A nurse comes in to empty my granddad’s bed pan. She can’t be more than a hundred pounds and five foot tall. Still she scoops her arm underneath his hip and lifts him. I offer to help, and she says, “Honey, sit down and rest. I’m his arms, but you’re his tether.”
Granddad’s a storyteller. Example: as a young Navy officer, he survived a ship wreck. He clung to life in a tiny raft by drinking his own pee and punching sharks in the face. Waves crashed. White foam spewed. His lips turned cracked and red as rust. He created a flare out of baking soda and a lighter and saved his men.
As I sit beside him in the cancer ward, in a hard, baby-shit-colored lounge chair, he sleeps. His wrinkled face relaxed, lying mouth quiet. I lean across him to adjust his blanket, and his skin smells like old paper.
He insists when my grandma was dying, she was attended by an angel. Each night a single firefly clung to the window screen outside her room, flashing in time with her heartbeat. When she passed, it flew away, taking her spirit with it into the sky.
At midnight, he wakes with a cramp. He clutches his calf and moans. I try to straighten his leg, my heart thumping blood in my neck. I try to give him a plastic cup of water, and drop it because my hands are shaking. His face crumples in pain as I smash the call button over and over.
He says in New Orleans he visited a whore house where the women spoke nothing but French. His prostitute had long red hair and a mole on her belly the size of a dime. There was a misunderstanding; he was short ten bucks, and the woman chased him out with a broom yelling asshole in French. He told this story to my husband before we were married, the first time they met. I sat there embarrassed while the two men laughed.
He’s far along. No groans or coughs, just the ragged catch of his breath. The nurse asks me to help bathe him. The sponge moves under my hand, cool and damp across his puffy blue veins.
There was the time he lifted a car off a man.
The time he invented pickles.
The time he met the pope.
I’m holding his hand, his grip there but slight. The nurse has been futzing with a machine, but she stops to look at him and places her hand on his forehead. He breathes in. His chest rises for five full seconds before he gasps out a loud, deep-throated sigh and lets go of my hand. In the hallway outside, a kid walks past with a can of Coke.
Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon.Her fiction has been published recently in Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, (b)OINK, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her online at www.chelseavoulgares.com or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.