© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

Oh, Said Mom

Mention poppies and the image hits me. One foot bare, standing in front of the running bathroom sink, zebra-striped by the blinds and the day’s dying sun, and quietly smiling to himself over the sound of displaced running water while I watched from his bed in stunned confusion of what had just happened. I can barely remember his face. I’ve seen photographs, but those are Kodak’s memories. Nice of them to share, of course, but they don’t give me the real picture; the misplaced hairs, the varying wrinkle depth, the crowded train wreck of yellowed lower teeth, the wet leather musk. Nor can I recall any interaction between us longer than a few seconds, with one glaring exception. He died about a year after it took place, when I was seven. I never told anyone because I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to share, sentimentality or embarrassment notwithstanding. They say such familial interactions invariably affect one’s adult life, but I’m getting along just fine. Kids, wife, the whole bit. It has, however, been drifting into my thoughts more frequently as of late. As I get older, maybe. Because I’m only now beginning to realize that the ever-lumbering seconds drag everything along with them, giving us through experience an empathetic perspective on the puerile deviance of the old. Aging allows me to understand his motivation to the point of almost appreciate it, which is obviously distressing. I can see now how we get lost, frightened. How we actively seek out even the faintest nostalgic whiff. I replay it over and over in my private moments, a visual song stuck in my head. He looked like a wrinklier version of my uncle, I think. Balder.

We were at Poppy and Grammy’s house with the new baby. Relatively new, anyway. It was Grammy’s favorite day of the month, even before Annie was born. Poppy seemed indifferent to her, a lion’s apathy for the pride’s cubs. He was there in case of emergencies, to politely smirk and poke an obligatory finger into the baby’s belly whenever prompted to say hello to his granddaughter, although I’d often catch him stealing glimpses of her when no one was looking. The adults spent most of our recent visits cooing and fawning as Annie flailed about, placing various appendages in her mouth while I tried to keep myself occupied by immersion in the palpable history of the house. Even so young I possessed a shallow understanding of why everyone was so enthralled with the baby. We all like new things. But what I couldn’t comprehend was how Mom and Dad, after seeing her every single day, pooping and crying and eating and pooping, were still just as awed as Grammy. Annie didn’t even do anything but lay on the floor and stare wobbly-eyed at whatever passed in front of her, surprised each and every time she discovered one of her own hands or feet. Infant Alzheimer’s. As a child, I realized that such a fascination existed, but only as an adult with children of my own may I deeply empathize with the aging deifiers of Youth. I’ve somewhere along the line become part of the congregation. And although none of us were aware of it at the time, Poppy was quietly the faith’s most fundamental disciple.

He was never one to coo. He would read the paper on the couch while everyone gathered in the living room, occasionally grunting or clearing his throat from behind a shield of newspaper. He wasn’t necessarily grumpy, but reticent, and would often say something dryly that made no sense to me but that the adults got a kick out of, or would roll their eyes and admonish him for. Our one-on-one encounters were familial enough, and I wasn’t particularly inclined one way or the other if Poppy was asked to watch me while Mom and Grammy went to the grocery store, although there was the possibility of boredom. It was like being in a room with a big canary that smelled like Brut aftershave. I lovd him though, and not solely in the obligatory familial sense, nor, obviously, in any sense resembling real and developed human love. Hindsight love, afterlove. Things about him that I didn’t love at the time but that I now so tenderly associate with Youth that I have no choice but to love. The acrid, leathery scent of his newly shined shoes. The badger shave brush sitting in an old mug of crusty suds. The way his infrequent laugh was a gravelly repetition of the phoneme that rests between Hee and Hey (Heah?) and trailed off at the end of each syllable, losing its inertia like a basketball dropped on the driveway. He had never said Gitchee-Kitchee Goo in his life, so it surprised no one when he smiled politely, folded his paper, and after a few moments of staring idly at his granddaughter, receded down the hall.

I entertained myself as much as any child could with the artifactual trinkets and bibelots of the house while the adults probably talked about the weather or family news or the baby’s stool and upchuck habits. Thankfully, everyone made their way to the back yard where during the summer months Dad would man the grill while Grammy and Mom took turns making dinner and watching the baby. Taking a grandfatherly cue, I quietly slipped away from the monotonous gathering to ruffle through the old house’s closets and corners, through the lifetime accumulation of stale smells and residual auras that seeped from my grandparents’ possessions. Children can feel and appreciate the perpetual warmth of experience in old dress blues or even a box of nails the way that older people cherish the innocence and tabula rasa of the young. Occasionally, Grammy had to retrieve something from the attic and would let me follow her up the ladder that unfolded from the ceiling, and would give me verbal glimpses of the past while I nosed through the evidence; boxes of dusty books, mildewed camping gear, trophies, and train sets.

The string that fell from the attic’s entrance was, when I was six, the perfect height. With a running jump, on my best day, I could leap just high enough to bat the small wooden bead that rested on a knot at the end of the string to give it weight and something to grasp. I had, in my illustrious bead-batting history, twice managed to make such forceful contact that it swung up along its arc to hit the wooden attic panel with a satisfying clack. I had only made two attempts at the string before a flat, fleshy thump came from the bedroom behind the closed door at the end of the hall.

As a child I didn’t know a heart attack from a hemorrhoid, so my first reaction wasn’t to burst heroically through the door, nor to obediently follow my parents’ repeated command to go get an adult anytime something felt fishy. I stopped leaping and herded my concentrative powers to my ears, which perceived, among the chatter of my parents and several birds in unrelated conversations, absolutely nothing. The door quickly faded from my interest, which refocused momentarily on the dangling bead until, of course, I heard the second thump, which justified the entirety of my curious attention, and pulled me silently to within inches of the door.  The pungent effluvium of secret that is so potently toxic to children soaked into my pores, both quickening my heart and keeping it hushed so as not to hinder my ears, one of which I placed flatly against the thin wood. I could see from such an angle that the door wasn’t completely latched, and realized that I wouldn’t have to make a peep to see the show, barring the alarm of a creaky hinge. The third thump gave me the gumption to chance it. It needed only the slightest nudge from my cheek to slide open several inches without a sound, easily wide enough for me to encounter one of the more indelible and everlasting sights of my childhood. Poppy sat on the end of the bed, his right shoe stuffed with its limp brown sock nearby on the floor. His pant leg was rolled up to the shin, and both of his knuckly hands were on the underside of his bare right ankle, pulling his foot upward past his left knee toward his head, which he strained to lower with a reddened, trembling intensity, his eyebrows angrily furrowed and bristly mouth agape beneath furious, maddened eyes, silently screaming at his gnarled, encroaching toes. Then he saw me.

He let go of his pale, hairless foot, but by the time it thudded I heard it only from the adjacent room, to which I had bolted and stood petrified in fear and guilt, unknowing if I had seen something I shouldn’t have, if I were in trouble, if he were in trouble, if I’d be better off outside with Mom and Dad, or if I should just call it quits now and jump out a window. It was my first experience with something that, even though I wasn’t sure what I had seen, I implicitly understood that I wasn’t supposed to see it. Reasons why could only be conjecture.

He called my name.

Even as an adult I don’t know whether the fact that he called me back to him, as opposed to coming after me, was an assertion of authority or a hope that I was already out of earshot. If I joined everyone outside, things might blow over completely, neither Poppy or I would ever have to speak or think of the incident again; then again, Poppy could come out and roar to the pride that I was an awful, nosy brat, and that I would, of course, have to be punished accordingly, maybe eaten. The former did not seem likely and the latter did not seem even the least bit pleasant. Either way, if I stayed put or snuck out I was fairly sure we’d run into each other again, considering I would probably have to pee or eat or leave with my parents at some point, and my cowering refusal to show myself was a blatant acknowledgment of serious guilt, as opposed to a swift return, which could hopefully imply a bit of youthful innocence, removing me from all responsibility and negating, or at least severely lessoning, any punitive action.

I obviously considered none of this. I was six. I didn’t know whether to shit or cry and I was about to do both. He called me again and the tone in his voice, either a few extra stones in the gravel or an affectionately raised inflection at the end of my name, convinced me to step from out of the bedroom and penitently return to the scene, where he wore a severe look. I couldn’t tell what emotion his smile was meant to conceal, but it sat on his face like a hat on a head; an obviously unnatural, manmade creation meant to adorn, cover or protect. It did little to hide his labored breath. He motioned for me to come in. Close the door, he said. His shoe was still off, his pale, yellowed toes curled, strings of black hair bristled between each knuckle. Come sit down, he said as he patted the mattress next to him. I wore a similar smile.

I hopped up, jouncing us both slightly. He placed his hand on my shoulder in a firm, paternal grip and took a breath to speak, but stopped himself. Hmm, he said, before taking a deep breath and letting it deluge from his pursed lips, which inflated and tautened his normally cragged cheeks. He squeezed my knee and gave it a pat while his bare foot fidgeted, big toe flicking nervously over its neighbor.

How far back do you remember? he said.

I couldn’t remember my own name at that moment. I was a goldfish, couldn’t recall that life existed more than two minutes previous. Plus, I was thrown by the question. What did that have to do with anything? Had I caught him doing this before?

Do you remember being a baby? he said in response to my silence.

There were flashes of hovering faces and miniature spoons covered in applesauce, but the first concrete memory I could muster, then or now, was a single occurrence with my mother that I only understand as an adult to be the moment in which I recognized my parents’ fallibility; a moment that, as far as I can tell, was the initial and most impactful conscious realization of my life, and the first step in every child’s journey to eventual independence. I recall only the scene and the dialogue. All else is superfluous and irrelevant. Mom was picking me up from the daycare center, and when she arrived I asked her eagerly to read to me the picture book Who Killed Cock Robin before we left.

We’ll read it when we get home, she said.

But it’s not mine, I said.

And she said this: Oh.

My infinitesimal knowledge of the world transformed instantly upon my ingestion of that single syllable; there is something that Mom doesn’t know. Things steadily get worse from this point forward. For all of us.

I wasn’t about to regale Poppy with a fresh and powerful memory for which I didn’t possess the vocabulary to regale, not so much because of my inadequate lexicon, but because I wanted desperately to forget everything that had so far occurred. Nor did I have any clue why he asked in the first place, unless it was an admission that he had been doing something that I shouldn’t plan on remembering.

I won’t tell, I finally said.

He laughed heartily, startling me, the sight of which quelled his chuckle so as not to frighten me further. He apologized and told me not to be silly, that neither he nor I were doing anything wrong, and that Poppy was just being a silly old man. He said this in third person. I wish I could remember verbatim what he told me next, because it’s something that indeed sounded silly, that was far out of my boundaries of comprehension, by nature and by choice.

He told me that his memories are fading, the distant ones first. He told me about the mobile that swirled above him in his crib, that it was his first memory, that he thought the planes in it had something to do with his decision to join the military. He told me how lucky I am to be young, and that it goes by fast. He told me there are things you have to face when you get older that are hard to face, and that I should remember Poppy telling me to have fun, to laugh a lot, because things will start to change eventually, will start to get a little bit harder. His speech slowed and lowered with every word. He spoke more poignantly, regrettably, as if he were considering what he was saying for the first time. Or the last. I was lost, too young to empathize with an old man’s encroaching mortality, but the perfect audience for something he could say to no one else. He knew I wouldn’t judge him, or at least didn’t yet possess the vicious human capacity to judge. Nor would I or could I assume that he had Alzheimer’s or dementia, since all adults were completely absurd to me, particularly the elderly, thus I wouldn’t have even considered telling Mom of any noticeably odd behavior, which would ignite her consideration of what to do about his failing mind, ever since that time his grandson discovered him silently howling at his bare foot. He told me, through mumbled, embarrassed words, that he loved me, and he loved my new baby sister, and that he felt terrible because whenever he sees her it makes him feel sad as opposed to happy. He told me he was jealous of her. And of me. He repeated how silly Poppy was. He hesitated for a moment, and then said that he was jealous that Annie could be so happy just to see the mobile, the smiling faces swirling around above her, that she could be so surprised and amazed and overjoyed at discovering her own foot that she just had to put it in her mouth to experience the new discovery more completely. Baby Happy, he called it. He said he was so old that he couldn’t feel Baby Happy anymore, and that it made him sad. And so he told me that he wanted to try to put his own toe in his mouth, to see if maybe that might make him feel Baby Happy one more time.

Without empathy or comprehension I had no idea how to respond, but even my limited experience with human interaction allowed me to recognize emotional exhaustion. So I responded in the way that I assumed anyone would in the face of another individual’s suffering or despair. I offered to help.

Want me to push? I said.

He chuckled softly to himself only once, in the way so many adults chuckle when a child puts forth an innocent notion somehow infeasible among the world’s current circumstance; Rich people should help poor people. Someone should tell bad guys what they’re doing is wrong so they stop. Nobody should ever hurt animals. But a smile crept over his face. A grin, more specifically. A rebellious grin, shunning whatever authority says that he shouldn’t even attempt what his aging heart urged him to do. Would a child reject such an offer? Has a young child ever in the history of mankind declined assistance in completing whatever mischievous task it has decided to undertake, because of experiential fatigue or the idea that God or society deems it inappropriate? How could one possibly rediscover merely a hint of that preadolescent innocence by adhering to the convictions of men so much closer to death? Especially so in a world in which that blissful Baby Happiness is chipped away to nothing by bearing repeated witness to the devious proclivities of the men those convictions are meant to suppress? The perceptions of many based on the actions of a few is the flawed rationale behind everything from religious wars to slavery to racism to genocide. Retaining even the concept of youthful innocence is nearly impossible under such societal inclinations. I am not an old man because you say I’m an old man, the grin said. I want the world to be enormous again. I want to be a child one more time, if only for a moment. Fuck it, the grin said.

Oh yeah, big guy? Can you do it?

I rolled my eyes and quickly grabbed my ankle, lifting my foot casually and holding the heel within a a few inches of my ear, looking at him as if you say, simply, aDuh.

Don’t be silly, Poppy, I said.

He laughed outright at this and said, Well that hardly seems fair. All right, let’s give it a shot.

I hopped off the bed and stood before him, bending down to help lift his clammy foot to a position of rest on his left knee. He grunted and said he could barely tie his shoelaces anymore, and that he used to trim his toenails with his teeth until he was almost forty, that he doesn’t know what happened. Don’t ever get old, he said.

I placed my hands between both of his, one of which rested under his calf so that he might curl his leg toward him, one placed flatly against the bottom of his foot so as to bend his toes, a minor but crucial extension, to his mouth once they were within range. Here we go, he said, careful now, and we both began to lift. I gently pushed upward while he pulled, but we met solid resistance within a few inches of his knee; it was elastic but stretched only to a definite point, like a girl’s rubber hair tie or the metal band of every septuagenarian’s watch. He pulled again and I followed suit, attempting futilely to lower his head without leaning forward, pushing his foot (and me) away. Every time he would lean I would push back, feeling the shivering tension in his joints, then he’d lean in again, and I’d push back. Okay okay, he said as his head righted itself and he craned his neck back, softly repeating owowowowowow as he slowly lowered his foot to floor, the skin recoloring from where his fingers had pressed the flesh against the metatarsals.

Annie always lays on her back when she does it, I said as he grimaced. He held his head like a basketball, one hand on the crown and one under the chin, as if he were preparing to remove it from his shoulders. He twisted and I heard the distant, muffled sound of a glass bottle popping under a car tire. Maybe you should lay on your back?

I don’t know, bud, he said. Might get stuck down there, and you’d see your Poppy rolling around like a turtle.

I laughed, the sound of which made him smile, and upon the smile’s descent his eyes flickered in a way that I had only ever recognized in other children’s eyes at day care or school, whenever an exciting new game or adventure had been organically and collectively created, and beneath the gleam his bristled lips again skewed into the grin. He scooched himself back on the mattress and reclined, grunting as he lifted his feet to the edge of the bed. Don’t tell your Grammy that I put my shoe on the bed, all right? She’d have Poppy peeling potatoes for a month.

I won’t tell, I said as I jumped up and over him, making sure to get an extra springy bounce before settling in on his left; if I didn’t tell, he wouldn’t tell, right? Plus, I was having a hard time containing both my natural energy and the growing excitement inherent in the spontaneous creation of our new game. Using his rolled up pant leg as a grip, he situated his ankle again on his left knee. I was surprised by the tautness of his glabrous shins, especially considering the thin skin of his wrinkly jowls or the spinachy flesh on the back of his hands. His toenail was thick and yellowed, dry and rugged at the edge like a tooth, and had a small split just right of center. The sides of his heals began cracking long ago, yellowed fissures eroded nearly smooth, and I tried to comprehend what could possibly transform plump, soft, white feet into those worn, calloused, sepia knobs.

You ready to pull? he said.

I nodded my head and put my hand under his heel. Go slow, now, he said. He pulled against his shin which both moved his leg toward him and his shoulders upward, bringing foot and mouth within a few inches of each other before his tendons began to tremble. I felt a small pop echo through his leg and instinctively relaxed my grip, to which his eyes, now closer than ever to their prize, widened and shook along with his head. I’m okay, he choked out through raspy breath. Keep… His entire body trembled under him, stark white knuckles tugging mightily against an unmoving calf, his raised left leg pointing his shoed foot absently into the corner. His face strained as his toes inched closer, and I noticed that he was leading with his chin.

Pick your head up, Poppy! I coached. You’re close!

Had I been unaware of the situation I would have been terrified at the perceived rage in his eyes, the fury of his open-mouth scowl, reddened jaws and knife-edge lips. But I brought myself closer to the apparent wrath, unfrightened, steadied myself beside his trembling, tucked body, and placed my free right hand beneath the back of his head, gently lifting up, and folded him together in my arms. I slowly brought him closer, to where his cracked nail barely tickled the bristles of his protruding mustache. He pulled harder, inch-worming his lip over the nail, then the knuckle, his lower lip following suit, sliding down and around the calloused joint. The frazzled hair of his toe folded back beneath his whiskered lips as his entire big toe dipped into his mouth and was secured around the base with a tight, labial seal, middle toe wiggling giddily against his cheek. As I looked down upon him in my arms I saw it; in his eyes gleamed the luminescence of infantile joy, the innocently selfish pride he bestowed upon himself for discovering what he was (still) capable of, and I can only hope that among that light there shone the Baby Happiness he so desperately yearned to recall. When he finally looked at me, after processing all of the rediscovered ancient emotions, he swirled his eyes around his head, crossing them and recrossing them in acknowledgement of how silly he must look. I doubled over in laughter, and my unexpected release of his head snapped it back and thus pulled his foot forward, at which point his big toe caught itself on the back of his two front teeth and slingshotted the entire upper half of his mouth across the bedroom where it bounced against the dresser and skittered along the hardwood floor. I heard Poppy laughing in near hysterics and the bed jounced erratically beneath me while my frightened eyes were transfixed on the part of Poppy’s head that now rested in the middle of the room. When I finally looked at him he was happier than I’d ever seen him or anyone else. The bristly upper lip curled over his gum line and disappeared into the darkness from which the guffaws emerged, and he occasionally slapped his hands and both feet on the mattress in giddy amusement. His bellows only amplified when he saw the crazed confusion in my eyes. Holding his stomach from laughter he did his best to sit up, through the creaks of age and the chortling seizures, and wiped the tears from both eyes with the palms of each wrinkly hand before pulling me in close and giving me an excited, grandfatherly embrace, heartily patting me my small back with his massive paw. I think he snotted on my shirt.

He stood up with another groan, albeit a new groan, one of exhilaration as opposed to acquiescence, and wiped another tear from his eye. He picked me up and stood me on the bed with a firm grip on each shoulder, rustling my hair before giving me a toothless, whiskery kiss on the forehead.

Thank you, buddy, he said. Love ya. He bent and grabbed his teeth which lay unchattering by the bathroom door, through which he stepped, and at which point my memory fades. I remember the sound of the faucet, of his dentures displacing the flow behind a tall shield of drab olive and beige plaid. I remember seeing the corner of his mouth upturned in the mirror, his greying head blocking the rest of his smile. I remember his gravelly, bouncing chuckle returning, and the gleaming big toe of his bare foot absently kneading the bath rug. I remember Mom saying Oh. I remember being born. I remember asking him, Poppy, did you feel Baby Happy again? But I know I’ll never remember what he said.