The old man spoke with the dead.
“This is my curse, son,” he told them all; friends, family, strangers on the street. “This is my curse.”
No one believed him. Grandpa Joe (or just Grandpa, to his relations) would tell his curse to all comers and never tire of it. He recited it like a poem; he flaunted it like a trophy; he carried it like a red badge of courage. But none believed. ‘Grandpa Joe,’ they would think, ‘there he goes again with his tales and his bullshit.’ They wondered if he knew what they thought of his yarns, but none truly cared: his stories and nonsense were harmless, and the listeners’ skepticism was, ultimately, beside the point.
Trevor recounted in his head how many times he’d heard Grandpa Joe tell of his conversations with the dead. When he was a boy his father’s father had taken him to an old-timey diner (one of the last of its kind) and kept the waitress standing at their table holding a pitcher of (tap)water, eyes wide and glistening as she listened to the soothing voice pouring from the scarred throat past the nearly toothless mouth. He had that power, Trevor now recollected; the power to bind, to bring a listener, be it a passer-by or an irate police officer, into his tale as if they were seeing the bullshit first hand. As if they were the one with the curse. And Grandpa Joe did it effortlessly, flawlessly, without even thinking; without even trying.
“I talk to the dead, and this is my curse, son. This is my curse.”
Trevor had lost count of how many times he had heard this before he was ten years old, and decided it was utter horseshit shortly thereafter.
His belief persisted to this day. Trevor was a grown man now, with his own stories to tell (some of which were bullshit, a talent he’d learned well, and at a young age, from his grandfather). But he had seen enough and heard enough to know that people didn’t converse with the dead, despite what the daytime television shows and the B horror movies claimed. Trevor looked at the sunken cheeks and eye-sockets, the yellowish skin that didn’t grip the jaw like it used to, the emaciated frame beneath the sterile white cotton blanket, and felt sorry for his Grandpa Joe. Pity. Not a feeling he was accustomed to. Normally it was wasted and goddamn pointless. But the sad and sorry figure in the dimly lit room before him seemed to beg for the pity of the young; seemed to cry out for lamentation.
Grandpa Joe was dying. The cancer in his left lung that he had beaten years before had returned with a vengeance. It was now in not only his remaining lung, but also his stomach, testicles and skin, which had metastasized into his blood and put a noose around his neck. Trevor listened to the wheezing breath and thought of the plague that was consuming Grandpa Joe’s body, just as his curse had consumed his life. A well of pity and sadness nearly overwhelmed him. It was almost too much to see this strong, good-hearted man reduced to a saggy mess of flesh and feeble bones. He wished, despite himself, to hear that soothing raspy voice tell one more ridiculous story of speaking to the dead.
The breathing stopped. Trevor brought his eyes up from the divots in the ancient rug that the hospital bed made, to the sunken face of his grandfather. A tear squeezed itself from his right eye, though he didn’t notice it. ‘This is it,’ he thought. ‘Grandpa Joe is gone.’
Instead, however, the old man’s eyes opened. The lids fluttered like young flower petals in early morning dew; too weak to open with solid conviction, but too stubborn to give in and droop.
Grandpa Joe rasped out an unintelligible croak and attempted to raise a weak and worthless finger. Trevor, being the only one in the room at this late hour, jumped to his feet to grab the hospice-supplied water bottle with the ninety-degree straw. He held it tenderly to his grandfather’s lips and gave it the slightest squeeze, as if he was tenderly caressing a virgin girl. Grandpa Joe sucked back the liquid like a dying man in a desert (haha, thought Trevor), swallowing hard. Trevor could just see, behind the milky plastic of the bottle, the old man’s adam’s apple bobbing up and down as his throat worked harder than it had in days.
Finally, after much apple bobbing and virgin caressing, Grandpa worked his cracked and gummy lips off the hard plastic of the straw, leaving a cobweb of saliva that clung trembling to both his lip and the straw. Trevor reached a shaky hand up and cleaned the spittle off, feeling both sickened and proud: old people and their infirmities gave him serious stomach problems, but the fact that he could deal with it and clean his grandfather’s spit gave him a sense of immense pride in his own maturity.
“What do you need, Grandpa?” Trevor asked as gently as he could while still raising his voice to overcome the hearing loss.
A moment of wheezy breath and a yellow-eyed stare passed.
Finally Grandpa Joe replied: “I talk to the dead. This is my curse, son. This is my curse.”
The old catechism sent a flood of memories swirling through Trevor’s mind. Without meaning to, he smiled. It was a rueful, whimsical smile, and his face felt the lighter for it; his hands less shaky, his bowels less watery.
“I know, Grandpa Joe,” he said, still grinning and yelling and whispering all at once. “But don’t worry about that, okay?” Trevor heard the condescension in his own voice and hated himself for it: he wasn’t talking to a two-year old whom he had to coddle. He was talking to a man who had lived through three wars, fought in two, saved helpless damsels in distress and been hospitalized by buckshot to the leg, been racist when he had to be and realized later when the need was gone, been extremely tight and extremely loose with money, depending on the circumstances, been married to two incredible women whom he both (much to his dismay and tragedy) outlived, climbed trees when he was young, telephone poles when he was less young, played pranks and had pranks played, been in car accidents, motorcycle accidents and tractor fuck-ups, been hired, laid off, fired, let go, and re-hired, never collected unemployment, always collected HAM radio parts, been seen as crazy sane ugly and intense by different people in the same day, been viewed as a whack-job and an eccentric and a craftsman, been loved, hated and scorned and come out with his nose clean and his pride intact, and never missed a beat in his entire life. He was a man who other men could look up to, Trevor included. He was not a child. He was a rock; a bastion of strength and tranquility. And now Trevor spoke to him as if he were an infant, incapable of taking care of himself. The fact that he wasn’t capable gave Trevor little comfort.
The tears threatened to come again, but Trevor forced them back with an act of sheer will.
A liquid cough gurgled from the old man’s lips, seeming to dump his fragile insides out through his mouth. Trevor reached forward again with the water bottle in his hand, a questioning look on his face. Grandpa Joe shook his head slightly. Trevor imagined for the briefest of moments that he could hear the bones in his grandfather’s neck creaking with age and weariness. Trevor set the unwanted bottle on the bedside table that had been moved into the room and peered at Grandpa Joe; he knew there was more that the old man wanted to say, so he waited expectantly.
After what seemed like an eternity, Grandpa Joe looked into Trevor’s eyes. The blue eyes of his grandfather were still brilliant, still powerful, though they had faded recently, and looked none the better now that the whites surrounding them were yellow and veiny.
“They’re not all good, ya know.” Grandpa Joe’s voice had regained some of its forgotten power and vibrancy. Trevor looked at him, awaiting more. More came: “Most of them are. Good, that is. Most of them are just lost and confused and fuckin’ dumb. They die and don’t know that they’re dead, or don’t know what to do with themselves once they figure out what’s happened to them. Those ones just drift around and feel sorry for themselves and talk to me every now and again. They’re harmless, the poor bastards.”
There was a long pause. Trevor worried that his grandfather had forgotten, as he had in the past, that he was speaking, or what he was speaking of, and had fallen into silence, never to complete his rhetoric. The old man, however, raised his hand slowly and gestured shakily to the water bottle. Trevor nearly fell out of his chair trying to get to the bedside table. He calmed himself and gently held the bottle to Grandpa Joe’s lips. The old man drank greedily and Trevor made a mental note that he would have to refill the bottle before much longer, especially at this rate.
After the rehydration was complete, Grandpa Joe continued: “Some of ‘em though, are not good. They’re bad; they’re evil. It’s not conversation they want. It’s pain and torture and death. I’ve only come across two of them in my life, and I have no idea how I made it out alive. Some weren’t so fortunate. Your grandmother was one of them. He took her like he took all the rest. And it’s been my curse to live so long, knowing what happened to her and not being able to tell anyone.” As Trevor reeled from the shock, trying to maintain his composure instead of following his impulse (which was to scream and cry and throw things), Grandpa Joe let out a long, heavy sigh before going on.
“I pray to whatever God will listen that you never have to deal with the likes of him, son. There’s nothing wholesome about them. Steer clear of them, if you can, at whatever cost. And keep your family safe. In the end, boy, that’s all that matters: family. I let her die, and I have no doubt in my mind where I’m going when it’s over. I let her go, and I’ll pay the price. But you don’t have to. Don’t let it come to this, son. Just don’t, whatever it takes.”
Grandpa Joe’s eyes had started leaking tears, Trevor noticed as he ran a palm across his own face to clear the crying and confusion away. None of this made sense to him, but he could feel the raw, raspy emotion in his grandfather’s voice, and it touched him in a way he hadn’t thought possible; it frightened him, it confused him.
Grandpa Joe raised his hand and Trevor, recovering from his shock, leaned forward in his wooden chair to grab the nearly empty bottle of water. Instead, however, his grandfather’s hand streaked towards his own, with a strength and conviction that the old man’s present state belied.
Trevor forced back a gasp of surprise. He stared at the withered hand grasping his own. The flesh was wrinkled and papery, crisscrossed with blue veins and pocked with liver spots. The knuckles seemed to bulge like broken bones where the skin was stretched seemingly to capacity as the skeletal hand clung to Trevor’s. Even as Trevor gazed at the surprisingly strong touch, there was a pull, equally strong, upon his hand. He looked into Grandpa Joe’s eyes and saw that the old man was attempting to sit up.
As Trevor opened his mouth to tell his grandfather to lay back and be still, a conviction came into the faded blue eyes that startled Trevor to his core. The hand grasped, and the arm pulled, and suddenly those blue eyes were right before him, gazing steadily into his own. It seemed to Trevor that they had taken on new (or old and lost) luminosity. The blue orbs were stunningly bright again, and strong; filled with conviction and purpose…and fear. Trevor shuddered visibly when he looked into his grandfather’s eyes. There was horror in them; sheer, unadulterated terror. And sadness, which was to be expected.
Trevor’s voice was a whisper: “What is it Grandpa?” he asked, realizing belatedly that his grandfather probably couldn’t hear a whisper.
But the old man smiled, his lips pressed together and his eyes falling in sorrow. “Forgive me, son,” was all he said. Something flashed behind Grandpa Joe’s eyes; something bright and dark, filling the blue with ferocity and light. There one moment and gone the next.
Then the hand that gripped Trevor’s released its astonishingly powerful hold. The old man fell back into the rough sheets and stiff pillows, landing with a whisper of cotton and a slight creak of metal as the bed protested feebly.
Trevor rose from his chair, eyes wide with incomprehension and confusion. He looked into his grandfather’s open eyes, touched his face, smoothed his wispy hair back from his sweaty forehead.
Grandpa Joe was dead.
To be continued…