Susan Lerner
May 2 · 9 min read
photo by janessa minjarez

Grandpa Joe

Luna was at the other end of the hall, twisting herself this way and that, eyes like searchlights. I tried not to look at her, but she is weirdly fascinating: taller than most thirteen-year-olds, snarling red hair with eyebrows to match, and a mouth that never stops moving, even when she isn’t talking. She caught me watching her and galloped down the hall, shouting, “Haarrrvvveeeyyy!” in a voice purple and throaty: a net that ensnared me. In moments she stood towering over and around me: cheeks flushed, arms gesticulating wildly, twitching like there were fleas in her underwear.

What a predicament! See, I was raised to be polite. Unfortunately, my fine upbringing did not include instruction on how to end unwanted encounters gracefully. I suffered through them, but lately I was reaching my breaking point, tottering on the edge of civility.

If I were in charge of the world, even for just a minute, there would be courses in school on how to extricate oneself from awkward and undesirable social interactions — with advanced classes for special cases like Luna.

Talking to Luna is like conversing with a brick wall. She is impervious to interruption; there are no cracks or crevices in which to insert a polite excuse, smile and walk away. My conversations with Luna are one-sided monologues: she the orator, me the audience. And since I have no skills at extraction, people see us together so often, they think we’re a couple and they shun me the way they do her.

It’s one of many problems I’ve had since starting Middle School last year. I have a December birthday, so I’m younger and shorter than almost everyone; a blade of grass surrounded by saplings. I’m pushed and shoved (there is a subtle difference) and taunted for being both stupid and smart. Or else kids look through me; not bothering to curve their lips into a friendly smile as they pass me in the hall.

But Luna’s constant attentions made it worse. I had to find a way to get rid of her, to loosen the reins of politeness and caring that immobilized me in her presence, and act like everyone else, dodging or ignoring her, pretending not to hear her phlegmy shouts. It was not in my nature so I would have to learn. I decided to start by copying the methods other people used to avoid me.

I approached a wiry ballplayer named Bob Gifford for my first lesson. He was concentrating on rearranging the books in his locker so I didn’t think he’d seen me or heard my footsteps, what with the commotion in the crowded hallway, doors creaking open and slamming shut, the clamor of conversation. It was if he’d developed some kind of radar that alerted him to my approach, because without ever looking my way, he pivoted and took off in a sprint, just as I reached him. An elegant move, perfectly executed and worthy of emulation.

So the next time Luna set her sights on me, I did the exact same thing. Pivot and bolt. But Luna didn’t give up as easily as I had. I heard her clomping down the hall behind me, shouting “Haarvveey!” in my wake. As she gained momentum, I moved faster than I thought possible, increasing my speed until it felt like I was flying. When I got to the end of the corridor I made a right and, in a stroke of genius born from desperation, I tried the door of the janitor’s closet, where I’d once been sent to retrieve some rags to clean up a science experiment gone bad. It was unlocked! I darted inside and shut the door behind me, took a moment to catch my breath, fumbled for the light and then realized I wasn’t alone.

“You finally figured it out, Harveeey,” a voice said, drawing out the syllable, in an imitation of Luna. “I was wondering how long it would take. I was beginning to think you never would.”

“Grandpa?”

“Yup.” I heard the familiar chuckle of Grandpa Joe.

“How can you be here? Am I hallucinating?” It seemed strange to ask this question of my hallucination, but there wasn’t anyone else around. It was a small space filled with shelves holding paint cans and cleaning solutions, a mop and bucket, a tool chest, a pile of rags, and some old clothes: a checkered flannel shirt, overalls, thick plastic rainboots. Grandpa was perched on the top of the shelves, just as I remembered him last, his thick grey hair rumpled and friendly, except he was dressed in a filmy gown instead of regular clothes.

Grandpa Joe was the guy that gave me milk and cookies after school when I was little, whose lap I curled up on when I needed comfort, who put me to bed with stories he invented. They were tales of young boys overcoming obstacles: big ones like the plague, or world hunger, or the destruction of the earth from overflowing landfills. He would have figured out how to navigate the sticky web of alliances and treachery that defined middle school — if he were alive. But he wasn’t. He was dead as a squished mosquito. It was a fact. I’d been to the funeral and seen his coffin dangling from ropes as it lowered into the ground. I was sleepless for days afterwards: from fear, from missing him and because it was my first brush with the black mystery of death.

I couldn’t tell if the guy in front of me was the creation of my Luna-addled mind or was really Grandpa — transformed and existing in a dimension as yet unknown to mankind, to which I was somehow privy. Was this seemingly ordinary janitorial closet actually a portal to this other dimension? Was Luna involved with these spooky doings? Maybe people weren’t ignoring her. Maybe no one actually saw her, except me; her sole purpose to chase me to this closet, this moment.

Or was Grandpa the illusion, one produced from overstimulation — the excitement of my hair-breadth escape from Luna? Was I an overfilled balloon whose air had finally been released, whizzing around in peculiar patterns before coming to a rest, limp and spent? I was so glad to see Grandpa Joe again, it didn’t matter.

“I’ve really missed you, Grandpa. Middle school is horrible. You could have waited at least until I was in high school to die.” My voice rose as I spoke — feelings of hurt and disappointment and blame that I hadn’t known existed until that moment, surfacing.

He smiled.

“Wait, you are dead, right?” I said.

“I’m here, my boy. I’m with you.”

“Huh?”

Talking to Grandpa used to always bring clarity. He could tell, just by looking at me, when I had a problem and would prod it out of me. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was bothering me, but talking to him, even just being with him in the same room, would bring it out. He took in my sorrows and joys, softening the former, exponentially increasing the latter, and reflected them back. Most people just let me talk until it’s their turn, not really hearing what I say. Or, like my mom and dad, they reshape my words, twist them around until they sound like something they’ve experienced, something they know and can give advice about. And they always do. And it’s never helpful.

Grandpa Joe was…is…a timeless sponge, absorbing woes and squeezing out wisdom and I was so glad to have him back, in whatever form. I wanted to give him a hug but was afraid I’d find nothing there.

“You’ve got very traditional notions of ghosts, Harv,” he said. “Come on. You can hug me. Go ahead.” He kind of floated down from the shelf, almost like a jump in slow motion and opened up his arms. He stood before me with a smile of peaceful harmony and I felt myself overtaken with a gooey madness, thick with love. It shaped itself around me, a second layer of skin that might have suffocated but instead released me. I’d never felt such peace and perfect longing, before. Not even from Grandpa, not when he was alive. This was different. It must have had something to do with death and God and the universe. I was nowhere near understanding any of those things, and yet I touched the edge, almost stepped through to the other side, where my worldly problems simply floated off. I wanted to stay in that tangle of joyful serenity forever.

And then the embrace faded, leaving me faintly dizzy. My awareness of the situation that had led me to the closet returned, but with less urgency, more of an intellectual curiosity than a gut wrenching dilemma.

“I don’t know how to keep Luna from following me around,” I began.

He smiled again. The chuckle was gone. This Grandpa was all beatific smiles. He used to be snarkier, making fun of his daughter — my mom — and my dad. Now he was beyond humor. He was blissful.

“So, Luna is the problem?” he said.

“Yeah.” I said it without any frustration, as if we were merely discussing the weather on an overcast day. “She follows me around. She’s sticky. Like glue, I mean. And she talks a lot. I just stand there like a mute pimple.”

Grandpa’s smile broadened until it took over his face and he was one big grin. His laugh welled up, gushed out, danced around me until it settled down.

“You are a great deal more than that. You’re my grandson. You carry the kernel of our family, passed down through the generations, all the way back to when we were just a single cell. You have a piece of the universe in your soul. You’re the best and the worst, evolving and perfect. You’re …everything.” A tear rolled down his face, whether from joy or sadness, I couldn’t tell. But it made all my worries about Luna, about kids rejecting or gossiping about me, shoving me aside or to the ground, about sounding stupid in class, about death, even, seem unimportant. They assumed manageable proportions, little specs of dust on a beautiful painting, they could be swept away. They’d lost their strength to claw at my gut and cause me to ache.

As a smile came to my lips, I felt the dimples in my cheeks deepen. I closed my eyes. Felt a cool breeze that gave me a shiver.

When I looked up again, I was alone.

“Grandpa?” I called out.

I searched among the paint cans and buckets, behind the tool chest and beneath the rags. He was nowhere to be found but the effect of him lingered. Even the pang of sorrow at losing him was less than it was the first time, when he’d died.

The bell rang to signal the start of the next class. I heard it as if from a distance, aware that I needed to hurry, but I didn’t panic. I took one last look around and then cracked open the door, stepped out, and sprinted up the steps to room 204, American history. I slipped gracefully past Mrs. Marcus just as the door closed, moving like a sprite.

The class went quiet, as if they’d witnessed an eclipse. No one snickered or threw anything at me. Maybe I was immune; inoculated with bliss, deaf to their taunts. I looked out at them, my former tormentors, and beamed a smile. They were kids, no different than me. Instead of threats I saw insecurity. I stopped at Bob Gifford’s desk and he pulled his leg back from the aisle so I didn’t trip.

I didn’t see Luna until the next day and she looked different. Her red hair was neatly held back by a pale blue headband. For the first time I looked directly into her eyes instead of looking for an escape. They were clear blue, and the reflections of the fluorescent overheads sparkled in them. “Harvey!” she said, “Guess what?” My mouth was slightly open, but no words fell out. “They assigned us to be lab partners in Chemistry,” she said. “I guess we’ll be blowing things up, together. Changing water to wine.” She giggled. The sound was like chimes in the wind.

I expected her to keep talking like she always did, to go on and on without stopping for air but she didn’t. She went silent and still, listening. Waiting. Giving me a chance to take the reins of the conversation and move it forward. “Maybe we’ll discover a new element and name it Luna-Vee,” I said.

Her eyes widened. I wanted to jump inside.

If I were in charge of the world, for even a minute, there would be courses in school in the magic of love.

The End

Susan Lerner

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http://sblerner.com