My Rubber Uncle

Kase Johnstun

My grandma’s wit took shape in language. She blended ass, shit, damn, and hell into her everyday life like she blended pork and chilies together in her hands. She turned ass, damn, hell, and shit into creative quips, admirations, and words of affection.

If she were to drop something on the floor or stub her toe on the corner of the cabinet, she’d say, “Damn it all to hell!”  She didn’t just damn it to hell—the thing she dropped on the floor or the corner of the cabinet—she felt obliged to damn it all to hell, not sparing any part of the world around her—in most cases the whole state of Utah.

If Grandpa pissed her off on purpose, she yelled, “You ass.” She never just said, “Ass.” She used the word “you” to point it directly at him, “You ass.” When “horse’s” got tacked onto “ass,” she was not joking around anymore. “You horse’s ass,” meant for him to “Get the hell out and back into his garage.”

The word shit, however, was her favorite—used most often and most creatively. Shit was her fallback, her old-reliable, her syntactically versatile super word.

If she got the queen of spades in Hearts, she yelled, “Shit the bed!” She’d slap down her cards onto the round, brown table. Shit by itself is just a word, but “shit the bed” is an unbreakable image.

Like she saved ‘‘You ass,’’ and ‘‘You horse’s ass,’’ for Grandpa, she saved ‘‘You little shit,’’ for her grandchildren, especially for us boys. She added the extra adjective to define what size of shit you were. You were a little shit, not big enough of a problem to be a horse’s ass—just a tiny shit, one that would just stain a little.

Jake stole an extra tortilla—‘‘You little shit!’’

Kelly walked in with muddy shoes—‘‘You little shit!”

Little Jonny got his girlfriend pregnant, again—‘‘You little shit!”

I graduated college—“You smart little shit!”

And she loved the word “honky.” “Oh, those honkies don’t know what a tortilla is,” although, ironically, her favorite Mexican restaurant in Ogden was owned and operated by Armenians. She liked their greasy fried shrimp.

She walked away from school in sixth grade. The poor border town of Trinidad, Colorado, sat near the local Indian Reservation, and it was in the home and on the barely surviving ranches where her wit developed, not between the pages of books. 

Grandpa made us laugh when we got to their house, but grandma got us there. Grandpa would dance and sing and tell jokes. Grandma would cook and swear and laugh. The Cordova clan, full of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren waited for the first chicharone to pop out of the frying pan. We waited for grandma to laugh, and when she did, we all did. She made miracles. Like the loaves and the fishes, she could whip up tons of food if extra guests showed up, and there would be leftovers. To me, she walked on water, and miraculously at the age of eighty, my grandma had a new baby. There was no newspaper coverage of the event or visits from local TV show-hosts. To the Cordova clan, however, it was definitely news, and it spread quickly over the Cordova hotline. Phone calls were made, and events were planned.

One afternoon, the phone rang in my small apartment in Salt Lake City. The call carried The Word. The Cordova champion swimmers, sperm, dominated the news of The Word. Marriage, no marriage, diploma, no diploma, named partners, not-named partners, we are a fertile crew. Fertile as the Garden of Eden and just as precocious as the snake; we may be, but when grandma brought home a rubber baby of her own, we weren’t surprised. Grandma’s mind had finally gone.

The new baby, with his round, smooth, and glossy head and perfect complexion that lacked the bruises and redness of most newborns, announced the inevitable burning out of our star—dusk had arrived. A clothed doll without moving lips yelled the truth. 

His pursed lips stayed round and ready to suckle for tit or bottle, and his cute, tiny hands remained flexed, ready to grasp my grandma’s finger when she placed it in the palm of his tiny hand. He lay, quiet and still and warm and rubbery, all day in my grandma’s arms. He was cradled and cooed, like all of us who preceded him, for the first few months of his life. And I hated him.

“It never leaves her side,” my mom said over the phone. Her voice cracked on the line, half-sarcastic and half-frightened.

I quoted my grandpa and tried to lighten the situation, “Cordovans impregnate with saliva.” Mom didn’t laugh. Her non-responsiveness hurt me in a previously unmapped place in my chest, a place reserved to ache for those who you love and who you know have gone crazy and who you know are going to die soon.

Grandma had found the doll in a pile of old toys and clung to it immediately. My mom tried to steal the doll. Her theft bombed. My grandma fought to get it back. My mother returned home after each kidnapping attempt with migraines that bent her over the toilet with nausea and sent her to bed without dinner. Her daily walks became weekly walks, and her eyes began to darken. Dementia showed me how much a tiny, rubber honky doll can weigh. Damn it all to hell.

I avoided family gatherings and created excuses to avoid my new rubber uncle. The 30-mile trip from Salt Lake City to Ogden usually only took about 23.4 minutes, but an imaginary wall had been put up between my apartment and grandma’s house, and it could not be scaled. I used excuses about too much work and too much time needed with my new girlfriend. The excuses were bullshit. My parents knew it. I was lost in a façade of anger, fists up, prepared to fight the truth, and willing to avoid my grandma to do it. Be it immaturity, or fear, or selfish narcissism, I avoided her.

My grandparents were two of my best friends. I spent more weekends with them than with my friends. Friends wanted McDonald’s. I wanted fried lard and dough. Age did not scare me. Dementia did. To walk into her house meant facing it dead on, and that seemed like a really bad idea.

That 20-something-year-old boy who avoided his grandma’s house was selfish because he didn’t want to visit his grandma in her home, a home full of some of his most favorite childhood memories—nights of Spades, mornings of egg hunts, afternoons of sopapillas—and selfish because he didn’t want to see the rubber doll in his grandma’s arms. He preferred the memories of long hugs, the rubbing of her feet for an Indian nickel, the multitudes of evenings watching John Wayne movies next to her bed, or the hot summer nights picking chilies with her in her garden. That young man decided the spots for those last memories were reserved, and he was not going to take the RESERVADO sign down.

 I learned to be stealthy from my mom. If her in-laws showed up on our door step, my mom would disappear into some quiet place in our house. When the check came after dinner and her patience for waiting had waned, POOF, gone; she would be sitting in the car peering through the windshield at my father while he paid the check. On nights my friend and I snuck out, we tiptoed quietly through the neighborhood to a friend’s house. Her car would be parked in the driveway waiting for us.

She knew the tricks and saw her son tiptoeing around pain. Like those nights we snuck out, my mom would eventually hunt me down, coerce me with guilt, and push me from the wading pool of denial into the deep end of acceptance of grief.

She’d make me face the situation. She knew what tools to use against me. She knew that if she pushed me into a corner of guilt, I wouldn’t fight my way out against the thought of hurting my grandma. She also knew how few days my grandma had to live. She saw her dwindle from a healthy, full-bodied, older woman to the tiny frame of a woman she didn’t recognize. She understood our connection, and even if I didn’t get it yet, she knew the reasons I had to see the skeletal version of my grandma before she died.

One Sunday afternoon, I sprawled out on my parents’ couch and waited for my laundry to dry. My dad and I watched football. Mom cooked in the kitchen. It was nice. I was comfortable. The Broncos were winning.

“Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I need some eggs. Grab some from her fridge. They should still be there; Grandpa neglects to cook anything but toast,” Mom said. Then she walked out of the living room. She didn’t look back for a response. “Go. She’s expecting you,” she yelled from the kitchen.

“Mom, that’s low,” I said. “That’s sneaky.” A whine from childhood was resurrected, one none of us had heard in years, stretching out at the end like a young boy’s voice. 

“You’ve already ditched,” she said.

“I don’t want to go see her with that baby,” I said.

“Kasey.” She glared at me. “She’s still your Gramma,” she said. She pressed her fists into her hips and stared directly at my eyes.

“Well, then come with me,” I said. The fear cracked in my voice. The worst had circled in my mind for the past month. The worst painted my grandma acting stark raving mad and standing in the middle of her home in the center of a pile of dolls with her hair ratted up all crazy-like and a baby formula stained shirt covering her chest.

“Act like a man. You don’t need your mother to hold your hand,” Dad said from the couch. “Just go over and see your grandma. She’s fine.” My dad knew to challenge my manhood. Arguing with mom could easily have taken up all the time until dinner hit the table, and then there would be no time to see crazy grandma and my rubber uncle. But after my dad’s challenge, my feet swung off the couch, carried me out the front door, and walked slowly down the long black-top driveway.

Midway through the walk, the thought of opening grandma’s front door and seeing her, in her chair, with that fucking rubber baby on her lap instead of a Stephen King novel, anchored my feet to the blacktop. Every stomach nerve clenched. The nerves now held onto my insides, a feeling unlike a bad stomach ache, more like tiny inserted knives. Since owning a driver’s license, stomach issues brought on by nervousness had made me pull to the side of the road before interviews, dates, or presentations. On the blacktop road that day, I had to walk to the side of the ditch that lined the road and stop to calm my stomach—while heading to my second childhood home.

The road to grandma’s house sped by when I was a kid. Grandma’s ditch had a tiny, concrete inlet that was closed off by grandpa’s makeshift, removable plywood slit. When the slit was in the inlet, holding the water back, I tiptoed across it and imagined a giant canyon beneath me and masked marauders behind me. If the slit was out, I jumped the ditch and landed smack in the middle of grandpa’s full garden that was lined with perfect rows of corn stalks and tomato plants and chili plants. I ran through the corn, dug up dirt with my heals, jumped down into the grass, ran toward grandma’s door, and gave it my best effort to jump to the top of all four AstroTurf-covered concrete steps without touching a step between ground and top. I flung the door open, gave grandma a huge hug, and sat down just to bullshit.

“You little shit, you scared me,” she’d say. 

That afternoon, I dragged the walk out. Each heel-to-toe strike on the pavement slowed the pace. A random rock turned into an impromptu soccer match with a squirrel. A flower created a moment of sentimentality—oh what a pretty ragweed or oh what a beautiful dandelion. A car conjured images of a thumb in the air and a quick getaway, but in Utah the driver would try to convert me. I’d rather meet my new rubber uncle than talk about The Church. It took ten minutes to reach the ditch outside my grandpa’s garden and another ten to make it to her front door. The mid-length corn stalks of mid-summer didn’t stand tall enough to block the view of the house.

Years back, grandma would walk the rows and examine the tomatoes and corn one piece at a time for ripeness. Her hands held one tomato up to show me how plump and red they needed to be, or how the color of the husks should turn a slight yellow at the tip but be green and ripe throughout the rest of the ear, “The crunchy ones on the top make great fried corn.”

“They should look just like this, Kase, just like this. Take these ones home to your dad and mom. Your dad loves ‘em,” she said. Those tiny words, “Your dad loves ‘em,” revealed the thirty years she and my grandpa gave to my dad, a man practically exiled from his family by a bad relationship with his father. They brought him in, showed him the depth of love from family. Grandma’s grandchildren were extensions of that love, maybe a little yellow and crunchy on top but soft and green at the base.

She knew exactly when to pull the corn off the stock and precisely when to pluck the long skinny green and red chilies at their base – all would be prepared and canned for the winter birthday gatherings. “Your dad likes the salsa hot. That’s the only reason I grow the hot chilies. Grandpa and I don’t like them so hot. But your dad does.” She plucked a bright red chili and handed it to me. I grew to like my salsa hot too.

It’s not like she’s dead, I told myself that summer afternoon; my foot dropped down to the grass. Grandpa fiddled in the garage, and if he’d heard me, he’d come up with some kind of necessary chore that needed to be taken care of immediately. I have to eat in forty-nine minutes, I told myself—no time for work. I walked quickly to the door.

I leaped to the top of the stairs; years of habit lifted me, and I didn’t touch a single step. I felt a little pride about my jump. The pride lasted a nanosecond and the fear of the rubber baby resurfaced. “Chucky” waited. On the top of the AstroTurf-covered steps, my hand held the handle of the aluminum storm door, and I stalled.

After pulling the corn, grandma would make me shuck the green skins while I sat on the AstroTurf. I shucked them. I threw them. I got yelled at by grandpa to pick them up. “Pick up those damn strings. I’m always cleaning up after you idiots.” Every string needed to be found or he would find them, and he would bitch about them.

“Make sure you get all the stringy stuff before you bring them in and never mind that horse’s ass,” Grandma yelled from her kitchen through the window. I did my best, but every time I opened the door and carried a pile of cobs in to be boiled, she would just smile, all big-dentured, and dig her long nails into the creases of the kernels to pull out every last bit of silk.

I shucked the past from my mind and turned the handle to walk into the living room. Doilies hung from everything—couch chairs, mantles, other doilies. She had always knitted them between Cujo and Pet Cemetery. Her TV let off loud snippets of Alex Trebek. I yelled, “Gramma!” She must not have heard me the first time, so I yelled again, “Gramma, you in there?” The shouting into the bedroom from the kitchen made sure she was dressed.

“John?” she yelled back.

“No, it’s Kase, Gramma,” I shouted back to her. With her answer, worries became realities. She’d forgotten me. And walking back out the door was a valid option until she yelled again.

“Oh, Kasey, come back,” she said, in a familiar tone that eased the tense fingers knotted at the ends of my hands. Her tone pulled me through the winding hallway and gave me hope that I had caught grandma on one of her good days. On those days, grandma ate, and she had conversations. She hadn’t had many good days in the last year. The family had moved her into a nice assisted living facility next to my dad’s office. She wouldn’t speak to us when we visited and called us by names other than our own. The facility didn’t work out. She refused to eat there, refused to leave her room, and coerced my grandpa to steal her away.

I turned the corner into the bedroom and saw grandma propped up on a couple doily-covered pillows against the headboard. She held the perfect, glossy baby in her arms, wrapped in blankets with just its head uncovered. I walked over to hug her, but instead of wrapping her arms around me, she took one arm from beneath the doll and patted my shoulder like a buddy or coach would. Her eyes looked at me between hugs to the doll, but I can’t say she recognized me fully; a shadow of a grandson stood near her. I walked backward to the chair in the corner of her room, the chair we all used to drape over with our stinky teenage bodies and watch Walker Texas Ranger and drink sodas.

“He’s sleeping, let’s not wake him. He was cold, so I had to wrap him up,” she said. Then she looked away from my face and cooed the little boy in her arms. Her eyes were as glossy as the fake skin of her baby doll. She brushed her hand over its forehead and then tucked it back under the back of his body. She gently rubbed its cheeks with the backside of her hand, the exact motion she used when I would lie sick on her couch, when I would gag myself on purpose to get out of school, throwing up in the garbage outside religion class. She would use a touch technique to sense a fever, first the back of the hand to the cheek, next the palm to forehead, third, the back of the hand to neck, and finally the front of the hand to the belly. She’d cover me in her homemade afghans and rub Vicks below my nose and on my chest. She would check on me every five minutes, look to see if I had began to sleep, and silence anyone who entered the room. The smells of sopapillas, my favorites, crisped in the kitchen and awaited my open eyes. She sat on her comfortable perch and glanced at me if my eyes opened. “Go back to sleep, Kase. It will help.”

When she hand-checked the doll, my knees locked. I fell backward, straight-legged, into the chair behind me and sank into the plush green fabric. My heart sank with me, down into the dark cracks of loss. She continued to coo at the toy.

She swung the baby, glanced up intermittently, and talked to me about the boy. I nodded my head and said, “Okay.” I hadn’t seen dementia in my short life, and my conversational skills with someone who had it, especially someone who I adored so deeply, were very, very weak. The moment just seemed to grow but getting out of it seemed impossible, so I just sat and watched; sadness wrapped me.

But then, in the middle of the quiet room, my grandma looked up at me and her eyes saw me in the chair. The gloss disappeared from them.

“Kase, I know he’s not real. But I love him,” she said. Clarity filled her words, the clarity she spoke with a year earlier. The woman who assembled hundreds of puzzles with me on her giant table in the basement, the woman who knew the texture of every vegetable in her garden looked at me, and the woman who held her cards in her hand and picked up every trick in Spades to the amazement of everyone at the table talked to me. But as quickly as she had looked up at me and spoke, she disappeared back behind a glazed wall of indifference.

I asked her about her garden, but she just asked if I knew where her husband, John, was. She left again. She just cooed the baby. I gave her a hug around her shoulders and left.

Tiptoeing across the ditch, I looked back at her house and knew it would be the last time I saw her in it. She died a few weeks later with the rubber baby close to her. The rest of us stood near her and stared at her in the hospital bed. We took turns kissing her forehead and squeezing her hand. No one took the baby away. No one even moved it from her arms. Someone yelled at the doctor when he tried to. My voice was unrecognizable. 

Author Portrait

Kase Johnstun is an award-winning essayist, a columnist (TOP OF UTAH), and the author of Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis: An Inside View of Life Touched by the Congenital Skull Deformity (forthcoming from McFarland). His work has appeared nationally and internationally in journals and magazines such as Creative Nonfiction Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Label Me Latina/o, Prime Number, and he is a regular contributor to The Good Men Project.

View the website of Kase Johnstun