t was about this time in the 1970s that many began to call him my grandfather. Or maybe I just started noticing. After school, at the drug store to get taffy, the clerk asked about him, about my grandfather, and so did Mr. Sullivan, who owned the toy store with the miniature cars and figurines I craved. To those who asked about his health I’d say he was fine though I knew he wasn’t, not really, and go home to find him lying on the beige couch reading a book or the afternoon newspaper until one of the cats ruffled it with a paw, and he’d pet it. I’d start cooking dinner when it got dark in late afternoon and he’d say that we were like two old men except that I was a young one, too young, he told me, to be around his darkness.
I took this just to mean the time of day and how the sun began losing its grip in October, a process I didn’t fully understand despite my many maps and model airplanes and books about ancient, long-vanished reptiles. For a time I became obsessed with the planet Jupiter because it had a red spot that no one really knew much about, at least not then, and he encouraged me to learn more by getting books about the planets and the solar system with pebbled black-and-white landscapes of far-away stars.
He taught me correct meaning of the word “mottled” by showing me a patch of his skin, though at first I wouldn’t believe him since I’d decided “mottled” meant a kind of sadness. In the kitchen, boiling water for dinner, I decided I felt mottled, and told him, to which he replied: “Learn the meaning of words,” and out came the patch of skin, from a sagging quadrant near his elbow.
One day when I was sick at home he told me the story of his tonsils, which had been removed when he was a child. They’d used a coat hanger to twist the organ out with whiskey as antiseptic and anesthetic. I remember the details because I thought he’d made them up to distract me since I was so mottled about going to school, which I hated, just as I hated the work I was assigned to do at home, so much so that I didn’t do it and they ended up calling me into an office in which two women asked me about my grandfather and whether I felt at home with him.
I corrected them but one of them called him in anyway, and soon the two of us sat in an office where I was warned, and he was warned, my behavior had to change, they said, and he defended me. This, he said, is a smart young man. He will improve, he said, this time looking at me. I felt ashamed and I tried.
The last October we lived in the house I started a small kitchen fire while cooking and the fire department was called. A giant man in a helmet and suit gravely explained the properties and dangers of fire to me and told me my grandfather should be more vigilant, as should I. I corrected him but he ignored me.
From then on I stopped cooking and we went out to dinner, two old men with cafeteria trays, one of them young, and he’d talk at once about my promising future and the end of the world over mashed potatoes. I mostly listened but eventually went back to my books on outer space and, in my mind’s eye, prowled the red spot on Jupiter like any other self-respecting (and mottled) astronaut charged with conquering the edge of the universe.
I grew out of that phase and entered another in which I was a more serious student and began learning to write some of the words I’d only guessed at before, making whole sentences, many under his supervision. I wasn’t very good at them but I did try, and I did improve, and once in a while teachers said I had promise. They said they were sure my grandfather felt the same way. Again, I corrected them.
Now there’s no need. Now I know they were right enough to think what they did then. As right as I am to write these words on my father’s 116th birthday, wishing him well where I know he is, on the place I still know as Jupiter.