by Barbara Strauss
“My eyeglasses,” Zayda said in broken English, tearing through the kitchen utensil drawer, but he’d never worn glasses. “My sheitel.” He patted his head, and Bubbeh translated “wig” for me as I took Zayda’s brittle elbow and led him aimlessly around the house. I was home on spring break. I meant to appease him, lifting couch cushions, opening the lid on a jewelry box on my mother’s vanity table that played the theme from Dr. Zhivago. “No sheitel in there,” I said, but Zayda had his own purple silver hair, never a toupee, he was ninety and nowhere even close to bald.
“Don’t help him.” Bubbeh followed us as we returned downstairs, hunched and exhausted and shorter than the last time I saw her. “Shlemiel!” She slapped Zayda with a Yiddish newspaper whose subscription was re-routed from their Florida address. They were done with Florida. They needed my parents’ help now.
My father, pouring shredded wheat in a bowl and spreading Circuit City ads over the table, told me if I didn’t give up, I might be touring my Zayda around all day.
“What am I supposed to do? Let him roam?”
“Yes,” my mother said. Zayda was only her stepfather. She paid bills at the counter. It was Saturday morning, the kitchen radio tuned to a crackly AM gardening show my father liked. My mother tried to lower the volume, and my father protested, slapping the table with his ads. Her response was to tune it even louder than he’d had it originally. All the women in my family were like that, pouting passive-aggressively, and I vowed never to lose my patience that way. “Zayda’s been totally out of sorts since they moved in,” my mother told me. She peered over her glasses. “We took him to three specialists. The decline is quick from here.”
“I’ll shoot him,” Bubbeh said, moving through the kitchen in her floral robe. When she passed Zayda, he pinched her behind, and she slapped his hand crying, “Oy, gevalt!”
“You’re like Kevorkian,” I said, leading Zayda out before I could catch my parents snickering at the drama. But it wasn’t drama to me. This trip home I’d brought him a string of painted wooden birds from my semester abroad in the Netherlands, and my first night here, he’d handled them one at a time, staring blankly at the little beaks and painted wings; he’d lost interest quickly and pushed them back in my direction. Next I’d taken puzzles down from my closet, which he loved—the easy ones, fifty pieces—and Zayda would have none of them. He just gazed sadly out the patio door.
“He’s insulted,” I’d said, examining the picture of a kitten on the box. “It’s too easy.”
Now he pulled from my grip to approach Bubbeh, who’d gone to rest in the living room. He mumbled at her in Yiddish, and next thing I knew, she was heaving a pillow, screaming that he gave her such shpilkes, and hobbling up to the guest room where the pullout sofa remained permanently open.
The next morning, waking groggy and more stir-crazy than the day before, I found Zayda wandering through my bedroom in only a pajama top. I peeled my sweaty cheek from the pillow, let my eyes adjust to the light, and there before me hung a gray and shriveled penis, hairless and small as an infant’s.
“My television?” he mumbled in English.
I hid under the covers and cried for my mom.
The conversation turned to nursing homes. Reluctantly, I climbed into the back of the station wagon the next Saturday to search for places we might ditch him. There were plenty of things I could have been doing—writing a Walden paper for my class on the American Transcendentalists, or watching music videos in a blessedly quiet home, a bowl of cereal in my lap and my pajamas on. I hadn’t worn pajamas around the house all week, since Zayda had revealed himself.
I came along though, because I couldn’t bear the thought of Zayda cowering in the background, jingling the change in his pockets while my parents and Bubbeh informed the nurses that sometimes he soiled his pants. As we bumped down side roads potholed still from snowplows, I reached over the seat and rested my hand on Zayda’s head, as though steadying him, his hair soft beneath my fingers. He turned and asked Bubbeh, “Voss is ehr numen?”
“ ‘What is her name?’ he asks. Barbara,” she said, sucking her gums. “You remember nothing.”
Evelyn Gardens: six floors of catatonics, televisions tuned loud for hearing impaired patients who slept before mid-morning talk shows. Social time, the nurse with a Haitian accent, who took us on a tour, called the meeting at the end of the hall. Wheelchair bound patients were lined against the wall, tongues out of mouths, the ladies lightly bearded, and nobody spoke to anyone else. An aide padded around, patting each patient on the shoulder.
“And when we leave, she steals their money,” my father bent to whisper to my mom.
“It smells like pish.” Bubbeh plugged her nose and held tightly to her vinyl purse.
“Every nursing home smells,” my mother said. “The only decent place would be assisted living, and he’s too far gone for that.”
“You could get a nurse to come to the house,” I suggested.
My mother glared at me. “Who’s paying?”
Our tour guide was paged and pointed us back to the lobby. She’d be down in just a moment to get us paperwork and an appointment with the intake facilitator.
“I can’t put him here,” Bubbeh said. “It’s full of mishuganahs. A crazy house.”
“Oh, he be fine.” The nurse clipped her beeper to her waistband. She gripped Zayda’s elbow, and he smiled up into her face. “He be fine on the fifth floor—we start ‘em there.” She excused herself and hurried to the elevator.
After ten minutes on hard-backed lobby chairs, Zayda asking Bubbeh twelve times where we were, my mother said, “I’m sick of waiting. I’ll call for an appointment,” and took a brochure on the way out.
“How ya doing?” I asked, taking Zayda’s hand in the car. He gazed at me, his lips curved over, hiding his teeth. I leaned up front and snatched the brochure from my mother. “We’re not settling on Evelyn Gardens,” I said, stuffing the pamphlet down the seat pocket. “There have to be a dozen better homes in the area."
“We are not settling for anything,” my father corrected. He combed fingers through my mother’s perm until she pulled from him.
“I can’t leave him in a place like that,” Bubbeh said.
My mother grabbed a clump of her own hair and tugged. She told my father to drive home.
“You’re going to make that shit hole our only stop?” I said.
But my father looked for a place to turn, and we found ourselves in the driveway of my former elementary school. The word “diarea,” misspelled, was spray painted on one of the school’s brick walls, and because it was Saturday the lot was empty except for a man walking a golden retriever. The driveway formed a long loop, in the center of which stood a thicket of pines.
“Zayda’s nothing like the patients in that nursing home,” I went on, in part to aggravate my mother. She was so impatient. She would pay. I cooed at Zayda, “You can walk and talk and feed yourself.”
He cupped my face and said, “Shayna maidelah.” Pretty girl.
As we rounded the area of the driveway where the forest spread widest, we came under cover of a lush canopy that blocked the sun except for the thinnest rays.
Zayda reached over Bubbeh, rapping his knuckles on the glass. “Gaistu tsum der vasser?” he said.
“Stop the car, Dad. Zayda made a sentence.”
Bubbeh pushed him off her lap, but he climbed over her again. “Gaistu tsum der vasser tsu vashen mein hoisen? Vu is Frau Beniewicz?”
“What does that mean, Ma?” my mother asked, twisting in her seat.
“He thinks we are in Poland,” Bubbeh said. “He asks for the Beniewicz family—the ones who hid him in the war. Du bist nisht a kind!” she shouted into Zayda’s hairy ear. “You are not a child!” But he clung to her knee like a kid about to be spanked.
“Malka?” he asked suddenly. He looked up at Bubbeh, his chin quivering.
My mother sighed.
“What?” my father asked.
“Malka was his sister.”
Bubbeh whined. “Ich bin nisht Malka. I’m Pola. Your wife!”
“Where is Malka?” Zayda asked. His English was strangely clear.
“Auschwitz.” Bubbeh got in his face. “Malka died in Auschwitz!” she screamed.
And then he punched her.
It wasn’t a sock—his knuckles only grazed her cheek. Her skin turned purple, though. He’d broken blood vessels, and Bubbeh clutched her face, revealing the full circle of a bruise only when my mother ordered, “Show me” and reached over the console, wrenching Bubbeh’s hand away.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” I said. Zayda squinted at the splotch on Bubbeh’s cheek and made no move to help her. My father sped home to get ice.
Her belt unbuckled, her body splayed over the console, my mother took Bubbeh by the chin, displayed her tear-stained face to me and said, “You think I’m a monster, sending him away. But do you see what happens when a person doesn’t know what he’s doing?”
And then I understood, really, how lost my Zayda was.
My mother, usually unsentimental, wanted to see a slideshow that night. Everyone had settled by now, Bubbeh iced and the swelling went down, and we’d already eaten dinner. My mother wanted slides from 1969, long before Zayda was around. She wanted slides of her wedding, photos of Benjamin, her real father, who died of a heart attack in ’76.
My father did as told and took the projector down from the attic. I blew dust off the machine and set the individual slides in the slots while he pulled the screen up and called everyone into the living room. My father shut the lights, and we viewed a tray of photos taken during my parents’ wedding, my actual grandfather, heftier and more serious looking than Zayda, walking my mother down the aisle. She and Bubbeh sniffled behind me on the sofa, and Zayda asked, “Who’s this?” waving at Benjamin, who held Bubbeh’s hand beneath the chuppah. Bubbeh wouldn’t answer, and we braced for a violent attack. So my father changed the tray.
They were ancient slides of my father’s parents, both of whom had died when I was in high school. In the photos my father was a kid, graduating from something, Hebrew school he thought. He stood far away on a lit stage. My grandma had him young, so when my grandpa turned the camera on her, seated beside him in the auditorium, the photo that came out was astonishing in its youth. My grandma was smirking, her mouth crooked as she’d always complained it was when someone told her to smile. She wasn’t wearing lipstick, where I was so accustomed to the heavy maroon she painted on in her later years. Her nose was long, like mine, almost touching her lip.
“Barbara,” Zayda said. He tapped my knee and pointed at the screen. “Miss America,” he joked, his English poor but coherent.
“That’s Molly,” Bubbeh corrected. She gestured at my father. “Max’s mother. Not Barbara.”
Zayda stared at the screen with his mouth open.
But he wasn’t far off. It was always said that I resembled my grandma more than anyone in the family. Encouraging Zayda, or to validate him, I jumped from my chair and turned on the light. I stood beside the photograph onscreen, which was hard to make out beneath the overhead bulbs, but Zayda continued to point between the two of us. I posed with my hands on my hips.
“Miss America,” he said again. I laughed, and he laughed too.
We ate sugar-free ice cream for dessert, and when it was time for Zayda to go to bed, I pushed back zealously from the table, scraping the chair legs over the tile. No one else moved to help him, and they didn’t want me to, either.
“He’ll take ten years to get up there. Finish your ice cream before it melts,” my mother said.
I slid the dish away but found myself just sitting there.
I watched anxiously as Zayda paced, shuffling past the stairs to his room, forgetting where he wanted to go. My parents spoke with Bubbeh about money—bonds, stocks, and the fees for a nursing home, Evelyn Gardens or maybe another one they planned to visit later in the week. I watched Zayda, my slippers planted firmly on the ground, my hands flat on the table. He was wandering five minutes when I decided I’d had enough and started to get up to help.
And then suddenly he turned into the foyer, where he needed to be. He tilted back his head. He surveyed the long staircase, and he started climbing.
Barbara Strauss lives and writes outside Boston. Her work has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, and was published in the inaugural issue of technicolor Magazine. She also has a story forthcoming in The Mustard Seed Risk. She veered from fiction to write “Bearings,” about her actual grandparents. In addition to writing, she’s big into yoga.