He had figured it out. He had found a way to fit laughter into a bottle and trap it inside. My Grandfather did.
Throughout my childhood, every month without fail, my sisters and I would leave our city home for my Grandparents’ house. At dawn, my Father would storm into our rooms banging a wooden spoon on a cooking pot to jolt us awake, and we would leave to spend the day. My father would drive and speak to my mother, they wouldn’t make eye contact, my sisters would exchange stories about school, and I would look out at the greenery and wonder if anyone lived among the trees. I’ve always done that.
My Grandmother would greet us at the door, kneeling as low as her fatigued body would allow, to embrace us and, when our parents weren’t looking, slip a thin strip of sweet licorice into one of my pockets; red for my sisters, black for me. “For later, Rola,” she would say to me, and wink trustingly. She stopped doing that as we got older. We would eat our smuggled treasures on the drive back home. My Grandfather would be sitting on his rocking chair on the edge of his room, a tattered plaid cushion buffering his back from the wood of the frame. And he would show us the bottle.
He had the bottle in a leather bag beside him, and when we pleaded for him to show it to us; he would slide his hands into the bag and pull it out. He would look into our eyes as he did. He would cover it with both hands so the contents weren’t visible. He’d tap the bottle gently, like he had rehearsed doing that, and, still looking deep into our eyes, he would say, “Its awake now.” He never told us what it was, nor where he found it, nor how he managed to trap it in the bottle, but he did tell us that in order to know what it is, we would have to do what it wants. He would pull the bottle closer to his ear, and listen for the instructions. Then he would pass them onto us.
“This is how I speak to it,” he would say. “It understands that.” He laughed.
One time it wanted my younger sister to pluck a flower out of Grandmother’s small collection of pots and sneakily slip it into my mother’s purse. And once it wanted me to tell my mother that, “for no other reason than it being true, I think she is a wonderful person.” Another time, it wanted my older sister to hug my father. They laughed. We would eagerly do all of that on the hope that we would get to see what was inside the bottle, and every time we did my Grandfather would say, “Not yet, it wants more.” We never did find out what was in the bottle, and we eventually grew disinterested.
Even after I left for college, I didn’t lose touch with my Grandfather. I would write him two letters a month, and he would return every one of them. My Grandfather never really could operate computers, so we used the post. I would mail the letters to him on weekends, and in doing that I befriended the clerk at the post office, Ameer. Reading my Grandfather’s letters, I would imagine him writing them on his rocking chair, knowing that, for a time, I was all he thought about.
He would, as conversationally as if I were sitting across the room from him, tell me about his life. He would detail his other grandchildren’s, my younger sister’s two daughters’, monthly visits: how he showed them the bottle, how he found it endearing when they upset a shelf and broke two of his crystal figurines, how little Nora wept with guilt afterward, and how he held her tight and whispered in her ear until she calmed and came to, and how he wouldn’t let go of her until she smiled and her eyes glistened. Sometimes and perhaps unintentionally, he would allude to the loneliness he felt in the old family house, how on some days he would half-expect my Grandmother to walk into the room, mug of coffee in hand. She never liked her coffee with cream. Leukemia when I was 16. She died on the nineteenth of April.
Three days ago, my sister called. He had died in his sleep the night before.
I drove to the old family house the next day. It was a cloudy day and, by the time I arrived, the rain had stopped. The lock on the front door was broken from when the police or paramedics kicked it in. The shattered remains of the lock were held in place by a yellow length of plastic loop. The house wasn’t as silent as I had expected. The rooms were awash with light from the opened windows. The melodies of songbirds fell inside. Somewhere a branch thrashed against a wall of the house and the sound if its indiscretion wafted in. I found a few plastic bags on the floor of the living room, and on the dining table were two cups of my Grandmother’s coffee set; cold, black coffee in them. One was half-consumed, and the other full and untouched. I walked into my Grandfather’s room. I sat on his bed. A creased suit hung on a wooden hook on the back of the door. Beside the bed, under the bedside lamp, was his leather bag. I reached for it and emptied out its contents on the bed. With a few clangs, out fell a lighter, a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses, and a glass vessel with a rubber lid. The glass vessel my Grandfather lovingly obscured from view all those weekend days we came to visit. I picked it up. It was empty. It had always been empty.