At 99 years old, Poppa is more scowl than man. Death it seems has forgotten about him, letting him linger and decay far past what can be natural. His life, far past being led, is endured and he swears to himself that he’d end it all himself if he found the impossible strength to swallow a few pills or even walk to an open window…
Poppa’s hearing is all but gone. He refuses to wear the hearing aid his son bought for him and he routinely explodes at his wife’s insistence for him to stop being a stubborn ass and wear the damned thing. She can’t live like this!
He refuses to put that fucking gizmo in his ear and give up what little pride he still has left. And that’s final!
As for sex, he can barely remember what it felt like. His youth seems absurd in retrospect, but what he would do for just another taste of that absurdity. It’s been eight years since his wife granted him the infuriating shame of flaccid penetration. It’s been four years since he last made an attempt to masturbate. If there’s any fantasy left in his mind, it has nothing to do with beautiful women, just the pale memory of his being intoxicated by them. Masturbation had always been vicarious but perhaps now it was too far removed. He doesn’t want to be the man having sex with the beautiful woman, but far more pathetically, the man dreaming of being the man having sex with the beautiful woman. He does not miss sex nor does he miss the anatomical ecstasy of an orgasm. He just dreams of being able to dream. And yet, his asexuality—a product of his old age, his Parkinson’s, a diagnosis of depression he thinks is bullshit, or maybe even a side effect of one of those god damned pills he takes—pales in comparison to his loss of physical independence.
The cartilage in his knee has worn away. That torturous grinding of leg bones has forced him to the permanent chauffer of his Mr. Mobility “scooter.” The loss of strength and feeling in hands, which that quack doctor says is completely normal “for a man of his age” has rendered him incapable of washing himself in the mornings. Can you believe that? A grown man unable to wash himself!
Thelma washes him. She is the night nurse, an obese black woman with braided hair which runs through orange and black grommets. He hates her braided hair. He thinks it looks dirty and he tells her so. He tells her she looks like trash, like a hoodlum, like something disgusting off of the street. It doesn’t bother her though. She takes his abuse with a smile and a patronizing “Thank you, Mr. Katz.” He hates her smiles but her “thank you’s” still more.
At night, she sleeps on an aero-bed beside his pull-out couch. Sylvia sleeps in the bedroom that he as a man used to call his own. She sleeps alone immune to his snoring and his night-time dystonia: senseless and violent twitches of the legs which in his early nineties would bruise Sylvia out of her sleep. A few days after her 85th birthday, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore and kicked him out. He was 95. For the past five years, Poppa has been sleeping in the study with Thelma and her braided hair.
When she helps him wash his privates, he feels violated but suffers in silence for fear that saying something will make it more real. After she washes his genitals, he’ll yell about the temperature of the water being too hot or too cold or that she’s scrubbing too hard or that there’s still shampoo in his hair, but never during. The first time she washed him, he cried. If it were not for the running water she might have realized.
This is a man with a respectable legacy and a loving family. At the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium, there is a brick in the ground with his name on it. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a bench commemorating his donations and loyal support over the years. And in his family’s hearts, he knows he’ll live on through stories and jokes. But what does it matter? What can an honorable death offer a tortured dying? He is a crippled man living a crippled existence, waiting impatiently for death and dreaming unreasonably for his youth.
A kidney stone through the mind. But it doesn’t pass. It lingers.
When they come in to see him, Poppa is sitting in his chair at his desk, not working or reading, but sipping apple juice and staring out at the golf course and the tennis courts. He wishes that he could play golf one more time, that he could hit one final 8 iron from 140 yards away with the perfect amount of back spin to land just far of the hole and then roll slightly back to put him in position to make a four foot putt. God, those putts always made him nervous—
“Hi Gregory,” his son says. He didn’t hear them come in.
“Oh, Hi there, Stephen.”
“Hi Poppa,” says Henry.
“Hi Henry,” he says. He smiles but he doesn’t mean it. The kid is bigger than he used to be. He must be 17 by now. His curly brown hair reminds Poppa of his own youth, of summers in Peoria, baseball and chasing girls.
“How are you?”
“How’s school going?”
“It’s going well.”
“Are you working hard?”
“Yeah.” Henry smiles.
“Well that’s good… That’s real good…Henry.”
“And Stephen, how’s business?”
Stephen moves towards his father. He places his hand on his shoulder. “Business is… very challenging. There’s just so much going on right now, but I don’t know if anything will come of it.”
“But you’re staying busy?”
“Oh yeah. Absolutely.”
“Well, that’s good Stephen. Keep working hard.”
“Good. How’s Caroline”
“She’s good. She wished she could come but she’s just so stressed with work. She’s in a real work crunch right now.”
“That’s fine. How’s her mother?”
“Ethel is good. She’s hanging in there.”
Poppa takes another slurp of his apple juice as Stephen and Henry sit on the couch. Henry asks his father if he can turn on the TV. His father says it’s alright so Henry turns on the TV. The New York Giants are playing the Dallas Cowboys. Poppa used to love the New York Giants. He even had season tickets one year. It was ‘73 or ’74, the year Stephen graduated from college, but before he went to law school. He and Stephen went to every single game, which was fine in October and maybe even in November, but December was painful. After that season they decided that they would rather watch from home than freeze their butts off. Now, watching the tube hurts Poppa’s eyes. It’s been a few years since he’s watched a game.
“You doing okay, Dad?”
Poppa nods his head.
“That’s very descriptive.”
“What do you want me to say, Stephen? I’m great. The Yankees are in first place and…I had a good bowel movement earlier. How’s that?”
Henry laughs. Stephen smirks. Poppa sticks to deadpan.
“Well, thank you Gregory. Glad to know about your movements.” Stephen laughs. “Anything else going on?”
“I am…incredibly busy,” Poppa says. Stephen laughs.
“Well, I can see that,” Stephen says. “What are you drinking?”
“You want some?”
“No. Just curious.”
“For a second there I thought it was scotch.”
“I wish it was.”
Stephen’s phone rings and he tells his father that he’ll be a few minutes. He walks out of the room. Henry pulls out his cellular phone and though he doesn’t realize, his grandfather is staring at him, wondering what the hell he is doing with that damned thing.
“You still like science?”
“Yep.” Henry smiles at Poppa and then returns to his cell phone.
“You still playing baseball?”
“Nope. I actually didn’t make Varsity last Spring so I’m thinking about switching to tennis.”
“Sorry to hear that. Tennis is a good sport though…Good sport.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Do you…like girls?”
“So why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t know.”
“You ever been with a woman, Henry?”
“Henry, come here.”
“Go get me that bucket over there.”
“Okay.” Henry walks into the bathroom and grabs a blue bucket.
“Get the walker.” Henry brings it over and helps his grandfather
grab a hold of it.
“Can you come over here?” Henry moves towards him, resting one hand on the desk and holding the bucket with the other.
“Take the bucket and get it right here….no lower. To the left. Good, right there.”
Poppa lowers his sweatpants. He is not wearing underwear and Henry cannot help but look to see if there is any resemblance between his grandfather’s genitals and his own. This is the story of his family etched on a floppy, wrinkled prick.
“Poppa, why don’t I go get my dad?”
“No, you’ll do.”
“No Poppa, I really think that—”
“HOLD IT! Hold the god damned bucket…Just HOLD IT DAMNIT! And… keep…it steady!” His voice strains and Henry can hear the mucous in his throat crackle against the force of his words.
Poppa closes his eyes now and breathes in that air, that soft summer air coming in from an open window. He wonders if it should shame him that he’s making his grandson help him like this. He thinks of his bitch of a wife who has thrown him out of his room, he thinks of his goddamned knees and his dysfunctional prick and his Parkinson’s, and Thelma and those braids and her manly fingers and their grasp.
He’s tired of holding it in and he grabs his penis and he raises it, and with a quick jerk it sprays against Henry’s shirt. Henry drops the bucket and yells as Poppa drops to the ground. Poppa laughs as he lies in his own urine, hysterically with loud guffaws that lead Stephen into the room, presumably to ask them to keep it down. Stephen yells: what happened? What’s going on, Henry, what the fuck is going on? Henry whines that his grandfather is crazy, that he fucking pissed on him, that he doesn’t understand what the fuck just happened. Poppa hears the screams and the whines but it doesn’t matter. The blue bucket captivates him and he stares at it as if it were something to read or calculate, like the key to life were nothing more than a bucket of piss. He watches the bucket and the final drops of urine flow out onto the carpet and he laughs at it all until his eyes close and he knows that his dying days are over.