Matthew Di Paoli
When I sit down for dinner with my grandparents, it’s hard to hear them. Jeopardy is on so loud I can feel Alex Trebek’s presence bearing down on me. My grandfather is going deaf and he claims none of the hearing aids work, so he won’t use them. He was a gunner in the Navy. In fact, a kamikaze hit his ship over the Pacific, but the bomb was a dud. That’s the only reason I’m here, bad engineering.
The conversation weighs heavily on ailment, disease, and friends who have passed on or are about to.
“Don’t get old, boy,” my grandfather says to me. He gets up to put the beans on the table, using his rolling walker. It’s his back.
This is my other set of grandparents. The living ones. The spare set I always kept just in case.
“So are you steady with anyone?” asks my grandmother, shoveling a piece of chicken onto my brown, ceramic plate.
The red wine is cold, right out of the fridge and oxidized. I don’t have the heart to tell them, so I drink it down and don’t ask for more. “I’m further from marriage now than when I started.”
I think of laying in the dead fountain in Marseille; my old girlfriend, Julie, a beautiful Russian blonde, sitting on the fountain lip and all I could see was her long hair flagging in the dull August winds. I watched the white plumage of small planes rising in the distance, making incisions in the blue.
We both knew it was over then, but we dated for six more months, in hope—fucking like distant emperors.
“Your grandfather is getting his operation soon,” says Nana.
“It’s ok when I sit—standing?” He shakes his head.
“That’s like when I had that herniated disk,” I say.
Their ears perk up. I’m speaking their language, but I stop. I can’t stand talking about pain for sport.
The food is garlicky and I burp quietly without excusing myself. After dinner, my grandfather wheels himself over to the gray leather couch and switches to a hunting channel I didn’t know existed. They’re tracking coyotes. They look just like dogs when they’re filled with buckshot. The bang is loud when they take the shot. I feel it in my chest. My grandfather is transfixed, nearly salivating.
“I don’t agree with these people who go to Africa and kill elephants for their tusks. I eat what I kill,” he says, proudly.
My grandmother is brewing coffee in the kitchen and arranging the cookies to look like there are more of them. “So how’s the photography?” she asks without turning around.
“Good,” I say, “I got those pieces of Mom in a gallery, so I was really happy with that.”
She doesn’t turn around. She just nods with the back of her head, mindlessly searching the cabinets for cups and saucers. I wonder who uses saucers anymore. Maybe it’s like going steady.
I remember visiting Mom in the hospital when she first got really sick and she couldn’t move her hands real well. It was spreading so fast. She was drifting in and out and so was I because I’d stayed up late with a new girlfriend the night before. I was thinking of her as I sat in the sterile room with my mother’s ravaged body held together by tubes. I thought of how Kate kissed with her lips closed, how she’d had rules about making love on the third date, but we’d done it anyway.
She stayed the night and I liked how my beard made her chin red, how she didn’t cover it, and how delicate she was when I held her.
I’d brought my mother a magazine to read, but she couldn’t hold it. Her hands were like mangled claws and she saw that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so she told me to get some rest. I left her there with the Vanity Fair on her concave belly, struggling to turn the pages.
My grandmother puts out the cookies alongside some fruit that looks as if it’s been embalmed. I stare at it with morbid curiosity.
“What’s the matter—you don’t like strawberries?”
“I had some grapes earlier,” I say.
My grandfather returns to the table, muting the T.V. They are hunting bears with bow and arrow now. “They bleed with the arrows. They’ll run and you have to go chasing them. With the rifle it’s boom and you’re done,” he explains.
I wonder why they have to be killed at all, but I accept his point as if he’s merciful. Swirling cream into my coffee, I watch as a small sinkhole forms in the middle and the asphalt black turns muddy.
I recall being alone in Istanbul at sunrise, drunk, staring at the lines of trees surrounding the Blue Mosque. How bare they were against the snow and the deep clementine sky.
I’d never known the Blue Mosque wasn’t even blue and felt betrayed by everyone who’d come before me. I imagined what it would be like to have Kate and Julie and all the others back as a procession of memory.
I closed my eyes, engulfed by the crooked shadows of the trees, and felt the presence of my mother. It snowed ash that day, bitter flakes on my lips like burnt coffee.
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He recently finished his MFA at Columbia University for Fiction. He has been published in the West Coast Journal, BlazeVox, Ascent Aspirations, and Post Road literary magazines, among others. Currently, he is writing a novel entitled Idol of Id and teaches in the Advanced Creative Writing Summer Program at Columbia University.