The lawyer tells Louis the item in the package once belonged to his grandfather. His grandfather’s will states that three days after his first grandson’s engagement, the grandson is to receive the package. Yes, the lawyer does know the contents; but no, she is not at liberty to divulge said contents. This is the grandfather who died when Louis’ mother was in college. This is the grandfather who never met Louis’ father. This is the grandfather for whom Louis is named. This is the grandfather Louis has never met, about whom he has heard few stories. The lawyer clears her throat as Louis stands motionless before a wall of legal tomes. Her ten o’clock appointment needs to come in. Now, she says.
The subways are packed on the ride home, unusual but not unimaginable for this time of day. Louis’ back aches as the train creeps through Queens. He clutches the package tightly against his chest and peeks at the faces of the other riders and wonders just how many of their grandparents they have known. His thoughts meander back to childhood, the bewilderment he felt as his friends ran across their lawns and hugged their grandfathers, who towered above them like cypress trees. What was it they were feeling? The sun glints off the glass apartment towers across the river from Manhattan, so different from his grandmother’s old brick Brooklyn apartment where she lived surrounded by her spouse’s belongings until the day she died. He takes out his phone and sends a text message to Lecia to let her know he will be home soon.
The train pulls into the station with a lurch, shocking him back to full consciousness. He gets out and walks the three blocks back to his apartment. The elevator is on another floor when he arrives, so he takes the stairs instead. Lecia is asleep on the couch, unusual for this time of day. The box opens easily and leaves behind a pile of yellow powder on the table. Inside is a leather-bound book. His heart races with anticipation as he opens it. The inside cover reads This Book Belongs To… And Louis can’t read the rest. At least, he’s not sure. The letters are Hebrew—he has seen this specific array of letters before, but he can’t remember where. A flashback to third grade. Hebrew school. The teacher is singing the alphabet as she writes each letter. He sings along, trying to keep up with her, the letters in his notebook mere scribbles compared to her effortless blackboard calligraphy. The letters come back as he sounds them out. He realizes he is speaking his own name. Of course, he says out loud to himself. The previous owner of this journal and the current owner both have (and had) the same name. The next page is filled with more unreadable text—most likely Yiddish. While his mom taught him some slang and a few phrases that are especially useful after hitting one’s head or stubbing one’s toe, the truth is, he knows Spanish better than this. He could sit here with a Yiddish dictionary and alphabet chart and be just as lost. Still, he mutters a profanity under his breath for not paying better attention during Hebrew school. He mutters a profanity under his breath at his mom for not teaching him Yiddish. He mutters a profanity under his breath at his grandparents for not teaching her more Yiddish.
Lecia stirs. Normally when she wakes up she does so very slowly, remaining in a state of half-consciousness for minutes on end before she is ready to respond to stimuli. But today she bolts up panting, running her hands across her face, chest, and hair.
“Where am I?” she shouts at Louis.
Sometimes she has bad dreams where she wakes up disoriented and needs to be talked back to reality. “You’re at home. I’m right here,” Louis says.
She tilts her head towards him and says, “Who are you?”
“It’s me,” he says. “Louis.” Lecia contorts her face and shakes her head. When she speaks her voice sounds right but her accent is all wrong. She sounds like a movie extra from the 1940’s.
“No, that’s my name,” she says.
“Lecia, it’s too early for this,” he says.
“How do you spell it?” she asks.
“I’m L-E-W-I-S,” she says.
He starts to wonder if Lecia has well and truly lost her mind. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.
“I was lying on a hospital bed. My wife and daughter were next to me,” she says. “Will you please tell me where I am? Why does my voice sound like this?”
“What do you remember before that?”
“The lawyer picked up my will at the hospital.”
“So you thought you were going to die,” he says, no longer fully committed to the idea that the woman in his apartment still has her sanity.
“Kid, I don’t know who you are or where I am, but I’m going to need some answers.”
She hops out of the couch, unsteady on her feet. Her eyes scan the apartment and land squarely on the journal. She pounces on it.
“Where did you get this?” she says. It is less a question and more a statement pointed like a gun at Louis’ head.
Louis tries to stammer out a reply, but no words can escape his throat.
“Tell me!” Her voice booms across the apartment.
“It belonged to my grandfather,” Louis says.
Here Lecia grows still. Her breathing calms and she edges towards Louis on unsteady feet. “What do you know about him?” she asks.
“Nothing!” Louis shouts, incredulous. “No one ever talks about him—don’t act like you don’t know this, Lecia.”
“What were you doing with the book?”
“Trying to read it, obviously, but it’s not in English,” Louis says, the frustration from a few minutes ago seeping into his voice.
“And how did you get it?”
“He left it in his will for me. For three days after I was to get engaged.”
“Oh my god,” she says. “That idiot rabbi was right.”
Louis and the person in the apartment, previously thought to be Lecia—hell, she was Lecia until last night—sit across from each other at the table, draining a pot of coffee sip by sip. Lewis, the person claiming to be Louis’ grandfather keeps staring. Louis can feel the other man studying the texture of his hair, the shape of his chin, the way he walks, the way he pours the coffee. Whereas before Lewis was possessed with a frenetic, electrifying energy, he now seems subdued by the coffee. They have cleared up the where—Queens, New York City—and they have cleared up when—2019. The next question takes Louis by surprise.
“Is your grandmother still alive?” Lewis asks.
“Bubbe died over ten years ago,” Louis says.
Lewis snorts. “Bubbe?” He says. “I can’t believe my daughter got you using that word. She couldn’t stand it when we spoke Yiddish in the house.”
Louis doesn’t know what to do with that statement and doesn’t respond.
“What was she like?” Lewis asks after the silence.
“Sick, sad, anxious. By the time I was born she was already too old to…to…” Louis struggles to find a way to explain it in a way that won’t sound like an insult; he settles on, “… do a lot of things.”
“Figures,” Lewis says, sighing.
Once Lewis has learned to use the bathroom in a woman’s body, something with which they are both quite uncomfortable, he hatches a plan.
“You know, I didn’t die that long ago,” Lewis starts to say. “The rabbi from the hospital may still be alive. He will know how to send me back.”
“What rabbi? What hospital?”
“I was desperate for more time on Earth so I asked him if there was a way to extend my life, a way to defeat the cancer. He told me that people had been known to do mysterious things by writing the right words, so I wrote some stuff in my journal.”
“But he also advised me to make amends with some people.”
“Did he say why?” Louis asks.
“Just that the plan wouldn’t work, at least not the way I expected it to.”
“My mom told me you and Bubbe weren’t religious,” Louis says.
“I wasn’t,” Lewis replies. “But I also didn’t expect to wake up moments after dying…forty years later.”
Louis nods, officially having given up on the idea that anything about this situation will make sense. Lewis continues.
“Look kid, I didn’t believe any of his farkakteh advice. But when you’re desperate, you’re desperate.”
“I…think I understand.” Louis says hesitantly.
“Do you have a phone book?” Lewis asks.
“Sort of,” Louis says, pulling out a cell phone.
They find the name of the rabbi and the hospital he worked at in 1979. They find that he took a job leading a congregation in Midwood, Brooklyn, in the late 80’s after serving as a hospital chaplain for years. Louis calls the synagogue and while he waits for something to happen on the other end, his grandfather gapes at the technology in the apartment. An answer. The rabbi is still alive, still working, and he can see them if they get there soon. As they are leaving, Lewis ducks into the apartment and grabs the journal. Louis hails a cab and grandfather and grandson are on their way.
The rabbi’s office is small and lived in. It smells like every church or synagogue basement in the world. Is this what mosques and ashrams smell like too? Probably, Louis thinks. Come to think of it, Louis voted in a local election in a mosque basement in his early 20’s once and it did smell exactly like this. The carpet is a yellow-green color, skirting the line between drab and retro. In fact, none of the office looks like it has changed much since the 1970’s. For Lewis, this must be an island of placid familiarity after waking up last night surrounded by flat-screen televisions, handheld computers, electric cars, and who knows what else. The walls are covered in pictures of the rabbi with all kinds of people—some looking very religious, some secular, and even a few celebrities. Among the celebrities is a picture of Bob Dylan, but curiously it’s from the Slow Train period. The rabbi’s desk is piled high with papers, and Louis, never a religious person, wonders what exactly a rabbi does that would require this much organizing. He regrets the thought. Judging by the look on the rabbi’s face he probably knows exactly what Louis is thinking. Louis realizes it’s his time to talk.
“Rabbi,” he starts to say, but his voice comes out just louder than a whisper. The rabbi adjusts his rimless glasses to give Louis some time to collect himself. “Rabbi, I’d like to introduce you to my grandfather.”
The rabbi looks the body of Louis’ 30-year-old fiancée up and down.
“We have a few, uh, what do you call it? Tran, transe—, transgendered people in the temple, but this is new for me.” Louis wonders if this is a rabbi joke or if he is serious. Lewis cuts in.
“Rabbi, I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is Lewis Gershom. I was a patient at Beth Hagan Medical Center in 1979. You were working as a chaplain there the week I died.”
The rabbi looks at Lewis, adjusts his glasses, and a smile starts to spread across his face.
“You fought me so hard. Your daughter made you speak to me.”
“It’s patients like you that made me want to take this job,” he laughs.
“Rabbi,” Louis starts to say again. “This morning I inherited my grandfather’s journal. A few minutes after I opened it, my fiancée woke up from a nap and she pretty much transformed into him.”
“What did the journal say?” the rabbi asks.
“I don’t know,” Louis says tentatively.
“Did you bring it with you?” the rabbi asks.
Louis passes the old book across the table.
“There’s some interesting stories in here,” the Rabbi says. “Too bad the kid can’t read it.” He puts the book down, tilts his head so he can see above his lenses, and gives Louis a profoundly judgmental look. “I could teach you how to read some of this, if you wanted.”
“How much would it cost?” Louis asks.
Before the rabbi can answer, Lewis butts in. “Don’t shame the kid.”
“Excuse me?” the rabbi asks, incredulous.
“You know what I meant. The kid can speak however he wants. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?”
“I…I…,” the rabbi starts to say. Lewis cuts him off.
“The whole neighborhood had something to say when my daughter was a kid. I see not much has changed.” He says these last few words while trying to swipe the journal from the rabbi’s hands. The rabbi pulls back and flips through the book.
“Be that as it may, any grandson should know some of this stuff. If he’s not going to read it, you should at least tell him. March 6, 1975 for example….”
“I’ll tell the kid when I’m ready,” Lewis says crossing his arms.
The rabbi takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. His face is red when he puts the glasses back on.
“Lewis, answer me honestly. Why did you leave your grandson the book if you didn’t want him to know about your life?”
“I didn’t think I’d actually be there to see it happen, you schmuck.” Lewis relishes in saying the final word.
To Louis’ surprise the rabbi laughs at this and continues with his questioning. Lewis seethes in frustration.
“Tell me something, Lewis, did you ever make peace with your associates…like I suggested?”
“Would I be here if I did?”
“Okay,” the rabbi says, and flips through the book again. “Did you write anything while you were having, uh, conflicts?”
“Don’t patronize me,” Lewis says, sitting back in his chair.
The rabbi takes out a pen and starts circling parts of each page.
“Don’t enjoy that too much,” Lewis says.
The rabbi passes the book back across the table, leaving the comment in the air. “Look,” he says, pointing to his circles. “In Judaism, God goes by many names. Some people believe that when you write down one of God’s names, even by accident, special, supernatural things can happen.”
The air in the room is still. Lewis rolls his eyes, but Louis follows where the Rabbi is going with this.
“Did he discover one of these?”
“Indeed,” the Rabbi says, smiling.
“Jesus Christ,” Lewis moans, slumping in his chair.
“And it turned your grandfather into a dybbuk. Just like I warned him in 1979.” He leans towards Lewis as he says these last words. Lewis hangs his head in his hands.
“What’s a dybbuk?” Louis asks.
“It’s the soul of a deceased individual with unfinished business on Earth. Only when the dybbuk completes his or her task can the soul be released and die peacefully.”
“This is worse than when I found out about the cancer,” Lewis cries out. Louis and the rabbi turn to face him. “I just got used to the idea of being dead; now I have to go back to being alive?” He sulks in the chair like a scolded toddler.
“It’s not so bad,” the rabbi says. “Once you figure out what your task is, you can return to rest.”
“Easy for you to say, you’ve never had to do this before,” Lewis shouts at the man.
“Just think, whom did you wrong before you died?” the rabbi asks, trying to deflect the last comment.
Lewis groans and gets out of the chair, storming towards the door, Louis in tow. They hear the rabbi’s voice call out one last time.
“Wait, both of you,” the rabbi calls. Lewis waits in the doorway, looks down at his feet, and then back up at the rabbi. The traffic noise on Kings Highway threatens to drown out whatever is about to be said.
“Lewis…after you died…was there anything—”
“What do you mean was there anything?” He draws out these last three words.
“You know…um…what happened next?”
“Are you asking me if there was an afterlife?”
The rabbi nods.
“You’re looking at it.”
“Just come over for dinner tonight,” Louis says to his mom over the phone. “There is someone I need you to meet.” She tries to put up a fight, gets afraid that Louis is cheating on Lecia, or that, she knew it all along, he’s actually gay. She apologizes for this one after Louis reassures her that this is not the case. Why wouldn’t she apologize for accusing him of infidelity? She says goodbye and the phone call is over. Lewis, by now accepting the title of ‘Grandpa,’ has been asleep on the couch all day. On the way home from the synagogue he fainted in the taxi but when he awoke he insisted on not going to the hospital. “Chalk it up to coming back from the dead,” he explained.
Louis hopes that when Grandpa wakes up, Lecia will be back, almost as if this haunting is one big nightmare. But when he awakes, Grandpa is still there, examining the devices in the apartment, grumbling about this and that.
“Are you ready for this?” Louis asks.
“This wasn’t a good idea,” Grandpa says. “Your mom doesn’t want to see me.”
“Why not?” Louis asks.
“She was angry with me when I died. I didn’t help her pay for college. And then there was the reason I died.”
“No. I died of liver cancer. The cancer reached my colon, but really it was my liver. I had a drinking problem.”
“She never mentioned that.”
Another silence passes. Grandpa is wearing Lecia’s sad face and Louis really wants to reach out and put his arm around her the way he does when she looks like this, but this isn’t Lecia and Louis doesn’t know how Grandpa will react to a touch. The doorbell rings and Grandpa snaps out of his reverie. Louis answers the door and Mom walks in. She throws her things down on a chair and looks around.
“Okay then, who is it that you want me to meet?” Louis wants to speak, but Mom interrupts. “Is Lecia pregnant? Is that why she looks so glum? Lecia, what’s wrong?”
“Mom, maybe you should sit down. Over here, next to uh—”
Mom sits down next to the person she believes is Lecia. Grandpa gives her a good, long look before he says something.
“Why is she looking at me like that?” Mom asks.
“Rhonda, it’s me,” Grandpa says.
“You never call me that,” Mom says. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s me…Dad,” he says.
Mom moves away from Lecia on the couch. Louis knows he should get back to getting dinner out, but he wants to remain in the room.
“Mom, it’s the truth,” Louis says. “We spoke to a rabbi about it.”
“What the fuck are you two trying to do? My dad died forty years ago,” she says.
“Do you know what a dybbuk is?” Grandpa asks.
Mom rolls her eyes and says, “It’s like a Jewish ghost.” As soon as she speaks the last word her eyes widen, and she clasps her hands to her mouth. “No!”
“Get back to dinner, kid. Let me catch up with your mom,” Grandpa says.
Mom and Grandpa sit in the living room talking for a long time. Louis hears Mom doing a lot of crying, both voices repeating the words I’m sorry over and over again. When the crying stops, Louis puts out dinner, chicken with vegetables, and they join. While they eat, Mom catches Grandpa up on the last forty years. She tells him about how she met Dad, when Louis was born, what she did for work, when Bubbe died, and finally Louis’ engagement. Grandpa looks happy to be hearing all of this. He tells Mom he thinks his task was to apologize to her and she agrees that this is likely. Dessert is not served because no one likes sweets, but everyone eats some cheese. Mom says a long goodbye to Grandpa and goes home. Grandpa helps Louis clean up and gets back on the couch.
“Well, kid, it’s time for me to go. It was nice meeting you.”
“Is that really it?” Louis asks.
“That rabbi said I had to settle my unfinished business. What else could it have been?”
Louis shrugs and says, “How do you know when your, like, soul will be ready?”
“Well, Lecia was asleep when I woke up, so I guess I just have to go back to sleep.”
“So, you don’t know?” Louis asks.
“No,” Grandpa says.
Louis makes a face and scratches the back of his neck. He is old enough to know that almost no death happens without words left unsaid. Now is the time to say all those things that one wants to say to someone who is dying, but his mind is almost blank.
“Do you think we’ll meet again, you know, when it’s my turn?”
“Not if your death is anything like mine. Dying and waking up this morning happened in the blink of an eye. I didn’t notice any loved ones along the way,” Grandpa says matter-of-factly. Grandpa shrugs, and Louis doesn’t know what else to do but shrug with him. “You’ll have your girlfriend back by tomorrow.”
“Fiancée,” Louis says.
“Whatever.” They shake hands. “It was nice to meet you, looks like you’re doing great.”
Louis thanks him and says goodbye, but Grandpa’s eyes are already closed, sleeping easy on the couch. Louis finishes the dishes and gets in bed, ready to have the events of the last twenty-four hours behind him.
Louis wakes up from a dreamless sleep. He is used to dreaming, enjoys it most nights, but yesterday was so surreal that his rest was a welcome respite from the fantastic. He stretches, gets out of bed, and is relieved to hear the sound of silence. The experiment with Mom must have worked. Grandpa’s soul was released, and when Louis walks into the living room, he expects to find Lecia asleep on the couch. To his horror, the couch is empty, but there is a note. The note reads ‘woke up feeling strange, went to walk it off. Love, Lecia.’ Louis had hoped that he would get to see her, to explain … well, whatever it was that she would need explained, but for now he is contented by the letter. He makes himself some coffee, eats some breakfast, scrolls through social media on his phone. After an hour, Lecia still hasn’t returned. He calls her phone. The seconds between the press of the call button and the ring-tone feel like an eternity. There is a buzzing noise across the room, and Louis puts it all together. The experiment failed. The phone is still in the apartment because Grandpa doesn’t know what a cell phone is and didn’t think to take it with him.
Louis begins to panic. His grandfather is missing. Except he’s not his grandfather, he’s the ghost of his grandfather’s soul. Except he’s not a regular ghost, he’s a dybbuk, because he’s Jewish, and if Louis tries to explain it to someone they are just going to say, How is that different from a regular ghost? He wonders whom one calls when a ghost inhabiting the body of a thirty-year-old woman has been set loose. The theme from Ghostbusters starts playing in his head, and he wonders why he is like this. He starts sprinting around the apartment, turning over every piece of paper, every book, any object that might indicate where Grandpa went.
Louis picks up the phone and calls the rabbi, but there is no response. He calls Mom and she doesn’t pick up either. He puts on his shoes and runs up and down the block, then the adjacent block, then the block after that one, peeking into store windows and even cars trying to locate Grandpa. He sees some cops and considers asking them for help, but then thinks better. He doesn’t know how an old Jewish man who last lived in 1970’s Brooklyn would react to a couple of cops approaching him. It becomes clear that this is a lost cause. Despite spending the last day with him, Louis realizes that he still knows next-to-nothing about Grandpa’s life. He doesn’t even know what the man’s job was when he was still alive. Why hadn’t he thought to ask these things? An even worse thought flickers into his brain. What if he took the journal? Another thought… Where did I leave the journal? Louis runs back to his apartment, nearly taking down everyone in his path on the way. If there are any tourists out this morning they will surely report back about the crazed guy running down the street in a t-shirt, gym shorts, and leather loafers while the rest of the neighborhood is just waking up.
Louis scrambles to get through the door and bursts into his apartment. He jumps across the living room and feels a preternatural sense of relief when he finds the journal right where he left it on the coffee table. This time he notices that a bookmark has been placed between the pages. He opens to the entry. It was the one the Rabbi mentioned—March 6, 1975. The words are still incomprehensible. Louis still cannot read Yiddish. He tries to call Mom again to ask what happened on the date from the journal but she doesn’t pick up. Louis slumps in his chair and tries to think of a plan. Fortunately, there is Google.
Louis sits hunched over his laptop and the journal. In one window on the screen is a chart showing which keys on a United States QWERTY keyboard correspond to which letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In the other window, a translation tool. He types each letter, one by one, until a disjointed, but readable narrative begins to emerge, mostly about Mom. According to the journal, he chose to break some news at the carousel at Flushing Meadow Park, one of her favorite destinations as a little girl. Predictably, she didn’t take the news well. The journal entry ended there. With no other leads to follow, Louis stuffs the journal into his jacket, hails a cab, and makes his way to the park.
The scene at the carousel is worse than expected. Grandpa is having a full-throated argument with one of the operators. The ride has only just opened and it was okay that he went around a few times for free, but now that families are arriving he has to either pay or get off. Grandpa tries to explain that he has no money. Security staff asks him to leave. To him, he is arguing with a kid who can’t give an old man a break. To the carousel staff, a gentrifying white woman is trying to get a free ride. Grandpa sees Louis and waves him over.
“My fiancé will pay for the ride,” Grandpa says. The fact that Grandpa is trying to get away with this makes Louis’ blood boil.
“Let’s go, Grandpa.” Louis says.
“What did you just call me?” Grandpa says, doing his best impression of a hurt woman.
“Who are you people?” the operator asks.
“Do you have any money on you?” Grandpa asks.
“I don’t want to,” Louis says. “It’s for kids.” But he doesn’t want to admit the obvious—this ride will make him motion-sick.
“Come on, your mom loved this thing when she was a kid.”
“Grandpa—” Louis tries to protest but the ride operator cuts him off.
“You two are gonna have to either pay, or get the fuck outta here. Look at this line,” the operator says. Louis and Grandpa turn their heads to see the faces of a bunch of tiny children and their families staring at the bizarre domestic dispute happening before them.
“If you want to talk you will just have to get on here with me,” Grandpa says.
Louis glares at Grandpa and hands over some money. Grandpa grabs Louis with surprising strength and drags him forward, telling him to sit on one of the horses that bobs up and down. Once the ride gets going, Grandpa waves at Louis to lean in.
“I’m not actually Lecia,” he whispers. “I just didn’t want to draw attention to us.”
“Yeah, no shit, Grandpa. I figured that out myself,” Louis says. “By the way, you don’t have to whisper. No one can hear anything over this fucking music.” Louis realizes Grandpa has nothing to say to this. “I read the entry.”
“Already? You learn fast.”
“So, what, you were just going to wander the city as some woman until I figured out how to track you down? You were just going to let me live like that? You were going to steal my future wife?”
“Not exactly,” Grandpa says. “Once I realized that I had no idea how to get back, I figured I’d do some things that I missed out on before I died. This was at the top of the list.”
“And then what?”
“And then I was going to go out, buy some clothes that I’m used to, get a job, and come back home to you.” Grandpa says this as if everything sounds perfectly sane.
“You were going to go around dressed like an old man? Did you even bring money with you?”
Grandpa doesn’t respond. Instead he starts to cackle, a laugh that comes out of nowhere and, turn after turn, wraps itself around the carousel. His smile, for the first time, is boundless. Meanwhile, things aren’t looking so good for Louis. Each rotation of the carousel sends his stomach into a more rapid freefall. He doesn’t know how much more of this he can take. Objects and images are starting to blur and seep into each other like watercolors. The music echoes in his skull. His heartbeat hammers against his Adam’s apple. He wants to scream, but he knows what will happen if he opens his mouth. The laughter of the other kids on the ride penetrates his mind, and he breaks out into a sweat. He feels it coming. He jumps off the plastic horse and falls off the ride. A security guard tries to secure him, but this is happening. Louis brushes past the security guard, runs over to the bushes and starts puking. The ground smells like sour coffee. The music has stopped. The spinning has stopped. He looks up to see who is putting the hand on his shoulder. It’s Grandpa.
“Come on, kid,” he says. Louis has no choice but to move along.
Grandpa leads Louis over to a hot dog cart, asks the vendor for a bun, a ginger ale, and two cups. Patting his pockets, he realizes that he has no money, so Louis pulls out a five-dollar-bill. They sit down on a bench and Louis grudgingly eats the hot dog bun, slowly, while Grandpa commences to pour the ginger ale from cup to cup and back.
“You know that’s an old wife’s tale,” Louis says in between bites. “Ginger ale doesn’t actually settle your stomach. People just give it to kids so they’ll drink some liquids when they’re sick.”
“It used to work on your mom,” he says. “I always gave this to her when she didn’t feel well.”
“I’m not my mom,” Louis says, crumbs falling down his shirt.
“Okay then,” Grandpa says. “If you don’t want this, then I’ll just drink it.” He holds the cup to his lips and starts to drink. The vomit taste still lingers in Louis’ mouth.
“Okay, okay,” Louis says. “I’ll have a little.”
He passes the cup and Louis drinks until his mouth feels normal again. His stomach starts to feel normal too.
“While I was on the ride, I think I figured out what my quest is,” Grandpa says.
“What’s that?” Louis asks.
“I had this coworker that I never said goodbye to before they sent me to the hospital. We worked side by side for years and I didn’t even wave at him on my last day of work. Do you think he’s still alive?”
Louis can’t take it anymore and says, “Fuck you.”
“What did you just say?” Grandpa says.
“I said fuck you. I can see why my mom never talked about you. You’re a real asshole.”
“I just helped you with an upset stomach and that’s all you can say?” Grandpa says, astonished at this man-child’s chutzpah.
“We’ve been together for two days now and you haven’t even called me by my name once!”
“It’s confusing!” Grandpa shouts.
“You steal my fiancée from me, make me translate a bunch of pages from your journal, I manage to actually find you before you get yourself in trouble, and now just as I’m starting to feel better, all you can do is talk about some old-ass dead coworker.” Grandpa looks away from Louis, sits motionless on the bench. He appears deep in thought, as if trying to foresee the rest of this conversation like moves in a chess game. “I’d rather throw up every day for the rest of my life if it means I can have Lecia back.”
They sit side by side on the bench, Louis’ chest heaving in a mix of anger and frustration. Finally, Grandpa breaks the silence.
“God, you sound exactly like my daughter.”
“Real fucking mature, man,” Louis says. He opens his mouth to speak, hesitates, and then goes for it. “March 6, 1975. What happened?”
“What do you mean what happened?” Grandpa asks. “You read the journal.”
“No, I translated it. And I’m not a professional fucking translator of dying languages. So what happened?”
“I’m leaving,” Grandpa says, getting up.
“Where are you going?” Louis asks.
“To get a job, an apartment, to start over. Clearly I’m not going back.” After a few paces, Grandpa turns around to speak one last time. “I’m sorry, Louis. I’m sorry about everything.”
As soon as Grandpa says this his knees start to shake and he falls to the ground. Louis rushes over and sees that even though his eyes are closed, he is still breathing and his heart still beating. Louis lightly slaps Grandpa’s face and all of a sudden his eyes open. He helps Grandpa to his feet and leads him back to the bench.
“That’s the second time in two days,” Grandpa says.
“I can’t have you injuring Lecia. I’m going to need her back…eventually,” Louis says.
Grandpa sighs and says, “It was the day my mother died.”
“What?” Louis asks.
“The journal entry. It was the day she died—the day I broke the news to your mom.”
“One morning I was at home with my mother and I decided to go out for a walk. To make a long story short, when I got back, she had fallen. Her skull split open.”
“I—” Louis tries to say.
“So I called your grandmother, the police, the ambulance, the whole nine yards. Your grandmother came home and dealt with the rest of all…that. I drove to your mom’s school, picked her up, and drove her here to break the news.”
“How did she react?”
“She was furious. Furious that I didn’t take her to see the body, furious that I came alone, furious that I left her grandmother alone in the house. That it was my fault.”
Louis looks at his feet. The story more or less matches the translation he cobbled together. There are no real surprises.
“But the worst part, for her, was the way I broke the news. She felt like I was treating her too childishly. Like she couldn’t handle it.”
“I just can’t believe I’m learning all of this now,” Louis says. “From a ghost.”
“I know you feel alone in the world, but it’s not that unusual,” Grandpa says. “Look…you never knew your grandfather, your mom never knew her grandfather, I never knew mine, and your grandmother never knew hers.”
“What are you trying to say?” Louis asks.
“Listen—my parents each came to this country as children, alone. I don’t know how they met because they never spoke of their lives before me and my siblings were born. While they were here, giving birth to me, my grandparents were most likely getting killed in Poland. Maybe by Russians, maybe by Germans, nobody knows.”
“My parents had nobody to help raise us kids and before anyone knew it, they were too old to take care of themselves. My father died long before your mom was born and then my mother moved in with me and your grandmother. I had to support the entire family.”
“And then?” Louis asks.
“And then I died. Only a few years after my own mother. I never got to have the life I wanted.” Louis wants to say something, but there is nothing he can say to follow this up. He feels bad for calling Lewis an asshole, for refusing to get on the carousel. Grandpa starts to speak again. “I knew that I wasn’t going to live long enough to see my daughter grow up, really grow up. But all those years where I was going from one room, to check on your mom, then back into the other to check on my mine, all I could think about was how I would never get to meet you.”
Louis is shaken by the gravity of this information. It’s heavy information, yes, but one piece of information is still missing. He asks, “how does the journal fit into all of this?”
“I had hoped that my additions to the journal would give me another few years—maybe just enough time to see you as an infant.”
“So why leave it to me?”
“I knew my wife and daughter wouldn’t talk much about me. I expected someday you would get curious about me, just as I did about my grandfather. This way you would have the chance to know me at some point, at least, in my own words.”
“But…then why couldn’t you be nicer to me? Why didn’t you try and get to know me?”
Now it’s grandpa’s turn to cry, but he’s a man from a different time and men from a different time don’t cry. He wipes his eyes, inhales deeply and looks away.
“Life is complicated, Louis. You never know who you’re going to disappoint.” Louis thinks he understands, but a part of him knows he’ll never understand completely.
“You said you hoped for the chance to see my birth,” Louis says.
“Can I tell you about my life now?”
When Louis finishes telling him about his childhood, his friends, college, Lecia, and his job, Grandpa’s eyes start to dim. He grips the bench and leans back, struggling to keep his head upright. Louis shakes him and tries to say something, but Grandpa’s head falls back. Louis lets out a long exhale, hoping that this is finally it. Grandpa’s eyes flash open and Louis flinches in fear.
“God damn it,” Grandpa yells. “I really thought that would work.”
“The fainting spells, that has to be it, right? You have to be getting closer.”
“I don’t know, kid. I think you’re just gonna have to get used to me.”
Louis racks his brain for a solution. He digs deep into his memory, trying to unearth any hidden recollections of his brief religious education that might reveal a solution to this particular problem, but most of his memories of that time revolve around Pokemon cards being passed below desks like contraband. Louis shrugs and pulls out the journal.
“I’m borrowing this.” He says.
“If I’m the task, there should be something about me in here. I’ll write something. Maybe then you’ll be able to go back.”
Louis writes for a few minutes, putting down every detail that he can remember. All the while, Grandpa leans over his shoulder. Satisfied, Louis puts the journal back in his pocket. Grandpa has been awfully quiet. He shakes Grandpa’s body, and waits for Lecia’s eyes to open.