Peace Comes at a Cost

“That nurse-girl stole my check blanks.”

It’s a conversation starter. I just got here, just sat down in the chair that used to be Grandma’s and we needed a place to start.

The nurse comes in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to check on him and get him to bathe. On Fridays, I show up a half hour after the nurse leaves, and he bitches. As he bitches about that “nurse girl” he points to the front door and I can see his arm because he forgot to button his shirt sleeve and his muscles aren’t big enough to keep the material up. His withered arm, like chicken skin that’s been pulled off raw, slaps at the air. He shakes his fist and that skin jiggles and I can’t eat chicken anymore.

I look away, over to the television that’s not on, to the bookcase filled with Reader’s Digest books in rainbow colors, to the robin’s egg blue paint on the walls and the thick brown shag carpet. But his arm stays up, the skin jiggling back and forth at the edges of my sight line.

“She didn’t steal your check blanks, Grandpa,” I say.

“Listen here, missy, they’re gone.”

“I put them in the desk drawer where you always keep them.”

“That’s not where I like them.”

“Yeah, it is.”

He looks over the 1940’s red metal TV tray he likes to eat at, his brittle blue eyes pale imitations of themselves with white cataract lace crocheted across. The old face, deep wrinkled cheeks, and I make myself remember being told that I’m supposed to love and respect this man. And I want to, I really do. It’s just easier to remember when his skin’s not jiggling at me.

His wrinkled mouth, concaved from losing all his teeth, has that white foamy stuff caught on one corner. He reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips, like he knows the foamy spit is there, but he doesn’t. It’s just one of those things he does.

“Drawer’s where we keep ‘em?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Oh.”

He looks at the air between his face and my face, sort of in my direction but not looking at me. Like every Friday, I wish I could think of ways to get out of the house for the night. That’s not going to happen. It’s my turn. And just like every Friday, I feel a sigh slide up me before it comes out, try to make it stay inside, but it won’t.

“Show’s comin’ on soon,” he says.

That’s Grandpa’s code for me to stand up and turn on the television he’s had forever. The set takes a minute to warm up enough to show a picture, and while it warms I turn it to channel four Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. These shows seem to be on some Old Person Mandatory Viewing list. He watches them six days a week, talks about them with other old people when I take him places. An octogenarian version of water cooler TV.

“You make a good door but not a good window,” he says.

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair.

It’s a family saying. One my father repeated too many times when I was growing up. I step to the side of the television set, no longer a door. My jaw is teeth against teeth while I pull the TV tray in front of his chair and take a white napkin from the holder on his wood-like-finished end table, lay the napkin on the tray.

“You cold?” I say.

“What!”

I take a breath in so I can talk in a calm voice.

“You’re in my way,” he says before I can repeat the question. He leans to his right, to look around me although the set hasn’t warmed and neither show is on.

“Didja break my television?”

I step left. Make a Vanna White gesture to the set. “It’s warming up.”

“Oh.”

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair. But I’m nineteen and he’s been, like, eighty years old for my entire life, kind of like my parents always being forty. They will always be those ages, even though I’ve grown from kindergarten to college. They are my adults, and now I’m supposed to be old enough to take care of them like they’re children.

“What do you want for dinner?” I say.

“It’s Friday.”

“What kind of fish do you want?”

His wrinkled arm and hand come out at me and wave me away. Jeopardy! is starting. “Whatever you find,” he says. His words, his blue and white eyes aimed more at the TV and Alex Trebek than at me. I pass by him toward the kitchen, and, “You make a good door.”

At the same time I say, “Sorry.”

Inside my head is the little girl in me that wants to smartass back at him with, “I never wanted to be a window,” but I can’t because he’s still my adult.

*     *     *

The kitchen is pink 1950s tile counters, cool rounded edges, a white cast iron sink with chips that show the metal underneath. The place where Grandma used to make fried chicken and ginger cookies while I watched. I lean on the counter, weight into my hands and arms, all of me bent and braced and tired. So damned tired my body could melt into a puddle, lie there until I evaporate into the stale air of this house, because my night, my one night of the week on duty, has only just started.

And he coughs. The cough that comes from smoking filterless Salems until he couldn’t get them anymore. Long enough that the smell of cigarette is ground into the pores of the house.

Then the after-cough sound, a guttural slog of goop out of his lungs and spit into one of his red handkerchiefs. The red handkerchiefs lie all over the house in crusted sculptures of red patterned cloth and dry mucus, waiting for the day my mother or my aunt is here because none of the rest of us will touch them. Waiting for my cousin to come on Wednesday and iron them, because she likes to iron. A pile of dozens of those washed and ironed red handkerchief next to his chair, because when we buy him Kleenex, Grandpa says that a handkerchief was good enough for his father and his grandfather and then he says nothing else because that’s supposed to be an answer.

I think about those handkerchief sculptures and vomit a little in the back of my throat. My own goop that goes back down to my stomach.

On the pea green fridge, the white board has the weekly schedule, the same schedule for every week since Grandma passed and the family had to take over the responsibility of Grandpa. Fish on Friday, chicken on Sunday, laundry on Wednesday. It’s all on the white board, even the “nurse girl” and the in-home-hospice guys who come overnight to doze on a chair in case something happens during the wee-smalls.

My sister has Tuesdays. My brother lives out-of-state and therefore out-of-reach. My cousin, parents, aunt, and uncle each took a shift until all that was left for me was Friday.

Friday because I don’t have a boyfriend.

Friday because I don’t work nights.

Friday because it’s supposed to give me time for homework.

Every fucking Friday.

Friday and therefore fish.

I want to lean on the pink tiles I lovethe tiles that are pale, delicate, old. A single thing inside this house that I can always count on. Even the cracked tiles remain steady in their spot, saying to hell with you, we are not leaving this place without a fight.

Of course, the tiles are just the kitchen version of my grandfather and with that thought my peace is broken. I pull myself up and over to the fridge with the white board, with the schedule, with the fish on Friday.

I get to choose between frozen fish sticks or frozen breaded clams that are like eating deep fried pencil erasers. A handful of clams on a cookie sheet, into the oven, 350 degrees for eleven minutes. I reheat the leftover creamed corn from last night. And ta-da, microwave-and-eleven-minute Haute Cuisine.

Grandpa hollers from the living room. “You ‘bout done in there?”

I’m leaning again, staring out the window over the sink and I holler back, “A couple minutes.”

Wheel of Fortune’s coming on soon.”

“I know.”

“I like to eat when Wheel‘s” his sentence ends in another cough, another hack, another spit, another potential goop and red handkerchief statue.

The vomit taste burns my throat, goes back down into my stomach, that horrible aftertaste of acid sick in my mouth. I come out to the living room, Double Jeopardy, and ‘What’s the Mona Lisa,’ and his cough goes on.

“You okay?” I say.

“Course I’m okay,” he says, and coughs goop into the red cloth. “Just get me my dinner.”

I bite my bottom lip on the little girl that wants to smartass again and go back to the kitchen.

The creamed corn bubbles in the microwave. I rummage to find his tartar sauce behind the milk that will expire tomorrow, plop some onto the plate in a lumpy circle, and wait for the oven timer.

*     *     *

Wheel of Fortune is starting in the living room and Grandpa’s eating batter crusted chewy clam parts from the flowered plates Grandma always used. My chance for a moment of peace and I take it on the toilet.

But peace comes at a cost. His stomach and bowels don’t hold much of anything anymore. The splattered edge of the toilet seat, however, holds whatever is splattered there.

I find the cleanser, the blue plastic cleaning brush, and scrub. A few minutes of bleach activated lemon scented suds, a solid minute of soap and a fingernail scrubber on my hands, and I can finally sit.

While the pee falls into the water under me, I close my eyes and think of all the memories of this place from my childhood. The laughter and conversation that would come through the rooms, us kids running to Grandma where she sat in her chair, lemon drops in the sky blue candy dishhard sugary outside that always cut the tongue and the sharp-sweet lemon beneath. Then I grew up and this became the house where my grandmother died slowly from cancer without telling any of us she was sick. Where my grandfather now sits and rots, Friday by Friday.

A bang against the flimsy bathroom door and my thighs go goose-bump prickly with the interrupt. Is it another time bomb? Another drizzle down the pant leg? The exciting opportunity to put my bare hands into the toilet bowl with real live old man shit?

His voice echoes into the hollow bathroom door. “My corn’s cold.” He slaps a fist on the door again. “D’you hear me in there?”

I take a breath in. “Can I please have a moment?”

No answer.

I count to ten in my head and still nothing. My body relaxes; small drops of pee come out of me. My head falls to the spring green bathroom wall beside me and I think again about how much I miss chicken.

Then his voice again, relentless. “My corn’s cold and they have some spick on Wheel of Fortune.”

With my head against the wall, I can see the ancient yellow shower tiles in the mirror over the sink. The dripping shower head with rust on the pipe. One of Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups on the counter.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” I say, more to the coffee cup than to him.

“What!” he asks, but it’s not really a question.

The little girl piece of me makes a fist and the fist wants to slam at the door and through the door and I collect my calm and I say, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Oh.”

The sound of his answer bounces around inside the door and repeats itself. Oh, oh, oh. Sad, sorry, pathetic.

At the sink, my Grandma’s green eyes look back at me in the mirror. Her cheekbones and not-quite-pug nose. The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

Whatever she saw in him, I don’t see.

I come out and he’s walked back to his chair, the hump of his shoulders pulling the back of his white shirt from his gray pants. He turns around and half-sits-half-falls into the chair where he half-lives his life.

On the ancient red TV tray are the remains of his dinner. Cold creamy stuff with floating corn, tartar sauce with floating clumps of clam batter, half the clam pieces uneaten.

“You want me to warm that up again?” I say.

He looks at the plate and I look at the plate and we pause. My grandfather and I have never spent so much time together, have never been alone-just-the-two-of-us before I took Fridays a couple of months ago. We don’t know how to be silent with each other, how to be just family.

“Do you want it warmed up?” I say again.

His hand raises and shoos me away. “Not hungry anymore,” he says. And he reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips because it’s just one of those things he does.

The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

My teeth against teeth make a false smile he isn’t looking at and the girl in me wants to scream, shrill enough and big enough to break something. Break him so I can have my Fridays back. So I can have some memories that haven’t been broken by adulthood.

“Look!” he says, the flap of chicken skin arm falls out of his sleeve while his finger points at the television and his skin points at the kitchen then the bathroom then the kitchen again. “Look, right there on Wheel.”

Some guy named Eduardo asks for an F, gets three. While Vanna White does her bit, Grandpa’s finger stops pointing, his skin stops pointing, and I remember liking chicken.

“Damned people are everywhere,” he says. “Ruined the damned country.”

I pick up the plate and Eduardo solves the puzzle to win two thousand five hundred and fifty dollars. ‘The Eiffel Tower of London.’

“There’s no Eiffel Tower in England,” Grandpa says.

“It’s a before and after puzzle,” I say.

“A what?”

“A before and after.”

He stares hard at me, cataracts over blue.

I point to the television, my second Vanna White moment of the night, and say it louder, “The puzzle is Before and After.”

“Oh,” he says. “Still a damned spick.”

Another end to another conversation.

I cross in front of him to get to the kitchen. I’m not a door this time because he doesn’t mind missing commercials.

“Dessert?” I say.

“Maybe coffee later,” he says.

As I walk toward the kitchen, he says, “You know.”

I stop. Look at the back of his half-balded head.

“I used to care about things,” he says.

He keeps his eyes on the TV set. A new puzzle. The category is Same Name.

*     *     *

In the pink tiled kitchen, I leave behind idiots buying vowels.

I reach for a glass and find the bottle of vodka behind Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups. I shouldn’t be surprised and I’m not. I know I’m supposed to be angry and reprimand him like he’s some kid sneaking a cookie and I won’t.

Something I never noticed before my Fridays was Grandpa and his coffee cups full of vodka. Grandpa walking back to his chair or into the bedroom or into the bathroom, the cup beside his leg because he thinks if it’s beside his leg no one else can see it. Grandpa moving along every day with badly hidden blue cups of what’s killing him.

I grab a glass and the bottle of vodka. At the sink, I fill my glass from the tap and it clinks on the tile when I set it down. Then I hold the bottle up in the window sunlight. Through vodka bottle glass I see the neighborhood my grandparents have always lived in. None of their friends are in these houses now; they’ve gone to live with relatives, moved to retirement homes, died.

The vodka bottle is more than half gone, hidden away in the cupboard for less than a week since it wasn’t here last Friday. It smells like nothing. Tastes like nothing but a warm burn through my throat and into my chest as I tip it up and empty the bottle. It clears away the vomit taste, gives the evening a lightness.

Then I drink my water and set my glass beside the sink. Under the sink, the garbage smells of mold and bad meat, and I shove the empty vodka bottle under some old tin foil and close the cupboard door.

Sally Lehman HeadshotSally K Lehman is the author of the novella Small Minutes. She has had more than twenty poems and stories published in online literary magazines including Bewildering Stories, The Scruffy Dog Review, Ascent Aspirations, Voice Catcher, and the upcoming Perceptions Magazine of the Arts. Find more about her at SallyKLehman.com and TheIncidentalPoet.com. Sally studied Mathematics at UC Berkeley and worked in the computer industry for many years prior to becoming a full time writer. She currently lives near Portland, Oregon.