Grandpapa stood naked in the upstairs guest bedroom. At least that much I understood what with the screaming of my three older sisters as they ran down the stairs.
Twenty minutes before, Grandmother had dumped Grandpapa at our front door like an unwanted package. That caused Mother and a cloud of swear words to chase after Grandmother in the family car, blowing the horn the whole time.
Fifteen minutes later, Mother burst into the foyer announcing that she lost Grandmother on the interstate. By this time, my sisters' screaming had subsided into babble. Papa asked her, "Why did your mother bring him here?"
"I don't know why she dumped him on me. So what if he rubs his crotch in front of her canasta partners. She married him."
"Isn't he dying?" Papa asked.
"Yeah, well, maybe my mother doesn't want someone dying in her house."
I thought our house would be a good place for Grandpapa to die in. It would drive my sisters crazy.
With Grandpapa still naked upstairs, Papa wasted no time handing out duties for the upkeep of Grandpapa for at least the next couple of weeks. Being one of only two males in the home and only eleven years old, I figured I had the advantage.
"Donald, take your Grandpapa to the toilet," Papa said.
I didn't understand how the only male heir to the family name got designated as toilet boy. "That's something the sisters should do. They're older than me."
Papa looked at them. They were a chorus of shrill voices about naked Grandpapa. Papa looked at me. I went upstairs to take care of Grandpapa.
I remembered my parents talking about dementia and found Grandpapa standing in the hallway naked and scratching his crotch. I avoided all that and pushed him into the bathroom where he sat on the toilet with a plop. I figured he finished when spittle fell out of his drooping lower lip. Not wanting to see an old man's poop and pee, I flushed and kept my eyes closed while handing him his pants. I did not realize he did nothing in the toilet until, fully clothed in front of me, he messed in his pants. Front and back. I called the Sisters in since my job was taking Grandpapa to the toilet and getting him dressed. It was their turn to do something with him. By the time they found Grandpapa with his soiled pants in their bathroom, I had left through the back door.
The next morning, Sunday, I stood Grandpapa up, and then sat him down again. In the middle of this coming up and going down, the old man missed the toilet just some of the time. The deal from last time was that I had to keep Grandpapa clean, which I did. I delivered him unsoiled to the Sisters not telling them that I used their bathroom again and not the generic toilet in the hallway. I spent a few hours behind an oak tree where no one could find me reading a book about the stages of death.
I could not figure out what stage Grandpapa was in. He did not look like the pictures, but I also never looked at him that closely in case I caught a glimpse of his personal agenda. The next day when I got home from school, Grandpapa told me about his private parts. I could not avoid him since my sisters had put him in my bedroom. At least he had clothes on, unsoiled. Papa had talked to him about what the bathroom was for and if he didn't remember how to use it, he'd be living in a nursing home. I was still not sure why Mother wasn't taking care of her father.
"Diabetes made it shrink," said Grandpapa. He rubbed his crotch like I figured he had done in front of Grandmother's canasta partners.
I didn't know what he was talking about. About every part of his body looked shriveled and shrunken to some degree.
"The older you get, the smaller it gets. I don't remember the last time it stood at attention," he said keeping his hand on his crotch.
Clear to me now. Grandpapa let out a fart and explained to me about size in a man as if I really wanted to know.
"I don't want to talk about that. I really do not have any interest. Really." I led Grandpapa into the guest bedroom and turned out the light. I'm sure he found the bed, eventually.
The next afternoon after supper, I asked Papa, "Why doesn't Mother spend time with her father?"
He sat at the kitchen table with a drone of female chatter bleeding from the living room. Through the kitchen window, I saw the dark air fill the windowpane with a bitter freeze building for the night.
"Sometimes people just don't like each other." He continued to read that morning's newspaper. I wondered how Papa coped being twelve hours behind everyone else.
"Is he going to die soon?"
"Not soon enough as far as your mother is concerned. You better forget about what's going on between her and her father."
At bedtime, my sisters confronted me in the narrow hallway.
"Don't push the subject," they all said at once. They may have talked separately, but it was hard to tell.
"Everyone seems to know some family secret except me."
"Just shut up about it. You're too young to know what this is all about."
My sisters and I came to a truce with Grandpapa for the rest of the week until Saturday when Papa had to work a night shift and I had Grandpapa duty. I was alone with a house full of women except for Grandpapa who knew all along how to use the toilet. When he came out of the bathroom and into my bedroom, he told me he loved me.
I could barely make out his low voice and would have missed what he said if he had not spoken so cautiously like he had been alone all his life. He stood there with his arms hanging at his side and a sad face and a stooped over look. I was not sure what he loved about me.
I looked at a mirror wondering if I looked like a girl. Living with women can be dangerous that way. Grandpapa looked at his feet and I pushed him into his bedroom where I tried to get him up onto his bed. He stopped trying and dropped to the floor like a wet rag.
"I want you to take him back or put him away in a home somewhere," yelled Mother from downstairs. I followed Mother's voice and stood at the top of the stairs behind my sisters who were already listening.
"Yeah, I do see a point in arguing about this because I don't want him." Mother's voice sent a tense pitch through the house. "I don't care if he is my father." A short pause. "No, we're not paying for him to live in a home. We don't have that kind of money." A short pause. "Yes, I know you don't have the money, either. What happened to the insurance and Medicare?" A longer pause until Mother said, "He may be my father, but he's your husband and you chose him. I didn't have that option." Mother ended the call on the cell phone with a slam onto something hard. I worried that we would not be getting any Christmas presents this year from that side of the family.
I went back and finished getting Grandpapa onto the bed. He went right to sleep in case he heard anything more.
In the morning while everyone got ready for church, I found Grandpapa sitting on the edge of his bed. He told me, "Men don't need women."
I agreed I didn't need my sisters, but Mother did a lot. "Men and women do need each other sometimes." I figured this was a safe comment.
"I mean, men don't need women to have sex."
Whoa. I did not think this should be talked about on church day, whatever Grandpapa was trying to say. "I know about sex." I didn't, but I did not want to hear it from Grandpapa, even if Papa would never get around to telling me.
"Before I shrunk, your mother saw me kissing a man. I didn't mean for her to find out that way."
I left Grandpapa sitting on the bed's edge not caring if he got on or fell off. I did not help him get ready for church that morning. Funny, he got ready, but we never took him. I supposed he went to some church on his own.
That evening, I led Grandpapa back to his bedroom where he talked about men. I had no patience for what he was trying to tell me. Besides, I was confused about the subject. I dumped Grandpapa into his bed and went looking for Papa.
He was in the kitchen again reading his morning newspaper. "Why do men like other men and not women?" Outside the kitchen window, rain fell in spurts. The look on Papa's face was like I had pushed him off a cliff.
"Why do you ask?"
"Someone I know likes men like they're women."
"Do you like men?"
I didn't like men, women, or my sisters. "I don't like anyone."
"Good. Keep it that way."
Papa went back to his newspaper. I stayed there at the kitchen table watching the rainfall. I could smell the old cooking smells of the kitchen grow between us. Upstairs, the Sisters screeched and Mother denounced Grandpapa's naked existence in someone's bedroom. I hoped it wasn't mine. Papa left to take care of the latest drama.
Over the weeks, I listened to Grandpapa's mind and memory dump old family secrets onto me each evening before I put him to bed.I had no one to tell them to, so I wrote them down. Otherwise, I would have gone crazy.
On a Friday evening after supper, Papa went with the Sisters for after-school sports that were more like social functions. Mother stayed in the kitchen with the leftover supper smells. She cleaned things that did not need cleaning until I came in. I suspected she had issues with the cleaning.
"What do you want?" Her voice was even and I thought I had a chance at something.
"Did you ever see Grandpapa with men?"
I think Mother's sudden stillness was big enough to drive a universe through. While we stood there in silence that even the smells of dinner could not break, Grandpapa wandered in.
"Grandpapa, go back to bed," I said. I did not want to talk about him while he was here.
"You never told anyone," Grandpapa said to Mother.
"Mom found out, didn't she?" Mother banged dishes into the dishwasher.
"I suspected she always knew, but I wanted her to know before my end came. So, I told her."
"I don't want to know you anymore." Mother had run out of dishes to bang.
"Wasn't I a good father? I gave up a lot to stay with you and your mother. I could have been somebody else."
"Why couldn't you've not said anything? Kept it all a secret. Left things unsaid. Why does everyone need to know everything?"
"I want people to know who I am. I don't want my secret to die with me. I want my family to remember me not for keeping secrets, but for being who I really was."
"I wish you had been someone else instead of my father." Mother stared at me. I decided to spare my life and leave.
Grandpapa died a week later on Halloween night. The announcement came from one of my sisters who let out a scream as if to wake the old man. The other sisters joined in a chorus and no one could sleep through something like that unless they were dead. I stood at the foot of the bed and saw a drained look surround Grandpapa's sunken face. I thought he looked natural, but it was natural only if the person was dead. As we all stood around the bed wondering what to do with a dead Grandpapa, the first trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell.
Once again, Mother drove away leaving the remains of her father for Papa to take care of. Eventually, the ambulance, police, and finally the coroner came to verify that, yes, Grandpapa was dead. Each time someone showed up, they had to scoot around trick-or-treaters who wanted to join the costume party upstairs. As each authority announced death, my sisters wailed away and the doorbell rang for more candy. One even looked like dead Grandpapa, except for the hatchet buried in the head. Word got out and soon a crowd gathered on our lawn.
The crowd parted to let two funeral workers wheel a metal stretcher out of the house. On top was a white sheet thrown over something unmoving. Memories cemented in everyone's minds that Halloween night. I wondered if it had to be this way. Leaving with such finality among people dressed like the dead.
After the hearse left in a puff of blue smoke, I went to Grandpapa's bedroom where the bed covers stayed on the wood floor, the curtains were still drawn shut, and the impression of Grandpapa's head remained neatly dimpled into the pillow he died on. I stood there in my Dracula outfit realizing I had missed Halloween. As I started to leave and change clothes, I smelled an odor in the bedroom. Something like vanilla. I wondered if this was what death smelled like.
Mother came back and called my sisters into the kitchen. They all looked at me when I came to join them. A look of go away. Papa had already gone to bed, so I did, too. It took me a long time to go to sleep.
I woke up at midmorning as Mother shoved the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. "Find yourself something to eat. We're all going to the funeral home."
"I don't need to eat. I want to go with you." Really, I did not want to be left alone with Grandpapa's smell still hanging around the house and maybe his ghost, too. I wanted to be included in this important family matter.
"You're too young and you'll get in the way," Mother said as she herded the three sisters out the door.
"I'm too young to stay in the house alone." They ignored me as Papa drove them all away. I sat in front of the kitchen window where Papa usually sat watching them leave me.
At least I got out of school to attend the burial. It was a cloudless warm day with the casket hanging by leather straps over a deep hole. Mother sat next to her mother with my sisters on either side. I stood with Papa in the back because Grandmother's canasta players took the rest of the available seats. I thought the casket dropped in pretty fast as if it would help Mother and Grandmother forget Grandpapa faster.
Back at Grandmother's house for the reception, I looked around for the place where Mother saw Grandpapa that time. Yet, all I could think of was Grandpapa's ghost lurking in the dark hallways. My sisters said that would be all that was left after they got rid of his stuff.
I yelled at them, at their unrealness. I rode home with Papa leaving Grandmother, Mother, and my three sisters to throw away what remained of Grandpapa's presence in this world. Family secrets erased forever. To die carelessly among surviving members.
Waiting at home, I sat at the kitchen table as Papa read his twelve-hour old newspaper. I pulled out my notes of what Grandpapa told me and wrote down everything I could remember. Papa was too busy reading his newspaper to see what I was doing. When I finished several hours later, a vanilla smell had replaced the kitchen odors. Watching Papa, I wondered what secrets were on his side of the family.
BIO: Over a dozen magazines have published Stanley’s short stories and he is listed in Poet and Writers’ “Directory for Writers.” He is a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers' Club, and the North Carolina Writers' Network that have been great sources of information and support. Stanley grew up on a dairy farm in Spotsylvania, VA and lived most of his life in the Fredericksburg, VA area. Currently he commutes by train to Northern Virginia to work on budgets and legislative issues. On his commute and lunchtime, he writes.