For the winter Grandpa lived with us, he seldom spoke, but he had a habit of smacking his lips and grinding his teeth together as if on the verge of communicating something important. On the nights Mom was at work, Marcy often warmed up meatloaf for me and Grandpa, though never without declaring she was performing gendered labor. Marcy had come home from college speaking a new language, one of regressive social politics and repressed identities. She said Mom had raised us without any connection to our Jewish heritage or reckoning with the fact my father had left us for another family. I didn’t go to Hebrew school, and I was too young to remember our father, but Marcy’s newfound voice and authority made me inclined to believe her — we didn’t know anything.
Marcy spent most of her winter break with old high school friends, especially Joel, who drove a faded green Chevy plastered in Al Gore stickers. I knew he had lost the election, and Marcy thought it was the end of democracy. From my bedroom window, I watched her jump into the passenger seat in her brand-new red peacoat, which she must have paid for with her new job as a research assistant, which sounded important and hard. I wished Marcy would stay home, especially since I wasn’t allowed to leave until I recovered from my surgery. As I grew, the curve in my back had worsened, and by the time I was 11, the doctors said they would have to fuse the vertebrae or else I would keel over into a permanent comma.
After the surgery, I thought I might become a different person, more outgoing and less nervous, but instead I just felt relieved. I could get around fine on my own, though I had to stay home from school for a month. My mom was happy I could spend more time with Grandpa. I don’t know what she imagined would happen between us. Maybe she thought he would impart the life lessons I never got from my father, but the truth was, even when we were together, Grandpa and I were pretty much alone.
Mom said the smacking and grinding was involuntary — something left over from Grandpa’s time in the war — and we weren’t allowed to complain or ask about it. My only respite came in the afternoons when it was warm enough, and Grandpa exchanged reruns of Friends for a few minutes in the sun on our icy front porch. Mom said Grandpa had come to stay with us because Uncle Dan was moving houses, and they hadn’t figured out where to put Grandpa yet. The way she and Uncle Dan talked about Grandpa was like a piece of furniture. Sometimes, I would watch Grandpa’s face while Mom paced in the kitchen on the phone, but I could never tell if he was listening.
After Grandpa moved in, my bedroom came to smell like the mixture between the inside of an old shoe and a dental office. I begged Mom to let me sleep in the living room, but she said Grandpa would be offended because he wanted to spend time with me, a fact which could neither be confirmed nor denied. Long after lights out, I flipped around like a beached whale under a sleeping bag while Grandpa slept prostrate under my good comforter. Once, Grandpa woke in the middle of the night and shouted They’re here! Mom had to shake him awake before he calmed down again.
After breakfast one morning, when Marcy and Mom were both out of the house, Grandpa finally broke his silence.
“Your sister is a whore,” he said.
I put down my book, a choose-your-own-adventure where I was living as a shipwrecked pirate. On TV, the friends were sitting down to a meal in Monica’s kitchen. We heard the laugh track once or twice while I thought of how to respond.
“No, she’s not,” I said. I knew what the word meant, but I hadn’t heard anyone use it to describe a person in real life. Maybe Patrick Russo had said it once or twice but only to voice a complaint, as in math was a real whore today.
I wanted to say something else to Grandpa in defense of Marcy, but he had already switched off the TV and gone into the kitchen. I decided not to tell Marcy or Mom because I was trying to give Grandpa the benefit of old age — maybe he had confused her with someone else. She did look a little like a celebrity, all lipsticked smile and thick hair. Plus, Mom made me swear to be nice to Grandpa no matter what, and I had very little to my name at that time except for my word.
Grandpa’s visit overlapped with Hanukkah that year, which fell during the first week of winter break. Normally, our family didn’t celebrate any of the Jewish holidays, but Mom said that while Grandpa was here, it was important we stick to the traditions. Once or twice, we had gone over to Uncle Dan’s house for Passover, but I was very young, and all I remembered was my cousin Albert making fun of me for not knowing how to read. I knew we were Jewish in theory, but we didn’t have any Jewish friends at school or in the neighborhood, and Mom didn’t want us to feel left out.
On the first night, we went to temple in our neighboring town and sat by ourselves in the back row. A security guard asked to check my mother’s purse on the way in, and I thought it was funny since Mom never got in trouble, but when I laughed Marcy elbowed me in the side and told me to shove it and stop being stupid. During the service, there was a lot of getting up and down and covering our eyes, and I kept forgetting that the books were backward. Mom knew all the prayers, and she recited them quietly under her breath along with the congregation, but except for the smacking, Grandpa was silent. On the way home, Marcy said she was embarrassed to not know any of the prayers.
“Are you ashamed of our identity or something?” Marcy finally asked Mom.
Mom gripped the steering wheel with tight knuckles. It was snowing outside, and Grandpa and I were in the back seat, staring out opposite windows. Even when she had the most justified opportunity, I never once saw my mother angry.
“Marcy, you’re old enough to make your own choices,” she said.
On the fourth night, Marcy didn’t come home for the candle lighting. We waited until the light had faded from the kitchen window, and then Mom said we better go ahead without her. Later, she came in while the three of us were watching It’s a Wonderful Life. George had just declared that he wanted to live again.
“Hi,” she said, bringing in a gust of cold air through the kitchen door.
She tried to squeeze past the couch and up the stairs to her room, but Grandpa stood up, blocking her path.
“Marcy,” he said, “What you’re doing is a real shanda.”
“Dad,” Mom said.
“What did you just say to me?” Marcy’s eyes had turned to daggers.
“You bring shame to this family,” my grandfather continued.
“Mom!” Marcy yelled. “Can you get this sexist out of our house?”
“Dad,” Mom said again. “Let her go.”
For a second, Marcy’s fists quivered like she might punch Grandpa in the face, but instead, she pushed him out of the way and stomped up to her room, closing the door. The three of us sat in silence until the movie finished, and when I looked over, Grandpa was asleep.
After the movie, I followed Mom into the basement.
“Why is Grandpa so mean to Marcy?” I asked while she folded a load of clothes.
“Grandpa’s had a tough go of it,” she said. “He escaped Poland when he was just a boy. Did you know that?”
I knew Grandpa had survived a war, the one against Jews, and I remembered once when I was six and we were driving through Indiana to Uncle Dan’s house. We stopped at a gas station next to an abandoned Dairy Queen, and there was a swastika graffitied on the crumbling walls. Mom said it was a symbol of evil, and that many of my relatives died because of it. Even though I didn’t understand what she meant, I was too scared to ask questions.
“Not really,” I said now.
“You’re old enough to know these things,” she said. “He was very lucky. He was the only one of his family who survived, and he did it by hiding in a house in the countryside eating nothing but rats and cabbage.”
“Wow,” I said. I suddenly had so many questions for Grandpa, like what did rats taste like? But also, things started to make sense, like how Grandpa could go so long without speaking and not get bored of staying inside.
“He doesn’t like to talk about that time,” Mom said. “So don’t ask him about it, okay? He prefers to be here in the present with us.”
“Is that why he cried at temple?” I hadn’t wanted to say anything because I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I had noticed it when we left: wetness around his eyes and his cheeks.
“What happens when you are young is very difficult to let go of,” my mother said. “I hope you’ll never understand that in the same way Grandpa does.”
“But I still don’t like what he said to Marcy,” I said. “What does he mean she brings shame? Because she stays out too much? With Joel?”
“He means,” Mom said, “That once you have seen your entire world disappear, it’s very difficult to ever feel safe again.”
My mother was a wise woman, but then I thought she was avoiding my question.
Close to New Year’s, I was cleared to go on walks again. Once my spine healed, it turned out that one leg was shorter than the other, but I didn’t mind. I thought my limp lent me a certain gravitas and maturity that would give me a leg up, so to speak, with the girls at school. On sunny days, the sidewalks were icy and slick, so I took small steps and always turned around at the end of the cul-de-sac. I thought about inviting Grandpa, but since the incident with Marcy, I had kept my distance. Even after what Mom told me, my loyalty was always to my sister, and I didn’t understand why Grandpa couldn’t just leave her alone.
On New Year’s Eve, Marcy was out, but Mom and Grandpa and I watched the ball drop on TV, and Mom popped a bottle of champagne, the cork leaving a black mark on the ceiling. She and Grandpa didn’t usually drink, but they both had one glass, and Mom even offered me a sip from hers. It tasted like bubbly candle wax. Afterward, she put a Prince tape in Marcy’s boom box, and we danced around the back of the couch. The music drowned out Grandpa’s smacking, and he even waved his hands in the air a little when “Raspberry Beret” came on.
Marcy didn’t come home for a couple of days, but Mom said not to worry. She was just testing the limits of her freedom. Putting her on a leash would only drive her further away. I began to wonder what it would be like to have Grandpa as a father and if he would have forced us to go to temple and pray every Friday night and not let Marcy leave the house. My real father was not Jewish, and at times, I wondered if that had anything to do with his departure. Of course, it didn’t, I would later learn, but I would feel even more unsure of what identity I could hold onto.
When Marcy finally returned, she shut herself in her room for a couple of hours. She was leaving to go back to school in three days, and I was desperate to spend time with her, though I would never say. I knocked softly on her door, holding the boom box as an offering.
When she finally opened it, her hair was frizzy and unkempt, and mascara made black rivers down her cheeks. She left the door open and went to sit on her bed without saying anything. I followed her inside.
“What’s wrong?” I said. I hadn’t been in Marcy’s room in weeks, and it reeked of old takeout and marijuana. She still had her high school track trophies on her dresser, but she’d torn down her old music posters, leaving just the staples in the wall.
I joined Marcy on the bed, pushing aside a pile of magazines and clothes. For a few minutes, we didn’t speak.
Then, Marcy said: “Grandpa was right.”
“What?” I said.
Marcy looked up from burying her face in her hands. “You can promise to keep a secret, can’t you?” she said.
“Of course,” I said.
“I aborted a baby,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. I got the sense that Marcy didn’t want me to look at her then, so I stared at my hands in my lap.
“Do you know what that means?” she said.
“Yes, I think so,” I said.
“It means I was pregnant, and now I’m not.”
“Yes,” I said, even though my mind was thrumming with questions.
I allowed myself just one.
“Was it Joel’s baby?”
Marcy nodded. I noticed Marcy’s red coat in the closet, hanging alone, and I suddenly felt very sad for her and sad for the baby that would have been my relative, but I didn’t dare say it. I didn’t know what to think, but I knew that I wouldn’t betray Marcy to Mom or Grandpa or anyone. I would take her secret to my death.
A few minutes later, we heard Grandpa’s footsteps on the stairs, and then the grinding and smacking as he opened and closed my bedroom door.
The next week, the house was empty again. Marcy flew back to New York, I returned to school, and Uncle Dan came to pick Grandpa up and take him back to Ohio. They had decided that Grandpa wouldn’t live with Uncle Dan after all but in an assisted living facility, where Mom and Uncle Dan agreed he would get the best care, especially as he was having more of those dreams, and it was getting harder and harder to wake him up.
When I saw Grandpa the next summer at a barbecue, he didn’t seem frightened. He patted me on the shoulder and smiled, as if he didn’t quite remember who I was. Marcy wasn’t there; she was studying abroad in Florence. She had sent us a photo of her in front of an enormous cathedral, the stained-glass window behind her glowing in the sun.
That September, two planes flew into towers in New York, and the president declared that the country had to come together to fight a new and different war. I thought about the Holocaust and Grandpa. I didn’t want to eat rats and live in a basement, but Mom told me this time was different. We weren’t the enemies anymore.
When Grandpa died the following spring, Mom and I flew out to Ohio for the funeral. Marcy didn’t come because she was studying for exams, but I didn’t have any excuses. Mom didn’t cry when they lowered Grandpa’s plain pine casket into the ground, or when Uncle Dan read a poem about the resilience of the Jewish people and how Grandpa could now finally be reunited with his lost loved ones. I threw a shovel of dirt into the grave as instructed and thought about how Grandpa’s jaw could finally rest in peace.
Years passed. Marcy graduated. I graduated. Mom retired from the library, and then a few years later, she died peacefully in her sleep from a brain tumor. As is the case with mothers, she was buried along with many of my questions.
I stayed in the Midwest for college, and then for some years afterward, floating through a series of temp jobs while I worked on my writing, which I never showed to anyone, not even Marcy. Close to my 30th birthday, I met Heather in a dancing class my physical therapist advised me to take for my leg. Heather’s crooked, too — her left leg is shorter than the right, the opposite of mine. She’s from Texas, and she has the loudest voice of anyone I’ve ever met.
We moved to Houston for Heather’s job in museum curation. I took a job at a bookstore a couple of days a week. Heather keeps signing me up for readings and bringing home flyers for writing groups, but I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ll never go.
A couple of months after we watched a crowd chanting Jews will not replace us on TV, we attended a wedding for one of Heather’s high school friends in Austin. I was standing on the sidelines of a group of strangers who were laughing and telling drunken anecdotes while, in the privacy of my own head, I was trying to work out a plot hole in one of my stories.
As such, I was only half-listening when a man with a thick neck like Buzz Lightyear said, “I need a raise, dude, but my boss is a real Jew.”
“What did you just say?” Like a match, I had sprung to life and into the conversation.
“I was joking, man,” the guy said. “I was just joking.” Feet shifted nervously. I could feel the painful spotlight of attention on my face.
“I’m a real Jew,” I said. I had not declared my Jewish identity like this before in any context. I wasn’t even sure this identity belonged to me anymore, if it ever had.
“I’m sorry, man,” the man said, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender. I waited a half-second to see if anyone would respond then left for the bar. By the time I reached it, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, the barbecue turning in my stomach. I ordered a drink and looked around, as if expecting someone to come after me, but no one did.
I decided not to tell Heather about what happened, not because she wouldn’t understand, but because she would want to take some kind of action. After she went to bed, I called Marcy, who now lives in Brooklyn in a shoebox apartment with her journalist husband, Ben, and her baby, Naomi. They go to services every Friday. Marcy said moving there felt like coming home.
“Yikes,” she said after I told her.
“I know,” I said.
“Do you remember what happened with me and Grandpa?”
“Of course,” I said.
“For a long time, I resented him. Of course, I felt sorry for what he went through, but I didn’t see why he had to punish me. Then, I realized the two things were inseparable, his pain and his fear. He just didn’t know how to keep them apart.”
“Did you ever forgive him?”
“I don’t think so,” Marcy said. “But I do regret not coming back now, because the truth was, I was afraid, too.” In the background, I could hear Naomi begin to cry.
“God, I wish I’d told him that,” she said. “I wish I’d told him I was going to be okay.”
After our talk, I sat at the kitchen table for a long time, thinking. It was November, and I wanted to walk outside into a rush of cold, but like many autumn nights in Houston, the air teemed with heat and moisture, and a storm churned in the distance. For a moment, I thought I glimpsed Grandpa standing in the doorway, his skeletal frame towering over me, his phantom jaw trying but failing to communicate, but it was the shadow of a branch waving in the wind. I thought about how often history repeats itself, our collective and personal, and how impossible it feels to respond. How often words are like the tip of an iceberg failing to convey the enormity of what’s underneath.
In the living room, I turned on an episode of Friends, the one where Ross sleeps with another woman after his fight with Rachel. I switched it off before she discovers his betrayal and sat in the dark trying to work out the plot hole in my story, in which a man visiting his runaway father’s hometown finds inspiration to rekindle his relationship with his wife and children. I couldn’t make the ending work — it all seemed too contrived. What could the father say that would allow for their forgiveness?
Once the father says what he’s going to say, there’s no going back for him. But isn’t silence a worse fate? Silence has no aftermath, only potential, infinite but lonely. What I like about my stories is that I can return again and again to the moment that will determine everything. I can imagine all of the ways loneliness tries to speak.
The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, and to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents: Michael Knight and past Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, Celeste McMaster, and Michael Mack.
This article is featured in the January/February 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now