“He doesn’t look strong,” I said, studying the boy’s skinny arms.
“Trust me, he was. I tried to arm-wrestle him once and he just about tore my hand off!”
But the strangest photo was the last one. It was the back of somebody’s head, with a face painted on it.
I stared at the last photo as Grandpa Portman explained. “He had two mouths, see? One in the front and one in the back. That’s why he got so big and fat!”
“But it’s fake,” I said. “The face is just painted on.”
“Sure, the paint’s fake. It was for a circus show. But I’m telling you, he had two mouths. You don’t believe me?”
I thought about it, looking at the pictures and then at my grandfather, his face so earnest and open. What reason would he have to lie?
“I believe you,” I said.
And I really did believe him—for a few years, at least—though mostly because I wanted to, like other kids my age wanted to believe in Santa Claus. We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing them becomes too high, which for me was the day in second grade when Robbie Jensen pantsed me at lunch in front of a table of girls and announced that I believed in fairies. It was just deserts, I suppose, for repeating my grandfather’s stories at school but in those humiliating seconds I foresaw the moniker “fairy boy” trailing me for years and, rightly or not, I resented him for it.
Grandpa Portman picked me up from school that afternoon, as he often did when both my parents were working. I climbed into the passenger seat of his old Pontiac and declared that I didn’t believe in his fairy stories anymore.
“What fairy stories?” he said, peering at me over his glasses.
“You know. The stories. About the kids and the monsters.”
He seemed confused. “Who said anything about fairies?”
I told him that a made-up story and a fairy tale were the same thing, and that fairy tales were for pants-wetting babies, and that I knew his photos and stories were fakes. I expected him to get mad or put up a fight, but instead he just said, “Okay,” and threw the Pontiac into drive. With a stab of his foot on the accelerator we lurched away from the curb. And that was the end of it.
I guess he’d seen it coming—I had to grow out of them eventually—but he dropped the whole thing so quickly it left me feeling like I’d been lied to. I couldn’t understand why he’d made up all that stuff, tricked me into believing that extraordinary things were possible when they weren’t. It wasn’t until a few years later that my dad explained it to me: Grandpa had told him some of the same stories when he was a kid, and they weren’t lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth—because the story of Grandpa Portman’s childhood wasn’t a fairy tale at all. It was a horror story.
My grandfather was the only member of his family to escape Poland before the Second World War broke out. He was twelve years old when his parents sent him into the arms of strangers, putting their youngest son on a train to Britain with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back. It was a one-way ticket. He never saw his mother or father again, or his older brothers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. Each one would be dead before his sixteenth birthday, killed by the monsters he had so narrowly escaped. But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.
Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise. Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children’s home that had taken in my grandfather must’ve seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn’t really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course. The peculiarity for which they’d been hunted was simply their Jewishness. They were orphans of war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood. What made them amazing wasn’t that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miracle enough.
I stopped asking my grandfather to tell me stories, and I think secretly he was relieved. An air of mystery closed around the details of his early life. I didn’t pry. He had been through hell and had a right to his secrets. I felt ashamed for having been jealous of his life, considering the price he’d paid for it, and I tried to feel lucky for the safe and unextraordinary one that I had done nothing to deserve.
Then, a few years later, when I was fifteen, an extraordinary and terrible thing happened, and there was only Before and After.
I spent the last afternoon of Before constructing a 1/10,000-scale replica of the Empire State Building from boxes of adult diapers. It was a thing of beauty, really, spanning five feet at its base and towering above the cosmetics aisle, with jumbos for the foundation, lites for the observation deck, and meticulously stacked trial sizes for its iconic spire. It was almost perfect, minus one crucial detail.
“You used Neverleak,” Shelley said, eyeing my craftsmanship with a skeptical frown. “The sale’s on Stay-Tite.” Shelley was the store manager, and her slumped shoulders and dour expression were as much a part of her uniform as the blue polo shirts we all had to wear.
“I thought you said Neverleak,” I said, because she had.
“Stay-Tite,” she insisted, shaking her head regretfully, as if my tower were a crippled racehorse and she the bearer of the pearl-handled pistol. There was a brief but awkward silence in which she continued to shake her head and shift her eyes from me to the tower and back to me again. I stared blankly at her, as if completely failing to grasp what she was passive-aggressively implying.
“Ohhhhhh,” I said finally. “You mean you want me to do it over?”
“It’s just that you used Neverleak,” she repeated.
“No problem. I’ll get started right away.” With the toe of my regulation black sneaker I nudged a single box from the tower’s foundation. In an instant the whole magnificent structure was cascading down around us, sending a tidal wave of diapers crashing across the floor, boxes caroming off the legs of startled customers, skidding as far as the automatic door, which slid open, letting in a rush of August heat.
Shelley’s face turned the color of ripe pomegranate. She should’ve fired me on the spot, but I knew I’d never be so lucky. I’d been trying to get fired from Smart Aid all summer, and it had proved next to impossible. I came in late, repeatedly and with the flimsiest of excuses; made shockingly incorrect change; even misshelved things on purpose, stocking lotions among laxatives and birth control with baby shampoo. Rarely had I worked so hard at anything, and yet no matter how incompetent I pretended to be, Shelley stubbornly kept me on the payroll.