Zula Ovelgönne taught English in Europe before returning to Canada to pursue studies in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. Her visual art has appeared in Stirring: A Literary Collection. She lives in Montreal.
“I was in the Olympics,” Grandpa Rog gloats—the wind blowing whiffs of his pine cologne in my direction. His wrist twitches as he plants his cane in the slush that’s swamped the grass in the park where he used to play Pétanque with friends.
His house is right at the end of the park, by the soccer field where no one’s played since the early 2010s, which was when neighbours started getting too old to bend their knees and swing their arms.
Today the sun’s out, which means it’s freezing. In Quebec, it’s only warm out in winter when it snows.
“You were?” I ask, knowing Grandpa wasn’t in the Olympics. Mucus drips out of his nose, but he licks it off his lip before I get the chance to hand him a tissue.
“Yes, Madame, I won the gold medal for snowboarding.”
Grandpa Rog has never set foot on a ski hill, but instead of reminding him, I cheer, “That’s impressive!”
I’ve gotten used to being called Madame by Grandpa. Once in a while, he calls me nurse, but I don’t take it personally. He doesn’t remember any of his kids and grandkids. Sometimes, he’ll even forget Grandma Evelyn exists.
I’ve been taking Rog out for walks three times a week—on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays—since last October. It’s almost been two years.
“You have to take him out,” Grandma told me on the phone after the doctor ordered her to keep Rog active, “I’ll get sick if I go with him.” Grandpa can’t go anywhere by himself anymore. So, Evelyn accompanies him to the clinic. They take a taxi there even though the doctor’s is a ten-minute walk away from their house.
Grandma’s arthritis has worsened over the years and now her knees don’t bend right. Walking hurts her. Doctors want to inject hyaluronic acid into her leg, but she won’t allow them. She’s scared of needles.
I’m the one who takes Rog out for strolls since I’m the only family member who’s unemployed and Grandpa likes going out for walks at around ten AM, which is right at the beginning of a work day.
My cousins never come visit Rog—not even on weekends when my aunts pop by—because they find him too depressing. They send flowers instead. They want to remember Grandpa as the man who’d down Beefeater and play Pétanque. My cousins don’t want to see him struggle to hold his cane. Don’t want to see him pissing his pants because he forgot to slip them off before sitting on the can. Grandpa can’t pee standing up anymore—not since the last time when he fell in the tub, spraying urine on the walls and shower curtain.
I haven’t spoken to my cousins in over eight months (not that they’ve called or reached out to me.) We were never close, but still I’m mad that they won’t lend a hand. I don’t understand their logic. Unlike them, I find it encouraging, watching Rog all lost. Not because it’s a sign that he’ll die soon and we’ll inherit the money he keeps stuffed in his mattress (not that he remembers it’s there). But because I like hoping that one day, I’ll lose my mind too. That I won’t remember the time I masturbated in class and got caught. Or the night I projectile vomited all over freshly cooked mac and cheese at a high school party. Or the day I went to the washroom during an online class, not knowing my microphone was on.
If I do end up remembering those accidents, it’ll only be for a split second—a minute max. That’s much better than obsessing over them, as I do now.
Once in a while, as we scuff down the block that leads to the park, Grandpa and I’ll pass the mailman or a nurse heading into Mr. Gosselin’s house to start her shift, but most of the time, Grandpa and I are alone.
Most people in this borough are over seventy. Scared of the virus, they stay in their homes, staring at us from their windows. Not like in my neighbourhood where people keep inviting friends into their apartments.
Every time Rog and I are out walking, he tells me stories about his life. Some fake. Some true.
I know he’s telling the truth when he stops walking to get his thoughts straight. When he lies, he keeps on wandering about, like he did last week when he insisted he’d won the Nobel Prize in the ‘70s. Or the week before that when he claimed to have been a drug lord in Columbia.
His sickness allows him to speak freely. My family is pretty secretive. So, I’ve learned a lot about grandpa during our walks. Learned he spent his childhood in an orphanage. Apparently, he’d run out on the lawn of D’Youville whenever adults visited the place, looking to adopt.
“No one wanted me when I was a baby,” Rog cried last June, pulling his shorts into place, back over his belly, “and no one wants to adopt an older child.”
Never in my life had I seen him cry.
I studied his socks pulled over his knees, the cancer scabs healing around his thighs. Grandpa used to bike four times a week around the city, which is why he’s got a big gut, but skinny legs.
I could picture it. Him as a child. No one wanting him. It’s easy to tell them apart: the grownups who were unwanted children. They hate being alone. Yet, when they’re surrounded by people—loads of them—they stay quiet, keeping to themselves.
Grandpa Rog used to hate when grandma Evelyn would run to the grocery store on Thursday evenings, leaving him alone at home. She’d rarely allow him to tag along because as soon as they’d arrive at the IGA and she’d pull a carriage out of the assembled shopping carts, Grandpa would whine, “I’ve had enough! Let’s go home.”
When she’d leave him at the house by himself, he’d call my dad and my aunts, inviting them over after work. But when my dad and aunts would arrive at his house, Grandpa Rog would excuse himself and amble into his office to work.
“At what age did you get adopted?” I asked Grandpa during that same walk in June.
He brushed his fingers down his moustache. “Josée and Louis.”
“Did you like them?”
“And your time at the orphanage? How was that?”
“Sacrament! What do you want to know that for!” he yelled. “Take me home!”
I did as he asked, staying quiet as we turned back to his house while he forgot all about the orphanage and bullshitted anecdotes about a cat he’d owned that would transform into a dog at night.
When we got back and he slumped into bed for a nap, I asked Grandma Evelyn for details about Josée and Louis.
“Cimonaque! How d’you know about them?” She furrowed her brows.
“C’mon, Grandpa clearly told me.”
“So? D’you know anything about them?” I urged.
“Take a seat,” Grandma sighed, fetching Célébration cookies from the cupboard before sitting in front of me, at the kitchen table which only fit four people. I pulled the maple cookies apart and sank my teeth into the filling as Evelyn went on about how Josée was baren.
My great-grandmother wanted children. So, Louis drove her to the D’Youville orphanage, urging “Choisis en un.” Pick one. Josée chose Rog.
A few days after talking with Grandma, local news broadcast allegations about abuse in D’Youville. Apparently, the Grey Nuns had been molesting kids from the 1920s to the ‘70s.
That Wednesday, when I arrived at my grandparents’ place to take Rog out for a walk, Grandma planted the spatula she’d been using to fry onions on the counter and ordered, “Help me get the ladder.”
She had me climb it and remove every cross in their house—my eyes all watery from the onions sizzling in the pan.
“And you?” Rog coughs—his boots squeaking from all the slush— “Who are you?”
“I’m Liv, your neighbour. You’ve heard me on the radio, I’m sure of it,” I try chanting a made-up slogan, “Good morning, Montreal! Here’s Liv!”
My name is Laura and I sure as hell am no radio announcer. But if Rog is allowed to lie, why shouldn’t I be? Besides, I have a lot more fun spending time with him when I get to reinvent myself. Afterwards, I end up driving home in my beat-up Volvo, feeling all confident, thinking I’ve got time to clean up my act and accomplish the things I’ve told Grandpa. I tell myself I’ve got time to write a screenplay. To act in a film. To go back to school and finish my bachelors. Or to host a radio show.
The confidence quickly fades though. I end up back in my apartment, a basement near Côte-Vertu, in Saint-Laurent, where once in a while you’ll hear a gunshot. My roommate usually cracks open two beers when I get home and by nine, we’ve drunk an entire case, which means I’ll have done nothing but down Molson all day.
I tried to be an artist. I failed. Four years ago, I moved to Berlin for inspiration, but that didn’t help. Moving to Oregon didn’t either. And New York, well, I couldn’t afford New York.
I came back to Montreal from Oregon when Grandpa was diagnosed with dementia two and a half years ago. I got a job as a teller at a bank, but quit when I started feeling like a sellout.
“Euh,” Rog falters, hobbling as if there were objects in his way.
“You okay?” I hesitate, noticing his fogged-up glasses, the ones that have lenses all around as if the frames were boxes for the eyes. Grandpa bought the shades off an infomercial in the early 2010s.
Grandma had tucked them under his mask when she dressed him up for our walk. “You have to put the sunglasses over your mask,” I explain, sliding my gloves off so that I can fix them for him.
“What sunglasses?” His eyebrows furrow.
“The ones you’re wearing.”
He shakes his head. “What sunglasses?” I hop onto the tip of my toes to reach for his face. I slide the shades off his nose and toss them in my pocket. He blinks a whole lot as he scans the park before shrugging. “The sun’s here,” he says, not realizing the sun was already out. Not realizing his glasses shaded things brown.
“Yes, the sun just rose, just now.” I can’t help sounding sarcastic, but he won’t notice. He’s forgotten all social norms. If a car drove by and the driver offered Rog candy, my grandfather would jump into the passenger seat without hesitation.
Grandpa has always had a sweet tooth; even after he got dentures. He eats a whole lot of taffy and doesn’t care that the maple sticks to his fake teeth.
Soon, I’m gonna have to install curtains in front of the doors in his house. He can’t know there are exits. Otherwise, he’ll try escaping. That’s what the doctor told Evelyn after Rog started forgetting who she was.
He keeps calling her “that strange woman in my house.” And then a minute later, he’s asking where the hell he is, weeping, “Take me home!”
“Evelyn’s not very pretty, is she,” Grandpa blurts out.
“Ummm,” I falter.
“I don’t think she’s pretty. Not a single bit!”
I frown even though I know he’s right. Grandma’s not soft on the eyes. Her hair is always oily, her nose pointing to the right, and her eyes unaligned.
“Why’d you marry her then?” I hesitate.
He shakes his head. “No siree! I didn’t marry her.”
“Take me home!” he urges, turning from side to side, unsure where to go. “Take me home!” he screams.
“OK! OK!” I grab his hand and turn back. “This way.”
When we arrive home, I yell out to Evelyn, “We’re back!” But she doesn’t answer. She probably didn’t hear me. She’s been half-deaf for the past decade. “Grandpa, sit.” I pull up a chair in the corridor and take off my parka. I throw it in the corner, knowing I’ll put it back on before leaving.
“Ok, Madame,” he sighs, trudging around the seat as if playing Musical Chairs by himself.
“Grandpa, sit,” I repeat. This time, he does as I say.
When I was a kid, this house smelled of dough frying in canola oil even when Grandma wasn’t baking doughnuts. Now, everything reeks of Polident. The smell latches onto towels, pillows, and onto the bouquets of flowers sent by my cousins.
“Who are you again?” Rog hesitates as I drop to my knees and pull his boots off his feet.
“Felix’s daughter.” That’s the truth.
The postman slips junk mail and letters through the mail slot. Grocery store flyers and tax returns glide across the marble floor. Rog stares at them and then at the ceiling—his mouth wide open—as if he thinks they’ve fallen, like snow.
“I’m Felix’s daughter,” I repeat, testing him. I’m always wondering if he’s pretending to be nuts. Or if one day, he’ll snap out of whatever daydream he’s in. Maybe then, he’ll march into the kitchen and pour himself a glass of Beefeater before slipping twenty bucks out of his wallet and whispering to me, “Here, take it, go buy yourself something nice.” He’ll wink, adding, “It’s on Grandpa.”
But instead, he wonders, “Felix?”
I slip his scarf off and sling it over a hanger. “Your son.”
“Yep.” I catch his gaze. “Felix’s your son.” I pull his tuque off and he scratches the skin that’s been reddened by the wool. “Felix, your son.”
He bobs his foot. The chair wobbles and the legs rattle against the floor. “Huh, my son, really?”
Grandpa quits shaking his leg. He grabs onto the sides of the chair and sits still, like he does when he recalls the truth. “You know I paid her to get rid of Felix, of the baby.”
“What d’you mean get rid of Felix?” I wipe melted snow off the floor with my sweater. God forbid he or Grandma slip.
“How’s Manon doing?”
“Manon.” He beams, smoothening out the last wisp of hairs clinging to his skull. “Felix’s mother.”
I freeze, staring at the floor, at the green specks in the granite. I look up at Grandpa and smile. He smiles back. I’m not angry with him. He got married at eighteen to a woman he finds—I now know—repulsive and has been with her for sixty years. That’s no way to live. He deserved to experience things outside of marriage. So did Evelyn. I hope she did.
“Who are you again?” Grandpa asks.
“Manon’s granddaughter,” I hesitate.
He beams. He never grins when I tell him the truth.