing him a day pass. I imagined him hitching a ride with a trucker, with whom he would share congenial banter, telling him all about his cars, his former birds. Whoever and wherever they were. With the help of the trucker, he would find his way to the river where he would watch the town’s annual float. The float was held that same day, the sky cloudless and the sun low. But the heat never quite reaches the river like it does everywhere else in town. I had imagined Grandpa at the river, laughing alongside all his old and new friends, his cheeks high and freckled, cruising the currents with blow-up alligators, with buckets of beer and ice on the boats—
AUGUST 18TH, 2015
REV. 21:1 THEN I SAW A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH, FOR THE FIRST HEAVEN AND THE FIRST EARTH HAD PASSED AWAY, AND THERE WAS NO LONGER ANY SEA
REMEMBER WANDA. PLEASE.
—When Grandpa said it was an armed robbery, like he was announcing the headline on the cover of the next day’s Citizen, one man standing at the back of the line let slip a laugh. Grandpa pulled the gun up from his side, where apparently it had been hanging from his hand the whole time. He cradled it shakily in the crook of his left forearm, and only when his right hand worked itself around the trigger, did some people shout and duck. The majority, however, stayed standing, frozen, at the mercy of what seemed a confused condescension.
Hey, he hollered, Listen up! He stalked around the entrance, eyes darting like he was looking for something. He did not finish his thought. It was mostly quiet at this point, except for his breathing. He breathed with his mouth open, and I could hear the dryness. His cups. I could only imagine how long it had been. How long had it been? When did he first walk in? He squinted. He scratched his chin. His face contorted, like a shallow pool into which someone had tossed a stone.
After some time he finally saw me. I hadn’t yet moved even an inch. Grandpa held our eye contact, walked toward my counter. The woman I’d been helping up until he made his announcement, who was trying to cash a clearly bad cheque, absurdly pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, scuttled away as she lowered to the ground, like someone play-acting walking down a flight of stairs. The gun swiveled up and shook at my nose, so close that my vision doubled in an effort to perceive its plastic orange tip.
You, Grandpa said, I’ll kill you, you know?
He pushed the point of what I’d quickly recognized to be the toy gun I bought him into my cheek, the socket of my same-shaped jaw. It jiggled against me, his thin arms struggling to maintain the weight. It’s just plastic, I thought, I can overtake him. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to scare or hurt him. Now, I can see how that was my mistake. Then, I could only see a few police cars and officers through the large tinted windows, gathering along the highway—a safe distance—pointing, like nosey neighbours. The twenty or so scattered people inside the bank—women with shoulder bags half the size of their bodies, men with filthy work boots and camouflage t-shirts speckled with mud and old blood, a boy with spiked hair, a bright polo—wrapped themselves around themselves, their limbs and skin poor excuses for protection. They closed their eyes. Turned their heads toward their own feet, to each other, to the door. I tried to ignore them and focus on Grandpa. Don’t you know me? I said, I’m your granddaughter. He smiled widely, there was foam lining the creases of his mouth. His eyes lingered on my same-shaped chin.
Everyone, he shouted, This is my granddaughter. They did not look, did not uncover their ears. Somewhere, somebody sneezed. She is so smart, he beamed. Smartest kid in her class. Recognition, I thought. Lucidity. He squeezed my hand with uncommon strength, pulling me toward him so that my stomach folded painfully over the counter, while the gun, that stupid toy, jutting up like a spear between us, forced my back to arch, my face and head to angle away, strained. She gets that from me, you know? He scanned all of our audience’s taut faces for confirmation, but they did not oblige.
Through a reflection in the tinted windows, I saw the globular shape of an RCMP officer open the front door. Knock, knock, he said sweetly. Grandpa didn’t seem to notice or care. He turned back to me, his breathing suddenly laboured. He said: button your shirt up, girl. You’re in public. And so he was dangerous again, though one could argue he had been the whole time. I had no response but to shake and sweat and suddenly sob. Not fear of death or harm, obviously, but equally desperate: heartbreak. The kind that’s noisy, that panics the lungs. Please consider for a moment: It was hard not to take this part personally. My chest had never felt so small. My throat stung.
You might think I had choices then, but I didn’t. Out of necessity, I squeezed Grandpa’s hand back, so that our same-lined palms flattened against each other. I’ve since tried to imagine what he was thinking when I did, but can’t. He was only staring, his cheeks and brows sinking in my peripheral vision. No, I can’t tell you what I looked like to him anymore, I can no longer see myself through his eyes. I thought I was the Wanda—aren’t I the Wanda? What I can tell you is that with that toy rifle, my stupid gift, grinding against my cheek against my teeth, I wriggled my fingers in between his so that we were locked together, because hope at these points is inevitable, and we never want to be destroyed.
The officer began to slowly walk forward. Started speaking more assuredly. Soothing at first, then stern, then frantic. Everyone turned their heads except Grandpa.
What did you say? he said, trying to recoil from me, wedging my jaw further open with the gun.
What did I say? I don’t know.
The officer reached forward to grab Grandpa’s wrist. Grandpa swung the gun back, trying to hit him with it. The tip dragged up my cheek, scraping some skin away. The officer seemed to be trying a move, trying to lower them both to the ground, but Grandpa’s wild swinging made them lose balance. Their faces disappeared into each other’s shoulders. As if they were long lost family, hugging. Why didn’t I—
There was a moan and a scream. Terrible.
The officer’s awkward tackle broke his neck, did what Grandpa’s frail body could not do for itself. His ashes sit alone on the mantle above the living room fireplace in a Pewter urn I got with a package deal from the funeral home. I stare at the urn most nights until I fall asleep on the couch. That’s not where he is now. Of that much I am sure.
The house and its many abandoned rooms are mine now. When I first moved in I searched through all six of them, the garage and the basement, for what, I don’t know. Maybe more notebooks. I didn’t find anymore of his writing. It doesn’t seem to be something he had been doing his whole life. Now I find that I too have difficulty going upstairs. The rooms are all densely grey with winter light, echo with a feeling that I can’t name, but must have something to do with memory. Or a sour kind of love. Or a loving kind of rage. Most days I feel sick and alone. Mum won’t come up. Wants nothing to do with the mess. Except to say that we should sue the RCMP and the nursing home over his death. Incompetence, she says, They could have got you killed. They couldn’t have, of course, we know that. In a way it’s my own fault. I had let him go on with that pile of food after all, got him that toy, and besides, I can’t bring myself to truly hear her out; it’s not what he would have wanted. He didn’t leave anything to her anyway.
The snow builds up on the roof and slips down like thunder and there’s not an ounce of comfort in it. Eerie, the way it skips and resounds along the cobwebbed walls, especially in the dark night. I have, however, found Grandpa’s piles of things to be effective at blocking much of the noise, so I’ve left the remaining ones where they were when he left. Somehow, though he’s gone, the piles seem to be growing taller, like trees. New ones springing up in the remaining space. I’ve cut myself a path through them to the kitchen and the bathroom from my spot on the couch.
Of course I did find one more notebook—in the fridge, behind a moldy bag of oranges on the top shelf—new, blank. Tonight, like every other night, I’ve taken the book back out, filled myself a glass of water—more for inspiration than anything else—and sat down at the kitchen table. Outside the French doors, the moon makes it through the weaving arms of the cottonwood periodically, like a searchlight.
Apropos of nothing , I open the book, cold against my fingertips—
there he is
Soili Smith has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University in Newark, and is currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies at the same institution. Her scholarly work is concerned with cultural representations of refugees and settler colonial aesthetics of refuge. Her writing and interviews have appeared online in Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Minola Review, among others. She is originally from the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation.