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  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home

Circumstances - 16. Visiting Grandma

I was visiting Grandma. CM opened the door with her almost newborn baby Giovanna in her arms, wrapped in a blanket. CM stood for Contessa Marlene, a name she said no one ever called her, even back in the Dominican Republic.

“Your grandma’s visiting with Sam-the-man right now, and he just arrived, so perhaps we’d better leave them alone.”

She spoke a strange variety of English, fluent and lilting and a mix of formal and not. Sam-the-man was an old Jewish tailor, right out of a stereotyped movie, always wearing a black suit, white shirt, narrow black tie, and well-shined black dress shoes. They all looked like they came from a shop that no longer existed on the now gentrified Lower East Side. Sam’s black fedora – no feather – usually rested on my grandmother’s bed.

My grandfather, who also knew a few things about men’s clothes, having sold them most of his life in his swanky shop on Madison Avenue, would have admired Sam’s suit, but Grandpa mostly wore brown three-piece outfits, with a watch chain connecting to his father’s gold pocket watch, red scarab cuff links, and shiny brown Oxfords. Sam was also probably fifteen years younger than Grandma, which still left him room to be eighty. Grandpa would have been almost a hundred, had he lived past Sam’s age.

And since Sam was with Grandma, we went into CM’s room. Tripper, her boyfriend or husband, though I think she had one of those or an ex back in the Dominican Republic, was out on the setback, dropping dishes into a dumpster in the alley eight stories below. I don’t know where he got the dishes, but they seemed to arrive in bulk, in plastic milk crates, then CM would pick out the collectable ones to sell online, and Tripper would trash the rest. He had good aim, the plates almost always landed where he intended, and when they missed, he’d clean up the fragments with a broom and a Mahoney he borrowed from Charlie the doorman. Charlie was probably as old as Grandma and was the doorman only because he always had been the doorman. He still wore his dark blue bandleader’s uniform with gold epaulets and polished brass buttons in all but the warmest weather.

Back in the apartment, we stood in CM’s bedroom, which had been my great aunt’s for forty years, and looked out the open double-hung windows at Tripper. There were no curtains. The apartment had been stripped almost bare of anything sellable, but Grandma didn’t seem to mind. CM’s room held a single bed without a head- or footboard, a borrowed bassinet, a salvaged, overstuffed reading chair with a matching ottoman, and an old TV, not even a flat screen. It got its signal mainly through the rabbit ears antenna balanced on top.

As we watched, Tripper finished at the setback’s edge, crossed the maybe ten feet of black gravel, jumped so he could grab a rung of the old iron ladder bolted to the brick wall, chinned up, and climbed through the window into the bedroom.

“Hello, young fellow,” he said, though I was probably at least his age, which could have been anywhere between thirty and forty. He also wore a fedora – with a small, bright feather in its as colorful band – over a brown guayabera, open over a tan wife-beater, darker tan pleated dress pants, and a belt that matched the brown in his brown-and-white shoes. The first thing he did was grab another stack of plates from a milk crate balanced on the radiator and ask CM, “Trash?”

Si,” she said, and he swung back out the window.

I wanted to follow. I used to dangerously play on the setback when I was a kid, horrifying my grandmother and great aunt, if amusing my grandfather, who’d been the one to encourage me.

“He’ll get himself killed, and what will we tell his parents?” Grandma used to ask. “They’ll never speak to us again.”

“And we’ll be evicted!” my great aunt would nearly shriek. She was always worried about being evicted from the apartment, which was rent controlled and easily worth ten times what they paid.

“He’ll be fine,” Grandpa said. “It’ll put hair on his chest.”

“He’s nine years old.”

“And when I was his age – even less – probably six – I was swimming in the East River.”

I was wise enough never to go near the edge of the roof. In fact, I mostly wanted to look in people’s windows – I was always watching them on the street side of the building. And even though I was shorter then, I could still jump for the bottom rung of the ladder and pull myself up – which I discovered I couldn’t do the last time I’d tried. Tripper had been out somewhere, CM hadn’t had her baby yet, but the wire detached from her alternate antenna on the roof, four stories above, and she’d asked me to “Please fetch it.”

”Sure,” I said. in my work suit, tie, and shiny shoes, and I scrambled out the window, climbed down the short ladder, jumped to the roof, grabbed the blowing cable and brought it close enough so that even the pregnant CM could comfortably lean out and grab it. Then leaped to grasp the bottom rung of the ladder, something I hadn’t done for years. I could reach it, but was just heavier enough and out of shape that I couldn’t chin. While standing on the setback, looking up and considering the situation, I noticed again the tall, long-ago bricked in windows in the several stories above my grandmother’s apartment. The fill-ins had been done so many years back that they now matched the dark brown of the others. I was always sure there was a grand, long-unused ballroom up there, but there’d never been a way to prove it.

“You can’t just go running wild in the hallways, knocking on doors,” my great aunt had advised when I’d suggested that. But that’s pretty much what I had to do that day. CM was no longer at the window, calling her softly didn’t help, and I didn’t want to alarm my grandmother, who often sat at the next window – “Getting some sun,” as she used to say. So I tapped on the kitchen window of the apartment just below hers, jarring the woman who was on the phone, but getting her attention, and she quickly sent her young son out to open the locked stairwell door. Then I walked one floor up to my grandmother’s.

Soon after Tripper went back out the window, CM told me, “ I think enough time has passed so you may visit your grandma. She and Sam-the-man have had a long and pleasant discussion.” And she led me through the empty-and-curtainless-but-still-wall-to-wall-carpeted living room to the door of my grandmother’s bedroom, where she gently knocked and asked, “May we be permitted to come in? Your oldest grandchild is here to visit.” She didn’t wait for an answer, it seemed more of an announcement, and I followed her and the baby in.

Sam was indeed sitting on the double bed, which was covered only by a crisp white sheet, and he was wearing his black suit and perched maybe a foot from his black fedora. Grandma was perched on a straight chair not far from the single open window, though this one – like the two that faced the street – had old, wrought iron, child protector bars on it. The straight chair was part of the wooden dinette set and had been painted light institutional green, probably by my great aunt many years earlier, though the table was still natural and varnished clear yellow. My great aunt used to like “Freshening up and redecorating,” though that largely involved small cans of paint – “What I can comfortably carry,” – and shifting existing furniture around, rather than buying new pieces. And now, there was little left to shift.

“I’ve been telling your grandma about the weather,” Sam began.

Grandma smiled and nodded, either at me or at Sam, and I handed her the flowers I’d brought, a small bunch I picked up, walking from the subway. I almost always purposely got off a stop further from my grandmother’s when visiting, just so I could pass the florist’s.

“Going to visit your grandmother?” the old woman owner often asked/told me. “What a nice young man you turned out to be.”

I’d been going to her shop since easily high school, but I guess back then she’d had some doubt I’d grow up “nice.”

Grandma smelled the flowers then absently handed them to CM to put in a vase. There still were still a few, though no longer crystal, just made of cheap glass. CM took the flowers, despite holding the still-sleeping Giovanna, and left the room as I kissed Grandma’s cheek. She smiled again, and I fished over a nearby black plastic milk crate with my foot – it slid easily on the polished, hard wood floor – turned it on its side and sat. That put my head about even with Grandma’s

“She’s well,” Sam continued, and Grandma nodded and smiled. Most of her vocabulary had been stripped away by a series of strokes, but she still looked pretty much the same. Her now-thin-but-still-dark-brown hair – we used to wonder if it was dyed when my great aunt was still alive – hers was subtle, dark brown-red – was pulled back, she wore a single fake pearl screw-post earring on each ear, with her dark blue, sleeveless, fitted visiting dress and stockings and black sensible shoes with a slight stacked heel. Her gold wedding band was her only other jewelry, and it was now made to fit with a piece of adhesive tape wrapped around the back.

I never had much to say to Grandma anymore because I wasn’t sure how much she understood. But I quickly told her that everyone in the family sent their love, going through their names one-by-one while she nodded separately at each. And perhaps she could still get an image of each of us at some point in our lives in what was left of her mind. But even when she could still speak, she’d run a litany of names from my grandfather’s through my dad’s until she stopped at mine. With my brothers, the list ran longer.

CM and Tripper had been trying to feed some vocabulary back into Grandma’s memory, but they only succeed with parrot-like phrases from the old black-and-white gangster movies Tripper liked to watch on the TV in CM’s room – he’d rescued and rigged a DVD player, which sat at the bottom of the steel, rolling TV stand. So I wasn’t at all surprised when I asked Grandma how she was, and she replied in pure, nasal, Damon Runyon, rather than her formerly elegant English, “What’s it to ya, babe?”

2019 by Richard Eisbrouch
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