The Last Visit (Part 1)
I’ve written this short story many years ago, when I used to see life (and death) through the eyes of a teenager. Part 1 will appear this Monday, with Part 2 to follow in one week.
My grandfather worked hard his entire life to provide for his family. He also cared for his mentally disabled younger brother who couldn’t study or hold the simplest of jobs. He lived with my grandparents and performed insignificant house chores like dusting or walking the dog. Sometimes he took strolls through the neighborhood. People knew him and made fun of him. On those occasions, my granduncle, exhibiting a keen sensitivity, retreated to his room and stayed there for hours on end.
He had a recurring dream: to win the lottery and buy a Swiss watch and an egg made of solid silver.
When my grandfather retired from his accounting job, my parents convinced him and my grandmother to move in with us. Along came my granduncle. I was little. My memories of those times consist of a narrow room where my granduncle played chess against himself by his dim night lamp before going to bed.
With age, the mental limitations and anxieties of my granduncle became more pronounced, and my grandfather, once retired and lacking other activities, became consumed by the desire to educate my granduncle and teach him a few elementary life skills, to no effect whatsoever. The relationship between the brothers got tenser. He gave my granduncle a hard time, nagging him, scolding him, and even yelling at him on occasion. Afterwards my grandfather would feel sorry for losing his temper. Eventually, and against my grandfather’s wishes, my father decided it was time to have my granduncle interned at an asylum for the disabled.
Given my granduncle’s inability to comprehend change and the rather impersonal treatment he received at the facility, he was disconsolate. He did not befriend anybody there and constantly asked to go home. Tormented by guilt, my grandfather visited him weekly. For a small sum of money, he convinced Mr. Donca, a patient at the facility who was partially disabled, but could get around, to help look after of my granduncle. Out of habit, my grandfather continued to speak in his harsh tone of voice with his brother, bossing him around, as if trying to force him to settle in and even like the place. In reality my grandfather’s abrupt manners were nothing but a shield concealing his guilty feelings.
Years went by. I was aware of this granduncle of mine, but I thought of him rarely and only to the extent that his existence affected my grandfather’s. The last time I saw him was when my grandfather didn’t feel too well and asked me to accompany him on his visit. He was getting old, and the ride on the overcrowded tram was a challenge.
We arrived at the gate and, unwilling to go in, I told my grandfather I would take a walk and meet him there in half an hour. When I returned, my grandfather wasn’t there. The guard signaled to me through his little window. I told him I was looking for the older gentleman who had entered the facility half an hour ago. A car was parked across the street and the guard might have thought that I was my grandfather’s driver.
“The old man is still inside,” he said. “You know, he’s quite stingy. Each time he comes, he knocks on my window and gives me a few coins. I feel like throwing them back at his face, but I thank him politely.”
“I’m his grandson,” I said. “I want to go in and find him.”
“Oh, the grandson,” the doorman mumbled. He had a wrinkled face and his pale blue eyes were barely visible under droopy lids. “Then go. He must be on the second floor, or if not, he’s in with the director. That would be on your left, as you come down the stairs.”
I heard him lock the heavy gate behind me and found myself in a paved yard enclosed on three sides by the walls of the building and on the forth by a tall, concrete fence. Near the entry door was a square patch of dirt dotted by blades of yellowed grass. A few old men sat on a bench enjoying the fresh air. I felt their silent gaze follow me. Inside the building, I took the stairs, climbed to the second floor and entered a small rec room where four people sitting on folding chairs played rummy at a table covered in threadbare green felt. I realized I was in the wrong room and went back out and down the hallway. Through the open door of a large dormitory, I saw my grandfather standing by my granduncle’s bed, talking and moving his hands emphatically. There were many beds and many old men wearing dark red gowns over their pajamas.
My granduncle was laying in his bed. His emaciated chest was covered by curly, white hair protruding through his unbuttoned pajamas. His eyes were dull, and a resigned smile appeared on his face. I leaned over and gave him a kiss. He shivered and started crying.
A smallish man got up from the bed next to my granduncle’s and shook my hand. “Young man, how nice of you to visit! Your uncle talks about you all the time. I am sure he is glad to see you.” The man had a shrill voice and his head hung to his left side, as if he were embarrassed. I noticed his paralyzed arm, and realized I was talking to Mr. Donca.
I greeted him politely and took a step back, or maybe I made a gesture that looked to him less than forthcoming, because he fell silent and squinted at me inquisitively with his beady, ironic eyes.
“You came to find me,” said my grandfather. “Just a little longer, please. Give me another five minutes.” And he left the room together with Mr. Donca.
“How are you?” I asked my granduncle.
He raised himself in bed and pulled down at his pajama top. “It hurts in here,” he said pointing at his hip. “I can’t move very well. It’s frozen.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The doctor will give you something.”
“You know what happened to me? I fell, and I started twisting and I screwed myself into the dirt. Up to my neck I went, and there was nobody to help me.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I stood there and nodded.
“Where is your grandfather?” my granduncle asked. “Why didn’t he come to see me?”
I was about to tell him that grandfather had just been there when I noticed the faces of the patients in the room, clearly amused by my granduncle’s ramblings. One winked at me, and I winked back for no good reason, while my granduncle continued talking. For a while I pretended to listen and nodded, hoping that grandfather would soon return. When he did not show up, I went into the rec room. A bookshelf with glass doors stood against the wall, and on it was a large cardboard sign with ‘Library’ written on it in black ink. The spines of the books were worn and yellowed. The people playing rummy turned to look at me.
“You must be the grandson of that gentleman who visits his brother and used to be an accountant,” one of them said. “Tell him to stop giving money to Donca.”
“Donca takes it and he doesn’t help your uncle,” the man continued. “He has more money than he knows what to do with, the son of a bitch, because he receives his pension and has a son who gives him money also. Tell this to the accountant.”
I assured him I would inform my grandfather, thanked him and went down the stairs. Ahead of me, barely moving because of her weight, an old woman was trying to step through the door into the courtyard. She tripped on the threshold and fell. I rushed over and tried to lift her up, but she was too heavy for me. The men who were sitting on the bench and had seen the mishap, clearly had no intention of helping. The woman was whimpering, yet at the same time she seemed indifferent to what just happened to her, as if it were a normal thing. A nurse appeared and started yelling at the woman, scolding her for having stepped outside by herself. Aggravated, she explained to me that the woman was too heavy and too weak to walk unescorted, and that she never listened and that leaving her there on the cold cement floor until the custodian arrived with the wheelchair might teach her a lesson.
I felt uncomfortable but Grandfather showed up and we left, the doorman nodding and bowing unctuously.
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