“So the problem with porn,” the old man in an Air Force jacket emblazoned with faded letters, The Super Flying Fortress Falcons, says to his grandson, “Is that porn isn’t real.”
He narrows his wrinkled, basset hound eyes, and pulls from his pocket a small plastic bag filled with a few glossy-brown blobs.
“But most people don’t know that because there are naked people involved.”
The old man removes a blob from his bag, and pops what smells like a coffee-caramel hard candy into his mouth. His tongue fiddles, back and forth, with a loose gold crown, and his blobby-candy.
When he looks at his grandson from across one of those sterile, white kitchen tables that populate the homes of many elderly Floridians -- the old man offers him a candy by shaking the bag around like a dog's toy, but the kid shakes his head.
“No thanks,” Josh says, “I don't like to eat processed sugars.”
“I don't know what to do with whatever the hell that means,” his Grandpa responds before he grabs another candy from his bag, “and don't explain what you mean by showing me another bull crap article about it on your thing.”
He points an accusatory and wrinkled finger at the phone bulging in Josh's pocket.
“You asked me about porn because no amount of articles written by stuck-up jerks gave you answers you want, right?”
“Great,” he smiles, “so where was I?”
He continues to lecture Josh while a clock on the wall ticks faint heartbeats and a group of palm trees rustles against the window -- their gentle melody fading into the background hum of the Price Is Right on the TV. The sounds aren’t muted, but they’re indistinguishable from white noise -- present, but ignored.
It's like how the outer layer of Josh’s glasses is covered in smeary grime, but he only realizes how filthy they look once he accidentally catches his reflection on the TV screen.
After he takes them off and breathes on their lenses, he wipes them on his Star-Trek T-shirt, and his dirty glasses momentarily kiss printed words -- instructing a reader to “Live Long and Prosper.”
Josh’s Grandpa, unlike a lot of people, doesn’t have a problem talking about porn to a lanky, bespectacled fourteen year old. Excluding his own emotions, he doesn’t have a problem talking about anything with anyone.
He once told his nurse, who he assumed from her Asian features was Japanese, all about how his B-29 crew, “Fire bombed the crap out of Tokyo,” right after he prefaced the point with, “Let me tell you about this crap because you should know what the world is like. I might look like a sweet old man, but I’m not.”
He then coughed for a few seconds while his nurse listened with the unenthusiastic face of a journalist being filmed by her captors.
“I mean, really,” he went on, “I probably killed your great uncles and aunts before they were even your age. But, to be honest,” he stopped to aggressively rub his nose with the palm of his right hand, “that was way back in World War Two.”
“I’m Korean,” she mumbled to the floor.
“Really?” He looked her up and down. “You look Japanese, but what do I know, right? I never killed any Koreans, I think. But I did drive a Hyundai into the ground. It was so old it eventually stopped working and only came to life if I pushed it down the hill into second gear. It was an Excel. Ain’t that a crock of shit?”
She gave a slight nod, checked her phone, and slowly took a few steps towards the door.
“An Excel that couldn’t start or move without my three-quarter-of-a-century ass pushing it, and if it hadn’t died all together -- I probably would’ve had a heart attack. I think that was back in ninety seven or eight. That luckily son of a bitch, am I right? Got out of this hell hole while my brain, body, and everything but my colossal prostate keeps running and running and running. People shouldn’t live this long.”
When the time came for Josh to ask his Grandpa about porn, the matter-of-fact war vet whom everyone said, “always shot from the hip,” wants to give his grandson some sort of answer.
Maybe this time he’ll give Josh one of the many lessons the old man wishes he learned back when he was his grandson’s age. Back when he was still plastic, able to bend without breaking, and long before he turned into a person he hated.
He was an old dog, it seemed, unable to learn new tricks or sleep through the night without his prostate waking him up to trickle out drops of salty, yellowish piss -- marking his territory on the gnarled tree of society.
He remembered his transformation into adulthood, a kid dying in his arms as blood and metal cocooned around them. There were thousands of adults under his feet when his plane began to fall out of the sky. And as the hell-fire consumed endless collections of flesh and bone on earth, two souls became a cloud of ash in the sky.
Some cousin-psychiatrist claimed his fluctuating mood was an illness, like diabetes or something. But instead of seeking treatment, Josh’s Grandpa decided to hate himself and suffer in solitude.
He refused to get help from anyone, and when his life became too painful, like a family of spiders biting him from inside, he directed his hatred outwards -- towards the admissions staff of the University of Connecticut, for example, after he got rejected when he got back stateside. He threw a secretary's coffee mug out a second story window, called them a bunch of stuck-up communists who wouldn't know a good applicant if Albert Einstein showed up, and then ran off before the cops showed up.
On bad days, he even hated his exhausted wife, and once she died, he moved on to his nervous doctors, those jerks in the bathtubs from the Cialis commercials, or whoever the hell tried to tell him what to do. How could he live a happy life while all he saw was petroleum fueled fire melting skin off bones?
For years, he saw the blood on his Air Force gloves in the gore of Quentin Tarantino's movies. The smell of burning homes was interchangeable with neighborhood barbecues, and the sudden malfunction alarm buzz was the beeping of an ajar car door. But the sudden boom, panic, and the pain he felt back in his upside down hell -- everything rushed back when the red, white, and blue of Independence Day fireworks exploded overhead. Those were some of the worst moments along with the surreal mist where his friend once was -- a moment stuck, like fog on a windshield, to kids playing with water guns, or when he opened the freezer and the cold air spilled out.
All of them, and many more associations, manufactured jagged parts of his soul -- dread acting as pieces in an unsolvable puzzle.
For over half a century, he unloaded his anger on his friends, family, and even the occasional stranger. He was trying to control the hopeless -- unwilling to accept his history. Constantly attempting to reshape, fight, and destroy. Even if it meant exploding at all the people who didn't understand he should’ve not left home in the first place -- a duffel bag in his soft hands. A boy off fight for freedom and justice in the sky on the far side of world. But when he returned, the boy’s world was gone, and a man found this life destroyed through napalm, unpredictable malfunctions, and chaos.
“And I’ll tell you this over and over,” he goes on while they sit on the beige fabric couches the assisted-living community provided for the apartment. “It’s not real. Porn. It’s something that turns people into spunk covered mannequins, or robots. It turns ‘em into something you can switch on and off. They’re only for sex, and it’s all with the push of a button. All in your control. All on your computer or that thing you’re always fiddling with.”
He points at the phone in Josh’s hand with concentrated force.
The room for some reason smells like herring mixed with Bengay cream, and freshly cut coupons for half off Bengay cream -- a faded picture of Josh’s Grandpa in his full Air Force uniform standing tall on a nearby coffee table. His green eyes are lit by sepia fire -- sparks fading away as the picture grows older and older.
“What do you mean by that?” Josh looks up from his phone, his eyebrows wiggling like caffeinated caterpillars. “Which parts of it... the porn I mean,” he adds, “Which parts aren’t real?”
“All of it?” Josh asks. “Some of it? The blowjobs? Is that part fake because I overhead Zach Portnoy say that he got a ton of blowjobs at summer camp from this girl who lives in Canada.”
“Portnoy?” His Grandpa laughs. “Is that Sam and Esther Portnoy’s grandkid? Because if it is then he’s probably full of crap just like his grandfather. We were both in the Pacific you know, and actually one time this Thai girl poked him in the…”
“Umm, Grandpa,” Josh interrupts before he glances at his phone. “I have to call an Uber, so I can get to cello lessons on time.”
Josh reaches for his phone.
“But,” he continues, not looking up from his phone, “can you explain your thesis a little more quickly?”
“Thesis?” his Grandpa yells after he throws up his hands. “What kinda crock of shit is that? And what the hell is an Uber?” He pauses, rubs his temples, and then, “Actually,” he goes, “don’t answer that… I don’t care for that German gutter dump of a language, and put that damn phone away.”
“Sorry,” Josh reacts and slides the phone back into his pocket. “A thesis is something I learned in school,” Josh explains as his Grandpa slowly rises from the couch and heads over to the off-white, paint-chipped kitchenette -- nestled in the corner of the cramped studio apartment. “It’s sorta what your main argument is, but in like one sentence or something... and an Uber is…”
“Listen, Joshy,” he interrupts, opens the freezer door, and winces once the cold mist leaks onto his face. He starts to dig through the thing like a wild raccoon looking for scraps before animal control shows up. “I know what a thesis is, but I don’t care. Thesis things are for school. Roofs over your head, apples on the teacher’s desk, and all that rose-tinted crap. They all have no clue that it’s a damn maze with bullshit in the middle waiting for you.”
Josh scrunches up his face, his raised left eyebrow signalling constipated confusion, while his Grandpa approaches him -- his fist curled around a mystery. “That crock is for the shits at the University of Connecticut, but...” he suddenly stops to stare off into nothing for a few seconds while Josh paws at a mosquito bite on his arm.
“Whatever. It’s just more complicated, so a thesis won't do. And those damn Uber-rific Germans killed way too many of my friends and family to have my own seed using their words.”
He holds out his fist and smiles. “But forget all that, this is what matters now.”
“What?” Josh asks and jumps up from the couch to examine his Grandpa's closed fist. “What's in your hand?”
“This should tell you everything you need to know,” his Grandpa says and opens his hand to reveal a swirly, orange marble the size of a cherry tomato.
“What does a marble have to do with this, Grandpa?”
“Everything and nothing, little man. And it’s not a damn marble,” he responds, in between laughter, as he rolls the smooth little orb around his fingertips. “But I gotta ask, are you ready for this responsibility? Because this is important. You seem old enough with your asking me about what porn is like, but if you’re not ready then I’ll give this to your cousin Anthony. Or maybe I’ll just keep it. Could use an escape from this place even if it doesn’t really work for me anymore.”
The old man sighs and looks around the room. He lingers on the picture of the young man he once was, right after he graduated flight school, and well before his balls turned into dried apricots, and the love of his life, the only person he could really talk to on a good day, died of pancreatic cancer.
He watches his grandson stare at the marble, and he considers how his best friend became a friendless, fourteen year-old kid. Not even Anthony – Josh’s only cousin– would show up to the old man’s cage-sized living space.
“Just too busy with internships, Grandpa,” Anthony claimed over the phone – which his Grandpa could barely hear through anymore because the electrostatic screwed with his hearing aids.
“No, no,” Josh insists, eager to find out what secrets lie within this weird freezer marble. “I’m ready. I mean, I’m basically an adult. I’m fourteen now. So what is it?”
“Oh,” his Grandpa smiles, eyes transfixed, his mind lost in the orange swirls of the marble. “It’s love.”
“Ummmm,” Josh stammers, closing one eye at a time as he wipes his face in between awkward breathes. “What?”
“I want this to become a part of you,” his Grandpa commands – pushing the marble in front of Josh’s acne-speckled face.
“What?” he asks. “You want me to eat the marble. Why? Is it a drug or something? Like the smelly stuff you smoke before you go to bed?”
“No. That medicinal marijuana is for my back. This isn't a drug,” the old man answers, suspiciously looking around the room, as if to make sure no one is hiding in the corners of the tiny room. “But first, let me tell you a story about how a moment as insignificant as this marble became a part of me forever. Stuck in my gut. And I don’t want you to literally eat it, but I...”
“But I have cello now,” Josh interrupts.
“But I have cello now,” he mocks him in a sing-song voice, “I swear to God I’ll give it to Anthony if you don’t quit whining.”
“Okay,” Josh says, his heart in his stomach after his only real friend snaps at him. “Sorry, Grandpa. Go ahead.”
“Look,” he starts, but then, seeing his sensitive grandson’s watering eyes, he stops.
“I’m sorry, Joshy,” he says, “I just got carried away with this because it’s really important. You’re a good kid. I’m just a sour, old fart.”
And then Josh laughs. A childish laugh that lasts for a handful of seconds.
“I mean,” Josh mentions in between giggles, “You’re pretty gassy, but still cool. And it’s okay, that wasn't nearly as bad as what the other kids say to me at school.”
His Grandpa narrows his eyes.
“Who says what to you?” he yells. “Want me to kill them? I’ve killed so many people in my life that adding one or two fourteen year old punks to the list doesn't make that big of difference in the grand scheme of things.”
“Thanks,” Josh laughs, “But it’s okay.”
Josh then grabs the marble out of his Grandpa’s hand and swallows it whole.
“Jesus Christ,” his Grandpa swears. “I didn’t literally mean eat it. It’s a goddamn marble. ”
“Oh no,” Josh whines and quickly adds, “Then why did you tell me to eat it?”
“First off,” his Grandpa corrects, sticking his right pointer finger in the air. “I was going to say put it inside of you. It was supposed to be symbolic or something, or at least that’s what your Grandma always told me. A shiny ball that could reflect the best part of you. Illuminate the darkness, or something. You’d know that if listened to my story. I mean really…”
“Ummm,” Josh cuts him off -- holding his stomach and hyperventilating -- his face the color of canned peas. “Am I going to die? I don’t feel well.”
“You’ll crap it out, and you’ll be fine,” he tells Josh. “I think...”
“Either way,” he continues. “You’ll have to fish it out for me when you do. And then, after you clean it, please keep it. Your Grandma gave it to me, and,” he sighs, “she told me it was made out of the sand from when…”
“You fed me sand?” he cries.
“What? No. You did that yourself. You swallowed the super heated sand from the beaches I fire bombed back in the day, or at least that’s what she told me. But crap,” he stammers before he clutches at his heart. “I need to sit down. Help me out here, Joshy.”
Josh obediently rushes to hold him up.
“But,” he continues as Josh helps him get back to the couch. “She wanted me to know that something beautiful and complex could come out of all the terrible crap I did and saw back in the war. And I think,” he sits down and Josh plops down next to him, “I think it’ll help you or something. Maybe it will remind you that everyone, even old farts like me or porno stars, might be something more than flesh or tainted sand.”
And as he contemplates about what he just said, curious if this speech mattered at all, Josh’s face turns from canned peas to something more green than canned peas, and he vomits.
“Or not,” his Grandpa says, wincing when he stares at the fresh puke on his worn carpet. “What the hell do I know? Is the marble in there? I waited years to take this out and now look what you did! I mean…”
When Josh throws up again, his Grandpa stops talking.
“This is horrible,” Josh whimpers in-between dry heaves and sniffles. “And it's in my nose.”
“Alright,” he says, his grandson covered in bile, the stench of acid and undigested food making themselves at home in the carpet and walls. “We’ll clean you up. Don't worry. Just don't tell you parents about this because they'll never let you back here.”