If the USA is so eager to help oppressed peoples like the Syrians…why are we casually deporting folks who are political refugees right back to the jerks who want to imprison them? I mean, there’s no sarin gas. That must be it. No sarin. I wonder if the sarin gas my grandpa helped create in the 1950s is still around, still underground somewhere in Arkansas. I wonder, while watching him shrivel, shrink, melt, liquify in his easy chair, my grandfather, who fucking was born in the depression, and NEVER once wasted bean juice from a can. But had a son who’s probably contributed more to waste and excess (through hoarding) than all the bean juice in the world, grandpa, dripping from billions of baked bean cans around the world. I hope that your atoms are soaking in some sweet northern beans, getting the molasses all around your soul. I miss you so much and I don’t even know it yet! I memorized all the cute stories you repeated towards the end, your brain fried from chemo and brisket smoothies. You used to keep OJ in a Poland spring bottle, and I’d always know you’d be visiting if there was some sorry-ass beat-up plastic bottle. This was a man who wore dockers and polo shirts his entire life. An extravagance to him was a trip to a foreign land, like China. In their 60s and 70s my grandparents toured the world. He was infatuated with the Three Gorges dam project. He liked Big Ideas, my grandfather. We talked Higgs-Boson particles, an important discovery in Physics that he was keen to understand, even while the cancers melted his membranes. I would patiently repeat my layman’s concept of the energy-field, delibrately trying to avoid metaphors like Schrodinger and Heisenberg said, knowing that as all men of letters and science here, sitting around the table in Needham, Mass with all of my fucking family hovering, trying to enjoy Planet Earth or Walker, Texas Ranger.
Taking advantage of the many doors, windows, AC. Roasting bones and bowls in the basement. Hanging out with an autistic hermit-hoarder-audiophile and a cancer-ridden mensch can be exhausting, especially if mom needs to get grandma out of the house for a inute, because she needs some Vitamin D and we are in a beautiful part of New England. Not that we give a shit.
I remember driving around this dry county, cursing every teetolater who wanted to convert me. Ani Yehuda, we love to drink! Fuck you, christians! I have to deal with your ‘secular’ values in my constitution, do you really have to make me burn some ethanolated gasoline thru your beautiful, gentrified hills in order to slug down a beer? I was just trying to recover from my own experience, haha. Grandpa was in ‘rehab’ aka nursing home and I needed some ‘rehab’ from ‘rehab’. DIdn’t help that some fuckingcunt cutmeoff in her SUV. Pulled up next to me in a bank parking lot, cursing and screaming, her hatred and ill health (she looked overweight and depressed) bubbling up, making a normal face twisted and ugly. Beauty is deep, skin!
She twisted and yelled, clutching her iphone and money clip with benjamins poking out. I don’t think she thought I would have the audacity to approach her, but trust me after you ride your 38 year-old Yamaha fast—down 95 and thru 128. Shit gets real, Massholes don’t care much if you live or become smeared. So I was stressed already. And seeing your fucking grandfather, who had an untempered iron grip that could close on your hand like a vise, who played tennis every day and who invented cochlear implant batteries or some shit, that man is lying in a bed, dying.(He wouldn’t depart for months and months, actually).
At that moment, I had no fear, cunt. I was angry, sad, raged. When I stood next to you I saw the fear. I enjoyed it, slightly. You trembled and became more ‘shrill’ as I came closer. I felt my masculine power fully, and wanted to strike. I wanted to slap that fucking disgusting bundle right out of her hands, her little handcuffs of iphone, wallet, keys with a million rite-aid hardtags. Watch her entire ‘world’ just shatter on the ground. It would have felt so fucking good. But I just asked her if she wanted to take a walk. A 5 minute walk, down to rehab. If she wanted to see what real discomfort was like. See my brave saba, who never once complained of being in pain. Who had a chemo-tube inplanted in his body. Who ate liquid food and saw his quad muscles become liquid. Who enjoyed every fucking minute of his last year of his fucking life. I loved hanging out with him, we’d listen to ‘it ain’t necessarily so’ over and over again on his new iPad. I found a video of an all black, professional cast who simply killed it. I looked past his outdated expressions of ‘negro’; my grandfather was never a bigot. He was hardly a believer, despite having been a good jew and was around when people still called our anashim ‘christkillers’ and ‘kikes’. (Thanks Mel. Still love you in Max Mad II).
Anyways, I simply asked the cunt if she wanted to come down and visit my grandpa. Then she could have seen real pain, suffering, simple bravery. My cosmopolitan, classy Hungarian grandma, holding on to her sweet Marv, that hardworking smuck from Chigargah. He had a big heart though, and he was smart as a whip. Can you believe he got a ph.d, and was able to work while in school and pay his tuition on time? Different times, man.
He didn’t know what to write about. Everything that was worth writing about had already been written. He could write about the curve of her back, and her cute square feet that looked just strong enough to support it, like a drawbridge strung between two cliffs that actually looks like it won’t fall apart on the way down. He could write about anxiety, but who doesn’t feel anxiety in the twenty-first century? A collective anxiety that’s consuming us all. We’re all eating ourselves, enveloping our mouths around all of the good things about our personalities and biting and sucking, slurping them down to be boiled by stomach acid. He could write about the electro-chemical shock he got every time his cell-phone rang—he perpetually kept it on vibrate so as to never be “that guy” at the opera house. He hated opera. But sitting on the nightstand, usually atop some stop novel he was reading the cell-phone vibration would reach some frequency that Bach would be jealous of, it would resonate all the way through the legs of the table down into the floorboards, cascading into a noise so fucking loud he feared he would have a heart attack. It would cease momentarily, then start again with the same awful buzzing. He’d creep over to it, bending forward in the darkness to catch a glimpse of the person who casually wanted his attention. Terror always struck him the moment before his gaze coalesced and meaning came out from the tiny blue screen. Bill collectors? Angry parents of students he was teaching? Well, one student anyway. Maybe anxious parents who wanted to vet him on his teaching abilities? They should never have given him that job. He threw himself into the shark tank on that one with hardly a harpoon to carry. He only had half a degree and a history of over-teaching and arrogance; he never paused to grasp the student’s pace. He’d cram a year’s worth of curriculum into a half-hour, descending into a manic rant; eyes popping and wide.
Or, godforbid it was actually one of his few friends calling. Then he’d only have about fifteen seconds to compose himself, brushing his hair and straightening his clothes, standing up very very straight. People could tell these things over the phone he was sure, confidence is mostly an illusion and must be maintained by physical things. He’d clear his throat of depression and answer in a nice, deep phone voice. “Hello?” “Oh, nothing much, just doing a bit of reading.” (Lies, he had just shotgunned through a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation smoking bowls of skunk and eating chinese.) “Yeah, you know. Working on some awesome guitar pieces, they’re really coming along. And how are you?”
This part was unfeigned; as much loathing for himself he had it didn’t extend to his friends. He knew why they hung out with him of course, he was a witty conversationalist, quite funny and could deliver punch after punch of deliberate puns when opportunity cropped up, as it always does. Puns are easy to formulate. And of course he was sort of giving in his affections, he was really quite good at asking the question, “And how are you?”, in a meaningful tone. The trick, he thought, was to start the sentence (and) with your gaze on the horizon or something and (how) bring it to their chest, or if it was a girl friend her shoulder. Then you would start to warm up your voice to transmit that moment of affection (are) in a meaningful way, bringing your gaze up (you) to meet their eyes at the last word. This part was very crucial as eyes are of course venetian blinds for the mind, and bringing your eyes to theirs was necessary to facilitate emotional connections. He was very good at crossing his eyes; he could even do a parlor trick where it looked like he was moving both independently, side to side in creepy yet practiced and smooth movements. Maybe if his eyes could spin around like that, so freely, they could grab onto the handle of the other person’s venetian blinds, you know that thing that you twist and turn to open or close them. When he made that crucial connection, that meeting of eyes, his would spin furiously, the pupils would like a hypnotist. No one would ever notice of course, because as any student of geometry knows when you spin a circle about it doesn’t change the angle of attack or whatever you called it. He sucked at geometry. But if he did it right he could start to open up those blinds with his powerful pupils, and fool them into a moment of contrived empathy. And then they’d see that he wasn’t depressed, he was fine and dandy; happy. Because depressed people have a flat affect, they don’t care about anything. And they especially don’t care about seeming or looking like they care. That is an important distinction, isn’t it? Remember all those stupid Zoloft commercials where you follow for thirty seconds the daily misadventure of an unhappy blob, round and made of clay or some weird ether? The blob was unhappy and received no joy from the things blobs normally love: strutting around in blob-land, looking at flowers or some bullshit. But then a magic map shows you the contents of blob-man’s brains, which are remarkably similar to ours. It simplistically tells you how the magic pills redirect the currents in blob-man’s brains, putting him back on the road to happiness.
In all honesty that’s probably what happiness was; chemical in origin and terminus. He did believe in G-d but it was in that hippy-dippy, “G-d is Nature” kind of shit; like G-d was more like the force than anything, a sort of low-powered buzz that linked us to bugs and goats and rocks and stuff. He didn’t think that G-d could directly intercede in human affairs. “I mean when you think of the Holocaust”, his grandpa would say in repeated senility that was actually quite endearing. “All those children, dead. How can you believe in someone that wouldn’t step in to help them?” He couldn’t, especially now, after a lifetime of clean bills of health and tennis games, and an iron grip that would squeeze your knuckles together in most unnatural ways, he was full ‘o cancer. Cancer in his stomach, cancer in his liver, cancer every which way. What did he do wrong? It was just part of living on Earth of course. G-d’s way of telling you your lifestyle couldn’t be sustained. Cancer as a means of communication.
His grandpa’s favorite song was “It Ain’t Necessarily So” By George Gershwin. It’s a nice song, haunting yet catchy. The chords running underneath it were pretty simple and jazzy, but the melody had some weird, atonal bits that must have stretched out some audience’s ears and made then wince.
He went down one Pesach to his Bubbie’s and it was certainly a fitting time for the holiday. Pesach is the holiday of suffering, of eternal suffering that the Jews had undergone at the hands of the Pharaohs. And of course the liberation of the Jews comes at a great cost. He never really got how punishing those poor kids really taught anybody anything, if only to hate those fucking Jews some more. And even after they escaped from Egypt the Israelites had to wander in the desert for a while.
Everyone around the seder table had their own ankhs to bear. One uncle hated his job and seemed to despise his life
The other was autistic and was grumpy (haha, I’m personifying my Jewish relative like Maurice Sendak. My relations were never monstrous to me; like his creations, I always wrote and thought of them with respect, even if that respect was flecked/filtered/washed/tainted with a teenaged, anarchist condescension for all that was impure, most especially my fucking yuppie self. Garbage with a French Accent, Knowledge and decolletage and post ‘68 situationists, running backwards through ancient, blood smeared cobblestone streets. Ghosts of Robespierre and Bonaparte, gore-encrusted cakes feeding Muslim mothers shorn of their Burkas and Niqabs and Hijabs.
Fury grabbed him, it swept him up like a tidal wave. He imagined the meanest of offenses, the most undeserving opponent. And pummeling his temples with torrential pounds. Right haymaker, SMACK! Left fist surprise uppercut to the chin. Crunch. His forearms were bulging and veiny. But each strike made him angrier instead of bleeding off the rage like it usually did. He’d never been in an actual fight in his life, and generally he abhorred violence. But in this vision he couldn’t stop, and he smashed the poor shmuck’s face and skull into a gory mess.
Okay, so he had never been in a ‘real’ fight, not counting a few middle-school bathroom scuffles that had exempted him from full-on ‘nerd dweeb’ status. But next time he passed this punk-ass motherfucker on the main road, it would taste so sweet if he could just get in one solid, sweet right hook to the temple. Plow.
My grandfather’s dying. It’s strange and not so strange. Everybody dies. What comes next may seem like a series of cliches, but I’ve never experienced them before. They don’t feel like cliches to me, it’s very real. Like the cliche of wasting away to nothing. One moment he’s fine, strong, with a grip like old iron, lean and firm. Solid for millennia. Then cancer sets in. Stomach, kidneys, I don’t know where else. He used to play tennis, three times a week. Forehand, backhand. It’s hard to imagine that now. About a year ago he started chemo. The first thing I noticed was his hair went white. Stark white. It used to be a dull metal grey. He became weaker and weaker, and now it’s incredible. He can’t stay up. He can hardly swallow or talk. Grandma makes him pot roast and spetzl smoothies in the blender. Even that’s hard to get down. He’ll work on half a glass of tea for an hour or two. His right foot is curled in a permanent grimace, the toenails long and yellow like icy peaks, jutting out from base camp. These would be hard to climb. He used to be muscly, for a man in his 70s. Now if you pinch his arms it’s like a loose bag of saline. His core is still somewhat strong; he needs that for getting up and into the wheelchair. Wheelchair. I hate that word. He jokes about it, though. “Thanks for the lift, Dave.” He says.
Uh oh. The gremlin comes in, squat and ugly, lumbering forward faintly on pointy legs, with deep red and purple veins running through them, scabby feet that look to be on the verge of bleeding. I try to take something out of the overflowing refrigerator for dinner but he snarls and hisses. Inside it’s a mess of diet drinks, dips, pounds and pounds of cheeses. Cheap cheeses that look fancy but go for the low-blow of taste, masquerading as a delicacy. Cheese in general is a chemical blessing for any human, assuaging all of the wants as far as taste goes. But Bavarian string cheese? It’s not exactly going for a subtle or stinky complex flavor.
I poke around the fridge, looking for something that would complement cheese or meat, which are bountiful. Three large tubs of mashed potatoes. Jack Daniels ready-made meals. Enough sausage links and hot dogs to stretch from here back to home in Maine. Shrimp dumplings and guozos. I don’t know what a guozo is, but there are several packages of them, and they come with their own sauce, which is in a large glass bottle. I settle for an appetizer of dumplings. I drizzle some water on them as requested by the package and plunk them in the microwave.
The gremlin comes into the room and emits a deep, exasperated sigh as he sees what I’ve picked out. “I spend a lot of time looking for that stuff, and I look forward to tasting everything,” he says. “I have a great idea, you should bring your own food from Maine.” Bring my own food? I have to resist laughing. This house is ready for an apocalypse, zombie, nuclear or otherwise; at least when it comes to food. The kitchen itself is filled to the brim. The sliding pantry cannot accommodate another package of rice, chips or freeze-dried Indian food. The fancy fridge could teach a submarine pilot navigation lessons. Every time I wrestle through it to find a middle ground, something between aspartame diet drinks and heavy processed food, it emits three beeps, once a minute after I close it. It seems like a tight seal to me, but it does this when it senses an obstruction, something is blocking it. I hastily re-arrange things inside, it’s like a 3-D puzzle. Finally I realize that it’s the freezer, and in taking out some rubbery chicken nuggets I dislodged an ice cream tub. Fixed.
The two refrigerators and pantries are archaeological sites. they convey an entire history of food, if you know how to look. Both grandparents came from Depression-era poverty, and the-throwing-away-of-food is a sin. I still remember as a teenager grandpa finishing off my baked bean juice I was about to rinse off my plate.
But some of their habits are ridiculous, and accomplish nothing. Like the habit of saving leftovers, even the meanest slice of meat or chicken, wrapping it up in a plastic bag and freezing it. Thus, the freezers (both horizontal and wide) are like ancient civilizations, each simply building a new city on top of the old one. A quick dig through the top layer results in finding an older one, bits of frozen dinner and readymades. As you go down the expiration dates get closer, the packaging you can tell is from a different era, when the companies maybe preferred bubbly shapes and brighter colors. Now they like sleek lines.
I remember driving here. I always seem to go too fast. I don’t know why, I shouldn’t be in a hurry to get here. I can’t help it, I don’t like being behind slow drivers. I remember feeling panic when a state trooper with one of those muscle cars that don’t seem to befit a government worker. Too flashy. He wasn’t interested in me, however.
Turning off the highway into Needham. People tailgate here. I drive by a sign that says Watch Children. I imagine a strange race of kids, walking around adorned with wristwatches, their heads replaced by giant clocks, ticking away. Maybe they can
hang out with the Slow Children and time them, make sure they are slow.
I’ve been down to Mass too many times this year. It seems like every weekend. I love my family, but it’s true that everyone carries their burdens around with them, you can’t help but notice. Grandpa dying, slowly but surely. Heart wrenching. Grandma worrying, pacing all the time, trying to meet his every need. She’s lost weight and hardly sleeps, afraid he’ll go in the night. She wakes up every twenty minutes or so to check if he’s breathing. She doesn’t say, “still alive”, she says “breathing”. Of course she says that.
Then there are the uncles. One is the gremlin, although I shouldn’t call him that. It’s not nice to pick on someone with a developmental disorder like Autism. But he’s just so hard to be around, each year getting worse. Ascerbic isn’t what I would call it, I want to call it assholery. Every visit now makes me want to slap him hard across the face. Such a release would only feel momentarily good, however. I don’t think he can help it. But he acts like a three year old. He throws temper tantrums, but with the force of an older man. He loves the word fuck. He has no sense of himself. Grandma is too nice to him. She gives him a credit card, an apartment. He has no social life, instead of that he compulsively buys things. Does he have a choice? I don’t think so. As long as I’ve known him he can’t relate to anyone or anything except for the things he buys, the people on plastic covers which don’t talk back, who can be bossed around at will, categorized. CDs, DVDs, videogames. It used to be books and cassettes but he’s adopted. I even see a few neat stacks of blu-rays by the TV. Basically, he’s addicted to shopping, finding good deals. All of my memories include an image of him coming into the house with plastic shopping bags full of CDs. It used to be that he would ask what you wanted, that he would get you something if you asked. But this was a danger. Even off-handedly mentioning a genre or a singer you liked would result in stacks of albums being shoved in your face, a little pile next to the big piles that were ordered only in his head. Occasionally he would show off his printout of everything he owned, being constantly updated of course. When he gave you a paper print-out he would be sure to mention that it was out-of-date.
But now things are worse. He’s the most unhealthy person I know, walking up and back through the short halls of the house producing weezing and gasping. Him and my mother are exact opposites. He scorns any kind of exercise and lives on a diet of meat and melted cheese. I remember once when I was watching him make dinner. Watching him in general I should say, he and grandpa when my mother took my grandmother out to a garden, for some much needed relaxation. She doesn’t look after herself anymore. I watched, and attempted to be detached as he assembled what he said was, “like a pizza, but without the crust!”. He smiled at me, a child with shark’s eyes. He took a plate and upon it spread shredded cheese from a plethora of different packets. On this he plopped little sausage balls and pepperoni. The smell of it after microwaving made me nauseas and gave me a headache.
But this is supposed to be about grandpa. I’ve given the gremlin more attention that he deserves, but I can’t help it. He’s a shitty daytime drama and a slow-motion train wreck rolled into a pudgy ball.
Grandpa takes oxygen these days, usually while sleeping. A plastic tube that seems infinitely long runs the length of the house, delivering the life gas. It’s connected to a compressor machine that is constantly making a low noise. It hisses a bit and then makes a click, exactly like the sound of someone clipping their toenails. However it is very regular. Hiss hiss click. Hiss hiss click. Hiss hiss click. I know it’s important but it’s unnerving.