I picked up my mother at the Orlando airport, and during the hour-long drive down to Melbourne, she went through a laundry list of warnings about Bob, her younger brother and my uncle.
“Whatever you do, don’t sit in his chair,” she said with a severity that seemed excessive. “Don’t touch it, don’t stand near it, don’t even look at it. Just walk around it like it’s a dead hobo in the street.”
My mom has never had a flair for descriptive adjectives, but to listen to her talk about Bob’s recliner, she sounded like Kafka riffing on insects. She told me about leather armrests caked with dried food, cigarette burns like tiny bullet holes, and a seat tattooed with the sweaty imprint of Bob’s Brobdingnagian naked ass.
“He sits in his chair naked?” I asked.
“All the time,” she said with a shudder. “He usually puts on a pair of pants if he knows guests are stopping by. But you never know when he’s going to strip down and start watching TV, a plate of something fried balanced on his gut. That chair has become a biohazard.”
I suspected that Mom was exaggerating, preparing me for the worst so I wouldn’t be alarmed by the reality. She’d done the same thing to me countless times in my life, painting a picture of unimaginable horror to lower my expectations. When my grandfather had a stroke, she drove me to the hospital with grim predications of what awaited us.
“You won’t recognize him anymore,” she told me. “His skin is almost entirely translucent, and you can see all the veins and gooey stuff underneath. You’ll want to stay away from his face because of the moaning and foamy discharge. Not that you’ll be able to get that close. He’s surrounded by IV tubes and wires and beeping monitors. He’s more machine than man now.”
When I finally walked into my grandfather’s hospital room, trembling from the suspense, and saw that he didn’t resemble a Lon Chaney character, I was so relieved that I almost burst into laughter.
“Oh, thank god,” I said, smiling down at my grandfather’s limp, ashen body.
But there was a part of me — a selfish part, I’ll admit — that wanted my mom to be telling the truth this time. When I volunteered to drive down to Melbourne with her, it wasn’t in the spirit of charity. I wasn’t here because I wanted one last meaningful visit with my elderly grandmother, who was still living in the same rickety Florida house she’d called home for almost 40 years. It was to see my uncle Bob, who, at 50-something, was divorced, unemployed, morbidly obese, riddled with cancer, and living with his widowed mother. Like a rubbernecking driver who slows down while passing a car accident, I just wanted a glimpse of the wreckage.
Not that my mother was being totally altruistic. She’d only flown down to Florida out of obligation, as the sole sibling (her other brothers and sisters live near her in Michigan) to lose the annual “who’s gonna check on Mom?” coin toss. Or at least that’s the polite way to describe it. As my brother more accurately summed up our mission, we were “poking the bodies with a stick to make sure nobody’s dead.”
I agreed to join my mom for her unpleasant task, but I didn’t make the trek down to Florida’s taint because I’m a loyal son. I wanted a little something for my effort. I wanted to be entertained. I wanted a spectacle. I didn’t just want Bob to be as comically quirky as my mother had described. I wanted him to be a thousand times worse. I wanted him to be like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now; bald and sweaty, his face smeared with grime, crouched in the shadows of a mud hut and muttering “The horror, the horror.”
When we pulled into the driveway, Bob was waiting for us on the front porch. He was rounder than I remembered, and he’d let his beard grow unchecked, which was now singed orange from nicotine. But otherwise, nothing about him was scream inducing. He didn’t remind me of Colonel Kurtz or any other iconic fictional madman. At worst, he looked like Gandalf if the wizard had let himself go and given up on magic for competitive eating.
“Ear-Ache! There he is! Get over here, you ol’ son of a gun!”
At first, I didn’t realize he was talking to me. I’d forgotten all about that annoying pet name, which he’d started calling me when I was just a kid. Thirty-some years later, I still didn’t understand it. My childhood hadn’t been fraught with ear infections. Was it because my first name began with an “E” and ear-ache was the first similar-sounding-but-not-really word that occurred to him? Or did he think it was funny to make my name sound like it was being pronounced by a deaf-mute? Whatever the reason, he clung to “Ear-Ache” like it was something sacred; a private joke that only we understood.
After exchanging cordial nods with my mom, he pulled me close and gave me a bear hug, his belly thrusting against me like a medicine ball. “I’m glad you’re here, Ear-Ache,” he said. “It’ll be nice to have some sanity around this place for awhile.” And then, thoroughly winded, he released me and collapsed in his porch chair, sighing deeply and lighting up another cigarette.
It was the only meaningful conversation we would have all morning.
As Mom puttered around with my grandmother inside, I sat on the porch and watched Bob smoke. His brand was Winston Unfilters, and he had several cartons stacked on a table, piled high like grim pyramids, a testament to his bad decisions. There were so many pregnant pauses — interrupted only when Bob asked something innocuous like “How’s your brother doin’? Still got those damn pugs?” — that I was able to study his smoking technique. He pinched his cigarette at the tip and jerked it towards his face with every puff, like he was holding a gecko’s tail and it was trying to slither away. And he only smoked half of each cigarette before snuffing it out, which I guess was because that’s when his lungs, already riddled with cancer and emphysema, started screaming at him, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
When he ran out of pointless questions and the silence started to make him uncomfortable, he filled the void by bursting into song. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” he warbled. I vaguely recognized it as a Buffalo Springfield song, but I wondered why he only sang the one verse. Surely he knew at least a few more lyrics. Was there some significance to that line, something that he was trying to convey to me? Or did he just stop singing because of the violent coughing fits?
He eventually fell asleep, and I wandered inside to find my mother and grandma. The house was strangely silent, so I went room to room looking for them. The place was a lot smaller than I remembered, and in a terrible state of disrepair, like a neglected dollhouse or a tree fort built by a well-meaning father with no discernable carpentry skills. But still, I had a lot of memories tied up in this house — some of them good and some of them… well…
It wasn’t entirely my grandparents’ fault. There was a lot of unfair competition. My other set of grandparents, on my dad’s side, lived in Rochester, New York in a sprawling three story, five bedroom home. During my youth, our family visited them several times a year, and it was always like Santa’s toy factory during a post-holiday overstock sale. My brother and I were literally showered with gifts from the moment we walked in to the moment our parents finally dragged us, kicking and screaming bloody murder, back into the holding cell of our family’s car. If I so much as hinted that I enjoyed, say, the comedy stylings of Bill Cosby, there would be dozens of his records waiting for me the next time we visited. Our grandparents took such giddy delight in us, applauding even our least impressive accomplishments, like finishing our meals and dressing ourselves and bowel movements.
“Did you make a poo?” they’d ask when we emerged from the bathroom, their eyes wide as saucers, ready to celebrate another victory with us. We feigned surprise, but inside were thinking, “Why yes, we did have a successful doodle. Thank you for noticing.” After too many of these visits, we became resentful towards our parents. “You never notice when I make a poo,” we’d mutter under our breathes. But as much as this irritated them, they knew it was a passing fad. A grandparent’s fascination with your colon is charming at four, but when you reach 10 it just gets creepy.
My other grandparents, on my mom’s side, didn’t make things quite so delightful for us. They treated our arrival like a tax audit, and my brother and I were IRS agents. From the moment we trespassed on their property, they eyed us suspiciously, somewhere between grudging indulgence and overt hostility. “I suppose you’ll be wanting something to eat,” my grandfather would growl long before he ever said hello, and we all bowed our heads with the shame of grifters caught in the act.
My brother and I tried to stay upbeat during those visits, but it was difficult not to daydream about our other grandparents, who made us feel like fat bureaucrats, pampered and overindulged. We missed the plastic Chinese-made crap toys we didn’t need and having our backs tickled by wrinkled fingers as we drifted off to sleep. Even without the glaring lack of amenities, our family vacations in Florida were no picnic. Unless you enjoyed sleeping in a poorly ventilated and oppressively humid house (while mostly deaf, my grandparents had an uncanny ability to hear the slightest movement anywhere near their AC control, and they’d punish offenders with extreme prejudice), wrapped up in a ragged knit blanket that smelled like mold and hydrogen sulfide, lying on a stiff fold-out couch that any reasonable person would’ve set fire to and abandoned on the side of a highway long ago.
As I wandered through the house, giving myself a guided tour of my past, I saw that not much had changed. The house still had the same hardwood floors that looked and felt like aluminum. It was still filled with furniture that belonged in the back room of an antique store, arranged with a decorating scheme that could best be described as “I’ll just put this here till I figure out where it goes.”
All of their framed art looked like it’d been painted either by a serial killer or somebody taking an adult education painting class during or just after a bitter divorce (and possibly both). A sole bookshelf contained ornamental pinecones (they’re art deco and they’re free) and the occasional huddle of books, with the most popular titles faced out — like “Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Loss Solution” and “The House at Pooh Corner” — as if they were being promoted for quick sale.
The predominate color scheme, just as it had been in my muddy memories, was brown. The couch was brown, the rugs were brown, the walls were brown. Even the dog, sleeping peacefully on the kitchen floor, was a dark hue of shit-brown. I wondered if this was intentional, maybe as a form of camouflage. Did they think any color, even just a splash of yellow in the curtains, would attract all the evils of the world to their doorstep?
And then there was the chair. The chair. Bob’s sanctuary from the outside world; his throne of diabetic entitlement, his death knell with padded cushions. This was the dreaded chair that my mother had warned me about, implored me to ignore like she’d once begged me not to look directly at a solar eclipse. I had no memory of it from my childhood, but it was too dilapidated and bedraggled to be a new addition. It was covered in stains equal parts plasma and Worcestershire sauce, and the material, at one time probably leather, was so weathered from age and overuse that it now resembled pudding skin. Even just looking at it made me feel dirty, like I needed a Silkwood shower and I needed it fast.
“There you are,” my mom exclaimed, bursting into the room with a defiant stride. “I’m been looking everywhere for you. Don’t just stand there staring at the walls. We have a lot to get done this weekend!”
The rest of the day was a flurry of activity, and most of it seemed like pointless busywork. Floors were scrubbed, kitchen cabinets were rearranged, random boxes were taken out of closets and put into different closets, electrical cords were examined like we were looking for fingerprints. I tried to make myself useful. I volunteered to mow the back yard, until I realized that it’d been ignored for too many years and was now a dense thicket of tropical vegetation. A lawn mower would be useless against this monstrous flora, some of which had leaves large and sturdy enough to scoop up a baby. I needed one of those machetes that jungle guides use, and the best my grandmother had was a dull bread knife.
Our big mission of the day was getting the kitchen stocked with groceries. Food was in shocking short supply. By the state of their fridge, you’d think they lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and expected to be herded onto a train at any moment. In keeping with the Holocaust theme, my grandmother was alarmingly thin and frail. Even for a woman of her advanced age — my best guess was somewhere in the 90s (she guarded her exact age like a TV actress auditioning for a high school drama) — it still isn’t healthy to resemble a scarecrow made out of wax paper. You should not be able to disappear simply by turning sideways, unless you’re a shapeshifter or Karen Carpenter’s ghost. She was so emaciated, a strong breeze could’ve carried her away. Bob, on the other hand, was the size of Buddha. Whatever food had actually made it into the house over the past few years, it was pretty obvious who was getting first dibs.
We went through a list of supplies, and Grandma dismissed all of it as extravagant. Bread? Not in this economy. A few cans of soup? Not unless you’ve won the lottery. Meat or poultry? The neighbors will smell it and think we’re a bunch of high rollers. Toilet paper? Either FDR or Jesus, she forgot which, advised her that splurging on toiletries was a sign of moral corruption.
“What about cat food?” Mom asked. “It looks like you’re out.”
“Cat food?” my grandmother sniffed. “For who?”
As if on cue, my mom and I both turned and looked directly at the cat, which was perched on the kitchen table just a few feet away from Grandma.
In some distant part of her brain, she must’ve been aware that she had a pet. There were six industrial-size bags of kitty litter in the garage. Why she thought food was a wasteful expense but feces control was a financial priority was perplexing. It’s simple biology. Before something comes out, you have to put something in.
“The cat looks hungry,” I mentioned. “The Cat”, including the definite article, was the cat’s full name. When my grandmother had rescued it from an elderly neighbor who died suddenly, she christened it “the cat” and that was that.
My grandmother turned and glared at the cat like she thought it had snuck up on her and was making condescending “I’m with stupid” gestures behind her. “Oh, he takes care of himself,” she said.
The cat, I swear to you, did a perfect double-take, and gave us an expression that seemed to say, “I know, I know. And she really believes it too, that’s what makes it so funny.”
We eventually ran out of chores and settled in for the evening. It was, for somebody accustomed to a certain amount of technology, an adjustment. There was no wireless internet connection, no cellphone reception, not even a cable signal. The television (black and white, of course, and big as a steamer trunk) was equipped with rodent ears, so jagged you needed a tetanus shot just to touch it. And for some reason, it was only capable of finding stations that played repeats of Gilligan’s Island on a constant loop. For the first time in my 30s, I was sequestered from the outside world, forced into a total information blackout.
I was panicky at first, but it’s amazing how easily the shackles of the modern world slip away. “A guy could get some serious thinking done in this place,” I thought, as I stretched out on their rayon chenille couch and listened to the wonderful sounds of nothing.
“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong!”
Bob was singing again. But it didn’t grate on my nerves, like it’d done in the past. When I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine he was a bluebird — an extremely corpulent, sickly bluebird, but still — hovering just outside the living room window and serenading us with Vietnam protest songs. As long as you convinced yourself that all bluebirds native to Florida are a little phlegmy, the ruse was easy to believe.
Bob was in his chair by 4pm, and he remained there for the rest of the night. At some point, his shirt came off, just as my mom had predicted. A few minutes later, his shoes were gone. It was like he was stripping in slow motion.
“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong!” he sang, shouting out the words at odd intervals. I wondered if he had some rare form of Tourette’s, but only for the lyrics to “For What It’s Worth”.
He shoveled his dinner into his mouth from a chipped blue bowl. Bits of mucousy food fluttered from his chin and sprinkled his chest hair, like a fresh snowfall on an Illinois farmland. He made no attempt to wipe it off, and I wasn’t going to be the one to mention his bad hygiene and ruin what was otherwise a perfectly civil family potluck.
Bob slouched in his chair, his belly fighting to be the highest point of his body. I watched as one of his feet slid down his blue calves, slowly peeling away a sock with his toe, like a burlesque stripper removing her fishnets. It wasn’t even dark outside yet, but I knew if I didn’t make my escape soon, I would be witnessing something that would scar me irrevocably.
“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” he mumbled. And then I heard the unmistakable “snap” of his pants being unbuckled.
“Goodnight everybody,” I said, slipping into the guest room like I thought I was being chased.
Falling asleep in my grandmother’s house wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. I was in a back bedroom, which was also being used as a makeshift office and storage for cleaning products and half-empty cans of paint. Every time I started to drift off, I worried that it was just the fumes making me lightheaded. And if my insomnia needed more encouragement, every few hours something that sounded like a cropduster flew low over the house.
The bed was from another era, when malnutrition was just another word for dinner and adults rarely grew taller than Oompah Loompahs. My legs dangled over the side, directly at the knee, so that it looked like I was doing a sleep limbo. The bed was pushed next to an open window, and as the night wore on, I could hear distant growling outside, like a very upset dog or a sasquatch stubbing his gigantic toe on a lawn sprinkler. I pulled the covers close and tried to imagine what it could be. Perhaps a creature from a Russian children’s fable? Every time the bushes rustled, I could almost hear the French horns announcing the arrival of something feral and carnivorous.
I eventually gave up on sleep and decided to explore the room. It was an indoor junk yard, littered with boxes of unmissed mementos and antiques stuck in the mirthless oblivion of not-nostalgic-enough-to-save-but-too-heavy-to-carry-out-to-the-trash. But of all the dusty and long forgotten artifacts on display, my eyes were instinctually drawn to a collage of photos of Bob and his family, tacked to a corkboard mounted over a cluttered desk. They were mostly from the 70s — judging from the dates scribbled on a few photos, they spanned exactly from 1971 to 1983.
The photos featured Bob at the height of his non-misery. There he was with his two sons, laughing and hugging each other and Bob doing nothing whatsoever to publicly embarrass his boys. And there was Bob and his wife, who hadn’t yet kicked him out and changed the locks and told him never to come back. And there was Bob and his friends, drinking and laughing and sometimes walking around shirtless, but without the bloating and rashes and constellation of skin tags that made shirtlessness such a bad idea for him now.
After 1983, all photographic evidence of Bob ended. If any photos had been taken, they were either destroyed or hidden. There was an unspoken message in his carefully-constructed collage. For at least one decade, somewhere between his first marriage and when Bob gave up on the world, he was content. It was the officially designated “happy period” of his life. Everything before and after was irrelevant; just an annoying reminder of how badly he’d screwed things up. This was what he wanted to remember.
I could see the glimmer of a TV set under the door. Somewhere out in the living room, Bob was probably nestled in his crusty chair, muttering at infomercials like an unambitious King Lear, as naked and glistening gross as the day he was born. I trembled as I considered turning the doorknob and walking outside. Would he be surprised? Or just nod silently, like he’d been expecting me all along? What if I sat down next to him and watched TV till dawn, maybe even loosening my belt and, what the hell, throwing my pants across the room like a sleepy Chippendale’s dancer? The mere thought of doing something so contrary to my every instinct felt strangely liberating. It was almost as if adapting to Bob’s midnight rituals meant that I was crossing some invisible line in the sand, making a secret alliance with our family’s genetic bad luck charm.
But I didn’t join him. Instead, I ran back to bed and hid under the covers, because I am a coward.
The next morning was a blur of minor emergencies, each treated like they had the potential to blossom into something cataclysmic.
“Grandma can’t find her toothbrush,” my mother said, her voice dripping with urgency.
“Okay,” I said, still wiping away the sleep gunk from my eyes. “Does she need to brush her teeth?”
“Well, not now, no. But that’s not the point. She just wants to know where it is.”
One look at my grandmother and I knew it was serious. She had the nervous twitching of a parent about to call in an AMBER Alert. “Something is missing,” her eyes flashed, “and if I don’t find it soon, I’m gonna lose my shit!” I believed her, too. She’d be emptying bags of flour and digging up the back yard before she gave up.
And so we began a morning-long search to locate my grandmother’s toothbrush, which of course was hidden somewhere behind her battery of pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet, exactly where she’d left it, and not in the crawl space behind the washing machine, where I ended up ingesting enough asbestos to give me a hearty coalminer’s hack.
With the toothbrush tragedy narrowly averted, they moved on to the next crisis. Where did Grandma leave the bills? Are there enough eggs for breakfast? Where’s the closest outlet to plug in the vacuum cleaner? What’s that ringing in my ears? I tried to stay out of their way, but even that created its own set of difficulties.
“I think I’ll go take a dip in the pool,” I announced after breakfast. The “pool” was a few miles away, at the Melbourne Village recreation center, where my brother and I had spent countless hours as kids. It was the sole bright spot in our Florida vacations, especially since we were both terrified of the ocean, convinced that it was teeming with sharks ready to be driven to butchery by a John Williams’ soundtrack.
“What a lovely idea,” my grandmother said, with so much enthusiasm that it crossed over into sarcasm. “Just give me a minute to find the pool key.”
An easy enough task, unless you’re an elderly woman who can’t keep track of her toothbrush and believes her cat doesn’t have a digestive tract. The next few hours were devoted to going through her massive archive of keys, trying to identify which one might grant access to the pool. But really, the search was less about the pool and more an excuse to take a trip down memory lane. It was an excavation of our family history by way of a bunch of rusty metal and rubber.
“This keychain says Mazda,” my mom remarked. “When did you own a Mazda?”
“Oh, you remember,” my grandmother said. “We got that car after you went to college. I think it caught on fire. Your father was such a terrible driver.”
“Oh look, here’s that Fritz the Cat keychain Bob used to love.”
“Your father always hated that cat. He said it was just a damn dirty hippie.”
“Why is ‘Meals on Wheels’ written on the back?”
“That’s probably from when I volunteered for them back in the 80s. Did I use that awful keychain? Oh my goodness, I’m so embarrassed. I have to make some calls and apologize.”
They eventually found a few keys that looked “close” and sent me off to the pool, dressed in my grandfather’s old swimming trunks (which had extra buttons for suspenders) and a handful of cash because Grandma wasn’t sure if she’d paid her Village dues in the last ten years and I might be arrested for trespassing.
When I pulled into the parking lot of the rec center, which looked alarmingly like a religious cult’s compound, I remembered why my brother and I had stopped coming here. The pool, open year-round and exposed to nature’s wrath, was filled with leaves and sludge. The surrounding gate was covered in signs, warning swimmers of the lack of licensed lifeguards and the likely presence of alligators. The negligence wasn’t surprising, given that Melbourne Village was founded in the 50s by communists, most of whom were still in charge. Say what you want about their political beliefs, but old-timey communists with a chip on their shoulder about Stalin should not be responsible for maintaining water quality.
I tried every key they’d given me, but none of them worked. I was starting to get paranoid, wondering if I was being watched. The place was too quiet, too empty. I imagined a group of grizzled commies hiding in the welcome center, peering at me from behind dirty windows. These were my grandfather’s old drinking buddies, the political extremists who went into hiding during the McCarthy Hearings and never found out that the Cold War was over. I couldn’t count on them remembering me, much less not locking me in a shed until they figured out whether I was a spy for the Minutemen.
I came back raving about my refreshing swim, and quickly jumped into the shower before they could realize I smelled nothing like chlorine. After giving myself a fake once-over, I reached for the nearest towel and noticed it had the oily imprint of a face, like the Shroud of Turin if Jesus had grandma bun hair. I looked around the bathroom for something relatively clean, but everything was covered in the same strange, black dust.
“That’s just Grandma’s powder,” Mom told me, as if this was a perfectly sensible explanation.
“Her powder?” I asked. “What sort of powder?”
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“Is Grandma in a minstrel show?”
Wanting to escape the matriarchal blitzkrieg storming towards their afternoon tasks, I retreated to the front porch to sit with Bob, who was smoking and singing that same ominous Buffalo Springfield line. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong!” We talked occasionally, but it was the same mindless prattle from yesterday. We talked about the Florida heat, what my brother’s been up to these days, how the Melbourne Village pool would be an excellent place to hide a body, and why Grandma wouldn’t be losing her toothbrush quite so often if we just attached it to her shirt with a mitten string. And then, like we did every time before, we stared off into space and said nothing.
I was starting to realize just how empty the days really were for them. My grandmother, with the help of her daughter, kept her mind and body occupied with the white noise of housework, but it wasn’t fundamentally different than how Bob sat on the porch and watched his days trickle away. Everybody in this house was just killing time, waiting to die.
I struggled to come up with new topics to discuss with Bob. I’d noticed that his wardrobe consisted almost solely of sports memorabilia from the University of Michigan. Which was odd, because Bob never went to U of M, much less set foot on a college campus. As my mom explained it to me, Bob just really liked Michigan — not the university, but the state — and this was the only way he knew how to express his enthusiasm without, you know, moving there.
But still, all his fading t-shirts with a big yellow “M” on the chest and the “Go Blue” pennants hanging on the walls, it made me think he had at least a passing interest in football. Being completely ignorant about sports, I did just enough research to carry on a semi-intelligent conversation with him.
“So… how do you like the Wolverines’ chances this year?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was a madman spouting gibberish. “The who?”
“The Wolverines. Steven Threet’s got a pretty good arm, don’t you think? He’s no Tom Curtis, but then who is, right?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
With football a bust, I decided to try a different tactic. I asked Bob if he wanted to sneak away with me, maybe walk around the block and just get out of the house for some fresh air. He looked at me like I’d just asked, “How ’bout we dip our balls in some sour cream? That’d be good for a laugh, huh?”
“No,” he said, lighting up another cigarette. “I’m good.”
I considered mentioning to Bob that a man with bronchitis, emphysema, diabetes and cancer of the throat and liver might not want to be smoking quite so many cigarettes. But I knew better. I wasn’t going to point out that his lymph nodes had swelled up to the size of hockey pucks, or that he’d packed on an additional 100 pounds since I’d seen him last, possibly due to his habit of eating sticks of butter like lollipops. It was true, but I wasn’t going to be the one who brought it up. After all, making grim proclamations about Bob’s health is what killed my father.
Even as he was heading towards coronary disaster, my dad couldn’t help but comment on Bob’s unhealthy eating habits. “That guy better clean up his life,” he’d tell my brother and I, “or he’ll be dead before 60.” The strange coincidence that he was the one who died at 60 was not lost on us, and we began treating predictions of Bob’s imminent demise as a sort of Pharaoh’s curse. When the family discussed his declining health, my brother and I remained silent, refusing to offer up our opinions on when Bob’s already overworked internal organs would finally throw up a white flag in surrender.
“Be nice to Bob,” Mom scolded us. “This may be the last time you see him. He’s not very healthy.”
We nodded and smiled, but we weren’t convinced. We knew that Bob would outlive us all. He had the puzzling tenacity of a cockroach — a very, very portly cockroach with no self-esteem or discernible source of income who spent his social security on discount cigarettes and hot pockets and lived with his mother in a house that was one aggressive sneeze away from collapsing, but a cockroach nonetheless.
The bulk of the afternoon was devoted to napping. Bob and Grandma’s sleep schedule was rigorous — two hours in the morning and three hours after lunch. And they slept hard, like hibernating bears. We could hear them snoring in their respective bedrooms, roaring and gurgling, competing for aural dominance. I considered joining them — I hadn’t slept well last night, and at least during the day there weren’t quite so many cropdusters flying overhead.
But before I could get my shoes off and collapse onto the nearest couch, my mother grabbed my arm and led me into a back room.
“This is our chance,” she whispered.
Our trip had apparently evolved into something very different over the last 48 hours. What began as a friendly check-in was now a search-and-rescue mission. Mom had made surreptitious phone calls to her other siblings, describing just how bad the living conditions had become in Melbourne, and it was decided that Grandma should be, for lack of a better word, kidnapped.
I couldn’t argue with them. The environment in this house wasn’t healthy, especially for somebody in her (alleged) 90s. Grandma was dangerously thin, and at least while she was living here, she had a better chance of getting food if she was fighting for scraps with alley dogs. And Bob, well, his very existence was a health code violation. This mine shaft was going to collapse, and the only humane option was to rescue as many survivors as we could and get the hell out.
“We need to find Bob’s gun,” my mom whispered.
“What gun?” I asked, growing panicky. “Nobody said anything about a gun.”
She dug her fingernails into my wrist. “Calm down,” she told me, pausing to listen for footsteps. “I don’t think he even remembers he has it. But if we’re taking Grandma away and he’s in this house all alone, we just don’t want him to have any unnecessary temptations.”
I wasn’t sure what she was implying, but any scenario with Bob and a loaded firearm probably didn’t have a happy ending. It had Chekhov foreshadowing written all over it.
I came close to making a very bad joke, about how Bob wouldn’t be able to do anything regrettable with a gun without first getting out of his chair and putting on a pair of pants, and that’s kinda a win-lose scenario, but I thought better of it.
She brought me to a storage closet, filled with boxes piled high on rickety, unstable shelves. Even with a step-ladder, getting to some of the boxes required uncomfortable stretching, poking at them with the tips of our fingers and pulling each box towards us till they tumbled towards the floor. If there really was a gun hidden somewhere in there, I didn’t see how this was the best way to find it. It seemed like a set-up for an anecdote that ended with, “And wouldn’t you know it, the safety wasn’t on! Well, long story short, that’s how I accidentally shot my mom.”
I found a box near the very top of the shelf that looked promising. On one side, written in black sharpie, were the warnings “Ant Poison” and “Dangerous, DON’T TOUCH!” On the other side: “Personal and Private.” Obviously this was something that the owner wanted to keep away from prying eyes.
I carefully pulled it down and peered inside. There were no handguns or weapons of any kind hidden inside. The box was filled with letters, most of them so old they looked like they’d been soaking in tea. I opened one and started reading.
“Dear Bill,” it began. “It has been two weeks and already I miss you terribly. My heart swells with such aching desire for you, I feel as if I might die.”
They were love letters, and judging from the addressee, love letters written to my late grandfather. There was only one part that didn’t make sense.
“Who’s Betty?” I asked my mom.
Reading a bunch of love letters to your late grandfather, particularly when your grandmother wasn’t the one writing them, can bring up all sorts of troubling and soul-searching questions. Why did he hold onto these letters? Did this woman love him as much as she claimed, and did he love her right back? Why didn’t it work out between them? If circumstances had been different, would they have ended up together? Should they have ended up together? And was your grandfather really as much of a kinky bitch as the letters made him out to be?
I have very distinct memories of who my grandfather was. He was a man who adored leftist politics, and wrote angry letters to The Nation and The New Republic whenever he felt they were leaning too far to the middle. He was a man who’d gone bald at 30, at roughly the same age he started believing his waistline began just under his nipples. He was a man whose 70th birthday present to himself was personally reshingling his house — not to prove that he was still self-sufficient, but because roofers were “crooks” who wanted to rob him blind. He was a man who wrote all of his correspondence (and even his “to-do” lists) on an antique Smith-Corona typewriter, which was missing an L key that he never found it necessary to replace. He was a man who began every conversation by explaining exactly why you were wrong. And above all (at least for me), he was a man who loved his grandkids but couldn’t help but look at them with an expression that said: “If you want a hug, I’m gonna need a blood test.”
But I never thought of my grandfather as a man who had sex. I know he must’ve done it at some point (my mother and her siblings were living proof), but I just assumed he had sex like a cheetah — fast and unemotional and without any eye contact. I certainly never thought of him as somebody who had sex for pleasure or would, if given the opportunity, dress up like a “soiled and morally indecent farmer” and ravage his girlfriend in the nearest abandoned barn.
“I want you to be inside of me,” one of the letters from a woman named Betty confessed. “I want to smell your manly musk as you hold me down and have your way with me, making me feel afraid and so terribly excited at the same time!”
It was a lot of information to digest all at once. I was just getting used to the idea of my grandfather experiencing genuine intimacy with another human being, but I couldn’t wrap my head around him dabbling in role-playing rape fantasies. A few letters later, however, it was all I could think about. I closed my eyes and imagined him as a young man, dressed in a filthy pair of overalls and no shirt, his hair slicked back in an impersonation of redneck menace, scowling at a frightened pastor’s daughter (Betty’s preferred character during their sexual adventures) and ordering her to “just hold still for a minute and this will all be over!”
My mother was only mildly interested in her father’s love letters. “Oh that’s just sweet,” she cooed when I gave her the gist (minus the explicit parts). “He was very popular with the ladies before he met your grandmother.”
She probably had the right idea. She wanted to know just enough to get the basic idea — that her father was a romantic softie who saved love letters from his ex-girlfriends. But as for what was actually written in those letters, that’s where her curiosity ended. She understood that this was a road she didn’t need to travel, because some things are secret for a reason.
I wasn’t that strong. I couldn’t let my grandfather have his privacy. Because I felt like I’d stumbled onto something rare and precious. I really didn’t know anything about my grandfather besides the surface details. I knew what he bothered to share with the rest of us. But this was something he’d kept hidden, maybe even something he was ashamed of. It wasn’t all sex in the barn and “I love it when you pull my hair and call me a whore.” There were also tender moments, moments of uncharacteristic vulnerability. Reading his letters made me feel like a coroner, poking around a dead guy’s guts and finding things even he didn’t know were in there.
For the rest of the evening and well into the next day, I stayed in bed and went through the box of letters. I read every one, never skipping a sentence. It could get monotonous — letter-writing in the 20s was not all that different from text-messaging, except without the cutesy acronyms — but I pushed on, because I was terrified of missing something revelatory and tender, buried between the filler and “how’s the weather” pleasantries.
Reading the letters was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with only a few of the pieces. Sometimes what Betty wrote didn’t make much sense. Lines like “I hope you can forgive me for what I put you through” could mean almost anything, from the banal — she never would have recommended that Mexican restaurant for their last date if she’d known about the botulism — to something a little more exciting and dangerous. Had she showed up at his apartment with a briefcase full of blood-soaked cash and a nervous facial tic? Handed him a shovel and told him to get rid of “Mr. Won’t-Be-Missed” in the trunk? Coaxed him into a cross-country crime spree, robbing gas stations across Texas as they made their way towards the Mexican border?
Tucked between the letters were a handful of black-and-white photos of Betty. I hesitate to admit this, but I thought she was kinda hot. She looked like Maggie Gyllenhaal dressed as a jazz-era flapper. And her eyes, oh sweet lord… how two tiny orbs could convey so much vulnerability and seduction is beyond me. The way she gazed at the camera, you wanted to reach into the frame and pick her up and carry her to someplace safe and warm. If she hadn’t reached her sexual peak roughly 40 years before I was born, I easily could’ve fallen head over heels for her.
Which is an odd thing to say about somebody your grandfather has slept with. But it wasn’t as yucky as it probably should’ve been. Maybe it’s because Betty and I didn’t share DNA. It wasn’t like I ever looked at photos of my grandmother as a young woman and thought, “Shake those gams, grams! I totally woulda hit that.” But with Betty, I could look at her with my grandfather’s eyes, romanticizing her way out proportion — and in the process, forging an admittedly weird connection with him that I never had while he was alive — and not once cross into the creepy realm of incest fantasy.
Reading the letters was like reading a chick-lit novel where you know the ending isn’t going to be happy. Obviously my grandfather didn’t end up with Betty because, well, then she’d be the one sitting out in the kitchen, refusing groceries and pretending she didn’t own a cat. Every letter was a little less hopeful, a little more apologetic and frustrated. It was like watching a relationship fall apart, dissolving to dust with every halfhearted attempt at optimism. Betty lived in Massachusetts with her parents, and they didn’t approve of my grandfather’s Midwestern roots and working class grit. (They apparently wanted more for their daughter than getting nailed in a barn by a guy dressed like Tom Joad.)
Betty wrote things to my grandfather that lovers say to each other when a relationship is almost over and neither one of them wants to admit it yet. “You just need to be patient with me” and “we’ll find a way through this… somehow.” The only missing cliché was “we need to talk”, but I like to think she did that in person, during one of their awkward dates when everything was double-dutch and my grandfather was constantly apologizing for having no money. The ending was anticlimactic, because there was no ending. The letters just stopped, without explanation. Or at least an explanation that didn’t need to be immortalized in print.
But I found something even better. In one of Betty’s letters, scribbled just below her signature on the last page, was this single, unmistakable line:
“EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”
I stared at it for several minutes, trying to remember why it looked so familiar. And then it hit me: it was a Kurt Vonnegut quote, from his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Or at least I thought it was. But if that was true, then what was it doing here, in a timeworn letter from the mid-20s? Had Betty inexplicably come up with the line first, long before Vonnegut ever put pen to paper? Had one of the greatest authors of the 20th century plagiarized from my grandfather’s first girlfriend?
I studied the handwriting for clues. It looked more masculine than Betty’s faint longhand, which left barely a trace on the page. I wondered if it was something my grandfather had done, long after his affair with Betty had faded away. If he’d cribbed the line from Vonnegut — the only reasonable explanation — that would mean he’d added it to Betty’s letter around 1969 (when Slaughterhouse-Five was published), after he’d been married for many years and his kids were starting to have their own kids.
There was some significance to it, I just couldn’t put my finger on what it could be. Vonnegut, as I recalled, meant it as a semi-ironic epitaph for his future tombstone. But what did it mean when a middle-aged and married man wrote that line on a letter from a once beloved ex-girlfriend, long since out of his life, and then hid that letter in a storage closet in a box marked “Ant Poison”?
I read Betty’s letter so many times, my eyes started to blur. I didn’t see anything particularly special or memorable about it. She’d been more passionate in other letters, more unapologetically doting, and definitely more raunchy. (Reading her “barn sex trilogy” made me feel like a schoolkid that’d just discovered Lady Chatterley’s Lover.) So why did this one stick out for my grandfather? Was it because it represented a time when his relationship with Betty had achieved a happy medium? There were no declarations of love, no unrealistic promises or nail-biting about their future. Every sentence lacked dramatic girth. There was just a mutual, unspoken understanding between them that everything was okay. Not great and not desperate but just… okay.
“Everything was beautiful,” I whispered, reading my grandfather’s measured penmanship, “and nothing hurt.”
By the time I’d finally exhausted myself on those letters, it was night again. My mother and grandmother were already fast asleep, and I’d heard rumblings that tomorrow was D-Day. We’d be leaving at dawn with Grandma in tow — if necessary, tied to the roof like a deer carcass after a successful hunt. I laid on the bed and tried to doze off, but my brain was still buzzing with thoughts of my grandfather and the romance he wasn’t able to let slip away. Even without the cropdusters — which were back with a vengeance, flying extra-low to the ground like they were chasing Cary Grant — there was no way I was getting any sleep tonight.
I glanced over at the door and noticed the faint flicker of light coming from the floor gap. My uncle Bob was out there, watching TV from his ersatz throne and probably gorging on a midnight snack, like a coyote ripping at the gooey innards of some long-dead prey. As far as I knew, he was completely oblivious that tomorrow morning he’d be abandoned by his own family. He had no idea that this was his last night in the company of other human beings. And he’d likely squandered it, barking at his sister and mother to throw another bag of tater tots into the oven or find the goddamn remote, missing every opportunity to make them second-guess their dismissal of him as a lost cause.
I didn’t really want to go out there and see him — much less in his early morning au naturel state — but I knew this could be my last opportunity. I couldn’t think of a reason I’d ever be in this house again. My mom had made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t coming back. And Grandma, well, give her a bag of unmarked keys and a toothbrush-on-a-rope and she wouldn’t miss Florida. If I didn’t say my goodbyes to Bob now, I might never get the chance again.
I closed my eyes and turned the door knob.
“Ear-ache! There he is! Why are you still awake, you ol’ so-and-so?”
I opened my mouth but the words didn’t come. I just stared at Bob, trying to decide if he was real or something my brain had concocted after too little sleep and too much humidity. The fluorescent glow of the TV danced across his naked body, making him look almost supernatural, like a hologram of a Macy’s falloon. I couldn’t believe I was finally seeing him, out here in his natural habitat, stripped of the social puffery and trappings of polite society. And clothes. I was looking at what so many of my relatives only knew as rumor, whispered during phone calls but never witnessed firsthand. But I alone had the courage to walk out and stare him down. And he was everything I’d hoped for and more. He was life and death, beauty and chaos, the malevolence of nature, the paradox of the interconnected universe. Or, if you prefer, just a fat guy without pants.
Bob was the iceberg to my drowsy Titanic, or more accurately, the Moby-Dick to my Captain Ahab. “…from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
“You’ve been in that goddamn room all day,” Bob grumbled. “Whatcha been doin’ in there? Slapping your happy salami? Mangling the midget? A little hand-to-gland combat?”
He laughed in a hoarsey staccato. Normally, I’d be eager to explain why the last thing I’d ever do in my grandmother’s house was settle in for a long day of masturbation. But I was too transfixed by Bob’s unapologetic nudity to defend myself. I managed only to smile back at him, tittering like a teenager who’d just learned his first dirty limerick, before collapsing into the nearest chair.
“So what were you doin’ in there?” Bob asked, growing suddenly serious. “Your mom said you found a bunch of Dad’s old things. Like photos and stuff?”
“Yeah,” I managed. “And letters.”
“Letters? Letters from who?”
“Nobody,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “People. Friends. You know… a few girlfriends, whatever.”
Bob smiled, his teeth whiter and more luminous than I would’ve imagined. “Your grandpops was a player,” he said, as if this was something he and his father had discussed many times.
I smiled back at him but said nothing. I didn’t want to share too many details. Although the letters were never intended for my eyes, I considered them a shared secret between my grandfather and me. His unrequited love for Betty was something he’d taken to the grave, and I intended to respect his wishes. If Bob was so interested in it, he’d have to go digging through boxes looking for loaded handguns like the rest of us.
“My ex-wife wrote me plenty of love letters,” Bob went on. “But I didn’t save any of it. Course, most of ‘em were just her telling me to go fuck myself.”
Bob burst into cacophonic laughter, like a garbage disposal after something metal had been dropped into it.
“Good one,” I said, trying not to visibly wince.
“I don’t know why he saved all that crap,” Bob sniffed, lighting another cigarette with jaundiced fingers.
“Maybe he was just nostalgic,” I offered.
“Not me,” he barked. “The past is the past. Let it go, that’s what I say. You’re not getting it back, so what’s the point?”
He reached towards an end table and flicked on a small electric fan. It purred noisily to life, kicking up dust and turning the air into a pukish pea-soup green, like a fog machine at the saddest glam rock concert ever.
We sat in the dark and said nothing, watching TV without really watching it. But it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable or weird as it had been over the last few days. We just didn’t feel the need anymore to fill the silence with pointless chatter. We’d said everything that needed to be said.
“You should visit more often, Ear-Ache,” Bob finally managed.
“Oh yeah,” I agreed. “Of course. I definitely will.”
We watched the lie float over us, like the marine layer drifting across downtown Los Angeles.
“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” Bob muttered in a wheezy sing-song, and I nodded, as if I knew exactly what he meant.
At some point I fell asleep. I can’t really pinpoint when it happened, because I’m pretty sure I was also watching TV with Bob in my dreams. I’m not 100% certain, but I think the dream-Bob was the one who looked like a chupacabra. He showed me his feet — the nails as sharp and ragged as old razors — and complained that my mother was pressuring him to get a pedicure. “She’s trying to turn me into a faggot,” he laughed, and then took another generous bite out of the dead goat, which I’d seen him capture and kill just moments earlier. I’m almost positive that part was a dream, but my mind is fuzzy.
I didn’t wake up until the early morning, and then only because I heard yelling coming from the kitchen. My grandmother was giving her luggage one final inspection before loading it into the car, and wouldn’t you know it, she was convinced that her toiletries had mysteriously disappeared during the night.
“Where’s my toothbrush?” she asked my mom, digging through her bag like an airport police dog that’d gotten a whiff of marijuana.
“We already packed it, mother. I watched you put it in there myself.”
“But how do you know?” she said, her voice rising a few octaves. “How could you possibly know that for sure?”
I looked for Bob but his chair was empty. The seat looked like an empty crater, hit by an asteroid made out of cellulite and corn chips. He must have gone to bed, or maybe he just didn’t want to be around to watch us leave. Nobody had told him that Grandma was moving out permanently, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. Although I would’ve loved to watch my mother try to pull off that bit of subterfuge. “So listen, I’m taking Mom to Michigan for a short vacation. She’s bringing all of her clothes, her bed linens, everything in both bathrooms (including the shower curtain), her photo albums, the cat, and most of the dishes and utensils. See you in a few weeks!”
As they unpacked and repacked Grandma’s suitcase, I retreated to the guest bedroom to grab my stuff. I’d decided that I was taking my grandfather’s love letters with me. No good could come from leaving them here. Not just because I knew I’d never be back, but I had a funny feeling that something catastrophic was going to happen the moment we drove away. I imagined the house bursting into flames, like a Hindenburg made out of particleboard and glue, with Bob riding on the roof like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, whooping and hollering like a rodeo cowboy as he’s engulfed in the inferno.
With the box of letters under one arm and my suitcase in the other, I walked towards the door — defiant yet anxious, like I expected to be stopped and frisked by the Gestapo. I almost made it out when my gaze drifted towards Bob’s corkboard photo collage. Something made me stop and look at it again. I guess I just wanted one more look at Bob as he wanted to be remembered, not the naked, gelatinous man I’d stayed up all night with.
As I reviewed the “Greatest Hits” from Bob’s life — which, curiously, included a shirtless and bearded dude, whom I’d never met and to the best of my knowledge wasn’t related to the family, decorating a plastic Christmas tree in what appeared to be a mobile home in the process of being bulldozered — I noticed two yellowing certificates hidden amongst the photos. One of them was made out to Bob’s 8 year-old son, a school award for “Outstanding Academic and Personal Effort.” The other had been given to Bob, “to certify that you have completed a course of radiation therapy and are considered a friend forever.” Bob’s certificate was covered in signatures and well-wishes, from what I assumed were his nurses. It looked like a page ripped from a high school yearbook, except for somebody who was dying instead of making the leap into adulthood. “Keep smiling” one of the nurses wrote. “Good luck and keep in touch!” wrote another, with a guileless optimism I don’t think even she believed.
These two certificates, displayed side by side and without any apparent irony, were simultaneously the funniest and saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Intentional or not, it was a brilliant satire on life’s cruelty, especially its stubborn insistence on coming full circle. One minute you’re young and full of promise and being praised for your academic achievements. And the next thing you know, you’re old and sickly and being praised for finishing your chemo treatments. In the end, life is just a series of pointless and quickly forgotten accolades.
I didn’t make a conscious decision, but something inside me knew what I had to do. I reached into my grandfather’s box and found the letter — the letter, the one that meant so much to him that it needed to be annotated so he wouldn’t forget. I ripped the bottom of the page, tearing out the line my grandfather had written, and attached it to the corkboard with a spare pushpin. I put it right next to a photo of Bob in his prime, looking so young and thin and tan and almost ridiculously happy.
“EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”
I wasn’t sure if Bob even looked at these photos anymore. But if he did, and he recognized his dead father’s handwriting — even if the sentiment seemed far too mushy and sentimental for a man who never met an emotion he couldn’t quash — maybe it’d make him smile, and at least for one fleeting moment, it’d all be okay.