in Pow Wow(Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank,
eds.), Da Capo, 2009
Appeared in Southwest Review,
Mention, The Pushcart Prize
XVIII:1993-1994, Bill Henderson, series
for a pushcart prize by the
I was allowed, until I was much too old,
to punch my grandfather as hard as I wanted, provided I didn't hit him in the
stomach. I used to climb him like a mountain, pummeling as he laughed. His
head was enormous, its leading feature the family nose, broad and bulbous
and quite equal to the task of holding dominion over a wide, powerful face.
His hair, though thin, never went completely gray; he Brylcreemed it
straight back, the comb tracks visible, in the way of men of his
generation. He bore a striking resemblance to Babe Ruth.
Grandpa drove a succession of new white
Cadillacs with white leather upholstery. Parked in one of those Cadillacs
in front of our tract home in the Los
Angeles suburb of Buena
Park, Grandpa opened his
wallet to show me twelve hundred-dollar bills. He was my idea of a high
When I was seven, Grandpa outfitted me
with my first blazer--bright red with embossed brass buttons--and drove to Las
Vegas so fast the wind from
the window hurt my face.
A highway cop pulled us over near the Nevada
border. Somehow Grandpa got him talking about the Dodgers, and was on the
verge of charming his way out of a ticket, when I piped up shrilly from the
back seat: "I told you you were driving too fast, Grandpa!"
Grandpa put the inevitable ticket next to
the millions of dollars in his wallet and pulled back onto Interstate 15,
grumbling, "I'll give you a slap."
At the Golden Nugget Casino, Grandpa and
I had Shirley Temples while Grandma drank something that made her expansive
enough to laugh at everything Jimmy Durante said and invite me on their
upcoming trip to Hawaii.
Grandpa raised the back of his hand to his mouth and told me
confidentially, "Your Grandma's soused."
When Grandma told me he had been elected
president, I took for granted she meant of the United
Grandpa had been elected president of the Sanitary Suppliers' Association
of Southern California. He was a founding father of that organization,
having started his factory, Captain Kleenzit, Inc., in 1936. Our home was
full of Captain Kleenzit paraphernalia: not just the all-purpose household
cleaner, pink and perfumy, but playing cards, pens and pads, and the
calendar, all bearing the art-deco Kleenzit logo Grandpa had never changed.
One of his company's two annual calendars depicted a different vintage car
each month, the other the semi-nude frolickings of a plump and rather overaged
nymph named Hilda. The family always got the version with the cars.
There were two Grandpas as well. Mine
never swore and rebuked me for doing so ["You've got a filthy mouth,
like your father"]; the Other Grandpa, I learned after his death, when
it fell to Grandma to run the factory, had been the source of innumerable
off-color jokes that a Kleenzit trucker would repeat only after issuing
warnings to the ladies. I was astonished to discover a massive collage of
explicit pornography splayed out across the wall above the urinals where my
Grandpa had peed every weekday of his adult life.
In his last years Grandpa had developed a
mysterious blood disease that doctors called a precursor to leukemia.
Though he required increasingly frequent transfusions, his life went on
more or less as usual, except that he was forced to relinquish his vice
presidency of the liberal California Democratic Committee.
On a visit from college, I drove up to my
grandparents' home in LaurelCanyon
as Grandpa and Beau-beau, the miniature poodle he spoiled rotten, jogged
across the road. I embraced Grandpa while he put up a mild struggle and his
customary protest: "C'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon."
Physical contact made him uncomfortable
now that I had grown up, a fact in which I took a perverse delight. I
kissed his fat cheeks until he said, as always, "I'll give you a
Only then did I release him. "You
look like you're in good shape, Grandpa."
"What do you mean?"
I had pressed a nerve. "Well,"
I fumbled, "running across the street and everything."
"Big deal!" he snapped.
"I'm only seventy-one-and-a-half."
And a half. He had begun again to count
his years in fractions, as a child does.
Long, long before, when the notion of
achieving such an age would have seemed preposterous, the Chicago Mirror had announced a
search for "The Poorest Boy in Chicago,"
upon whose waifish head would descend "Eight Dollars and Forty Cents,
in Silver." My grandfather, then six years of age--six-and-a-half, he
would have said--was the fruit of that search. "Little Joseph,"
as the Mirror dubbed him,
"supports his mother and two infant sisters on his odd-job pittance of
seventeen cents per day." In a sepia-toned photograph on the front
page of the December 19, 1915 Mirror,
Grandpa was wearing clean knickerbockers and a saucy, pugnacious
expression, as if challenging the reader to repeat an unkind remark about a
female member of his family.
Grandpa never spoke about his origins,
perhaps because he did not like their memory, or perhaps because he scoffed
at the notion that anything could have held him back. He was fond, however,
of telling the story of how he had quit his four-pack-a-day smoking habit.
It was a remarkably short story. "One day I said, 'Who's the boss? Me
or these cigarettes?' I never smoked another. Never missed it." He
would give a quick sharp stare to each of his listeners, daring someone to
deny it, to deny the lesson in it.
The lesson was that Grandpa had, through
clean living and indomitable force of will, rendered himself invulnerable
to the weaknesses of ordinary men. And so it dumbfounded us all when a
minor piece of oral surgery went sour, Grandpa's red-blood-cell count
plunged, and he was taken by ambulance to Cedars-SinaiHospital.
I flew in from New
York, and spent the next month
with Grandma. Every morning she stuffed me full of eggs--scrambled with
green peppers, with fried salami, easy over, in omelettes--and then we were
off to Cedars-Sinai, where I listened to my grandparents debate about
finances and the factory. "You shut up!" he'd tell her, when
things had reached a certain point.
"No, you shut up!" she'd tell him.
Maggie, my youngest aunt, came daily to
the hospital, and together we giggled as her parents carped. When we became
too much for Grandpa, we found ourselves--politely but firmly, Grandma
being his ambassador in matters requiring tact--expelled from his room. We
would wander to BeverlyCenter,
the six-floor shopping mall newly opened on the grounds where, as a child,
my grandparents had taken me for pony rides in the middle of Los
Angeles. Maggie and I would
anesthetize ourselves for hours by popping chocolate-coated coffee beans
and touching things we could not afford. Finally we would sink into the
Star Trek lobby furniture and look at each other's haggard faces.
After visiting hours, Grandma would take
me for a run on Fairfax Avenue, it being imperative that her only grandson
be constantly supplied with his favorite foods--strawberries, T-bone
steaks, Canter Delicatessen's onion bagels and lox--all the foods she
called my favorites turning out to be her own. I stalked her with my new
Minolta in the open-air produce markets; "Oh no, I look awful,"
she would say, patting her hair like a forties film queen.
We returned to watch old movies on TV as
she crocheted throw rugs to cover up the spots on the white wool carpet
that were Beau-beau's legacy. ["Beau-beau," she would murmur,
"was a pisher."] Grandma loved Paul Muni and Charles Laughton,
hated sex scenes and subtitles. One night we made Droste's cocoa with fresh
whipped cream and watched Pygmalion. It was her opinion that Leslie Howard
had beautiful eyes.
Specialists were swirling around Grandpa
at Cedars-Sinai, but I considered myself the only doctor assigned to
Grandma. I blanketed her with good intentions, insisting that she eat when
she wasn't hungry, setting her alarm an hour forward while she slept. She
puttered endlessly in the kitchen and bore my ministrations with a girlish
resistance that she usually allowed me to beat down.
There were many reasons why Grandma's
yellow-tiled kitchen had always been my favorite room in their home--the
laughter of my aunts, the smells of chicken soup and kasha varnishkes--but
perhaps the best was that it was not the living room, where Grandpa sat at
his card table doing jigsaw puzzles under a goosenecked lamp and
occasionally peering over his half-framed glasses and giving the TV's
remote control a dour pump. Only Beau-beau could violate this sanctuary
with impunity; Grandpa would buffet the dog with big blunt hands until he
elicited his phony snarl, pluck out any ribbons his daughters had tied into
Beau's black curls, and dispense Chips Ahoy cookies from a glass jar kept
close by for that purpose.
I once calculated that the number of
Chips Ahoys the tiny poodle devoured would be equivalent, for an adult
human, to fifty-four chocolate-chip cookies per day. Grandma laughed at me:
"Try telling that to Grandpa!"
I never did, and Beau-beau lived to be
seventeen. When Maggie came home for family dinners, Beau-beau jumped all
over her; Grandpa could say only, "The dog's happy to see you,
My grandparents had put five years
between each of their three daughters. Though Maggie was thirteen years
older than me, she had always seemed of my own generation. She had introduced
me, in my teens, to rock music and marijuana, taken me to Fellini films
with her friends. Now, until such time as Grandpa got better, both our
lives were on hold.
Grandpa would get better; that was our
common coin. Maggie clung to a form of hope that I couldn't abide: not only
would her father live, but the hospital was the best in the world, and the
nurses were nice, and in fact everyone was very nice, and no one was ugly.
I rubbed her raw with constant arguments that the only realistic thing to believe
was that Grandpa would recover: though the doctors now said that Grandpa
had crossed the border into leukemia, and the odds were ten to one against
him, the odds did not take into account Grandpa's extraordinary
constitution, his iron will; the odds, when viewed rightly, were all in his
favor. In one picture snapped by a stranger in BeverlyCenter,
Maggie and I were leaning against each other like adjacent buildings slowly
It was as if the entire family had smoked
marijuana and the high was lasting a month: if something was good, it was
very very good, if bad, it was unbearable; and in either event we
immediately forgot it. Grandpa had reached the point where he had good days
and bad days, and we had all become Grandpas.
Grandpa had taken his chemotherapy with
no vomiting or hair loss, seeming to prove my childish theory that he was
more than human. The initial blood and bone-marrow tests were clean, but
soon a few cancer cells were discovered.
The second round of chemotherapy was as
hard as the first had been easy. Grandpa's hair fell out in bunches, and
solid food became an impossibility. A second intravenous unit appeared
beside his bed, dispensing clear foodstuff while the other dripped noxious
chemicals into his bloodstream. The doctors told us he was vulnerable to
infection and asked us to wear surgical masks in his room. Grandpa insisted
on his daily shower more adamantly now that strangers were regularly
inspecting his body, and the intravenous units had to be disconnected every
morning, reconnected when he finished.
Grandpa had always been something of a
dandy. My mother had recalled to me her amazement, long before Captain
Kleenzit became successful, at seeing her father bring home silken boxer
shorts. All his socks were Egyptian cotton, their colors fastidiously
coordinated with the loud, expensive Italian slip-on shoes he favored. Now
Grandpa lay naked in his bed at Cedars-Sinai, waiting to be exposed by
anyone who cared to lift his sheet.
Judge Jimmy Eisenberg, an alert, narrow
man in a tailored brown suit, came to reminisce with Grandpa about their
lives in California
politics. I listened, encouraged by Grandpa's energy. When he dozed off
suddenly, the judge, waiting for him to awaken, talked with me for a while
about New York,
rents, and crime. He said he'd heard I was a writer.
Before I could answer, Grandpa awoke and
roared, and not only awoke and roared but actually sat up to do it,
"Ask him how much money he's made on his writing!"
Grandpa had always had a knack for the
killing interpolation. When I called from college to talk to Grandma,
chattering for half an hour about her daughters, my professors, her latest
short story and the letter she'd had in Tuesday's Times, Grandpa would seize the phone and say, "Listen to
me: Don't ever forget you're Jewish!"
Not forgetting we were Jewish did not,
however, mean forgetting Christmas, but we displayed no holiday decoration
that bore the likeness of any figure from the New Testament, and when my
first grade sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" at the year-end
assembly, I silently mouthed the words "Christ the Lord," feeling
it inappropriate to give an enemy deity my personal endorsement. We had to
neuter the holiday in order to claim it.
On Christmas Eve, my grandparents' living
room--and the baby grand piano, with gifts piled high, spilling off,
stacked on the floor--became the center of the family. And at the center of
the center sat Grandpa, playing the piano both well and badly. More
particularly, his right hand played well while his left played badly; he
could read the treble clef but not the bass, and as he unerringly picked
out the melody of "Tea for Two" or "Begin the Beguine,"
his left hand crashed and bumbled randomly among the deep notes. We saved
Grandpa's gifts, always the most lavish, for last; his card always
insisted, Happy Hanukkah.
As Grandpa grew more prosperous and more
irascible, it became increasingly hard to find presents that pleased him.
Finally we began giving him intentionally foolish objects, like a horribly
large plastic leprechaun with a grinning head mounted on a spring. You hit
the leprechaun's head, and, after a preliminary werrrrrrrrrr, it began to laugh--
"HahahahahaHEEHEHEEHEHEEHAHAHEEEEH HAAAHAAAHAAA "--and just when
it was winding down, could not possibly have another breath in it, would
start all over again with renewed vigor. There was no way to stop it short
of the great violence that it inspired.
We had little reason to believe Grandpa
liked these things any better than the chromatic harmonica that was
instantly recycled back into my own family, or the neckties that never made
it to his electrical tie rack (two people had, in desperation, given him
electrical tie racks); but Grandma swore he loved them, which only meant
that she did.
The room at Cedars-Sinai contained
nothing to hint at how difficult it had become to get anything, do anything
for this man. Suspended between beige walls and beige linoleum, between the
odors of human illness and the false denials of sweet antiseptic, between
intervals of darkness and fluorescent light, between intervals of silence
and soft trebly Muzak, between artificial night and artificial day, lay a
fully insured elderly white male patient, waiting for blood tests and
medications, waiting for puncture and palpation, waiting for change, simply
waiting, waiting and wearing the plastic ID bracelet that hospitals affix
impartially to old men, babies, teenagers, and corpses.
In an ongoing attempt to infect that
no-man's-land with a few germs of personality, we were exporting Grandpa's
household effects to the hospital. Like gift-giving, it was a hit-and-miss
proposition, with the misses coming considerably more often than the hits.
One morning we put the mechanical leprechaun in a brown Ralph's supermarket
bag and smuggled it in.
The large elevator car was already
crowded with nurses and interns when several patients' families got on with
us in the lobby. Everybody in this elevator was headed toward a cancer
case--lung and lymph on the third floor, leukemia on the fourth--and no one
spoke above a whisper. In the quiet, the hospital's Muzak became
foreground. It always seemed to be playing something from Fiddler on the Roof.
A platoon of nurses and orderlies boarded
on the second floor. I moved toward the rear, slid sideways, hunched my
shoulders, flattening myself to the wall, compressing myself, when somebody
elbowed the package in my hands. There was an ominous werrrrrrrrrr. Grandma and I exchanged a look of horror.
began the paper bag. Conversation stopped as every eye stared at me. Like
all hospital elevators, this one was torturously slow, and while we inched
upward to the leukemia ward the paper bag howled and screamed in
"Get that goddamn thing out of
here!" Grandpa barked as soon as he saw it. We took the leprechaun
back that night in the trunk of the car, and when we bumped over the old
trolley tracks on La Cienega we could hear the muffled hooting of its
Unless I am forgetting a perfunctory
goodbye that evening, "Get that goddamn thing out of here!" was
the last thing Grandpa ever said to me. A little after
the hospital called to tell us that Grandpa had taken a turn for the worse.
He'd been moved to the Intensive Care Unit.
Our family reunited from its diaspora
that morning at Cedars-Sinai: Grandma and me, my mother and her sisters
Maggie and Evelyn, Grandpa's younger brother Charlie and his wife; from
Laurel Canyon and New York, from Seattle and Venice and Marina Del Ray and
the San Fernando Valley, all of us embracing and reassembling the lobby
furniture until, armchairs and sofas and love seats and end-tables, we were
in a circle like an embattled wagon train.
Uncle Charlie was the first to go in.
When my grandparents had been courting, Charlie had introduced himself to
Grandma by riding a horse into her mother's Brooklyn
candy shop to deliver a love letter from his big brother. Over the years
Charlie had developed the embarrassing habit of falling asleep after dinner
when company was present. Because I had always visited with my
grandparents, I had never seen him do it; Charlie could listen to Grandpa
Charlie spent only a few minutes in
Intensive Care. When he emerged, his arms rigid at his sides, his face
utterly composed, we converged on him. Charlie gave a hoarse bark and
collapsed into a chair. Looking around at us, as if our hopeful faces would
contradict what he had seen in there, he cried, gasping and choking like a
man who had not cried since childhood and thought he had forgotten how.
With his bulk and his thick nervous fingers, now drumming on his knees, now
barring his broad face, he seemed more than ever before a slightly smaller,
slightly younger version of Grandpa.
"Joe!" Grandma was up and
hallway across the lobby, striding to Intensive Care and throwing the door
open and demanding to see her husband. Maggie and my mother and I followed.
Evelyn remained, paralyzed, in her chair, watching us and shaking her head
Grandpa writhed. He was naked to the
waist, very white and still fat, although he'd lost thirty pounds. Under
the respirator, strapped into restraints, completely unconscious, he tossed
his great wild bald head from side to side as an electronic monitor
implacably flashed readings of heartbeat and blood pressure. We asked
questions, as if the readouts proved that this heaving figure was still
Grandpa, using loud voices as if he was merely hard of hearing: "Are
you warm enough? . . . . . Can you hear us? Squeeze my hand once for
'yes.'" The nurses assured us he was very comfortable. His yellow
nails protruded half an inch beyond his toes.
Grandma knelt beside the bed and buried
her face in the huge white hand that lolled, upturned and passive, over the
metal railing. "Don't leave me!" she sobbed. "Don't leave
For fifty-two years Grandma had not only
remained married to this man, but had remained happy with him. Now, at her
signal, the rest of us lost control at once: me telling Grandma in a sober,
masterly voice not to upset Grandpa; Maggie telling me to leave Grandma
alone; and my mother imploring generally for peace: all of us bawling and
shouting advice at one another as Grandpa began to die.
After a while we retreated to the lobby,
where we stayed for hours, waiting for news and trying to sleep on
furniture that seemed continually to change form, usually for the worse,
beneath us. I kept seeing the whiteness of his body, under the respirator,
the harsh lights, under restraint: I knew I'd never easily dislodge that
image and hang any other picture of Grandpa in its place.
A week later, on the flight back to New
York, I sat in the shaft of
the overhead light, flipping through the photographs I'd taken in Los
Angeles, while a movie caused
the other passengers, under their headphones, to laugh in response to
stimuli I did not hear. The family had dispersed: my mother to Seattle,
Uncle Charlie to the Valley, my aunts to Venice
and Marina Del Rey. I always returned to one photograph, the way you will,
if you turn over each card in a deck, keep coming back to the ace of
spades. I had taken it two nights after Grandpa died, following Grandma out
into her garden as she went to cut a rose for the kitchen table. I'd used a
flash and it had illuminated Grandma while failing to penetrate the
blackness of the night around her.