Young and Old
“What if I drop him? Suppose the old ticker stops and I’m holding him, and I fall dead?” George Chester said as his granddaughter finished rinsing the lunch dishes stacked in the porcelain kitchen sink.
Alicia raised the single-control and turned off the water. She shook out her fingers, then pressed them quickly into a nearby hanging dish-towel. She turned and leaned back against the counter edge, folded her arms as she faced her grandfather. “Nice try, PaPa, but it won’t work. Damon and I have to be at the party by nine. It’s New Year’s Eve, and there’s no one else to watch him.”
“I don’t recall how to take care of a baby,” George protested. His arms hung long, his gnarled hands emerging from the cuffs of a blue cable-knit wool sweater.
She pressed her lips together and stretched her mouth. She straightened. “You raised me and my brothers….”
“That was me and your MaMa Dorothy. Your grandmother did most of the looking-after.”
“I have to go home and get ready. Everything will be fine.” She strode over to the cork bulletin board that hung on the wall beside the cream-colored refrigerator covered with magnets, notes, and family pictures. “I’ve posted his menu here. The food jars and box of teething biscuits are on the counter over there….” She pointed at a space above the dishwasher, next to the sink. The formula is already mixed and the bottles are in the fridge. All you have to do is heat them up. Look, I even put the pan with some water on the stove for you….”
George had moved behind her and stared at the list on the cork board. “Wait a goddam minute, Ally, there’s a breakfast menu there, too….”
She blushed a little as she patted his upper arm. “PaPa, we’re going to a very classy party; we were invited by one of the managers where I work. We might not get home until very late, and then we’ll want some … you know … private time….” She squinched up her pretty features in consternation as she noted her grandfather’s reaction. She set one hand on one hip. “Please, PaPa? Damon and I need this….” Her velvety brown eyes pleaded with him.
George grunted. “I’m ninety-three years old. I don’t know what you’re thinking, girly. But I’ll look after the little varmint….”
“Jayden Christopher is not a varmint….”
“He is to me,” George said, and sniffed for emphasis.
Alicia smiled, nodded slightly. “Okay, PaPa, nice try again. I’m leaving now. Jayden is in his playpen in front of the television. The diaper bag is on the couch….”
“Damn newfangled plastic diapers; I can’t get those tapes to work right….”
“You helped raise three children and have six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, I think you can manage.”
“I didn’t do a damn thing, it was Dorothy….” he began, attempting to follow her as she walked quickly from the kitchen, through the dining room, into the living room. By the time he arrived, she was kneeling on the other side of one mesh panel of the portable playpen, in front of eight-month-old Jayden, who was inside the barrier, banging on a large plastic toy that played Farmer in the Dell repeatedly. “Geezus crackers,” George whispered to himself.
Alicia cooed and said her goodbyes. She stood and bent over, kissed her son on the top of his head.
“Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma,” he gurgled, and hit one of the large plastic buttons on his toy. A crackly voice said, “This is a pig, oink oink oink.”
George hovered under the arched wall of the passage between the dining and living areas, standing on the large, square metal floor-grill. The gas-heat cycled on, warm air began blowing upward. His trousers, loose and hiked up high, flapped a little, strands of his thin white hair went flying in different directions. He liked to stop there when the heat kicked on; it felt good.
Alicia shrugged her coat into position and grabbed her purse and keys off the old pine table beside the front door. “Bye now PaPa, be good!” She blew him a kiss and in moments was gone, a blast of wintry cold puffing in as she slammed the entrance shut. He listened to the sound of her SUV as it struggled to start, then looked at baby Jayden, who also seemed to understand his mother was gone. “Oh shit, varmint, don’t start crying,” George said, and moved firmly but slowly toward the playpen.
By nine o’clock, George rested in his favorite recliner with Jayden Christopher — fed, freshly diapered, and arrayed in a yellow Onesie — lounging comfortably on his great-grandfather’s lap. The baby gnawed at a biscuit, the drool and mush oozing down his chin. On their left, in front of the picture window with blue drapes drawn, reposed George’s Christmas tree with lights and ornaments sparkling, a glowing, cotton-haired angel perched at the top. Positioned in the corner between a wall and the fireplace, facing his recliner, the television was turned on, the volume cranked up. The couch, with Dorothy’s custom-made black and white country-check upholstery was on their right. George had his hands around the baby’s middle, watching him while he babbled. “Can’t decide what channel to watch tonight when the ball drops, NBC, CNN or one of them others,” he said to the silky red-blond hair.
He squinted and caught sight of a gleaming object nestled in the sofa cushions half-hidden by the bag. He hadn’t seen it before. “What’s that, Jayden? Looks like your mother forgot something. Looks like a bottle of champagne. Emm…” he tried to lean to the side and peer around the baby without disturbing him. “Looks like Bolly to me. Where’d she get the money for Bollinger? Well we ain’t touchin’ it, right?” He hopped the baby up and down a bit, then tried to stand. He had to set Jayden on the chair first, get to his feet, then lift the infant from under the arms. He grunted as he supported the puffy diaper on his right forearm.
Jayden dropped the remains of his biscuit, then raised his pudgy, dimpled hands and started hitting at George’s grizzled face, saying, “Ga-ga-ga-ga….”
George’s glasses were dislodged; he had to use his free hand to set them in place again. “Stop that, varmint. I need to show you something,” he said, his tone light. They moved slowly to the hallway that led to the three bedrooms. George shook his head. “Dorothy had to paint the damn walls this goddamn sky blue. I hated it, but now I don’t want to change the color out of respect. Your great-grandmother’s been gone for five years now. Got married in forty-seven; we were together for fifty-nine years. Never made it to sixty — was looking forward to the ‘diamond-jubilee’ but Doro had a stroke. She was born in 1920, your old PaPa was born in 1918, the year of the Armistice.”
Jayden made ah-ah-ah sounds and squealed; he touched the old man’s face once more, but this time more gently.
George wondered at it. “You’re one hell of a boy,” he said. “Look-it here,” he added, as they’d reached the first of the photographs displayed along the hall’s painted plaster walls. “This is Johnstown, a short time after the flood of 1889. My grandparents survived that. The family moved up here to Westmont in the early 1900s.” He took a step and pointed at another photo. “And this here is my mother and father in 1915. My dad worked for Cambria Steel and the Franklin Mill, then for Bethlehem Steel.”
They moved a few feet, stopped. The baby squirmed, tried to twist forward so he could touch the shiny surface and cherry-wood frame.
“That’s your great-MaMa Dorothy when she was a girl. She was beautiful. Irish, with a quick wit, but her daddy didn’t like me much at first. This is 1936. I was courting her and working in the steel mill; the country was coming out of the Great Depression but times were still hard. Didn’t want to get married so young, without prospects, and besides her brothers — your great-great-uncles Tommy, Eddy, and Donny — they’re all dead now — they said they’d kill me if I took her off with me….”
He listened; it sounded like the phone ringing. Jayden burbled.
“Well, I’m not going to worry about it. Can’t make it in time. Probably your mommy calling about the Bolly, and now she’s gonna be worried as hell because I didn’t answer. Serves her right, kiddo. She won’t come back here, though. She’ll send your daddy; poor old Damon. Alicia always was a pistol … takes after me….” He paused and pivoted carefully, so that he was facing the opposite wall. He moved a little closer, then grew thoughtful and sullen as he gazed at the next group of silver-framed photographs. There were a dozen of them, and they were arranged in a square of three rows.
The eight-month-old whimpered and patted the old man’s chest. His face began to redden. A sound like “ahuh-ahuh” broke George’s concentration, made him glance down.
“Now stop it. I’m here. Jayden … Jayden … look, look at me….” He raised his eyebrows and made his glasses wiggle, then puckered up and whistled something like Farmer in the Dell.
Jayden abruptly said “eeeee” and started laughing.
“Now that I have your attention, this is important. Maybe someday, when you’re all grown up, it’ll matter to you. Some of my old stuff is in the attic, but none of my own boys, or even grandsons, cared.” He tapped the glass with his forefinger. “That’s my tank. I was in the 818th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Served with both the 5th Infantry Division, and the 26th. Those tanks were designed specifically to chew up Panzers; see that there?” He took one of the baby’s little hands and held it out. “That’s a 90-millimeter gun. We landed at Utah Beach some ten miles behind the first wave. We served with the 26th during the Bulge. It was the 26th and the 4th Armored Division that broke through at Bastone….”
The baby was quiet, his clear eyes very wide. George focused on those eyes. Jayden gazed back.
“It got pretty bad sometimes,” George continued. “A lot of those men you see up there, didn’t ever come home….” He thought he heard a car horn. “Hey, now, looky here!” He stepped away from the war photos, as the memories were beginning to depress him. “That’s me and Doro’s wedding shot. Look at all those people; her family and mine. Isn’t your great-MaMa a beauty?”
The baby made an “aaahhhh” sound and started to laugh.
George guffawed. It shot out of his mouth so fast he couldn’t stop it. He hadn’t really looked at this scene in years. “Yup,” he said, trying to get his breath, “that’s her brothers. Look at ’em. They look angry as hell, don’t they? We got married as soon as I recovered, after I got back home. Her daddy was proud of me then, coming back with a Purple Heart….” He heard someone knocking, a man’s voice calling, the clicking of the front door locks.
Jayden Christopher said, “Da-da-da-da,” and, “Ohhhhhh…,” and squealed once more.
“Yup, sounds like old Damon, come for the champagne, and to see if we’re okay,” George said. He hefted the baby and slung both arms under him, locking his hands together, then ambled back towards the living room.
“PaPa, Jayden, PaPa, Jayden,” Damon was shouting. He appeared to be in the kitchen, and came rushing out just as George emerged on the other side of the fireplace.
“Hey there Damon, what’s up?” George asked innocently. He let go of Jayden as the baby’s father reached and plucked him up, hugging him to his chest.
Damon looked like he was ready to cry. “Why didn’t you answer the phone? Where were you?” he demanded. He was a little overweight, and shorter than George, but had handsome features, strong broad shoulders, and a full head of hair.
“I was in the other end of the house, Damon. Can’t move so fast, you know. We’re fine here. You drove all the way back just to check? Where’s that party at?”
“The Sunnehana Country Club….” Damon tried to return Jayden to George. “And no, it’s not the only reason Ally sent me back.”
“She left her expensive champagne … it’s on the sofa,” George offered helpfully, but he didn’t move to take his great-grandson. “Gotta pee,” he said. “You look after the varmint until I get back.”
“But PaPa,” Damon protested. “I have to hurry. I have to bring the champagne.”
“And if you don’t, Alicia will bite your head off,” he said as he disappeared down the hallway again.
“Oh hell,” Damon muttered. He carried his son to the recliner beside the Christmas tree, and sat heavily, making the vinyl creak. He poked Jayden in the tummy and said, “Hi, hi, hi there big fella….” and then noticed that the television was showing Times Square. He found the remote control on the lamp-table on the right, pressed the mute button so that the sound came on blaring. “Hey, it’s almost eleven,” he said loudly. “Which is better, CNN or….”
Jayden yawned and relaxed in his father’s arms, his head resting against Damon’s expensive suit. His lips smacked as if he were nursing.
“Awww,” Damon said, and kissed his son’s hair.
George returned, took one look at the situation, then moved to the couch. He picked up the Bolly. “Damon, I’m going to open this. Let’s see in the New Year the right way, wadda ya say?”
Damon’s eyes widened, his mouth slacked a bit. He looked at the champagne, at George, checked his watch, then the television screen. He smiled as he peered at his sleeping baby son. “Okay,” he said. He grinned to himself and settled back into what was usually George’s favorite no-one-else-can-sit-in-it chair. He felt good. “What channel do you want to watch to see the ball drop?” he called after his grandfather-in-law.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” George answered from the kitchen. There was an enormous “pop” and George shouted, “Oh yeah sister….” Cabinets opened and closed. Then George shouted, “I usually watch NBC or CNN. But you can choose….”
Damon switched to MTV.
George shuffled into the living room, carrying two glass beer mugs each half-filled with the bubbling amber liquid. “Don’t have any fancy flutes….” He noticed the sounds coming from the TV.
“It’s MTV, PaPa,” Damon said hopefully. “You said I could choose.”
George winced a bit. “… Okay,” he said. He set one mug on the table beside his grandson-in-law, then found his way to the traditional sofa. He lowered himself into the middle cushion, feeling a little stiff. He cradled his mug with interlocking fingers. A woman was singing and a crowd was cheering. “You know Damon, I believe this is the first time you and I have visited together, just the two of us … or three of us….” He raised his mug. “Happy New Year, boy.”