Fields fly by. They’re squares. Then they’re triangles, lines, nothing. One after the next fields fly to nothing. A smell of beaten steel. Something unstoppable about this train. The whole way no one comes to check my ticket.
Earlier today I’m visiting my grandpa again at the retirement home. It’s okay there and bright. Framed vegetables and disinfectant pumps along the wall. Disappointed, well-rested women. Red railings for safety. Fingers like branches, intricate. On one side there are fields out the windows. You have to look over some roofs, but they’re there.
I say “again,” but it’s been months since I’ve visited. Half a year maybe. I went to live far away. That was me, I’m the one. First one town, then another, slightly bigger. Far for us anyway. It doesn’t matter much it’s a small country. You go live halfway through it, east, west, north, south, you’ve still gone to live halfway through the country. You don’t get back so easily. I feel less bad about it since his mind has started to jump all over the place like a caged monkey, and his memory, which was so-so, became even more so-so.
My mom goes in ahead of me because she’s the boss of this. My mom’s down here all the time. This man here is her father, this here is his room, it’s up the stairs and down the hall. I never see my mom confident and in charge. She’s confident doing this. Up the stairs, down the hall, and this one here’s his, she pushes the door wide, light tumbles. She’s confident doing what daughters do. Loving fathers whose brains go gooey.
Times his brain is more gooey than others. Times he’s entirely normal. Like my grandma never died. Before he started to say someone should bury him and then he fell down drunk, like he was trying to bury himself but didn’t expect the floor to resist. They wheeled him to the hospital, gave him something of something for the pain and his mind changed in ways less temporary than what they said.
My mom goes in ahead of me and starts to shout at him.
Two more things wrong with my grandpa’s old head: the ears.
She shouts at him, WE’RE HERE. WE’RE HERE DAD. LOOK AT YOU. I always find him like this, she says, soft now and sudden, turning away from him and towards me, her daughter, in a confidential way, like I’m in on this, like she’s passing me a bottle by the bonfire, saying practically, wordlessly, you and me – we are connected, daughter. It’s irregular behavior that makes me want to say, mom, mom. Makes me want to grab her arm, keep a tight fist all around and then I don’t know, what do people do? With people’s arms generally?
By the time I’m in the room she’s fully sitting and I see what she means by finding him “like this.” “Like this” means using his bed the wrong way. Lying down crossways. His socks are up and his shoes are leather and stick out the long side of the bed. When my grandpa lies like this, with ready feet, it makes the bed look silly, not him.
His eyes say he was fast asleep, but he’s always been an alert fucker and he turns his hands into two guns as soon as he sees us. One! Two! he says, firing the guns at us.
We do not fall to the floor. We help him sit up, which he can do alone so in the end he’s fighting us more than gravity.
My mom sits to his right and goes ahead with the shouting by way of conversation. She strokes his hair and into his ear she shouts sweet confidences about how much wind outside and traffic, and she sighs loud personal sighs and barks intimate questions like how are you, tenderly, daughterly, SO HOW ARE YOU.
I have, in life, a mighty desire for something very simple.
I want to back up very simply.
Like a car.
My mom sits to his right and I go sit to his left because it seems cozy like that, the three of us on the bed, all strung together like DNA. Right now I can use cozy. If I can fit into this cozy thing, into this scene unfolding, here on the bed, in this room, in these fields, then chances are—this is the murky idea—I’m a member of this club. I get to carry the card, whisper the password. Chances are—this is the fuzzy concept—I’m not this runaway deserting little shit who runs away and deserts and is basically shit. Chances are, if actually maybe—
I go sit to his left and join in the shouting and it really is cozy, especially when my grandpa talks philosophy with none of the shame younger people feel when they talk philosophy and with respect for the weight of his words says things like, everything you got, you got, and everything you don’t got—
My mom says, you don’t got? and willingly does something to her eyeballs.
My mom is turning only sixty this year. She still feels the shame of talking philosophy.
It’s cozy on the bed and pretty quickly I’ve grown soft and floppy like a woman’s belly post-delivery. Grown all family-oriented. It’s cozy with my mom and me shouting back and forth over my grandpa’s hair which is thin as a baby’s. I do family-oriented like other people do holidays. Still, it’s cozy when my grandpa says his head hurts and his hands hurt and around the ribs it hurts and these past few days his feet have been hurting like mad and you’d think if they give you something it would do something, but no.
My boyfriend wants my babies and in the midst of my grandpa unspooling his grandpa complaints I feel my body run low on resistance, then lower, and next I mind my thinking it’s going okay, okay.
Okay to babies then, goes the thinking, while my cozy grandpa crosses his legs and lowers his painful rib cage to the mattress and draws his painful feet up the frame of the bed and is about to land his painful head on the wall when my mom says no, no way, not like that, DO YOU WANT TO SIT IN YOUR CHAIR.
My grandpa does not want to sit in his chair.
My grandpa is ninety-three and will do exactly as he wants—his words. Well, smiles my mom and shout-explains with loving patience that she is sixty—I say, fifty-nine—and his sixty-year-old daughter—I again lower the number to its mathematical truth—has a say as well so take this pillow. It’s a compromise pillow, which he accepts and uses to separate his soft head from the wall.
With one gone there’s one pillow left. It’s over on my mom’s side. I reach over. I take the pillow. From both sides I beat on the pillow. I pull the pillow’s ends. Then I put it up against the wall, next to my grandpa’s. Off the bedside table I take his old man’s hat and I lie down next to him, just like him. I lean into the pillow, into the wall, lower the hat to my head slightly sideways, because if I’m not a clown then things are serious, and listen to my grandpa brag about his amazing young self.
I say his mind jumps all over the place, but it goes back to a lot of the same things. Being a prisoner of war in Germany, his cosmopolitan experience. Twenty nationalities there, he was talking to all of them. A teacher saying he was sharp as a tack. An essay read out in class. The mayor visiting one Sunday. Different ways he saved the day, like how in Germany he got the engines of the army trucks to run. How he got the Germans to give them more food, they were all hungry. The Fickerstrasse.
He goes back and forth between sound and syntax, his feet are on the linen and what about this linen with your dirty shoes, goes my mom, and he has an answer to that too. He asks why waste all this water to come clean him every day. Every day in the morning they come to clean him and he told the woman this morning, why are you wasting all this water.
He tells us he told her this and I sit there one leg folded over the other, leaning into the pillow with his old man’s hat, sit there annoyed at the sight of my heels, which are quite high, and think well that’s a sad thing to say, about the cleaning.
But again my mom is the one who knows and understands in this room because she laughs and nods and says, yes, ha, it’s true, it’s not like you’re getting your hands dirty around here.
I think, oh. That’s what they mean.
That’s what my family means when they say something like that.
He thought she was too big for him, that’s how he keeps saying it. He’s talking about a school teacher now, who was dead in Kuurne—also how he says it. I laugh and let my leg bounce up and down cozily. Too big. I laugh because I know our dialect badly, I think he means tall. My grandpa’s not a short man. I’m picturing a lighthouse of a woman.
At first he thought she was too big for him, but mumble, mumble, the detail’s lost, but something at one point definitely happened because then he knew she wasn’t. He knew she’d never been. At no point was this woman in fact too big for my grandfather.
I don’t know how he knew this in the end. I do know he didn’t mean tall. He meant she was a teacher. Big that way. Educated. Big as a doctor. Big as the mayor.
That despite this teacher’s bigness she was not too big he realized only later, and he is, he says, sorry about that. He’s always been sorry about that.
What’s her name, I ask.
I don’t know why I ask this. I don’t know anybody around here. He says a last name that sounds like local color to me, exotic, though it sounds not very different from my own last name. Then he throws his head back because he’s hunting around for her first name and maybe it’s near the ceiling. That teacher of yours, he asks my mom.
Agnes, my mom asks.
Agnes, he replies, and his feet drop off the side of the bed.
His feet that already hurt.
Agnes. She was dead in Kuurne, he says. And I wonder about my grandma, also dead, in Ooigem. Wonder if she knew about this big Agnes. Wonder if it matters, with all of them, big and small, dead and dead in equal parts.
Yes, replies my mom, and has a thought. I can tell because her face looks like it’s pulling on her eyes from all sides until they are perfectly open, perfectly round, also terrifying, and with these blown-out eyes she looks at me alone, no one else, and says, I was afraid of her. Of Agnes, I ask. Of Agnes, she says. Why, I ask, scared she’ll answer, and she does. She says, my friend was punished from the first day. She was so strict. I dreamt she died one night. Next day she wasn’t in school. Turned out she had cancer. At this point nobody says about Agnes that she was dead in Kuurne. Even though this is what happened next, with the cancer.
Sofie Verraest writes fiction as well as nonfiction about literature; the city; and architectural, urban, and landscape design. She received her PhD from Ghent University and teaches at the Royal Arts Academy KASK. She lives in Brussels, where she founded Snug Harbor, a series of literature evenings in English. Her work has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Oogst, Deus Ex Machina and elsewhere.