The rib bones along grandpa´s back popped out at my fingers, a fragile cage wrapping round his sides. I pressed down lightly, my hands pink against the yellow color of his eighty-year-old body. He groaned. "More," he said into the pillow, into the cover that just that morning I´d washed and changed but was still gray with age.
The bottle of rubbing alcohol sat open on the nightstand. I poured a little pool of the clear liquid onto the middle of grandpa´s spine. His back jumped, goose bumps rising. The liquid spread. The smell was so sharp it made my eyes tear. I patted with my hands all along his papery skin in the low light, all the way down to the elastic top of his pajama bottoms, red and gray striped flannel. I was afraid to press harder, afraid he might break. Besides, I was just a girl of eighteen and I´d never been around him like this before. I picked up the metal cap on the nightstand, twisted it on the bottle. "That´s all for now," I said.
No wonder Uncle Ted had been so quiet on the other end when mom handed me the phone and I announced I´d come out for the summer, fly two thousand miles from the Midwest to visit all of them and stay with grandpa. My first time ever in an airplane, it was a big deal back in those days. I wore my best skirt and jacket, high heels and nylons hooked onto a garter belt clasped around my waist.
My hands tingled from the rubbing alcohol. I grabbed for the beige terry towel on the nightstand and wiped my fingers one by one. Grandpa used to do all the traveling, arriving with a paper bag covered with greasy splotches from the fried chicken inside that he´d cooked in his own kitchen. Those smells, all the way on an airplane, just for me, Sylvie, his favorite. He called me "koldunik," after the Polish dumplings he loved so much.
The day I arrived, my uncle took me to grandpa´s little wooden bungalow in northeast Portland and left me. Grandpa didn´t even get up from where he was lying on the green couch in his living room. Sometimes Uncle Ted came to bring groceries or to take grandpa to the doctor. Once in a while, he sent over Sandra, the oldest of my six cousins, to see me. I wasn´t so sure I liked her. My Aunt Betty never came.
No one ever said what was going on with grandpa and I told myself that I was too shy to ask. Deep down, though, I was afraid of what might really be happening. Cancer. My folks were so scared of that disease, they wouldn´t even use the word. All they´d do is shake their heads and say it looked like so-and-so wasn´t going to make it.
Mom only phoned once to make sure I got to grandpa´s okay. Long distance was so expensive back then. I got a few letters but I didn´t write home much, didn´t know what to say.
Grandpa´s voice was muffled in the pillow. "Done already?" he asked.
His right shoulder blade stuck out in back. I touched there, the bone sharper than his ribs. "Won´t you try to get up, stay awake a little longer today?" I asked. "I can cook for you."
Grandpa spoke again into the pillow. "I stay here a ´vile,´" he said. Fifty years in America and he still pronounced his "w´s" like "v´s," the way he said they did in Poland. When I was little, he´d ask if I needed "to go vee-vee."
The sheet was so worn you could almost see through it. Carefully, I pulled the edge up to the back of grandpa´s neck. His hair was still black, even there, thin patches that grew way down and needed trimming.
I couldn´t blame grandpa for not wanting to get up for the food I´d scrounged. There was a drive-in nearby that I could walk to and mostly we´d eaten takeout, greasy burgers and fries, cold by the time I got them home. Once, though, I mixed a batch of mashed potatoes from the box of instant flakes I found in his kitchen cupboard. Too much water made them like gruel. Even so, when I served them, grandpa said, "Nice to have hot food."
Early one day, there was beeping outside. I was barely dressed, still in my room. Grandpa´s house was what they called a mini-craftsman and the two bedrooms, his and mine, opened onto the living room. The kitchen and bath were separate, down a little back hallway.
I walked across the blue Persian rug in the living room, grandpa already on the couch. When I opened the door, Sandra was coming up onto the porch, her blonde ponytail swinging. She was wearing cut-off jeans, the ones that showed her trim legs all the way to mid-thigh, and a little red halter.
Sandra was two whole years younger than I but way ahead of me. At least, that was what I thought back then. She was everything a real teen-ager should be. I was so chubby, mom bought me these old lady pedal pushers that came below my knees and my brown hair was so fine no rubber band could hold it.
Sandra had round blue eyes – “china blue” she called them -- and two big dimples, one on each cheek. Her dimples would go deep, like big comma marks, when she talked about her boyfriend Joe. He was some guy I hadn´t even met who went to the Jesuit high school in town.
My life back home was mostly just school and babysitting my little brother. Mom and Dad worked all the time at their tavern. Don´t get me wrong, I wasn´t complaining. My folks gave me ten bucks a week, enough for almost anything I wanted if I saved, like my bike, a maroon English racer with neat silver hand brakes and three gears. But, I´d never been on a date, never even kissed a boy, though I practiced with my pillow.
I thought Sandra was almost perfect. That day she came over, she stood there, the saggy screen between us. Her voice, like usual, was kind of snotty. "Grandpa needs some groceries," she said. The sunshine beyond her was bright on the steps down below, on the leathery green leaves of the old rhododendron shrubs.
"Don´t you want to come in?" I asked. Sandra shook her head no. "Dad said I should drive grandpa´s car, go with you." Sandra had her license, something my dad wouldn´t let me get. But, grandpa´s car was something sacred, this nifty little black and red Rambler with big fat whitewalls. The car was at least ten years old but still shiny from all his waxing. He kept the car in his little wooden garage, locked up tight. No one ever drove his car.
Sandra´s nose wrinkled the way it did when she didn´t like something. "Grandpa told my dad it was okay," she said. I looked back at grandpa. His eyes were closed and he had his old gray Indian blanket, the one with a pattern of faded brown chevrons, pulled all the way up to his chin. Sandra didn´t know grandpa so well like I did. When I was a kid, before we had to move from Seattle to dad´s family in the Midwest, we lived just a block away from grandpa and grandma. We were over there all the time. Grandma didn´t die until after they moved to Portland.
Grandpa´s pink and white false teeth made this clacking noise. And, here in front of me was Sandra, inviting me out to her world of sunshine and fresh air and so much I didn´t even know. "What about the keys?" I asked. Sandra cupped her hands, her long tan fingers, over her china blue eyes to peer at me. "Don´t you know where they are?" I pressed my fingers up to the screen. When I pulled them away, there were little dirty crosshatch marks on my fingertips. I wiped them off on my pedal pushers. "I´ll ask," I said.
I walked back across the Persian carpet, telling myself maybe the fact grandpa wanted some groceries meant he was feeling better and we could help. When I got next to him, his breath had this sour smell from the medicines and whatever else was wrong with him. The closest I ever came to a smell like that before was the time I put my fingers to my nose after I´d dipped them into the bottom of the Holy Water fountain at church, into the green things growing there from other peoples´ fingers.
I touched grandpa´s face. His beard was prickly. He opened his eyes, rheumy gray blue. They rolled up at me. "Can we have the car keys?" I asked.
Grandpa raised his hand. It was full of brown spots, the veins ropy on top. He waved it almost in surrender toward the buffet along the side of the wall. The keys were lying there.
"Go, go," he said.
When I looked back from the door, grandpa´s eyes were already closed.
The Fred Meyer´s store was a whole mile away, past lots of intersections. I was a little worried that maybe Sandra would drive too fast and screw around using grandpa´s car. But, she didn´t. She drove carefully, waiting at every stop sign for our turn. "I love grandpa´s car," Sandra said. "Wouldn´t want to mess it up."
When we got to the store, we had fun, going up and down the aisles looking for the canned soups. All those red and white labels, she chose cream of chicken and I took several beef broth. Then we got a jar of instant coffee and some fresh bread, nothing like the old loaves Uncle Ted had stuffed into the aluminum freezer compartment in grandpa´s old refrigerator.
On our return, grandpa was flat on the couch. His face was all gray. He wasn´t getting better. His chest was making this new racky noise with each breath. His eyelids fluttered open when we came close. I showed him the sack. Victorious, I pulled out a can of cream of chicken. "We´ll make you something hot to eat," I said, “and fresh toast."
Grandpa waved his hand, all those spots and veins, at us. "The groceries are for you and Sandra," he said. There were tears in Sandra´s china blue eyes.
After that, Sandra started coming over to grandpa´s a lot. One time, she even brought her boyfriend Joe along. His eyes were deep brown. They reminded me of our black lab back home, this love inside them. There were amber flecks around the pupils that would get so bright when Joe looked at Sandra. I wondered if a boy could ever look at me that way.
Some days, grandpa wasn´t even getting out of bed and he never asked anymore for a backrub. Sandra didn´t know either what was going on with him. She said right after grandma died, grandpa came over all the time. But, then, she said, “Mom got real tired of it and he quit coming." Before I came, Sandra said she hardly ever saw grandpa.
Grandpa wrote my mom and said he didn´t think Aunt Betty liked him. Mom said maybe they had just seen too much of each other. I thought my Aunt Betty was pretty. Her black hair was always fluffy and she wore red lipstick, sometimes even on her teeth. For the longest time, I figured that was the style, not a mistake.
One night, Uncle Ted made me stay over at their house because he said I needed to get to know all my cousins. When I came down the stairs for breakfast with my rain coat over my pajamas, Aunt Betty laughed and laughed. She asked, "Don´t your folks make enough money to buy you a bathrobe?" That was how Aunt Betty was.
Anyway, grandpa complained a lot about her in his letters. He said Aunt Betty didn´t know how to cook and always ruined the roast beef. "English girl," grandpa wrote, as though that explained everything. Aunt Betty actually came from Canada. She met my uncle when he was in the Army during the war.
Sandra told me something I hadn´t known about Aunt Betty. She was an orphan. Sandra said her dad was always reminding them how her mom had to grow up so much on her own, in an institution. Still, Sandra said that when her father came home each night, he´d sit in the car in the driveway and read books rather than go in.
Mom said grandpa missed being around people. For a while, he wrote that he went every day to the car dealers all up and down Sandy Boulevard. He´d hang around their showrooms and talk about models and prices. Grandpa, when he was well, he always wore fine clothes, like his gray double-breasted suit and a striped tie. After grandma died, he pressed his own clothes, the trousers with a sharp crease. He even wore one of those fedora hats, just like businessmen in the movies.
"Gentlemen always dress up," he told me once. "Shows respect for the people around you."
Mom said everyone at the car dealerships knew he wasn´t going to buy anything, not the way he loved that Rambler.
Grandpa wrote my mom right before she decided I should come to visit him and asked, "Why do Americans abandon their old people? They never did this in Poland."
Late one night, Sandra called to me from outside, from down at the bottom of the porch steps. It was dark but so hot I still had the main door open to the screen. I got up from the couch, green upholstery rubbing against the backs of my bare calves and went to the door.
Sandra yelled up at me. Her voice was loud and hoarse. "I have to talk to you," she said. Grandpa was in his room on his bed, breathing heavily, that racking noise that only seemed to get worse. I stepped out into the darkness of the porch and closed the screen door. "Grandpa´s in bed," I said. "I´ll come down there."
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, to Sandra´s side, the street light was bright on her face. Her eyebrows, her mouth, everything was all puckered up as if she´d been crying. Then, big blubbery noises came out of her and just one word, "grandpa."
This queer little pinching had started around my heart, the squiggly tightening like right before you get scared. As awful as things were with grandpa so sick that it was like him being here and not being here, I was still stuck, not wanting to face where this could go. My voice was rough when I asked, "What?"
The rims of Sandra’s china blue eyes were red and swollen. "My parents were in the kitchen," she said. "I stopped in the hallway. They were talking about grandpa." I raised my hand to stop her from saying anymore. But, she kept going. A sob, almost a hiccup, came out of her. "Cancer," she said. "That´s why no one said anything. They don´t want him to know."
That word was my worst fear. The air went out of me. Sandra stared at her shoe, her brown leather sandal. She wouldn’t look at me. "There´s more," she said. "So bad I have to tell someone."
I stepped back, stepped right into an old rhododendron. The leaves and stems poked and scratched at my legs. I moved forward. Sandra scuffed her sandal into the dry ground. Brown dirt covered her toes. "Mom´s already divvying up grandpa´s stuff," she said. "Deciding who gets what."
Her brother John would get the glassed-in bookcases, the place grandpa kept his Polish missal, the black leather cover worn along the edges, the pages all thumbed. John would also get all of grandpa´s books, the ones about Harry Truman, his hero, and Teddy Roosevelt. Grandpa met Roosevelt once, right after he came to America. He was so impressed he named my uncle after him.
Aunt Betty would keep grandpa´s Persian carpet for herself. Sandra didn´t know who´d get the tinted picture on the wall of grandpa and grandma taken right after they were married. Grandma´s hair was long and braided, painted in blonde, her lips touched with red. Grandpa was wearing wire-rim glasses and a celluloid collar. The photo hung right next to his framed citizenship papers. Grandpa once told me those were the two happiest days of his life.
The car, his beloved Rambler, would go to Sandra. Sandra started to cry again, only softly, her face still looking down. "I don´t want his car," she said. "Not like this."
Then, Sandra took a big breath. When she looked at me, her eyes had narrowed. "You can´t say anything," she said. "Mom will know it was me. We have to just wait." She grabbed at my wrist with both her hands and pressed her fingernails into my flesh.
After Sandra left, I went back into the house, into the lights of the living room. Little red welt marks from Sandra´s fingernails had started to rise on the inside of my wrist. They stung.
Grandpa´s breathing from his bedroom was so jagged it sounded as if his lungs were tearing. I crossed to his doorway and the dim light of his room. My eyes adjusted and I could see the outline of the iron bedstead and the wooden night table. His body was so thin it barely bumped up under the sheets.
Grandpa´s mouth was open, his gums showing. He no longer even put in his false teeth. They sat pink and yellow in a glass of water on the night table next to all his bottles of medicine.
He was nothing like he used to be. He was once so strong and smart, like that time in his backyard in Seattle. He couldn´t believe I didn´t know that Copernicus, that was his Latin name, was Polish. His real name was Kopernik. Grandpa stood there in his suit, dressed up like always even though we weren´t going anywhere special that day.
"I show you what Kopernik taught the vorld," he said. His blue eyes blinking, he reached in the pocket of his wool trousers and pulled out his big silver lighter. He clicked the top open and shut with a metallic sound. "This is the earth," he said. "Each click, a revolution." The lighter traveled like that, clicking and spinning in his strong square fingers, all around me.
"You are the sun," he said.
I walked over to grandpa in his bed, to the smell from his mouth, more sour than ever. His breath grew quieter but still raspy. Then, he moved his arm, lying on top of the sheet. It was so skinny. His voice was just a whisper, "Koldunik."
Grandpa opened his eyes, his cloudy blue eyes, and looked at me. "Don´t vorry," he said. His eyelids closed.
The bottles of medicine on his night table were green and brown and clear. I bit hard at my lip, bit to keep the tears from starting. I had to leave, had to get away. The only place to flee in his little house was the hallway and kitchen in back. The wall was cold against my hand.
When I got to the kitchen, I snapped on the light. It was yellow and harsh on the same little white cupboards as always and the dark green counter. Even here, I could still hear grandpa´s breathing.
His black phone, dense hard plastic with the yellowing numbers and letters on the dial, was sitting like always in the corner, next to my purse. The clock on the kitchen wall was ticking. It was red with a big white face and black hands. 8 p.m. my time, 10 p.m. back in Wisconsin.
Sandra´s words, all we could do was wait. But, I knew what I had to do. I dug inside for my wallet, the beige leather thing with little metal dots in the form of a flower on the front that mom got me on dollar-day at Barden´s department store back home. Inside, I found the piece of paper and uncrumpled it. There were fold lines across my mom’s writing, all the numbers you needed to dial directly for long distance. She’d warned me that it was only to be used for emergencies. I could reach her before she went off to get dad from work.
My hand shaking, I picked up the receiver, put it to my ear and listened for a dial tone. The mouthpiece smelled like Mennen, grandpa´s after-shave. I dragged the dial with my finger. It slid back with a click.
Drag, click. Again and again till I dialed in all the numbers. At first there was a buzz, then some high static. Maybe this was how it worked. I´d never dialed long distance myself before. The circuits tumbled, followed by a hiss.
I swallowed and sat there. I didn´t want to chance the noise of dialing again. The little white stove sat in front of me, an empty silver tea kettle on top. The cupboards were so neat, except for the one with food. That door hung half open. There was a big jar of pickled pork feet, pink and yellow pieces floating in brine, that the doctor told grandpa not to eat. I wanted to throw up.
The static of the phone went to a hum and then back to a hiss. I waited. In the warmth of my own breath, the Mennen was even stronger.