In the Attic – Alan Brickman

Whenever Steve visited his brother Benny in Chicago, Benny’s wife Cheryl, who never liked Steve, made him sleep in the attic. They had an extra bedroom, but that belonged to their daughter Barbara who was away at college and insisted that while she was gone, no one be let into her room, let alone sleep there. So, Steve was banished to the attic like some painful memory that Benny and Cheryl wanted to avoid by keeping it out of sight.

When Steve was first offered the mattress on the attic floor, he complained, “What am I, like Anne Frank, or something? In that case, make sure the Gestapo doesn’t know I’m here!”

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Cheryl roared. “That’s really offensive.” She turned to Benny, who was stifling a laugh, and said, “Tell your asshole brother to shape up, or he can go find a hotel room.” She stormed off to their bedroom and slammed the door.

The next year, Steve visited in winter, during a cold snap, and it was off to the attic again. He was glad that it was nice and toasty up there, but when he saw a rat skitter across the floor in the corner, he went downstairs and slept on the couch. When Cheryl found him there in the morning, huddled under the blanket he dragged down from the attic, she went back into the bedroom and yelled at Benny. Steve couldn’t make out what she was saying, but he could guess.

Now, several years and as many visits later, Steve was resigned to his banishment, and did his best not to antagonize or upset Cheryl, even though he knew he was always one misstep away from re-igniting her disdain, and that any real reconciliation was a long shot. They had a delicious dinner of Cheryl’s chicken parmesan and finished two bottles of red wine that Steve purchased earlier that day. They played Scrabble after dinner, and because Cheryl won a game when she put SQUAWKER on a triple word and scored over a hundred points, she was in such a good mood that she even hugged Steve before he headed upstairs.

He opened the attic door, ducked to avoid the low ceiling as he always did, and walked toward the mattress. He was startled to see the figure of a man sitting at the old desk that Benny and Cheryl kept up here. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” he blurted out. The man turned and Steve saw that it was his grandfather, who died many years ago right after he had just turned eighty-seven. Only this was not the octogenarian version of his grandfather, but a much younger man, no more than forty. He was wearing a red and green Hawaiian shirt and was smoking a cigar.

“Stevie,” the man said. “It’s me, Grandpa Joe. I live here now. I should be asking you what you’re doing here. This is my room after all.” He smiled.

“Grandpa?” Steve said, trying to take this in and make sense of it. “You live here? I was under the impression that you don’t live anywhere, because you died in, what, like 1995? How long have you lived here? When did you move in?”

“I’ve lived up here ever since Benny and Cheryl moved to Chicago and bought the house. They picked this house because of the attic space, which was for me.” His smile grew bigger. “And I must say that I’m surprised by your petulant attitude about these delightful accommodations.”

“You’re surprised?! I’m the one who should be saying that. This is totally… wait! Benny and Cheryl know you’re here? And they made me sleep in the attic and didn’t tell me. This is insane!”

“You’ll have to ask them about that,” said Grandpa. “Now go to sleep.”

Steve slept fitfully and dreamed that a group of his relatives, all deceased, were chasing him like zombies, their rotting flesh dripping off them. The next morning, his grandfather was gone, and he hurried downstairs, anxious to talk to his brother and sister-in-law.

Benny said, “I know we drank a lot of wine last night, but Grandpa living in the attic? I think you’re losing it.”

Cheryl asked,
Are you okay, Steve?” with an uncharacteristic degree of genuine concern.

“I’m fine, I guess, but…”

Benny said, “You know that Grandpa died more than twenty years ago, right? After the funeral, Mom gave us a box full of his stuff, including photos of him and Grandma, and we keep that in the attic. The old photos are great! Their vacation in Puerto Rico, Grandpa with his coworkers at that furniture manufacturing company, graduation pictures from high school, college, and business school. There’s a great photo of Grandpa holding you as a newborn, the first grandchild, and he was beaming! We should bring them down and go through them.”

“Not right now,” said Steve. “Maybe later.”

That evening they went to the movies and saw “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, and laughed all the way home in the car recounting the funniest scenes. 

They had a nightcap sitting around the dining room table, and when Steve rose to go to the attic, Benny said, “Say hello to Grandpa.” Steve scowled.

When he got to the top of the stairs, Steve hesitated before opening the attic door. He took a deep breath and went in. There was Grandpa, standing in front of the desk wearing a cap and gown and looking no more than twenty-five. Steve thought he appeared quite dashing with his movie-star good looks and a full head of hair. Steve had only known him as bald.

“Aren’t you going to congratulate me?” said Grandpa. “First college graduate in the family.”

“Congratulations, I guess. By the way, you lied to me about Benny and Cheryl knowing you were up here.” Grandpa shrugged and smiled. Steve said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” said Grandpa as he took off his mortarboard and sat in the chair by the desk.

“What the hell is going on? Are you alive? Are you dead? Are you a ghost?”

“Let me share my little secret with you. See that box over there?” He pointed to a plastic storage bin in the corner. “My whole life is in there. Pictures of it anyway. Whenever I feel like it, I select one and bring it to life. I stay up here in the attic because it’s nice and cozy, and I can reminisce for a bit, even if it’s just me, myself, and I. And Cheryl – dear old Cheryl, that delicate flower – she’d have a stroke if I showed up downstairs.” He smiled. “I understand you and your sister-in-law don’t get on that well.”

“It’s getting better,” said Steve.

“Anyway, once I knew you’d be sleeping up here on a regular basis – because you finally accepted that it wasn’t so terrible – I decided to show myself because, one, I thought you’d appreciate it, and, two, I would have somebody to talk to. I mean, here we are talking now and it’s great! Now, if only I could get you to come here more than once a year.”

“This is a lot to take in, don’t you think?” said Steve, “But I do appreciate it. I was away in college when you …”

“Died,” said Grandpa. “You can say it. I don’t mind.”

“When you died. It was during finals and I couldn’t get away for the funeral. Which I felt terrible about.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Grandpa. “Some people came, some didn’t. That’s the way funerals are. And you know what? The guest of honor doesn’t realize it and doesn’t give a shit. ‘Cause they’re dead!” He threw his head back and laughed.

“So,” said Steve. “Each night you come alive as a different one of the photos in the box and just sit here and think about the old days?”

“And now I can talk to you about ’em. You were always my favorite grandson anyway. Benny’s a little dim, and he married that shrew Cheryl. And don’t get me started on Barbara, the spoiled brat. Although I can thank her for one thing. Because her bedroom has been declared the sanctum sanctorum, you have to sleep up here. With me!”

Steve knew none of this made any sense, but he was pleased to be told he was the favorite, and charmed by his grandfather’s attitude. He stood, walked toward the desk, and offered to shake hands. When Grandpa put out his hand, Steve’s passed through it as if it were smoke. Grandpa laughed. “I’m only spectral, Steve. An apparition. Sorry about that.”

Steve stepped back, and sat on a stack of boxes against the wall and rubbed his eyes. “Okay then, tell me some stories. Tell me about college, now that you’ve graduated and all.”

“Lots of unchaperoned co-eds, Stevie. That was the best part. The very best part.”

And the two of them talked until well into the next morning.

Alan Brickman, when not writing, consults to nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and program evaluation. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he now lives in New Orleans with his 17-year old border collie Jasper, and neither of them can imagine living anywhere else. Alan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Ekphrastic Review, Literary Heist, JONAHMagazine, Variety Pack, Oracle, SPANK the CARP, Streetlight Magazine, Evening Street Press, Sisyphus Magazine, and October Hill Magazine.

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