* * *
Wading through the diapers, Shelley poked her finger into my chest and was about to say something dour when the PA system interrupted her.
“Jacob, you have a call on line two. Jacob, line two.”
She glared at me as I backed away, leaving her pomegranate-faced amid the ruins of my tower.
* * *
The employee lounge was a dank, windowless room where I found the pharmacy assistant, Linda, nibbling a crustless sandwich in the vivid glow of the soda machine. She nodded at a phone screwed to the wall.
“Line two’s for you. Whoever it is sounds freaked.”
I picked up the dangling receiver.
“Yakob? Is that you?”
“Hi, Grandpa Portman.”
“Yakob, thank God. I need my key. Where’s my key?” He sounded upset, out of breath.
“Don’t play games,” he snapped. “You know what key.”
“You probably just misplaced it.”
“Your father put you up to this,” he said. “Just tell me. He doesn’t have to know.”
“Nobody put me up to anything.” I tried to change the subject. “Did you take your pills this morning?”
“They’re coming for me, understand? I don’t know how they found me after all these years, but they did. What am I supposed to fight them with, the goddamned butter knife?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard him talk like this. My grandfather was getting old, and frankly he was starting to lose it. The signs of his mental decline had been subtle at first, like forgetting to buy groceries or calling my mother by my aunt’s name. But over the summer his encroaching dementia had taken a cruel twist. The fantastic stories he’d invented about his life during the war—the monsters, the enchanted island—had become completely, oppressively real to him. He’d been especially agitated the last few weeks, and my parents, who feared he was becoming a danger to himself, were seriously considering putting him in a home. For some reason, I was the only one who received these apocalyptic phone calls from him.
As usual, I did my best to calm him down. “You’re safe. Everything’s fine. I’ll bring over a video for us to watch later, how’s that sound?”
“No! Stay where you are! It’s not safe here!”
“Grandpa, the monsters aren’t coming for you. You killed them all in the war, remember?” I turned to face the wall, trying to hide my end of this bizarre conversation from Linda, who shot me curious glances while pretending to read a fashion magazine.
“Not all of them,” he said. “No, no, no. I killed a lot, sure, but there are always more.” I could hear him banging around his house, opening drawers, slamming things. He was in full meltdown. “You stay away, hear me? I’ll be fine—cut out their tongues and stab them in the eyes, that’s all you gotta do! If I could just find that goddamned KEY!”
The key in question opened a giant locker in Grandpa Portman’s garage. Inside was a stockpile of guns and knives sufficient to arm a small militia. He’d spent half his life collecting them, traveling to out-of-state gun shows, going on long hunting trips, and dragging his reluctant family to rifle ranges on sunny Sundays so they could learn to shoot. He loved his guns so much that sometimes he even slept with them. My dad had an old snapshot to prove it: Grandpa Portman napping with pistol in hand.
When I asked my dad why Grandpa was so crazy about guns, he said it sometimes happened to people who used to be soldiers or who had experienced traumatic things. I guess that after everything my grandfather had been through, he never really felt safe anywhere, not even at home. The irony was, now that delusions and paranoia were starting to get the best of him, it was true—he wasn’t safe at home, not with all those guns around. That’s why my dad had swiped the key.
I repeated the lie that I didn’t know where it was. There was more swearing and banging as Grandpa Portman stomped around looking for it.
“Feh!” he said finally. “Let your father have the key if it’s so important to him. Let him have my dead body, too!”
I got off the phone as politely as I could and then called my dad.
“Grandpa’s flipping out,” I told him.
“Has he taken his pills today?”
“He won’t tell me. Doesn’t sound like it, though.”
I heard my dad sigh. “Can you stop by and make sure he’s okay? I can’t get off work right now.” My dad volunteered part-time at the bird rescue, where he helped rehabilitate snowy egrets hit by cars and pelicans that had swallowed fishhooks. He was an amateur ornithologist and a wannabe nature writer—with a stack of unpublished manuscripts to prove it—which are real jobs only if you happen to be married to a woman whose family owns a hundred and fifteen drug stores.
Of course, mine was not the realest of jobs either, and it was easy to ditch whenever I felt like it. I said I would go.
“Thanks, Jake. I promise we’ll get all this Grandpa stuff sorted out soon, okay?”
All this Grandpa stuff. “You mean put him in a home,” I said. “Make him someone else’s problem.”
“Mom and I haven’t decided yet.”
“Of course you have.”
“I can handle him, Dad. Really.”
“Maybe now you can. But he’s only going to get worse.”
I hung up and called my friend Ricky for a ride. Ten minutes later I heard the unmistakable throaty honk of his ancient Crown Victoria in the parking lot. On my way out I broke the bad news to Shelley: her tower of Stay-Tite would have to wait until tomorrow.
“Family emergency,” I explained.
“Right,” she said.
I emerged into the sticky-hot evening to find Ricky smoking on the hood of his battered car. Something about his mud-encrusted boots and the way he let smoke curl from his lips and how the sinking sun lit his green hair reminded me of a punk, redneck James Dean. He was all of those things, a bizarre cross-pollination of subcultures possible only in South Florida.
He saw me and leapt off the hood. “You fired yet?” he shouted across the parking lot.
“Shhhh!” I hissed, running toward him. “They don’t know my plan!”
Ricky punched my shoulder in a manner meant to be encouraging but that nearly snapped my rotator cuff. “Don’t worry, Special Ed. There’s always tomorrow.”
He called me Special Ed because I was in a few gifted classes, which were, technically speaking, part of our school’s special-education curriculum, a subtlety of nomenclature that Ricky found endlessly amusing. That was our friendship: equal parts irritation and cooperation. The cooperation part was an unofficial brains-for-brawn trade agreement we’d worked out in which I helped him not fail English and he helped me not get killed by the roided-out sociopaths who prowled the halls of our school. That he made my parents deeply uncomfortable was merely a bonus. He was, I suppose, my best friend, which is a less pathetic way of saying he was my only friend.
Ricky kicked the Crown Vic’s passenger door, which was how you opened it, and I climbed in. The Vic was amazing, a museum-worthy piece of unintentional folk art. Ricky bought it from the town dump with a jar of quarters—or so he claimed—a pedigree whose odor even the forest of air-freshener trees he’d hung from the mirror couldn’t mask. The seats were armored with duct tape so that errant upholstery springs wouldn’t find their way up your ass. Best of all was the exterior, a rusted moonscape of holes and dents, the result of a plan to earn extra gas money by allowing drunken partygoers to whack the car with a golf club for a buck a swing. The only rule, which had not been rigorously enforced, was that you couldn’t aim at anything made of glass.
The engine rattled to life in a cloud of blue smoke. As we left the parking lot and rolled past strip malls toward Grandpa Portman’s house, I began to worry about what we might find when we got there. Worst-case scenarios included my grandfather running naked in the street, wielding a hunting rifle, foaming at the mouth on the front lawn, or lying in wait with a blunt object in hand. Anything was possible, and that this would be Ricky’s first impression of a man I’d spoken about with reverence made me especially nervous.
The sky was turning the color of a fresh bruise as we pulled into my grandfather’s subdivision, a bewildering labyrinth of interlocking cul-de-sacs known collectively as Circle Village. We stopped at the guard gate to announce ourselves, but the old man in the booth was snoring and the gate was open, as was often the case, so we just drove in. My phone chirped with a text from my dad asking how things were going, and in the short time it took me to respond, Ricky managed to get us completely, stunningly lost. When I said I had no idea where we were, he cursed and pulled a succession of squealing U-turns, spitting arcs of tobacco juice from his window as I scanned the neighborhood for a familiar landmark. It wasn’t easy, even though I’d been to visit my grandfather countless times growing up, because each house looked like the next: squat and boxy with minor variations, trimmed with aluminum siding or dark seventies wood, or fronted by plaster colonnades that seemed almost delusionally aspirational. Street signs, half of which had turned a blank and blistered white from sun exposure, were little help. The only real landmarks were bizarre and colorful lawn ornaments, of which Circle Village was a veritable open-air museum.
Finally I recognized a mailbox held aloft by a metal butler that, despite his straight back and snooty expression, appeared to be crying tears of rust. I shouted at Ricky to turn left; the Vic’s tires screeched and I was flung against the passenger door. The impact must’ve jarred something loose in my brain, because suddenly the directions came rushing back to me. “Right at the flamingo orgy! Left at the multiethnic roof Santas! Straight past the pissing cherubs!”
When we turned at the cherubs, Ricky slowed to a crawl and peered doubtfully down my grandfather’s block. There was not a single porch light on, not a TV glowing behind a window, not a Town Car in a carport. All the neighbors had fled north to escape the punishing summer heat, leaving yard gnomes to drown in lawns gone wild and hurricane shutters shut tight, so that each house looked like a little pastel bomb shelter.
“Last one on the left,” I said. Ricky tapped the accelerator and we sputtered down the street. At the fourth or fifth house, we passed an old man watering his lawn. He was bald as an egg and stood in a bathrobe and slippers, spraying the ankle-high grass. The house was dark and shuttered like the rest. I turned to look and he seemed to stare back—though he couldn’t have, I realized with a small shock, because his eyes were a perfect milky white. That’s strange, I thought. Grandpa Portman never mentioned that one of his neighbors was blind.
The street ended at a wall of scrub pines and Ricky hung a sharp left into my grandfather’s driveway. He cut the engine, got out, and kicked my door open. Our shoes hushed through the dry grass to the porch.
I rang the bell and waited. A dog barked somewhere, a lonely sound in the muggy evening. When there was no answer I banged on the door, thinking maybe the bell had stopped working. Ricky swatted at the gnats that had begun to clothe us.
“Maybe he stepped out,” Ricky said, grinning. “Hot date.”
“Go ahead and laugh,” I said. “He’s got a better shot than we do any night of the week. This place is crawling with eligible widows.” I joked only to calm my nerves. The quiet made me anxious.
I fetched the extra key from its hiding place in the bushes. “Wait here.”
“Hell I am. Why?”
“Because you’re six-five and have green hair and my grandfather doesn’t know you and owns lots of guns.”
Ricky shrugged and stuck another wad of tobacco in his cheek. He went to stretch himself on a lawn chair as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
Even in the fading light I could tell the house was a disaster; it looked like it’d been ransacked by thieves. Bookshelves and cabinets had been emptied, the knicknacks and large-print Reader’s Digests that had filled them thrown across the floor. Couch cushions and chairs were overturned. The fridge and freezer doors hung open, their contents melting into sticky puddles on the linoleum.
My heart sank. Grandpa Portman had really, finally lost his mind. I called his name—but heard nothing.
I went from room to room, turning on lights and looking anywhere a paranoid old man might hide from monsters: behind furniture, in the attic crawlspace, under the workbench in the garage. I even checked inside his weapons cabinet, though of course it was locked, the handle ringed by scratches where he’d tried to pick it. Out on the lanai, a gallows of unwatered ferns swung browning in the breeze; while on my knees on the astroturfed floor I peered beneath rattan benches, afraid what I might discover.
I saw a gleam of light from the backyard.
Running through the screen door, I found a flashlight abandoned in the grass, its beam pointed at the woods that edged my grandfather’s yard—a scrubby wilderness of sawtoothed palmettos and trash palms that ran for a mile between Circle Village and the next subdivision, Century Woods. According to local legend, the woods were crawling with snakes, raccoons, and wild boars. When I pictured my grandfather out there, lost and raving in nothing but his bathrobe, a black feeling welled up in me. Every other week there was a news story about some geriatric citizen tripping into a retention pond and being devoured by alligators. The worst-case scenario wasn’t hard to imagine.
I shouted for Ricky and a moment later he came tearing around the side of the house. Right away he noticed something I hadn’t: a long mean-looking slice in the screen door. He let out a low whistle. “That’s a helluva cut. Wild pig coulda done it. Or a bobcat maybe. You should see the claws on them things.”