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Eft Onwoc
Emmet Caravello Quinn

Peter folds closed the book. It’s just staple bound, heavy paper, wide pages. This always makes his books seem informal. He remembers the days when he could own cloth bound volumes, sturdy, stately–the kind that induce vague reverence when seen on a shelf. Knopf was his favorite publisher, their hard back Everyman’s Library editions, even if cloth bound $22/book white classics could hardly be every man’s library. Of course Vintage was his choice for paperback. The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry–he still has it. Poetry is easier to read when half blind. Squinting through a lens for a page of broken lines that contain more than most books, he can do that. Cost-Benefit. He reads one poem, chews it over and over for days, unfolding meaning upon meaning upon meaning.

Every part of Peter’s body is as if it is at war with itself but not only the ways one expects. His hair is brown that could have once been blonde or red, half-fighting to turn back, half-fighting to go black. He jokes with his friends that it’s this battle that curls his hair when, in truth, it’s the flood of new hormones. His eyes are a mash of every color in his family–his father’s green, his mother’s brown, even some of his grandfather’s blue. He used to study his eyes in the mirror, learned the precise angle of light that makes the gold rings flash. His best friend, the one he loved, used to study them, too. She had found more colors than earthy gold. She had broken off her study one day, and said, "There’s red in your eyes. That’s frightening." Sometimes he wants to go back to her, beg her to take up her study one last time to see if there is any hint of that dead, blind blue.

He peers across his desk at the clock with the two-inch high letters. It is 9:03. Visiting hours are supposed to end at 10, but he knows they will let him in whenever he comes. He knows his grandfather no longer really sleeps. Still, he likes to make his visits seem legal.

His mother hardly speaks to him any more, doesn’t call him by his rightful name, but finally has stopped regaling him for never going to visit his grandfather. Every time he went to visit his grandfather with them, his mother, father, and younger brothers, he was repulsed by the way they called him to the present, jack hammering his fragile body to his death bed as they bludgeoned him with new stories, current events, the latest in the family chronicles. Peter thinks this is no way to show love and respect. He meets his grandfather on his grandfather’s terms–as a ghost or the 20-year-old shadow of an eighty-year-old man.

Peter stands up from his desk and goes to the bookshelf. He has forgotten where they left off in their reading. He runs his fingers over the top of the over thick books until he feels the post-it note left hanging. Mark chapter 4, he reads. When he is cold and detached reading his psychology texts, Peter considers experimenting, reading the books all out of order. Would his grandfather notice? What would the effects on the old man be? But it’s only when he’s studying that he thinks like this.

He takes Mark then another book, Beowulf. He’s not sure if they will get to one or either, but he thinks that his Grandpa has read this before. Peter only reads him books he has read before and tells no new stories. It’s Grandpa who tells the stories, Grandpa who has skin wiser than Braille. Peter carries his stories in the over wide staple bound volumes, traces out the text that Grandpa has read a dozen times before, and waits to hear what he will learn. It’s Peter who will become a part of his grandfather’s stories, a character or three, will be half told stories of eighty years ago–half told because his grandfather believes that Peter already knows these stories having been there fifty, eighty years ago.

It’s already dark when Peter leaves the house. He loses track of time so quickly these days. Maybe he is becoming like his grandfather, loosing half his sight, loosing track of the hours. He shakes his head. Sight and time, for him are not related.

Peter likes the light on the street, the soft knowing yellows, so much more gentle than the industrial light of libraries. He’s glad he doesn’t have to open his eyes to read any more. He starts out walking quickly, the clip-clip of his steps not echoing on the pavement. There’s too much growing in August for that. Growing things absorb sound the way they absorb light. He is certain of this. He is certain that some day it will be proven that plants feed on sound as much as light. Maybe it has all ready been proven–scientific endeavors inspired by wives’ tales. There’s a little bit of wind tonight, the kind Peter thinks of as a kissing wind, the breeze that comes after a too hot day and taking a little off the edge. It’s not because he thinks this is a wind to kiss to that Peter thinks this. It’s that it’s the wind that is kissing passers-by.

It’s a short walk to Cadbury, just two blocks down then a right and eight more blocks. Peter knows there must be some more of a meaning for the name "Cadbury," but all it conjures for him is bad chocolate and bunnies that cluck. Why name a nursing home after that? There must be another meaning to the name. Someday Peter will search it out. The wind blows Peter’s hair a little. It’s only been in the last three weeks that his hair has been long enough for that. He’s been keeping it clipped so short, but now, he wants to show off the curl a little like his deepening voice and the beginnings of his beard. He feels his face in confirmation.

He nods to the strangers he passes on the street. The strangers are just foggy shapes approaching, but he nods all the same as much to hide his loss of sight as out of politeness. He knows he could keep walking forever in a tunnel, knows that he could just keep walking and never speak to another human being, not even nod, not even see them, hear their footsteps only as something to avoid knocking like uneven pavement or a trick stair. It’s this that keeps him nodding, keeps him going through all the motions of appropriate behavior, and yet, he wonders if this too is making his world just as much of a tunnel.

He turns the corner. He has the impulse to feel his watch for the time, but his other hand is full of books. He wonders if he could feel the time pressed up against his face. He wonders if his cheek is literate. He doesn’t want to think about his grandfather yet, doesn’t want to think about the way Grandpa caught him between his knees when he was a little, little girl, how they played the running up and down game. He would be close to his grandfather, teasing him somehow, and then his grandfather would shoot out his legs, catch him, and he would run squealing towards Grandpa’s toes, run squealing only to be caught by Grandpa’s toes closing together, laughing and giggling. Grandpa’s toes opening then closing just in time to prevent escape. He wonders at the thought of feeling safe between another’s legs.

Peter crosses the halfway street. He doesn’t really look both ways before he crosses any more. He just listens as he approaches, then looks left for bikers. He wonders who he will be tonight, which brother or son Grandpa will make him tonight. He makes himself stop.

The home–that’s what his family calls it–is quiet when he gets there. He feels the look of recognition from the nurse’s station. There is a feeling to being watched he knows. His mind spins a little quicker. It’s Tuesday. It should be Bette, the redhead. He thinks his grandfather talks about her sometimes, brings her into his stories. He stops to talk to her. She updates him on his grandfather’s health. He doesn’t pay attention to this. He doesn’t record the litany of prescriptions and treatments his mother does. It doesn’t matter. All the doctors can do now is give his grandfather drugs that eat his mind with the pain.

Bette asks him about the weather, then what books he has brought tonight. Peter still has old reactions. He lifts the books at an angle from his waist and looks down at them as if he can see them, as if they have print on them, as if he needs a reminder of what they are. "We’re on chapter four of Mark, and then I brought Beowulf," he says.

"Beowulf," says Bette. "I remember reading that in college."

Peter nods. "I think he read it in school, too."

Bette says she is certain his grandfather will like it.

Peter ducks his head. "I hope so." He says good-bye to her and starts for his grandfather’s room. Every time he comes here he is torn between letting in all the smells to know the place and shutting them out to keep his stomach from turning. He hates the sterile, medical smells of all hospitals. He could almost tolerate the death and dying smells so potent here, the smell of moth-balled bodies, if it were not for the sterile alcohol smell sharp as a syringe on top.

His grandfather’s door is the third on the right. The door is half ajar. He knocks.

"Eh?" Peter hears his grandfather trying to rouse himself from the haze. "Eh? Who’s there?"

Peter pushes open the door. "It’s me."

"Jackie? Jack?" his grandfather asks, "Is that you?"

He is Grandpa’s younger brother Jack. They have done this one before. "How’s my big brother doing?" Peter asks.

His grandfather makes the "aw" noise, the one that encapsulates being over touched by kindness or valor he did not expect, relief that those around him can live up to all he expects of them, and a humor that Peter does not yet understand.

For a moment, Peter wants to stop, smack his grandfather back into the present. Peter has a nearly insuppressible urge to throw off the garments of a thousand imagined people his grandfather and everyone else has saddled onto him and proclaim, I am your grandson, Peter, the one you caught between your knees. But even at his most lucid moment, even if all the drugs and their unknown damage could be lifted with the pain, his grandfather would remember no grandson named Peter. At his grandfather’s most lucid moment, Peter would be invisible to the one family member he still talks to.

His grandfather’s voice comes back in over Peter’s thoughts. They are back in 1943 when his grandfather was sent home from the war because of the burns on his hands. Peter knows these stories, how his grandfather’s hands have looked ancient from age 26 on. Peter has never known the skin on his grandfather’s hands to look any different from the skin on the rest of his body, but he thinks there is a metaphor in ancient hands on such a young man. Tonight, his grandfather does not tell him so much of the war stories that hardly interest Peter. Instead, he talks mostly about the nurse, the redhead, Grace. Grace was his grandmother’s name. He remembers that his grandfather always called her Gracie when she was alive. Grandpa asks if she was still on duty when Peter came in.

He says, "Yes."

His grandfather laughs then recounts a story about asking for a sponge bath. Peter laughs. He knows his grandfather asked his grandmother for a sponge bath when they first met. Peter thinks about the old pictures of his grandfather in uniform, how he looked like a Kennedy. Peter listens in the long pauses between his grandfather’s sentences. He doesn’t think his grandfather knows about the pauses. They wouldn’t have been there in 1943.

"Ma came to see me today," Grandpa says. "Tell her that I’m going to be absolutely fine. I don’t want her to worry."

"I tell her that everyday," Peter says. "I think she’s starting to believe me."

"I’m going to get my hands back," he says.

"How could you not?" Peter says and lets himself laugh a little, not about the irony of worrying over injuries healed half a century ago, but slipping into his role, Grandpa’s little brother. "You’re my big brother, damn luckiest man alive."

His grandfather laughs. "I’m not sure yet," he says. "If I get that redhead, the one out there. Did you meet her?"

"Sure did."

"If I get that one to give me my sponge bath, then I’ll be. She’s a whippersnapper, you know. Gotta watch out for those redheads."

They laugh. Then his grandfather’s voice falls off. Peter hears a shifting, settling sound. His grandfather will drift for awhile now.

Peter lets the scent of mothballed bodies seep into him. He looks through the window at the knowing yellow light of the streetlights. He settles back in his chair and waits. He thinks about the last time he saw his mother. It was here when he used to visit earlier. He had been Jackie that night, too. They had been talking about the war, how it was going. Grandpa had asked for news, and Peter had given him vague bits about a coming victory, careful not to be too specific, careful not to jar a conflicting memory he did not know about. He felt his mother behind him boil, standing in the doorway fuming. Finally she came in, gliding rage across the floor to him.

"Sandra," she hissed, "Sandra, what the hell are you doing? Are you trying to kill your grandfather, too?"

Peter drew a deep breath to speak when his grandfather’s voice came over him.

"Who are you?" his grandfather asked his mother. "Who are you?"

She looked up at him. "I’m sorry, Dad," she said. "I’ll get her out of here. She’s not supposed to be here. I’m sorry, Dad. It’s just a phase. Don’t worry about it." She took his arm then, fingers synching into it. "Get up," she hissed. "Get up."

Peter felt his grandfather’s confusion and anger welling up towards hysteria. "What are you doing? Leave my brother alone." He felt his mother’s grip on his arm slack a bit. "You bitch," his grandfather called, "Leave my brother alone."

His mother’s grip tightened to a vice on his arm. "Get out of here. Look at what you are doing."

Peter heard his grandfather struggling in bed, trying to get up to defend his baby brother. He heard the IV tubes rustling and became afraid. "Bill," he said, desperately trying to drag his grandfather back to the peace of 1943, "Bill, it’s all right, but I’ve got to go now, okay?" He picked up his Bible.

His grandfather did not stop struggling. He kept shouting, "You bitch, you harpy…"

His mother stopped trying to move him and looked at Grandpa. "Dad, it’s me Margaret," she said. "Dad, it’s me Margaret, your daughter." She recited the date, his condition, his position as head of her family, everything she could to fix him in the time and place she needed. Nothing worked. Peter sat paralyzed. His grandfather kept cursing her, kept struggling to rise and defend his baby brother, kept straining the IV tubes, and finally let out one long cry that deteriorated into sobs and stopped struggling. His mother turned back to Peter. He is still certain there were tears in her eyes. He let her drag him from the room.

In the hallway, his mother continued her tirade of, "Are you trying to kill your grandfather, too?" as she pulled him towards the exit. She blamed him for his grandfather’s confusion and rage. Peter said nothing. At the nurses’ station, she had halted and displayed him to the nurse saying, "This…this…" she had struggled with what to say, with whether to call him girl and appear crazy or call him boy and feel crazy. She gave up. "…is not allowed here, not to see my Dad." The nurse was a redhead. He had had that feeling of being watched.

"Yes, Mrs. Neill," Bette said, her eyes still on Peter.

Peter had waited until almost ten to come two nights later. Bette had been on duty again. "She’s been gone for two hours now. You know I didn’t record that," she had said.

He thanked her.

"He’s happiest when you’re around," Bette said.

Peter ducked his head.

Peter hears his grandfather stir and opens the Braille Bible on his lap. He hears the change in his grandfather’s breath that signals he is as awake as he will be. Peter begins reading, "A reading from the Gospel according to Mark." Peter hears the same rustling pattern he hears every time he begins this way. It took him months to realize that his grandfather is making tiny crosses on his forehead, lips, and heart–may the word of God be always in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart. Peter reads the Parable of the Sower who cast seed on good and poor soil. He thinks about planting his mother’s garden when he was a child. He thinks about the tiny furrows they dug for snap peas and the tall trellises she let him wind the twine across. He thinks about first grade science class when they were supposed to grow plants in plastic cups on the windowsill and how after weeks of no growing, he and his teacher had turned over the cup and found nothing inside. Peter thinks about dirt farmers.

When he finishes, his grandfather says, "Amen," and then there is silence for a few minutes. Peter knows this time. It happens almost every time he comes to read to his grandfather–the silent time when Peter feels a change in his grandfather, when he feels like his grandfather is in a place he hasn’t been before and a place he has always been. He wonders what will happen when they reach Revelations. Peter doesn’t know who his grandfather thinks he is at these times. He waits for his grandfather to speak and watches the light outside the window.

His grandfather inhales. "Who are you?"

Peter doesn’t know how to answer. Peter always waits for his grandfather to tell him who he is. Peter always knocks at the door, says "It’s me," and waits to be told what he means. His mind is racing. He’s back in his mother’s garden with the peas, leaning over the furrows, trying to plant the rows, but the peas are slippery. They’re sliding through his fingers too quickly. He’s over planting. The pea plants will kill each other before they reach the trellis. He has to think of a lie, but can’t. His grandfather’s waiting there in the darkness, and Peter can feel the seeds slipping through his fingers. "I’m your grandson, Peter," he says and waits empty handed.

His grandfather makes the "aw" noise twice. Peter hears him reaching out his hand, grasping at where. "Where are you?" Peter takes his hand. "Aw, there you are," his grandfather says and pats his hand the way he did when Peter was Sandra. "I’m getting a little blind, you know?" he pats Peter’s hand again, "My grandson, Peter, such a good boy." Peter goes cold and teary at once. In the joy of hearing my grandson, he knows he could have said Humphrey Bogart or Lawrence Welk or Bettie Boop and elicited the same response. He could have called himself The Morning Star and his grandfather still would have taken his hand. He wants to scream, speak the news of today–not 1943, jar his grandfather out of the haze and jackhammer him to his deathbed like his mother does. He thinks of the time he gathered all the snap pea blossoms as one beautiful gift for his mother. He feels seeds slipping through his fingers. He wishes no one asked questions ever.

"What else have you brought to read to me, Peter?" his grandfather asks.

"I brought you Beowulf, Grandpa," he says and sees his younger self patting earth over furrows.

"Aw," says Grandpa, "aw. Read it, will you?"

"Yes," he says and tries to take back his hand. His grandfather squeezes tighter. Peter watches the knowing yellow light outside the window. "I need my hand back, Grandpa." His grandfather lets go. Peter sees seeds slipping through his fingers. He keeps watching the light outside and listening to his grandfather drift off to sleep as he reads.

Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone,
away from the world, till awoke an heir

Peter remembers having to memorize this passage in Old English. He toys with trying to remember the words but can’t. His grandfather turns in his sleep, makes the "aw" noise and recites the old English like an incantation.

_a wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe _rage
folcum gefræge fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde, o__æt him eft onwoc


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