story is a chapter from an unfinished novel.
In part it is based on a poem called Nana.
This is important and I want to get it right. I'll start at the beginning. Where else?
Sunday morning. I hated mass. I hated getting ready for mass almost as much as I hated Mass, but I really hated Mass. Everything I wore Sunday mornings was starched hard or scratchy; my Sunday shoes didn't bend right. Soaking in a hot tub, which I was always made to do before mass, softened my skin enough to make everything I wore itchy. Summers, it was worse. Something about even the idea of damp legs and wool makes me itchy, still.
Mother insisted, though. She was a convert. So there I was. That Sunday morning, the one we're talking about, I was ready for mass and not ready; standing in the living room, trying not to wrinkle, not to let my pants legs touch my skin legs, wishing time be gone so mass would be over, done, time gone so I could be out of these clothes and into after-Sunday stuff, with all responsibility vanished.
It was summer. That meant all Sunday, I didn't have the school-next-day stomach.
In the kitchen, Pop-pop was sipping coffee, crinkling the paper, reading aloud to himself. On the dining room radio, Gabriel Heater was talking Korea.
I am sure mother was seated at her dresser, upstairs, smoking a Kent, looking at herself in the big round mirror. She'd select things from the glass shelves; hold them to her ears or neck, see how they looked against her dress, her hair, eyes; she'd sniff the stoppers on small glass bottles and touch them to her wrist and neck. It took a long while, her getting ready to do anything. Before, when Daddy was still here, still with us, it didn't. I don't know what was different.
Royce was upstairs having Nanna-things done to him. For the last couple months he was old enough, now, to go to church with mother and me. Recently, and independently, he realized he didn't like Mass, either.
For awhile he had. He liked being with us, Sunday's, off to church like big people. Guess, being left behind with the old folks felt like part of a childhood he was, thank God, leaving in the dust. It had to me. The old folks belonged in Reverend Hinnershitz's Episcopalian Church -- high Anglican, Nanna called it -- but they didn't go to church much, except special. And Royce was a Roman Catholic. Mother had promised.
For a while Royce liked getting into starched shirts that had to be peeled apart like sticky cardboard. He loved the woolly shorts and Eton jacket from Brooks Brothers that Pop-pop had bought him especially for Mass. Royce actually managed to get a clip-on bow tie around his neck -- himself -- and keep it nearly straight to St. Marg's and back.
And he was such a good boy at mass. He loved it, the singsong and the spells and the magic smell of incense. He loved it.
For about three weeks.
Then the thrill was gone. He must've realized -- as had I -- that he was looking at a lifetime of scratchy stuff, picky pants and bow ties. Plus, the kneeling when everyone kneeled, the standing when everyone stood, the chest thumping when everyone thumped, plus none of it was all that secret and special, and if you missed a beat, watch out!
Hanging out with the old folks at home was a pretty good deal compared to wool, sweat, thumping and kneeling.
I liked having him with us much better after he realized he hated mass, too. His squirming, picking and whimpering distracted from my own more sophisticated discomforts. Guess mother felt she had a better chance with his eternal soul than mine and concentrated her pinches, scowls, and digs on saving him. Which made him hate it all the more.
Or maybe it was Nanna's spit. Nanna was more or less in charge of getting him ready. She might not go to her church, but thought that Royce should be turned out, as she said, a perfect gentleman, for his. Didn't want her grandson looking like a ragamuffin, which, I figured, was an Idoughknowhat in crummy clothes. And Royce had a lot of tufty spots on his head which took a lot of spit, keeping them down all the way to St. Margaret's and through an hour and a half of head bowing sweaty Latin. The spit part may have turned him from mass; it had had that effect on me. Though now I was big enough for Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie, and combing my own darned hair, thank God, which hurt a lot less than when Nanna snagged it to the root! Maybe there was hope for Royce, but Nanna's spit had set me, I was certain, on the wide and comfortable road to Hell where people didn't have to be in mass all day, every day, forever!
I want to get this right. I could smell the first heat of summer, that Sunday. Early on, still dawn, it had rained, and the air outside smelled like old tin cans, rusty and heavy, and like something electric had just gone by.
I remember birds, that Sunday. Birds outside the living room window.
The ice wagon was there, too.
That's right, that was odd. Heavy Wally's ice wagon and Gus the horse were weekdays, not Sundays. But, there was old Gus the horse on Sunday. I pressed my face to the window to see what he was doing on our street, Sunday morning, and I remember the smell of old lace and feeling its pattern pressing into my forehead and nose.
Here's where I want to get it right: At the top of the stairs, Royce was whimpering. "I'm perfect, I'm perfect!" he kept yelling, punctuated by Nanna's, "Tpou. Tpou. Tpou." "I am perfect!" "Tpou!" I could almost see the spit flying.
I was thinking, Royce'll go nuts when he sees Gus. He loved that old plug. He was going to want to run over and have a talk with him, pet his face and big soft nose, get his head snuzzled by horse lip and cheeks. This would lead to wrinkles, dirt, horse stink, hair every whichway and another fifteen minutes of angry pulling, corrective combing, and punishment spits.
I couldn't wait to tell him Gus was there.
Then down the stairs: Royce and Nanna. One step. Another. I turned, big smile, to tell Royce about Gus. Nanna was still pulling hair, saying, "keep your head on strait, for goodness' sake."
Three steps from the top Nanna's voice slid into a strange...what? A language, is all I can call it. She was talking like Indians or Koreans. It was beautiful. She went from, "now look ahead, one step at a time, young man, and stop rutching like an Idoughknowwhat, goodness..." Then words went funny in her throat. Became gurgles. Clucks and breaths. A thing like, "ohhhh. Ahhh. Uh-Uh-Uh!"
I thought she was falling.
Then, she fell; plopped flat on her can on the steps. Her back was to the wall. She called odd things. I knew she couldn't see, couldn't hear. That much I understood of her language. The rest was a kind of singing made me go all chilly up my neckhairs.
What made me go funny in my stomach, though, was her head cracking against the plaster to one beat; her legs, body, and arms flicking to another. Her head banged the wall in a slow, regular thump. Thump. Thump. Her arms and legs made a fast wooden pitter-patter-pitter-patter that kept going, going, going, going, going.
Above her thumping and singsong shouting was Royce. He was laughing his head off. Nanna gripped his hand as she always did on the stairs. Her flailing was making his arm flap like a bird in a windstorm. His hair was flying wild. He was having a good time.
But Nanna? I didn't think a person could do all she was doing, and still be right.
I yelled to him to stop, to get Mother, get Pop-pop. He kept laughing and laughing. I ran up to their steps and pulled his hand away from hers. It was like unplugging a light.
"Go. Get. Pop. Pop!" I shouted over Nanna's song. He took the stairs in one leap down and went laughing toward the kitchen. I held Nanna's hand so she wouldn't slip and slide. I called for Mother. Nanna's hand had stopped waving and was, now, throbbing gently in mine.
In just a second, Mother was at the top of the stairway standing for a moment in the dark; then she was down to where Nanna and I were clutching each other. Pop-pop appeared a second later, running up from below. Royce, left behind in the living room, was still laughing.
Mother and Pop-pop edged me out of the way and I slipped downstairs to stand by Royce and grab his hand. I shook his arm. "Shut the hell up," I said in his ear. Things felt odd. I felt like I had to go and knew I couldn't get past everyone on the steps. "Nanna's funny," he yelled at me. "Finally funny. She knows how to be funny! She knows it!" He could hardly contain himself. My stomach!
Someone -- I don't know if it was mother or Pop-pop -- yelled for me to call Dr. Kotzen. I did. I didn't want to stand there being responsible for Royce. I didn't want to leave the kid alone, but I did and ran to the dining room. I knew to call Dr. Kotzen's house, Sunday mornings. Even if he was a Jewish person, he didn't have office hours, Sunday. I was proud. He said he'd be right away and hung up. Click.
Pop-pop was holding Royce by the shoulders when I got back. The kid had probably tried going back upstairs to tell everyone how funny Nanna was, because Pop-pop had Royce's feet off the steps, dangling. He had his face right in the kid's and his cheeks were shaking.
"Stop laughing," he was saying, "You stop laughing now! You hear me?"
Why do people always say, 'you hear me?' when they know you can't miss it? That came into my head and I almost said it. I didn't.
I said Dr. Kotzen was on his way, instead.
Mother yelled for me to take Royce out, get him out, take him out. I was glad to. Jesus.
We went and stood on the front porch there on Sunday morning. Pop-pop must have gotten through to my brother, because now he was just squinting. It was bright and the birds were still chirping, dozens of them, peeping away on Mendelssohn's front yard, pecking bits of bread Morrie's mom had tossed. Eating bread from the Jewboy's house, huh!
Gus the horse stood, quietly, across the street. The ice wagon was dripping just a little. It was mostly empty. Royce and I sat on the step and watched the horse twitch. Royce sulked. He knew something was wrong and he was part of it. I guess he didn't know if it was his fault or not and was keeping his head down in case. I tried to take his hand. He pulled away and sat by the brick pillar at the end of the step. He just starred at Gus. Another time and he would have been spinning his feet like a cartoon, pulling my arm to run across traffic to go touch the old horse's soft nose. Now, he just stared. In a minute Heavy Wally came back to the wagon with his leather cape over his shoulder. He hung his big tongs on the hook. He saw us, waved, got onto the seat, clicked to Gus, flicked the reins and the old horse pulled away without a sidewise look at either of us.
"It's all right," I told him.
"What is?" Royce didn't look at me, but turned, instead, to stare up the long hill, through the tunnel of trees toward Spring Street.
"Gus," I said to be a wise guy. "Old Gus is all right!" He looked at me as though I were crazy. "Nanna," I said. "She's just being dumb. You were right. It's about time she did a little dumb stuff, huh?" I didn't believe it, but the kid seemed pretty down. Probably blaming himself. "Old people do that sometimes. They just have to act dumb now and then. They go crazy if they don't. You know? Like we do..." I was making it up, but it sounded right. "Makes them happy."
Royce looked at me. "You're lying," he said. "She's sick." He looked at me as though I was supposed to counter what he was saying. "Anyway, I'm not worried about that."
I stared at him. He looked toward where Heavy Wally and Gus clopped toward town. "Pop-pop yelled at me. He never yells at me. Mom does. Nan does. YOU do. He doesn't. He yells at you! He yells at YOU!"
Kid was right. What could I say?
"Even if she is sick, she's okay." I said. "Mother and Pop-pop are okay, aren't they? I'm okay. You're okay!" He started nodding. That was good, I thought. Get his head working like a yo-yo, he'll just keep nodding 'yes.' "So whatever it is, it isn't serious. If it isn't catching, it's not serious. She's just mad at someone, that's all. Probably Pop-pop. Maybe me. That's probably why Pop-pop's mad."
I think Royce was half believing it when Dr. Kotzen's black Cadillac pulled up. It was the kind with fins. Four doors and probably automatic windows, but I didn't know. It did have the thing on the dash that made the headlights dim automatically at night. I really wanted to try the windows, make the lights dim and go bright and knew that Royce would too.
Dr. Kotzen got out of the car slowly. He carried his bag with him but not his hat. He wasn't wearing a coat. It was Sunday morning. He was older than our mother. Not as old as Pop-pop or Nanna. His face was more wrinkled than usual. His eyebrows looked even bushier. He came up the walk and touched me on the head as he passed and walked into the house without my opening the door.
Royce and I sat on the
"We're not going to church, are we?" he asked.
"No." I said.
"I want to get out of these clothes," he said.
I looked toward the living room window. It was shiny with sun and I couldn't see through but I thought it wouldn't be a good time. "Wait," I said, "we'll change in a little bit. Here," I leaned over and unhooked his bow tie, "you can take that off." I wished I could get out of my suit. I took off my tie, too. "There. Better, huh?" Royce didn't say anything. He kept fingering his neck. "You can take off your shirt. It's warm. Go ahead."
He looked at me as though I had told him to eat a turd. "No!" he said, "I want to go to my room and I want to get my clothes. I won't wear undershirts out here. I won't." He was getting angry with me.
"all right. Geezers. I
just thought. You go out in
jersey's all the time!"
"This is an UNDERSHIRT. I would be highly humiliated." He said. He pulled the top button shut and grabbed the bow tie from me.
Dr. Kotzen was inside for a long time. It was late morning when he came out. He stood on the porch with Mother and Pop-pop for a few minutes. He talked with them, then he went to his car. Mother followed. She talked with him some more. Pop-pop looked at us and went inside. Mother stood by Dr. Kotzen's Cadillac a long time. She kept nodding or shaking her head. Finally Kotzen got into the car and started it. She still stood by the driver's side and talked to him through the open window. Finally, he drove off. The engine sounded really quiet and smooth.
There was so little talking in the house. Nanna was not on the steps anymore. She was in the bedroom, sleeping in the middle of the bed. Pop-pop sat with her and watched her. She was lying on her back and the sheets were tucked to her chest. Her arms lay on top and Pop-pop held her right hand.
Mother sat Royce and me in the living room and told us that Nanna had stroke. What Dr. Kotzen called Stroke. Is that like a cold? No. It's more serious. Is it like flu? More serious, yet. Is it like polio? No. No. No. It's a stroke in the brain. It means she could, well, die.
We sat still for a little. Is she going to die? Dr. Kotzen isn't sure. He's not hundred percent sure. Anything can happen in these cases doctor says and, goodness knows, he's seen some very miraculous things since he's been a doctor. But. Yes. He thinks she very probably will go. Die? Yes. That she won't be anymore? Yes.
It was very quiet in the house.
Nanna died on Wednesday. There wasn't anything special about it. Royce and I were brought into the room. Dr. Kotzen was sitting across from Pop-pop. Nanna was lying on the bed like she had since Sunday. She hadn't moved much. We watched her. Soon she just stopped breathing. He turned and looked at Mother and Mother said Nanna was gone. Pop-pop put his forehead in his hand and yelled "Oh my sweet baby." That was all.
The top of his head looked balder than I remembered.
Royce stared; looked like he was watching a magic trick happen right under his nose, a big smile on his face. He said something and looked at me. I don't know what he said but he was still smiling when he looked back at Nanna.
Later, when the men from Auman's came and carried Nanna out the front door, Pop-pop looked at Royce and said, "you were laughing!" He bent over and said it in his face. "Nanna was dying and you were laughing." His cheeks shook again, but that's all there was.
Royce took it pretty well.
Everyone was busy at the viewing, so I inherited Royce. We wore the same suits we had worn last Sunday. Just Sunday! Royce kept picking at his pants when he thought no one was looking and sometimes when he KNEW they were, but he behaved. He only laughed once. I had a hard time, myself, and bit the inside of my cheek when I felt a laugh coming. I told Royce about it and I think he did that, too.
Nanna looked pretty. She was smiling. It wasn't her smile, but she had a really funny look on her face and it made her beautiful in a way she never was around the house. Funny about death.
All our family was there. People I had never seen. Parts of our family. People that were Daddy's family, people I didn't remember seeing, ever. Mother cried whenever she saw someone from Daddy's side. A lot of people hugged Royce and shook my hand, holding handkerchiefs to their faces. A lot of them were fat. Most were old. Some of them were really old. One lady was the oldest person I had ever seen and she didn't even speak English. She just cried and her voice was hoarse and screaming. Eventually one of daddy's people took her into one of the quiet rooms on the side.
Royce and I kept slipping out to go trudge up the hill to look at the reservoir. Sometimes our cousins came with us and we'd try skipping stones across the water. Royce was useless, and of course I had to spend most of my time making sure he didn't fall in.
But there were times when it was just us, when the cousins were with their mothers and dads, when Pop-pop and Mother were talking to friends and to Reverend Hinnershitz. Shitzie wasn't there. None of my friends from school were there. Royce didn't have any friends yet. So there was just the two of us and we found ourselves in the lounge off the viewing room for a good part of this long evening. The place where the little old foreign lady had been brought. She lay on a couch with a handkerchief over her face. I think she was asleep because she snored sometimes.
Royce paged through one of his books that I had had to carry with me because he'd loose it. He was reading with his fingers going across the words, like Pop-pop did. A smiling pony ran up a hill on one page. He stared at it.
"What was Gus doing on Sunday?" he asked me. I shrugged. He kept looking at me. "Well, what do you think?"
"I don't know," I told him. I really wanted to get out of there.
He touched the picture in the book, ran his finger over it. A boy and girl were chasing the pony on the next page. They all seemed to be having fun. "Gus doesn't come on Sundays," he said. He nodded his head in agreement. "Daddy'd know why."
That last one sent the electric through my hair again.
The kid had never brought up our daddy, before.
I had told him. Told stories, told him about Ernesto. I told him stories about Daddy's war and boot camp. Sometimes I took Daddy's stories about when he was a kid, stories about his Pop, our other grandfather, Daddy's daddy, who'd come from across the ocean with our other Grand Nanna, sometimes I took his stories and made them be about me. It was bragging, but it made the stories better and kept Royce good and shut up.
But Royce had never started a talk about Daddy to me.
"Ernesto would know why Gus brought ice on Sunday," he said. "Ernie would know if I made Nanna die."
"You didn't make. You didn't make Nanna die!" I yelled at him. "She was just old." He looked at me as though I was the dumbest thing alive.
"Daddy knows everything about dying." He said. He turned the page of his book. The pony was on the top of the hill. He stood on his back legs and waved his front hooves at the sun. The boy and girl were running behind. The pony was laughing. "Nanna said he did."
Another electric eel wrinkled up my neck. "What are you talking about?" I asked. "When did Nanna say that."
He was running his hand over the face of the smiling sun in the book. He was smiling, too. "When she was dying and I was laughing. She said, 'Oh, oh. Ernie knows. Ernest-O, Ernest-O, can't see, can't hear'"
I grabbed his book from him to make him look at me. "No!" I yelled again. "You don't know. She was talking jumbled. She wasn't saying anything. Royce. She wasn't saying Ernesto."
He looked at me and laughed. "Nanna was dying and I was laughing. She knew Daddy knew about it. She said I was making her dead. Like I had made Daddy dead in the Pacific Theater. I was coming and he was going."
It was that moment that the old lady from Daddy's side of the family started talking. Talking in a language, I don't know. The corner was dark and the cloth covered her face.
Outside, people walked past the door and paid no attention. The old lady was talking in her throat. In her sleep. Her voice was hisses and rolling gurgles, sounds I never heard before. It wasn't like Nanna on the stairs. It was something else. She sounded angry and sad and other things at the same time.
Before I could stop him,
Royce waddled over to where the old woman was lying on the couch in the corner,
her face covered with the black handkerchief. He took her hand and began making
noises like she was.
It felt like bugs were crawling on my neck. I wanted to grab the kid and drag him out and into the light; drag him up the hill, throw him into the reservoir and make him almost drown so I could jump in and save him.
I didn't. He just stood there making funny noises. In a while the old lady stopped and he came back to sit with me.
A little while longer, Mother and Pop-pop gathered us up and took us all home.
Copyright © 2000 Lawrence Santoro
This is a chapter of a longer piece.
It began as a "poem" that I wrote because I thought I should compete with my intern and a few actors from the Organic Theater who read poetry Sunday nights at a bar up the way from the theater.
If you want to read the original poem, Nanna, click...
If you want to know about the "reality" of it, click, here...
If you want to go back to the "about" page, click here.