Jakey, Get Out of the Buggy
Grampa Jake was a nasty, short-tempered, mean-spirited, frequently rude, sometimes sullen, usually drunk sonofabitch with no patience for anything or anybody, but I mean that in a good way.
I loved Grampa Jake, and I know he would only allow me to write about him on condition that I'm honest, and this is the most honest I can be: Grampa Jake was a bastard.
As far as I know, Grandma Ida (who I never met because I was born after the accident, which my father—her son—swore was no accident) and I were the only two human beings in the history of Jake's life to have had a conversation with him that didn't end in "Go to hell!" This and the fact that the tree killed Grandma may account for me being Jake's only visitor after he was put away in the Home. And I was not the best company due to my upset at being a 45-year-old waitress with a future that looked like a gaping black pit. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That is a really bad tendency of mine, which is the whole point of this story. So, although linear thought is not one of my strong points, I will attempt to tell this tale in a chronological fashion.
My father, Grampa Jake's son, grew up with a deep-seated terror of becoming like Jake. So he never drank or smoked or told me I was insane to major in pottery at the most expensive college in the country. Instead, he paid for my passion for pots with the inheritance from my mother, a compulsive workaholic lawyer who was afraid to delegate responsibility. According to my father, Mom never left the office or her phone for more than ten minutes, except for the time she gave birth to me. Anyhow, the inheritance was the proceeds from the sale of her firm after she died from overwork when I was two. It financed my exorbitantly expensive BA in pottery plus two years of finding myself, only to discover that I had a deep-seated terror of being found and no marketable skills whatsoever. When the money ran out, I settled into my dead end job as a waitress for the meanest man in town, at which job I had been—at the time of my last visit to Grampa Jake—for 21 years, three months, and two days, and I hated every minute of it.
"Tell the bastard to go f*** himself!" boomed Grampa Jake. (To be honest, I must record that Jake used the "f" word frequently. I'm used to it, but out of sensitivity to those of you who are not, I will use the standard abbreviation.) "F***ing scumbag! If he won't give you July Fourth off, quit!"
And it was then, for the first time in 21 years, three months, and two days, that I really considered the possibility of life without this job, and my fantasies of destitution began. Let's be honest, who is going to hire a 45-year-old waitress with no marketable skills? Besides which I'm a terrible waitress. I supposed I could take a typing course, but my arms were already shot from 21 years of hoisting trays and throwing pots, and all I needed was a good case of Carpal Tunnel with no medical insurance, no job, and no family to fall back on. (My father died five years ago of lung cancer, and Jake—who smoked two packs a day, even in the Home—was on social security.)
"The whole damn world gets the fourth off," coughed Jake.
"Yeah, sure," I said, fluffing his pillow and waving his smoke out the window before the orderly once again burst in to read Jake the riot act about smoking in bed. "That's fine for you to say. What would I do for money if I quit my job? I've got maybe two months rent in savings from Dad's house sale. I'm 45-years-old, and I'm lucky to be employed. After all, everyone in town knows what a lousy waitress I am."
"That's for sure," said Jake through half-closed eyes. "You suck." He inhaled deeply on his cigarette, then exhaled at the tree outside his window, which he'd been trying to kill with secondhand smoke since entering the Home; he said it blocked his view.
"I can just see myself: 50-years-old cleaning houses for a living until I break somebody's priceless artifact—not that anybody in this town has ever owned an artifact, priceless or otherwise—and then I'd lose my apartment, and what about Skippy? How can I take care of a toy poodle living on the street?"
"Blasted dog! Take him to the pound," coughed Jake. (To listen to him, you'd never guess how much he loved Skippy. In fact, he'd given me the dog for my 35th birthday, declaring that since I was now an old maid, I needed a warm body to share my bed.) "If he won't give you the fourth off, quit!"
As I considered the possibility, a strange feeling of elation and nausea arose in me. "What would become of me?" I said, lying down on the floor beside Jake's bed to quell the jitters. And that's when Jake lit up his last cigarette and told me the story of my great great great grandpa Jakey and the buggy.
"Monkey, monkey, monkey," (his term of endearment when he was in paternal mode) "although I don't believe in them, I'm going to tell you a story with a lesson. You breathing okay down there?"
"Yeah," I grunted, staring at the layers of dust bunnies under his bed and wondering how many years since they'd vacuumed. "Go ahead. I'll pound the floor if I need help."
"Once upon a time," began Grampa Jake, "I had a grandfather, whose name was also Jake but everybody called him Jakey on account of he was the youngest of 11 kids, and boy was he a case—if you think I'm bad, you shoulda met this geezer. One whiff of his breath and, no kidding, third degree of the olfactories. You think you got stomach problems, you should have met old volcano breath. A two quart a day drunk if I ever knew one. Anyhow, once upon a time, when my grandfather was sober, he told me this story about how his father called a family meeting—the wife and all eleven kids, from Jakey to the oldest who was 15."
I had a sudden dread of contracting an unknown terminal illness from the germs in the dust bunnies under the bed and dying alone because I had no medical insurance because I had quit my job and was destitute, so I put my hand on top of my nose to filter the air.
"Anyhow, the old man says to Jakey and the wife and 10 other kids, `Family, I think the time has come to buy a new buggy.'
"'Can I have the old one?' asks the 15-year-old.
"'Hey, no fair,' says the 14-year-old. 'I want the old one!'
"'What color buggy we gonna get, Paw?' asks Jakey (my grandfather). 'Can we get a red one? Can we, can we?'
"'Forget it!' yells the 13-year-old. `We're getting black. Red is for sissies!'
"'We're getting a blue buggy,' says the old man. 'Now everybody shut up!'
"Just then his wife had to go check on something in the oven, so Jakey, who was a quick little bugger, takes the opportunity to sit in her chair on the left side of the old man. Well, this really tees off the 14- and 15-year-olds because everyone knows the old man is deaf as a stone, and the only person he really hears is who'sever sitting smack next to him on his left.
"'Hey!' yells the 15-year-old. 'Jakey took Mom's chair!'
"But naturally the old man doesn't hear this and goes on talking about how he's buying a blue buggy.
"'Hey, Pop,' pipes Jakey, smiling up at his Dad's left ear and shooting the bird at his brother, 'can I ride in front?'
"'Hey, Jakey just gave me the finger!' yells the 15-year-old. 'Just for that, I'm sitting in front!'
"But the old man doesn't hear him and keeps on talking.
"'Hey, Pop,' yells Jakey right into the old man's ear. 'When I'm riding up in front, could I drive sometimes?!'"
And that's when I remembered my car payments and how I had another five years until I owned the old Volvo, and my stomach dropped to the floor and my body went rigid with fear. I felt all alone, falling through a cold universe. There was no way around it—I was destined to a life of hoisting trays for the meanest boss in town.
"Hey, monkey, you alive down there? I don't hear you wheezing."
"Yeah, Grampa. I've just got a lot on my mind is all."
"Well, hush your mind 'cause I'm telling you a story!" There was a pause, and I knew he was smoking at the tree again. "Okay, so where was I? Oh, right—Jakey, who had his license revoked 42 times for DWI, wanted to drive the damned buggy. 'Hey, Pop,' he says, 'I get to hold the whip too, don't I? When I'm sitting in front driving the new buggy. Don't I? Don't I?'"
If I quit my job and couldn't get another, how could I possibly keep my car? And without the car, how would I get Skippy, who was hobbled with arthritis, to his acupuncture appointments? And what if Skippy died—after all, he was almost 11—then I really would be all alone in the world. Except for Grampa…who was 85. Oh God, I loved my Grampa, and even though he was lying in bed not three feet above me, the thought of him dying made me miss him so bad I wept. In my effort to stifle my sobs, I inhaled a dust bunny.
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Grampa. "Hey, where's your sense of humor? Did you hear what I just said?"
"What?" I coughed. "I'm sorry, I inhaled some dust and didn't hear you."
"I said, Jakey kept whining about holding the damn whip, until finally the old man says—"
My anguish over Grampa Jake's death overwhelmed me, and I sank into the black hole that was my heart and didn't hear a thing until the orderly burst in and threatened to evict Jake if he ever caught him smoking again. And, as for me, if I didn't take a solemn vow to quit smuggling the butts in, I would be subject to strip searches on my subsequent visits.
Jake told the orderly to go f*** himself, and said that I should leave because he knew I wasn't listening to him anyhow, so he'd tell me the end of the story during the July Fourth celebration, which if I didn't show up at, would prove in no uncertain terms that I was a spineless loser of an excuse for a granddaughter and he never wanted to see me again. (But we both knew he was lying.)
For the next five days I begged, I groveled, I promised my boss a free night's work if only he would let me off on the Fourth of July. I nearly developed an ulcer over my bleak future, I threw up, I had the shakes so bad you'd swear I drank (which I don't—my father instilled in me a phobia of the effects of alcohol on my time-bomb genes), and then with my heart in my mouth, the afternoon of July third, I quit.
All the way to the Home on July Fourth I cried. I cried because I had no job, no family, and no means of support. I cried because Skippy was almost 11 and had arthritis, and Grampa Jake was 85. I cried because of all the disasters that might occur due to my rash act of quitting the only job I hadn't been fired from. I cried so hard I completely missed the turn-off to the Home and all the sights I usually exalt in along the way. I missed the gnarled, pink apple grove at sunset, the shimmering water of the big lake just to the right of the Home, and the way the stone facade of the Home turned burnished pumpkin-orange when it was suddenly drenched in dusk light bouncing off of the shimmering water. I missed the entire trip to the Home because of my worry about the future, and it was only the clang of the fire engines that finally shocked me out of my anguish.
"Oh my God," I gasped as I gazed at the crowd and the circle of fire trucks around the west wing, and I wondered if some over-eager Independence Day celebrant had had an accident with the fireworks. And then I realized it was Jake's wing.
I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd and what I saw made me smile. Thank goodness, it was only the old tree outside Jake's window.
"I heard the old geezer in 8J set it on fire," said one of the onlookers. "Used his cigarette."
"Thank goodness," I sighed. It was just the old tree.
"Yup," said a woman I usually saw visiting 7J. "He was one crazy bastard."
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I lurched toward the west wing. "Grampa Jake! Grampa Jake!" I screamed, and a pair of very strong arms grabbed me from behind. Then I heard somebody say, "That's his granddaughter. She visits every Sunday." And I passed out.
According to my father, when Grampa Jake was a young man, he used to enjoy dusk from the front porch, except for one thing—Grandma Ida's oak tree, a 200-year-old thing that she loved more than life itself. Jake hated it because it blocked his view of the sunset. So one day when Ida was out of town visiting her sister, he called a tree surgeon. The job took several days and was not completely finished when Ida returned, and, seeing the mangled remains of her tree, prostrated herself, weeping at its base; and that's when the half-cut, 200-pound limb broke the support rig and fell on her.
Thereafter, Grampa Jake's life was one of regret, so I'm sure in some cosmic way he believed he deserved to be killed falling out of his window to destroy another tree. It wasn't a suicide exactly—I know he could never have done that to me—but he knew death was a possibility every time he leaned out that window to singe the leaves, and he told me if anything ever happened to him, I should look under his pillow.
In the envelope under his pillow was a $500,000 life insurance policy, of which I am the sole beneficiary, and a one-sentence note: "I love you, monkey, and what the old man said was "Jakey, you fool, it ain't bought yet, so get out of the f***ing buggy!"
Copyright © 2005, 2013, 2016 Betsy Robinson. All rights reserved.
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