By Kevin Tasker
A metallic sun descends into low damp clouds. Trees with dead leaves still attached waver over the street, tickling shadows on empty parking lots. The world, in its wide autumnal swath, rasps as through a ventilator: smelling sweetly of rotting honey and puddles of stagnant water in corrugated tin roofs where you may have gone exploring once when you could fit your body anywhere. You are whistling as you pilot your grandfather’s antique chalky Cadillac with its unfamiliarly heavy steering wheel and glaucomaed windshield through the town circle where businesses are switching on their night lights, owners latching their doors with gnarled, jangling keys. Their faces are noduled like gourds with the last faint burns of summer sun. They smile disinterestedly at one another and you wonder if they can hear the convulsions of your grandfather’s engine. Like a starving child, you wonder how it may be ignored.
Your grandfather sits painfully upright with his huge scarred knees braced higher than you might think normal. He doesn’t wear a seatbelt. One of his black Converse shoes is untied and there is a cut on his blonde hairy leg that has bled and dried without him noticing.
“I need milk and bananas,” he says, and there is an undercurrent of white noise in his voice like a dying mower, the result of Benson and Hedges streaming in and out for half a century. “I need batteries too, for the remote.”
“Sure,” you say, “We can get all of those things, grandpa. My dad says you need to some more vitamins. The multi-vitamins.” He doesn’t respond so you shout the words, tilting your head toward him. He winces vaguely and rearranges his knees.
“I don’t need any vitamins,” he mutters with crisp disdain, “But I could use some bacon and butter for my toasted bread.”
“Those things aren’t good for you grandpa. I want you to be around for a long time. You can’t go on eating that way.”
He itches his ribs through his dun yellow polyester shirt. They are clearly pronounced and remind you regretfully of the Holocaust, the reels and reels they showed you through the dark at school in your youth, grade after grade, intentionally lingering on each of the more horrific ones, as if exposure might make you immune.
“I’m ninety-three years old,” he says, “I deserve to eat how I want to goddamn eat.”
Your father’s sigh escapes you and, as is your custom, you swear to yourself and bite the inside of your cheek. You accelerate through a nearly red light and your grandfather says he needs cigarettes. He’s peeled off his Nicorette patch and holds it between two fingers skeptically, like an insect. You notice for the first time how much his hands look warped and mummified.
“We’re stopping for smokes, aren’t we?” he asks, turning his hard eyes toward you.
“We’ll split a cigar,” you tell him.
There are pumpkins in a row in front of the barber shop. They glisten with unknown heat. Beyond, the sun in a hunk of scorched copper. The grace of the boughs seems stolen, but the houses don’t notice. Their storm shudders are coming unscrewed and their eaves overflow. Leaves, as they rot, make you think of the sweat of women.
Your grandfather says cigars are for celebrations.
“I just want a cigarette,” he says and the pain in his throat comes like a lightening burst. He recoils and rubs his face. “A cigarette isn’t anything.”
You touch a place where you bruised your arm fighting with a drunk friend two nights ago who was jumpy and lewd because summer is dying again, and you’re all too old to fight it. You didn’t drink, haven’t had anything but tea for three weeks. Your psychiatrist says it might make you feel safer.
You stop for the cigarettes at a station with out of service pumps. You offer to buy them with some of the money your dad gave you for your grandfather’s food. You notice something of a lean in your walk and your eyes are tired. You rub you face with the back of your hands.
Inside, you feel like a voyeur among the corpses of dead daisies. You steal peaches that you could put your fingers through if you wanted to. They don’t fit well under your shirt and make you look grotesque. You buy the Benson and Hedges and stare at a girl you used to go to school with who sits, pregnant and used, behind the counter. You recognize one another. It is obvious.
“How’ve you been?” you ask her flatly. It is obvious from your clothes that you got away.
She scours your face. “You grew a beard,” she says, “That’s good. Covers up those fat cheeks you had.”
You bang the cigarette pack against your palm until it stings.
The girl has tiny broken blood vessels around her eyes that make her look like someone you could have loved. In high school, she was too good for you. You remember her socks as knee high and drawn on with some kind of bright acrylic paint that hardened and never smeared. She hands you your change and you drop the pennies on the floor. The peaches are warm on your belly. You cross your arms on them so they split open.
In the car, you unravel the smokes and he says, “What about a lighter? The one in the dash doesn’t work.”
“We’ll get one at the grocery store.”
It rains briefly, loudly. You want to say something about release. Your grandfather doesn’t get out of the car. You watch a few small boys racing to get inside of the grocery store which is monolithic and brick, windowless. One of the boys falls and skins his knee. The others laugh and continue. The fallen boy stands and looks around, embarrassed by his blood.
You worked at this store once, some year or so before you lost your virginity at a football game on a night not unlike tonight except that you had a braces and a hairline fracture in your spine. Her name was Vicenza, a city in Italy. She had enormous nipples and lied when she said you intimidated her. Still, when you talked, you were so nervous it felt like you had pills on your tongue and you never spend the night in a bed all night together. You look at your grandfather, framed to the wet opaque glass. The side of his face is like a pewter pot with innumerable cracks. He holds the stump of a cigarette in his lips. Your father said after the last heart attack that he might not be around for much longer. Once something like this might have scared you, but now... You lead the old man through the rain past where the boy fell. The rain has efficiently taken the blood away.
You cut a depraved couple in the junk food aisle where he stops to peruse the snacks. His shirt is damp and deeply sweaty. You stare at his untied shoe. He selects a bag of Circus Peanuts and weighs them against the others. “Seems like these have the most,” he says and plods ahead with disengaged ease, perhaps forgetting you grabbed a cart. Once, in a store like this, his heart ruptured and a woman carried him to the ambulance that was outside doing a blood drive. The donors stared up sluggishly as the technicians stood pondering this crumpled form in an open-throated flannel. That day you were at a bonfire and burned your arm hair so people would think you inhuman.
You spy a straight-backed boy you knew in high school mopping the floor where it seems close to twenty bottles of ketchup exploded. You touch a piece of glass with your foot. “Help you?” the boy asks. His name you’ve forgotten but you two once rolled down a hill together at football games before you discovered that promoted schnapps and whiskey stolen from your parents’ cabinets and mixed hastily in a water bottle would produce this effect more effectively. His face is gaunt and he blinks rapidly at you. With markings of malice
through weathered eyes and shoulder blades, history claims its favorites.
“I don’t think so,” you say, “Thanks though.”
Your head is throbbing and your veins feel too full. You stand against a display for a yogurt you can fill with chocolate sprinkles. You move your face toward the yogurt, imagining the processing plant where it was sealed, gooey and isolated. You think you may have seen something on the news about this, but the only thing you know about machines is the way they bend in unforgiving chrome. You turn your head, looking for oxygen. Your grandfather, at the cart, swings his head like a pendulum. You watch him as the boy watches.
“We’d better go,” he gasps, “I really need to goddamn smoke.”
The sky after rain is the coy red of an untended wound. You stand together under an awning and feel your own humidity. Rain drips from somewhere, smelling of rust. A lone figure clears carts far off. He is a shade of grey in slacks and dress shirt. You wonder, as he shifts in the pale light breaking over the lot, if he is a ghost, or if you too have changed. Your grandfather offers to light your cigarette but you don’t let him. You haven’t let anyone touch you in a long time. You find this notion complex and you do not fully understand it.
“I used to own a real restaurant all by myself,” your grandfather says, “Did I tell you that? After the Navy.”
You remember the Navy, he never saw combat.
You wonder if he wanted it, felt the fervor for it during orange juice and pancake breakfasts your grandmother served and the bruise from the fight with that old friend you know hardly know begins to ache.
“You did tell me once,” you say, “when we used to play cards together.”
“Served coffee to truckers mostly. Pretty little waitresses who were always breaking their arms and telling lies. No one I’d know now. People at the place where I live are all old farts.” He grinds his cigarette under his heel. “They don’t mean anything,” he says and picks up bags of groceries and staggers off. His footsteps communicate with the rancid water they trod upon. You follow him after a while through the old smells and dampness.
Your face is flushed, and your breathing heavy in the car. With the windows broken, the air is tight and constrictive. You flap your collar and look over at your grandpa. His eyes are passionate in their depths, without purpose, he grunts and leans forward, his knees turned toward one another. You swerve back and forth, seeing the trees. Seeing the horizon obliquely as through darkened glass. You bite your lip and feel each of your teeth making contact. Braces once made them feel starched and significant. The wheel in your hands is sticky and light. The city is asleep in a vulgar sodium tone that turns everything cryptic and understated. Horrible. Torrid. You wretch deep in your throat and the car has drifted but you cannot steady it. The police cars converge on you in a raw crepuscular clockwork of blue and red that conflicts with the sepia browns over the storefronts. The groceries have spilled, and the paramedics trample Circus Peanuts as they pull your grandpa from the car. His untied shoe falls off and his head lolls. The engine they kill so forcefully the key breaks off, and someone says something about faulty engineering that you hardly understand. Home is a broken cage with bars you remember and rather snidely love.Lucky it has survived so long in this void that is only now becoming something different. Something you can taste beyond itself. The autumn air is wild, brisk and immensely open, so far and directionless above and around. You feel a rare connection to the stars and the people about the planet who have seen them as they tilled fields or sat beside the conflagrations of obsolete barns and the moon is wet with fog--but it doesn’t last.
The medics slip the oxygen mask over your face and it fits tightly like the last piece in a faded chemistry set. Bubbles in your throat. You are complacent on the gurney and do not struggle against the IV, watching your fresh blood pool in its barbed tip like the end of a straw. Tomcats watch from the roadside with eerie gazes, like obese children: they infuriate you. The medics are whispering for no reason. Dense is the night with the cold and the ceiling of the ambulance is off-white, minimally reflective. You don’t know where you are bound for, but there is a heat here both ruddy and mighty and there are no theories for the design of the world you cannot define that is beyond the stretch of your delivery to this new plain where nothing is feared. You bleed from your wrist. They mop the sweat away with decided care if not compassion.