Grandma Chen’s finger creaked when she turned the pages of the lease. She was 103 years old, but could pass for 90, and her fingers had only recently begun creaking.
She pushed the contract across the table to her prospective tenant. He looked like the Jacob she’d known as a child, and the Jack she’d known as a young woman, and that was the way of it. Time deformed the lenses of her flesh’s eyes and her mind’s eye both, till the faces blurred together. Men with blonde hair, blue eyes, strong chins and high cheekbones—they all looked the same.
He pushed the contract back to her, his name signed as Jake Depodian.
Her wrist creaked when they shook hands.
“I can take him,” said eager Great-Granddaughter June, who seemed to think her fresh degree in business administration meant more than 80 years of experience.
“Fetch me my cane,” said Grandmother Chen.
It was one of the nicer apartments. Two bedrooms, one quite large, a substantial sitting room and kitchen, an extra closet, and a bathroom that included a bath. The balcony had space to host half a party.
Granddaughter June, who was practicing her flirting—it needed practicing, thought Grandma Chen—asked what he did for a living. Jake said he worked from home, “via the computer.”
There was a discussion as to what damages would result in the safety deposit being kept. He wanted to put up shelving for his books, and hang many pictures.
That made Grandma Chen ask, feeling foolish as she did, whether he bore any relation to a Jacob Drimmer.
A moment of surprise, then recognition and undisguised pleasure. “Chianti?”
“No, I don’t want any wine.” She left with the three-legged gait of an old woman with a cane, but her heart skipped like a little girl playing hopscotch.
The next day she checked in on him, and found several children of the complex, sitting at the dinner table, and doing their homework with unnatural cheer. Jake was at the stove flipping pancakes as the children lobbed questions at him. He replied with questions of his own, questions which would make the answer obvious if they cared to think.
The door was propped wide open so anyone passing through the hall could see in, and the lights were LEDs, but otherwise, it was exactly a scene from her childhood.
Greta saw her standing in the door. “Grandma Chen!” A chorus of “Grandma Chen” from the other children.
She’d had six children (three now deceased) who’d given her 19 grandchildren, 42 great-grandchildren, and 11 great-great grandchildren, with many more on the way. But these were just the kids from the apartment complex she owned. At times she gave them candy or toys, but more often clothing and school supplies, when they needed it. She told them stories when they kept from wriggling long enough. For that they called her grandma, as, it sometimes seemed, did half the city. She couldn’t go shopping without 30 people greeting her so, and half of them she didn’t recognize.
She smiled at them and walked on, leaning harder on the cane, for she was feeling weak in the knees.
She went to see him late the next morning, intending to expose her senility before the children got back from school. She knocked, and the door was opened by a beautiful, mussy haired young woman with glowing cheeks, buttoning up a white dress shirt that was much too big for her.
It had always been that way with Jack. Women arriving just after the children left, and leaving just before they came. She’d been one of them for a time, but had never been clear how he went about meeting them. She’d run into quite a few, and had managed mostly to not be bothered by it, since she’d known his ways from the start.
But the other woman had never been her great-Granddaughter June, who turned red as a pepper. “Grandma. I was just asking Jake about-”
“Do you think I don’t know the look in your eyes? I was young once. And very well. He’s good for a bit of harmless fun. But no more than that. He’s not the serious sort.”
“He’s a good man.”
“Which is why he’s made it clear he’s keeping it light. You do otherwise and you’ll have only yourself to blame for your heartache. Now leave.”
Granddaughter June rushed back in, then rushed back out carrying her things, but still wearing Jake’s white dress shirt.
Grandma Chen went in. “Sex with women, tutor children. Sex with women, tutor children. You’ve hardly changed.” She felt foolish.
“Pardon?” He handed her a cup of coffee, with no sugar, but a dollop of buttermilk instead of cream, just as he’d always given her.
“You seem very like someone I once knew.”
He shrugged. “There can only be so many different types of people. In a 100 years, wouldn’t you meet a few types twice?”
“You’re not stealing the children’s youth, like some vampire?” She laughed as if she were joking, but he responded as if she weren’t.
“Steal youth? How? I might as well try to steal cold or hunger or darkness. There’s nothing to take.” That was all he would say on the matter, so she changed the subject.
“It’s not enough to keep the door open,” she said. “Not anymore. To tutor children, you must have company.” She waited with him till the children came, and when they did, watched him and them like a hawk. He worked especially with Min and Jose on their English, speaking to them at times in Cantonese and Spanish, respectively.
She remembered Jacob Drimmer working with her on her English till she spoke it better than her native classmates. She remembered, years later, Jack Demagio, whom she’d at first taken for the same person, somehow unaged, lamenting with her that she wasn’t going to college.
Jake called her Chianti, and the children told him to call her Grandma Chen. He did, then laughed till he cried and wouldn’t explain to the children why. The whole time she wondered whether this was dementia. She had heard delusions and paranoia could be a part of it.
Min, who, after two years of working with the school speech therapist, still said half her “th”s’ as “s”s’ recited without incident the whole of Theophilus Thistle. Grandma Chen had struggled with that as a girl.
“Sat’s a good boy,” said Grandma Chen to Jamal, who usually struggled so hard to keep his brain in one place, but was now at his math with laser focus. All the children were dutiful. Their faces hadn’t changed, but their speech and comportment seemed so much more mature than only a day before.
As a young girl, both her mother and a man named Jacob had taught Grandma Chen to pay attention, a lesson she would’ve learned on her own anyway. So she didn’t need any help to notice that her fingers weren’t creaking. She got up to go the restroom, and her back was not so bowed. She walked with more ease.
She faced the bathroom mirror. She looked old, but not ancient. Her wrinkles weren’t so deep, and she liked her wrinkles. There were strands of black in the gray of her hair. She went out to confront him once more, and he quickly offered her a chair. She took it. Jake was an adult after all, and her parents had raised an obedient child.
When the children left, the last one closed the door behind him. Jake locked the door, then came back and took her hand.
“You’ve bundled the years like a ball of twine, Chianti.” He took a deep breath. His hair flashed silver, and his laugh lines deepened into wrinkles. A breath later, he was 25 again. “What a life you’ve lived.”
She mumbled something back. She hardly knew any English yet.
“Meeting you again feels like fate. One of my favorites.” He touched her cheek. The remaining wrinkles vanished, like ripples dying on a pond.
They say Grandma Chen didn’t so much die as crumble into dust, but whatever the case, her funeral was very well attended. Even that new fellow Jake was there, holding hands with his cute little niece.