Grandparents are sometimes the best babysitters. They set boundaries, then allow you to stretch and test those boundaries farther than any parent would ever dream. Then, instead of harsh punishment, you get issued new boundaries or an offer of some unrelated activity elsewhere. In the end, they get to spoil you rotten and can safely sit on the sidelines, untouchable as they imagine the family fireworks that ensue when you try to get away with the same behavior at home. Or they can fill your head with fears of the unknown, bogey men and phantasms. Or they can give you wonderful memories that inspire fantastic dreams, hopes and imaginations to last a lifetime. Sometimes several of these.
My father’s parents were a pleasant mix of the best of these options, always a favorite getaway for my cousin Billy and I.
From fourth through seventh grade, we escaped from our duty to complete homework immediately after school by visiting their house. Normally, our parents would arrive by 6 pm to rescue our grandparents, allowing us enough time to influence Grandpa to consider buying stock in Jack Daniels, and have Grandma teetering on the brink of insanity. Just before broaching the limits of patience, the suggestion would be put forth to play upstairs.
I knew where to look in the den and find the plastic soldiers and tanks that no other cousins had damaged, while Billy contentedly conversed with stuffed animals and baby dolls. My army inevitably found just cause to invade the tranquility of “Fluffy Land”, and the battle was engaged. Our play wars always seemed to be in my favor initially, since I possessed manpower, weaponry and loud explosions. Even with my pieces outnumbering his ferocious teddy bears and menacing bottle throwers, my forces were always trounced when wailing shrieks from vengeful marauding pandas frightened even my most courageous fighters. Surrender was imminent when his army’s leader, usually a towering rubberized toddler outfitted with diaper, rattle and pacifier, threatened to unleash upon the battlegrounds a flood from the “Diaper of Doom”. Troop retreat has to be enacted vocally, just as the victorious charge was.
With sounds of Armageddon unfolding upstairs, it was not long before someone had to attempt a truce. That is, before a much called for Scorched Earth scenario played out on our butts. We knew volume was tolerated only so much before seats got swatted, yet we always tempted fate.
Acting as the neutral mediator, Grandma announced from the kitchen, “Ultraman!” For some reason, this was the greatest attraction in our simple lives. If Billy and I were given the choice between candy, ice cream, a month off from school, or Ultraman, we’d choose Ultraman. We’d discussed this on the walk to Grandma’s one day, deciding Paradise would be a month off from school and a month long Ultraman marathon.
We tuned in WDCA-TV, Channel 20, spellbound for a full half hour. Often, we’d be treated to a special hour-long adventure, and it’s certain there were two pleased adults downstairs enjoying some peace and quiet.
The most favorable way to explain Ultraman is as a cocktail mixed with Superman, Astro Boy and Spiderman placed in a blender on high speed, fighting Godzilla-like lizard men. On every episode. (It is possible that every episode was the same. We would not have cared.) The show was a poorly conceived, sloppily produced, low-budget version of a bad monster movie versus an even worse, unbelievable superhero. (My adult brain talking.) No episode being distinguishable from the next means we absolutely loved it. Two cousins loving life.
Grandma suspended Sacred House Rule Number Two, which was “Only Eat In The Kitchen”, by delivering sandwiches to us in the guest room. Our fish fillet sandwiches always arrived dressed with shirts of mustard, perfumed with a squirt of lemon, and a business suit of lightly toasted bread. Potato chips were the briefcase’s papers that we had to hide before the ‘bad guys’ found out all ‘the secrets’. (Grandma had an imaginative way of keeping our interest whenever we were present to watch the snacks being prepared.) I cannot remember if we drank iced tea, soda or juice with our meals. I’d love to ask someone, but all involved parties have long gone to the Great Rerun in the Sky.
Either way you looked at it, we had our routine set in stone. We loved these late afternoon breaks from hostilities. Our truce was enjoyed while Ultraman waged war on Kosheera. As credits rolled, we stood, both throwing our hands to the air, imitating the last words of the theme song as our pledge, “Ultraman forever!”
I think a lot about those times. In the too many years that have passed since then, I’ve been to the altar a few times for weddings and funerals, (both could be said to have occurred at the same event), been in and out of the military, government and jail. Successes, failures, happiness, heartbreak, wealth and poverty. I would trade it all to go back there.
Weekends were equally fun, dividing the time with sleepovers and miniature vacations. At times we’d visit the cottage his father bought in Beverly Beach, and the leisurely breaks were spent at camp, neighborhood pools, or just talking in a tent late at night. During one late night ghost story competition, Billy eagerly boasted about his father’s latest trip to Mexico. He shared souvenirs, photographs and trinkets that his father had brought back with him. Among them was what he called a ‘brick’ of Black Cat firecrackers and M-80’s. Like any budding pyromaniacs, we were not at a loss for ideas on how to test their power. We could reenact an historic battle with an antique battleship model in his father’s study, or dissect frogs without surgery. The suggestion finally agreed upon was target practice with passing cars. Once, we were unlucky enough to lob one through a car’s open window. At thirteen, we had few scruples and less fear. Our legs were not at a lack for speed, which the driver chasing us found out after a five blocks and a few backyard fences. To make certain we were safe, we continued running and laughing until we broke down in a heap of panting laughter, right in front of a fence bordering McNamara High School. It was then we realized, in the middle of gasping, wide-eyed smiles, we had run a full mile. The unspoken question was; could we outrun Ultraman?
The fence before us did not meet ground at quite a few points, one of which was a hole that a good sized dog could pass through, or two roustabout teens. We lifted a bit of tattered chain link, slipped through, walking off our mischievous merriment, until we crossed the football field to sit on the bleachers. I still don’t remember much of what we talked about, or how conversation was steered so radically. What I do recall is my introduction to Playboy magazine. Billy fortuitously discovered a place beneath the bleachers to stash magazines ‘borrowed’ from his father’s collection. Impromptu lessons in female anatomy felt like the most enjoyable evil ever.
Time’s scrapbook has a few prized snapshots, and to this day, that’s one of my favorites. The magazine was not the issue; it was the unvarnished glee of two cousins communing in harmless fun, sharing smiles from the soul.
Five years later, I left home to join the military, carrying that scrapbook in my heart. Even in a distant land, my cousin, my immediate family and my grandparents were still nearby. Until the day a Red Cross message shredded one picture. Grandpa died while I was in Germany. His funeral service ended before I crossed the ocean to say goodbye. Although I missed the funeral, leave was still granted, with my first stop being Grandma’s house. She told me Billy had attended, with sketchy details about him spending most of his time at his father’s cottage in Beverly Beach.
I remembered the cottage was a pink shoebox that my mother always referred to as “so clean and immaculate.”
Months after leaving military service, a fortunate reunion occurred at Grandma’s house. Billy changed so much, it was tough to recognize him. It wasn’t just his height, hair and hormones; his mannerisms and his face had changed considerably, making him look as if he had aged 40 years instead of 10, yet his eyes were the same. It’s said that the eyes are windows to the soul. One can only wonder what we have opened life’s windows to.
The purpose of Billy’s visit was to announce a planned move with his significant other, and mention he was attracted to people older than him. They seemed happy, even though my childhood friend appeared twice his age. I said that I was happy for them, which I truly was, though preoccupied with wondering if Billy felt any loss over the upstairs sandwich and TV days.
Less than a dozen months passed when we were reunited once more, at Grandma’s funeral. He said he was becoming a recluse at his father’s cottage. Most of the time we talked, I quietly marveled how he resembled his father. He was in his thirties, and could easily pass for his father’s twin. Beyond the physical transformation, I knew those eyes, the soul of Heaven. My promise to visit him was sincere when I pocketed his business card, though I neglected to get directions.
During spring cleaning ten years later, his business card surfaced, as did every memory. Armageddon could not compete with the war that guilt waged on my heart.
Driving to Beverly Beach to fulfill my promise, I had to think of my excuses and apologies. Too many years had passed. My heart sank knowing words could not express the lost time. Approaching the cottage, my heart almost stopped. The pink shoebox had become a faded cartoon strip thrown out after being used to line a bird cage. I later understood it symbolized the emotional and physical damage visited upon its occupant.
At one time this neighborhood had been an upscale arrangement of pristine residences, known affectionately to the entitled as a gated community. Lawns kept in immaculate condition, landscaping spotless, each home a candidate for a magazine cover. What greeted me resembled the aftermath of a cataclysm. It seemed a victim of years of drought, plague, riots and disrepair. Utter neglect had been thrust upon it overnight. This mental snapshot could easily have been captioned, “Forgotten and Uninhabitable.” Several grisly stray dogs were scavenging the area as my car maneuvered into the littered driveway. Double checking the address on Billy’s business card against the door, I wondered when the pink siding faded to yellow, and if the mailbox and door handle had both been rescued from the same pothole.
An unfriendly sign on the door introduced any unwelcome visitors to the resident’s bitter attitude. “Do not disturb me. I am not interested. I don’t need whatever you’re selling. If you truly need to see me, give me time to answer, or get lost.” From the looks of the bleeding lettering, the notice must have survived many rainfalls, perhaps many years.
Some things do not need to be known; some are better left alone, just as some memories are better left in the past. I wish that I didn’t know now what I was about to find out.
A bent haggard man answered my knock at the door, possibly old enough to be my revived grandfather. (Had my paternal grandfather stepped from eternal sleep directly, it would no doubt be tough to decide who looked healthier.) His frail, crooked frame was balanced on the tripod of wobbly legs and a hand carved maple walking stick. A long sleeved plaid shirt, tan trousers held up by unravelling suspenders and scarred work boots vaguely concealed the living skeleton beneath.
Observing the cane and its vibrating struggle with his hand, I saw bluish bulges of vein striving to escape the fleeting hint of skin. He slowly adjusted his opaque sun shades, each movement echoing in small ripples of pain across his face. “Can I help you?” he squeaked.
Before I could reply, his voice had a trace of uncertainty, and he seemed about to collapse under a sudden unseen weight on his shoulders. As his arm shot from his glasses to the door for added support, he beckoned me inside. Curiosity blinded sense of small, though it soon ravaged my memories. Conditions were disgustingly squalid, forcing amazement any human could survive here.
In spite of not being introduced, it was easy to launch into a lengthy conversation, once he began talking about the relationship he had shared with Billy.
In between numerous wheezes and gasps for air, he told me Billy had tried keeping the place looking good, repairing things that broke, and cleaning the surrounding property. He invited me to stay a while longer before driving back home, and asked me to share news about my family and my childhood with Billy.
Before I could begin, I looked around, asking, “Not trying to be disrespectful, but where is Billy?”
His mouth opened, a smile teasing his face, then his whole body frowned. “He wanted to see you. Before he got sick, he was waiting for someone, anyone, to visit. So many people move on with their lives and forget.”
Armageddon put a size thirteen sole in my mind’s butt.
“It took everything from him. Being sick. Everything except his mind.” He pointed a fleshy bone that once was a finger to his temple, reminding me where the brain bucket is, or perhaps assuring himself he still knew. “HIV. Aids, y’know. Nasty bugger.” A twitch of disdain creased his crow’s feet, a smile’s ghost crying in my heart. “Some times it’s better not talking about certain things. Billy did all he could to keep it together the last few months.” I wondered if he was referring to Billy, their relationship, the cottage, himself, or all of these. “He kept hanging on, like he was waiting for something to happen, something miraculous. Or maybe the miracle of someone who might remember how he was before.” My host gathered pen and paper from a nearby card table, scribbling as he continued. “He moved out here a few years back, right after his mom’s mother passed on. Last year, his condition went from bad to worse.” He put the pen down, folded the note into his shirt pocket, and looked me over. He apologized, “If my voice gets loud, I sometimes don’t know it. Sorry. Hearing ain’t the best either.’
The intended short visit was into its second hour when I realized the sky had grown darker. Fascinated by what the old man told me about my cousin, filling in the gaps of history between our last meeting and now consumed me to mentally videotaping every nuance. I had not realized it until then that I barely spoke an entire sentence during what seemed a peaceful eternity of one-sided conversation.
Standing to leave, I regretted the many miles from us to home. He stood to shake my hand, thanked me for the visit, offering me a sandwich or a drink for the road. I accepted, out of politeness, and the desire to soak in as much of the place as possible, certain it would crumble any moment. While I donned my coat, he sauntered haltingly to the dinette, pulling out a plastic baggie from the refrigerator and putting it into a paper bag. “Billy would have wanted me to give you this,” he said.
Upon leaving, I shared my sympathies over losing a loved one, and promised to visit again someday, and have a two-way conversation. He managed a fractured smile and told me it would be a pleasure. As I was backing out of the driveway, I saw him removing an unfriendly sign.
About an hour later, a few blocks away from my home, I stopped at a fast food restaurant to relax with my sandwich and memories. Opening the bag revealed a fish fillet sandwich, garnished with lemon juice and liberally slathered with mustard. Another plastic bag inside the paper sack held potato chips. Billy would definitely have wanted me to have this, I thought. On the outside of the paper bag, he had tried to write, “Thanks”. I don’t know why the thought occurred to me to save the bag. I didn’t.
Less than a week later, I learned Billy had died. Kneeling to pray at his casket, I was astounded at how his looks were both youthful and troubling. Disease stole him from us at his fortieth year, yet the funeral home’s wizards restored his face to a teenager. For a second, I entertained the thought he would smile and wink at me. Then the cracks and crevices of a senior citizen snuck through the layers of pancake and foundation, and the hands folded across his chest. Shadows of bluish rivers that once flowed beneath followed a line that went from wrist to knuckle, toY a fist. His right hand was clenched. The overall statue of composure was marred only by this unexplained fist. I asked the mortuary’s representative if there was a reason Billy’s hand could not have been made to appear less grotesque. He tried to tactfully explain, while handing me an envelope. Scanning the creased note within, he said something about “crumpled” and “death grip”; all I heard were seraphim. He explained it all, but I couldn’t hear it over the truant tears hop scotching my face’s sidewalk. Excusing myself to avoid revealing my system’s shock, I crumbled in a quiet corner couch, and felt Billy touching me. I had opened the letter, and scanned it when the mortician was talking, only hearing the echo of Armageddon’s boot in my butt. I wished for another chance that would never be. The eyes of Heaven and a note from beyond. I saved this note. No one can save me from my loss.
“Grandparents are sometimes the best babysitter. Thanks for the visit. I love you, too.
It’s what the old man had scribbled.