I stepped out of my quarters, the familiar weight of the place pressing down on me. The scope of my assignment here was being expanded dramatically alongside the director’s growing regret of having me here. He was giving me free room and board in exchange for my expertise in criminal investigations; so far my service had been tested by a single case of stolen identity when one of our older guests had mistakenly ordered meal service using another’s account number. My pager was ringing more frequently and I was becoming more of a problem solver and less of an investigator. To be honest, I didn’t mind the extra work. I couldn’t very well sit in my quarters for the rest of eternity waiting for one of us to become a murder victim. Even if that did happen, the pool of potential suspects would already be artificially limited to the 144 souls who lived down here in the Nest. It gave me a chance to meet everyone here, as well as find out how many doors my neat little swipe card would really open in this place. I had a feeling it wouldn’t open them all.
I have my grandfather’s ears. I was sitting in the barber’s chair when I noticed this today. He had enormous ears. I remember his massive ear lobes hanging from the sides of his head next to his gray hair that he still styled like he was a young soldier. High and tight, short sides faded up to a waxed and parted top.
My ears look like my head is shrinking. Apparently my ears keep growing while my head stays the same size. I remember learning something like this in science class in high school. Your epidermis will always continue to grow as you get older. It’s the only part of us that does this. That’s why old people are covered in wrinkles and hanging jowls (which I’m also lucky enough to inherit from my grandfather). Sort of like the opposite of your eyes when you’re born. You eyes are the same size when you pop out of your mom as they will be when you’re forty.
He was my father’s dad. He used to pull quarters from behind my ears. I remember at family reunions he would be sitting at the piano (every house I remember visiting as a kid had a piano in the living room) and playing old tunes. Tunes that I never recognized but all the older people would sing along to as they drank their manhattans and whisky sours and vodka tonics. If he wasn’t playing the piano and leading singalongs he was blowing solos on his chromatic harmonic while my grandmother accompanied him on the keys.
One night my grandmother called the police for help. My grandfather had run out of the house in the middle of the night. He was wearing pajama shorts and a t-shirt. He was screaming about the people who were in his house. There were several of them and he didn’t recognize any them. The police arrived and spoke with my grandmother. They all gently walked my grandfather back inside and showed him that he and his wife were the only ones in the house. He went back to bed and forgot about it all.
I have my grandfather’s harmonicas now. They sit in a small pile in a cabinet that I keep next to my piano. I know the keys and the notes of the piano, but I never learned how to caress the keys like he did. I also don’t have the same charisma that my grandfather had. He was always able to convince even the most reluctant of aunts and uncles, cousins and kids to sing songs to which they barely knew the words. Often we just needed to be reminded that there’s comfort in company, that there’s an instant bond that can be formed when we all join in the shared discomfort of singing out loud. When you look around, awkward and unsure, and see that everyone has the same apprehension in their eyes, the shy smiles as the words come out in whispers at first before building in a crescendo of laughter and love. My grandfather could bring out that love in a room.
I remember going to their house for a barbecue as a little boy. I was a nervous and shy kid. I was cursed with sweaty silence at every social function. On that day my grandfather strode across the lawn to our Buick. I climbed out of the back seat and watched him coming over, a big goofy grin on his face. He wore a pastel polo shirt tucked into plaid shorts. They must not have sold athletic socks where he shopped because he always wore black dress socks which he paired with white leather loafers. When he reached up and pulled that big old coin from behind my ear he cut right through my anxiety and I knew I was going to make it through that visit.
Soon after that he would start to get angry. We stopped going to their house and I only saw him at my aunt and uncle’s house down the block. He would sit quietly on the sofa. Everyone would hover around him, watching him, waiting for something to happen, whispering to each other. He would sit there for hours with a confused scowl, his eyes darting around from face to face as he wondered who we all were.
Eventually my grandmother would show up pushing him in a wheelchair. He would be wearing gray pants and a sweater hastily buttoned. Brown shoes that fastened with velcro. His hair would be too long and unkempt. His hands shook constantly. I was terrified when my parents forced me to introduce myself to him.
My cousins took his place at the piano. Every so often my grandmother would play a tune or sing a duet with one of her sisters. The songs were different, from a younger era, and people stopped singing.
I have my grandfather’s ears and I’ve inherited his harmonicas. I’ve never mastered his charm though.
She gazes up at the red machine towering over her. Her mouth agape. Eyes unblinking. Ponytail hanging over her shoulders. Between trembling fingers she grips her quarter, careful not to let it slip. She holds it tightly to her chest. She watches the clear globe sitting atop the red machine. It is filled with smaller but to her still enormous globes of pink and blue and green and yellow and red. For only a moment she lowers her eyes to find that mysterious contraption she knows she must surrender her quarter to. Slowly she raises the quarter to the opening above the big silver dial and drops it into the slot. It fits perfectly.
Her eyes dart back up to the clear globe full of those colorful globes. She grips the dial and turns. She is hesitant at first, hoping that the pink one will fall, pleading to whatever god she knows, whatever power of will she can summon to find that pink ball of sweetness and beauty and let it fall away from all the others that just won’t do. She turns until she can’t turn any further. She resets her hand and finds a new grip and turns that dial with a renewed fervor and determination, passing through the clicks until there are no more clicks to pass. She clasps her hands together at the waist of her dress. Rattles and clicks echo from inside the machine, the heavy drop of the gumball as it is released from the clear globe and into the belly of the great red machine and navigates the mysterious course of tubes and turns and slides. She can hear the rolling gumball rolling towards her on that last ramp like a great shiny boulder down to the bottom of the machine. It bangs the inside of the metal trapdoor with a delicious weight.
The machine stands silent. She glances quickly up at me with wonder-filled eyes as she steps close to the machine. She cups one hand lightly underneath the trapdoor, lifts the little door with her other hand, and lets the sweetest, most beautiful little globe she has ever seen fall into her hand.