By Shifra Dayak
Tucking my hair behind my ears in preparation, I pull the first photo album off the pile next to me and pause examine the coating of dust that now covers my fingertips. Erin — birth to two years reads the hastily scrawled tag that’s stuck under the plastic flap on the cover. I recognize it as Mom’s handwriting and a wistful smile appears on my face. I’ve never really looked at any family pictures, it occurs to me as I run my finger over the tag. Two whole years of my childhood are finally emerging after having been packed into a worn brown book and hidden away in a basement cabinet among old school projects and power tools since ages ago.
I turn to the first page of the album and am met with a blurry photo of me two days after I was born, bundled up in a plush blanket. On page two, I see myself at a few months old, squirming and crying in Mom’s lap. The third page contains a two-year old version of myself grinning up at the camera, face plastered with chocolate crumbs. I flip through the album in silence, quietly smiling at some pictures and cringing at others. As I go through page after page, memories flood my mind — the rainy day when I made mud pies with my neighbor, the first time I tried peas, the moment my parents caught me squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste on the bathroom floor… Aside from my breathing and the occasional giggle when I come across a silly face or funny outfit, the rustling plastic of the album is the only sound in the room and a sense of tranquility settles over me.
But then on page 15, I notice something strange. At first glance, the picture seems like all the others in the album. A 1-year-old me grinning gleefully up at the camera, surrounded by colorful tissue paper and gift bags which I seemed to enjoy ripping up. But then I realize that next to my chubby face is a wrinkled hand. “Huh,” I mutter. “Not Mom’s hand… definitely not Dad’s hand…nobody else… ” I think aloud, puzzled.
But even more fascinating than the mysterious hand itself is the object it’s gripping. I’ve never seen it before. The dipping sun shining through the window above me makes it shine even more. It seems iridescent. Magical, almost.
A small glass elephant.
Just as I’m sliding the photo out of its plastic slot for further examination, I hear the sound of a door closing. Shoot, Dad’s home, I think in alarm as I slam the album closed and shove it back in the cabinet. I must have lost track of time. The last time Dad found me looking through our old stuff, there was lots of yelling. Lots and lots. I flip off the light and race upstairs, collapsing on the couch right as Dad walks into the living room.
“Hey, Erin,” he says absentmindedly, shuffling through the mail as he sits down in the armchair across from me.
“Hi,” I reply quickly, hoping he doesn’t notice my heavy breathing. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask about it. Instead, he just sits on the couch, ripping envelopes open while grumbling to himself about bills. After several awkward minutes of silence, I sigh and push myself off the couch and walk up to my room.
Ever since that terrible day when I was five, Dad doesn’t talk. I waited and waited for him to tell a joke or ask to spend time with me or tell a family story like he did when I was little, but it never came. At first it was, “What do you want for dinner?” And I kept waiting. Then it was, “How was school?” And I kept waiting. And then it was “Erin, I’m staying late at work today.” And still, I kept waiting. Now, it’s “I need to get that report to Gary,” or “Carmen is expecting those write-ups from me.” And I’m still waiting. But it won’t ever happen, I think to myself sadly as I slump onto my bed. I’ll just keep waiting and waiting and waiting but nothing will ever happen.
My earliest memories of Dad are filled with picnics and trips to the bowling alley on Lantern Street. He would roll all his balls into the gutter on purpose so I could win. His laugh used to come from the very bottom of his stomach and warm up the entire room.
But one day, he picked me up at school and his eyes, normally wrinkled around the corners from smiling, were reddened and blank. I don’t remember much from that day — I was little and probably preoccupied with thoughts of Sesame Street and coloring pages. All that’s left in my head is my confusion as he lifted me into his arms and whispered, “Mommy’s gone, sweetheart.”
I’m jolted out of my misery by Dad calling my name from downstairs. I haul myself off my bed and poke my head out into the hallway. “Yeah?”
He looks up. “I have a dinner meeting with some colleagues — there’s leftovers in the fridge for you. I’ll be back by 8:30. You good?”
“Yeah, sure,” I nod. “See ya,” I add over my shoulder as I retreat back into my room.
As soon as I hear the garage door rumble shut, I throw open my door and race down the stairs. I make my way to the basement, smiling at the prospect of extra time to decipher the case of the hand holding the elephant. It’s probably nothing, I tell myself. You’re just overthinking it because you don’t have a life and it’s the most exciting thing to happen in weeks. Still, I can’t help but list all the possibilities in my mind as I dig through the cabinet to find the photo album.
As I fish my hand around, I suddenly feel the corner of a box. I pull it out, expecting it to be an old English class diorama or something like that, but to my surprise, it’s filled with a jumbled mess of envelopes and letters. My eyebrows scrunch and all thoughts of the elephant fly out of my head as I pull the first piece of paper out of the box. My eyes land at the bottom. I can barely make out the signature, but after some squinting, I realize what it says. A short gasp escapes my throat and my eyes widen.
Startled, I scan the page until my eyes settle on the date at the top.
May 19, 2014
No. No. You’re just tired, Erin. It can’t be right. I shake my head vigorously in an attempt to rattle my brain back into place. I look at the letter again. It’s still there. The same name and the same date. I stare at it some more, trying to connect the dots. “But he’s… dead,” I finally whisper. Taking a shaky breath, I take the next letter out of the box. This one is still in the envelope. As I’m pulling it out, I notice the address in the left corner.
253 Sky Bend Way
Little Creek, Delaware 19901
I drop the envelope. I’m not a genius when it comes to having a sense of direction, but I know Little Creek is only a half hour away from where we live. I look down at the letter.
I’m not sure these are getting to you. I haven’t heard back at all. I know I haven’t seen you in several years, but just write back at least once. Or at least let me see Erin. She’s grown now — she doesn’t deserve to be kept from her family no matter how much you want her to live the same isolated life that you live.
My eyes keep moving across the page but I don’t register what they’re looking at. I’m too shocked. It’s real. They’re from Luke Purcell. My mother’s dad. My grandpa. The same Luke Purcell that had supposedly lived miles and miles from us when he was alive. The same Luke Purcell that Dad told me had died just a few months after Mom. After Dad gave me the news and said there wasn’t a funeral, we never uttered the word “grandfather” again.
I feverishly pull more letters from the box. There’s one from each month; they’re usually written on the 19th or 20th. The handwriting is the same on all of them. They’re all addressed to Dad. They all say some version of the same thing. And they’re all signed the same way — his first name and his last name, just barely legible.
I put my head into my hands and realize that a lump the size of a snow globe is in my throat. “He’s not dead,” I whisper. “He’s not dead. Dad’s been lying to me.” I feel a bead of sweat drip down my back, and think, I need some air. I gather up the letters and stuff them back into the box, slamming the cabinet door. It feels wrong, like I’m shutting a newly discovered person into the cupboard.
I stumble up the two flights of stairs, down the hallway, and into my room, where I pry open the window and collapse on my bed with my eyes closed. Fragments of the letters enter my brain and float around, replacing the blackness in front of my eyes.
I know you miss your wife but that’s no excuse to cut me out
Benjamin, tell Erin about me Erin needs to hear that you’re not the only one left
You need to understand that she’s my granddaughter, not just your child
At some point, I fall into a fitful sleep. The letters crowd my mind and make their way into my dreams, competing with my growing anger at Dad. No matter which way I shift, there’s an ever-present tightness, like someone’s hand is pushing down on my chest and making it harder and harder to breathe.
I crack open the door of the coat closet and rise onto my toes, grabbing the book from the top shelf. I bring it down to eye level and let out a nervous breath.
EAST KENT COUNTY WHITE PAGES
TOWNS OF LITTLE CREEK AND CAMDEN
The title screams up at me from the dog-eared cover. Out of habit, I stick a strand of hair in my mouth and start chewing on it; then, I crack each of my knuckles slowly. Finally, I open the book. I take my time, turning through the As, Bs, and Cs slowly. I can feel my chest tightening the same way it did last night. I slam the book closed. I can’t do it.
Erin, you have to. The elephant. The letters. You need to figure it out, I tell myself. Reluctantly, I flip the phone book open and go straight to the Ps, my heart quickening with every name. Parker, Pendleton, Perez, Pham, Pierson, Powell… Finally, on the sixth page of the P section, I find what I’m looking for. In tiny letters, so small you could miss them if you were being hasty, is my grandfather.
PURCELL, LUKE ——————————————————————————- 302-779-8253
The name looks strange. I gaze at it for a few seconds. Before I can chicken out, I run into the kitchen and grab the phone off the wall. I hit the green button and dial the number into the keypad. Only when I’m listening to the monotonous ring does it hit me that my leg is bouncing up and down and that I’m chewing on my hair again. Brrrrnnnng. Brrrrnnnng. Brrrrnnnng. Brrrrnnnng. “Bad idea,” I groan quietly. “Really bad idea.” I want to hang up and throw the phone far, far away, but something — fear, maybe, or anticipation — keeps it pressed to my ear.
“Hello?” I hear. The voice startles me. I was expecting it to be hoarse and grumbly, but it sounds pleasant. Youthful, almost. I don’t say anything. I can hear myself breathing through the phone. “Hello?” repeats the voice. I’m still quiet. Say hello, Erin. Just say hello, I tell myself. “Now see here, I don’t know who you are, but if you’re just going to call and not say anything, you might as well—”
I interrupt him before he finishes. “Grandpa, it’s me,” I say quietly, my voice cracking. There’s a pause. The faint sound of construction from outside fills my ears and mixes with the drumbeat of my pounding heart.
“Who’s speaking?” he finally asks.
I take a deep breath. “It’s me. Your granddaughter. Erin.”
After what seems like years and years of silence, he finally responds. “You found them.” He’s quiet and sounds oddly calm.
“Yeah,” I whisper. “In the basement. In a box.”
“Your dad put them there so you wouldn’t find them.” It sounds like a statement, not a question.
I answer it anyway. “Yep.”
He clears his throat but doesn’t say anything.
Talk, Erin, I scold myself. Breathing in, I realize that my galloping heartbeat has slowed to a canter. “I’m sorry,” I manage to whisper. “I don’t know how to do this. It’s just so… weird.” I pause and then sigh. “I know this is strange for you too,” I say as my voice cracks. “Please just say something.” I drop my face into my hand, only to realize that my cheek is damp. Sweat. No, tears. Maybe both.
He doesn’t respond, but I can hear him breathing on the other side of the phone.
After another eternity of waiting, he speaks up. “I don’t want to jump into this,” he says simply. “I know it’s a shock to you. But I think we should meet in person. I don’t want you to have to wait for years again. You can say no. But I don’t want to be kept from you know that you’ve found the letters.”
“Yes,” I blurt out, surprising myself. What the heck? I immediately think. Where did that come from? But for some reason, I don’t regret it.
He seems relieved. “Are you busy on Sunday? There’s a park near my house. There’s usually some kids playing around, but it’s pretty quiet. We could meet there. 6:30, maybe?”
I should probably say no. It’s too soon, I think. But right away, I shake my head. I can’t tell him I don’t want to meet him. I’ll take a chance, I decide. When I open my mouth, my voice is shaky. “I’ll be there,” I say before I change my mind yet again. “Sky Bend Way, right?”
“Okay.” I’m about to hang up the phone when he says my name.
He seems hesitant. “Erin?”
“Thank you. And I’m sorry that I didn’t reach out first. I should have.”
I lied to Dad about where I was going. I know he would have been furious if I told him I’ve found Grandpa, so instead, I pretended I was going to Julianna’s house for dinner. Then I ran out the door before he could ask me any questions or look close enough to see my guilty expression. The bus ride here seemed weirdly short. I couldn’t wait. As soon as the bus pulled up to the park, I almost plowed two people over because I was so eager to get out.
But now, scanning the green soccer field that’s scattered with eight-year-olds in orange jerseys, it’s different. There’s a knot in the pit of my stomach, and no matter how much I gulp, it won’t go away. My eyes wander around the perimeter of the field, and I spot a man sitting on a bench. His hair is white and he’s dressed in a striped button-down shirt and slacks. My breath catches in my chest. That’s him. I hesitate for a moment, but my feet propel me toward the bench.
I approach him and cough to catch his attention. He turns his head sharply, and I realize that his eyes look exactly like Mom’s. “Hi,” I whisper. He doesn’t say anything at first and a sense of nervousness overtakes me. What should I do? I wonder. Just as I’m about to open my mouth and make a comment about the weather or the ride here or something stupid like that, he stands up.
“You look just like your mom,” he says as he smiles softly.
I let out a sigh I didn’t even know I’d been holding, and the tension in my shoulders fades away. “Really?” I ask quietly.
He nods. “For a second, I thought you were her.”
I don’t say anything, but a tiny smile slips onto my face.
“She loved elephants, you know,” he chuckles. “Your name means elephant in Yoruban, actually. She came up with it when she was volunteering in the Peace Corps in Nigeria. She called me and your grandmother one evening and announced that when she had a daughter, her name would be Erin.”
I try to respond, but I’m too overwhelmed to do more than nod slowly. I feel strange. Fuller, I think. It’s almost as if a missing piece of myself is slowly rebuilding itself. I dig my shoe into the ground and wait for him to say more, but he doesn’t. Instead, he just reaches into his pocket. My heartbeat quickens again, mixing with the sound of the soccer game in the background. Here it is, I think. The reason I’m here in the first place. When he pulls his hand out, I recognize the object he’s gripping right away. He’s still silent as he reaches out his hand. I reach mine out in return and take the object, looking at it in awe.
It seems iridescent. Magical, almost. As I close my hand around it, my grandfather’s fingers touch mine, and just for a second, I’m transported back to the photo on page 15 of the album. My tiny hand, now a little bigger. His wrinkled hand, now a little more wrinkled. And the elephant, glass still gleaming brightly after 14 years, keeping my family together.