When I was twelve, every Sunday my mother and I visited my grandfather. He lived on the other side of the mountain. I was his only grandchild. As often as I could, I put off homework until minutes before my mother came to get me, hoping that she’d let me stay home because school work trumped almost everything for her. Everything but family. My plan never worked.
Those visits were a blur of pictures of golf courses, casual racism, and ginger ale. The shag carpet at my grandfather’s looked like moss, and the air smelled stale and swirled with dust. He sat in his recliner. Whenever he left the chair, I stared at the cracked, stretched leather, imagining that some specter of him lingered seated. My mother sat in what was once my grandmother’s chair—the blue fabric bunched where the cushions had worn down. They watched game shows. I brought over a Gameboy, hoping they’d ignore me so I could ignore them.
Once, during a commercial promoting a vacation to Las Vegas—the screen flickering with cash payouts in tall stacks of hundreds—my grandfather asked my mother, “Did I ever tell you about the time Lucky and I gunned down a fleet of Kamikaze? Not a single one hit their mark.”
“Yeah. You told us earlier,” she said. For most of his life he refused to talk about the war, but after my grandmother passed, he forced every memory onto us.
I wished she would have pretended it was the first time hearing the Lucky story. It seemed more humane to treat each repeated story as a dress rehearsal. That’s what I would have wanted.
“Really?” he said.
“Yes.” She glanced over at me. There was the faintest up-turn in her lips, as if to say forgetting is funny. “We’d love to hear it again.”
He blinked hard, trying to conjure up the memory, but nothing came to the surface.
“You can tell us.”
“No. No. I don’t want to be the old fart that tells the same stories over and over.”
I didn’t quite believe him. All my life I’d heard the same stories. Once, I had my mother in hysterics repeating word for word, the same comic timing, my grandfather’s story of the hiding he took for napping in the men’s room during church back when he was a kid.
I felt his gaze land on me even though I never looked up from my small square screen. He said, “Josh, is there any fighting in that game?”
I said, “Yeah.” I was actually stacking Tetris blocks, but I knew where this was headed regardless. My only choice was whether I wanted to get to the point fast or slow.
“You like those killing games, huh?”
He turned to my mother and said, “And you allow this?”
“It’s just a game.”
“No, it’s not. Everyone forgets that. Those games aren’t going to teach you how to respect life even when you have to take it.” I didn’t look up, but the chair creaked from his wild gestures. “Say what you want about the Kamikaze, but they knew a thing or two about life and death. I’ll give them that. But that didn’t mean that me and Lucky could just let them crash into our aircraft carriers. They fell like hail,” he said, bringing his hand down on his armrest with a thud. “Most of the time one or two would sneak past the defenses, but there was one time where Lucky and I managed to get each one. It was like—”
“Dad, you’ve already told us that story today.” She looked over at me with her eyebrows peaked. His memory lapses before this were over the course of weeks, but never before had he blanked before the end of a commercial break.
I let the blocks in my game pile off the screen. All three of us triangulated our gazes, but never quite looking anyone in the eye.
He blushed, his ears turned brick red. “You know this old gray horse ain’t what he used to be.”
Whenever he said that, I imagined a horse with droopy jowls, joints swollen with arthritis, moon-like cataracts swirling in bulging eyes—a near-death show horse now only good for glue. Yet, my grandfather still seemed young. At the driving range, he’d rocket golf balls further than I thought possible. He still had a Playboy subscription and didn’t even need reading glasses. Age to me meant physical deterioration, and it seemed to barely touch him. How could he be on the decline?
That night, my mother called a family meeting even though it was just the two of us. Around the kitchen table, with the lights turned low, I knew what was coming. Off and on, they’d talked about the day when it’d no longer be safe for my grandfather to live alone. My mother was still shaken by his forgetfulness. She asked me to vote whether to put my grandfather in a nursing home or in the guest room. I voted to take him in. Even at that age, I knew that my vote was symbolic—she’d made the decision long ago, so why bother?
My grandfather’s new room, previously a guest room that went years between uses, was separated from mine by a narrow hallway. Nothing felt normal anymore. He spent his time napping on the living room couch, inquiring about his next doctor’s visit, sneaking handfuls of chocolate chip cookies between meals, watching James Bond movies he taped from cable—complete with commercials. Neither of us had grown more comfortable with the other. Every day felt like an expectation, as if an uncomfortable silence was waiting to be broken, but we lacked the words, as if we were trying to ignore a hanging scab.
Before, when the visits were weekly, I could get by just being in the same room. Now I felt like I was either going to enter a self-imposed exile into my room or we’d have to build some sort of grandson-grandfather relationship no matter how flimsy. When I couldn’t handle it anymore, I went over to his room and knocked on the door. He answered wearing a yellowed undershirt, his belly bulging over his slacks. He gave me a hug as I just stood there. I never understood how his ballooned-out stomach felt so muscular.
“I’m bored,” I lied, “Do you want to play checkers?” I hadn’t played him in years because within our family he was a checkers legend. He’d never lost a match as far as my family was concerned. It sucked all the fun out of playing, but I knew he’d enjoy it.
He said, “You think you can take down your Pap?”
I took time assessing moves, picking the red plastic circle up and hovering it over a square before putting it back where it had been. All the while he whistled big band melodies. The second my finger left a piece, he’d make his own move, slamming it against the cardboard so hard that all of the pieces shifted millimeters. Then he’d go back to whistling.
He gloated after he won. I expected him to win by a landslide, but he barely beat me. I wondered if he was really as good as I remembered, if I was just better, or if the misfired neurons made his legendary gameplay more human.
Later, from the dinner table, when my grandfather noticed the checker board on the counter, he said, “Checkers—now there’s a game I haven’t played in years.”
Over the next few months, my grandfather kept forgetting, and he grew more frustrated with forgetting. Every time we played checkers he won by shrinking margins.
That autumn I spent a lot of time piecing together plastic model kits of different anime mechs. It helped distract me from wondering whether a moment could slide its way into his long-term memory. Sure something would stick for a day or two, but in the end it was defragged in no-time. Repetition didn’t even work. I found myself wanting to make an impact that would stay. Something between us that he’d remember a week later. Was it too late?
“You like models?” my grandfather asked from the hallway. He peered in through my cracked door.
I said that I did.
He wandered off to the living room where he watched Family Feud until he fell asleep, drooling, on the couch.
When I got home from school the next day, I found a large model airplane kit in my room. My grandfather had recently had his driver’s license revoked. He must have had my mother pick it up for him. A P-51 Mustang, the type that really flew. The models I had built were pre-painted plastic bits; after an hour of connecting the pieces, it was just a few stickers and then it was finished. The P-51, the fuselage was just a few pieces. Yet the instructions seemed too sparse to complete the electronics. I’d need a set of watch screwdrivers and a crescent wrench, and I didn’t know what either was. The only piece that came intact was the remote control to pilot it. Before even trying, I gave up.
“What do you think?” my grandfather called from his room across the hall.
I stammered for a bit and said, “It’s great. Thanks.”
“When you finish it, we’ll go out to a field and fly it.”
“That may take a while.”
“I got time.”
That night, just to confirm it’d be as impossible as I thought to put together, I pulled out all the parts. Each piece was sealed in shrink wrap. Using a rusty X-acto knife, I made a pile of parts and useless plastic bags on my bed. Using the instructions, I pieced together some of the fuselage until I came to a step that required soldering. I put everything on my desk.
Later my grandfather asked, “What’s that?”
“The P-51 you got me.”
He narrowed his eyes, trying to claw up the memory. Instead, he said, “God damn it.”
I’d never heard him curse before.
“I can’t keep doing this. Anymore, thinking feels like I’m breathing through a wet towel. I get just a little air and a lot of water.”
I didn’t understand quite what he meant. He shook his head and ran his hand down his face.
He picked up the wing and, with frustration still in his voice, said, “This isn’t right. The silver, it’s wrong. Too dark.”
“Looks fine to me.”
“You always say that, Lucky.”
I didn’t correct him. I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or had slipped into the past, merging me with his old partner.
“Whatever happened to me?” I asked.
His face twitched as if something had short-circuited.
“To Lucky?” I said.
My grandfather gulped a few times and said, “He died, didn’t he? Like everyone.”
“Disappeared in a storm. We didn’t have visibility. His radio had been acting up, and then it went silent.”
“Maybe he landed on an island somewhere.”
“That sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life.”
Later, I had my mom buy a couple of different shades of silver paint for him to compare, and I coated the plane.
After school, I worked on the model until I finished the final step of the instructions. I was too afraid to fly it though. Too many things could go wrong: electronic malfunctions, robin collisions, lightning strikes, acts of God. Even after the P-51 was finished, I spent days reading the manual trying to wrap my head around radio frequency, adjusting the high-speed needle, and how to nail a landing.
One Saturday, my grandfather said, “Are you going to fly that thing or what?”
I tried to determine if he even remembered that he bought it for me, but I couldn’t.
“The conditions aren’t right,” I said. It was too wet and foggy.
“It’s always going to be something. Come on.”
My mother drove us down far enough down the mountain that the fog that had blotted out the sky had become low hanging clouds. She pulled into the sparse driveway of a one-room church that’d been nothing more than a historical marker for as long as I could remember. She waited in the car listening to songs on the radio that were fuzzy with static in the valley. Before liftoff, he picked up a blade of grass and dropped it. It drifted lazily without a single gust of wind pushing the blade off its downward course.
Now that we were out here, I had trouble trying to remain calm. The uncertainty and recklessness of leaving the ground was like a shot of pure adrenaline jammed into my heart. I used the rough blacktop road as a runway. The sound of the model’s engine sounded like an electric toothbrush, but it slid from the blacktop into the air as if flight was effortless.
He mussed up my hair and said, “Who would have thought you’d get that pile of parts to fly?”
I flew the plane in tight figure eights in the clear below the looming stratus clouds. Despite my excitement, I wanted to enjoy it more than I did. With all the theoretical freedom of the atmosphere, the blanket of fog ceilinged the tiny plane in. In minutes, I grew bored, like I was watching a fly trapped between a screen and a closed window—predictably flying from corner to corner without variation.
“Do you want to try?” I asked.
He chuckled without smiling. “Are you sure?”
With my eyes still to the fog cage, I gave a tutorial. A tutorial I repeated in full three times.
I passed the receiver off to him. It quivered in his hands, made more noticeable by the dancing of the two foot antennae. Overhead, the plane sputtered erratically like a cricket in a snake pit. If flying a plane with his grandson didn’t drive an icepick into his long term memory, I doubted anything would.
“What do I do?” he said, looking down at the controller as if he didn’t understand how the plastic with all its buttons and levers ever got into his hands. He thumbed the buttons and levers with increasing frustration.
And then the plane vanished with a puff into the fog. I pulled the controller from his hands and tried to steer it back into the clear, but all I heard was the buzz of the motor growing fainter. I should have known this would happen. The back of my throat burned, and it felt impossible to swallow.
When I couldn’t hear anything anymore, I said. “Let’s head home.”
“When are we going to fly that plane?”
Within a year, he passed. Over that time, I couldn’t determine whether my grandfather’s decline came fast or slow, but still he declined. He slept more than he was awake and forgot who we were for long stretches, even forgetting he was ever a father. Bad days eventually outnumbered good ones. I never built another model; he never even mentioned it. Occasionally, we’d still play checkers. I beat him more and more often as he attempted more illegal moves. When I pointed them out, he’d grow so frustrated that he’d swipe the pieces off the board rather than lose. The memory of the model plane he seemed to have forgotten entirely and to me it already seemed distant and fuzzy, like something from a movie that I couldn’t quite place.
Later, I was stuffing his clothes into garbage bags when I found in his closet a cardboard box. Inside the box, wrapped in a bathrobe, was the P-51 covered in scratches, held together with big globs of super glue. It felt delicate and liable to fall apart. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend the hours he must have spent searching. To me, the model was like all the other tchotchkes and mementos of his that I’d thrown out. I stuffed it into the trash bag with the over-starched clothes, with the pictures I found of him and Lucky that had yellowed with age: two uniformed pilots, young and smooth, smirking invincibly in front of their Mustangs, overcome with confidence that their lives were bound together for long years, unable to fathom the future, the fog.
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