By Michelle Traub
Our ceiling is falling in, and next week is my grandfather’s ninety-first birthday. This morning, I woke up with plaster on my pillow. My father says he will look into it, but the rains have been heavy. The galvanized iron gutter, rust-resistant for the past decade, needs to be repaired. Precipitation seeps through the brickwork into the bookshelves. We’re all concerned about water damage; sonograms and first editions curl towards the sun on the windowsills.
Sy, my grandfather, is coming up from the shuffleboard courts of Delray Beach to help me find his birthday present. In years past, I have resorted to spray-painting Moses or Miles Davis onto t-shirts. He wears these garments while juicing grapefruits after his morning walk around the condo development. When I visit, I prefer to pick the kumquats off of his neighbor’s tree. With each wash, the t-shirts fade; it’s time to find a new gift.
“Lorraine, could you make some toast?” My mother leans against the banister in a cotton nightgown, waiting to use the second floor bathroom.
“Yeah, I can do that.”
“And make sure your brothers don’t leave their dishes in the sink.” Our dishwasher is full after each meal. More than dishes, though, I know my mother hates cleaning the sink strainer. It’s like replacing the toilet paper roll.
“Lorraine, I’m serious.” Saturday morning showers start early; we pace about the first floor with wet hair.
Two hours later, I’m shoveling the stoop when Sy climbs out of a cab. He wears canvas sneakers in the snow.
“Grandpa,” I say, “your feet.”
He shrugs his monogrammed suitcase. I pull him inside the vestibule. Under the coat hooks, I offer my father’s shearling slippers and we shuffle to the dining room. My parents are out shopping for new storm windows, my sisters sit in a hookah bar on the other side of Flatbush, and my brothers would not tell me.
Over tea, Sy hands me Maimonides.
“I recently read this,” he says, “and I was excited by the excellence both of scholarship and of writing. I thought it worthy of passing on to my granddaughter.”
“But I have nothing for you.”
“Lorraine,” he says, “you are only fifteen.” I can hear wet snow fall through the heating vent.
“When it stops snowing, we’ll start looking for your gift, okay?”
“No, I’m only allergic to cucumbers and melon.” Sy no longer asks me to repeat myself; he merely answers the questions he hears. The floors were refinished last spring and they gleam under our feet.
“Grandpa, how was the plane ride?”
“The plane ride was fine.”
“How are your sinuses?”
“Oh, I brought Prednisone.”
“I thought the steroids made you anxious.” He does not hear me so I hold my hand over my mug to catch the steam. “Grandpa, did your mother make her own gefilte fish?”
“Lorraine,” he says. “Of course.”
Sy falls asleep with space heaters up in the den, listening to Quincy Jones. Even downstairs, the vinyl is perceptible at a volume akin to that of the Klezmer band at his second bar mitzvah. I know the neighbors might call, but I like how the sconces buzz with each trumpet blow. Sy will soon be gone; I want to know what the jelly doughnuts of his childhood tasted like. I want to know about the stickball and the midrashim. My mother cannot even find our porcelain dolls in the basement.
At three, the snow and rain finally stop. I wake Sy up from his nap and we pull on woolen coats. The fabric tugs at the band-aids lacing up his arms and I reach out with open hands. He says it’s fine; he shoos. I stuff sucking candies in my pockets and Sy grabs handfuls of tissues.
“Boots,” I say, and give him an old pair of my father’s. They’re stiff. He must sit down on the bottom step of the staircase in order to pull them on his feet.
“We’re ready.” I keep the front door key in my mitten so I will not have to search for it when we return. Slush pools in the gutters; we must jump off curbs. It’s the weekend so we wait fifteen minutes for the Q. The train drags up to the platform with ice on its windows.
As we ride over the bridge, I pull off my tweed cap. Sy comes from a long line of milliners.
“People don’t wear hats anymore, not like they used to,” he tells me. Though, I know through my mother that Sy never wore hats, either, not even out on the deck of the ships during the war.
“But how did they make the hats? What was the process? Mercury?” I grip my knees.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Sy’s hearing aid begins to hum as we descend back into the tunnel. “Have you looked at Maimonides yet?”
“You just gave it to me,” I say.
“What are you waiting for?” He draws out a shredded tissue. “When I was in school, we didn’t believe in memorization. You can always look up a fact, Lorraine. You need to learn how to think.” He leans forward, as though contemplating to blow his nose. “Although, I remember my twelve times tables. Thirteen and fourteen would take me some time.”
We begin at the Strand. Sy is convinced that the bookstore’s disorder is its source of supremacy. “Hold this,” he tells me, throwing his coat over my shoulder. His elbows crack as he crawls through the aisles. He disappears into Transportation, reemerges from Military. I’m sure my mother would disapprove of this, but I know about the folios on the bottom shelves.
“Grandpa.” I have not moved from the central table of audio books. “Grandpa, how about some poetry?” Sy rolls onto his heels.
“There’s nothing here,” he says. “Lorraine, let’s go.” I pull him to his feet and hand him his coat. His palms are bleeding from the friction.
“Do you want, I don’t know, a band-aid?”
“In fact, I don’t remember these winters being so severe,” he says.
There is a flea market on Prince at which I have found candelabras and road signs. We walk down Broadway with snot on our collars. The NYU dormitory windows are open and the snow is saturated with the smell of clove cigarettes.
“I may be shrinking this way,” Sy pats the top of his head, “but I’m growing this way,” and he points with a fully extended finger to where I imagine his stomach must sit beneath the coat.
“That’s gravity,” I say, because it’s true; my grandfather is shorter than I am these days. Though, the randomness of quantum theory seems more apt for justifying the disappearing flesh of thighs or biceps. When we brush our teeth at the bathroom sink, even his breastplate seems to be slowly collapsing, as though organs and blood vessels deflate with collective fatigue.
At the flea market, Sy points to the two-tone steel typewriter. “You need that,” he says.
“No, we’re shopping for you,” I say. When my grandfather moved from New England to Florida, he invited all of his progeny to take what they could carry. My mother said that everything I wanted was too heavy. I could take either the typewriter or the sewing machine. My brothers took the army cot; my sisters took the Atomic Formica kitchen chairs. I have always been anxious over heirlooms. Having already lost the Kodachrome portraits to Uncle Bruce, I’m afraid I will be cheated out of a wedding dress or a latke recipe.
“Lorraine,” my mother said. “What is your decision?”
“The sewing machine,” I said.
“Good. It’s riding in your lap on the way home.”
From the tables covered in tarp, I pick up a bagel slicer, pocket watch, sweater vest, but Sy shakes his head.
“I don’t need any of that,” he says.
“But think of its history!”
I nod and tuck my ears into my cap. I understand change to be when the bodega down on Fifth Avenue turns into a tea lounge. My grandfather knows eras. He once told me that he was born on the kitchen table of a coldwater flat in Brooklyn. I’m not sure where to put this information. I am tempted to etch into stone, bury archival boxes, tattoo the backs of my knees.
“We should have started in the Bronx, you knew the Bronx so well,” I say.
“I mean, they were literate in Yiddish,” he answers, with one thumb behind his ear, tuning the hearing aid.
“No, Grandpa, I said-”
“We need,” Sy interrupts, “sustenance.”
We ride the Q back downtown and buy three roast pork buns. “Because you always want one half more,” Sy says.
The dough sticks to my fingers. Sy raised my mother in a kosher household. To this day, she cannot eat cheeseburgers. However, there was always a distinction when it came to Chinese food. In the house, Sy tells me, there’s Coffee-Mate; but at Szechuan Palace, there’s shrimp in lobster sauce.
We walk in the street, because there is no room on the sidewalk.
“What about old school?” I suggest. “Rakim, Guru, Kool DJ Herc.”
Sy shakes his head and the sun begins to fall behind roofs. Vendors are packing up lanterns and sunglasses.
“It’s time to go home,” Sy says.
“But, I have nothing,” I say. He watches my mouth closely.
“Tell me about the static, during the war,” I say, “tell me again.”
“I’m tired. It’s time to go home.”
My mother has laid a path of towels from the vestibule to the staircase. Her floor is protected. Sy and I peel down to undershirts. I can smell the potatoes from inside of the roasting chicken. My brothers are setting the table; my sisters, uncorking wine.
“Did you find something?” My mother hands us flannel robes.
“Well,” we say.
“Dad, I have some extra socks for you upstairs,” she says.
“I’m no Kabbalist, you know that.” He grins. My mother tells me that Sy’s father’s ears were even larger, and his hearing even worse. She tells me this, because we have their earlobes.
Sy leaves the next morning after toasted bialys. He climbs back into a cab as rain and snow continue to fall. For the rest of the morning, my mother and I gather dried pages from the windowsills. The photograph album from my parents’ Crete trip could not be salvaged. Beaches melt down the plastic.
“It’s too bad,” my mother says.
“But how will you remember?” I ask.
“But what about me?”
“Lorraine, don’t worry so much.” She puts the album into a garbage bag and hands it to me. “Take this out to the curb.”
“And these?” I pick up the empty milk cartons by the inner door.
I hold the railing as I descend, so I will not slip on the ice. The sidewalk in front of our house is splintered; underneath, the roots of the oak tree persist. I toss the cartons into the blue recycling bin and shift the bagged album to my right hip. My childhood of rice cakes and snow pants will never be epic; I know this. In a skirt suit, my mother seems unconcerned. I crouch over the flower boxes my father built two decades ago. Soil spills out the side. Above me, the tree shivers and snow falls to my shoulders. I reach into the dirt with cupped hands. The album fits vertically, and I press the topsoil with the heel of my palm. Here, we will plant geraniums in the spring.