Thomas made it a habit to stroke Petey’s beard.
Petey would sit there, his old eyes wandering off, perhaps replaying 55 years of would be first dates on the busted projector in his mind, but he would never flinch. At first Thomas stroked it out of curiosity. He had never seen a beard that long, thick, and well manicured. His hands navigated it like blades through a field of wheat; his fingers following the curls left and right like a school child’s maze. In his youth Petey could have been mistaken for Santa Claus’s younger more handsome brother, Hanz, but now the differences were quite obvious. Petey had wasted away, appearing more like a large thin spider shoved into the old saggy skin suit of a man, then the sibling of a cheery, plump, universal hero.
Thomas would leave for school promptly at 8am and walk through the dark living room where Petey sat seemingly melded to his ancient worn recliner. He would stroke the ever-growing beard and whisper into the closest old ear ,“don’t forget.” Thomas would let the smallest peak of light in through the front door as he’d leave and shut it so fast you’d think Petey was Nosferatu. That daily dose of Vitamin D was all Petey got, and it’s all he had seen in the last five years. He had moved so little in that time that the doorframe of light he was exposed to for such a minimal period on a daily basis had formed a sun burn of sorts striping his solemn face. The crack of light had left a narrow pole splitting his static mug in two.
Petey had fought in all the great wars; at least that’s what his mind would tell him. In reality he prepared pancakes for the troops in South Korea for three days until the third fateful morning standing too close to the window overlooking the Geum River, he was struck with a piece of shrapnel which promptly pierced through his apron covered belly, lodging itself in his spinal cord and splitting his anterior spinal artery. He stood in shock and listened as his stomach gurgled and unplugged like a cork from a bottle of Shiraz, dripping life all over the waxed floor. Petey wouldn’t walk again. He would barely hobble, and each year he would lose more feeling in the lower half of his body until 1965 when he was forced into the wheelchair that would confine him for the rest of his days.
About this time Petey would roll around the neighborhood on these, (oddly enough Korean) man-made wheels, losing all contact with the earth he once loved. He would sit his children on his numb knees and bounce them around with feeble arms. He would make up stories about his injury, playing up the fable as if he was the owner of a big blue ox. His family loved him but he lost touch with the world. Visits to the grocery store became less frequent; joining his wife in their marital bed became such a daunting feat for Petey he compared it to climbing a flight of never-ending stairs. The chair jailed him from the world he once thought he would rule. His ambitions of running for public office didn’t even succeed in his daydreams any longer. He missed the birth of his first grandchild because he was taught from an early age first impressions are everything. He didn’t want the small new born to see him as the caged monster he felt people perceived him as.
Eventually trips out of the house were avoided all together, and trips to the window became a vacation from the darkness of his chair. Petey would sit by the window for hours watching as the neighborhood children played war, none of them ever ending up as old quadrupeds rotting away. He thought about how glamorous war was to youth, and wondered how many children would have met their early demise if finger guns had finger bullets. Petey would watch the neighbors mow their lawns and he’d imagine a horribly misplaced sprinkler causing a cacophony of sound as an orgy of metal and shards rocket through his window and end his tortured life. These thoughts brought down the blinds and kept Petey away from the window.Finally sometime around 2001 close to the birth of his first great grandchild, Thomas, Petey stopped moving all together.
As Thomas matured he began to look at his great grandfather as one of the porcelain dogs in mid action he’d littler his mantle with. Great grampy was a fixture in the living room much like a plant you’d water and feed. The only thing that grew on Petey was his beard and his longing for a release. Thomas would prop himself up on Gramp’s knees to watch Spongebob. He would laugh and look at his great-grandfather hoping for some response or acknowledgment. How can he keep such a stern face when a talking starfish can’t find his pants Thomas would wonder. But Petey would stair off like some Jedi knight convinced he could make the television explode.
When Thomas would return from school around 3pm each afternoon he would crack the door, (adding to Petey’s obscure tan), and slip into the darkened room. He would slowly walk past his great grandfather and rake his hands through his luscious beard. He would whisper into the oldest and closest ear, “don’t forget, I love you.” Petey would try to smile, he would try and force his facial muscles into a Cheshire cat grin but the most he could muster was a small lip quiver and a groan. He loved his great grandson, and oddly saw some of himself in this young human being. The irony was not lost on Petey when Thomas learned to cook and exhibited an affinity for pancakes. He would never make Easy Mac, or PB &J, or cereal for an after school snack. Instead he would make a short stack, smother it in maple syrup, crack open the blinds a tad and turn on his favorite movie “The Bamboo Prison.” Thomas would sit, obliviously propped on Petey’s knees, ingesting his after school snack, as tears would stream down his great grandfathers face. The irony was not lost on Petey, as he would see the familiar war images on tv and hear the shallow battle calls of 5 year old fallen soldiers in the streets as finger guns brought them to their staged deaths.