Running time: 17:58
AT AGE SIX I didn’t grasp the significance of Grandpa Fleming being a widower and of his living alone on fixed income in a one-bedroom apartment, however, I still somehow came to sense the importance of his magic-fiver.
He always ensured it was in that thick brown leather wallet when he visited for the holidays. Craziness held in the air at these gatherings. Maybe because everyone in my family was some flavor of European mutt. Other families of definite ethnicities have traditions, heritage, pride, that sort of thing, and this must engender these families a certain closeness. We didn’t have that. We had uncertainty and secrets. Nervous people, half-familiar with each other, or what they used to be to each other, looking around anxiously, laughing at strange moments. And the smell. When you’re young you don’t put things together but you still sense. I smelled alcohol on all of them and watched them slow down. Grandpa Fleming smelled of it the strongest. As if he was Irish whiskey’s embodiment. All the Irish whiskey of the world had to come from him in some way, or pay royalty.
Grandpa came to our house around four that Christmas day with the party already going strong. He hobbled over the threshold with silver horse-head cane in oversized patent leather shoes, shuffling feet heal-to-toe a good half inch with each stride. His gray twill sport-coat with brown elbow patches had sleeves that almost hid his hands except for overgrown fingernails. His boney liver-spotted hand grasped the silver horse head as if it was his life but his eyes, magnified behind black vintage frames, held the smug confidence of an eighteen-year-old as he made a bee-line to the kitchen. My mother ran her hands over his fleshy walrus jowls and thick white whiskers, asking how he’d been. Without delay, his index finger and head cocked to the upper wooden cabinet, “Sneaky Pete!”
The seated crowd rejoined, haggardly, “Sneaky Pete.” Most people understand a Sneaky Pete to consist of apple brandy and beer. To Grandpa it was beer and Irish whiskey, which was likely something else, but to him it was Sneaky Pete or The Pete.
Making The Pete was an ordeal with the Jamison stashed behind empty mason jars in a big storage cabinet in the den and the beer in the basement, not to mention the last highball being dirty.
Grandpa grumbled, “I’ll take my Pete in the family room.”
“That’s right,” Great Aunt Bethany said, actually she barked. Whether speaking quiet or loud, everything was more of a bark. She was the sister of Grandpa’s departed wife. “Better not stay with Grown-Ups and we discover how far you’ve gone.”
Grandpa stopped momentarily but kept shuffling, negotiating four stairs down to the family room.
“I’m watching him,” Bethany said to my mother. “He’ll spread lies to them kids.”
I followed Grandpa into the family room. Though I was somewhat afraid to go in there because the cousins were in there. It was like they owned the house when we had people over and it seemed they shared some common history I wasn’t a part of. They played with our generic Legos near the burgundy sectional couch, building a city and eating white frosting-coated pretzels from a large red and white tray. Cindy, age eight and Jenny, nine, stood and informed me with exuberance that I was mentally retarded because my eyes were too close, then they ran upstairs to the kitchen. Jack and Benson raked over Legos on their knees.
“Whatcha building?” I asked.
“A tower,” Benson remarked, prying apart plastic blocks.
“A tower to where?”
“To inside the TV.”
“Can I help?”
“You have to find all the long, skinny ones. That’s your job.”
I sat and segregated a few long, skinny ones for Jack’s inspection. They passed and were dutifully added to a generic Lego moat ringing the tower. The moat would discourage the inevitable invasion of the crocodile men. Grandpa watched us from the brown easy-chair in the corner. His eyes flicked momentarily to Bethany walking toward him. She carried his Pete to him with the slightest hint of a grin. She was also a widow, seemingly around fifteen years his junior and she enjoyed displaying how well she could still walk; how she could carry him things.
“Here,” Bethany said, handing him the ice-cube filled drinking glass.
Grandpa took the glass and tasted a draught. “Wait,” he pointed a long fingernail at her.
Bethany stopped and turned.
His face hardened, adjusting and struggling, readying to stand. “Where’s the Irish?”
Bethany smiled. “They couldn’t find it. It’s a lot of trouble.”
“Not true. It’s you. Waiting for the day I can’t taste. When I can’t smell it. Ain’t senile–”
“You’re too old to drink that way!”
“A Pete without the Irish is no Pete!”
Bethany turned sharply and Grandpa scowled as he watched her walk away.
Our tower was narrow and tall, almost as tall as us, and the three of us munched white salty pretzels.
“What kind of subjects ya got?” Grandpa asked and drank his iced beer.
I looked up, “What?”
Grandpa looked at me, insulted. He set down his glass and shook outstretched palms, “If you build a tower that tall, you got to have subjects. That’s a lot of bricks. Not every man’s meant to carry bricks.”
This was the first time I really remember Grandpa talking to me and I was intrigued.
I pondered. Then smiled, flexing thin arms, “They’ll be strong.”
Grandpa harrumphed and settled back into his easy-chair, disgusted. “Big mistake.” He finished his beer and chewed his ice, looking at the glass with furrowed brow, mumbling, “Just one good drink.” He settled further back into his chair and dozed-off.
When we ran out of Legos our attention focused on Grandpa. He muttered things occasionally, eyes rolling beneath lids, but we couldn’t understand him. Maybe another language, maybe old-fashioned words. We threw our white pretzels onto him, watching them bounce on his stomach and settle in folds of his coat. He stirred and the pelting pretzels accelerated his dreaming.
He cried softly, “Helena!” and we giggled and hushed each other. Helena was his wife, she died in an apartment fire, I think.
Benson taunted, “You won’t hit him in the face!”
“Oh yes I will,” I said. “Watch. Just watch. Watch.” I ate the frosting off a pretzel, licking the bare brown coating to moisten it. I sighted Grandpa’s head with one eye and with pretzel drawn and waiting behind my ear. Then flung it and it sailed in an arch, ending in a patting sound as the small brown pretzel held fast to Grandpa’s white wrinkled forehead. His head flinched but he simmered. Jack and Benson leaned forward, mouths gaping. Grandpa’s eyes opened.
“RUN!” Jack and Benson cried, pulling at my elbows but I stayed seated on the carpet and let them flee.
Grandpa got his bearings, looking into the corners of the room like he’d never been there before. Then his eyes moved up a little to his forehead. He peeled the pretzel off and gave a grin of discovery before popping it in his mouth. He chewed. “Where’s the frosting?”
“I ate it.”
“Hmmph, stingy.” He leaned forward, digging into this back pocket to get out the thick brown wallet and slap it on the simulated-wood TV-tray which his empty drink also rested atop. “Have you heard about my Magic-Fiver?”
I shook my head side-to-side.
Grandpa scooted to his left in the easy-chair. “Come on up here then, my boy. Let’s handle this business of ours.”
I wedged myself into the available space of the easy-chair, which was weird because his legs were very warm and soft, even for an old man.
Grandpa tapped the wallet. “I always keep the Magic-Fiver right in here. Before I show it to you, you gotta know some things.”
I looked up at hairy folds in his neck. “What?”
“I’m not from where people say I’m from. I mean, wasn’t born where people say I was. Do you know where I was born?”
Grandpa smirked big. “Outer space!”
“Like Mork and Mindy?”
He shook his head and looked away, wistfully, “Robin Williams.” He adjusted in the easy-chair. “Not like Mork and Mindy, but, sort of. The real me is very small. Smaller than a spec of dust. I sucked my mind out of my first body and put it inside a tiny, tiny bug. Then I flew a long way in a tiny ship to Earth. That was before I met your Grandmother and the fella I stole this body you see here from, he wasn’t doing much with it, so; no bother.”
I knew people were always lying to young kids, thinking they were being clever and that it was funny. But I liked this one, so I played along, “Are you really an alien?”
“Things aren’t always as they seem. Like Bethany. She was a Nazi sympathizer in the second Great War.”
“What’s . . . sympathizer?”
“Not sure,” he shrugged, “Ask her.”
“Why’d you have to leave?”
“Subjects were strong, too strong. Got tired of building the tower. We were supposed to have a republic, eventually, but I told them we’d work out minor stuff as we went. I ended up taking care of most details of their lives for some fees.” He rubbed over his forehead, “They didn’t thank me. And I had to leave, quickly.”
I cringed at Grandpa, “You were bad?”
“Dictator’s the best ruler. A benevolent dictator cares for his people. It’s the extra fuss of government that holds the people down. Talks all about it in that Latin Republic. And about a man needing a woman and his having fair rights on her.” (There is no such sentiment as this last part in Plato’s Republic. I checked.)
“What’s in your wallet?”
“The Magic-Fiver.” His hand rested on the wallet. “Let’s see–”
Bethany barked from the kitchen steps, “STOP LYING TO THEM KIDS!”
“BITE THAT TONGUE IN TWOS!” Grandpa straightened his jacket then eyed his empty glass before flipping open the thick wallet. “I can show you part of it.”
“Is it money?”
“Yes. It’s a souvenir. I had it sent to me in a much, much bigger ship. The size of a baseball. Took a long time to get here. Ships of normal scales don’t travel so good. Worth about the same as one of Uncle Sam’s five dollar bills.” He pulled the bill out. It rustled like sandpaper and was black like charcoal with thin purple lines. “And it’s got my picture in the center just like Andrew Jackson.” He Flattened it on the TV-tray, being careful to cover a spot with his three fingers that was just to the left of center. I looked at the supposed portrait and felt embarrassment, maybe real shame for the first time. Inspecting the sloppy, thin purple lines it seemed a child had drawn a cross between several mop heads and a starfish.
“That’s not real. You’re not real.”
“Yes I am. It is too.”
“You don’t look like one.”
“That’s because only my brain had to change. And don’t worry, only a little bit of that alien brain got passed along to you. Besides, best people ever lived got a little alien in their brains.”
“Show me under your fingers.”
“Can’t. It’ll hurt your eyes and your brain. Under these fingers is what stops the counterfeiters.”
“They wouldn’t use paper. They’d use computers for money.”
“What’s that? You mean, like telephone money. That don’t work. You put the money in the telephone lines and people find a way to take it out. And this. This reminds people everyday. It reminds them who’s taking care of them. But you had to have the right equipment to make them. It’s hard to make, only one machine anywhere could make it.”
I tried to lift up his fingers, “Let me see.”
“I can’t. You’re brain’s not hooked-up to see it right. You ever draw a cube made of lines and pretend it was a real block coming out of the page.”
“That’s your brain being tricked by the paper into thinking something that’s flat is not-flat. Now, if you got something that can print lines real thin, print’em just right, it can trick a brain, like the brain I got, into thinking it’s got some shape to it plus an extra dimension . . . uh, some extra types of shapes you can’t see. And it can make you think it’s moving.”
“No it can’t, Grandpa.”
“Why not! Space and time is part of the same thing. If your brain plays tricks on you when you’re looking at space, why can’t your brain look at some space and get tricked in time?”
“You’re funny. Let me see it.”
Grandpa looked up. Bethany walked fast and angry. “Playing them carnival comic book games.” She cringed and her finger jabbed at him. “Give it here. Gimmie that stupid funny-money dollar.”
She loomed over the TV-tray, her face all crimson and Grandpa pulled it toward himself in jest. “But, it’s mine. It’s all I have to remember my time in . . .” He smiled, “Outer space.”
“Give it over.” She jabbed her finger. “Stop feed’n ’em lies.”
“All right,” Grandpa’s clenched hands folded both ends of the bill together, “Here goes.” He raised his hands and unfolded the bill to her.
I swung round to look at the bill and Bethany screamed. The edge of something pulled my sight in. I heard thunder, my vision ringed with a bright swirling flash.
“MY EYES!” Bethany staggered, toppling the Lego tower onto itself like a crumpled drinking straw. “I’m blind. I’m–I can’t.” She tottered onto her butt, hands reaching out at nothing.
The next I remember, I was crying near Grandpa’s easy chair with my back pressed into the ridge between the laundry closet and the molding. Aunt Becky and my father helped Bethany up, restraining her flailing.
“I’ll kill you! I can’t. Ruined her. Ruined. I–”
Grandpa laughed heartily, bouncing, eyes feasting. “Won’t let me taste that Irish.” He snatched up his empty glass with the air of a toast, and swirled the ice cubes, then lifted his legs to click his floppy, loose heels together, “Taste that Fiver!” floppy shoes clicking, “Taste it!”
They helped Bethany into the kitchen as her head darted about to find a place to send her accusations. As it turned out, the blindness only lasted a few hours. It was later rumored that, prior to that day, Bethany had fallen victim to the Magic-Fiver some seventeen times in a row, annually, like a school-girl bitterly entrapped by her own impetuousness into recess games of bulls-eye punching or hand-slap and that this alone was the root cause of their feud.