My grandfather had gold teeth. Two, at least, maybe more.
He’d wrestled for money as a young man. He was good, supposedly; earned his boat-trip to The Nation and pocket-change. That his real teeth lay scattered on impossibile-to-pronounce side-streets and alleys (crammed with drunken spectators; veterans, mostly, amputees who probably believed they could have earned a good living “wrestling,” if only…) of various European cities was, so he said, an expected and pridefully accepted rite of apprenticeship. Who knows. Maybe he lost every fight until he finally got smart and just mugged some rich guy.
They were going to kill him when the boat stopped in New York. So he jumped ship in Cuba. Learned Spanish. He knew six languages. A bunch of thugs, each of whom, as was common among travelers in those days, also knew several languages, but was an idiot in every one of them, jumped him in a bar. After beating them senseless, he rolled them for enough money to buy a ticket to Florida, then New York. I bore no witness to any of this, obviously; I had to accept his word on faith.
When Grandma died he crumbled like an old barn. After sixty years of marriage he couldn’t even fix himself a sandwich. He lived with us for a while. I caught him trying to make frozen peas. Just dumped the box in a pot of boiling water. By the time he went into the Home he thought the Secret Police were trying to kidnap him and give him a sex-change operation. His four wrist watches told different times.
He tried to escape from The Home one night by scaling the fence. One of the security guards “accidentally” shot him, believing him to be an intruder trying to get in rather than an inmate trying to get out. I don’t believe that. I think he shot him just for fun, knowing Grandpa was probably on his way out soon, anyway — his mind was eating him alive.
Mother and her Brother got a nice settlement from The Home, not that either of them needed the money. I always wondered what happened to the guard. No one had given such a personal gift to my grandfather in years, yet the guard, who was found innocent of wrongdoing, disappeared after the trial, and left no chance for me to thank him. Who knows what heroics went through my grandfather’s head, what enemies he was bravely defying, when the bullet struck, granting ersatz heroic exit.
Life of Johnson
After rattling around alone for a year following Mother’s death, Father decided to sell the house and move South, not to retire but to start a new business. He’s a restless man. He wanted us to help clean out our old stuff from the house. Me, Sister, Brother-in-Law, and their five-year-old son, Jason. Yard Sale on Sunday. Sell it all by sundown. I’d taken a train in from The City.
First time I’d visited Father in a year.
Jason used his precocious vocabulary to communicate with one personality besides his mother — and her only from necessity. His best, his only, friend was Dr. Johnson. He spoke to Dr. Johnson and only Dr. Johnson, a red rubber ball some relative had placed in his crib before he could sit or speak. He expressed his emotions by drawing faces on the ball with a felt tip marker. He’d draw a sad face, a happy face, an angry face, a puzzled one. He wiped away the faces, as his moods and passions changed, with spittle and his tiny thumb.
Jason swam in the pool with Father, keeping Dr. Johnson in a zip-lock sandwich bag, his ersatz scuba gear. He ate a hot dog on the grass and drew desires on the ball, his freaky felt-tip faces, erasing them with spit and his damp little thumb until possession by a new emotion inspired him to draw again.
The rest of the afternoon was spent roaming the house in search of things we left behind, mementos from our youth that we did not wish to bequeath to yard sale hordes. I went down to the basement where I used to read and write, alone and in peace, until the wee hours of the morning. I found old paperbacks, and stacks and stacks of magazines, many of which had belonged to Mother. Some of them dated back to when I was Jason’s age. I found cassettes and albums of the music of my day. I found half-filled notebooks of my juvenile poetry and prose. More books, magazines, dolls….
Except for the notebooks, which I tore to pieces, I bestowed the fragments and artifacts of my boyhood upon the bargain hunting crowds.
By the Pool
Night I drank Cognac with Father by the pool, which was lit up at the deep end by a bright light below the waterline and glowing aqua like Caribbean surf under a fat gold moon. Starry night; suburban night sounds—close crickets and distant cars on distant highways; the pool filter’s glub, glub, glub.
“So,” said Father.
“So,” said I.
“I’m not worried about you,” he said. “You were always a hard worker. You have determination. You’ll do whatever you want to do and succeed.”
“Enjoy what you do. That’s all that’s important. As long as you enjoy your work. Ahhhhh. Smell that air. So peaceful. Your mother loved this house. We thought that…well, Life brings its surprises.”
“Life explodes in your face,” I said.
Mother woke up and died one morning as Father dressed for work. Poor Dad in his executive black socks and boxer shorts dialed 911 as she turned blue. Helpless, helpless.
“We all loved this house,” he said. “You children grew up here. This house holds memories.”
“In any case, I’m selling it all. Pick out what you want to keep and the rest goes to the yard sale. They’re crazy these yard sales. You’d be surprised at what people will buy. They come from all around to haggle over your most intimate belongings.”
Don’t Be Stupid
four in the morning religious infomercial: God-man groveled for checks, cash, cards:
Mother entered in her nightgown, bore a book of photographs, her lit cigarette produced no ash. She sat at the foot of my bed, laid the book between us.
“Since when do you walk among the living?” I asked, not particularly spooked or surprised.
“I’m not walking, I’m sitting.”
“What’s it like being dead?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
Mother was always a quick wit; death hadn’t dulled her edge.
“I had such faith in you,” she clucked.
“So who told you to drop dead suddenly? So traumatic.”
“What’s done is done. Don’t blame me for your situation. Life goes on.”
“I thought you of all people would understand.”
“Understand. What should I understand?”
“You know. Material things and worldly success don’t matter as long as you’re happy blah, blah, blah and all that crap.”
“I should understand this? Me of all people?”
“Didn’t dropping dead give you some kind of I don’t know cosmic perspective, some kind of deep wisdom or something?”
“I’m your mother for god’s sake. Do you think I wanted this for you? My son the Plantman.”
“What do you want from me?”
“What do I want? Look at this:”
photo album first page, her birth certificate and infant foot-
prints reveal her as an infant, toddler, curly-haired vivacious
girl turned pages photographs animate, Mother adolescent
clothing of her day her brother parents brand new television
sweet sixteen, prom, college days my father’s uniform marriage
house babies growing into awkward clothing hairstyles of their
day and parties in the yard holidays friends relatives college
Seth and Deborah married birth of Jason mother and father
alone in the house, vacations, barbecues, pleasures of an aging
couple face lift looking ten years younger on a bright fall death
“My life. That was my life,” she said.
Long drag off her cigarette.
“Don’t be stupid” her parting words.
The driveway disappeared under a Sunday bazaar stampede.
Dishes I’d eaten on as a child, kitchen utensils, magazines, books, old clothes, and all sorts of knick-knacks from the house were displayed on tables presided over by Father, Brother-in-Law, and Sister. Cars were double parked in the street. Three hundred humans congregated to haggle over artifacts of my youth.
Father, Brother-in-Law, and Sister scurried from table to table, barking, hawking, selling. Strangers walked away with lamps, ashtrays, toys.
I watched from the driveway curb. Goods disappeared; buyers grew more aggressive in their pursuit of stuff. They had traveled from God-man knows where for stuff, and they weren’t going to leave disappointed. The living room television, glass coffee table, Sister’s dolls and doll accessories, loose baseball cards I’d “flipped” for as a boy as well as cataloged collections worth, probably, a great deal more than they were sold for — all of it loaded into strange vehicles to begin new time-cycles in strangers’ lives.
Jason appeared beside me as if out of air, rubber ball extended. A sad-faced Dr. Johnson shed a single black tear. I held Jason close. His warm, bony body. Dr. Johnson twisted affectionately into my shoulder.
By six o’clock, everything but the money box was gone. They’d even bought the tables. Father drove me to the station.
“It was good to spend the last weekend, just the family,” he said.
“The world is too much with us,” I said. “Call before you head down South.”
Too much with us to be replicated on a rubber ball. But the essence, the music of a symphony of knick-knacks, buildings, passing strangers compressed to a simple tune or lullaby. This we could handle. Silent mastery: language of the rubber ball. Else, who will Jason speak to in ten, twenty, thirty years?