By Sara Marchant
When Andi answered the phone, Grandmother was mid-sentence in panicked speech. These calls were not new, they had been coming with increasing frequency for a year now. Normally, however, Grandmother was entirely composed, casual to the point of rambling, chatting about her day for a few minutes before slipping in the actual purpose of the call. Grandpa drove to the store and never came back. Grandpa was supposed to skim the pool, but drained it instead. Grandpa took the car downtown and returned on the bus with no memory of the car’s location. Could Andi please go and find it?
The more ridiculous the task, the calmer Grandmother became, so the mid-sentence panic was incredibly alarming. “...stretched out on the floor at the foot of the stairs. Who does that?”
“Is he breathing, Grandmother?” Andi lowered her voice so that Debi in the next cubicle, a known spy, couldn’t overhear another ”personal” call.
“Breathing? He was snoring away until I started to scream. He told me to shut up and bring him a pillow. I don’t think I can take anymore.”
“Did he fall? Can he get up?”
“He is taking a nap,” Grandmother said with slow emphasis, cold fury. “He was tired so he stopped at the foot of the stairs, stretched out on the tile and went to sleep. This is not the way decent people live.”
The cubicles around Andi were silent. Were people listening in? Had everyone gone to lunch? Was the boss out of his glass office and sneaking around again?
“I need you to come home. Can you come home?” Grandmother was saying.
“Someone will be there, soon. I’ll be home after work.” Andi couldn’t leave work yet again. She needed her insurance job (term life anddisability) not only for the benefits, but to have a normal routine. The office was full of back-stabbing bitches (male andfemale), run by a control freak with a Napoleon complex, but at least it was consistent.
The phone was slammed down, either in pique or because Grandpa was up to more oddness; maybe both. Andi texted a friend to go check on her grandparents. This was a huge and crazy favor to ask, but her friend was the rebbetzin and the task fell under her purview. The rabbi’s wife is supposed to help in times of need and Andi had a need. The boss was sneaking around again, the water cooler burbled when the tiny fat man stepped on the loose floorboard as he passed it, and she followed her colleagues’ example and looked busy until it was time to go.
When Grandpa first began misremembering people, Grandmother got out their old Polaroid camera and a large binder with plastic insert pages and made him an album filled with neatly labeled photos of people like the mailman, the newspaper boy, the Jehovah’s Witness, and the yardman who came to rake the leaves in the fall, shovel the driveway in the winter, and was obviously not-all-there in any season of the year.
Grandpa enjoyed the album project, but the Polaroid camera disappeared and shortly thereafter, other photographs, strangely composed, lacking any human faces, appeared in the “People” album. Pictures of the neighbor’s cat squatting in Grandma’s strawberry bed were found under the label “Garbage Man,” and a photograph of the neighbor’s cat’s feces was haphazardly taped next to it. Grandpa’s shoes, his comfy house shoes, not the tasseled shiny loafers he once wore to functions, graced the page dedicated to “Mormon Missionaries— Do NOT Let Them In,” and Grandpa’s feet without the shoes, propped on the coffee table, were on the next page, mercifully left unlabeled.
This project kept Grandpa busy, so Grandmother made no objection to the increasingly abstract nature of the “People” album, and when the Polaroid film ran out and proved unavailable in stores, Grandpa merely switched to cutting random images from magazines. Grandmother labeled his next binder “People, Continued,” although very little within it was recognizably human or even animal. Abruptly, Grandpa lost interest in the binders and switched to hiding the family valuables and claiming that strangers were entering their house and stealing them. Grandmother found this new phase particularly nerve-wracking.
After work, Andi drove home quickly, visions of disaster in her head. When she pulled into her grandparent’s driveway the rebbetzin was closing the front door. Rebbetzin Chaya wore a harried smile and her hands trembled.
“Your grandpa poured me eight cups of coffee and looked near tears if I didn't drink them.” They hugged goodbye and parted. Chaya called out the car window as she left: “Find out the punchline of that joke, would you? It's gonna drive me nuts.”
Waving goodbye hesitantly (What joke?), Andi went into the house. There was a subterranean banging, but no grandparents. The kitchen table was covered with coffee cups, birthday cake, and an unfinished puzzle of Scooby-Do. She thought about cleaning, but sat down and ate cake instead.
Grandmother arrived at the basement door, cobwebs in her hair and a glass jar of pickles in her hand. She set the pickles on the table while the banging continued.
“Your grandpa is in the crawl space under the house, God alone knows why. I tried to talk him out, but I found this old jar of pickles.” Why finding a jar of pickles stopped any conversation was the type of rabbit-hole Andi knew not to go down.
“He'll come out when he’s hungry, don't you think?” Andi asked. The pickles looked really old. She hoped her grandmother wasn't planning on eating them.
“The rebbetzin brought this cake they had leftover at shul. Now Charlie thinks it's his birthday. She is such a nice girl. Pretty hair.”
“It's a wig,” Andi said around a mouthful of cake.
“You know, I wondered about it!” Grandmother slapped her hand on the table and then cleaned the cake crumbs off her palm. She brushed them into a used napkin before neatly folding it.
“Have you called the doctor?”
“About Grandpa? What's the use?” Grandmother shoved the folded napkin down the front of her blouse. A blouse that was misbuttoned, Andi noticed.
“There are medications now, patches, and pills.” Grandmother was shaking her head.
“He lies to the doctor or denies everything I say or changes to a new one when the first one believes me or gets suspicious. He's sneaky now. When did this happen? He never used to be sneaky.” As she spoke, Grandmother cleared the table until only the cake, resplendent despite its half-eaten state, remained.
“And he keeps starting these awful jokes, but then can't remember the punchline, which is probably a blessing. He never used to tell jokes, especially in poor taste, especially to people like the rebbetzin.”
“Really?” Andi remembered Chaya’s parting remark. “What did he say to her?”
“I can't remember.”
The banging stopped and they sat silently, waiting for it to resume.
The door leading in from the garage swung open and Grandpa walked in. He was covered in spider webs and thick, grayish dirt. He smiled at them. Andi smiled back tentatively. His eyes shifted to the cake and his face, almost comically, fell.
“You ate the cake without me?” He placed a large, filthy pipe on the chair by the door and sat down at the table. “Why didn't you wait? You know I love cake, Diane.”
“How did you get into the garage?” Grandmother removed the pipe, her hand wrapped in newspaper, and threw it into the trash.
“I used the crawl space in the basement.” Grandpa, tired of waiting for someone to serve him, took a handful of cake.
Uncontrollably, Andi began to laugh. Grandpa, around his mouthful of white cake, grinned in sympathy. They were co-conspirators. Grandmother was clucking in anxiety as she hurried to clean up the mess. The Dustbuster was brought out and her husband was vacuumed. He ignored this and offered her a handful of cake. The musty dirt on his hands turned the frosting gray. Grandmother only took it to be polite.
“Grandpa, what's the joke you told the rebbetzin?”
His eyes lit up and he chortled, choking on his cake. She and Grandmother patted his back. This couple wasn’t actually her grandparents. They were the Aunt- and Uncle-by-marriage of her mother. Her own parents had died when a freak brushfire jumped a Southern California freeway, moving so quickly that cars exploded before the occupants ever knew death approached. Andi loved her adoptive grandparents, but Charlie and Diane had been old when she was born. They were ancient now and not-so-slowly losing their minds. She didn't know what to do about it.
“A rabbi and a supermodel walk into a bar.” Grandpa ate another handful of cake.
She waited, but he only swallowed and offered her a cup of coffee. Andi shook her head no. He was disappointed. He really loved their new coffee maker. The previous one had mysteriously disappeared in the night. It had been the subject of an emergency phone call two days ago.
“What's the punchline?” Andi prompted him.
“The joke, Grandpa.”
“What joke?” He held out a cup for coffee.
“The rabbi and a supermodel walk into a bar?” she reminded him, but it was as if he were hearing it for the first time and he guffawed in apparently dirty delight.
“Stop with the damn joke already.” Grandmother yanked the cake remains away.
“What's the rest of it?” Grandpa leaned in to whisper when his wife left the room.
She hazarded a guess. “The third guy ducked?”
In the kitchen pantry, Grandmother was softly weeping. They sobered in their guilt. Grandpa picked up cake crumbs from the tablecloth and popped them into his mouth. Idly, she joined him, licking her forefinger and touching each crumb gently.
“They think I'm losing my mind, you know,” Grandpa leaned in, sharing confidences.
She patted his hand and waited a moment until her voice was clear. “What do you think?”
“It doesn't really bother me. Except about the driving. And getting lost.” He thought about it. “Maybe I shouldn't drive anymore. Do you think you could arrange that? Tell them I shouldn't drive anymore?”
“Okay, Grandpa.” She wiped her eyes on the inside of her shirt collar. “I'll tell them.”
“Good, good.” He stood up briskly, slapping the cake and dirt off his hands. “Now how 'bout a cup of coffee?”
When the rebbetzin called that night she asked what they had decided. Not much after all; what was there to decide? Chaya cried a little in sympathy for the life slowly being forgotten, and then asked about the joke. “I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Did he ever remember the punchline?”
Turned out you could still buy Polaroid film on Amazon. Grandpa was thrilled with the new package, thrilled with the instant gratification of the film, thrilled with the subsequent photos of the visiting rabbi and Chaya, but then a month later he forgot what the camera was for and Grandmother found it dangling from the holder that had previously housed the Dustbuster. They never did find the Dustbuster.