folds closed the book. Its 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, statelythe kind that induce vague reverence
when seen on a shelf. Knopf was his favorite publisher, their hard back Everymans
Library editions, even if cloth bound $22/book white classics could hardly be
every mans library. Of course Vintage was his choice for paperback. The
Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetryhe 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.
part of Peters 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 its
this battle that curls his hair when, in truth, its the flood of new hormones.
His eyes are a mash of every color in his familyhis fathers green,
his mothers brown, even some of his grandfathers 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, "Theres red in your eyes. Thats 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
His mother hardly speaks to him any more, doesnt 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
grandfathers termsas a ghost or the 20-year-old shadow of an eighty-year-old
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 its only when hes studying
that he thinks like this.
He takes Mark then another book, Beowulf. Hes
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. Its 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. Its Peter who will become a part of his grandfathers
stories, a character or three, will be half told stories of eighty years agohalf
told because his grandfather believes that Peter already knows these stories having
been there fifty, eighty years ago.
Its 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. Hes glad he doesnt 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. Theres 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 provenscientific endeavors inspired by wives tales.
Theres 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.
Its not because he thinks this is a wind to kiss to that Peter thinks this.
Its that its the wind that is kissing passers-by.
Its 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 Peters hair a little. Its only been
in the last three weeks that his hair has been long enough for that. Hes
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
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. Its 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.
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 doesnt want to think about
his grandfather yet, doesnt 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 Grandpas toes, run squealing only to be caught by Grandpas
toes closing together, laughing and giggling. Grandpas toes opening then
closing just in time to prevent escape. He wonders at the thought of feeling safe
between anothers legs.
Peter crosses the halfway street. He doesnt
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.
what his family calls itis quiet when he gets there. He feels the look of
recognition from the nurses station. There is a feeling to being watched
he knows. His mind spins a little quicker. Its 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 grandfathers
health. He doesnt pay attention to this. He doesnt record the litany
of prescriptions and treatments his mother does. It doesnt matter. All the
doctors can do now is give his grandfather drugs that eat his mind with the pain.
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. "Were 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,
Bette says she is certain his grandfather will like it.
his head. "I hope so." He says good-bye to her and starts for his grandfathers
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.
door is the third on the right. The door is half ajar. He knocks.
Peter hears his grandfather trying to rouse himself from the haze. "Eh? Whos
Peter pushes open the door. "Its me."
Jack?" his grandfather asks, "Is that you?"
He is Grandpas
younger brother Jack. They have done this one before. "Hows 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 grandfathers most lucid moment,
Peter would be invisible to the one family member he still talks to.
voice comes back in over Peters 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 grandfathers hands have looked ancient from
age 26 on. Peter has never known the skin on his grandfathers 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 grandmothers 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."
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 grandfathers
sentences. He doesnt think his grandfather knows about the pauses. They
wouldnt have been there in 1943.
"Ma came to see me today,"
Grandpa says. "Tell her that Im going to be absolutely fine. I dont
want her to worry."
"I tell her that everyday," Peter says. "I
think shes starting to believe me."
"Im 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, Grandpas little brother. "Youre
my big brother, damn luckiest man alive."
His grandfather laughs. "Im
not sure yet," he says. "If I get that redhead, the one out there. Did
you meet her?"
"If I get that one to give
me my sponge bath, then Ill be. Shes a whippersnapper, you know. Gotta
watch out for those redheads."
They laugh. Then his grandfathers
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,
Peter drew a deep breath to speak when his grandfathers voice
came over him.
"Who are you?" his grandfather asked his mother. "Who
She looked up at him. "Im sorry, Dad," she said.
"Ill get her out of here. Shes not supposed to be here. Im
sorry, Dad. Its just a phase. Dont worry about it." She took
his arm then, fingers synching into it. "Get up," she hissed. "Get
Peter felt his grandfathers confusion and anger welling up towards
hysteria. "What are you doing? Leave my brother alone." He felt his
mothers grip on his arm slack a bit. "You bitch," his grandfather
called, "Leave my brother alone."
His mothers grip tightened
to a vice on his arm. "Get out of here. Look at what you are doing."
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, its
all right, but Ive got to go now, okay?" He picked up his Bible.
grandfather did not stop struggling. He kept shouting, "You bitch, you harpy
mother stopped trying to move him and looked at Grandpa. "Dad, its
me Margaret," she said. "Dad, its 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
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 grandfathers confusion and rage. Peter said nothing.
At the nurses station, she had halted and displayed him to the nurse saying,
" 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. "Shes been gone for two
hours now. You know I didnt record that," she had said.
"Hes happiest when youre around," Bette said.
ducked his head.
Peter hears his grandfather stir and opens the Braille Bible
on his lap. He hears the change in his grandfathers 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 heartmay 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 mothers
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.
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 grandfatherthe silent time when Peter feels a change in his
grandfather, when he feels like his grandfather is in a place he hasnt been
before and a place he has always been. He wonders what will happen when they reach
Revelations. Peter doesnt know who his grandfather thinks he is at these
times. He waits for his grandfather to speak and watches the light outside the
His grandfather inhales. "Who are you?"
know how to answer. Peter always waits for his grandfather to tell him who he
is. Peter always knocks at the door, says "Its me," and waits
to be told what he means. His mind is racing. Hes back in his mothers
garden with the peas, leaning over the furrows, trying to plant the rows, but
the peas are slippery. Theyre sliding through his fingers too quickly. Hes
over planting. The pea plants will kill each other before they reach the trellis.
He has to think of a lie, but cant. His grandfathers waiting there
in the darkness, and Peter can feel the seeds slipping through his fingers. "Im
your grandson, Peter," he says and waits empty handed.
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. "Im getting a little blind, you know?" he pats Peters
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 todaynot 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.
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,
beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone,
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 cant. His grandfather turns in his sleep, makes the "aw" noise
and recites the old English like an incantation.
on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe _rage
fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde, o__æt him eft onwoc