By Catherine A. Smith
Imagine this said with a brogue:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
I stop bending the little paper tab that holds the dress onto my paper doll. My grandmother’s voice precedes her by only a second before she looms over me.
“You were supposed to be watching him!”
I am six. I had watched him. I’d watched him from the porch on our side of the half-a-double as he sat on their porch in his green metal chair next to his rack of pipes. I’d watched him tap tobacco into one of them and then spin the little wheel on his lighter until the flame popped up. I’d watched him tilt the flame down into the bowl and make little puh-puh sounds as he drew the smoke in. I’d watched him gaze beyond the awning that stretched across our two porches and look up into the sky as if for rain. Then he’d started talking to himself in Gaelic, and I didn’t like that, so I came inside to find my paper dolls, and there they were, so I began dressing them.
My mother appears in the doorway from the kitchen, drying her hands on a tea towel.
“We’ll find him. You watch the baby,” she says to my grandmother. Then she yells, “Stevie!” and my older brother runs down from upstairs. “Grampap wandered off. You go up toward Fort Pitt. He usually goes uphill.” Fort Pitt is the elementary school four streets above us. She reaches for the phone and says to me, “I’ll call your Dad and see if he’s at the Vets. You go down to Uncle Richie’s but no farther, you understand? If he’s not there tell Aunt Harriet to call him.” Uncle Richie is a policeman. Last time Grampap wandered off, Uncle Rich drove around in his police car and found him.
My grandmother runs out onto our porch and starts screaming “Stephen!” as if Grampap needs to come home for dinner. This makes my great aunt and uncle across the street come out of their house and say, “You mean he’s gone again? Sure and he can’t have gotten far.”
I take off past my grandmother and down our front steps, followed by my brother, who then veers left, up the city steps, the ones my grandfather often climbed: up the hill, thinking he was going to Connemara. “As if Evaline Street looks anything like Ireland,” Grandma once scoffed.
I have the feeling my grandfather hasn’t gone uphill, though. Maybe it was something he said that I only partially heard, but I feel he’s gone down the hill, as if to a river or a creek, though nothing flows in our particular neighborhood that doesn’t go right down a sewer.
I feel panicky. I shout “Have you seen my Grampap?” to Mrs. Tebbetts on her front porch. She glances up from her knitting and says, “No.” I pass three of the 12 skinny Denham kids, all pale skin, blue eyes and black hair. “Have you seen my Grampap?” One looks startled, another shrugs, and the third says, “Yeah, he went thataway” in a voice I know means he hasn’t seen him at all. I run down toward Penn Avenue, where I think he might be but hope he isn’t, because that’s the busy street with the streetcar tracks and all the cars, and he could get hurt there. We could lose him forever there.
I run past the five-and-dime, the drugstore, the barber shop … I look every which way and far beyond Uncle Richie’s. Then, after I circle about a six-block area, I see Grampap coming toward me, with Stevie holding his hand. I’m closer to home, so I run the last block and shout “Stevie found him!” to my grandmother, who’s still standing on the porch.
“For God’s sake,” she says. “Did you ever get to Richie’s? Your dad’s down there but now no-one’s answering the phone. Go tell them he’s been found. Mind the cars!”
I take off again, and when I reach Dearborn Street I see my father and uncle just separating as if to search in opposite directions. I shout happily, “They found him! Stevie found him walking up near Fort Pitt!” I run up to them, overjoyed, as if a great but dangerous adventure just had a happy ending.
But as my father turns to me I see his face change from anxious to disbelieving: how can I be happy and excited about this? How dare I? I feel hot with shame. Then his face changes as if to say, “You’re just a kid. What do you know?” But he says nothing to me. He says to my uncle, “I better get back there and make sure Mom doesn’t kill him.”
My uncle, handsome in his blue uniform, says, “Come have a shot first. He’s home. You might as well.”
My father shakes his head but walks into my uncle’s house, glancing back at me to say, “Tell your mother I’ll be right up.”
The streets are quiet. It’s dinnertime. When I get to our house I walk up the steps that connect our two porches and peek into my grandmother’s living room. Grampap is in his chair, hands in his lap. I hear my grandmother banging pots and pans back in the kitchen. My grandfather sees me and says, “Judy, Judy, Judy,” which is what he calls all us girls.
I go into my house. The paper dolls are gone. My mother has on a mitt shaped like a glove and is pulling hot potatoes out of the oven. “What took you so long?” she says. “You had me more worried than he did.”
I go upstairs. The baby is holding onto the bars of the crib, happy to see me. I go over to him and stare at him for a second. Then I push him so hard he falls on his behind. He looks startled and betrayed, and we both start to cry.
Copyright 2021 Smith