The grapes are ready, two bunches pick’d, and none denied the robin.
The hand’s unsteady, the spirit’s quick, the moment’s soon forgotten.
August 19, 2019
The Old Language
The old man stood near the edge of the road, waiting for his grandson to get home from school. Seeing the bright-yellow bus come in his direction always made his heart glad. Soon the bus would stop in front of the house and the door would open to let out his grandson, and the boy would come running…. very soon, now, it would happen, and the hot fall sun would shine on the boy’s hair and transform it into a field of ripened wheat…. and he would offer him some grapes to eat, the best grapes of the year, the ones left behind after the harvest.
The boy loved his grandfather. He didn’t mind at all that the old man sometimes remembered the names of grapes before his own. Muscats, White Malagas — grapes no one grew anymore, his father said, because no one liked the hard seeds. Grapes from a slower time, when coyotes, squirrels, snakes, and horned toads lived on the land. You don’t remember that, his father said. That was before you were born. And the boy would nod, even though he did remember.
The old man had an interesting smell, like sour dirt. He wore the same color shirt every day. His shirts were green, and they had long sleeves, and dark patches of sweat under the arms. At the end of the day, he put them on a hanger in his closet, only to take them out the following morning and wear them again, making it difficult for the boy’s mother to wash them. Occasionally, she would ask her father-in-law if he would like to have his shirts cleaned, but he always refused. A day or so later, she would find a pile of them on top of the washing machine. That was their little ritual.
As the bus approached, the old man could see that most of the windows were down. The still air became alive with the sound of talk and laughter. He listened hard for his grandson’s voice, but was unable to make it out. The bus stopped and the door opened. A little girl appeared in the doorway and bounded down the steps. The bus driver said good-bye and waved. Then he closed the door and the bus drove away.
“Where is he?” the old man asked the girl.
The girl smiled. “He already got off the bus,” she said. “He’s playing at Eddie’s house today. Remember?”
“Eddie?… No…. Who is Eddie?”
“Our neighbor. Eddie. Eddie Lofton.”
“Oh. Yes. Eddie. That’s right. Very nice boy.” The old man smiled to be sure the girl would think he remembered who Eddie was. Then he held out a small bunch of grapes. “Here,” he said. “You are nice. I bring something for you.”
The girl took the grapes and put one in her mouth. “Thanks, Grampa,” she said.
The old man watched in wonder as the girl put another grape into her mouth. He didn’t know who she was, but he loved her with all his being.
The girl went inside. The old man thought for a moment. He looked both ways down the road, then started walking east, the way the bus had come. In his mind there was a nice picture of a white two-story house. The house belonged to Eddie Lofton’s family. He told himself that he would walk there and be with his grandson. And he did walk, taking pleasure in the spider web cracks woven in the dark surface of the road, and the dry weeds spent of seed at the edge, and the funnel-shaped holes made by ant lions.
He walked for a long time, then took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead. To quench his thirst, he ate a small bunch of grapes he found in the vineyard by the road. The juice of the grapes flooded his soul…. In the old language, the language of his youth, he began to sing…. beneath the moon, the lovers held each other in a mad embrace…. and in the new language, the language of his old age, he said, ah, this woman, I know her, I know her well…. And the old man wept, for there was no better language to explain his loss.
The boys were chasing each other with sticks when they saw him. Even from a distance and with the bright afternoon sun shining in their eyes, his grandson knew who it was. As fast as they could, they ran to where the old man had fallen.
“Good boys,” the old man said, looking up at them. “Here, I have come to play with you. Come on, now. I am ready. I have found the big white house…. the Eddie house… is it not so? Here are the grapes I bring you, which I give to little girl… your sister… yes?… your beautiful sister….”
The old man fell silent. Terrified, the boy named Eddie Lofton ran home to get help. The other boy remained. He held his grandfather’s hand.
The hot sun descended. The earth rose up to meet them. A big yellow bus came driving, carrying many children. The children spoke a strange new language…. The grapes ripened…. One by one, they fell like stars over the desert.
Tags: Aging, Diaries, Grapes, Journals, Memory, No Time to Cut My Hair, Old Muscat Vineyards, Poems, Poetry, Robins, Samvel Mkrtchyan, Short Fiction, Short Stories, The Old Language, The San Joaquin Valley, Translations, White Malagas