On the phone Frank had feigned disbelief and claimed he’d had a grandson once, who used to come and keep him company sometimes, but it had been so long ago the memory had almost completely faded. Ted fell all over himself trying to explain what Frank already knew: pleasure, pain, bitter disillusion and temporary insanity followed by soul-crushing depression were the rudiments of his defense. Frank, after letting him sputter for several agonizing minutes, said he understood. What else could he do? Tell the selfish young scalawag to take a flying leap because he had succumbed to the all-consuming fires of lust like billions of young men before him?
Now that Natalie and he were finished, Ted tried to make amends by, once again, driving over the bridge for a visit. Upon his arrival and their formal handshake that transitioned into a hug, they decided to take advantage of the warm fall day and go for a walk on the levee overlooking the beach. Ted stood with his hands clasped behind his back, smelling the briny ocean on the incoming wind.
The one time he’d brought Natalie here, to the end of San Francisco to introduce her to Frank, they’d taken the train. Frank hadn’t been home. They hadn’t called ahead. Despite Ted’s disappointment, it had been a beautiful day. The fog had burned off early, even though some days it never burned off at all. They walked to the end of Irving Street, crossed the Great Highway and descended the other side of the levee. Across the broad beach to where the ocean began, where waves rolled and crash, then raced down the sloping sand, hissing and roiling beneath the next set of breakers beating themselves to foam against land. They walked, hand-in-hand, down to the water. Natalie took off her shoes and, cuffing her jeans to her knees, ran in and out with the the tide.
There were two Chinese children a few hundred yards south flying box kites under the attentive gaze of their stocky grandparents. A surfer in a wet suit sat on his board, rising on the swells 200 yards out, waiting for the next wave. Ocean Beach was so broad it never seemed crowded. Ted followed Natalie’s lead and chased her out into the surf. As they laughed and splashed and frolicked in the waves it seemed as if the beach was their very own. Ted grabbed Natalie’s shoulders, leaned down and kissed her.
“Gosh!” gasped Natalie, pushing Ted away and wagging a finger in his face. “Before we go any farther, I want you to find me a sand dollar.”
“What?” Ted glanced down at the water racing back into the ocean around his ankles, his feet buried by the outgoing sand. “You serious?”
“This,” said Natalie, posing with one leg slightly canted across her body with the suggestive tilt of a pinup girl, sweeping her hands down her sides in an all-encompassing gesture. “Is well worth the trouble.”
She had him. Ted was sold—bought and paid for. He pulled his feet from their moorings, collected his shoes and socks and proceeded to scour the shoreline for a sand dollar that hadn’t been smashed to smithereens. Wandering south, he found an abundance of seashell fragments and dead crustaceans, a kelp bulb that looked like a giant penis and a few curious fiddler crabsthat raised their delicate claws at him in desperate self defense. He thought about crushing them under his heel, but relented and went on about his charge.
Before he knew it, he was a quarter mile down the strand. Looking back from where he’d come, he’d just assumed Natalie was trailing behind him all along, but she was nowhere to be seen. He peered across the beach at the figures up on the levee. Suffering a sudden fit of anxiety, he abandoned his search and ran back to the path. After a minute of his mad dash, his breath came in rattling heaves. Scrambling up the sand hill to the path, he had to stop and catch his breath. His side felt like his spleen had exploded, and his legs were quick-drying cement. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and spat. Looking up the path, he thought he could see Natalie walking toward the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
Though his lungs and legs screamed in protest, he ran the rest of the way up the levee and was about to finally catch her just as she was nearing Louie’s Diner. He bore down on her like some wheezing locomotive, its boiler leaking steam. The expression of despair on her face as she spun around to face him, not to mention the fact he was about to die from lack of oxygen, sent him crumbling to his knees.
“Where you…going?” he gasped, one hand raised toward her in supplication.
She wiped her eyes and shook her head and tried to smile. What she told him then, he’d taken through the wrong lens. His depth of field had been too restricted and short-sighted. It should have been the best news in the world, but he’d blown it up and out of all proportion.
Frank turned to look down the asphalt path where his grandson had stopped to watch the sunset. Frank could see the boy was lost in thought, most likely some memory of his recent brush with the female of the species. He’d been down that road of sorrows a time or two, as well. Once the sun had sunk below the waterline, the sky had gone from orange to red to turquoise green in a matter of a few minutes, but then it was getting dark.
The boy wasn’t the carefree scamp he’d been before he’d fallen in love and received the news it wasn’t all pig tails and cockle shells. Frank chuckled to himself as he pulled up the collar of his P coat against the chill breeze. The old coat was a relic from his Navy days, and after half a century of hanging in a closet, he’d discovered, after all those years, it magically fit again.
“Earth to Ted,” said Frank.
Ted gave a start, and wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was just, ah…watching the sun go down.”
“It’s been down for a while,” Frank winked, then he about-faced and led Ted across the road.
Tail lights crawled up the hill onto Geary Street, a conveyor belt of sparse, malevolent eyes looking back from where they’d come. Descending the levee, Frank and Ted hustled through the crosswalk where Judah Street dead ended at the Great Highway, and were caught in the whirl of people debarking from the 7:33 train.
The horde of commuters reminded Ted to ask his grandfather after the health of their friend and Frank’s neighbor, Judy. Frank walked a few steps down the sidewalk before saying anything. “The Giants are in first,” he answered.
“Yeah?” said Ted, reminded of his boss’s current love affair with the Oakland A’s, as well as wondering about his grandfather’s obvious obfuscation. “So how’s Judy?”
“As far as I know, fine,” snapped Frank.
Ted chewed on that for a moment and then let it go, “Do you want to play cards?”
“Boy do I,” said Frank as he dug his keys from his coat pocket. “You live too long and you’ll end up playing with yourself.” He unlocked the steel security door and pulled it open for his smirking grandson. “After you.”
Frank made sure the door clicked shut before following Ted up the stairs. The savory smell of herbs and roasted garlic permeated the stairwell as they neared the second floor landing. Taking a cue from Frank’s earlier ambivalence toward his neighbor, Ted did not comment on the delicious aroma wafting from Judy’s apartment. Frank walked on tippy toes passed her door, leaving little doubt he wished to go undetected. He unlocked his apartment and held the door for his grandson, then closed the door softly behind them.
“I suppose you want a diet coke,” said Frank, taking off his coat and laying it on his bed.
“That would be great,” replied Ted.
Frank went into his kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Ten rows of gold coke cans were stacked on the otherwise empty shelf above the crisper drawer, which was half full of misshapen oranges. Ted rounded the corner into the kitchen in time to note, besides the citrus and the pops, the lack of provisions in the fridge.
“You want me to run to Safeway and get some tuna sandwiches?” said Ted, noticing how frail Frank was now that he had taken off his P coat.
“Nah,” replied Frank, scowling. “I gotta better idea.” He pushed the armada of medication bottles to one end of the kitchen table, picked up the deck of cards and said, “Deal.”
Well, what the hell, he thought as he accepted the cards and sat down to shuffle. “You know it’s been so long I’ve almost forgotten how fun it is to beat your ass.”
Frank rolled his eyes and sat down. “Crack the window,” he said. “You’re making me sick.”
Ted slid open the window a few inches and in the relative silence after he’d cracked open his coke. Underneath the isolated incidences of random voices in the street and the distant thrum of combustion engines, there came the muted sound of crashing waves. Ted shuffled the cards an inordinate amount of times, singing all the while, “Oh it’s music to the gambler’s ear to hear them suckers roar. Hear them roar, oh, hear them roar.”
Frank slapped the table and cursed the day his grandson had been born, trying to hide his smile throughout his tirade.
“Deal damn you! Deal!”
Ted feigned obliviousness as he dealt the cards.
The banter went according to Hoyle for the first few hands. Then, taking one of Ted’s discards and deciding upon a discard of his own, Frank diverged into delicate territory.
“Why’d she dump you, again?”
Ted shook his head before he could think of anything to say. The subject was still more upsetting than he would have liked to admit.
“Sorry,” Frank fanned his cards in one hand and held them close to his face. He put a 2 of spades on the pile. “I just thought…”
“You want all the juicy sordid details?” said Ted contemplating the jack of hearts Frank had thrown away.
“Sure, why not?” crowed Frank.
Ted drew blind instead, hoping for a direct helper instead of the jack that could pan out farther down the pile, then tried to hide his disappointment at the totally useless two of clubs he’d drawn.
“You pick an abortion, or what?”
“Leave it alone already!” It occurred to him only after his outburst that his grandfather may just have been talking about his card.“Sorry,” said Ted, sitting back, smiling sheepishly. “How’d you guess?”
“What exactly are we talking about?” asked Frank, unsure whether they were talking about the card Ted had drawn or an aborted baby. Ted’s emotional reaction to his purely coincidental use of the word abortion could just, itself be coincidental, too, or a major tell telling Frank more than he really had wished to know.
“Here,” said Ted, trying hard to cover up for thinking out of turn. “Take my abortion…please!”
Frank’s countenance brightened as Ted threw the two onto the pile. The subject had been changed. Frank reached over and claimed the two, saying, “Now that’s a horse of a different color.” He laid his cards on the table face up and smiled, doubt turned to certainty.
Ted leaned over to inspect the cards with an impending sense of doom.
“Read ‘em and weep, kid,” replied Frank, taking great pleasure in Ted’s misery.
Ted sat back again and said, “I’ll be damned.”
As they tallied up their scores and Ted mixed the cards up on the table with one hand and completed the ritual by insisting Frank ‘Deal!’, Judy’s strident voice cut through the apartment. “Frank. Sorry to bother you again, but I know you’re in there… Frank?”
Frank glared at Ted, crossed his index finger over his lips to shush him. Ted shook his head and shrugged, pushed back his chair, got up from the table and went to answer the door. Frank cursed as he pounded his fist on the table, causing some of his pill bottles to fall, rattling, onto the scratched linoleum floor.
Ted opened the door and looked down at Judy, who, in turn was looking down at the plate she held in her hands as if the door was still closed. Ted cleared his throat. Judy’s head snapped back and she stared pie-eyed at Ted for an uncomfortably frozen moment.
“Hello, Judy,” Ted broke the ice.
“Well,” said Judy, giving herself a second to find the words to continue. “Where have you been, mister?” She leaned to one side to peek into the apartment. “Your grandfather and I were just talking the other day, wondering if you were ever coming back.”
“Well,” said Ted, not immediately knowing what to say. “I guess that question’s been answered.”
“No worse for the wear, I hope,” said Judy, handing him the plate of steamed vegetables.
Ted leaned down as a hot cloud of garlic, oregano and, perhaps, thyme wafted up into his face. He breathed it in, saying, “God, this smells good.”
“That plate’s for Frank,” whispered Judy shielding her mouth with the back of her hand. “But maybe you could sneak a bite.”
“If you’re going to come in, come in,” Frank said, raising his voice from where he sat at the kitchen table, “and close the goddamn door!”
Judy plucked a cauliflower from the plate and popped it in Ted’s mouth, then, heeding Frank’s words, she shuffled into the apartment, Ted closing the door behind her.
“My dearest neighbor Frank,” said Judy, the odd appellation adding to Ted’s feeling that something between Judy and Frank was askew. “I brought you a plate of vegetables.”
“Leftovers from you and Roger’s table,” said Frank, remaining in the kitchen, out of sight.
“No,” said Judy, peeking her nose around the doorframe to the kitchen. “I made these fresh for you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” said Frank.
“Who told you Roger was back,” said Judy, stepping into the kitchen.
“I may be old, but I’m not deaf.”
“Oh,” she replied, setting the food down on the table in front of Frank. “I’ll be back later to pick up the plate.”
Judy squeezed Ted’s arm and said, “Frank told me you got out of the Navy.”
“I’ve got a job in an Alameda,” said Ted, with a nod. “I think maybe I should have re-enlisted though.”
“I think you’ll do fine,” Judy replied.
“Thank you for the consideration,” Frank butted in. “But we’re right in the middle of playing cards.” Judy got the message. Ted followed her out of the kitchen and opened the door for her.
“I know your grandfather is thrilled to see you,” said Judy, holding Ted’s wrist. “I’m sure you’ll make the most of your time together.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you next time.”
“Sure,” said Judy, squeezing his wrist and then shuffling out into the hall. “Enjoy your time together.”
It had something to do with Judy’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Roger, he thought as he closed the door. Enjoy your time, too, Ted whispered, the vision of Frank laid out in Ruben’s casket flashing through his mind again as he stepped back into the tiny kitchen.
“What?” said Frank.
“I guess you told her,” Ted said, sitting down and taking back up his cards. “Why were you so mean?”
“Do you want to play another,” said Frank, “or should I just deal out a hand of solitaire?”
“You could at least eat some of the food she brought over,” said Ted, sitting down and gesturing at the plate, picking out a steaming sprig of broccoli and popping it in his mouth. “It’s delicious.”
“Go ahead,” said Frank. “I’m not hungry.”
“Let me go pick up some sandwiches from Safeway,” said Ted. “It’ll be like old times.”
“Do you want to play cards or are you going to jawbone me to death?” said Frank, smacking the table with his palm. “I’m not hungry.”
“All you’ve got in the fridge is diet coke and rotten oranges.”
“Yeah well, you know,” said Frank, pushing back from the table, taking the plate to the sink. “You don’t even call me for six, seven months to say hi?” He turned back to the sink and poured the food down the disposal. “But now you’re concerned?”
Ted split the deck and shuffled the cards. He was sorry for several things at that moment. Hearing the waves crashing on the beach, he remembered how that past day had ended after he’d caught back up to Natalie, breathily apologizing that he had not found any sand dollars. And how she’d turned around, the wind whipping at her golden hair, which seemed to be striking out at him like a tangle of snakes, and told him she was pregnant. The light had gone from the world then, and he staggered blindly through the darkness for what seemed an oblivion of lost time. He knew too late how foolish he had been, and that his grandfather was right.
Frank sat back down and pounded the table with his fist. Ted took the cue without having to be told with one more shuffle and its requisite bridge. They sat across the table and smirked at each other, all the possible digs and bones of contention churning in their minds left unsaid. The foghorn off Fort Point blared dolefully, warning the fog-bound ships away from the hidden shoals upon which they might otherwise run aground as Ted dealt the cards.