from Artificial Islands
When I think of my grandfather, I think of his soft, wrinkled hands and I think of that knife. If I still had it now I might remember him better. One of a thousand nice memories: he’s using the knife to shave the corners from a pipe box that he doesn’t feel like sanding. He is lazy, like I am.
My father had a failing business making boxes and shelves. My grandfather and I were sitting in the shop with the lights off. It was hot, but we had a big enough fan. Any flies that came in were blown back out again. It wasn’t like being inside – the shop was dirty and noisy, and all the doors were open. In the other room Richard was running the band saw. Through the wall we heard swearing. He’d done something wrong; he was always rushing. I went slow so I could daydream – my laziness looked like conscientiousness. I was sanding all of my corners soft. First with the sixty-grit, then the one-twenty. It was taking me forever.
My grandfather had never been a woodworker. He had once been a dance instructor, and he was always rubbing lotion on his hands. He couldn’t be something he wasn’t, but he wanted to help. He was sitting on the workbench with a box between his knees, and was pulling the knife’s blade towards himself. I told myself he knew what he was doing. Then he cut too deep. The box now had a notch in it. My grandfather never swore in my presence. He clucked his tongue and said, ‘Darn it, Ricardo.’ Then he closed his knife, jumped down from the workbench, and carried the box to the furnace with both hands, making the box look heavier than it was. He grunted as he tossed it. He was always performing. He loved me as an audience because I never laughed. There was a swarm of orange sparks from the trash we’d burned earlier; as he slammed the furnace door they rushed in every direction. He swatted them away. Then there was a whoosh inside the furnace and he snapped his fingers. He didn’t want my father to know what he’d done. ‘Gone forever,’ he said, then clapped his hands and pulled another pipe box from the shelf.
I was his favourite and everyone knew it. By everyone I mean Richard. That I was his favourite bothered Richard because Richard was competitive and I didn’t seem to be competing. I never felt guilty, because Richard seemed indestructible. So it didn’t occur to me to be worried when the whine of the band saw became a moan and Richard’s swearing changed its pitch. The saw stopped and Richard came over to our side with his thumb held sideways in his mouth. He looked right over my head at the things he wanted – screwdriver, socket set, painters’ tape – then nudged me aside, kicked my stool out of his way, and reached them without reaching. He was the exact same size as our father. He even wore an old pair of our father’s square shoes. He frowned as he tore off a strip of blue tape and wrapped it tightly around his bleeding thumb.
‘Band saw jumped its track,’ he said, watching the thumb. ‘Son of a bitch,’ he added. He was trying to find the correct adult words. ‘Motherfucker.’
‘You should be more careful,’ my grandfather told him.
Richard frowned and watched the tape. The blood began to darken it, so he tore another strip and wound some more. He picked up his tools without looking at me. As he passed the furnace he stopped to hold his hand an inch above the top of it, then laughed. Richard’s laugh was like frowning out loud.
‘Oh, hush,’ my grandfather said, as he righted my stool and sat on it. ‘Mistakes were made.’
Richard shook his head and frowned a smile. ‘Hey, Ricardo,’ he said, surprising me. We never called my grandfather by name. ‘You want to come fishing next week? Me and Dad and Butch are going night fishing after my graduation.’
‘You know I don’t like to get messy. Bring Spider instead.’ My grandfather never called me Miranda.
‘I’ll invite Spider,’ Richard said, considering. ‘But only if both of you come.’
I would have liked to go night fishing.
‘And you can’t wear black.’
‘She looks good in black,’ my grandfather said.
‘It’s spooky,’ Richard said. ‘And it’s my party.’
My grandfather said that we’d think about it.
Richard kicked open the door to the other room and left. My grandfather looked over at me, and the look on my face must have been a surprising one, because he pointed at me and started to laugh. His was a laugh that made you want to laugh with him. I decided to laugh, even though I didn’t know what we were laughing at. Richard must have thought we were laughing at him, because the saw started whining again and didn’t stop until my father came home from his day shift. He patted my grandfather on the head and said, ‘Hey Papa,’ then went over to check on Richard. He stared through the doorway and whistled.
My grandfather went over to see, and I decided to follow. Richard’s face and arms were bright with sweat and yellow with sawdust. His chest swelled as he tried not to pant. He stood with his elbow resting on a stack of wooden parts. There were hundreds of parts stacked all around him. He’d cut out the pieces for a hundred more pipe boxes.
My father lifted a piece and turned it in his hand, suspicious and amazed. He couldn’t have done that much himself in eight hours. ‘I thought I had a busy day,’ he said.
Richard was frowning proudly. He examined the tape on his thumb. It was black.
My grandfather said, ‘You work too hard. You’ll work yourself to death.’
Richard took it as a compliment, and was happy.
But then we never got to go night fishing. We found out my grandfather was sick after he’d been away from the shop for about a week. Finally he came home with my father. My father helped him out of the car; his white hair reached up at weird angles. It looked like he’d been pulling on it. Richard and I watched from the shop as my grandfather and my father wandered around the driveway kicking at rocks and mumbling. They looked afraid to come indoors.
‘Ricardo’s sick,’ Richard said.
‘I know,’ I said.
There were malignant tumors in his bile duct. I looked up malignant. Aggressively malicious, evil in nature. Makes me think of sharks.
They went into the house and didn’t come out again. I saw my grandfather only indoors after that. First the hospital, then his bedroom. Both were too small for my liking.
His hospital room made everything blue. The fluorescent lights, the window – it was like being in a fish tank. I was left alone with him there only once. He immediately climbed out of bed and pulled the needle out of his arm. He drew the shades, which oddly made the room even brighter. He hadn’t noticed that his gown had flown open.
‘We don’t belong here,’ he said to me. ‘Find my shoes.’ I told myself he was performing. The gown was open at the back. There was dark hair. I couldn’t find the shoes. ‘The nurses took them,’ he said. He pulled back the shade and peeked out the window. ‘There are helicopters watching me.’
Somebody called my father back from the cafeteria. Butch and the female nurses came with him. It was the first time I ever saw Butch in his scrubs. They made him look soft. He and my father put my grandfather back in bed. They were the only two people who looked right in that room.
My grandfather pinched a tuft of my father’s black arm hair and pulled on it. ‘What a beast,’ he said. ‘You make a good nurse.’
‘It’s the calcium levels in his blood,’ my father said, looking around at the other nurses. ‘It’s affecting my father’s thinking.’ He apologised to everyone. I didn’t like hearing the words ‘my father.’ He was my grandfather, and nobody else.
I didn’t like hearing my father apologise, either. I’d overheard the other nurses in the hallway. They were all women, and I knew they weren’t treating my grandfather right. They whined that he was troublesome, that he complained too much, that he was awkward. They didn’t want to have to check on him. They decided whose turn it was by flipping a coin – one time their nickel rolled into the room. The nurse who came in to fetch it plucked it off the floor, then smiled and left and sent in the loser. They had taken his shoes, to keep him from wandering. One of them had mentioned restraints. Another had said that if my father didn’t work there, they’d have strapped him down already.
When Butch left I heard him say, ‘Hey ladies,’ and they laughed at him. When he had gone they made fun of him.
My grandfather pulled on his hair, chewed his lip, and blinked at the window that the nurses had uncovered. Those women reminded me of birds. When they spoke it was like they were squawking. They strutted around and snapped at everything. Like birds, they didn’t know that we could hear them.
My mother drove me to my grandfather’s house to see him. They’d sent him home from the hospital to be comfortable. My father and Richard were already over there. Richard had spent the whole day doing yard work. My father had thought that a house in order would help to put my grandfather at ease.
The tuna casserole was sitting on the floor behind my seat. It was one of the only dishes that my mother knew how to make, and still she’d made me help her with it. She was a very successful businessperson; my father usually did the cooking. I hated tuna casserole. I hoped that it would spill. I was holding the pineapple soufflé in my lap. I had helped her with that one, too. It wasn’t really a soufflé. It was a pudding with pineapples. It was warm, and it was pressing my dress’s uncomfortable pink fabric against my thighs. My mother had forbid wearing black.
My mother was driving slow to keep her food from spilling. Her car had a leather interior. It was like being inside of an inside-out animal. She always drove too slow. Her car was very precious to her. She said that her car was a statement that she needed to make clearly. She said that women had it tougher when she was growing up. She was happy I wouldn’t have to go through what she did. We were dragging a long line of cars behind us. I wished that somebody would honk.
‘Spider,’ my mother said. ‘Stop scowling.’
I hated when she called me Spider. ‘I’m not scowling,’ I said, then scowled about as hard as I could.
‘Nobody wants to see you scowl,’ she told me.
‘It’s my natural disposition.’
‘I believe it,’ she said. ‘Even so.’
She didn’t worry like my father did, but she had a talent for making me question myself. That was something I hated, too. She was smart, but no smarter than I was.
A pickup truck broke free from the line and sped past us. It honked. It made me feel better. My mother took a hand off the wheel and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. I flinched, and she laughed at me.
‘You’re like a wild animal,’ she said.
We were driving by a pasture. A cow with twitching ears was licking a cinder block. It lifted its rear foot and twisted its fat neck to scratch at one of the ears.
‘Miranda, talk to me,’ my mother said. ‘We’re all upset.’
I didn’t like Miranda, either. The car felt small. I couldn’t see enough of the sky.
‘Stop fidgeting,’ she said.
We passed a man splitting wood. There was a fat, heavy cylinder of wood; then there were two fleeing pieces. Like magic.
My mother noticed the man. ‘People are crazy,’ she marveled. ‘It’s the beginning of summer. This end of New Jersey is full of aspiring lumberjacks.’
I’d been having a lumberjack dream about my father. I felt ridiculous. She saw me frowning.
‘One of these days you’ll have to talk to me,’ she said.
Not true. I respect her, but I still never talk to her. We have nothing in common.
‘Spider,’ my mother said. ‘Miranda. Your grandfather wants to see you happy.’
Who knew what my grandfather wanted. He was dying. Maybe a Spider would be insufficient. My mother was smart; she could be perceptive. She had dressed me up as a Miranda. She thought I owed it to her to look happy. It occurred to me that maybe she was right. I reminded myself that I wanted my grandfather to be happy. I tried to smile. I looked for things that would make me smile. The wind was making waves in a field of grass. I smiled and asked if we could open a window.
‘No,’ my mother said. ‘The AC’s on.’ I noticed then that she was crying. I passed her a tissue from the glove compartment and made sure to look away.
I followed her in through the back door. My grandmother was in the kitchen. She had a pot on every burner. She was making all of my grandfather’s favourite dishes. I set the soufflé on the table. A sagging banner overhead said, Welcome Home!
‘Oh, my lambs,’ my grandmother said, ‘Oh my lambs.’ She wiped her hands on her apron and then grabbed me. ‘Spider, you look so beautiful,’ she said. She never called me Spider. ‘Ricardo will be delighted to see you.’ She never called my grandfather Ricardo. She put a hand on the back of my head as she hugged me. She smoothed my smooth hair. Her breasts were big. My dress made a crumpling sound as she squeezed me. She smelled like beans.
The lid of a pot began to rattle. She held me out in front of her. Her glasses were filthy. I tried to smile.
‘Oh, Spider,’ she said, and hugged me again.
My mother said, ‘Let me help you,’ and lifted the rattling lid, then yelped and dropped it.
My grandmother let go of me. Her glasses slipped down her nose; she didn’t fix them. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘let me see.’ She and my mother crowded around the burnt hand and cooed at it as if it were a wounded bird. My mother was crying again. I fled.
The living room was dark and musty. The shades were drawn. On every flat surface my grandmother had stood a framed picture of my grandfather. He was smiling at me from everywhere. My dress made too much noise as I hurried. I could hear the men’s deep voices in the bedroom.
My grandfather’s bedroom was no bigger than mine. He slept in a single bed. He was propped up in the center of it, and my father and brother sat on either side of him. He had his comforter pulled up to his chin. It looked like the fabric from inside a coffin. My father was smoothing my grandfather’s terrified hair. He stopped smoothing, and they all looked at me. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to smooth my unsmoothable dress.
‘Who’s that,’ my grandfather asked. I thought that maybe he was joking. I tried to smile, and Richard looked at me like I was crazy.
‘It’s Spider,’ my father said, and began smoothing the hair again.
‘Right,’ my grandfather said. ‘The itsy-bitsy Spider.’ His eyes followed the cracks up the walls to the ceiling fan. ‘Have a seat, Spider.’
I sat down at the foot of the bed. My skirt frothed up around me.
My father chuckled. ‘Her mother dressed her up in that.’
‘You look lovely, Spider.’ My grandfather’s eyes wandered everywhere. ‘You are a beautiful young woman.’
Richard barked out a laugh.
My father said, ‘Richard.’
The fan was making an artificial breeze. It was cool on my hot cheeks.
‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ My grandfather looked to my father for the answer.
‘Yes, Papa, she’s beautiful.’ He didn’t look at me as he said it.
I wasn’t used to being beautiful. I didn’t feel like myself. I watched the fan. I watched the inside of the fan’s circle, then the outside.
‘Doesn’t she look familiar?’ my grandfather asked.
There was the inside of the fan, and the outside.
My grandfather pulled himself more upright. My father told him to take it easy, but then helped him. Richard was twisting the toe of his shoe into the carpet.
‘She looks familiar,’ my grandfather continued. ‘She looks like my wife, how she used to look.’
‘She doesn’t look a thing like her grandmother.’ My father smoothed his father’s hair. ‘She has her mother’s features.’
My grandfather shook the hands off his head and frowned. ‘Spider, you look like my wife,’ he said. ‘You look like my wife used to look. You’re beautiful.’
Richard didn’t laugh. He lifted his foot and looked at the vortex he’d made in the carpet.
I tried to follow the outside of the fan with my eyes, but couldn’t. The fan wasn’t helping. The room was getting smaller. It felt like being underwater. We don’t belong in closed spaces.
‘You’re a doll,’ my grandfather said. ‘A real beauty.’
‘Okay, Papa.’ My father pulled the comforter back up to his father’s chin. ‘That’s Spider. She’s your granddaughter.’
My grandfather shook his head again, as if there were flies around him. ‘Look at me,’ he said. My father had stopped smoothing his hair; it was a white jet of spume. The shadows of dark ships drifted through the blue of his eyes. ‘What are you thinking,’ he asked me.
Richard stopped smoothing his patch of carpet. My father looked at my grandfather, then at me. He waited. He was still hoping for his father to say something important.
‘The fan,’ I said. I had to say something. ‘The outside of the fan moves faster than the inside.’ I knew that I didn’t belong there.
My grandfather nodded. He said, ‘That’s how they do the trick. The one where the man stops the blades with his tongue.’
My father sighed. He smoothed the hair roughly. My grandfather sank into his pillow. My father looked at me as if to say he was sorry and said, ‘Maybe you should help in the kitchen.’
I stood. My hands wanted to tremble, so I bunched up my dress in my fists.
‘She’s tall,’ my grandfather observed. ‘You’re tall, but you think too much. Pink isn’t your colour. We should go dancing.’
‘That’s enough, Papa,’ my father said. There was a catch in his voice. He lifted his fist to his mouth and coughed into it.
Richard looked up at me and frowned. He looked at my face and at my fists. He reached into his pocket. ‘Miranda,’ he said, and tossed me something. He never called me Miranda. I let go of myself and caught it. I was surprised that I caught it. It was heavy enough for it to feel good being caught. I wasn’t trembling. It was the pen knife. Richard was still frowning. He said, ‘He wanted you to have it.’
The door opened. It was my grandmother. She looked at me standing there. ‘We could use you in the kitchen,’ she said.
‘Maria!’ my grandfather said, surprised. ‘This is Spider. Isn’t she tall?’
My grandmother took my arm to lead me out. Her grip was stronger than I’d expected.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Earle McCartney has completed an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received a Teaching Writing Fellowship and a Glenn Schaeffer Postgraduate Award. He is currently leading a summer fiction workshop at the IIML. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.