Stubborn son-of-a-bitch. Refuses to take his medicine. Just looks at an old wedding photo on the wall from his recliner. The fat and muscles of his body have evaporated leaving loose skin draped on a frail skeleton. “Luke, what da hell are ya doin’? Put me down.” As I lift him, I notice he weighs no more than a child.
“Sorry, ya got plans taday, Granpa.”
“Plans!?! Yer not bringin’ me ta da goddamn doctor, are ya? Put me down!” his resistance would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“Calm down. We’re gonna have a good day.” I carry him to the garage and put him in the passenger seat of his old station wagon. I head back into the kitchen, throw a bunch of junk into a backpack, and return to the car. His gaze is fixed on the distance as I tear through the neighborhoods.
“Can we listen ta da radio?” he sheepishly asks.
“'Course, it’s yer car ‘nd we do whatcha want taday.” I turn on the radio, which is set to the only country station he listens to. The gravel of Johnny Cash runs through the speakers instead of the usual grating twang. “We’re here.” I turn right off Indiana Avenue onto River Street bouncing the car into F-and-N Hot Dog Drive-In.
“Whatcha bringin’ me here fer? Da doc won’t lemme eat this stuff.”
“Ya can have a veggie milkshake if ya want, but I won’t tell da quack ya had a dog if you won’t.” Two Chicago Dog Specials with fries, all the toppings, and malts eventually make it to the car. It’s the only thing I’ve seen him eat in days. Slowly, he sets down a half-gnawed fry when he realizes I drove us to LaSalle Park. “Done? Wanna go down ta da river?” I throw on my backpack and carry him to the grassy landing of the riverbank. His eyes take in all the light. “Here ya go.” I hand him a loaf of bread from the bag and ducks race over. The Mallards battle for position.
“A loaf doesn’t last as long as ya think it would, does it?” Grandpa says. The ducks are impatient with his pace and I shoo them away when they try to bypass the middleman for food. “This was nice. Thanks fer gettin’ me outta da house.”
“Do ya wanna go home? We can do whatever ya want.”
“Whatever?” he looks at the river and ponders. “Let’s get back ta da car then.” I pick him and the backpack up and carefully cross the meadow. About ten minutes later, we pull into a disintegrated parking lot in front of a blighted factory. The bricks are graffitied and the corrugated steel slowly melts into rust. “Ya know, I worked here for 43 years.” I slowly drive around the plany trying to avoid potholes. “Park over there.”
“Here ya go.” I hand hem a fifth of whiskey from the bag. “Fancy people call it a digest-if if ya drink after hot dogs.”
“Very nice. This was da only place I ever worked.” He takes a sip. “Straight outta high school onta da assembly line. Worked my way up ‘nd into da union. Picketed fer fair wages ‘nd benefits. Their security guards ‘nd police would start fights ‘nd arrest us if we tried ta defend ourselves. Wasn’t right, but money was involved. Don’t know how these fat cats can sleep at night with their employee’s kids starvin’ at night. It’s also where I met yer granma. Ever tell ya that story?”
“Nope.” I answer. He’s never been secretive, but wasn’t open to sharing private details either. “Did she work here too?”
“No, no.” he laughs a bit. “We were on lunch break ‘nd a bunch of us were standin’ ‘round eatin’ on the third floor. Well, there were a coupla girls we could see sunbathin’ in da backyard over there.” He points to a boarded up bungalow on Erzinger Street. “Oh, da guys were whistlin’ ‘nd cat-callin’. My friend, George, asked me ‘think those girls are pretty?’ I said, ‘sure’. He went on, ‘what ‘bout da brunette? What ‘bout this? What ‘bout that?’ Finally, I told ol’ George ta ‘shut up’ ‘bout the girls. Well, coupla days later, George invited me over ta his house ‘nd, wouldn’t ya know it, those sunbathin’ girls were there. One of da girls was his cousin ‘nd da other was yer granma. Da rest is history.” He savors another tiny bit of his drink.
“A good history?” I bite my upper lip.
“A great history… Let’s go over there.” His shaky hand points across the street. The old grocery-getter rattles into the entrance of Mary Magdalene Cemetery and sputters to a stop halfway down St. Herman Avenue at a hardened path. I hoist him through generations of headstones of varying styles and quality. At the end of the trail is a white birch tree along a chain link fence. The decaying factory casts its shadow over us. I set my grandfather at the base of a humble monument dedicated to “My beloved Gertrude.”
His body trembles as he lays his hand on the granite slab, which also bears his name. There’s a tear slowly making its way down the contours of his wrinkled face. I crouch down beside him and place my arm around his bony shoulders, as this is the first time I’ve seen him cry. He twists to grab onto me and buries his head into my chest. What few tears he’s able to shed exhaust his energy. “C’mon Granpa, it’s time ta go home.” As I pick him up to return to the car, I barely hear him mumble, “I’ll see ya soon, Gertie. See ya soon…”