THERE IS NO COMFORT
My grandma opened an email with the subject line, There is no comfort...VIEW IN BROWSER. It was addressed to “Jon.” The email said, Jon, there is no comfort like when you bundle home and auto for $89/month. Her son’s name was Jon, my father. I never knew him well. I’m still figuring things out. I moved in with my grandma to ease her passing. She’s terminal. I’m also kind of terminal. In a way. I don’t want to say that I wish I were also in the process of passing away, but watching surveillance footage of myself would suggest otherwise.
My grandma stares at the email trying to turn it into something else. She speaks the numbers to herself under her breath, looking for patterns. The numbers always mean something more. $89 a month. 8 + 9 + 12. Romans 8:9-12. She’s always been a pious woman, but I know the search for patterns is at least partly from the hydromorphone. Our apartment is decorated with tapestries embroidered with scripture. She writes her own small verses on scraps of paper and leaves them around the apartment: There is a design. Will you be part of God’s plan? There is no comfort in the realm of the flesh, but only the realm of the spirit. Any indication that her son may be living is an invitation for her divine authorship. When I try to explain the concept of a spam email to her, she scolds me for ignoring the plan, the design. She won’t admit what she knows to be true: that her son simply left her and the rest of us. She asks for her drink and I make it for her.
My father apparently disappeared when I was young and I’ve never gotten a straight answer from anyone about it. I was maybe four or five. We lived in a different city then. The smell of cigarettes on flannel or a foot with the second toe longer than the first didn’t even bring him to mind anymore. My grandma is someone who can’t, won’t, believe that my father doesn’t want to be found. I imagine his life in a million ways, but I imagine his death more clearly. Slow footsteps into a cold lake. Wet cement filling his throat, or something less exotic, like chemical love. The same after-work padded leather barstool for decades.
I walk my grandma into the bathroom, unbutton her dress from the back, help her ease into the bathtub, and pour lavender-scented epsom salts into the water. If I pour the salts in before she can be in the water, she makes me drain the tub and start over. Her skin is pale and taut, the full contour of her skull poking through her temples. The veins in her hands more like white canyons carved from riverflow.
She says, “Don’t scrub so hard.”
“There are more sores on your back,” I say.
“I don’t want to know, don’t scrub so hard,” she says.
“What’s the German word for a prison of one’s own making?” I ask.
She splashes water into my face. I pull her arm up to lightly scrub the sores forming around her ribs.
My grandma was born in Austria and shipped here when she and her twin sisters,triplets, were only ten. Their mother could afford one son and no daughters. My grandma doesn’t speak German much anymore, but uses some words as compounded catch-alls like fragments of her memory she plugs into the spaces of the world she cannot fit herself. Fleischgefängnis – flesh prison. She once told me a story about how her uncle would take her and her sisters into town for ice cream and leave them at the parlor to sneak off to a brothel in the apartment above the butcher shop. One day she asked her uncle where he’d gone, and his reply was, “das Fleischgefängnis.” Later, when her oncologist pointed to the black spots on the pale blue x-ray of her esophagus and spoke the words squamous cell carcinomas, she replied, “mein Fleischgefängnis.” The tumors in her throat are her Fleishgefängnis. The sores on her back are her Fleishgefängnis. Traffic. Her Medicaid. The hydromorphone tablets she drinks with her wine and orange juice. Her twin sisters. Her mother and her thick forearms. Her uncle and the late photo of him in his black uniform. She’s always blamed my mother for my father’s disappearance. She says people aren’t simply swallowed by holes that open in the Earth. There is always more life than any American wants to admit. Ask anyone whose city has been bombed to ashes, she says. My father is a memory for her and her alone. I’m just the hand that passes her her drinks, washes her body, balms her sores, and refills her prescriptions. She says I look like my mother. She says what a shame that is. She calls me Sheila’s son. She’s never liked my name. When I was born she told my parents that it is the name of liars and crooks.
I drive through traffic to refill my grandma’s prescription and then meet our landlord at the McDonald’s by the six-way intersection near our building. We always meet here before going into his apartment, because he’s paranoid and regularly brings a used cup inside to refill with Coke. We always end up sitting on his couch for hours, while his slurring becomes more pronounced. I get high with him. I get too high with him. And I hate him. But, it’s a small balm to get away from my body, my Fleischgefängnis. Our arrangement is a simple one: I give him some of grandma’s hydromorphone, he doesn’t raise our rent and lets me pay it in increments. “I know what it’s like to wait around for someone to die,” the landlord says, “but hey, here’s to hoping the old Nazi sticks around a bit longer.” He takes a pill down with a sip of his beer. The train passes by outside of his window. A white flag with a single blue W hangs on the wall. “I bet she was pretty good-looking when she was younger. If this was maybe ten years ago, maybe we could work something else out,” the landlord says, picking up his Playstation controller from the coffee table. I finish my beer. The landlord tells me that he’s going to sell the building. That I’d have to pay back all of the past-due rent if we wanted to renew the lease before the building sells and we’re forced to move in February when the new owners gut it into a single-family home.
My grandma is sitting in her chair using a stylus to play mahjong on her iPad. She hands it to me and asks if there’s a move I can see. I notice the profile thumbnail on the top right of the screen is a gray circle with the letter J centered. I tap it and see that my grandma had inputted the name “Jon” as her username when she downloaded the app. I stare at the cluster of little tiles printed with cherry blossoms and kanji script for a bit and tell her I don’t see any moves. I press my finger to the tile printed with a digital block of sable hash marks and suddenly the screen is overtaken by an ad for an app that teaches you German through word games. My father’s name in white against a red background, reading, Jon, unlock your new language. If there is a German word for a prison of one’s own making, my grandma never learned it.
I walk through the kitchen checking that the oven’s gas is turned off, checking the notifications on my phone to make sure she hasn’t charged my credit card for another online roulette game. I check that she hasn’t trapped the cat in the cabinet below the sink, or discovered that the jug of liquid bleach is just water. My grandma always said the love Americans have for their pets is one of their most violent tendencies. She says an American could watch a stranger’s child be caged, maimed, and dismembered on live television, but if someone should so much as strike a dog, murder is the only recourse.
“Motherfucker,” she says under her breath, tapping at her iPad.
I help her into her nightgown and plug in the air diffuser on her nightstand. I pull her quilt back and guide her body under the top sheet. I rub CBD-infused balm into her clavicle and around her throat. She coughs a bit. I make her mix of red wine and orange juice, 3:1, enough acid to irritate the sores in her throat in just the right way, and place two ice cubes in the glass with a plastic straw. I put a hydromorphone tablet on her tongue and put the straw to her mouth. She asks me for another tablet and I give it to her. She finishes her drink and asks for another tablet. I give it to her. I place the bottle on the table next to her bed.
“I want to tell you a story about my son,” she says. “I once caught him stealing a handful of hard candies from the grocer when he was a child. I found him in his room hiding the wrappers in a shoebox beneath his bed. He must’ve been pocketing the candy for months. We’re not thieves, I told him. I made him sit at the kitchen table and hold two phone books in each hand raised just above his shoulders, watching as his arms began to shake. Stringbeans. He was weak. He was so distractible. When I pulled him here or there back from his wandering, his arms would bruise from my grip. He bruised so very easily.” She doesn’t look at me, but closes her eyes comfortably. She says, “He was always going to do what he wanted. I don’t regret it. I should’ve been more like my mother. She would’ve done much worse.”
I turn off the light to her room and close her door slightly. I search through her contact book for her sisters’ phone numbers, but find none. My great aunt had paid off our back payments in rent before, but told me she would give us no more. The last time I saw my great-aunt Agota, she said, “When she dies, don’t call me.” I pour some of my grandma’s wine in a plastic cup and drink it on the couch while watching videos of tornadoes tearing through suburban homes in rural Illinois, Kansas, or Oklahoma. I wake in the night to the cat jumping onto my chest and I can’t fall back asleep. I grab my grandma’s ipad from the side table next to her chair to watch a movie on, but the screen is covered with post-it notes on which my grandma had written a full verse: Let me pass through your land. I will not pass through field or through vineyard; I will not even drink water from a well. I will go along the king’s highway, not turning to the right or left, until I pass through your territory.
I think of what she’d want someone to say at the moment of her death and I remember weeks before, when my grandma was perusing news articles on her iPad as I handed her her drink, she said, “Something incredible has happened.” She pointed to the article’s picture of an 8-foot-wide sinkhole that had opened in the middle of Western Ave., less than a mile from our building. There were no water lines, gas pipes, or half- eaten SUV’s peeking from the broken asphalt. Just a dark void in the center of the intersection. We both stared at the article’s photo for a bit before the tone in her voice changed and she looked up at me and said, “Nathan, there are signs from God everywhere.”