By CL Bledsoe
Grampa’s getting worse and worse every time we visit, the nurses say. They whisper it to my Dad, but I’m standing right there, so I can hear it. The other day, they found him wandering around outside the building. A week ago, he got in trouble for starting a food-fight in the dining room. When Dad asked him about it, he wouldn’t answer, but when I asked him about it, later while Dad was in the bathroom, Grampa said it was because the orderlies always steal his French Fries, so he threw salt at one of them, and then the other patients started throwing stuff, and it got pretty big fast. I told Dad about it, though, but he didn’t care.
“They’re stealing his French Fries!” I said.
“Nathan,” he said with that ‘Dad-voice’ that means he thinks I’m an idiot. “I’m sure no one is stealing his French Fries. Sometimes, your grandfather thinks things are true that just aren’t. Like when he talks about his childhood and all that riverboat stuff.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, getting pretty hot.
“Maybe some of that happened. I mean, maybe he saw a riverboat once, but I would be surprised.”
“You just don’t want to believe him!” I said.
He gave me that ‘Dad-smile’ that means he thinks I’m over-reacting. I ran off to my room.
When we get to the nursing home the next time, Grampa has bandages on his forehead. Dad goes and finds a nurse, and she says Grampa was trying to get out of the home and fell and hurt himself.
“Where were you trying to go?” I ask him.
“I don’t remember,” he says.
* * *
Grampa used to talk about baseball and baseball cards and players he’s seen, but now, when we see him, it’s like he doesn’t even know who we are. When we went today, he keeps calling me by Dad’s name. It makes me really sad, and Dad says it’s just part of the process of what Grampa’s going through. He says I should try not to appear too surprised when Grampa makes a mistake because it will scare him because he doesn’t know what’s happening.
So I decide to take Grampa some of my baseball cards to show him. I take a box in and show him some of my favorite players. He knows every one of them, every name, every team, he can remember games they’ve played and how they did, but he keeps calling me by Dad’s name the whole time.
* * *
Dad tells me I shouldn’t be going to see Grampa so much; he says it’s sweet of me to go, but I need to devote time to my own interests. I say,
“Grampa is my interest.”
He pats me on the head like I’m a puppy.
A kid at school talks about how dumb his grandmother is because she never remembers his birthday. I tell him he’s greedy and stupid. He shoves me, and I swing at him and break his nose. He starts crying right away. I feel really bad. The school calls Dad, and he has to come from work to get me. I’m ready for him to be mad, but when I see him, he just looks sad.
“Hey Nathan,” he says and kind of ruffles my hair. He looks really worried. It makes me feel even worse.
They suspend me from school for two days. I have to stay with Ms. Whimple, and she makes me clean her apartment as punishment. When I finish, she makes me go upstairs and clean ours. When I tell her I didn’t know how to do things, like use a vacuum cleaner, she laughs before showing me. That makes me feel really embarrassed.
Dad grounds me for the weekend, and I don’t get to see Grampa. I go back to school on Monday, and the kid I hit is there. He looks really mad at me like he wants to hit me, even though his nose is bandaged up. I go up to him in the hall. Everybody stares at us. I hold out my hand and say I’m sorry. He shakes it. I feel a lot better. At recess, we start hanging out and talking about cards and stuff. It turns out, he collects them too. He’s going to ask his folks if I can come over later in the week. I hope they aren’t still mad at me.
* * *
I don’t get to see Grampa until Monday night, when Dad finally takes me over. He goes to talk to a nurse about something, and I stay with Grampa. He coughs a lot, but he knows my name.
“You know my house by the river, Nathan?” He says.
I tell him I do.
“That’s where they are.” He tells me some instructions like that there is a secret compartment ten feet from the door, under the floor. I was really happy because I thought he was better until he says that.
“Remember what I said,” he says. He makes me repeat what he told me, so I do.
When we go back in the car, I tell Dad about it. He’s quiet for a minute before he answers, and then it’s like he didn’t even hear what I said.
“The really hard thing about this is that he’s going to slip in and out,” Dad says. “Some days, he’ll be the Grampa you know and love. Other days, he’ll be like a stranger.”
I don’t like that very much.
* * *
The kid I punched is named Todd. I go to his house the next weekend. His parents are very nice. I tell them I’m sorry for doing what I did.
“Todd is very sensitive about his grandmother’s condition,” his mother says.
I ask her what she means. She says Todd’s grandmother has Alzheimer’s Disease. She explains that it’s when a person forgets things all the time, like who they are, who you are.
“My grandfather has that,” I say.
I realize Todd didn’t want to admit it was happening to his grandmother so he made fun of her. I don’t tell on him about it. I think we’re going to be good friends.
* * *
Grampa is so sick he can’t have visitors. They move him from the home to a hospital. After he’s there a day, Dad takes me and we can see him for a little while. Grampa’s in a hospital bed hooked up to all these machines that are keeping him alive. I ask Dad if Grampa is going to die. He gets this weird expression and starts explaining to me about Grampa’s will and all this stuff I don’t understand.
“If he gets much sicker, he’ll die,” Dad finally says. “And they’ll take him off the machines so he can go in peace.”
I thank Dad for being honest with me, and I don’t cry until we leave Grampa’s room. I tell Dad I have to go to the bathroom, and I go sit in a stall. That’s when I cry.
I remember when Grampa first went into the home. I asked him why he didn’t come live with us.
“The dying belong with the dead,” he said, which sounds like something from a poem we’d read in English class.
* * *
With everything that’s happened with Grampa, I almost forgot about my birthday. Todd comes to my party. Dad had me invite a bunch of kids from school, and some of them come, but Todd’s the only one I’m really glad to see. We have the party at the state park –we play chase and go swimming. It’s a lot of fun, I have to admit. Ms. Whimple is there, but a little bit before lunch, Dad disappears. One of his friends from work, Mr. John, is there and grills hotdogs and hamburgers. I start thinking Dad’s not coming back. I get really mad because he couldn’t even stop working for one day — for my birthday. While the other kids are swimming by the little beach they have, I swim out really far to this platform. I can hear the lifeguard yelling at me because it’s past the line of where we’re supposed to go. I crawl up and sit, facing away from everyone. I hear splashing and decide there’s no way the lifeguard is taking me back to the beach without a fight, but when I turn, it’s Todd. He grins and climbs out and sits with me. We splash in the water with our feet.
Then, there’s a commotion back on the beach. Somebody drove all the way down to the beach, which you’re not supposed to do, and everyone’s going crazy. The car is honking. We can’t tell what’s going on, but I realize it’s Dad’s car. He gets out and is looking for me, and then Grampa gets out on the other side. Todd and I race back to the beach, and I run up the sand to Grampa. Dad’s smiling and so is Grampa. I go to shake his hand, but he draws me into a hug, even though I’m wet. Dad comes around and hugs us both.
“Happy Birthday, buddy,” he says.
The kids run up to the grill and eat. Dad drives Grampa up, and Todd and I ride along. Grampa eats with us and tells the kids stories about when he used to play baseball. He remembers my name and picks up Todd and some of the other kids’ names and never messes them up. After a while, he gets pale and starts wheezing. Dad tells me it’s time to take Grampa back to the home. Kids’ parents are coming to pick them up. I stay with Ms. Whimple and Mr. John until they’re all gone. Mr. John and I play a quick game of catch while we wait. Dad comes back and we all ride home with him.
“The big 1–0,” Dad says as we’re driving. “That’s when everything starts to change.”
“I hope so,” I say.
Dad looks at me with that sad look I hate. “Did you have a good day, buddy?” He asks.
I tell him, even though I wish Grampa could’ve stayed longer, it was a really good day. That makes him smile.
* * *
I’m sitting in math class taking notes, but really just kind of spacing out, when the intercom crackles and buzzes and the principal calls my name. Everyone looks at me like I did something bad, which I probably did, but I don’t know what. I get up, and the teacher tells me to pack up my stuff and take it. There’s a low murmur from the class, and the teacher shushes them. When I get to the office, my Dad is there, and he looks like he’s been crying.
He takes me out to the car, and we get in. He breathes deeply and looks at me with a sad face and says Grampa died.
I shook my head. “He was getting better! At my birthday party he knew everyone’s names!”
Dad told me that sometimes when someone is really sick, they’ll rally for a little while and have a really good day — it will seem like they’re all better. But it’s really just a sign that the end is near. It makes me cry, which makes me mad at him.
“He loved your birthday party, Nathan. He had a lot of fun being with you and your friends. It was really great.”
But that doesn’t make me feel any better.
* * *
I get out of school to go to the funeral. Dad tries to make me miss it. We’re having dinner with Ms. Whimple — she comes over and insists we eat with her. Dad starts in about how I’m too young and I don’t need to miss school and everything, and Ms. Whimple puts her hand on his and tells him he should let me go, so he does. I’m glad she does that; I didn’t really know how I was going to convince him.
I thought the funeral would be sad, and it was, but mostly it was boring. First, we go to the funeral home and a bunch of old people I don’t know say a bunch of stuff about how good of a guy Grampa was. I guess they must’ve played ball with him, because some of them talk about that, about how good he was for the team. It’s strange; they don’t talk about him playing any, just how he helped the team. They talk about him carrying balls and running errands, getting water. The preacher keeps talking about how death is part of life and how Grampa’s in a better place. I want to ask Dad where; what could be a better place than with your family? But I notice he’s crying, and it scares me, so I don’t.
One of the old men comes up to me and Dad after it’s over and shakes Dad’s hand and then mine. I ask him if he played with Grampa, and he says Grampa didn’t play; he was a manager.
“I thought he played,” I say.
The old man shakes his head. “No, son, he never did. He had a bum leg, as I understood it. Couldn’t play at all.” He pauses. “I guess you’re going to get his cards, huh?”
“His card collection. He didn’t sell it, did he?”
I shake my head. I don’t know what to say to that. I wonder why Grampa lied about being a player. Maybe he was ashamed or something.
After that, we all go to the cemetery. It’s hot and even more boring. People aren’t crying anymore; they’re mostly standing around, talking. Some are even laughing. I want to yell at them, but I don’t want to upset Dad.
We sit in chairs under an awning. Dad made me wear a suit for the first time, and it’s really hot and itchy. The preacher says some more stuff about heaven and everything. Then it’s over. Everyone just kind of stands around.
We drive out to Grampa’s house; I wanted to ask Dad to, but he does it anyway. I guess we’re both thinking about it. I keep thinking about what I just learned; that Grampa wasn’t actually a player, but a manager. Being a manager is pretty impressive, still. Then I start thinking about everything he told me; he never actually talked about himself playing, just about other people playing and games in general. I guess he never really lied to me. I think about the baseball cards, too, and his job on the riverboats. I think about the hidden chamber. Dad parks and looks at the house. I get out and go to it. Dad opens his door and leans out.
“That’s the bank’s property now, Nathan,” he says.
I ignore him and run past the For Sale sign to the door. It’s locked. Dad’s still calling. I run around the side of the house. His calls are getting weaker, annoyed-sounding. I go to the back door, which is also locked, but I find the door for the basement, which isn’t locked but is stuck. I force it open enough to get inside.
It’s dark and musty inside and smells like mold or stagnant water. I remember what Grampa told me and measure what I think is ten feet from the door. Then I turn left, which is west, and go another five feet. I kneel down. There’s a carpet. I lift it up.
“Nathan! You can’t be in here!” Dad’s at the door, trying to force it open enough to get in.
There’s a piece of wood under the carper. I move it. There’s a little door and latch under it. It’s locked, but it’s a little lock. I look around and run over to the far wall and grab a bat. The door screams open, and I run back to the lock. I swing the bat but Dad catches it and stops me.
“Nathan! This is illegal. We have to go, now!”
I turn on him. “They took Grampa’s house so it could just sit empty. But this isn’t part of the house; this is for us. He told me about it so we could have it.”
He shakes his head. “What are you talking about?”
I show him the little door and the lock, and I show him the bat.
“Nathan,” he says.
“What? He wanted us to have it.”
He shakes his head, but he sounds like he doesn’t really mean it. While he’s deciding, I swing the bat and hit the lock. It doesn’t break. I hit it again. He grabs the bat and goes and finds a piece of metal and wedges it in and snaps the lock off. Inside, there is a big metal box. There are boxes and boxes of cards inside.
* * *
Dad wants to leave the cards because he said they aren’t ours. I argue with him that Grampa left them for us, for me, and he finally agrees. We take them home and go through them. I don’t know what to expect. Grampa talked so much about old timey players, I expect the cards to be from them. But they’re not, exactly.
“It’s signed,” Dad says about the first one he sees. And the next. And the next. “Do you recognize these players? Or the team? The Arkansas Travelers?” Dad recognizes them as a minor league team. All the cards are from them and other minor league teams. It takes us a little while to figure out that these are teams Grampa must’ve worked for. The cards are all signed with notes about how much the players appreciated Grampa. The best card is the last one we find: it’s of Grampa, and it says he’s the manager.
“I’m sorry there wasn’t a Honus Wagner in here, buddy,” Dad says.
I don’t mind, though. Honus Wagner was just some guy. This is my Grampa’s friends, people he actually knew. How many kids get to have a baseball card of their own Grampa?