I was seven when I was sent to stay with my grandparents in Waltham for the summer. My parents remained at home, two hours down the Mass Pike, in Lee. My mother had told me that she and my father needed to do a lot of talking. Even as a second grader, I knew that meant fighting, and I was happy to escape.
On first seeing me, my grandfather said, “What the hell is your mother feeding you?” Then he hitched up his worn dungarees and resettled in front of the Red Sox game he had been watching. “Kid looks like a goddamned keg with arms and legs,” he mumbled to no one.
“He’s only seven,” my grandmother told him.
“Yeah,” my grandfather said, “seven hundred pounds.” Then he turned up the volume on the television.
I was fat. I had to wear clothes marked ‘husky,’ and some older kids at school called me The Oompa Loompa.
My grandmother was fat, too. But never sloppy. She didn’t wear track suits all the time like a lot of fat ladies. She dressed up every day, said it was her Southern roots. She grew up in Baton Rouge and moved to Massachusetts to study literature and art at Wellesley — an accomplishment my grandfather, who never went to college, seemed to hold against her. She prepared big breakfasts, allowed me eat as many pancakes or muffins as I wanted, gave me butter instead of margarine, let me have bacon. As she served me seconds or thirds, she’d remind me that breakfast was a good time for me to eat because I had all day to burn off the food.
The kids in my grandparents’ neighborhood seemed tougher than the kids in Lee because they cursed and spoke with thicker Boston accents. They teased me immediately. One girl called me a cow and threatened to kick my fucking ass the first afternoon I ventured out into the June heat. A few days later, she spotted me as I walked to Birnbach’s, a small convenience store owned by the man who lived next door. She ran up, and punched me in the neck. The kid she was with, a tiny blond guy who might have been four or five, smacked my bare legs with a wiffle bat.
When my grandfather learned who had attacked me, he said, “Not only are you a lard-ass, you’re a pansy lard-ass.”
I’d heard my grandfather complain about the Jew students blocking his car in the driveway, or Jew professors controlling the whole town. I heard him grumpily use “Jew” as a verb when he filled the gas tank of his giant Lincoln. I knew if he didn’t like Jews, I did. So I began to spend my afternoons a few blocks from my grandparents’ house, up the big hill, wandering around the Brandeis University campus, looking for anyone in a yarmulke. When I found one, I’d follow him, hold imaginary conversations in my mind — Of course I’m a Jew! Aren’t you? Jews rule
I even went so far as to make myself a yarmulke out of felt I found in my grandmother’s sewing bag. I traced a coffee can, cut out the circle. I stole hairpins from her, too, and I affixed the yarmulke to my head in the woods between South Street and campus, always on the lookout for the neighborhood kids.
At the end of the day, I’d tally the imaginary Jewish friends I had made on little slips of paper: I made 7 jew frends. From Jason R. 4 jew frends today. From, Jason R. I’d slide the notes into a crack where the windowsill met the wall in my bedroom, a crack I had discovered by following a line of ants.
One hot night in July, I was startled awake from a dream about riding in a speeding school bus that had no driver. I first went to my grandparents’ bedroom, but the door was closed and I heard snoring, which was a relief. When my grandfather snored, my grandmother was usually downstairs, watching television, her knitting needles clicking away. She’d sometimes let me sit with her on the couch and watch re-runs of I Love Lucy and eat shortbread until I fell asleep again. Her laughter made me feel safe, protected me from whatever it was that haunted me in my dreams. In the morning, I’d find myself in my bed. Like magic.
I quickly scrambled down the stairs, eager to join my grandmother, my bare feet sticking to the humid hardwood steps. A half-empty bottle of gin and two bottles of tonic were out on the counter, next to a few sweaty glasses and squeezed out limes. I stopped by that counter before entering the living room, and not because of the Cheerio I had just stepped on.
I watched my grandfather and Mr. Birnbach, the convenience store owner, kiss on the couch. They kissed like people on TV, with their mouths open. My grandfather was shirtless, and Mr. Birnbach rubbed the thick white hair on my grandfather’s chest.
And then the eye. My grandfather’s eye cut over and caught me in the doorway. He pulled away from Mr. Birnbach’s wet lips with an audible smack, and grunted at me, “Go to bed! Now! Get your fat ass up there!”
Mr. Birnbach, who always brought something for me when he came over to play cards — a rubber-band powered airplane, Pez, bubbles — also looked over to me, grinned slightly, hopefully.
“Now!” my grandfather yelled.
I did as I was told, ran back upstairs, but before getting into bed, I sat down at the small pink desk in my bedroom — my mother’s old desk. I tried not to hyperventilate, and I jotted a note: Granpa and Mr Burback kised on the coach. From, Jason R. The fear and confusion in my stomach dissipated when I slid the folded note into the crack with my Jew-friend tallies. A letter to no one. A mailbox to nowhere.
When my grandfather scolded me for leaving the screen door open: Granpa is meen. From Jason R. And after the dog vomited on the kitchen floor: Magy throed up. From Jason R. By the end of the summer, I was chronicling all the news, sliding several notes per day into the crack, sometimes folding them into envelopes and drawing on stamps.
My grandfather’s colon cancer had been diagnosed just before I left for college in California. In October, as I began to feel comfortable in my dorm and with my classes, I received a message from my mother: “You’re on flight 86, LAX to Logan. Tomorrow. Doctors say a week tops.”
But my grandfather died that night, and I missed saying goodbye, which was a relief. I feared my grandfather as much at eighteen as I had at seven — maybe more — even though I had lost weight, and forgotten about my fascination with Jews. He had only become balder and more abrasive over the years.
After the funeral, where the cold October wind had churned up leaves into the matte gray sky, and people threw blowing dirt onto the casket, my grandmother, whose face seemed to have collapsed, pulled me into the kitchen, away from the others who milled around the food in the living room. She handed me a note, said the exterminator had found several in the wall in the basement a few months ago. Most were rat-chewed; some were cute. This one was neither. She told me to read it.
Granpa and Mr Burback kised on the coach. From, Jason R.
I faked a laugh. I said I didn’t remember it, even though seeing it in my own seven year-old handwriting was like a fever dream: clear and scary. “That’s weird.”
“Please,” she begged. “Can’t you do better than that?”
I couldn’t, and in that moment, I imagined all the times that my grandmother ignored it when my grandfather complained about the damn kikes, all the times he told her she was fat, all the times he embarrassed her with his grumpiness. He referred to her sister as a dumb slut. He got drunk and puked into a planter at their wedding. He bought her gifts at the last minute, things from Walgreens or CVS — waxy chocolates, cheap slippers, even a disposable camera for her birthday. I saw him when he was young, a bus driver in Cambridge, his snappy blue uniform. He’d smile at the handsome Harvard men. A few smiled back. I saw him take my mother to the dentist when she was four. He and the dentist flirted in front of my mother, flipped through muscle magazines, chatted about the team of gorgeous landscapers the dentist had hired to keep up his vast lawn in Weston.
My grandmother began to hit me: pathetic swipes with her half-fisted plump hands, and with each of her feeble blows, I felt a small piece of something rotten from inside her disappear.