Emrah Serbes

Short story: ‘My Grandmother’s Last Death’
Translated from the Turkish by Mark Wyers.

If you saw the veins in her hands and the wrinkles creasing her face, you would think she was a hundred and fifty years old. My grandmother. With her bifocal glasses, her spare change purse, the cigarettes she puffs on during pleasant evenings we spend together, and above all, her unrelenting will to bear loneliness, she stole my heart long ago. But at the same time this ability to be alone is also a bit unsettling, as she is quite satisfied with just me and the people she sees on television. Neighbors drawing out their visits, or even just cats quietly mewing outside the window on cold winter’s nights, set her on edge. She can’t stand the presence of any being, except for me. Most old people aren’t like that. On the contrary they usually feel abandoned, like an old rusty water barrel forgotten on the balcony. At the first hint of someone paying the slightest attention to them, they turn into putty. Like how on the holidays they get all teary eyed, doing the whole old-person bit that everyone expects.

My so-called mother and father died in a car accident. I wasn’t too upset about it. They had been invited to a dinner, and on the way there they dropped me off at my grandma’s place. And I just stayed on right where they left me. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Wow, they are having a really long dinner,’ like they will eventually come back and tell me all about their three-year meal, and God knows they’ll be bloated out to three hundred pounds from all the food they’ve eaten. The game of self-deception is my favorite. But I saw the wreckage of our car, crumpled like an accordion under the eighteen-wheeler they crashed into. We got two thousand liras from the junkyard guy. My grandma said, “We’re not going to spend a dime of it.” For Ramadan alms my grandma gave the money to an old woman, fifteen years younger than her and half deaf.

A long time has passed since then, and I have grown up quite a bit. Do I miss them? Mostly at night. But this feeling of missing them is steeped in anger. Sometimes I get teary-eyed, and I wonder, is it out of irritation, or maybe love or longing? Or I don’t know, perhaps it is a need for nostalgia. Then, telling myself it is just out of habit, I drift off to sleep. Yasemin could have saved me from this dilemma. But she had wanted some time to think. That was seven years ago. Sometimes, mostly around sunset, I think to myself that she has been thinking for quite a long time now. But I only know the name of the city she and her family moved to. Like I said, what’s the point of living without a bit of self-deception. Who could possibly be content with the bare facts? Unless you are a dervish or a nutcase, there is no way you can possibly live taking things as they are, without shrinking them down or exaggerating them a bit.

The most remarkable trait about my grandma is her immortality. There is no end to the illnesses she has pulled through. She has truly learned the art of survival; it must be because she has weathered so many storms. Next to the cupboard there are thirty bottles of pills, and I don’t have any idea why she takes any of them. I only know that she doesn’t take pills from the same bottles. One day, thinking that these pills couldn’t have any other real function aside from the placebo effect, I replaced all of the pills with little colored candies. It seems it wasn’t the placebo effect after all. She got seriously ill and hallucinated that I was my late grandpa, Rüstem. I had a look at my new self in a photograph on the wall. That photograph, which I tried not to look at too much, frightened me – even if it was my grandpa, in the end it was a black and white picture of someone who had died twenty five years ago. If my grandma was confusing me for him, it meant that she was sick for real. I reached out and held her hand, which was as cold as ice. Piling all the blankets in the house over her, I cranked the new radiators I had recently had installed all the way up and held the electric heater, which she used to warm her feet, up near her face. Warming up bit by bit, she rejoined the world of the living. I never tried such a stunt again. Because my grandma is the only person in the world who understands me – she is more of a comfort to me in life than the plushest pillow you could imagine, and her hair is white as snow.

We do all of my homework together. When I am assigned homework, my grandma takes up the responsibility for it as if it were her own. Last year we flunked math. We struggled with algebraic functions, and somehow just couldn’t get through them. We went together to the teacher-parent meeting, just like we go everywhere together. My grandma cornered my teacher, a recent university graduate, and asked her, “Are you the math teacher?”
“Yes ma’am, I am.”
“What kind of teacher are you! You bitch daughter of a whore, who the hell assigns homework that hard, you nutcase?”

That’s the great thing about being old, you can say anything that pops into mind and people just laugh it off. In that way, being young is hard. You say one little swear word and bang, everyone is giving you dirty looks. My grandma is a public enemy through and through, and I am the buffer between her and society – at the bazaar, at the market, everywhere. As kind as she is to me, she is just as crotchety to everyone else. But it’s not like I an unhappy with things as they are. If she were a kind-hearted person, I would say that’s why she loved me, but that would mean I was no different from anyone else. My grandma has the ability to focus all her love just on one person – rather than spreading her love around thinly, she can concentrate it all on one point. It’s the same capacity to love, but for the person who is loved, it is more intense, more poignant. And that deserves respect.

There is this too, my grandma is the only person in the world who truly values my ideas. She even asked me for my opinion about the election. We got our ballot, and went into the voting booth. Picking up the voting stamp, I asked her, “Who are you going to vote for?”
“I don’t know, who should we vote for?”
I mulled it over, feeling bowed by the weight of responsibility: “If you want, we could just throw the vote away.”
“What, did we walk all this way just to throw it away?”
I was stuck between the religiously conservative Felicity Party and the Turkish Communist Party, both of them minority parties. For the most part I am a conservative person, but I had also always wanted to live the thrill of communism.
“Grandma, are you a leftist?”
You see, in the end it was her vote, and I was just trying to help her out.
“I am not on any side,” she answered.
“So you are open to every kind of manipulation.”
I asked, “At your age, would you like to live the thrill of communism?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Ok then, so how about if we vote for the Turkish Communist Party? They are also eighty-four years old, just like you. I read it in their brochure.”
“In that case yes, let’s vote for them.”

I pulled the lever of the ballot stamper. My aunt was infuriated that we had voted for the communists. “We will vote for anyone we want,” my grandma replied. My aunt had planned on having my grandma vote for the secularist Republican People’s Party. As for me, I could never vote for a majority party or try to get anyone else to. I am an emotional and romantic kind of person, a poet since the age of five and just as radical as I am conservative. I never hesitate to let my real self shine through, no matter where I am. In any case once you’ve seen me, you won’t easily forget me with my hair slathered in gel and spiked straight up in the air. What’s more, if it were possible I would vote for a terrorist organization – I’d like to see this state go down. They didn’t lift a finger when my mom and dad died, and on top of that, when Yasemin wanted some time to think, I didn’t see anyone from the state taking any steps to set things right. It’s all just empty promises, nothing to make the pain go away.

My grandma has a pension fund, which brings in a pittance. Every month when the check comes, we go to a pizza joint, and then go to wait in line to pay the electricity bill, the water bill, the telephone bill and the gas bill. Sometimes on the way back home there is enough money to buy an ice cream, and sometimes there isn’t. Thank god for the three apartments my grandpa owned, as we live off the rent from those. At one time he bought a plot of land and built two houses there, side by side, one for himself and grandma and one for their children. When I was really young they tore down one of them and made a deal to have an apartment building built there, but grandma’s place stayed. In this way, as the owner of the land, she became the owner of three apartments, which at 600 lira a piece brings in 1800 a month. On the sixteenth of every month we go to collect the rent, and my grandma gives most of it to me. I spend it like crazy but still can’t seem to burn through it all. One month I used the rent money to buy a laptop. The next month I got it hooked up to the internet and bought two cell phones that had cameras built in, four megapixel. We called each other nonstop.

We started chatting with each other from the back rooms of the house, as if they were long-distance calls. This has become our favorite game, and we have a lot of free minutes to burn anyways. I call as if I were calling from the seaside town of Kuşadası, which makes my grandma happy; “See all the sights,” she says, “But don’t catch a chill, the nights get cold there, so wear your sweater, and stay close to shore when you swim.” And I say, “Ok grandma I will. I have to go now,” like a tourist anxious to see all the sights in town while on holiday. And then she hollers, “And don’t drink water when you have gum in your mouth!” – one time I almost choked to death that way – and then we hang up. After waiting for a reasonable amount of time in the back room, I dash into the living room with an empty suitcase in hand, shouting “I’m back grandma!” and give her a big hug. She has me sit down across from her and asks, “So, tell me all about it, how was the holiday?” And I, with all of the excitement of someone who has just gotten back from a trip, start telling her all over again in minute detail everything that has happened. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the stories that I tell her, it seems that even if I really had gone on vacation, I couldn’t have explained it any better.

I was going to have some of the rent money deposited into a bank account so that we could have the bills paid automatically, but my grandma would have none of it: “Those hoodlums won’t make the payments,” she said. But that wasn’t the real reason; to pay the bills every month she gets to leave the house, wait in line and argue with everyone, which is a pleasure she could never give up. On top of that, everyone who sees us waiting, my grandma bent double clutching my arm, feels a pang of conscience. The sight of her at her age, hunched over and waiting in line, is enough to make any place we wait at look bad.

Until last month, that’s how things were, everything was just as it should be. On the anniversary of my parents’ death I lost it though. They had been buried in the same grave. Just as they had been together in life, they were together in death. Those two, who had come to this world with the sole purpose of making me alone in life, couldn’t even change that in death. I was feeling so down that I went to the grocer’s and asked for a gin and tonic, but they only sold me the gin; apparently tonic is something altogether different and they were out of it. I sat down in the park and drank a little.

Immediately Yasemin came to mind. I started interrogating myself about why I had given up on her. In the end she had said “Let me think a little,” but she didn’t give a clear answer. To get her official response, I had once come up with an ingenious plan. I would go to the city where her father had been appointed, and wait on the busiest street there. On that street, which everyone in that city would eventually have to use, I would watch all of the people coming and going. In that way, after waiting a reasonable amount of time, I would surely see her. And when I did, I would act as if my being there was a complete coincidence, and I would ask for her answer. But – I couldn’t do it. Why? Because as I got older, my desire diminished, my puzzlement dwindled, and my expectations shriveled. As I aged, I had shrunk so much that there was nothing left inside of me. If there is a cost to growing up, that was it. I had grown a foot and a half, gained forty-five pounds and given up on the world. At this point, Yasemin was the only thing left in this poet’s world.

My cell phone rang. It was my grandma. She was worried, as it was getting dark.
“Why didn’t you take me in?” I asked her. “If you loved me so much, when my parents were alive and had to work, why did I have to go to pre-school?”
“I wanted to take you in, but they wouldn’t let me.”
“I don’t know. I told them over and over again, but they went on about how important pre-school education is or some shit like that.”
“Are you glad that I stayed with you?”
“My parents died, I moved in with you. You had to look after me. If it hadn’t been for me, my aunt was going to get someone to take care of you.”
She didn’t say anything. We fell silent for five seconds or so.
“Come home dear,” she said, “this conversation is making me sad.”

I drank half of the gin, and after puking between my feet, I realized that I had been unfair to my grandma. How many times had we made snowmen in the yard? We even went to the coast town of Çeşme once for a vacation, as there hadn’t been any rooms in Kuşadası. I made all of the reservations online. While we were there we even went on a boat trip, and my grandma nearly died she vomited so much into the sea. For who? For me, of course. She is a tough one alright though. She once threw bruised tomatoes into a vegetable seller’s face. Someone who could chuck bruised tomatoes into the face of a psychopath greengrocer with eyes flashing daggers would surely have been in Spartacus’ army if she had lived in the Roman era. Anyone who has seen Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, and been to the market at least once in their lives will know I am right.

I called my grandma to tell her not to worry. She didn’t answer. I called the house number, again no answer. I went back home, and found her huddled in the armchair, motionless. She was cold as ice, again.
“Do you want me to call my aunts?” I asked her.
“No, don’t,” she said.
Well that wasn’t a disappointment, I’m not a huge fan of my aunts either.
“Ok then I will go and get a doctor, just like in the movies,” I told her. “But you can’t die while I am away. No matter what, don’t die.”

I put three blankets over her and the electric heater at her feet. But it wasn’t like in the movies: the doctor’s clinics close at night, the doctors at the polyclinics don’t make house calls, and the doctors at the hospitals told me to bring her there. I was ready to pay as much as they wanted, in cash. I may be a parentless orphan, but I have the money. But it was no good, doctors are snobs.
I went back home and found her sleeping. I waited by her side all night, holding a mirror to her nose – she was still breathing, the glass steamed up. The next morning my aunt called, just like always. They all rushed over. My uncle got leave from work and came, and we all piled in the car and went to the hospital. They put my grandma on a bed, hooked her up to an IV and gave her some injections. Then they said that they wanted to keep her in the hospital.
“What! Keep her here?” I said. “I thought there weren’t enough beds in public hospitals. What, did a bed up and find us? Give us the medication, let her get better at home.” But because my aunt pinched my arm I wasn’t able to lay into the doctor like I wanted. Night came. Apparently there can’t be more than one night-time visitor at the hospital, so my aunt said, “I’ll stay, you go home with your uncle.”
“What! Now I am going to stay with them!” I screamed.

When I shouted the other patients in the room woke up. My aunt dragged me out to where my uncle was waiting. I hate my aunt and her kids. Every time we are alone, without fail, my aunt’s daughter who is the same age as me goes after me tooth and nail. Of course the thing that really gets me is being thrashed by a girl. One time she had gotten me really riled up and, taking up the philosophy of an-eye-for-an-eye, I broke a vase over her head. Right off her big brother came, my older cousin, a fourteen year-old overgrown brawny brute, and he gave me a beating. One time my aunt even slapped me. All I had said was, “What is a bitch and are you one?” In short, the entire family has beaten me. The only who hasn’t is my uncle, but just give it time – he will come around as well. He probably hasn’t beaten me because he came from outside the family. In any case, he is a bit of a sheepish guy, always shy and timorous. He’s probably a little ashamed because he doesn’t even have a single apartment while my aunt has quite a few in the building next door which she inherited from my grandpa. But my grandma likes him, in her own way. When my grandma sees someone, if she doesn’t start swearing up a storm right off, that means she likes them – there’s no need to say anything else.

My uncle took hold of my arm and smiled at me: “Let’s go,” he said. “At our place you can play some games on the computer, and I’ll order a pizza for you.” I stepped back into the room and took one last look at my grandma. The IV was slowly dripping through the tube needled into her arm crisscrossed by blue veins. I wanted to step up to the precipice of a cliff and bellow an echoing ‘Fak yu!’ It is a phrase that is used in times of frustration. It is American English for ‘go to hell.’ My uncle and I left the hospital. As soon as I was alone at home with my aunt’s daughter, I kicked her in the gut, like I was walloping an incoming soccer ball. She doubled over, as if she had been shot. I yanked her up and with a blur of slaps sent her reeling, then I grabbed her by the hair and shoved her against the wall. The best defense is a strong offense. How does that saying go? ‘Pity an orphan and he’ll ream you in the end.’ Ha ha! Get out of here! Bawling she ran to tell on me. My uncle came, and glaring equally at the both of us, said, “Don’t fight. Sit down and behave yourselves.” “Ok, uncle,” I said, and sat down obediently. My aunt’s daughter gnawed her fingernails all night long, fuming.

The next day my uncle left me at his place, as he had some work to do. In the afternoon he was going to come pick me up and together we would go to the hospital. As soon as he left, my aunt’s daughter launched at me with a flying kick to my side, and her big brother dropped in too. In a mission of revenge for the pummeling I had dealt her the day before, the brother and sister duo tried out on me every karate move they knew. While I was crying the telephone rang. Thinking there might be news about my grandma, I ran to the phone, but my aunt’s daughter got there first and answered it. Her burly big brother had grabbed me and twisted my arm up behind my back, so there was no way I could even get to the phone anyways. Holding the receiver, she said, “Yes mom,” and frowning, “Oh really?” and hung up.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Your grandma died. My condolences.”
“Oh my God!”
I grabbed my backpack and took off. I got on a city bus, and then jumped off that and got on an intercity bus; the bus boarded a car ferry, got off that and then crossed a bridge and stopped at the main Istanbul bus terminal. I got off the bus at the terminal and looked around. Nothing looked familiar. I went to a kiosk and asked, “Where is the busiest street in this city?” The guy working at the kiosk laughed. “Why are you laughing?” I asked. “Get out of here!” he said, “Go on, get!”

I thought, maybe I should ask one of the taxi drivers at the corner. Then I changed my mind; he’ll probably rip me off, tell me he is going to take me to the busiest street but instead take me somewhere even further away, to pocket some extra cash. Maybe I should ask the police? No, I never talk to government officials, that wouldn’t do. The best thing to do would be to call someone on my cell phone. But I couldn’t call anyone I know, they would figure out that I had run away. I dialed a random number. A girl answered.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but are you a government official?”
“Are you a pervert?” she replied.
“No. Are you a government officer?” I repeated.
“No, I’m not.”
“Excellent. I’m not a pervert and you aren’t a government officer. Ok then could you tell me what the busiest street in this city is? One that, in one day, everybody would definitely use.”
“I don’t know, probably Istiklal Street. Who are you?”
“This is the voice of a person at the other end of a randomly dialed number who has nobody left in their life. Maybe I am the voice of your unconscious,” I said.
“How old are you?”
“Never mind me. I am not the topic at hand. Never have been. The question is, who are you? What inspires you, what are your passions, what dreams of yours have been lost? Who is the first person you would call if you were in trouble? Who loves you unconditionally, who would take you in their arms no matter how badly you have screwed up? If there is someone like this in your life, call them, and ask how they are. If you don’t, one day when you find yourself utterly alone like I am now, you won’t have anyone to call even to ask for the most trivial bit of advice. You can take these words of mine as the manifesto of the years I have squandered. I am speaking as someone with experience: experience is anguish, my dear, and I have suffered much more than you think. If you would like, let’s talk again, I have 64 more free minutes.”

I hopped in a taxi. The driver raised an eyebrow at me through the rear-view mirror.
“You got any money?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I handed him a fifty: “Is this enough to get to Istiklal Street?”
He was an honest guy – he even gave me the change. I walked up and down the length of the street, looking for a central place from where I could see everyone who went by, but it was no good, the street was swarming. If I were the Minister of Internal Affairs I would make it illegal for more than a thousand people to walk around on any given street. I stopped on a corner and watched the faces of people passing by. Would I be able to recognize her after so many years? I closed my eyes, and there was Yasemin, in my mind’s eye. That is what love is: when you close your eyes there she is, and a million years later even if you have seen a million other people you would pick her out immediately.

In pre-school everybody’s name was written on their cups. Every evening, before our parents came to pick us up, eating our Petit Beurre crackers was a precious joy, dipping them into the tea we were served, which had a double shot of water. They didn’t really taste like a whole hell of a lot but we loved them all the same.

It was probably because they reminded us that the day was over and that we were going to be saved from that den of torture. One day Yasemin started crying when the cracker she was dipping fell into her tea. The young women teachers had their heads in the clouds, and were looking elsewhere. Like a true gentleman I got up and went to her, and with my spoon I retrieved the corpse of the cracker. When she was leaving with her mom that evening she turned and waved to me. My parents hadn’t picked me up yet; before they died, one of their favorite pastimes had been making me wait. The next day I asked Yasemin to marry me. It seemed to me that we had gone through a sufficient period of flirtation, and I didn’t want the seriousness of this business to be shaken in any way. At that time I was fully aware of the fact that it is every girl’s dream, no matter how young or old, to get married. Yasemin had asked me for a little time to think about it. She may have said something else, but I can’t remember. In the end, every woman who is loved is like a beautiful song: you may not remember all of the words, but you always remember the melody.

Two months later they moved. I cried my eyes out. As I cried everyone laughed at me: my mom, my dad, my friends, my teachers. First they asked me why I was crying, and when I told them, they started laughing, God damn the lot of them. The only person who didn’t laugh at my romantic saga was my grandma. She cried with me – she is an emotional and romantic person like me. After she turned thirty-five she left her husband and ran off with Rüstem, my grandfather. Her husband and his posse chased them down, and knives were drawn and shots fired, but the governor and the captain of the local military corps intervened, as my grandpa was some kind of important person, a district official or a financial director or something. When she was nearly forty my grandma gave birth to my mom and my aunt, right after each other. She hadn’t had any children with her first husband – she didn’t want children from a man she didn’t love, just one more indicator of what kind of person she is. My mom had also waited to have children. I was born when she was thirty-five, so at my age now, that makes my grandma eighty-four. It’s such a shame, I would have liked to have known my grandma when she was in her fifties, when my grandpa Rüstem was still alive.

Towards morning two cops on patrol passed my way. They were decked out in red, motorcycle cops. Trying to pass myself off as a tourist I spoke to them in English: “Soriy sur, ahm so soriy sur, I do nut understand.” They didn’t buy it.
“What are you doing here?” they asked me in Turkish.
“Nutting sur,” I replied in English.
“Quit screwing around and talk like a man,” they said, again in Turkish.
My Turkish suddenly improved: “Nothing… I’m not doing anything,” I said.
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re dead,” I answered.
“Don’t you have anyone else?”
“No one.”
“Where are you staying?”
“What are you doing on the street here?”
“Screw your nothings, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting for Yasemin.”
“Who is Yasemin?”
“My fiancée.”
They collared me and took me over to their motorcycles, and called someone on the radio. A little while later a pleasant woman showed up, and we got into a car with a big duck sticker on it. I have been saved, I thought, by what seemed to be children police. I asked for a soda and a snack, and they gave it to me. I offered to pay, but they wouldn’t take my money.
“What’s Yasemin’s surname?” they asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What are you talking about, how can someone not know the surname of their fiancée?”
“When you are five years old you don’t pay attention to such details.”
They put on the heat, and I confessed to everything.
“Ok, so we are not engaged. She just wanted a little time to think, ok? Maybe she just said that because she had heard it in a movie. You happy?”
The police gathered around me exchanged surprised glances. “And,” I added, “I am a communist.”

At some point they had taken my cell phone and called my aunt. She and her entourage showed up towards noon, but I pretended that I didn’t know them. Again the cops didn’t buy it. Cell phones are a curse, like a leash and collar society puts on us. If only I hadn’t brought it with me. I wouldn’t have had any identity, no phone; maybe they would have put me in a children’s ward or something, out of charity. As we were heading back home in the car, my aunt asked, “Why did you run away, what have we done to you?”
“After my grandma died, there was no point in my staying there.”
“What do you mean, she didn’t die.”
I looked at my aunt’s daughter: “Why the hell did you lie?”
“I didn’t say anything,” she said.
“You are still lying. Which means you are a bitch. You bitch daughter of a whore!” I dealt her a resounding slap to the back of the neck. Her hair, parted in the middle, swished forward, then back again. I bellowed into her ear my grandma’s most effective slur, the one she uses when someone steps on her foot while she is waiting in line to pay a bill: “You idiot piece of shit crapped from your mother’s cunt! You’ve shattered my whole world into pieces.”

My aunt was about to say something, but my uncle cut her short, jabbing his finger in the air: “I am fed up with ALL of you.” He said it with such conviction that everyone shut up, and an explosive silence filled the car. I don’t know who lit the fuse, but suddenly everyone started shouting at each other: my aunt at her daughter, the daughter at me, my uncle at my cousin, my aunt at my uncle. We nearly barreled into a freight truck, but my uncle jerked the car over to the right in the nick of time. He made it clear that if anyone muttered even one more word, he would roll the car right off the road the first chance he got. They all fell silent. It didn’t matter to me, as I had nothing to say anyways. My heart was too broken to argue – they had hit me in my softest spot. Sure I have told plenty of lies in my time, but I never went off and told someone that their grandmother had died. That’s just fucking wrong, no bitch would do that. I was glad that my grandmother hadn’t died, but there was no way I was going to show that around them. I counted the telephone poles blurring past: one thousand, four hundred and ninety-four.

We got to the hospital. I hugged my grandma and kissed her on the cheeks, taking in her scent. “Grandma,” I asked her, “you’re not going to die are you? If you die I will be all alone. And you know that being alone is a horrible thing. Please don’t die! We are a great team. You’re not going to die are you?”
She squeezed my hand with her cold fingers, and looked at me, her eyes full of love: “Ah Rüstem, how could I ever die without you?”

Originally published in Turkish as Anneannemin Son Ölümü
in the collection Erken Kaybedenler (Destined Losers),
İletişim Yayınları, 2009.

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