In this scene from TREASURE BUILT OF SAND, Audrey has agreed to take a turn nursing her husband Sean’s cranky grandfather as he recovers from a fall.
Granda’s house is within walking distance of both St. Malachai’s Catholic church and Jimmy’s Roscommon Bar and Grill. Location, location, location. No wonder Granda refuses to move.
I park on the street in front of the tiny two up, two down house where my mother-in-law was raised. Only two bedrooms and one bath with four kids and two parents. I’ve never enquired about the logistics of her childhood, but the modest three-bedroom, two bath split level in Palmyrton in which she raised Sean and his four siblings must have seemed like a palace.
I mount the tiny stoop and ring the bell at precisely 11:55. I’m taking over for my brother-in-law Terry, and I know I’ll never hear the end of it if he has to work even five minutes past his allotted shift.
I hear a series of locks turning and the door opens. “There you are! Finally!”
I step into a close atmosphere of cooked cabbage and Pine-Sol, his sister Deirdre’s cleaning product of choice.
“Who is it?” I hear a disembodied voice shout from above. “Is it that old bag from next door? Send her away. Tell her I don’t want nunna her Dago food.”
Terry rolls his eyes. “The neighbor brought us the most delicious escarole soup. I highly recommend it. Just don’t let Granda catch you enjoying it.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Full of piss and vinegar, so I guess he’s on the mend.” Terry leads me down a narrow hall to the kitchen. An array of orange pill bottles lines the Formica counter next to the electric tea kettle. “He spent the morning telling me how worthless I am for not being able to repair his broken TV antenna if I know all about computers. Go figure. Then he said he didn’t trust me to cook him a proper lunch, and he’d wait for one of his grand-daughters to do it right.” Terry opens the fridge, which Deirdre has stocked with enough food to feed a platoon of infantrymen. “You have to take it up on a tray. He stays upstairs to be near the bathroom. His chair has an alarm that goes off if he tries—”
A faint beeping commences above. Terry pivots and takes the steep stairs to the second floor two at a time. “—to get up. Granda! Stay still! Here I come!”
I follow, worried about what awaits me. What special hell will Sean’s grandfather devise for me?
Granda sits in the sunny front bedroom. Although it’s the larger of the two, there’s barely room for the hospital bed, a chair with the alarmed seat, and a second caretaker’s chair.
“Who’s this, then? Not our Colleen.”
Terry has arrived in time to grab his grandfather’s elbow and support him as he wavers next to his chair. The old man peers at me through watery blue eyes.
I move forward to give him a peck on his grizzled cheek. “Hi, Granda. It’s Audrey, Sean’s wife.”
He pulls away from my embrace. “Harlot! You’re not married.”
Terry pats his arm. “Now, Granda—you were at the wedding, remember?”
“Sean never got his first marriage annulled. That’s why they got married out in that field, with no priest in sight. Bah!”
He points a gnarled finger at me. “Yer not a Catholic.”
I smile. “That’s right. I’m not.” If this is the best he can do, bring it on.
“All right, Granda. I’ll take you to the bathroom, then I’m leaving. Audrey will make your lunch and keep you company.”
“Ay, ye better help me. I’ll piss my pants before I let that harlot take me to the loo.”
“I’ll go down and start making lunch.”
“I want a bacon butty,” he shouts after me. “And a glass o’ Gledfiddich. Right along side o’ my tea. And may the devil make a ladder of your spine if you try bringing me those foul veg.”
Terry returns as I’m loading the tray with Granda’s request. “Deirdre says he’s not supposed to have so much bacon because of the salt. And no booze in the daytime. And give him some steamed broccoli for the fiber.”
I make no comment, just keep prepping. As far as I’m concerned, when you’re eighty-nine, you can eat whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want it. “Where are the tea bags?”
“Oh, sweet Jesus—don’t try to give him bag tea. You’ve gotta brew the leaves in this pot.” Terry pulls out a chipped brown teapot and launches into instructions as complex as one of Sean’s Food Network recipes, concluding with, “and he gets two of those blue pills at four o’clock. Good luck, Audrey.”
He heads for the door.
“Bye, Granda,” Terry shouts up the stairs. “Be nice, ya hear?”
“Don’t let the door hit ya in the arse, ya worthless gobshite. Ya never worked a day in yer life.”
Terry shudders and makes his escape. I carry the lunch tray up into the lion’s den.
I walk in haloed in the scent of bacon, and the old coot can’t help but show some interest. He lifts the bread and examines the bacon. “Aw, and why is it burnt to cinders? Do you not know how to cook streaky rashers proper? And surely you could grill the tomatoes. Did yer ma teach you nothing but how to drop yer knickers fer a man?”
“You’re right. I’m a lousy cook. I never set foot in the kitchen at our house. Sean does it all. And yeah, I wasn’t a virgin when we got married. Anything else you need to get off your chest?”
“This tea is bitter. Did you let the water come off the boil before you poured it in the pot?”
I reach for the teapot. “I’ll just pop down and make a mug of Lipton’s in the microwave, shall I?”
He stares at me, then breaks into a brown-toothed grin. “Saucy, you are. Remind me of my wife. Except she was a good Catholic.” He reaches for the bacon sandwich.
Hmm. That seems to be a compliment. I sit down in the chair beside him. “Where did you meet?”
That’s all it takes. Granda is off on a long trip down memory lane. I learn about his village in County Cork and his constant struggle to wrest a few scraps of food at the table he shared with his thirteen brothers and sisters. I learn about his decision to leave Ireland for America and the gut-churning, foul-smelling trip on the boat, and the moment, on the next-to-last day aboard, that his eyes fell on red-haired, green-eyed Moira, still lovely and laughing even after the horrors of their journey.
As he talks, he eats every crumb of the bacon sandwich as well as the canned peaches I subbed for the broccoli. He drinks the tea. And the whiskey.
Eventually his voice slows and his eyelids flutter, and Granda dozes off in his chair. I slide a pillow under his head and tip-toe out of the room.
Maybe all a nurse needs is good ears.
Treasure Built of Sand will be released in April 2019.