blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



The Way of the Blue-Winged Wangdoodle

When I was a girl trying to navigate the raging rapids of puberty, Clara Houseman, my grandmother, discovered four pornographic videos in the bottom of the wooden crate my grandfather used as a shoeshine kit. If she had thought it over for a day or so, my grandmother probably would not have spoken of it to anyone other than him. Shocked as she was in the moment, she called my mother before she even talked with the old man himself. My grandfather, whose name was Horace, was in his late sixties, recently retired after ten years as provost of the university, but entirely alert. He’d lately taken up walking down to the lake and back twice a day.

Clara and Horace are both dead now, but I’ve lately found myself mulling over those days of family upheaval and disgrace. I have this picture in my mind of Clara standing in the sunlight of Horace’s study, holding in her hands the stack of video cases with their lurid pictures and titles, studying them one at a time. Horace’s filth, as she famously came to call what she’d found. I’m still not certain how I came to know that the shoeshine kit was where Horace had stashed his filth.

My mother counseled my grandmother not to make a big deal about it but to try to get my grandfather to talk with her about what she’d found. “Ask him what he thinks he’s doing,” my mother said on the phone in my presence, which, in spite of her calm tone, raised my level of interest. I was twelve and ordinarily concerned with more vital things than my mother’s frequent telephone conversations with her mother. In my mind, the very word “mother” had taken on the definition “totally uninteresting human being.” But this sentence my mother had just uttered was something I might have overheard in gym class or out by the block of lockers where most of us eighth graders clustered between classes. I quickly turned my head to see what her face looked like, which was the wrong move to make if I wanted to keep eavesdropping. “I gotta go,” she said. “Eve needs something. Talk to you later, Mom.” Then she and I were there in the kitchen eye to eye with each other. I suddenly got a clue that I was starting a new chapter in the brief but deeply compelling story of my life.

In that moment—approximately 4:33 of a Wednesday afternoon in April—my mother must have decided that this episode of our family’s antics was an occasion to bring me into what she might have termed a mature discussion of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. I can’t help thinking I saw something in her expression that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her, something frantic and uncertain. She was lost, she was in pain, she didn’t know what to do or to whom she should look for advice—I realize what I understood now, but at the time, I did my best to shut out any thought that my mother was anything other than the predictable authority who’d brought me into this world. She was an institution, not a person, and thus evidence of any human flaw was disturbing to me. Spiritual hysteria certainly wasn’t what I or any of my friends wanted to see in her mother’s face.

My mother adored her father. That, too, was a fact I’d never questioned—I adored him, too. He was big, handsome, and articulate, confident in that way that a man can be that both infuriates and comforts a woman. Horace Houseman was legendary in the family, in the town, and in the university for his competence, his common sense, his careful way of speaking. He’d worn a coat and tie from his days at Washington and Lee. There were very few occasions when he put on casual clothes. Even at the beach, when he wasn’t actually out on the sand by the water, he wore seersucker jackets, white duck pants, and pastel ties. He was the only man of my acquaintance who lived that way, and I confess that I still admire him for it. If my positive view of my grandfather remains unshaken in spite of my acquaintance with “his filth,” that is probably because I am removed from him by two generations rather than one. My mother was too close to him to accept the contradiction that had just been revealed to her—an admirable and beloved man with an interest in, to put it delicately, inappropriate sex.

“Your grandfather,” she began. And cleared her throat. “Your grandfather has done something very wrong,” she said. The look she gave me seemed to imply that I was the one who had done the bad thing. I said nothing, which was unusual for me—I was a mouthy kid. And I returned her gaze, which was also unusual. I didn’t like looking her in the eyes. I’d noticed that Midnight, our cocker spaniel, whom I considered my half brother, didn’t like meeting the gaze of anyone, and I understood why he was like that. You have to protect that part of your mind that might become visible if you let someone get a good look in there. Beast though he was, Midnight was the closest thing I had to a spiritual teacher. I suspect it’s that way for a lot of the children who grow up around cats or dogs. Midnight was a creature who took his orders straight from divine headquarters. He had taught me a primitive and valuable principle of life—don’t let anybody look into your brain. More and more in the past year I’d had thoughts that made me ashamed of myself, but at the same time I couldn’t wait for an occasion to try to bring them up again to see what was going to come of them.

My mother’s eyes were tearing up, and so I thought I’d try to rescue her. “What was Granddad doing?” I asked. I meant it in a helpful kind of way—it seemed to me that she just needed a little encouragement to say what she knew she had to tell me. I wanted her to know that I was a big kid, entirely ready to take in the awful news. My question riled her up enough to make her stick out her chin and use the tone of voice with me that usually meant I’d better watch my mouth.

“Eve, do you know what pornography is?”

“Yes,” I said, though the instant I said it, I realized that I knew only vaguely what it was.

“Well, you shouldn’t, but I thought you probably did. Your grandfather was looking at pornography.” Her face blazed up pink as the hollyhocks beside our garage.

“A book?” I asked.

She hesitated, apparently trying to measure my acquaintance with pornography. “Pictures,” she said. “Movies, actually.”

I had nothing to say to that. I’d seen things on TV that I figured I shouldn’t be seeing, but there they were. It embarrassed me to imagine my grandfather deliberately looking at things like that—women with their shirts off lying on top of men with their shirts off. It had always seemed accidental when I saw those scenes on TV—I hadn’t meant to see such things, they’d been sort of sprung on me, like a surprise birthday party or something. And I’d even turned off the TV a couple of times when the shirtless men and women started kissing really hot and heavy. “Hot and heavy” was a phrase my grandfather sometimes used, and now I knew where he’d gotten it.

So my mother and I sort of froze in our positions there in our utterly familiar kitchen, she leaning against the counter by the phone and I sitting at the table theoretically getting cracking on my homework while I ate the three Oreos I was allowed after school. My mother continued to look at me, but her face had lost its urgency. She was thinking about something, and I wasn’t uncomfortable being in there with her in that long passage of silence. I almost felt as if just by being there, I was helping her figure out how to help my grandfather. The odd thing is that I never even considered that my grandmother was probably the one who needed help. Somehow I understood that a man the age of my grandfather looking at dirty pictures had to be desperate. My mother, on the other hand, was—to use a phrase of my father’s that I’ve come to value—“living on Planet Pain.”


Probably because she so adored her father, my mother’s care for my father always seemed to me located in the B range of her emotional life. Which is not to say that she didn’t love him. But it is to say that she took him for granted. It is also to say that they were terrific companions. She trusted him as she trusted no one else. She didn’t mind listing his weaknesses to his face, or aloud in my presence, and he didn’t object to or try to amend her list: He was lazy but lucky. He was a contractor and a landlord, and he drove around Burlington in a truck looking after his various projects and properties. Essentially he made his living—our living—with his tongue. He talked to people—plumbers, electricians, carpenters, real estate agents, tenants, building inspectors, prospective buyers and sellers, even the occasional architect. He had an office in our basement, but he spent very little time in it.

“Your father can’t tell you what he owns or what he’s working on,” she liked to say, “but in any given day he can drive around town and show you at least twenty-five or thirty houses and buildings that he’s buying or selling or renting or fixing up or tearing down. In any given week, he’ll talk to maybe a hundred people he’s doing business with, but he’d have a hard time naming ten of them at dinner tonight. He’s a nightmare when it comes to taxes, and it’s a miracle we all haven’t been put in jail by the IRS. He’s disorganized, has no sense of style, doesn’t pay any attention to what clothes he wears, can’t sit through a movie or a concert, will behave erratically at any social occasion and will most likely do or say something inappropriate when I take him out in public.”

She made these pronouncements during dinner, made them in a cheerful tone of voice. Rather than objecting, my father grinned and chuckled while she went on, pointing her fork at him as she escalated her rhetoric. He had a moustache, and in his case it enhanced his laugh, his smile, his general good humor. He had the look of a young fellow who has in mind three or four mildly bad actions he’s planning to take. I think my mother married him because he was not even of the same species of creature as Horace Houseman. My mother treated my father as if he were a brother—sometimes an older brother, sometimes a younger, but always with a tone of affection and mild-to-medium disapproval in her voice.

A few more facts about my father: He carried three cell phones with him in his truck and often was in conversation on at least two of them at a time. His name was Bill. When I was ten, he had invited me to call him Bill, and I’d taken him up on it. I, too, thought of Bill as a kind of sibling, like maybe a much older stepbrother. We got along “famously,” I learned to say of him after I’d gone away to college.

Bill was a chaotic individual, but I think I can safely say that the idea of looking at pornographic videos probably never occurred to him, and if it had, he’d have merely snorted and shook his head. “No time for that,” he’d say. “Dirty Picture City—you go there, they might not let you out for a month or two.” Anybody who knew Bill knew he wouldn’t have been able to sit still long enough to look at any video, pornographic or otherwise.

The last and most notable thing about my father is that he often had an extravagant way of saying things. “A wild tongue,” my mother would say in her listing of his flaws. For example, of my mother, when she shook her fork at him like that, he liked to cut his eyes toward me and say, “Wedding cake on fire.” Or, “Knock a redwood down with her toes.” Or, “Look out, Evey, here comes the lady tornado.” Or, of the political ads we’d see on TV, he’d hoot and laugh and say, “That man’s trying to sell me a rain forest out here in the desert.” And of me, whenever he wanted to make me laugh, he’d find a name for me, like “Little Miss Eyebrows” or “Here comes Queen Scabby Knees” or “Hide your horses, Nelly, here comes Evey Golden Ears.” Where he got these phrases I never knew, but I loved them, and I was always at least slightly flattered by the things he’d say about me. Rarely the same thing twice. My favorite was “Sweet Splendor,” though he called me that only twice, and both times I was dressed up to go to church with my mother.

I hold Bill responsible for the reckless things that sometimes come out of my own mouth. Nothing I ever said sounded as good as the lamest of his verbal inventions; even so, I do appreciate a fresh phrase when I hear it.

As for my mother, whenever she’d listed off her version of Bill’s less-than-admirable way of life—and while she still had her fork waggling at him—she’d grin and say, “But you know what? If I need him, he’s there. The man is there before I even have to ask him.”


The idea first appeared in my brain as a silly thought: I’m the one who can fix this. I can have a talk with him. My grandfather and I had this lovingly distant relationship. “The battleship and the sailboat,” Bill once said of us when he saw us sitting on the porch one afternoon. Which is to say that our conversations were usually fragmented, oblique, and inconclusive. He liked to drive me downtown to get ice-cream cones or to shop for birthday presents or to meet so-and-so who was maybe going to give a sack full of money to the university. He liked to show me off to friends and shop people and influential old geezers with a lot of money. And I confess that I liked being shown off. I didn’t fancy I was the prettiest girl my age, but I did think I might be one of the cleverest. I was a precocious child, articulate, mannerly, and even knowledgeable about a few things. And only a little bit peculiar and only slightly aware of that aspect of myself.

When I was being shown off—and therefore making an effort to be interesting—remarks burbled up from inside me that were surprising, both to the people to whom I said them and to myself. “I’ve taken an interest in giraffes lately,” I once said to a banker my grandfather had just introduced me to. “Have you read The Rainbow Goblins?” I asked the British lady who ran Everyday Bookshop when I was seven. It made her eyebrows lift an inch or so and stay that way while she studied me carefully. People took note of me when I wanted them to. My grandfather Horace almost always chuckled when it happened. I saw no reason to change my ways. Even as a grown-up, I don’t stifle myself in this regard.

So when I knew I could do it without being overheard, I called over there and asked my grandmother if I could speak to him. That wasn’t unusual—from when I was little, I’d called him to tell him notable events in my life, finding a robin’s egg in the backyard, reading Chicken Soup with Rice all by myself, that kind of thing. But this time I surprised him when I asked if could talk to him that Saturday afternoon. There was a silence, during which I could imagine what my grandfather thought: Something’s up here. Or maybe he just heard something different in my voice. He wouldn’t have been wrong about that. I count that phone call as one of my first grown-up actions. Even if I didn’t know what I was doing.


My mother’s name was Hannah. Hannah has been dead a couple of years now. Though considerably slowed down, Bill’s alive, still driving a truck, and still the dearest man I know. But Hannah and Clara and Horace and Midnight have all gone the way of the blue-winged wangdoodle, a phrase of Bill’s—for when he couldn’t find one of his tools or something in the truck—that was a favorite from my childhood. Each of those deaths was startlingly painful to me, like getting shot or beaten up by someone I loved, and Bill’s phrase, by making me grin every time I thought of it, helped me put myself back together again. You could say that I got through my mourning by the way of the blue-winged wangdoodle. Bill is still grieving hard about Hannah’s death. “Easier to get along with no bones in my body,” I heard him say to the kitchen sink one morning not long ago. “Ain’t no love in the daylight today,” he muttered a moment later.

You see, for suffering, I needed Bill to give me the words. In the time when my marriage was disintegrating—when I was discovering what a despicable man my husband was—I could speak of it directly to no one, and yet I needed to put words to it or to get it out of myself. My mind wouldn’t work in any way that was a help to me, but some part of it must have been trying to move me along, because one Sunday afternoon when the two of us were in the house alone, I asked Bill what had happened to those old dirty movies of my grandfather Horace.

“Deep in the archives, baby,” he told me. “Never could figure out what to do with ’em. So I kept ’em.” He tapped his foot and looked uncomfortable

“Can you show them to me?” I asked him.

Bill studied me long and hard. I must have looked like I was about to cry, and he knew what I was asking him was irrational and destructive. He rubbed his moustache, which I’d never seen him do. He tried to grin at me, but he was unsuccessful, and his expression, before he gave up the effort, was a grimace.

So he went downstairs to his office—“William Collins / Contractor” was the sign on the door that no one outside the family had ever seen—and fetched up the video cases, brought them back to where I sat on the sofa, and stood in front of me with the sack of them in his hands. “You’re sure about this?” he asked me.

I nodded.

He spread them out on the coffee table in front me, laid them out to face me in a row like cards he was dealing: Suck It Up!, Hot Boxes, The Jism Chronicles, and Barely Legal, Part 3. The pictures on the covers were of women wearing what I was pretty sure were wigs, but what they showed was evidently what I needed to see: penises and vaginas, anuses, buttocks, and breasts. The latter were so inflated that they hardly resembled breasts as I was acquainted with them. The urge to weep flew right out of me then, which was fine, because I’d hated all those days of feeling like I needed to cry. There was a woman’s mouth opened very wide to receive a monstrous penis, an image that held my attention for some moments. Somehow seeing the pictures on those boxes told me what I needed to know about the true nature of my husband—he was utterly without spirit. A gifted poet, he often went days without saying a word, and I’d come to understand that he enjoyed inflicting his silences on me. The woman’s open mouth waiting for that absurd penis instructed me: my husband was a hurtful man, and I’d been a fool not to see it before I married him. I never for a moment took those pictures as telling me anything about my grandfather.

Bill himself didn’t know what was troubling me at that time. So what he said applied to Horace, because he thought it was Horace that was on my mind. “Your poor old grandfather,” Bill said. “I guess he couldn’t keep his feet out of the swamp. Feel some sorrow for him, sweetie. He’d have never wanted your eyes to fall on these things.”

Then I asked Bill to take me to dinner down at the Daily Planet where we’d always gone on Thursdays when my mother had played tennis with her ladies’ tennis group.

“Planet’s been closed for a while, sweetie, but we can go to Smokejacks. They got martinis down there to kill the boogie man.”


Horace’s study was a large room over the garage—a room that was attached to the house but that always seemed to me separate. Appropriately separate. I’d been in it only a few times before, and two of those occasions had been sneak visits. You know how it is when you’re a child—if there’s a chance to explore a forbidden room in your grandparents’ house, you do it the first chance you get. The year I turned twelve, I’d had two chances, and in both cases, I’d had plenty of time to walk around in there and take it in. I’d say “poke around,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. There was such a high level of tidiness in there that I hardly dared to touch any surface or to open any drawers. Large windows were on three sides, and the whole room fairly blazed with light. The odd thing was, there weren’t any dust motes floating in my grandfather’s sunlight. It was like a compartment in a space station.

There was his completely bare desk, his enormous chair—high-backed with thick black pads for his arms and elbows—and there was another big chair on the other side of the desk. Even before I went in there, I knew he’d invite me to sit in that visitor’s chair. It was a nice chair—very expensive, I guessed—but I didn’t relish the idea. I hadn’t even tried it out in my secret visits.

“Please sit down, Eve,” my grandfather told me after I’d knocked and stepped through the already-open door. He’d left it that way for me. It was toward the end of April, and it was a day of uncommon deliciousness outside. But I knew I was in for a profoundly indoor experience. I was, as they say in the old-fashioned children’s books, vexed by the obligation I’d taken on to have this conversation. Which is not to say that I wasn’t also curious about what would transpire between the two of us.

Horace—and that’s what I have to call him here because that’s what he became to me in the course of our conversation, though in my life until that day, I had never called him that even to myself—Horace seemed different in some way. My first impression was that he had dressed as if he were receiving a visit from a foreign diplomat. But then I had to revise that idea, because his clothes weren’t dark and formal. He’d chosen a spiffy tweed sport coat, a pink shirt, and a boldly striped tie. They were the kind of clothes you saw in the windows of Michael Kehoe’s before it closed. As I sat down, I realized that my grandfather had dressed up for me. He wanted to charm me. To me, that afternoon, that was an even bolder and more novel idea than the foreign diplomat notion. A man like him aiming to charm a kid like me!

“So,” he said, leaning forward, smiling, and steepling his fingers. “Eve,” he said. Then he leaned back in his chair, pushed it back a notch or two further than I’d have thought he would. But I understood that he wanted me to think he was relaxed. “I want you to tell me about growing up, Eve. You’re right in the middle of it. And I’m so old I’ve forgotten what it feels like. I’d like to hear what you think about it.”

His sentences, as they often did, had the sound of words he’d thought about and rehearsed in his mind. Even so, I wasn’t ready for such an invitation. I paused a moment before opening my mouth. Then I began to speak of school. It was a logical choice, because, of course, school was most of my life then—I was in eighth grade, and most of my classmates were really twitchy. They were changing from the kids they’d been last year and the year before, and our teachers were like characters in books or movies. I had a lot to say about school, but I recognized my tactic as one of evasion. I was just making what Bill might have called “Eve noise” so that I could gather my thoughts to figure out what it was he wanted to hear from me and what I might have to tell him that would please him.

My grandfather must have understood that I was just “pushing the breeze over my tongue,” as Bill would have put it, because I saw my grandfather’s eyelids sink slightly and saw a little feathering of the skin around his mouth and nose that told me he was stifling a yawn. It was then that I realized—as I was telling him about my project for geography—that I was struggling with a situation that grown-ups had created and that only grown-ups would be able to fix. But so far as I knew, my mother and grandmother had not communicated with my grandfather about his videos. I knew that for my sake, my grandfather wanted to make this a conversation of some importance, but he had no idea how to proceed. And I knew that Bill very likely didn’t know that anybody in the family needed any kind of help and was probably right at that moment riding around in his truck talking on two cell phones at once and grinning and saying amusing things to the electricians who were working on his new apartment complex.

It was when my mind picked up on the track of Bill with one careless hand on the steering wheel that it occurred to me to wake my grandfather up. With his extravagant way of talking, Bill sometimes did that—maybe on purpose—to people. Startled them. So I had a weapon or two of my own that I could use to defend myself in this torture chamber they’d put me in.

“Horace”—and in my mind, I could hardly believe I had addressed him by his first name—“what’s it like to be an adult? Nobody’s ever told me what adults do when they’re not around other people. Besides work and make money, I mean. What’s your secret? What do you do when you’re by yourself?”

As if someone had slipped up behind him and poked him on either side of his ribcage, my grandfather shot up in his big chair. His face—I swear I’d never seen anything like it before—blazed up red, and his mouth twisted like he’d taken a swig of dishwater. This was frightening to me, because in all the hours I’d been in my grandfather’s presence, I’d known him only as the graceful and decorous man of whom Bill liked to say, “Horace’s feathers are slicked down so tight it’d take a lightning bolt up his butt to make him stop waltzing.”

Scared as I was, I was nevertheless pretty thrilled with myself for getting a real reaction out of my grandfather. It’d never happened before—even the time I accidentally pushed his plate of waffles in his lap at the IHOP he’d acted like I’d just done something cute. This time I felt something crackling in the air, and the only way I know how to describe it is to say that it was empowering.

It didn’t take him long to regain his poise, and I admired him for that. I didn’t want my grandfather to turn into a raving monster right before my eyes. He sat back in his chair and seemed to will himself back to a state of relaxation. He even steepled his fingers again, this time bracing his elbows against the chair arms. He kept his eyes on me the whole time, but he didn’t speak for some very long moments. “I don’t mind if you call me Horace,” he finally said. “After all, I’ve been calling you ‘Eve’ ever since you were born. I don’t mind it. Eve. Horace. Fine. But let me think about your question a moment before I answer you, my dear.”

Once again I found myself locked in an eye-to-eye prison of silence with a grown-up. With my mother in the kitchen, that had seemed sort of normal. With my grandfather here in his study, it seemed abnormal and risky. The longer we sat there the more anxious I became. I didn’t dare break the stare that had frozen in the space between us. If anxiety can escalate up to a point of pain, that’s what happened to me. I’d landed on Planet Pain.

The real source of my fear was that he would lean over and pull out the shoeshine box that he kept beside his desk, open it up, and spread the cases of his dirty videos in front of me. Some kids I knew said they got freaked out by movies that showed cities being wiped out by global-warming tsunamis or monsters taking over Los Angeles or pretty girls getting kidnapped and raped and tortured to death by some pervert. Hearing about those things was disturbing to me, but what I realized in that moment was that the one thing in all of life that I didn’t want to happen to me was for my grandfather to show me his pornography. The fear of that happening grew in me until it felt like I had something in my chest trying to burst out like those monster babies in Alien. When my grandfather moved and actually leaned over in the direction of his shoebox, my mouth seemed to open of its own accord. I began talking without the slightest idea of what I was going to say.

“Okay, Granddad, I’ll tell you my secret. You have to keep it to yourself. I don’t want Grandmama or Bill or my mom finding it out, and if one of them says a word to me about this, I’ll know that you told them. I sometimes come home from school because I have to see Midnight. I can get out of study hall because Mrs. Caples likes me and lets me go home to get my asthma medication. Okay, so I lie to her about my asthma medication. She probably knows that, but she writes me an excuse and lets me do it. When I get home and come in the door, you should see how happy Midnight is. I like that part of it, how he wiggles his butt and gets one of his toys in his mouth and brings it to me.

“But what I really like is when he settles down, there on the rug by the front door, I get down there with him and scratch his back and his ears and his belly. I smell the pads of his front paws, both of them. That’s really what does it for me, the way his feet smell. I talk to him even though he can’t talk back. I tell him if there’s anything bothering me, but even if I don’t have anything bad to tell him, I always feel better for having paid him a visit like that. Down on the floor. When I leave I tell him I’m sorry I can’t take him back to school with me. But I don’t really want him at school with me—he’d be a mess. I take his paw smell back with me, and I can remember it at least until school’s out.”

Horace watched me the whole time, and we both knew my talking like that was a new thing for both of us. I knew it was dumb, what I’d just told him about Midnight. If it’d been Bill I told this secret to, he’d have said something like “A dog may be a coyote and a wolf, kid, but it ain’t a human being. Just a bag of funky old smells is all you’ve got there.” But Horace wasn’t going to dismiss what I’d told him. He wasn’t going to kid me about it. I could see that he’d listened to me, and he’d liked it that I’d told him about getting down on the rug with Midnight. Maybe he’d even liked the part about the paw smell. A little split-second sliver of a smile came to his face. Then he leaned over toward the shoe box.

I sat forward in my chair. Dread like a lightning bolt shot up my butt.

What Horace set before me, on the desk, what he turned to face me was an old black-and-white picture blown up to about the size of a notebook page. It was of a young man facing a young woman out in the surf of some place like Fort Lauderdale or the Outer Banks. She was wearing an old-fashioned one-piece suit that didn’t look at all funny on her. The young man’s face was turned away from me, and even though his back looked strong, his shoulders were broad, and the proud way he stood was sort of familiar, I didn’t recognize him.

It took me nearly a minute to grasp that the woman was my grandmother—and I don’t really know how I understood it. Her hair was long enough that there were wet strands of it along her shoulders. She was so thin it seemed impossible that my grandmother had ever been shaped like that.  The closer I looked at her, the prettier she was, and pretty was not a word I’d ever associated with my grandmother. When I got my nose right up to the picture, I could see that she was looking straight at the young man—Horace!, I thought—maybe that was the word she was saying right that second. I wished I could have heard all the words she was saying, but that was a crazy thought. At the moment, though, I understood that the young man was my grandfather, and that the picture must have been taken about the time they’d gotten married. It might even have been on their honeymoon.

“You know who that is, don’t you?” His voice was very low.

I nodded and hoped I wouldn’t have to say anything. I felt like we were so connected right then that he could read my mind.

“I think something like that might be ahead of you,” Horace said in the quietest and most intimate tone of voice he’d ever used with me. Then neither of us had any more words for a while. Which was fine. We didn’t need them.


In the years that came after our “little talk,” as we referred to it, though my grandfather and I never again came quite that close to each other, we nevertheless developed an easiness with each other. An understanding seemed to underlie our exchanges. So far as I know, no one required him to speak openly of his pornography. When he died, my mother and grandmother dispatched Bill into the light-soaked study with the mission of capturing Horace’s smut, bringing it out, and getting rid of it. The three of us stood outside the study door, waiting for him, and after a while he came out, grinning and carrying a black plastic bag. He was full of himself with amusement—I expect he’d forgotten all about Horace’s secret until the women had dispatched him in there to purge it from the household. “Got the goods,” said Bill, lifting the black sack. “Got the old stinky treasure. Got the compost.”

I felt myself smile at him, and glancing at my mother and grandmother, I realized that our smiles were probably identical—bemused, restrained, relieved. But maybe, in the slightest contortion of our lips, there was some guilt. Maybe we all felt that we’d somehow failed Horace.

The last thing to be said, however, is that I visited Horace in the hospice house where he went to stay for the last weeks of his life. He was eighty and strong enough to sit for most of the day in an easy chair beside his bed. Though he couldn’t do it by himself, he persuaded the hospice staff to help him shave every morning and to help him put on a clean shirt and tie a respectable knot in his tie. When I first stepped into his room that last day, he looked as if he might live several more years. But when I pulled the chair up to face him—as he liked for me to do—I saw that the glint in his eyes and the radiance of his skin had its source in the mild fever he’d taken to running.

“Eve,” he said. “I want you know I’m grateful to you for coming here to visit me. You’ve been such an enlivening force that I’m tempted to overstay my welcome here.”

I could tell that he’d worked out what he was going to say before I ever showed up. I couldn’t say anything to him, but I knew I didn’t have to. I put my hand on his.

“You know, I think you understood me better than anyone in the family,” he said.

I was surprised at that, but I felt a sudden jolt of unwholesome pride in his having that thought. Over both my grandmother and my mother, he favored me. I was wrong to savor that news, but I did.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault, really,” he went on. “I was just made this way.” He stopped and caught his breath. “I wanted to be close to people. Especially in the family. I really did. But I couldn’t manage it.”

Horace was quiet for a long while, and, of course, I was too. I’d gotten used to those long periods of sitting with him in the pleasant calmness of the hospice house. I heard soft noises out in the hallway that meant his nurse would be coming in soon. I stood up. His eyes followed me, and so I bent down to kiss his forehead.

“Eve,” he said. Then there was a little hitch in his voice. “You know, loneliness is not such a bad companion.”

All right, I cried then. At that moment I thought he’d just released the one spontaneous sentence he’d ever spoken in his life. But I think I had that wrong—he’d probably been thinking for a few days about his distance from all of us, and maybe the words had just then come together for him.  A few months later—after Horace had gone the way of the blue-winged wangdoodle—I told Bill what he’d said. We were in his truck, driving through town, and Bill gave me a quick blast of that old bad-boy smile of his before he turned back to the street ahead of us. He didn’t say anything, and though that was unusual for him, it was fine with me.  

return to top