Things come alive all the time. It is not so impossible to believe we did too. Bob had been sitting on a bench in the subway, waiting for the eastbound train. That smell, where did it come from? Someone on the platform with too much aftershave, and from his bench Bob’s nostrils tugged and tugged at the air, collecting the odor, and as recognition traveled deeper and deeper into his brain it must have thickened into the image of my face, the face of his Grandpa, a face he hadn’t seen since I died. How many years? Who knows, ask him. There on the platform he must have concentrated so hard to keep the image of his Grandpa in his memory, and it was not just one image of me but many, a flood of images, each one so real, so clear, so immediate, a hundred variations of his Grandpa’s rough face, with that same aftershave – must I tell you it was only Old Spice? – Bob and I together in hallways and kitchens and dens, receiving my adoring kisses on his cheeks, or returning them to my own, clammy and cool and rough and rubbing against his smooth young skin. He saw us picking out chickens in the Timisoara market together, and tending my honeybees, and sampling my tsoika brandy together, just a little bit, and that time when he had too much and I nursed him before the toilet, and he even saw us hugging and kissing the day we watched the wall in East Berlin fall on the television. Such sweet memories of his Grandpa, infinitely doubling until I suppose I could no longer be contained and this multiplicity of forms seeped out of Bob’s skull and congealed above him, and now here was old Grandpa, sort of wobbling and sort of hovering above his oblivious head below.
So light, so blurry – do I have to tell you what it’s like to be temporally dissociated, to be so many versions of yourself at once? – these many versions of Grandpa might have just drifted up into the rafters and vanished, or else if I’d been alone up there I might have fallen into my own sweet memories – either way Bob would have come to his senses, Grandpa kaput, story over. But we can thank our stars the pretty young girl beside Bob on that very same bench happened to have been conjuring her own apparition.
For her it was not the aftershave, but the slightest hint of bubblegum drifting from a sugar-dusted fold of paper discarded on the platform, and within an instant Evelyn was again inside the cramped and shadowed foyer of her Grandma’s home, with its tall African statues towering over her. The wooden figures wore no masks, held no spears, and there were no warlike screams on their faces; they were women, with long breasts pointing down, as if melting, as if reaching, and their bulbous little pregnant bellies against their thin spines. They terrified young Evelyn. And their oily wooden stink, mixed with the smell of that same brand of cherry bubblegum her Grandma used to cover up the cigarette she’d crushed out just before welcoming Evelyn inside – those sweet and bitter scents were too much for Evelyn then, vibrating in her nostrils as her Grandma leaned down for a hug, and it must have been too much for her still, for those remembered forms seeped out of Evelyn’s skull as well and blended into this lovely elderly apparition kind of swaying, kind of trembling over her oblivious granddaughter’s head below.
It did not take long for these old legs to gain their balance. And then it was simply a matter of gathering all this psychic strength and these many temporal forms into one, so that I might turn toward this lovely new Grandma who had also pulled herself together. I looked her up and down, and I don’t have to tell you that she was already looking me up and down too. Grandma’s eyes climbed my trousers as mine climbed her rose-colored dress, each of us imagining the other’s skin, the multiplicity of ages of the bodies, young and old, lustful and prudent, that had gathered beneath the fabric. She smiled and nodded at this strong, full chest, even with all its gray hair, and I gave her a wink. That bosom of hers, still lovely, heavy, even ripe. Enough to make even old Grandpa blush.
Our attentions did not rest. They roamed across these spectral eyes, these bulbous noses, and what use are lips if they only flicker vaguely before you?
“That’s my grandson down there. Look at him with his book, studying like a good boy.”
“Chewing his tongue like a fool.”
“Saucy devil! Of course, he’s in rapture, imagining his Grandpa. And look at that young lady beside him, eyes shut tight, sliding her feet on the tile.”
“She always does that. So easily frightened. But she’s a good girl. Look at that posture.”
“They’d make a nice couple.”
“Never mind, Grandpa. Tell me, what do you think of these old tits?”
“Aha! Lovely! And look how strong my grip is!”
The eastbound train blared the warning of its arrival. The waiting crowd assembled by the track. Bob and Evelyn stirred but didn’t rise.
“If they snap to, we’ll be gone, you know,” said Grandma. “Poof, up and away.”
“The devil we will.”
I shook and I swayed and Grandma did too. We curled our toes inside our shoes and rubbed our grandkids’ heads. Do not yet separate. Do not yet think about getting up, Grandma and I are just starting to deliver our pleasantries, just starting to get to know each other. Would you like to try my honey? Or a sip of tsoika, the finest in Transylvania! I would love to, but would you happen to have a cigarette? No, never mind, they’re the death of me anyway, can I offer you a piece of chewing gum? Of course, of course, it’s delicious. And so is yours. Here, now try this. Oh my, it’s strong, and the plum is lovely, but wait, something is wrong.
Grandma was right. It seemed, at first, that we were only what Bob and Evelyn remembered of us. We were incomplete – where was the rest?
“It’s terrible what Evelyn thinks she knows of me,” said Grandma. Evelyn was remembering that same scent of oil and ash and gum, still present, even after Grandma’s cancerous lung was removed. “And years later,” said Grandma, “as I shrunk into this skeleton, everything except these old tits, in a makeshift hospital bed at home, Evelyn was still terrified of those statues, watching as Grandma’s other lung gave out too.”
Grandma’s cheeks were flush. Her spectral eyes were full of tears. And maybe it was the force of that vision of herself through Evelyn’s eyes, or maybe it was just the boldness of death, but Grandma’s remembered form began to have memories of her own.
“They were fertility statues. Without them, Evelyn wouldn’t even exist. I tried so hard to get pregnant. But the stress of working… And once my lazy husband finally gave me what I wanted he up and croaked. What choice did Grandma have? I had no time to breastfeed. I had to work. I had to work even more to pay for the nannies to take care of Evelyn’s mother while I worked, nanny after nanny, she hated every one. How could I know which complaints were true and which were lies? Pillow fights that went on too long, bathrooms that stayed locked for too long, locking her in, locking her out, and the visitors lying with the nanny on the couch. Evelyn’s mother never wanted for anything and she hates me still, brought Evelyn over only out of obligation – she knows nothing about her poor Grandma.”
With each new memory of herself, Grandma’s apparition doubled, a blue-gray glow that flickered and extended from her, before it was sucked back in. She seemed denser, and lovelier. I reached out to grab her, to pull her close and feel that mighty, swollen, unsuckled, bosom against my chest.
“Well you look pretty complete to me,” I said.
“Oh, Grandpa,” she said. A blush replaced her tears. “And what about you? You’re not just a poor old Grandpa, are you?”
I smiled down at Bob. Such a sweet, sweet boy. And maybe it was Grandma’s challenge, or maybe it was just the wayward nerve of temporal dislocation, but the sweetness of Bob’s vision filled me with hollow pity. He knew nothing about my guilt. This strong chest Grandma admires gave its best years to the Reich in a factory in Romania. They called me Transportation Supervisor. They paid well. I kept my workers fit with calisthenics, with pull-ups and weights. Long after the war ended, I worked two shifts a day. I earned for my family, to send Bob to America, to give him a chance to leave us behind. And when retirement age arrived, what could I do at home, with my wife, if we’d barely spoken in fifty years? I kept working, to pay for her doctors and medicines, to keep her at home with me, even as the cancer became a thick mound in her belly, even as she died on our couch and left me alone. I worked until I went kaput. That was my penance. What do you know Bob, you know nothing of your Grandpa.
Then the lights of the incoming train filled the platform. The wind, pretending to be a ghost, shot down the tunnel. It ruffled Evelyn’s jacket and fluttered the pages of Bob’s book.
“Can you walk?” asked Grandma. “Let’s get out of here.”
Can I walk? That crafty old apparition. Of course we were more than just conjurings, and we would not be confined.
“But wait, Grandma, will we hurt them with our leaving? My sweet boy won’t have his Grandpa anymore.”
“Don’t be a meshugenah, Grandpa, look at them,” said Grandma. “Barely an inch apart, sweating and twitching, in their own little worlds. We’ve all thought our own pain was the worst, haven’t we?”
I nodded. I could not argue. No doubt for Evelyn it was a favor, and besides, you don’t know what you don’t know, right? The train screeched to a halt. Its doors opened.
“No time to lose, Grandpa. My house isn’t far, and it’s got a big old comfy bed as long as you’re not afraid of a few pregnant statues.”
“Are you flirting with me, Grandma?”
“Might as well have a little fun.”
“Then to the devil with beds, we’re apparitions!” I shouted and winked, and without another word, we took that first step, and then another, and holding our soft and multiplied hands, smiling a thousand smiles at each other, we left with the scream of the train.
Bob and Evelyn, shaken from their reveries, cheeks flush and minds already filled with desire absorbed from our foreplay above, they each looked to the only other person left on the platform. They looked to each other. And Grandma and I know that the following morning, beneath the sheets in Evelyn’s bed, and in the months and years since, whenever they trace their relationship back, they arrive at that empty platform, that unanswerable question, that thickening moment of laughter and shame when they each tried to explain why they’d missed their train, and it haunts them.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
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