Cast Your Aspersions To The Wind
by R. Mitchell Miller
I am the oldest of eight grandchildren. We had been volunteered to stand behind the casket and take turns stepping to the lectern to deliver a few words of eulogy. When it was my turn, I read aloud from an essay I had written about her in the fifth grade. After reading, I negotiated the lengthy bulk of the casket and went to my spot the wait. The next thing, organ music was being piped through the church’s speaker. Everyone was going outside. Rain had been falling earlier but it was over. Still, so many people had been expecting rain that they had opened umbrellas before going outside, and they kept them open as we stood chatting, nodding in agreement.
Grandfather bought season tickets to the symphony every year, some years the opera. I don’t think he realized there was a difference. He bought a pair of tickets, suggesting that they would go together, but every time it was time to go he refused. He was a fan of watching sports. Dodgers, Lakers, Rams, horses. There was always an important momentum-shifting game. She usually found someone who would go: a card-playing lady-friend, someone she had met at the doctor’s office earlier that day. Occasionally, she was turned down by everyone and forced to resort to the uneven companionship of a grandchild. Being the oldest, I was usually the first to be asked. Though I had inherited my grandfather’s symphony-despising gene, I could not decline an opportunity to hang out with my grandmother, an excursion that usually began with a trip to the Sizzler, followed by the Rite Aid to load up on candy.
From there, we drove downtown. I sat next to my bag of candy, wanting nothing more than to have some. As we skulked through the parking garage, she instructed me to hide the bag under my shirt. “There are cameras everywhere.” But I was never once checked going in despite the awkward shape of my shirt.
It was a bad idea to fill a child with sugar and take them into a place where it is necessary to remain quiet and fold hands appreciatively. Inevitably, I ended up kicking the seat of the gentleman in front of me, the same man every time.
“Good to have the house to myself for a while,” my grandfather would say when we were back.
“Yeah?” said grandmother.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Tell me, what are you doing here all by yourself for those hours?”
“Whadda ya mean?” he said.
“I mean, were you just sitting there all that time?”
“I was watchin’.”
“Yeah, you were watchin’.”
“I was watchin’ the game!”
“How long does the game last?”
“A pretty long time!”
“A pretty long time, huh?”
“There were extras.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna check the newspaper tomorrow.”
He had a way of grinning, flicking his hand at her, dismissively, jauntily. “Bah!” They would go, like old sheep. If it wasn’t sports it was Jeopardy!. Any program that pitted one individual or one group’s competitive pride against another’s, event that ended with one winner and one or more loser.
The emotional investment caused him so much stress that he burned through an entire pouch of cigarette tobacco in one sitting. It should come as little surprise then, it was the cigarettes that killed him. His sickness was detected early but the doctors could not convince him to quit. Asking him to quit smoking was like asking him to stop watching his teams. “Bah! I’ve been a carpenter. It is the dust. The dust caused my smoking. The tobacco is bad but not as bad as the dust,” he insisted.
He retired finally – to get away from the dust. “The best decision I ever made,” he said. “I’m breathing clearer.”
And what did he do with his new free time? He smoked it away. At night, he was kept awake by coughing fits, so went downstairs to smoke and watch Sportscenter reruns. During those last days, he had barely enough energy to rise from the recliner. It was almost like he was dissolving into the carpet. Grandmother served food to him on a dinner tray; she would go back later on to collect the tray and find it covered in brown and orange phlegm tissues.
The day of his funeral, I offered to stay there with her for however long she needed me there. I was not doing anything very important with myself and I thought it would be valuable for her to have company to help her cope with what I imagined was an immense weight of grief. Everyone seemed to think I was doing a valiant thing. The aunts, the uncles, the extended family.
We went to Black Angus that night. She had a coupon for free desserts when you buy dinner for two. We came home and stood in front of the front door for a long time while grandmother fished for her keys.
“Why don’t you sell this place?” I said. She gave me the Italian lady evil eye. “You could go toItaly! You could go anywhere,” I added. “Think of all the money and time you would have.”
“I am staying put,” she announced. “Now that your grandfather is dead, there is nowhere else for me to go. Sell my house! No. This house will belong to your mother and your aunts and uncles and it will be for them to fight over. So let them!”
A porch light switched on overhead. I didn’t think anything of it. But then the door opened. A Persian man was standing there; he was barrel-chested, shirtless, tufts of black smoke cloud hair spindling out, can of sweating Heineken pressed to his skin. Grandmother screamed. It was her neighbor. We were standing in front of his house. We had parked in front of his house also. I drove the car into the correct driveway. We went inside and sat down on the living room couch. She turned on the television and we watched some CNN, the tail end of Larry King Live.
I was there for a week. She seemed completely, bizarrely unaffected. Never was a word uttered about my grandfather. I didn’t see her shed one tear, except once when I walked in on her and she might have been crying. She had been sitting with her back toward me on the carpet in the middle of the study, so I couldn’t be sure. Desk drawers flung open, piles of yellow paper on either side of her. She sorted the paper into stacks. I thought I heard her sobbing, but soon as she sensed me standing there, she gathered hersef. “Your grandfather…” she said. “He stole the wood from some doofus and varnished it. The doofus came looking for his wood and when he saw the desk your grandfather just said, ‘Yeah, it’s your wood. What of it, doofus?’ It was his desk for forty years and now it is your desk. You take.”
It was a huge, handsome desk. I would be proud to have it and I said so.
“One day when I die, you bring a truck.”
She pushed herself up and went from the room shaking, She had a wry smile, and no evidence that she had been crying moments ago. I was left alone with the desk. I had seen her going through it and for some reason I thought it would be a worthwhile cause to resume that task, to sort papers into piles like she had been doing. I kept going through the desk and I found notes, in illegible English, in Italian, a disarray of medical and financial documentation, some forty years old.
There was one drawer that looked to be empty, but I reached inside and found a shoebox. I removed the shoebox and there were some very old yellowing pictures, the very thing you would hope to find under these circumstances. The first picture was of him standing in front of a harbor; he was my age, younger perhaps, straight-faced. I flipped through the stack and was treated to a pictorial tour ofLa Spezia, the ancestral city: the central piazza, the fountain, a shop with a wood sign cut in the shape of a pig.
I came to a picture of grandfather posing in an alleyway. He was holding a stencil and at first I could not tell what it was. I looked closer and realized that it was in the shape of a man’s flaccid hairy penis. A big gravy of nauseated sweat fell over me. How very odd this was. And unexpected. The subsequent pictures were all of him with this same – or similar stencil. He had a great big excitable smile in each of these pictures with the wooden dicks. And the photos grew more elaborate. For example, one in which he was on the ground on his stomach, holding in one of his hands the wooden cock, and a dandelion in the other. The variations in location, the scope of the project, the sheer number of wooden stencils that were employed suggested that this project had been a huge undertaking, one that had required much thought and coordination. And for what? To what end?
In the last picture of the series, he posed by a brushy hillock. He was all the way to the side of the frame, doing his thing. On the other side of the frame was an ancient Italian lady, dressed in black, casting her eyes in hateful aspersion.
I put returned the pictures to the desk. I didn’t know what to do. I could have asked grandmother about the pictures but I didn’t think I should. I made up my mind to ask indirect questions. Wafting from the kitchen, I smelled tomato. I went to the bathroom and leaned over the toilet, unable to vomit. I went into the kitchen and found grandmother over the stove. “Are you feeling all right?” she asked. “I heard you retching in there.”
“I’m fine. Just feeling a little nauseated.”
She felt my forehead: “No temperature.”
“I hope it’s something I get over quickly.”
“You need something to eat.”
I stood behind her, watching the erupting tomato bubbles, stomach feeling the same. I was waiting for a conversational opening but there was no easy way to broach the subject.
Finally, she asked, “What do you think about grandfather’s desk? It’s a very nice desk, is it not?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And what did you find?”
There was still no easy way to broach the subject.
“What can you tell me about grandpa?”
“What do you wish to know?”
“Anything. Tell me something I might not know.”
“Your grandfather had a booming voice – that commanded respect. Like a cannon!”
“I’m interested in knowing things I might not know otherwise. What I want to know what kind of man he was. Before mom was born. Before you moved away from the homeland.”
“Was there something specific you found in his desk that is causing you to ask such questions?”
“Are you sure?”
“One hundred percent.”
“There was nothing specific?”
“No, no, it’s a general thing.”
“Fine. But I do not know what to tell you. You are his seed. Do you know what I mean? The best way to know him is to examine yourself. Anything that was inside him is inside you. Capiche? That is the best answer I can give. If you just look, look, in you, you will find him.”
“Do you think so?”
“People do not change as much as you might think. We are always the people we are. People always wants the same things.”
“What about his sense of humor? Did he have much of a sense of humor?”
“Your grandfather was a mirthful man.”
“I never saw him laugh. Maybe not even once. How was he mirthful? Did he play pranks?”
“Not when he became a career man. Not when he had a family to provide for.”
“What about gambling? Was he prone to making foolish bets?”
“He never gambled his money on anything.”
“Was he ever a gay man?”
“A gay man?”
“Your grandfather was … a joyous man!”
“Then you’re saying he wasn’t… uh, a gay man?”
“I am telling you your grandfather was a joyous man!”
“What do you mean he was a joyous man?”
I expected her to give me some explanation. But she would not. I did not know what she meant. A few days later I went to an unmemorable movie about jousting knights. I came home in the evening and found the doors to grandma’s house had been locked. I had told her that I was leaving that afternoon and I would be back in the evening, but she had gone and locked me out. I went to the side of the house and tried the doors but they were locked also. Peeping over the fence was the neighbor.
“How is your grandmother?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Is she fine? She seems to be going a little cuckoo. Do you know what I see her doing? She walks around. She tells me she’s looking for puddles. She is afraid of mosquitoes breeding. She always talks about the West Nile Virus.”
“That’s an odd thing to be paranoid about,” I agreed.
“I’m just saying that all is not right and you may want to keep track of her. I’ve seen this happen before.” The neighbor walked away and laid down in his hammock. I fell asleep in the grass under the shade of a lemon tree for two or three hours. It was dark when I woke up. I dreamed. I thought it odd that people put stock in the interpretation of their dreams. I have always been of the opinion that anything that happens in a dream is something you have already thought, knowingly or unknowingly. There is nothing more to be elucidated from it. I dreamt of my grandfather that afternoon. It was good to see him – even if it was nothing more than a neurological projection.
In this dream, he was a young man. We were hiking up a wheat hill, and came to an orchard of olives, followed by a yard of grapes. I was content to follow the path, let the gentle breeze guide the smells of countryside into my nose. He picked some grapes, then said, “Your grandmother is right, you know. She always was.”
“Something must change you.”
“Something must change you? What do you mean?”
“I can’t tell you what must change you. It must change you.”
He rolled grapes in his hand, one of each color – red, green, gold – and offered them to me. “Eat them at the same time.” I did; but because it was a dream the taste of the grapes was no different than any other grape I had ever had, meaningless. We enjoyed the panorama at the top of the hill: beyond the fields layLa Spezia, the port, a construction of the city based on what I had seen in the pictures and what had been described to me.
He pointed toward Cinque Terre. At a house that I immediately recognized was the ancestral house, but again it was my own construction, and it bore resemblance to the house inLos Angeles. He walked up to this house and were about to go inside it. “I almost forgot,” he said, and he threw a bag of feed over his shoulder. “I could use a strong back. As long as you are here…” We went around the house. There was a chicken coup. A dozen bocking, pecking chickens. He opened the gate and they came running out.
“Go ahead and feed them. You have never been on the farm. You will like feeding the birds.”
I reached into the bag. A rooster crowed. The wind rustled. My dream-state became alarmed. “Where are the roosters?” I said, looking at the hens. Indeed, there were no mingling roosters.
The door to the house flung open. Grandma was wielding a shotgun.
Grandfather dropped the feed and grabbed me by the hand. We ran down the hill toward La Spezia. It seemed like there were hundreds, thousands of reckless flying roosters. I looked over my shoulder. Grandmother was giving chase, firing her gun. Because it was a dream, she did not need to stop to reload her gun. I tripped over something and went tumbling. Grandpa kept going, steady on his feet, did not notice I had lost mine. I skidded to a stop next to the feathery heap of rooster with bullet hole. I tried to push myself up. I was still carrying the seed, and it spilled from my hand.
Grandma bounded down the hill after me. She was right behind me. Her shadow blotted the savage orange storm clouds: like thunder in a cave, like grandfather coughing pink lung tissue, behind me her gun went click.
“Get up! What are you doing down there?”
She was standing over me, looking at me like I was some kind of lunatic for sleeping in the yard. I didn’t say anything about how annoyed I had been that she had locked me out. The next day I was having a bowl of cereal. I was watching grandmother outside; she was wearing one shoe and one rubber gardening boot. I washed my bowl and thought about going out there and offering my services weeding the yard but knew she did not want any help. She was a relative novice but what she liked about it was that she could do it herself. Why would I take that away from her?
She planted tomato and basil, the first ingredients in many of her recipes. She grew them and tried them but they did not taste the same as the produce from the produce aisle in the supermarket so she gave up. She planted mint. She liked the smell of mint but did not realize that planting mint is akin to inviting a weed into your garden. In a matter of weeks, the mint had spread and choked everything like a creepy, leafing hand. She did not let a surfeit of mint frustrate her, no. Every morning she went out in her gloves, her sun hat, with her shears, and culled the young leaves. The leaves sat on the windowsill, and at the end of the day she muddled them and put them in a mojito glass. I don’t think she even liked mojitos. She didn’t like gardening and she didn’t like mojitos, and yet she was growing mojito fixings in her garden. She had an ability to adapt. That was one of my favorite stories of her.
It did not seem like it was that long ago. In actuality, I guess it wasn’t. But her mind was not as fresh then as it was when there was rum in the liquor drawer. All there was now was a bottle of Charles Shaw that had been opened long ago.
I spent the rest of that week going to the movies. There was nothing else to do. I liked the theater. I liked allotting time and money to see some ridiculous atrocity that bloated along for two hours and blotted out all thoughts of everything else. I liked to arrive early and sit there in silence reading trivia questions and advertisements. The emptier the theater, the better.
One time, I took grandmother to the movies. I thought it would be a nice treat for her. We saw some movie about flying robots. After it ended, I looked at her and could tell that she did not enjoy the movie. In fact, she seemed irate at me for taking her. We went back and we walked to the door and she said, “Is that how you spend your time now? You go to the movie theater and you watch shit like that?”
We went inside.
“I like movies, grandma.”
“It’s a waste of time!”
“We weren’t gone long.”
She went into the kitchen and armed herself with a fly swatter. “If I had known what it was going to be, I would have stayed home. I sat there for two hours watching a movie and as soon as it was over it was gone from my memory. Why do you go somewhere to waste your time? What purpose does that serve?”
“I just wanted to go do something.”
“So you go and you waste your time and money!”
She nearly shot out of her gardening shoe. Her back arched. She grabbed her chest. “You cannot sneak up on an old lady like that! What are you trying to do? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “How is the gardening going?”
“Fine,” she said. “How did you sleep?”
It had been a tense last few days staying there. I had bought my return ticket by then. With the end in sight, some of the tension had resolved itself.
“I don’t know. Honestly, I did not sleep well.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Something must be happening inside your head. Something that doesn’t want to be in there.”
“I never can remember my dreams.”
“You should write your dreams down. That’s what I’ve done. Always. I keep a journal and if I have a dream it’s the first thing I do when I wake up.”
“What good does that do for you?”
“It helps me remember them.”
“Why do you want to remember them?”
“Because it’s something that happens! What kind of a question is that, anyway?”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, grandma.”
“So ask me.”
“What can you tell me of some old photographs I found in grandfather’s desk?”
“What photos? When did you find them?”
“A couple weeks ago. When I was going through the desk.”
“Photos of your grandfather? You did not tell me about the photos? Why?”
“I assumed you knew of them.”
“Old pictures in the desk? You just assumed?” She buried her trowel in loam, and sprang up more quickly than I imagined she could. Immediately, I could tell that I should not have said anything of the photos and showing them to her was not a good idea.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s nothing.”
“I know no pictures in his desk,” she said. “Show me.” She cast her gloves aside and hurried upstairs to the study. I followed. She opened the desk drawers and removed the papers.
“Where are the pictures?” She opened the bottom drawer and peered inside. “Where are they?”
“In a box.”
“There are many boxes.”
“Maybe you should just forget it.”
“Don’t tell me what you think I should do.”
She stared at me for a long time before resuming the search, as if giving me one more chance to offer a compelling reason why I should just forget it. I could not think of anything to say and she started again, removing the shoeboxes, putting them on the floor, searching. “Show me where to find these pictures!”
I knelt and reached into the drawer. Her face lit when she saw the shoebox; she stole it from me and carried it downstairs so she could view the photos in the living room’s better light.
I had never seen her like that. I had never seen anyone like that. To have in front of her pictures of the man to whom she had been married for fifty years, who was now dead – pictures she had never seen? It must have been an incredible feeling for that brief time. I could not just take the box of photos from her and run away and never let her see them. There was no way I could squelch the feeling. I had to let her see the photos.
She opened the box and perused the first dozen. She flipped on through the stack and I tracked the evolution of expression on her face: euphoria to confusion to sickly alarm.
“What?” was all she could say. “What? What? What is he doing?” The question was asked in present tense – as if the activity was happening in front of her and she could so easily inquire. She flipped through the rest of the stack. Alarm turned to anguish. “My husband! My husband!” With greater alacrity, she looked at the photos, and when she reached the end of the stack, she was mute, tearful, and could only muster a whimper.
The next day, she demanded to know why I had shown the pictures to her. I told her I didn’t know why. The last couple days, we exchanged barely any words. That was how my time with my grandmother ended. One morning, I loaded my luggage into the cab. We hugged goodbye. As the car drove me to the end of the block, I looked through the rear windshield; she puttered around the yard, going back and forth as the neighbor had described.
I wondered if this would be the last image of her I would remember. No. As it turned out, she would visit for Christmas that year, but that was the last time I would ever see her and much of that time she spent in an armchair, arms stationed defensively, an immovable bulwark. She said very little and you could tell she was not well. A few months later, we flew toLos Angelesfor her funeral, and after the funeral we went back to empty the old house.
I went into the study. The desk against where it always had been. I sat in the chair and put my head on the varnished wood. I didn’t sleep but I don’t know for how long I was there. When I finally did get up, my mother was standing in the doorway. “You do need a new desk, don’t you?” I wanted to take the desk, but I did not need it. I did not want to have to transport this huge wooden thing and I did not want to get rid of the desk I had.
“What desk do you have?”
“I have a desk. One that does everything I need.”
“It would be a shame to get rid of your grandfather’s old desk.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I helped my uncle carry furniture outside. Grandmother’s neighbor came over to see what we were doing; he came to see if there was anything he wanted. There was not.
We went back the next day. It was the last time we would go to that house. I went up the stairs one last time. The desk was still there. Everyone had said they had wanted it but no one wanted to move it. I rested my head on the lacquered wood – one last time – and fell asleep and dreamt a cold wind raking theMediterranean. Maybe the desk would be taken by the next owner of the house – or maybe the next owner of the desk would have glass furniture and no use for an imposing wood desk. That would be a shame if the desk got taken out and set by the road for collection on bulk trash collection day, never to be seen again. But I was not only to blame. I was not the only person leaving behind the desk, though I felt like I bore must of the blame. The house did not take long to sell. Just a few days. The money was split. There was no fighting.
What can be said about the brides and grooms who remain together? Forty, fifty years or more? I have heard that when one of these devote spouses dies, the other is not long to follow. The survivor is so stricken with grief that his or her only option is to succumb. Biological imperative, or cosmic imperative, to follow true love down the aisle.