Gret was doing paperwork, which had been more or less her entire job for more than a year now. Two years in Afghanistan, a brief stint in Haiti, Florida on-base to do criminal investigations, back to Pennsylvania to ride a desk and train people in the art of eventual-desk-riding. Not even the exciting kind of criminal investigations – less Jack Bauer and more like Demi Moore in A Few Good Men. She didn’t really mind. She had a good eye and she knew how the system worked, and her bookkeeping was outstanding. She was regarded in this last capacity by her department as a kind of Baba Yaga, whose powers and abilities were to be respected and kept at bay with sacrifices. She possessed the frankly insurmountable advantage over her peers of knowing what a computer was and how it worked. In the year 2013. A reasonable amount of her coworkers had been using typewriters up to and after September 11th, and they were the first to say how much they missed those days.
The things that Gret knew about in general were basically witchcraft to about eighty percent of the people she worked with. She used the Women’s Bathroom as well, and was sometimes under suspicion for doing so. She knew everybody in every department, and did seemingly from the day she started. She was exactly the sort of cop to be feared in real life and ignored in an action movie. She had a boring, boring job.
She had been in a one real fight in her life and she didn’t like to remember it, but she had done an awful lot of jiujitsu, kept up with MACP feverishly, and she knew from her aforementioned one real fight that she could break an arm.
The most action she had been a part of in her entire military career was when a little boy in Izzy’s class tried to take her gun on Career Day.
Right now she was reviewing an incident report from an on-post house in Fort Indiantown Gap, about eighty miles away. Which was just riveting.
She checked her phone and read the text from her daughter asking if she could stay out late.
On her desk were three pictures of her family at various ages, one sketch done by Izzy’s grandfather Jim for her birthday when she was seven, and a painting done by a man named Pieter Bruegel in 1562. And mounting stacks of paper and jotted notes. And a computer, the source of her great power.
She sent a text back.
Mar 18, 2013 7:05 pm:
Did you check in with grandpa? I’m at work.
She looked at the three family photos. One was of Izzy’s kindergarten graduation. Chelsea Leigh was front and center, and about two dozen other grinning kids crowded into the frame to let everyone know that they would be first graders soon. Izzy had missing teeth and a smile that showed them off. Her neck was craned up to make sure the camera saw her. She wore purple.
The second picture was taken at a sporting goods store with a rock-climbing wall where Chelsea had spent a birthday a few years ago. The picture had Izzy waving from the top of the wall while dangling from her safety harness. She was one of only two or three kids to ring the bell at the top of the wall.
The last one was of Gret, her father, and her daughter wearing work clothes and sitting in front of a large tree. They were surrounded by toolboxes and planks of wood for a tree house they would build. Izzy had told her recently that this was her favorite part of coming back to Pennsylvania from Florida – to get to go to the tree house again. She had grown up in that tree.
That was why the youngest of the Parsons had come back to Pennsylvania, Gret reasoned. To get to the tree house. The job had molded to Gret’s requirements when her dad had gotten sick and needed taking care of, but really what Izzy was back for was the tree and the Leigh kids. She had known them forever now.
When Gret was maybe twenty or so – around then for sure because Izzy would have been on the way shortly after – she had asked her dad where her name had come from. Her father looked at her over his glasses with his sharp eyes, and led her over to their bookcase.
“There’s a story here for you,” he said. He pointed at a beige book that looked brand new. “Got it for Christmas from your uncle,” he said.
The book was called Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints, by Nadine Orenstein. Its cover depicted a massive, dead fish with its mouth gaping open. Its wild eye stared. Dozens of other fish flopped and tumbled from its mouth and from a slit in its belly. Inside those mouths of those fish were others, smaller and sleeker. Men with knives and hooks cut at the giant and harvested its nested innards. Fish in the skies. Fish in the trees.
Her father opened the book to another picture.
“This is called Dull Gret,” he said.
It was an oil painting of a horrific landscape. A horde of figures charging across a dismal bridge against a rust sky, climbing over makeshift hovels and stepping across the backs of strange creatures. They held weapons and sacks. They pillaged and stole and ran toward a hill with a gaping mouth. They were all women, wearing men’s armor and clothing.
She stared at it and grinned.
“Is that me?” she had asked, pointing to the woman leading the charge.
“Yeah,” her father said. “That’s dull Gret.” He looked at her quizzical expression. “Bruegel meant it as an insult, I think. It’s a bad name – it’s a greedy woman with a bad temper. Look, see?”
He pointed at the treasure chest under her arm and the coins and baubles spilling out of the sacks of the other women – they had all they could carry, and still they stole more.
“Just like you, huh?” he said. She hit him lightly on the arm and scowled. He laughed. And then he had grabbed her hand and looked at her very seriously. “Bruegel didn’t know what he was talking about,” he said. He held her eyes carefully. “That woman is running into hell with a knife at her side, and he’s laughing at her for not being afraid when he thinks he should be. She’s making Bruegel look like a fool. That’s why your name is Gret.”
That’s what he had said. That was her dad.
Now she spoon-fed him his breakfast, and he couldn’t meet her eyes anymore.
He used to paint. He used to be a painter.
He had good days and bad days and both. He was in a good mood, but his hands were tired. So feed him. Make breakfast; feed dad; help dad shower; drive dad to hospital; pharmacy; laundry; gym; work; meeting; work; staff training; gym; grocery store; pick up dad; figure out tomorrow; make dinner; feed dad if he needs it; walk with Izzy; performance reviews; shower; bed.
Repeat, and watch as dad gets worse. He can usually go to the bathroom by himself; nobody has any idea how long that will last. Someday – probably soon – he won’t. They’ll put him in hospice in maybe two or three months, and then he’ll lose his lungs, and then he’ll be dead.
Call family; call funeral home; figure out expenses; gather materials for death certificate; execute will; discuss with funeral director. Open or closed casket? Embalmed? What kind of burial? Metal or wood casket? What service? When? Who will speak? When are calling hours? What newspaper will publish his obituary? Who will drive down to Washington to get his brother Mark? Write a eulogy; decide on flowers; go through photo albums. Who are the pall bearers? What music will they play at the funeral home? Can we get some of his art to decorate?
And then you have time to mourn.
She was ashamed to say that she had no idea how quickly he had progressed. How long had he been sick? Did he not tell her? Did she miss the signs? Was he sick when she had given birth? When she had moved out? When she had graduated from college? How many times had he said that he was just tired? When did his feet stop working? She couldn’t ask him and she wasn’t sure why.
She just spoon-fed him and pretended it was normal.
He wouldn’t be able to fumblingly pick at a bass anymore. He wouldn’t be able to make things. When she thought about things like that it wore her out. She would get to imagining and not be able to stop. She kept stream of consciousness journals in high school to try to get it under control, but all it did was train her to write very, very fast. Dad used to say that she thought about more things in ten seconds than he did in a day, and more deeply about them than he did in a week.
He didn’t really say it like that. Her father had never said anything as pithy in his life. He was what her grandmother used to called a roundabout. She smiled a little – one thing he hadn’t lost was his ability to meander through a conversation. Very rarely he would connect back to his original point. Every conversation was about everything in the world, eventually. But it was usually secretly about some movie or song or artist or something. He would ask Gret if she had seen that movie or heard that song, and Gret would shake her head no and he would always look a little dejected before telling her that she should. If only for him to have someone to talk to about it with. Movies were good for her dad. They could sit him down and he’d be set for two and a half hours, flip it over to the director’s commentary and keep him going. He didn’t need help watching, and that was something. When he was watching movies he looked like her dad. That wasn’t fair to say and she should feel bad for saying it. Don’t say that, come on. He can’t help it. Seriously, now.
He watched movies like he had never heard of one. Every movie, even if he had already seen it six times. In absolute wonder. Like the people in the theater who watched The Great Train Robbery and screamed and fainted when the bandit pointed his gun at the screen. He watched movies as though it were 1903. As though they were new.
God, she even sounded like him.
His ALS might be familial. They’ll need to monitor Izzy and herself for risk, and it didn’t seem like anybody was a hundred percent sure on how to do that. She kept pamphlets from doctors and the things she had found online in a drawer in her dresser where she didn’t look at them.
She corrected herself. She’ll need to monitor Izzy for risk. There was nobody else to do it.
She thought about these things and others, and she stared at a point somewhere behind and above her dad’s head in the family photograph. She didn’t say much to her dad anymore. And she didn’t look at his face much, except to wipe spit occasionally.
Gret stretched, cracked her back and shoulders, and got back to work.