by Todd Gray
This has long been our Sunday ritual. Me at the VA hospital sneaking Grandpa a cigarette.
I wheel him out to the patio while he reminds me that in days past men were allowed to smoke inside. It wasn't that they weren't afraid to die, they just weren't pussies. Puff-puff. Unapologetic. Always these things. Never is it about the war.
I've no war stories, so I tell him I'm in love.
He says, You're a stupid sonofabitch.
That's fair enough but let's be serious. How do men share their real thoughts about women? an arced back's curvature lying faced-away on the bed, an arm bent to rest under her head. Is this how it is? how John Glenn beheld the earth from orbit, knowing in his soul he was the first to have bared witness to its nakedness?
Grandpa says, Commies fucked space first and that's the hard truth behind our dick-swinging in Vietnam.
Still he keeps on a knowing face, listening when I say I told her I was afraid she was killing me. He nods or is he coughing again? Seeing him bent, I think – This is how it ends. Yes, I think. And this is how it begins, how her nicotine fingers touched my brain every time she said my name between a half-smile. Memories, so I light another cigarette off the one I just finished. I've burnt whole packs this way and still her scent holds me.
Puff puff. Grandpa points his finger at me and says, Listen. When I was in flight school I got word America put a chimp in space. I knew it was true then … that I wasn't anything.
He inhales, not very deeply, and closes his eyes.
Truth is, says Grandpa. Women have only fooled us into thinking we have something to contribute. Why … I haven't a fucking clue. The miracle is they keep letting us think it.
He says, I married your grandma after two tours. She was the first woman I talked to when I got stateside. I’d flown 137 missions in Vietnam but being back scared me more than anything.
She pulled me out from beneath a parked car. Another had backfired in the airport parking lot. I took it for incoming and hit the ground, flattening myself in order to scramble between car and pavement.
She said, You just up and disappeared.
I told her this was a skill you learned to stay alive.
She lent me her hand and a week later, I put a ring on it. Like Catholics, we had five kids and two miscarriages.
He says, She never loved me. She only stuck with it out of obligation.
He's never shared like this. It must be because he's dying. He says all we ever are is visitors.
I wish I could share with him. Like at five I thought I was going to be a fighter pilot. I would evolve into an astronaut. If only I hadn't gotten drunk and walked out a second-story window while at college. A bum knee and slipped disc negated my chances at officer candidacy.
Now as a CPA I frequently contemplate suicide, usually over coffee and cigarettes. I imagine there's a promised land and Camels carry me there. I've even built a pyramid made with cellophane and cardboard packaging for my final resting place. She said it was this kind of melancholy bullshit that made her leave me.
But about my cardboard packaging pyramid, the truth is I'm saving enough points to redeem this mail-order sweatshirt from the tobacco company. Once it gets cold I'll wear it and watch football on television. It’ll keep me warm enough that it’ll be like she’s there with me. I’ll play the crossword, writing my name in next to hers in block letters—first vertically, then horizontally, but always side-by-side.
I renewed her Cosmo subscription to read her horoscope. I want to know what she’s doing. She’s a Capricorn. Grandpa and I, we're both Cancers, and today I read aloud Cosmo’s prognostications for us. It says this month old wounds are renewed.
Grandpa wants to know, Where does it say they ever healed?