I found my grandfather hiding behind the fax machine in a UPS Store on Flatbush Avenue. He surprised me, hunched in his wheelchair; his back turned toward the line in which I stood. I wasn’t sure where he’d gone after I left his rehabilitation facility for the last time, but I knew it wasn’t here, in a cramped storefront with horrible lighting and worse carpeting. I left my place in the queue and crept toward him, hoping not to scare the poor guy—he’d had a bad ticker in life, especially toward the end.
“Grandpa,” I said in a soft voice. I’d never called him nonno—my parents wanted me to be a real American—but I hoped that perhaps he’d understand me anyway. He’d stopped speaking English during the months leading up to his death. Or maybe it was just that without his falsies and the use of a healthy brain, he ceased speaking a language that any of us could understand.
I had to spin his chair around. He didn’t appear to hear me or recognize my voice. “It’s me, Anthony,” I said, feigning excitement. I tried my best to mask the horror that it was really him, my dead grandfather: a body with mass, flesh, bone, blood (presumably). He wasn’t an apparition; my meds hadn’t taken my mind for a joyride. At least I didn’t think so.
“I’ve been looking all over for you.”
This was not technically true, though there had been a time when I did look for him everywhere. One time, I even crossed an ocean and sniffed out every square inch of Trapani, the little coastal city he hailed from, looking for a sign. There were no plaques or statues or gilded reminders of the native son who left his ancestral home in Sicily and relocated to a forgettable olive-green duplex in Bergen County, New Jersey.
I leaned forward, hoping for a slap on the cheek, the greeting he gave my brothers and me every time we visited. He did not offer me his trademark greeting. I had to lift his trembling hand and place it on my beard. Grandpa winced from the feel of my scratchy whiskers. When he last saw me, I was a high school senior, barely capable of growing peach fuzz anywhere beyond my upper lip and chin.
In a whisper, he asked what I wanted. Although I couldn’t tell which language he used, I understood him all the same. My father used to pull off a similar trick: Grandpa Sforza would speak to him in Sicilian, and he’d respond in English. Filling in those gaps in their conversations was how I learned everything I knew about my grandfather.
“Ho imparato a parlare italiano,” I told him, which was both a non-sequitur and a little shy of the truth. I had learned Italian once, in college, though it was Tuscan and not his dialect. Either way, I’d grown rusty after a decade of non-use.
He asked me what I wanted a second time. I couldn’t tell if this was some sort of wish-granting situation or what. All I knew was that I no longer cared about returning the slim-fit button-down that was too tight in the shoulders and too billowy at the waist.
“What’s it like? Where you’ve gone, I mean.”
He shrugged, frowned, and jutted his chin. I’d forgotten all the ways he could communicate without saying a word. This gesture roughly translated to how am I supposed to know?
“Why did you come back? For me?”
I’d been his favorite grandson, and his namesake. If anyone deserved a visit, it was me. I’d long abandoned the fantasy, though; he barely even visited me in dreams anymore.
He looked confused. “You came to me.”
He was right. I had.
I lifted the sealed cardboard box. “No, I just came to return this. I had no idea you’d be here.”
Behind us, at the counter, a woman started arguing with the cashier. There was some discrepancy between what the woman had been promised over the phone and what they were trying to charge her. The line kept growing behind her; the commuters all buried their scowling faces in their phones.
“I wasn’t counting on heaven, but I wasn’t expecting this, either.”
I squinted. “Wait. Is this the Inferno?”
I wanted to show off a bit, referencing Dante, using Italian (sort of).
He shook his bald head. His wispy white hair fluttered like little wings. “This is all there is,” he told me, adding, “waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
He gave me that shrug-frown-chin-jut gesture again.
I moved from my crouched catcher’s stance down to my knees. I no longer cared about catching the train, clearing my inbox, any of it. “May I wait with you?”
He gestured toward the line. “Nothing ever changes, with or without you.”
Up and down the line, the commuters were sighing and grunting, not even trying to mask their collective contempt.
I turned back to my grandfather and smiled. “At least we’re together again.”
“You’ve had more years without me than we did together.”
He was right. It was a fact, impartial and true, and yet his words felt like a rebuke.
“You’ve got your shirts and a life I know nothing about,” he said. “I have no place in any of that.”
I hung my head and considered all of the graveside promises I’d made on that cold January day when we laid him to rest. I swore to never forget him, to talk to him often, to keep him in my heart. Those were the oaths of children and careless drunks. My grandfather had faded from my memory just like everyone else I’d lost—his voice went first, then his face, then whatever was left.
I was the one who misplaced him behind that fax machine, somehow, and that’s where he’d remained for seventeen years, waiting.
Mike Dell’Aquila’s work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications including KGB Bar & Lit Mag, the Paterson Literary Review, and the anthology Writing Our Way Home, among others. He earned a BA from Penn State University and an MA from Brooklyn College, both in English. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and one-eyed Boston Terrier, and is at work on his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter: @mcdellaquila