Grandma glanced at the mantel clock on top of the television every time the cuckoo clock in the kitchen called cuck-coo. I begged to wait up. “Ja, Schatzee, just a while longer.” She always called me Schatzee, her darling. Curled beside her on the sofa, I played with her fleshy upper arm. It was my security blanket, Grandma’s arm, and I kneaded it like kiachle dough while she taught me German words—guten Morgen, gute Nacht, schlafen, auf Wiedersehen—and darned Boppa’s brown socks with silky yellow thread, a thimble protecting her thumb. Boppa’s supper—a slab of ham, a crusty hunk of buttered rye, paper-thin cucumbers swimming in vinegar—waited on a plate covered with waxed paper on the kitchen table in the dark.
I knew without her telling me in English or German that Boppa had stopped at the dim, smoky bar where the nice bartender called Frankie once put two cherries and a paper umbrella into my Shirley Temple. Just as I knew without Boppa telling me that I was not to tell Grandma about the cherries or the Shirley Temple. Not that there was a law against granddaughters sitting on barstools next to their grandfathers in the Bronx in the 1970s. But Grandma would have seen a Shirley Temple as spoiling my appetite, not to mention a waste of good [End Page 71] money. It was a swivel barstool. A nine-year-old girl could spin herself dizzy on that stool sipping a Shirley Temple and chewing on the ends of her hair while grown men raised their steins and shouted Prost!
My eyes grew heavy, but I fought sleep, repeating after Grandma: schlafen, sleep; guten Morgen, good morning; gute Nacht, good night. My speech grew slurry, and I dozed against my will, her fat arm pillowing my head. When the cuckoo called nine-thirty, she roused me and walked me into the kitchen, past Boppa’s plate on the table, up the creaky stairs, across the upstairs landing, and tucked me into the twin bed separated from hers by a nightstand. She brushed my bangs from my forehead with her fingertips and kissed me goodnight. Gute Nacht und schlaf gut, Schatzee. Goodnight and sleep well, Sweetheart.
Now it is morning and I am ready to shout Guten Morgen! from the upstairs landing, where I am standing, overlooking the shingled roof of the cuckoo clock, which hangs on the wall below me, directly above the Salz and Pfeffer shakers at the end of the table. Boppa’s chair is pushed out. A plate with kiachle crumbs and an empty coffee mug are on the table. He always leaves for the butcher shop before I wake up. At the far end of the kitchen, Grandma is standing at the sink in her housecoat with the bluish-green swirls, her back moving to the circular motion of the dishrag. Morning light comes through the window above the sink. She is humming, as usual, but she does not realize I am standing here, which is unusual because normally she spies me with the eyes in the back of her head. I balloon with an idea. Ssshhh, I tell myself as I tiptoe down the stairs, careful to daddy-long-leg it over the creaky fifth step, smiling to myself on the bottom step, bursting with glee—Ssshhh!—as I slink past the table, across the carpet to the linoleum.
“Guten Morgen, Grandma!”
Her elbow grazes my chest when she jumps, the sleeve of her house-coat shivers. “Mein Gott, Schatzee!” She pounds her chest and I see on her upper arm a purple bruise, the largest bruise I have ever seen, a purple-blue-black bruise seeping into the dark cavern of her sleeve. She reaches for my cheek, which she pinches every morning, but I back up.
“Grandma,” my voice a whisper. “What happened?”
Her hand drops. Her eyes flash. She looks directly into me and [End Page 72] says, “Your grandfather did dat to me.” Each word slow, pointed, pronounced.
Boppa was the one who gave us piggyback rides and slipped us Silly Putty and dollar bills behind...