The October after my mom’s final chemo, just when death seemed to no longer be pointing its bony finger in our direction, Grandpa Joe drunkenly missed a step in the basement and cracked a rib. No one was surprised to hear his crabby cries of goddamnit and son of a bitch. Grandma Rosie called Grandpa “Pep” because he was Pepe, a diminutive for José, and, more to the point, because he was peppy. Grandpa was always telling us to give ’em hell because that’s what he gave us.
If it had been up to Grandpa, all we would have known about him being a POW during World War II was that it meant he had yellow toenails and had to drive seven hours to the VA hospital in Boise to fill a prescription. Pep was a twenty-three-year-old summer construction worker for the Morrison-Knudsen Company when he and more than a thousand other American civilians were captured by invading Japanese forces on Wake Island and eventually evacuated to the mountains northeast of Shanghai, where, according to my mom, Grandpa Joe learned to chew on pieces of wood to save his teeth, work eighteen-hour days in the rice fields and identify his filthy friends by smell.
Because Grandpa was taciturn about his labor camp years, it fell to Mom to fill us in, playing the proverbial salty bard at the Veterans of Foreign Wars bar that was our kitchen counter. As she squirted 409 on the stove, we learned why Grandpa might cry over his white rice at Ocean City: his daily mess kit consisted of a single bowl of it. The only time he saw the Great Wall of China was when he was being marched past it, as a prisoner, and to keep his spirits up, this scrawny Basque man who would one day adopt my mom hid a rosary in a shallow hole near where he slept, digging it up some nights to pray.
Mom’s favorite war story was about my grandpa’s best friend, Bud, who lived to see Allied victory only to be crushed by a barrel of food being parachuted in at the end of the war.
“Killed instantly,” Mom would say, snapping her fingers.
I can’t speak to the veracity of these war stories, only that you couldn’t argue with them. Point out that it was weird Grandpa’s buddy was named Bud and Mom would bark, “Am I telling the story? Am I? Because if you want to tell it be my guest.” When none of us dared contradict her, she’d offer a satisfied, “Good. Then shut up.”
Usually at this point, if we hadn’t ruined the mood, Mom would theatrically open her nail-bitten hand to reveal the six beads and crucifix that remained of Grandpa’s rosary, maybe even let us hold it. “So the next time you want to tell Grandpa he smells like old candy canes, you think of him digging this up and praying to God he’d live to see you little shits.”
Pep had coached my mom through an experimental chemotherapy regimen so toxic it killed more patients than it saved. As she would say many times over the years, what Mom knew about hope and survival came from him. It was unfair that such a stalwart curmudgeon should be admitted to St. Mark’s for a stumble and even more unfair that a week later, with Mom and Grandma in the gift shop, he should Code Blue.
I’d just had a set of surgeries to limber up my tight right hamstrings and Achilles tendon and was home in a cast watching Ricki Lake. Only years later would I start to use the term cerebral palsy to explain why I walked on my toes, why my right heel almost never hit the ground, why I needed surgeries on my leg in the first place. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said I had “tight tendons.”
When Grandma and Mom came through the garage door and told us Grandpa Joe was dead, I grabbed my crutches and very slowly retreated to my room, essentially convulsing as Dad rubbed my back and told me I was too upset to be alone. “I just wish he hadn’t had that drink,” I said. “Just that last little drink.” It sounded like the sort of thing you were supposed to say when you lost a grandparent. “Don’t say that, Greggo,” Dad said. “I don’t want you thinking that. It was just a few beers.”
At the viewing, Danny and I kept track of how many times we left the curtained-off grieving area to go see the body. Even if my brother exceeded me in terms of trips, one could only assume I won on adorability, clunking up to the casket in my neon-green cast and blue surgical sandal. The mortician had thought to put on Grandpa’s glasses, even clean the lenses, and I wondered if this stranger had also clipped his yellow toenails.
It would have been a somber scene except that Grandma Rosie had added a silly stocking stuffer to the casket: a Grandpa-like doll with a pom-pom cap and Fore!! T-shirt that looked like a cheerier version of Pep, a whispering, shoulder-top angel now headed for the greener pastures of retirement, which we found out the next day meant a rug of fake grass and backhoes rumbling just off site.
Twin Falls Cemetery was the final resting place of almost everyone Grandma knew and, in that sense, like a family reunion. In the warmer months, a drive-in movie theater played double features across the street and each grave was decorated like a hole in a miniature golf course with poinsettias, pinwheels and tiny American flags.
“This priest doesn’t know Pep through a hole in the wall,” Grandma kept telling me, a pink Kleenex wadded in her hand. Her cigarette-ripened voice was great for laughing, not so good at whispering during final send-offs.
I’d been through First Communion: white suit, pink bowtie, left hand over right, don’t chew the wafer. I probably assumed Grandma was talking about confession. There was the hole in front of us, the one they were going to lower Grandpa into as soon as we turned our backs, but the hole Grandma was talking about, the one in the wall, sounded like one of the Wacky Packages trading cards we collected at garage sales: Log Cave In Syrup, Durahell batteries, Casket: Automatically disposes of dishes.
It might have been at the reception afterward that Grandma and I first started talking about putting together a spook alley for my tenth birthday the following October. Certainly the mood would have been right. It sounded fun, slathering Vaseline on grapes to make them feel like eyeballs and blacking out your teeth with marker. Better still to pretend to saw your little sisters in half and make your friends watch.
I’ll break the suspense and tell you: the spook alley that first year was, to quote the song, a graveyard smash. We were so busy spreading cobwebs over ski boots and trying on stabbed-in-the-headbands we hardly noticed the first anniversary of Grandpa’s Code Blue.
Grandma didn’t pack many clothes for her basement stay, but she managed to find room for false thumbs, a pig nose, a pitchfork and some alien antenna. Before she had even taken her suitcase downstairs, she cracked open a beer (and not one of Mom’s O’Doul’s) and set about erecting cardboard tombstones near the trampoline, turning our three-car garage, with its commingling scent of dog food and carbon dioxide, into a den of horrors, sprucing up my dad’s tool bench with knick-knacks from a recent house fire: the crooked candles from her mantle and one of my mom’s baby dolls from the sixties. Thumbelina’s face was sooty, smoke damaged. Her christening gown, which had once sparkled, was ragged. When you pulled the string in back, her voice was wooly and fathomless, as if she required an exorcist.
“You boys call me if she starts doing any weird shit,” Mom said that summer when she dropped us off for our traditional Week at Grandma’s. “I can be up here in four hours.” It was a little late for warnings considering Danny and I had already unloaded the Suburban, filling Grandma’s yard with junk from our rooms for what Grandma was billing as an epic “g-sale.”
My leg had been out of a cast for a long time by then but it was still white and tremblingly weak, as if newly hatched. Being Danny’s younger brother and having tight tendons meant, in practical terms, that Grandma favored me big time. During volunteer shifts at the Visitor’s Center, as Danny played his Game Boy and worked the cash register, Grandma and I hawked potato clocks and told road trippers hopscotching outside the bathroom about how Evel Knievel had tried to shoot across Snake River Canyon in a rocket. Grandma ferreted out a cheap bowling trophy from a pile of junk at St. Vinnie’s and told me to tell Danny I’d won it. I was her little helper when it came to decorating Grandpa’s grave with snowballs from the riotous bush in her front yard. She let me wear her Mickey Mouse watch but not her neckerchiefs or fake turtlenecks.
If Danny got fed up and called me queer bait, more out of exasperation that anything else, Grandma would look him squarely in the face and say, “Never call your brother queer. That’s the worst thing you could ever call someone.” I didn’t know what queer bait was, not really, and I suspect Danny didn’t either. What I did know is that the next day I’d be on rollerblades I didn’t ask for, coming down a steep stretch of sidewalk at the junior college as Grandma took a picture to give to my mom. “Deb will be tickled pink.”
The waning hours went into waving a metal detector over the mulch of the park down the street. When we found no treasure, at least none that we could dig up, we super glued a quarter beneath a streetlight and waited for someone to come along and try to pry up it up.
“When I go,” Grandma said at last, “you can have my teeth.”
“Can I have a tooth or two?” Danny asked.
“No,” Grandma said. “Just Greg.”
I dug in my shoe for a wood chip. “Sorry Danny,” I said. “I have dibs.”
This wasn’t the first time the subject of Grandma’s precious crowns and bridges and fillings had come up. She had already promised them to me. “Just yank them out with a pair of pliers,” she said. Maybe it was Grandma’s earlier comment at the cemetery about her side of the family, the Sabalas, being short lived. For as eager as I was to inherit her mouth gold and become negligibly richer than Danny, I decided to play dumb. “Go?” I asked. “You mean on vacation?”
We both knew she didn’t mean on vacation.
Weird shit? Mom had asked. There was no weird shit going on. Everything was the same as always. Grandma bought us gum that turned our teeth blue, spray-painted her dead bushes green and tossed leftovers in the yard for the birds, evidently unaware that the next afternoon we’d have to Slip N Slide around smears of coleslaw and half-eaten drumsticks from KFC. It was cool with me if Grandma wanted to crash on the couch next to a basket of stale potato chips and who cared if her fridge was barren, its only contents an expired Ketchup bottle, packets of mild sauce from Taco Bell and a pack of grape Squeezits. Grandma fried chochos and frothed orange juice in the blender and let Danny and me stuff pillows under our shirts and sumo wrestle on top of a sticky foam mattress in the family room. “You better watch it, Danny,” Grandma said. “One day Greg is going to be big and strong and he’s going to beat you up.”
Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Filer Avenue carried the sweet scent of burning. A few years earlier, in 1990, their brand new electric blanket had sparked and caught fire while they were in bed. Evidently, prisoner of war camps and Basque boarding houses like the one Grandma had grown up in weren’t big on fire safety. While I mapped out contingency plans that accounted for every stuffed animal and asked for a rope ladder to fling from my window in the event of an emergency, Grandpa and Grandma didn’t even know to stop, drop and roll. They didn’t test knobs with wet rags or close doors behind them or crawl as to not suck in tar-black smoke.
Grandma Rosie dialed the fire department from the kitchen of her burning house and, after the flames had been doused, heated up a can of beans for Grandpa in the ash heap that used to be her kitchen as Grandpa kicked up his feet in his destroyed Barcalounger. “I had two hundred bucks on my dresser,” Grandpa Joe muttered, blubbering his lips. Grandpa Joe was a world-class lip blubberer. “Two crisp one-hundred dollar bills.”
Even though they replaced the carpets and repainted the walls, the house remained disfigured, discolored. Quite understandably, Grandma couldn’t part with any of her hand-painted furniture. Charred Basque children danced on every footstool and chair. Less understandable was her refusal to toss the rest of the stuff. You could taste the smoke in her amber drinking glasses and when she couldn’t restore her shepherd figurines to their pre-fire luster, she painted them brown and put them back on the shelf.
I think she saw the fire the same way I saw machines that flattened pennies. By destroying the house, the fire had made it infinitely more fascinating. You could put a nickel on the cast-iron palm of the black man on Grandpa’s TV tray and watch him eat it. You could turn the crank of a Do-Nothing on the coffee table or cup your ear to the receiver of a disconnected antique phone. The behemoth Philco TV sunk into the corner of the family room was encased in wood, like an old-time radio, and perfect for reruns of Quantum Leap. The melted, blackened mirror in the living room gave every body part an hourglass shape. The candlesticks that had made a cameo in the spook alley formed figure eights of melted wax on the mantle and the sewing room was full of melted toys. Play with anything for long—a Fisher Price Record Player, a pocket prayer book, a glow-in-the-dark rosary, a Mickey Mouse coin bank, the sorry remains of a Snoopy stuffed animal—and your hands would turn black.
I’m not sure how we came across the handgun. Grandma kept canisters of paint and art supplies in the storage closet in the garage. She could have uncovered the gun when she was fishing out butcher paper for one of my Pink Panther comics. It also could have been when she invited Danny and me under that swinging naked bulb to show us the inside of a Durahell battery, which she attempted to dissect with a butter knife. There is also a chance she’d intended to get rid of the gun for a long time, waiting for her grandsons to visit so she didn’t have to do it alone.
It was small and silver, in need of a good scrubbing. Grandma had hidden it after the fire, when Grandpa was so despondent she worried he might try to kill himself. I remember her soaking the gun for hours in warm, soapy water to get rid of the grime, but that can’t be right. She probably just went at it with a Brillo pad, probably while dyeing her hair, on the phone with one of her sisters.
What I know for sure is that she clicked on the safety and stuck the gun in her purse before Danny or I could hold it, and then transferred it to the glove compartment of her station wagon. I remember her circling addresses, Yellow Pages against the steering wheel, before we drove to a dealer and pawned the thing for eighty bucks. We were supposed to split the money down the middle, but Grandma let us keep it all. “Not bad,” she said on the drive home from Arctic Circle. She was visibly relieved to be rid of the thing. “I bet we can do the whole spook alley this year for less than that.”
In October, as promised, Grandma hitched a ride to Salt Lake in Uncle John’s Alfa Romeo. Uncle John was a lovable pink man of Italian extraction with a bristly white mustache. He had been keeping an eye on Grandma, especially after she hopped a curb and ran her station wagon into a light post near the high school. Together they took trips to Jackpot to play the nickel slots and attended a public memorial for the man who invented “The Hokey Pokey.” Uncle John had let Danny and me borrow his Johnny Carson box set that summer and educated us on the ways of The Tonight Show. My favorite sketch was Carnac the Magnificent. Since coming back from Idaho, I’d taken to turning my bath towel into a turban and blowing into envelopes to divine answers. Mom called Grandma and me two peas in a pod.
All Grandma brought with her from Twin Falls was a sad silver banner that said “Happy Halloween.” She looked wild-eyed, starved down to ninety pounds. It sounds strange to say, but her eyelids weren’t working right, no better than Thumbelina’s, like she had forgotten how to blink. We could barely get her off the couch to make a run to Jobbers Odd Lot and when we did she smelled. I came home from school one afternoon to find blood smeared all over the kitchen and Grandma crawling to the couch. The gash on her forehead was deep enough for stitches.
“Maybe we should go to a real haunted house this year,” Danny suggested as we sorted through the costume closet one fall afternoon. Mom’s old chemo wig, worn backwards with sunglasses, made him look like Cousin It. “You kids are brats,” Mom said, shaking her head in disbelief. A mustache-and-glasses disguise made her outrage hard to take seriously. She looked Basque, actually. “Spoiled, selfish brats. You know what you deserve for your birthday? A swat on the perdi.”
Because she’d grown up being humiliated by nuns—one punishment required her to pin a sign to her uniform that read, “My name is Debi. I am a baby”—Mom was what you’d call loosey goosey when it came to rules and chores. I was willing to carry my plate to the sink but ask me to put it in the dishwasher and I’d lurch around the kitchen counter and start in on the monologue from Little Princess. “Every girl’s a princess. You don’t have to be smart or pretty…”
The spook alley was, in my mom’s words, “All princesses on deck, even the ones with tight tendons.” When she shouted up the stairs for me to come help, I would put down my comic book and shakily pry clarinet parts from a rented velvet case, trying to assemble the slobbery instrument before my mom burst through the door to remind me, in case I had forgotten, that this was my damn spook alley.
While my sister Tiffany stuffed a scarecrow full of old newspapers and my dad carved jack-o’-lanterns, Grandma rolled around on the couch listening to Danny’s Adam Sandler album. At the last minute, just before kids started showing up, she pulled the bag out of the trash compactor and scattered a Wendy’s cup and a handful of wrappers onto the lawn. “It doesn’t look like much now,” she said when she came in, her words sloshing from the werewolf fangs she now wore over her gold teeth like dentures. “But just wait until dark. It’ll be really scary.”
“Scary or unsanitary?” Tiffany asked.
“It’s called a spook alley for a reason,” Grandma said. “Alleys are covered with trash.”
We watched as our obese golden retriever Moose picked up the Wendy’s cup and started tearing it apart, splashing left-over Coke all over his blond locks.
“In America we call that litter,” Tiff said.
“There are rapists in alleys, too,” Danny said. “Should we put some rapists in the spook alley?”
The party kicked off with a scavenger hunt, which was really just an excuse for packs of fifth graders to beat on the doors of our Mormon neighbors and ask if they had coffee filters. After I blew out the candles on my X-Men cake, Grandma pulled my arms roughly through a hand-me-down fishing vest: I was the tour guide. “Walk flat and no one will even recognize you,” she said. “Remember, heel-toe. Heel-toe.”
As the party progressed, Grandma kept lifting up her ghoul mask and picking at the stitches on her forehead, and though I didn’t see her take any nips of her beer, with half the kids still waiting to come through the garage she was staggering. She knocked into me a few times and then parked herself on the Igloo cooler on the back porch and shouted Basque words at my friends as we came through. “Culo! Chish! Kaka!” At my parents’ Halloween party later that week, Grandma fell down the steps to the gazebo. It was a worse fall than Grandpa Joe’s by far, but Grandma didn’t Code Blue. She went right on laughing, grabbing at her broken ribs.
Uncle John had a mild heart attack not long after my birthday party. His heart stopped for good more than a year later, on the thirteenth of January. A neighbor lady who was always complaining about Uncle John’s unkempt lawn was the one who finally called the cops about the smell. Even with the body removed, no more than a darkened stain on plush green carpet next to his bed, Uncle John’s house was the biggest pigsty I’d ever seen, worse than Tiff’s room, and she was a snowboarder. What I remember most wasn’t the clutter of pizza boxes and dirty dishes but this serene oil painting of my great aunt Mary smirking down on the mess from over the fireplace. She’d died of ovarian cancer twenty years earlier. “I tell you what,” Mom said, holding a trash bag with one gloved yellow hand. “That woman was not a nice person, leaving us to clean this up.”
The biggest mess of all was Grandma. She crapped her pants before we left for Uncle John’s funeral at St. Ed’s and then sat there on the couch in her warped living room, humming to herself as she wrestled her heel into her shoe. Mom pleaded with her to go change, but it was no use.
“Your mom and her writer’s imagination,” Grandma kept saying.
Looking back, it was my writer’s imagination—not my mom’s—Grandma should have worried about, as it turned her corns, acquired from years of wearing impractical shoes, into smears of fecal matter. It could have been the smell I was responding to, but if you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you she had a dribble of poop on her wrinkly heel. My brother and sisters and I were all just standing there in our nice clothes, like kids do, seeing what we shouldn’t. Knee turned inward, heel hovering an inch off the ground, one arm unconsciously folded against my chest, I was a boy with dirty blond hair and neon-yellow braces, trying not to tremble as I recoiled. It was Grandma sitting there all right—and it wasn’t.
Grandma had always had grand plans for her final days: Before she died she wanted to spend every penny of her life savings and max out her credit cards. The reality of kicking the bucket turned out to be a lot less fun. Figuring Grandma was acutely depressed, not to mention the victim of a series of ministrokes, Mom and the surviving Sabala sisters decided to have Grandma undergo a round of electro-shock therapy. They had her committed. When Grandma should have been on an end-of-life shopping spree, yanking out her gold teeth, she was instead at the University of Utah’s psych ward up near the zoo, getting sat on by her schizophrenic roommate Beverly.
Because Mom didn’t like to visit alone, she’d take me up there after dinner, when it was snowy and dark. It smelled like Lysol and the floors were buffed to a shine. After we paged her at the front desk, Grandma would wander out of her room in her cute sweats and hospital booties, rubbing the scar on her forehead like she’d just woken up.
We’d take the elevators down to the closed cafeteria and Mom would read the same boring letters from my great aunts day after day as if they were new. To Grandma they were new: the shock treatments wiped out her short-term memory. It was only a matter of time before she asked about Uncle John. Every visit Mom had to tell her he was dead. It wasn’t like you’d expect, fresh grief and tears, but more of a stunned recognition. Grandma said if she started crying she wouldn’t be able to stop. “Your socks are cute,” I’d try. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t scared of her. The fact that I loved her had to count for something.
Grandma never wanted to write back. She barely trusted herself to speak. I was twelve years old. I had acne and armpit hair and, I was pretty sure, a lisp. I was just beginning to not trust myself, either. I didn’t know if Grandma would like the person I was becoming, and it’s not like I could ask her one way or another. Her gentle brown eyes would glaze over as Mom read and I’d wonder if she was as bored sitting there as I was, if she wanted a drink. Had there been a microphone handy, I would have practiced my Oscar acceptance speech or told a few jokes about homework. With only those letters for entertainment, I had to call on my skills as a fortuneteller. Pressing my fingers to my temples like Carnac the Magnificent, I’d whisper something like driver’s license just as my mom got to the part about how this or that great aunt needed to take her car into the shop. Not my best work, but it was the kind of gag Grandma would have loved.
Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Tampa Review, Barely South and elsewhere. His essay “Suck Ray Blue” was recently selected as a Notable Mention in Best American Essays 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @gregrmarshall.