The night I almost killed my grandfather, I was trying to be funny and earn a position as a funny guy, like him. Grandpa was a great man, my favorite human being. He couldn’t do enough for the people he loved, and he loved everybody. He not only gave me his love and attention, he gave me his name. He gave it to my father first, and made him promise to pass it on. I was in the Jim Smith club and that felt special.
Grandpa had a bit of leprechaun in him. He liked to tease. He was never malicious, only playful and challenging. He would tell us puns, show us magic tricks and give us riddles to solve, to test our, “Observational skills and mental acuity,” two things I didn’t even know I had. He set up challenges for us, rewarded all our successes and delighted in our growth.
My assault against Grandpa might have started on Thanksgiving, over a fly. Our family, five children plus parents, piled into our two-tone green Ford Fairlane for the eight-hour pilgrimage to Grandma’s in Los Angeles. En route, we kids read every billboard, counted out-of-state license plates, and argued over mom’s side and dad’s side, desperate to avoid the middle and the dreaded hump in the floor. By the time we got to Grandma’s we were exhausted and sick of each other.
Grandpa was the consummate host. He helped carry in sleeping children and luggage, and then hung up clothes for us. When everything was in order, he served refreshments. After getting my parents squared away, he came into the dining room where I sat captivated by a bowl of waxed fruit, unaware that it wasn’t real. Since Mom said it was impolite to ask for things, I stared. My concentration was broken by, “Would you like something to drink, Sonny Boy?”
When I was home, to avoid confusion, Dad was Jim and I was Jimmy. At Grandpa’s house, Grandpa became Jim, Dad was Jimmy, to save Grandma frustration, I became Seamus (James, in Gaelic) to her, and Sonny Boy to Grandpa. “Yes, please,” I answered.
“Why don’t you come in here and see what we have?” When he opened the ice-box door, my life changed! On the top shelf were several quart bottles of a magic elixir he called “pop.” From root-beer to ginger ale to a milk-bottle of ice water, a spectacle stood before me grander than anything I had ever seen.
“I would like some Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer, please, Grandpa,” I announced, reading the label, showing off.
He grabbed the root beer, “Would you get me a tray of ice cubes, please?”
“Yes, Sir!” I said, proud that he thought me capable of such a daunting assignment. The moment I turned, Grandpa performed the sleight of hand that likely gave rise to my ill-conceived thoughtlessness. Focused on my task and unsuspecting, I was oblivious of what he was doing. Grandpa filled the glass with ice cubes. Then, he poured the liquid gently down the side of the tilted glass, explaining the process as if it were some kind of secret Irish pouring technique that he was sharing with me only, his namesake and heir to the throne. I thanked him, took the drink, returned to the dining room and the fruit bowl, and sat down.
Pop is good, period, and poured in an exotic manner it tastes even better than the regular stuff. Before the soda was even cold, the glass was drained. Afraid to be heard asking for more, and, so I wouldn’t waste ice, I carried my glass around the kitchen, tried to suck moisture off the cubes, while pretending to be looking for a place to set the glass, when Grandpa said, “Would you like some more?”
“Yes, please,” I said courteously, hoping politeness would keep the pop door open. I was proud to be related to this great man who was surely going to heaven; “Thank you, Grandpa.” I took the glass and went back into the dining room. I sipped in silence, trying to figure a way to get my brother, Larry, to eat a wax grape, when again, the soda disappeared. So, I sat waiting patiently for the ice to melt. Halfway through the thaw, while trying to inhale precious melted drops, I noticed there was a fly in my glass. At home I mowed the lawn every Saturday, and I knew what flies walk on! “Grandpa!”
He came in the room, put a hand on my shoulder, “What is it, Sonny Boy?”
“There’s a fly!”
He held the glass up, turned it around in the light, then set it back in front of me, “You’re right. That’s a fly.” He turned to leave.
“What should I do?”
“I don’t think he drank much. Just be careful you don’t swallow him.”
Suddenly I could feel my throat constricting. Flies had germs and germs made polio. I saw it on TV. “I think I’m getting sick.”
He felt my forehead, pulled his hand back quickly, “You’re burning up.”
I felt my forehead, he was right! “Mom!”
Mom came in from the living room. “What?”
She looked at me, then Grandpa. “Show her,” he said.
I picked up the glass and looked into it. The fly seemed to be hovering in the ice. I shook the glass, but it stayed suspended. “What’s the matter …?” I shook the glass harder, and then I heard laughter.
Grandpa fished one cube from the glass with a spoon and held it out to me between two fingers. I took it from him and looked close. It wasn’t ice; it was plastic. In the middle, floating in his own little world was a real fly. Grandpa teased me, and so did Mom. But I didn’t hear a word they said. For the rest of that day and the next, I was obsessed with how that fly got in there. Grandpa explained it to me and said I could have it. I named the fly Mike and kept it in my pocket away from my brothers and sister, my potential victims. This was my first step toward catastrophe. At the end of the week, we packed up and left. I had Mike in my pocket and contemplated how and who I would trick when I got home. Among the things I thought about during the eight-hour journey was how I could get even with Grandpa, to match his cleverness.
Not far from our house was a joke store. I wasn’t allowed to cross the Alameda, so I snuck down the back way for a look-see and perhaps a little payback. In my pocket I had my entire life savings, eleven cents, safely wrapped in a handkerchief. Grandpa would be coming up for Christmas in three weeks, and I wanted to match wits with the master.
The store was filled with magic and untold mysteries. I pawed through jokes: fake barf, Whoopee cushions, deformed plastic teeth, gum that made your lips pucker shut, and metal wind-up buzzers that gave shocks to unsuspecting victims when you shook their hand. But my eleven cents wouldn’t stretch far enough to cover any of the exotics.
I was looking at items on the counter when I found two perfect ones — rubber peanuts and a plastic earwig. Grandpa loved the first one and despised the second. I bought five peanuts and a gigantic two-inch earwig. I went home and hid them in my drawer inside my underpants where burglars would never look and waited for three weeks. Finally, Grandpa and Grandma pulled up out front and we all ran out to greet them. I grabbed the biggest suitcase and muscled it to the porch steps before my hand gave out and I had to get help from Dad.
Grandpa nicknamed me the, “Go-fer.” While the men sat around telling stories, it was my job to go-fer beers as needed, or go-fer snacks, including peanuts. Grandpa loved shelled peanuts and never seemed to tire of laughing and retelling us kids the fact that in some factory somewhere, people made a living removing the shells from all those peanuts with their teeth. We kids never seemed to tire of laughing, Grandpa was a funny guy.
When things settled down, Dad told me to go-fer the peanuts and two beers, reminded me to put Grandpa’s in a glass. While punching the second hole, the breathing hole in the top of Dad’s can with a can opener, I had a brainstorm. I went to the cupboard and got two small custard bowls. I poured peanuts into each bowl, put the five rubber ones in Grandpa’s bowl and stirred them up. Then I took the loot into the living room, almost too giddy to walk without spilling.
The two Irishmen talked non-stop as they drank and ate their way through the world’s problems. I watched each time Grandpa took some peanuts, eager to see him laugh when he discovered he’d gotten a rubber one. Eventually, Dad asked me to go-fer more beers, and when I stood I looked, Grandpa’s custard bowl was empty. I was mortified! Grandpa had eaten half my life savings! But I dared not tell anyone. My terror was short-lived. “Sonny Boy, would you get me a beer also, please?” Grandpa held out his glass to me.”
I took the glass and empty cans back to the kitchen. With a new plan in mind, I carefully poured Grandpa’s beer as I had been shown, trying to not laugh. When the glass was full, I gently slipped the earwig into the foam, figuring that when the bubbles popped, the bug would be floating on top. Grandpa would be surprised, and they would all laugh and tell me how funny I was and how proud they all were to be related to me.
I took the beers inside and presented them. Before I sat down, Mom asked if I’d get her and Grandma beer also. So, I went back, got two more beers and poured them into glasses. On the way to the living room, while I was walking carefully, concentrating on not spilling, I heard scuffling and heavy footsteps. When I reached the living room, I distributed the beers and noticed that Dad and Grandpa were gone. Mom was standing up with one hand on her hip, the other covering her mouth. My sister was in tears and my brothers had looks of terror on their faces, like they’d seen something naked.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Grandpa started choking!” Mom said.
At first, I had no idea what she meant. Grandma kept repeating, “Oh, my God,” alternated with the names of her friends, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a signal to me that this was serious. I shrank into the chair. I looked where Grandpa had been sitting and there on the floor was his beer glass lying on its side. The contents were a dark spot on the carpet and the earwig was nowhere to be seen.
From the opposite end of the house I could hear Grandpa coughing, making sounds like he was vomiting, while Dad kept shouting at him. I scrunched down even farther and when I couldn’t make myself disappear, it all came crashing in on me; the peanuts, the earwig, the fallen glass, and I knew I had done something terrible. Tears streamed down my face, and I went rigid trying to hold back my panic. Mom looked at me; “James Charles, what did you do?”
To this day I don’t know how I communicated, or if I even spoke English. I opened my mouth and agony rushed out in torrents of crying with a few words mixed in what sounded like I was speaking chimpanzee. Somehow she understood. “You get in there right now and apologize to your Grandfather, young man. You coulda killed him.”
I had no choice. I covered my face with my forearms and left the room. The sounds of Grandpa choking echoed down the hallway and got louder with each step I took. I could hear a pounding noise and my dad yelling, “Keep coughing, Dad. You’re gonna be okay.”
Terrified, I crept along close to the wall. When I got to the bathroom door, I could see Grandpa, hands on his knees, hunched over the toilet trying to hawk something up. Dad was pounding on his back and Grandpa was making scary noises that I had never heard a person make before, and so was I.
“Grandpa?” My voice was weak and unheard. “Grandpa?”
“What do you want?” Dad asked.
“What, Sonny Boy?” Still bent over, he turned toward me, and started gagging. Dad thumped him on the back again.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”
“It’s okay,” gag, cough, spit; “I’m okay.”
Overwhelmed, I broke the Fourth Commandment and disobeyed my mother. I ran next door, to my bedroom, and threw myself on the bed. I could hear every noise from the bathroom no matter how hard I tried to drown it out with crying. Then suddenly it stopped and I panicked. Grandpa was dead! I remembered the film-strip I’d seen in Catechism with the fires of hell and people falling from the sky screaming, and I imagined myself one of them. “I’m sorry,” I kept repeating as I stared up at the glow-in-the-dark crucifix on the wall over my bed. Then I heard them. The toilet flushed and a moment later, Dad and Grandpa were standing in the hallway talking. I leaped off the bed, went to the door and opened it just enough to see with one eye. He was okay! I sniffled and Grandpa looked right at me.
“You go ahead,” he said to Dad. Grandpa walked to my door and bowed graciously. “May I come in?” I was shocked that he would even want to see me. I turned and ran, jumped onto my bed and closed my eyes tight. He sat down beside me, took the sheet off my head, and petted my hair. “You know, sometimes you do things in life and they don’t come out exactly the way you plan.”
I looked up at him, “I’m sorry.”
He put his arms around me and pulled me close, “It’s okay, Sonny Boy. I’m sorry, too, that it turned out like this. I know you didn’t mean it.” He held me for a long time, and I cried. I was old enough to know that we men don’t cry, but I couldn’t stop. When I finished, he took his handkerchief from his back pocket and handed it to me. I wiped the misery off my face, and handed it back. He wiped a little misery off his own face, and put the cloth back in his pocket. “What do you say we go get something cold to drink? I have a terribly sore throat.”
I didn’t understand the implication of his words for some years, and when I finally did I was afraid to bring it up. I never saw the peanuts or the earwig again. Perhaps he’d found them and the joke was on me, but I didn’t care, I didn’t want to know and I didn’t want to see them ever again. All I wanted to think about was that Grandpa had come back from the dead and in one hug taught me a life-changing lesson about forgiveness. From that day until today, every night as I “Lay me down to sleep,” I always God-bless Grandpa twice.