These are my grandparents, Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.
I don’t even know my grandmother’s real name. Everybody called her Sweetie—her family, the neighbors, the mailman. I’m pretty sure her mail said Sweetie. She may have looked like an old bag lady, she may have smelled like stale Old Golds and freezer-burned ham, but Sweetie had the soul of a swan. She was the loving driving force of our family, a tender locomotive, who drank twelve Hamms a day, popped Tums like Tic Tacs, and ate nothing (and I mean nothing) but Swanson frozen turkey dinners, scrupulously avoiding the peas and carrots. If Sweetie was a tender locomotive, Papa Owen was a runaway train. He was ten longshoremen trapped in a phone booth. He was fifteen Cossacks crashing a retirement banquet. Papa Owen had a little dance which he often performed on weekends, which led from the sofa to the bathroom. It was choreographed by Jerry Lewis and a fifth of bourbon, and went something like this: He would lift himself from the sofa, pirouette, trip over a chair, knock over a lamp, laugh, and fall flat on his face. He would then stand, stumble to the bathroom, and hurl the contents of his stomach into the sink. Encore performances would follow, in intervals, until he passed out.
My lifelong love affair with baths began at Sweetie and Owen’s house when I was just a runt. They had this metal contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner that you could stick in the bathtub. It would shoot out jet streams of hot water. It amounted to a portable, low-maintenance Jacuzzi. I would sit in the tub for hours. Every so often Papa Owen would stumble headlong into the bathroom to finish his dance. He would say: “Feels good on your little pecker, don’t it?” Then he would say: “Aaaawoooolka. . .pfff. . .pff. . . eeeeeeeyaaaaaalka. . .pfff. . .pfff.”
It did feel good on my little pecker.
The photo you see here is technically the only photo I have left of Sweetie and Owen—the only photo anyone has left of the two of them together. But there’s another image of them which is indelibly burned into my mind’s eye, an image which is nothing less than my grandparents’ story. The third act, anyway. In this other image, the one that no longer exists outside my mind, Papa Owen is slumped at the kitchen table with Sweetie, who is wearing her customary nightgown (agoraphobic, she never got dressed or left the house). Her hair is the wasted gold of a burnt lawn. It got that way from cigarette smoke. Her eyes are downcast. Not from wounded vanity, but from what appears to be a long preoccupation with something doomed and oppressive. Her hands are hidden beneath the table. You get the feeling she’s wringing them under there.
Papa Owen is seated to her right with one elbow propped on the table, which appears to be the only thing holding him up. He looks waxy, slightly transparent, embalmed. He’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is too tight at the arm pits. The collar was probably stiff once. Yet, somehow, Owen manages to make it look like a white shirt with no collar at all. He wears, as always, his elfin beard, coarse and wiry. On top of his beard sits a handlebar mustache which, like Sweetie’s locks, is tobacco stained. His hair looks unkempt but upon closer inspection one notices that it’s in fact combed. His eyes are beady, blue-gray, and laughing. Not the impish laughing eyes of mischief, rather the pointed laughter of a small but hard to swallow defeat. Still, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of determination in those laughing eyes that is only enhanced by his smile which, though half obscured by beard and mustache, seems clearly to have dirty jokes leaking out the side of it.
Taken together, these two venerable, slumping personages strike a balance that is not symmetry.
The kitchen is murky, but lighted just well enough to discern Owen’s shadow, though not Sweetie’s. Behind them, fastened to the faded floral wall paper above their heads is a bulletin board. There’s all manner of cards and papers fixed willy-nilly to it, although looking at Owen and Sweetie and the general state of things, it’s hard to imagine the significance of these artifacts.
They’ve just finished dinner. Owen has cleaned his plate. Sweetie’s plate, pushed to the side, is still half full. The table is riddled with dirty platters, coffee cups, a disproportionate number of forks, and a sticky bottle of salad dressing. In the very center of the table, the dramatic center of the photograph itself, as though it were placed there like a statement, is a heaping bowl of spent chicken bones and gristle.
I think about this picture often, and from time to time I hold it in my hand. Recent years and a number of circumstances have allowed me to penetrate this photograph in greater depth, to identify nuances so subtle as to be invisible to the outsider. And the more I am able to distinguish within this picture, the more I am haunted by that damn bowl of chicken bones.