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Noel Returned MAG
My grandfather insists on getting me coffee. He is ninety-two years old, but he waves off my help and rolls his wheelchair over to the table in the corner, filling a mug with boiling black liquid. His room at the nursing home is small, nothing more than a bed and small bathroom. His walls are covered in pictures of his six children and nineteen grandchildren. I spot my own face, seven years old and covered in chocolate.
When I point out the photo, he laughs. “You were the fattest little kid. Your mom was so worried.” My grandfather has many fine qualities, but tact is not one of them.
I ask him what he thinks of the nursing home, and his whole bald head wrinkles as he knits his eyebrows. “I could have stayed with you and your mother. I’m no trouble. And the coffee here is awful.”
This I can’t deny. But Mom had a panic attack at the thought of him staying with us permanently. She hasn’t forgotten his stay during my senior year of high school, when he took naps four times a day in her bed, accidentally pissed on the floor and then neglected to mention it to anyone. I think it best to change the subject.
I remind him that I’m here for a piece for my journalism class, that the assignment is to interview a family member and I picked him because he has the best stories. This gets a small, almost childlike smile. He is proud of being chosen.
I ask if he has anything he’d like to talk about. He shrugs, hitching his shoulders awkwardly. The mention of his current living situation has robbed him of enthusiasm. I have made a mistake. My goal is to put him at ease, then catch hold of the stories and pull them out one by one, like a magician’s scarf.
So I start with something obvious, the thing I’m sure he expected me to ask about, the place where, as far as I can tell, the stage was set for the rest of his stories. I ask about his experience in the war.
He grimaces a little, rocking on the wheels of his chair as he thinks. “Have I told you about Noel?”
I say no. I am experiencing intense déjà vu. I remember a vague mention of the name, maybe fifteen years ago. It was one of those nights when I would sit on his lap in the big leather chair next to his fireplace, when Mom would tell me to go to sleep and Grandpa would say, “God’s sake Christine, she’s a big girl now,” and Mom would huff and walk out of the living room, and Grandpa would grin mischievously after her and then say, “So have I told you about … ?” He never had any sense of what was appropriate to tell a small child, something that made me all the more excited to visit him. I got to peek through a crack into the adult world, and what I could see was always fascinating, bordering on unimaginable.
This is the story I got today, in this dingy beige-walled bedroom, and it lived up to those of my childhood.
Noel was Grandpa’s best friend. As Grandpa talks about him, his eyes glaze a little and his mouth quirks up at the corner. You can see in his face that they were the kind of friends whose relationship surpasses affection,
reaching a passionate, platonic sort of love affair. They met when Grandpa was seventeen and Noel was twenty, and they fought side by side for a year and a half, from 1943 to 1945.
Grandpa paints a dark picture. He’d left home in New York to fight, lying about his age to enlist. His parents had begged him not to go, and in traveling overseas he lost contact with his family. Noel, it seems, is what kept him going. He remembers playing cards in a makeshift tent late at night to a distant lullaby of gunshots. He recalls sitting in a bar with Noel; a man called Grandpa a kike and Noel stood up, punched the man in the jaw, downed his beer, and pulled Grandpa out into the street before the clientele could react. He recounts how he and Noel would lie next to each other in the dark, whispering until sunrise because human interaction seemed to be the only thing that kept the ghosts at bay.
“He always said he’d come home with me,” Grandpa said, chuckling a little, “and marry my sister, so we could be family.”
I tell him that’s sweet, and he snorts. “I told him Rebecca was a witch and I’d never wish that on him. We didn’t need her for us to be brothers.”
I ask if Noel and Grandpa agreed on everything, if they were the kind of friends whose minds work exactly the same. He shakes his head. Grandpa was an idealist, Noel a cynic. Grandpa believed in the afterlife; Noel thought that dead people were nothing more than “worm food.” Given the precariousness of their living situation, the conversation came up often. Finally, after months of circular arguments, Grandpa suggested a deal. When one died, he’d find a way to tell the other what really happened. Noel cried laughing, but agreed.
The two of them used to lay lines for trenches when they were deployed in the Pacific. Grandpa would steer the machine (he had lost a toe several months before and walking was painful) and Noel would trail behind, rolling out the lines. On April 6, 1945, a doctor told Grandpa that he should begin readjusting to walking. That evening, Noel steered and Grandpa trailed. They could hear gunshots in the trees close by. This did not frighten them. If anything, a lack of explosions would have been more unnerving. When men started pouring out of the woods to their right, it was already too late. A grenade spiraled toward the machine and blew Grandpa into the thicket. He lay in the leaves, his face stuck to a tree root with blood from a broken nose. The men kept moving, and Grandpa ran back to the smoking knot of metal. The biggest part of Noel he found was his left hand.
Grandpa stops talking here to drain his cup of coffee. He winces at the taste, sets the cup down with a little more force than necessary and then stares at a wall for several seconds. I don’t want to prompt him, but after half a minute has elapsed I ask if this is the end of the story.
“What?” Grandpa looks rather angry. “Of course not. Pretty stupid story that would be.”
Grandpa went home not long after. He lived with his parents for several years, then met my grandmother when he was nearly thirty. The two bought a house in Brooklyn, funded by parents who had expressed the fear that their son would never find a bride, and they churned out daughter after daughter in quick succession. His sister married a man more suited to her than Noel. Grandpa managed a grocery store and, reading between the lines, smothered his PTSD by devoting himself to his career and his family. He never told his wife about Noel. Noel did not bear thinking about. Noel had not kept his promise. The afterlife did not exist after all, and Noel was nothing more than worm food.
Grandpa pauses again. “I must have been about sixty. That’s when Grandma convinced me to go to a séance. Your mother had gone off to college a few years before. We were bored as hell.”
My grandparents went to that seedy, red-curtained room for something to do. Everyone else there, it seemed, regarded the experience with a similar level of derision. The medium, a
middle-aged lady whose layers of filmy scarves did little to disguise her considerable bulk, spoke to each attendee in turn. After addressing a giggling young couple at the front of the room, she paused, looking rather disturbed.
“Just a moment, please. Someone on the other side wants my attention.”
Some leaned forward, Grandpa recalls, while others crossed their arms skeptically. “I believe I fell into the second group,” he admits.
“A young man,” the medium said. “Wearing a uniform. His name is—a strange name, I’ll spell it—N-O-E-L. Does anyone recognize that name?”
Grandpa hesitated, then nodded. “Yes, I recognize it.” Grandma looked at him in surprise, but Grandpa did not break eye contact with the medium.
“He wants you to know that you were right and he was wrong,” said the medium. “That he was confused at first, but now he’s happy. Do you know what he means?”
Grandpa nodded. Then he stood up and walked outside, his wife trailing behind.
Grandpa stops his story, rolls his chair to the table in the corner and refills his coffee. He rolls back to where I sit, slurps several times, and stares around at the beige walls meditatively.
Eventually, I ask if he’s finished.
“What? Oh. Yes.” Then, “Could you call the lady in? I have to use the bathroom.”
I ring the bell, hug Grandpa good-bye. He feels delicate between my hands and my chest, like he might shatter. I think, suddenly, that he has just relived an amount of time unimaginable to me. I think, the rest of my life, the stories I will live, are unimaginable to him. He cannot expect to see anything past the next few years.
I wonder if he’s excited to see Noel.