Anna has him sitting on the kitchen table; as usual, he is angry. “C’mon, Dad,” she keeps saying, as if that will make any difference. A heaviness lodges at the base of my skull; I try to shrug it away, but it clings there, breathing hard. The old man has the can of shaving cream clamped between his knees.
I put down my lunch bucket, and Anna looks up and sees me. “Hi,” she says. “How was work?” The old man puffs up his cheeks and spits out the air with a pop.
I get a bottle of soda from the fridge. My shirt gives off the thick smell of the plant. “So you’re actually going to shave the sacred beard,” I say. Anna looks tired.
“I have to,” she says. “Tim, come look at this.” She cups the old man’s chin in her hand and tilts his cheek to the light. Beneath the patches of beard his skin is infected and draining. There’s a sweet smell, like meat that’s about to turn.
“Christ,” I say.
“I know.” Her eyes narrow; I watch her fingers trace unsteady circles over the worn cloth of his shirt. “He’s really got to get rid of it. Okay?” she says to him. “Dad?”
He tightens his grip on the shaving cream until his knuckles whiten like soap.
I dump what is left of the soda into the sink and set the bottle next to an overflowing bag that Anna has marked “returnables.” Jem is supposed to take it to the market whenever it’s full. No one can get Jem to do anything anymore, not myself nor Anna, not his teachers at school. “What are we going to do about this?” I say, jerking my chin toward the bottles.
“At the moment, nothing.” Anna already has a bowl of warm water on the table; now she brings the scissors and a razor from the sink. The heaviness in my skull warms to a dull ache. The old man always loved his beard.
Anna motions me toward him, her open palms pale and silent. I work my hand between his knees until I get a firm grip on the shaving cream. “Ralph,” I say, and Anna keeps saying, “C’mon, Dad,” and, “Please, Dad,” as I slowly pull it away from him. His strength always amazes me.
“Goddamn it!” he roars, his arms beating the air like plucked wings. I pin them down so Anna can go to work with the scissors. His jaws snap wildly, and a horrible sound escapes from beneath his tongue. The beard comes away in clumps.
“Hold his head,” Anna gasps. I catch his jaw between my fingers, and for a moment he fights me as hard as he can. Then his body folds back into itself, and tears run from the red corners of his eyes into the shaving cream, into the sores, into the cut bristles of beard. Anna wipes her eyes with the inside of her hand, leaving a thin scar of shaving cream across the bridge of her nose.
Afterward, he sits hunched and bewildered on the table top, fingering the newness of his face. Anna chatters too brightly, saying how much better he looks, that he’s bound to be more comfortable without all that nasty hair. Abruptly, he eases himself down and stumbles out the back door. Anna turns to me; she pokes lightly at my stomach.
“Headache?” she says, looking at me closely. I nod and drape my arms loosely over her shoulders. Behind her I can see the high shelf that runs above the sink. She keeps her collection of glass chickens there; perched, beady-eyed, their bodies too plump, too perfect. The large one in the middle is something I gave her. It’s supposed to be a soup tureen, but she never uses it.
“I guess I’ll go out and check on him,” I say.
The words drive my headache deep behind my eyes, but Anna nods slightly, and I realize this is what she’s wanted me to say. She smiles beneath that long row of indifferent glass eyes.
The old man is sitting in his newest hole, a big one, half-concealed by the hedge. I squat beside it as he explores the dirt with his hands. Our lawn is a rough and violent landscape; everywhere there are angry holes, wounds that are unable to heal. A long, jagged crater half-swallows the back stoop. Smaller holes are sprinkled throughout the lawn, and in the center of the yard is an S-shaped gash ripping through the earth like a scar. I used to send Jem out to patch the holes, but that pitched the old man into a frenzy, and several days later he’d have dug a dozen more. He digs with his hands, worrying through the dirt like a terrier. When he digs, he is gentle and happy; his face twists into a sweet, garbled smile.
The neighbors think it’s funny. “How’s the Gopher?” they say, and, “I see the ol’ fella’s been busy.” They’re fond of him in the way that people are fond of a landmark.
A fine spray of earth peppers my arm.
“Hey, Ralph,” I say, and the old man pauses for a moment, unravels his crooked smile. A line of spittle, clear as an infant’s, pulls away from his mouth and drifts down the front of his shirt. There’s no recognition in his eyes. For a long time he still remembered Jem, but now even that is gone.
“Goddamn it,” he tells me in a satisfied tone. He idly pats his face. Anna and I will remember that beard, but to him, it never existed. I get up and go back into the house, where Anna is starting dinner. Her small hands slap at things impatiently.
“Where is he?” she asks.
“Digging,” I say. “He’s forgotten all about it.”
“Tough day,” Anna murmurs to herself. She’s wearing a loosefitting print dress; her back is a wall of red cotton flowers, winding their bright way between us.
Jem slumps into a kitchen chair, his large hands playing child’s games with his silverware. Everything’s hot and waiting on the table, but the old man’s still outside. Ragged goddamns filter in through the windows.
Jem says, “Ma, I got basketball in half an hour.”
Anna’s at the door calling, “DA-AD!”
“You want me to get him?” I say, but Anna is already in the back yard. Faintly, we can hear her voice rise and fall with the distant calls of nighthawks, shrill and alone.
“He’s got a new hole,” I say to Jem, quieting my knee which has been jiggling under the table.
“I seen it,” he says flatly. His eyes are riveted to the food. My other knee starts to jiggle.
“We shaved his beard today,” I say, and without warning Jem’s eyes flare.
“Whadya do that for? Why can’t you just leave him alone?”
Anna comes in from the back yard, swatting at the air. “Mosquitoes are out tonight,” she says. “I guess we might as well start eating. He doesn’t want to come in.”
Jem loads his plate and eats, lowering his head to meet each bite. “I hear you two shaved Gopher’s beard,” he says through a mountain of potatoes. Anna’s face darkens. Her voice drops low, smooth as buttered bread.
“That is your grandfather, you call him Grampa. Show some respect.”
Jem throws down his knife and fork and clambers to his feet. He gives Anna a look of unconcealed disgust.
“What do you know about respect?” he says.
He ducks out into the back yard, slamming the door so hard that the chickens rattle the shelf.
“What are we going to do about him?” I say after a while.
“We are going to leave him alone,” Anna says. She picks up his plate and scrapes his meal into the trash. I get up and walk over to the window. Jem is standing at the edge of the new hole, arms folded, one hip cocked, watching the old man dig.
When I get home from work the next day, Anna is excited.
“Look out back,” she tells me. The old man’s new hole is the width of a child’s swimming pool. He’s sitting stiffly in its center with his legs spread in a wide, gangly V. As I watch, a shower of earth spouts from his hands.
“What the hell,” I say, impressed. Anna puts her arm around me just as Jem comes bounding down the stairs. All three of us jump, and she takes her arm away.
“Didja’ see the hole?” he asks, looking nowhere in particular. His hair is stiff with hair spray, the long bangs divided into a dozen purple spikes.
I cringe. “Yep,” is all I say.
“Better make sure there’s no power line out there,” he says with a hint of a smile. Then he lopes out the door, his heavy boots squeaking; the screen bounces back on its hinges. Anna hooks a finger through my belt.
“Did you see that hair?” she hisses. We both break out laughing, our arms around each other, and the mood sways through our bodies like wind. Then it changes, and I’m hanging on to her, winding myself around her, pressing my face into her neck. Bitter acorns catch in my throat and burn behind my eyes. Anna shifts uncertainly, pulls herself away.
“Tim,” she says, not looking at me, not knowing what to do.
I step out onto the back stoop, letting the screen door close behind me. The old man is still at work on his hole; his motions are blurred by dusk. But I know by heart the frailness of his chest, the delicate blue veins that are scrawled along his throat. This is what it comes down to. This is all that we are, and it terrifies me.
“He’s not in pain,” Anna says through the screen. “Cancer would be worse. Or Parkinson’s disease.”
I say, “You don’t understand.”
Anna comes outside. Her mouth is set in an irritated way, although she’s trying to conceal it. “Honey, I can’t read your mind,” she says.
I catch her offered hand like it’s something I shouldn’t touch. She pulls away, stares at me; I duck my head and start walking toward the hole, feeling the dampness of the air move across me like an animal. The old man sees me and grunts to himself. His eyes are white bones in the twilight.
It’s a fight to get the old man in for dinner that night. He wants to be outside with his hole, and bribing him with tidbits doesn’t help. It finally takes all three of us to drag him into the house.
“Goddamn it!” he squeals, flapping and calling like a wrinkled bird of prey. As we bring him through the door, he bites Jem in the arm. Jem tells us it’s our fault, that things like this wouldn’t happen if we’d learn to leave people alone. He slams furiously out the door and on to his world of friends.
“Goddamn it!” the old man shrieks.
“Dad, please,” Anna says. He laughs at her and stomps upstairs to his room. I sit down at the table. Everything’s cold, but I’m hungry, and I’m going to eat. It’s 7:30, and the last food I’ve seen was a doughnut on my 3 o’clock break. My headache screams in my ears.
“Tim,” Anna says, looking up the stairs after the old man. She’s wearing that print dress again, and the flowers look like weeping eyes. I decide that I do not like the dress, and I look at her critically for a moment, like she’s someone I’ve never seen before. I cut a thick slice of bread.
“Maybe Jem’s right,” I say. “Maybe we should leave him alone.”
Anna’s face flushes orange and unappealing. “We can’t just leave him alone — he can’t take care of himself!” She turns to go upstairs.
I spoon some string beans onto my plate. They stick together in clumps, and they smell different than usual. “What did you put in the beans?”
“Tim,” Anna shouts, “I need help!”
“Jesus Christ,” I say, but I follow her upstairs to the old man’s room. He’s torn all the bedding off his bed: the light quilt, both sheets, the mattress pad, the rubber mattress cover. He’s also taken off his clothes, and he’s shivering irritably in the room’s dull chill. The air is thick with his smell. He clenches a sock which he rubs over his belly, that purplish swollen belly that hangs off him weakly as a plum.
“Oh, Dad,” Anna says. He backs away from her, wagging his head. I find myself grinning at him nervously; his lips split apart and he smiles back like I’m something he has chosen. A faint look of Anna shines in his face. Suddenly I’m running back down the stairs and out into the yard. It’s eerie in the twilight; the holes seem larger, dark as mouths. I stumble into one, catch myself, and then sit at its edge. The dampness of the grass seeps through my jeans. I find myself wondering just how many holes there are, if the old man keeps a secret count, if the old man is able to count at all. On his fiftieth birthday, he discovered that he couldn’t count the candles on his birthday cake. There was one for each decade. We all watched as he tried to count them aloud.
“I don’t understand,” he finally said. “I can’t seem to remember my numbers anymore.”
“There’s five of ’em, Grampa, look,” Jem said quickly. The old man touched each candle, quietly shaking his head. Several months later he came to stay with us. At night we heard him crying in his room.
It’s late when I go back into the house. Anna’s in the living room staring fixedly at the TV. The table’s still set: the plates stiff with food, the milk in its pitcher, all waiting dumbly for the meal to begin. I wrap everything in plastic and put it in the refrigerator. Then I go in to Anna and sit beside her on the couch. I want to say that I’d like to hold her hand. I want to say she has beautiful hands, that I like the roughness of her palms, and the corner of her right thumb where she always has a hangnail from nibbling there.
Instead, I tell her I’m sorry. And when she nods, she doesn’t look at me.
Saturday is Anna’s day to sleep in. I get up early and go downstairs, and there in the kitchen sits the old man. He has shaved over the spots that Anna missed, and his wispy hair is mashed neatly behind his ears. His eyes search for mine; they are quiet and alert. I see Ralph in those eyes. Dozens of unspoken words crowd my tongue.
I make a pot of coffee, self-conscious and bumbling, spilling coffee beans across the counter and sloshing water down the front of my robe. The old man watches me from the table. When the coffee’s ready, I bring him a cup and he slurps at it lustily.
“Good coffee,” he says. “Awful good.”
With that he slips away to wherever he goes, and there’s just an emptied body sitting with me in the kitchen. A terrible loneliness comes to me. I feel like I’ve swallowed chalk. I go back upstairs and get into bed and curl against Anna. She sleepily rolls away. I stare into her face for a long time, focusing on details, committing her to memory. I touch her lips with the flat palm of my hand.
The old man’s hole deepens steadily. On the first of July, Jem and I measure almost four feet from its center to the surface. The dirt in the deepest spot has turned to a rich, orange clay.
“Way ta go, Gopher!” Jem crows.
The old man bobs up and down with excitement. “Ahh!” he cheers, his voice cracked and uncertain as Jem’s, and the two of them are an unlikely duet in the twilight.
That evening a tornado warning flashes across the TV screen. Lightning bolts divide the sky into dark windows, and then divide those windows. The old man is afraid of the thunder and wets his pants. “Goddamn it!” he echoes each hollow blast, batting away Anna’s anxious hands. Jem isn’t home, and we pretend not to worry. Together we coax the old man into the basement; his face is rigid with fright, and he grins at us like a skull. Then he leans against me and weeps, nuzzling my chest like a small, frightened animal.
In the morning, the air is fresh and beautiful. Sunlight shakes the trees and ripples across the lawn. Jem’s bleary-eyed, tired; he doesn’t say where he spent the night, and Anna and I don’t ask. She’s made French toast for breakfast; I lather mine with butter, sugar, and syrup, and a spoonful of raspberry jam.
The old man doesn’t want his French toast. “Eat,” Anna tells him, and he covers his face with his hands.
Jem says, “Here, Ma, I’ll eat it for him.”
Anna gives Jem an unfriendly look. The old man rocks and stomps at the floor.
“Just let him dig,” I say to her quietly. “That’s all he really wants.” Jem’s eyes meet mine. Then he drops his head and shovels in several rapid mouthfuls of French toast.
Anna’s lips fade to thin, white lines, but she reaches over and unhooks the old man’s bib. He jumps up, knocking his chair over, and hurries out into the yard. Jem rights the chair. I expect him to shove back his plate and leave, the way he always does. But instead, he plays with his juice glass, working his fingers around the rim.
“You want a cup of coffee?” I finally say, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to ask.
“Sure,” he says. The juice glass clatters onto his plate. Anna does not say anything, and I get up to pour him the coffee.
Rapid goddamns rattle through the screen door; something in the yard has upset the old man. Anna looks strangely relieved.
“I’d better go see what’s bothering him,” she says.
“I’ll do it.” Jem gulps what’s left of my coffee, grins, and goes out into the yard. Anna and I silently clear the table.
“I’m not taking sides with Jem,” I finally say. “I just figured since Ralph wasn’t going to eat, we might as well let him outside.”
And Anna says, “Maybe we should put him in a home.”
I force myself not to change expression. This is something we’d both agreed we wouldn’t even discuss.
“It’s not like he’s even Dad,” she says. “He’s somebody else, somebody terrible.”
It’s his anger that bothers me most. Goddamn this, goddamn that. Ralph was always such a gentle man.
“He’s wearing me out,” she says, filling the sink with hot water. “I don’t have the energy for anything anymore.” She turns to look at me.
I can’t remember the last time we’ve gone out to eat. Or to a movie. Or on vacation. I did manage to take Jem out to dinner for his birthday, but Anna had to stay back with the old man. Jem made a small, sad joke about it. He asked if we had flipped a coin, and if I was the one who’d lost.
“And what about Jem?” she goes on. “He can’t bring friends over. And none of our friends have been to the house in ages.”
My mother came to visit last year, but we had to put her up in a motel. The old man went crazy the minute he saw her. He pulled out his hair and banged his head against the wall. Any change in the household terrifies him. Once, Anna put a new rug in the living room, an Oriental print that she’d found at a sale, but after a week we gave it away. He’d taken one look at it and screamed, and then kept right on screaming. I will never forget how he screamed.
“Okay,” I say. The word is calm and practical; it hangs without meaning in the kitchen.
“Okay, what?” she says.
I think of the old man’s face, scraped and bleeding, always unable to heal. But still, Ralph’s face.
“He might be better off,” I say.
Anna’s mouth twists into rivers of words; angry words, fighting each other, racing to erupt all at once. She shouts, “You didn’t even try to change my mind!”
“You don’t want me to change your mind.”
She throws the dish towel into the sink, whirls through the kitchen, then out of the house. The door slams behind her, echoing like a slap. I hear the car burst to life in the driveway; I wonder briefly where she will go. I finish the dishes, and then I reach up and take the biggest chicken, the soup tureen, and I smash it hard on the linoleum floor. Shards of glass fly like sunlight, and then everything rings with an awful quiet. I look at my hands and I am afraid, for at this moment I know they are capable of anything. They are large and chapped and red from the dishwater. They are brutal, ugly hands. I put them to my face, and sobs roll through my fingers.
After a while, I go to the sink and splash my eyes with cold water; I know I must check on the old man. As I walk across the kitchen, I can feel small pieces of glass grinding their way into the floor beneath my shoes.
Last night’s storm has collapsed the old man’s hole; Jem’s got a shovel and he’s standing barefoot in the muck, trying to dig it back out. Sweat has collected on his forehead, clings to the hairs of his faint mustache. The old man is squatting beside him on the lawn, his face distorted by a radiant smile.
“What you need is a bucket,” I call to Jem, trying to make my voice sound hearty, hoping he didn’t hear what happened in the house. Jem looks up and shrugs.
“Aw, Gopher was mad because his hole caved in. So I thought I’d try and dig it back out.”
The old man teeters happily on his heels.
“Good,” I say, “that’s good,” and then I can’t say any more. Jem wipes his hands and gets a fresh grip on the shovel, his face flushed dark with pride.