Whenever Grandma begins her lectures on the old days she leaves out everything that interests me. The blemishes, squalor. The embarrassing realities. I’ve read enough about the depressions to guess at what really went down in her daily life.
What’s more, she wants the same from me. Like when she tells me not to talk to my friends about how I’m surviving on a basic income, I recognize she’s pushing some of that ol’ good shame that’s saved her from countless uncomfortable conversations. She’s soaked through with the dissonance of way back in the day when no one worked yet spoke like they did.
She might have worked ten years total between coming of age and now, yet most all her yarns are about work. Maybe I’m interpreting too deep but her only stories I can trust to conform (slightly) to reality come out of things of timeless importance. In this case, family. I asked her the other day how she met my grand-uncle Charlie. She, of course, sidestepped, “He was a neighbor.” she said. So I, of course, insisted pressured her past the threshold of humble resistance.
Like all her stories it began with an affirmation of how clean she kept her apartment. “Even back then I liked to keep a tidy space.” she said. This time it was the impossible triangular end of her attic apartment, “You could only clean it by stretching your broom into the junction of the roof and floor.”
What she neglected to mention was the stimulant for her sprouting obsession with tidiness. The roof’s wood had rotten through and the landlord had laid down layer after layer of economy plaster each time he rented it out. Consequently, it chipped and snowed down at every opportunity.
Then came my great-uncle a-knocking at the door. “I swept up as much as I could on the way to the door, and I slipped it all under the rug because- well, it’s not very important why.”
She may not have wanted to tell me why, but I’m pretty certain that had she told me, it’d be something about how seldom the garbage truck came and how she’d woken up too many mornings to her bags ripped and gleaned of what little scraps they contained by the neighborhood bands of mice, coyotes and raccoons.
At the door, she saw a strange man on the monitor who swayed nervously and ran fingers through his unkempt beard.
I wasn’t too pleased with Grandma’s telling of this part of the story, so I asked my great-uncle Charlie to give his account too. It turns out his version was just as occluding. And since I think the truth is somewhere between their accounts, I put them together:
“Hello?” Grandma called through the door.
“ .” murmured my great-uncle Charlie.
“Hey. I said.”
“Sorry I didn’t call first. I live across the hall. I would have called. But- my tablet’s dead.”
“I didn’t catch that.”
“Can I use your charge?”
I imagine a long silence here where Grandma mulls her charge as well as her trust for the stranger’s story, and Charlie, eager to receive his “No.” and be on his way, is already shifting down the hallway. But Grandma’s generosity was always a point of pride, a quirk if ever she had one, since in those days it was kin to leprosy. A weakness from a bygone time. With grandeur she opens the door and with magnanimity says, “I suppose you can use my charge. But not too much of it. And do you mind leaving your shoes outside?”
But her heart sank to her butt when he answered, “My water’s been out. There’s not much difference between shoes, socks and feet.”
“I knew he was a dud, right there.” she said to me, “But, I’m too good a heart, I let him in anyhow.”
He stomped his feet in the hall, shook loose what he could, and with a tight smile passed into the room.
“You’re on wind?” she asked.
“Only until I can sort out a few things.”
“As it should be.”
Charlie hung his head to mask the nervous tic, a jutting out of his lower jaw, and said “If you’ll direct me.” and held out his tablet.
“Right over here.” Grandma answered. She took his tablet and plugged it into the extension cord that ran along the edge of the room towards a transformer imbedded in the wall and camouflaged by a frame.
“You’re on wind too, I take it.”
And here, I think I should preface their reactions by saying they lived in the St. Louis block of Sanders houses. In were infamous in the day for never having been retrofitted to handle the failure of the jet stream and therefore prone to collapse. So, when the building grunted to adjust to a sudden gust they exchanged panicked glances they were quick to bridle as the building slinked back into place. They were left with the residual whir of the turbine out the window.
“What a strong house.” affirmed Charlie, shaking plaster out of his hair with another tic.
“The strongest.” confirmed Grandma.
“I’ve read we can withstand simultaneous gusts and earthquake up to a seven on the Richter scale.”
“Well if that doesn’t make you confident, what will?”
“They’re quite sturdy.”
I can feel that awkward pause resonate through the years. Grandma told the story right through, but Charlie smiled to try and diminish the denial of his day.
“Am I right to think I’ve seen you with a daughter?” Grandma asked.
“You are.” said Charlie, “She’s doing great. Back in South Carolina. Where we’re from. Trying to get into growing sunchokes, but there’s no particular farm she’s felt passionate enough to work with.”
“Same story for my cousin Johnny. He went out to Idaho for peas and he was doing well for a while.”
“Then the price shot up. That’s my guess.”
“Exactly. So he moved on because he thought it so stubborn of these agriculture types to charge what they do. It’s food, you know?”
“Well, I do. But, they need to make a profit. Or else why do it?”
“That’s true… you’ve got to applaud how these kids go out and find their future.”
“I do. But at our age….”
Now this is my favorite part of the whole exchange. I mean, they came so damned close to admitting how neither one was doing just that. It was obvious they were the ‘strain’ on the economy they often condemned in conversation. But it was just as clear that there existed no channel for remedying their situation. Another second of awkward eye holding might have fractured the dissonance into the radical banter that sometimes followed that variety of exchange. Instead, Charlie’s tic broke their eye contact.
He said, “Unemployment’s dropped to a half percent. “
“Is that so?” she said.
“I’m waiting to hear back from the dealership on Lafayette.”
“I can see you selling carts. You’d be great.”
“Wouldn’t I?” he ticced again.
“I’m in the process of getting involved with fusion. My engineering degree must be useful for something down there.”
“Yeah.” they both sighed.
“Oh.” said Charlie, “I really hope you get that! You could get the whole building reconnected. We wouldn’t have to rely on-” and to finish his sentence another gust of wind caused the building and neighbors to shiver, and brought on the dizzying whir of the turbine.
“Two in a day!” said Grandma.
“Three days, nothing. Not a breath. I knew this would happen. The moment I go asking for charge, winds, gusts and gales let loose wouldn’t you know it? With my luck, they’re probably showing twisters for the afternoon.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?”
He unplugged his tablet and said “I’ll get out of your hair then.” then rushed out.
Charlie ended his relating their meeting by asking why I was interested, “It was such an innocuous thing.” he said. Grandma finished by saying “He might have been a wet sandwich, but it was nice to have the company.”
I told them both the same thing. They can act like it was nothing unusual, or pleasant, but I know their sweet breath of mutual relief the instant the door closed. I know they felt dirty at having been so close to begging. And each in their own privacy dashed for their broom to take out their discomfort on the fresh drizzle of plaster.
Diego Reymondez is a dizzy mess who passed out in New York and woke up in Spain. Since regaining consciousness he’s planted a food forest and now must spend his days making rocket stoves, keeping his brother from dying on intergalactic travels, taking care of animals and generally learning how to nature. Eventually he gets around to writing. He has one upcoming publication in Cleaver Magazine.