My grandfather leans out of the pick-up truck, his bald head slick with sweat, and sings to the traffic on the Garden State Parkway. He’s a skinny man but when he hollers in Tamil, he has the voice of a boxer, arms pumped, ready for a fight.
It’s July and the heat is on the rise. We’re headed to the shore. The beach is only a forty-minute drive from my grandfather’s house, but we’ve been parked on the highway for an hour, the hot air leaking into the truck. My grandfather has removed his green Hawaiian shirt and his shorts. He has a scar from when he was younger and broke his mother’s teakettle, the mark spreading from his bellybutton like tentacles. It reminds me of the days earlier in the summer when we watched television, so lazy from the heat that we sat in our boxers and I’d cool myself with my grandfather’s beer, pressing the bottle to my face and licking the sour edge when he wasn’t looking.
He coughs and spits yellow phlegm onto the road. His neck is bent and his fingers tremble on the steering wheel, and I know he wants a cigarette.
“You shouldn’t be singing,” I tell him.
He grins. “Arjun, I still have one lung.”
He used to be a fierce smoker. When I was younger, he would smoke a whole pack sitting outside on the porch until the evening light simmered, and his breath smelled of ash. My mother told me to keep him from smoking again. But this morning I found an Altoids tin filled with cigarettes by his bed stand. He had been secretly smoking all these days, hiding his habit with breath mints. I kept the tin in my pocket and told no one.
Next to us is a yellow Honda Civic with two girls. Their windows are closed, and I imagine the air conditioning turning their skin into goose pimples. The girl on the driver’s side checks her face in the mirror. When she looks up at me, I slump down into my seat until I disappear under the window.
The traffic starts to move, and my grandfather leans towards me and taps my cheek with his hand. “You know, little one,” he says, “the heat is an illusion.”
I look out the window, trying to find the car with the girls.
I push his hand away, but he tells me about his friend Selvakumar who worked on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and picked tea leaves from daybreak to dusk. “Do you know how heavy a leaf is,” he asks me, “when it carries the weight of the sun?”
I look out the window, trying to find the car with the girls. As we drive, my grandfather keeps staring at his palm like it’s a single tea leaf.
When we reach Seaside, my grandfather stops for gas, and I visit the convenience store to use the restroom. I don’t really need the toilet; what I want is some air-conditioning.
Walking into that store I feel what my mother must experience each time she enters a temple. My body disappears, and I’m only a being of coolness. An old man with a fisherman’s hat lingers between two fridges filled with brands of water, while a white, pimple-faced teenager at the cash register stares blankly at the clock. The teenage boy wears only beach shorts. His face is red, and the string of shells on his neck seem to choke him.
I fish into my pockets for money I know I don’t have. I walk up to the boy and point at the blue cooler next to him. “Ice, please,” I say.
He looks at me. “What, kid?”
“Ice, ice,” I say weakly, hand outstretched.
He opens the lid of the cooler, and I see the fresh beer cans, silver and wet. “Here,” he says and drops three ice cubes into my palm. I place two in my mouth, and the last I hold in my fist. “Oh man,” he says, “you’re going to get a brain freeze.”
I look up at him.
“What else you want?”
I stand there, unable to speak, my face numb and bloated. I felt like this once when a girl stuck her tongue into my mouth. She was a year older with a constellation of moles on her cheek, her face chubby as a plum. We were neighbors for a year and half before she moved to Florida. One afternoon, we were riding bikes at the creek by our school, passing honeysuckles along the way. I dared her to eat a flower. She didn’t notice there was an ant in it, but when I told her, she was mad and grabbed my arms, wanted me to taste the bug. She stopped when I couldn’t breathe, and then looked at me and said, “You know you’re weird looking. Like your face is all screwed up like a sloth.” Then she paused and said, “That’s too bad.”
From outside, my grandfather honks the horn.
We park at a meter on the side of the street. My grandfather searches his pockets for quarters.
“When do we need to return to your house?” I ask.
My grandfather wipes his forehead and shows me the six quarters he has found. “One and half hours.”
Sometimes I think we tire my grandfather. He wakes in his own house every morning to our presence. His belongings never stay where he puts them last. He blames us and we keep quiet, thinking it is his mind, his memory that he’s losing. Years of living alone didn’t ready him for our arrival, for my pregnant mother or me, already five then and as tall as her hips, standing by our car overstuffed with our lives from Kentucky.
My grandfather touches my shoulder and points to the boardwalk. From where we stand, the wooden coaster looms over the shore like an old sea serpent. Besides the coaster is a merry-go-round with horses, the paint chipped, the horses’ eyes blind with age. His hand is still on my shoulder, and I walk slowly, his weight balanced against me. He gets pain sometimes in his right leg. He doesn’t mention it but I can tell.
“I’m feeling tired,” I say and sit on the bench bordering the parking lot. He sits beside me, and after a few minutes, I tell him I feel better, and he nods and blames my father, saying he never had good stamina. He rubs the back of his head and then leans closer to me. “They say the black ogress called misfortune lurks in laziness,” he says.
Now, the only word that sticks is misfortune, and I keep hearing it even when my grandfather holds my shoulder and says, “Let’s go.”
The line is from Thirukkural, old Tamil poetry my grandfather is always reciting, especially when my brother and I are watching television. “If you memorize the words,” he once said, “you can have them forever.” He also told us about the statue of the poet, Thiruvalluvar, at the tip of Tamil Nadu, that is almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. At school we had started reading poetry by Emily Dickenson, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in America making a statue of her that big for her small poems.
The poetry my grandfather recites never interests me, but I repeat after him, not understanding what I’m saying. Now, the only word that sticks is misfortune, and I keep hearing it even when my grandfather holds my shoulder and says, “Let’s go.”
The boardwalk is crowded this afternoon. I stand by the railing and admire the shore below. Bodies ripen in the sand, and the ocean spreads out and calls with each wave. I am not fond of Jersey water or the many times I have mistaken a plastic bag for a sea creature. But the water today looks cool and glorious.
“Too many people here,” my grandfather says. “No good.” He pauses and shakes his head. “My beaches are never like this.”
I know he means Sri Lanka and I ask, “How are they?”
“Good,” he says. “Not like this.”
We walk further down the boardwalk. My grandfather wants to buy a beer, and I tell him he shouldn’t, and he laughs. “Beer doesn’t affect my lungs,” he says. “Lung.”
Two weeks ago, on my mother’s birthday, he was so drunk that he punched the bird feeder I had built. “The quality is poor,” he told me, showing his fist full of splinters as proof of my failure. That night I picked each wooden sliver with a boiled needle, while he drank glasses of Johnny Walker to numb the pain.
He buys himself a bottle of root beer and a Coke for me. He hands them to me but I drop the root beer. The vendor says, “Hold still.” He comes around with a broom but returns behind the counter to search for a dustpan.
“Making me work even on holiday,” my grandfather says, then grips the broom and starts to collect the pieces into a neat pile. I try to stop him, tell him it’s not his job to do this, but he continues to sweep and pushes aside all my words.
He is a janitor at my middle school. If I see him wheeling his yellow bin, his mop in one hand, I quickly turn into another hallway. After a boy vomited in my classroom, my grandfather came, wheeling his bin. He didn’t look at me. “Thanks, Mathew,” my teacher said as he left. My grandfather grinned, and there was a laugh behind his teeth. His name is Muthu.
When we walk further down the boardwalk, girls pass us wearing bikini tops, their feet naked in flip-flops. One girl in an algae-green swimsuit stands by the railing and lifts a polished conch shell key-chain to the sun. The light warms her face. She slicks back her wet hair, the sea salt dry on her skin, and I can smell the ocean on her. My chest tightens and I look down at my soda.
Near us, a small child grabs her mother’s dress and screams for a panda bear hanging from a stall. The woman keeps walking, her eyes ahead, even when her daughter stops in the middle of the boardwalk, points behind her, and cries in long unbroken breaths.
“Ungrateful,” my grandfather says and grunts.
He lets me buy a funnel cake, and we sit on a bench, where the seagulls have settled. He is sweating heavily and presses my soda to his head. He smiles at me before he drinks.
“Do you think you will ever go back to Sri Lanka?” I ask. It’s something I wanted to ask for a while, but it comes out all wrong because I meant to say we.
He snorts. “I only travel in here.” He taps his skull.
Last year during the ceasefire, my mother asked him if we could make a trip back home, and he looked at her like he might kill her.
My grandfather sets a clock nine and half hours ahead, so when he falls asleep, he drifts across the ocean and starts his day in Colombo. He doesn’t talk much about his life in Sri Lanka before the war, only after, as if in 1983 when everything ended for some Sri Lankan Tamils is when his life begins. He reads articles online and stays up talking to other Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. I know all about the Tigers with their cyanide capsules and the white vans that kidnap people off the streets of Jaffna. When my grandfather described how soldiers murdered a whole Tamil family in Batticaloa while they slept, my mother told him I was too young to hear such things. “Boys as young as him are forced to fight in this struggle,” he said. “The least he could do is hear what is happening.” Last year during the ceasefire, my mother asked him if we could make a trip back home, and he looked at her like he might kill her.
There is another Sri Lankan kid in my class, David. But he’s a Burgher with Dutch ancestry, blue-eyed and so white he turns red on touch. The girls love him. After a trip to Sri Lanka with his parents, he brought back pictures to show the class. In one picture, a lady hung her child’s clothing from a banyan tree, and the wind carved the shape of a body into the fabric. Tanya raised her hand and said the pictures looked gorgeous, and they were. But I didn’t see any of the Sri Lanka my grandfather spoke of. My grandfather had once lied and told me there were Komodo dragons on the island. One lick from the creatures, and you’re dead. When I asked David about them, he laughed. What island are you talking about? Atlantis?
I toss pieces of funnel cake at the birds and watch how they fight and gobble for the crumbs.
“I want to see Sri Lanka,” I say, my voice low.
“Nothing to see,” he says and stands and tosses the drink in the garbage. I think of my grandfather’s house in Colombo with the grand verandah and the winding staircase my mother described. It was burned down during the riots—along with everything we loved, my mother told me. Her eyes reached back for me, holding on, like when I catch her watching me and my brother running around the backyard, her face clear and pure with a feeling of only us.
Later, my grandfather and I go to a small arcade attached to a diner. On screen, I watch a boy drive a red Ferrari into incoming traffic. The car bursts into flames and when he plays again, he dies with the same fury. A waitress asks me if my father is doing okay and points at my grandfather, who sits bent over a table with his head in his hands.
“Because if he needs an aspirin,” she says, “you just let me know. This heat can make your head go funny.” She wears dark lipstick and purple eye shadow. Her nametag says her name is Sally.
My grandfather wants some coffee before we head to the beach. He is tired. I sit beside him as he pours cream and two teaspoons of sugar into his cup.
“Show me your hand,” he says.
I open my hand, still sticky from my soda.
“These two lines,” he says and touches the tip of my fingers, “means you have a healing touch.”
“Healing touch,” I repeat.
“It means you’ll make a good doctor.”
I don’t remind him of the report cards filled with Bs and Cs I have made him sign off on. Or how he dropped me home after I fainted seeing a classmate run into a basketball pole and his mouth filled with blood.
“Let me see your hands,” I ask.
He doesn’t move so I open his closed hand, peeling each finger like a petal.
“You have them too.”
He nods like he hadn’t noticed.
“Ammappa, maybe you should be a doctor.”
He didn’t even tend to the wound until my mother, a nurse, saw his thumb during dinner and raced him to the hospital.
He closes his hand. “No, no,” he laughs. “I fix chairs, plug leaks, a different kind of healing.”
He has worked as a janitor for nearly twenty years. I saw him hammer a nail into his thumb and continue working until he finished hanging a series of portraits on the auditorium wall as he clutched a bloody napkin. He didn’t even tend to the wound until my mother, a nurse, saw his thumb during dinner and raced him to the hospital.
My grandfather stands up, leaves some change on the table, and makes his way to the entrance. Sally looks up from the counter and says, “Have a good day.” I watch as my grandfather nods and walks away, his feet shuffling on the boardwalk and his shoulders bent forward as if pushing a yellow bin.
On the boardwalk, I see the girl in the green suit again. She sits on a stool and waits for a churro. Her ponytail sways from side-to-side, swinging to the beat of my heart: Ar-Jun-Ar-Jun.
When we reach the opening for the beach, a poster displays the costs for entering, ten dollars for adults, five for children, and my grandfather shakes his head and turns back in the direction of the car. I wonder if he has forgotten how the beach works or if my mother always took care of it so he never noticed.
“Who wants to pay to see the beach?” he says and holds my shoulder like a cane. “When I was a boy, I had a whole coast to myself. I have never paid for a beach.”
His words break off like pieces of the sun: they burn through me. I’m angry with him. I remember the nickel and two dimes he had once given me for a tooth. “Not worth much,” he had said and tapped on the metal filling. “Cavity lessens the price.”
“It’s hot, Ammappa,” I yell, and feel people on the boardwalk turn, even the girl in the green suit. She reaches over for the boy next to her, her mouth at his ear, her eyes on my grandfather and me. We must look strange moving around like a single being with his hand against my shoulder, his shadow replacing my own. His head is still turned toward the parking lot, and when I hear him say, “Ungrateful,” something inside me sags and I start stabbing the air between us, cursing at him. I know the girl and boy must be watching.
“Stop this, Arjun,” he says and keeps walking. I turn away and run down the boardwalk and push through the crowd. I don’t think he’ll follow me, especially with his bad leg, but halfway through the boardwalk, I stop and lean on the metal railing separating the beach from everything else, and look back.
The heat is killing me, so I take off my shirt and tie it around my arm like a bandage, picturing myself as a child soldier injured in battle and dying, and my grandfather stumbling across my corpse that’s too hot to even touch.
I wait for someone to stop me, but no one comes.
Next to me a seagull shakes its feathers and screeches. Before I can even tell it to shut up, the bird flies down to the shore.
The beach is only a six-foot drop from a bed of flat rocks that lie beneath the boardwalk, and looking around, I make my decision quick. Before anyone passes, I jump over the railing. My hands get scraped from gripping the rocks.
I wait for someone to stop me, but no one comes. I stroll past bodies that up close look fried orange and hot, and I stand where the water hits the shore. A wave pushes forward, the trash in the wet sand lying still and breathless.
A boy wearing big sunglasses pushes in front of me along with a group of kids, all around the age of my little brother. They squat and hold their knees, letting the water wash over them. When the wave reaches me, it’s warm as piss. Somehow this is worse, because now my grandfather is right. This trip hasn’t been worth it.
When the boy stands up and spits, his face is bare and his small eyes search the water, squinting against the sunlight. I can see the fear brighten and finally grip his face when a man with his chest crawling with hair calls out to him in a language I don’t understand. They both share the same vase-like body shape, though the man is older, his belly tipping over.
The only photograph I have seen of my grandfather as a young man is a black-and-white snapshot of him somewhere along the coast of Sri Lanka. He is barefoot, holding a fish almost a third of his size. I was disappointed to see he looked nothing like me. But mostly I wanted to see myself in another place, where I knew the water would be clear and cool, and if I looked down, I would see my toes. I know it’s impossible to miss a place I’ve never visited.
I walk to the abandoned side of the rock hill and take out the Altoids container. I pick up a slender cigarette, place it between my teeth, and light the end the way my grandfather does. Immediately I cough into the sand, ash sprinkling. My chest burns, but I smoke that cigarette to the tips of my fingers until I can no longer breathe until I know what fire tastes like.
When I return to my grandfather’s car, he is sitting nearby under a tree, facing the ocean he can’t see, the view hidden behind a sand dune. I sit beside him, smelling of smoke.
We listen to the churn of water moving closer and closer. He mentions his friend Selvakumar again. How the British had brought Selvakumar’s great grandfather from southern India to work the plantations of Ceylon, to soak tea leaves with his sweat and blood. When independence arrived, it was not a beginning but an end. “They said Selvakumar was not Sri Lankan,” my grandfather says. “He had to leave.” He speaks of an injustice preserved in his memory like all those lines of poetry he can’t forget. I look at him, the awful shape of his bitterness.
My grandfather begins to sing again, but quietly. Desire is like a wave and we’re all riding it.
I answer him by singing along with him. Stretch the words long to carry everything I can’t say; pushing endlessly to a distant shore, where he waits, where I would find him.
We sit in that shade long past when the meter expires and the beach has emptied.