We have plenty of time, Mer-Mer. The fish aren't going anywhere. We'll arrive soon enough, I say.
But what if we get there and it's too late, grandpa? What if Pimento and Sweet Pea are off hiding or end up going to sleep?
I look up to meet Mer-Mer's concerned eyes on the rearview mirror, her bottom lip pouting exaggeratingly and her arms crossed over her lap.
Turtles aren't nocturnal, I say with a chuckle. I'm sure they'll be awake.
I open up the glove compartment, let my hand rummage over loose car documents, scrap papers, and empty boxes of Tic Tacs to find my granddaughter's favorite snack.
Here you go, Mer-Mer, I say while reaching out towards her with a box of crackers, Barnum's Animals, her favorites. The logo contains the famous four: a lion, a polar bear, a gorilla, and an elephant, all with their cubs.
Mer-Mer always asks why the box has those chosen animals. Why not a penguin or a walrus? A sea lion could be cute too.
You're right, I always say. Who knows? Perhaps one day, they'll innovate the logo.
We're about thirty minutes away from the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Soon the mountains will be trailing behind us, ornating our rear with peaks of jagged teeth while we glide with blue blankets, seafoam, and lush greenery to our sides.
I watch Mer-Mer, how she squints to the animals trapped in her podgy fingers, peering to the curves and carved details traced into their golden-brown bodies like a spyglass.
Which animal is your favorite, grandpa? She tilts her head while ensnaring a seal between her teeth.
You know, the one with the... um
That one with the long neck, I say. You know, that one that has yellow fur and stands tall in the safari.
Yes, the giraffe, I say. The giraffe's my favorite.
Mer-Mer giggles and shoves her hand into the box. Let's see if I can find one, she says, closing her eyes while sifting her fingers through the sea of crisp crackers like it's a magician's hat.
Got one, she says with an excited voice.
I turn around to the backseat. Mer-Mer's holding the cracker as if it's a coin, valuable and note-worthy like a doubloon.
That's not a... um. It's a camel. But you were pretty close, I say, shining a quick wink before turning my eyes to the road. Now eat up. You know they don't allow any snacks inside the aquarium.
Mer-Mer's seven. She still hasn't noticed my forgetfulness. She simply shrugs off the moments I don't know a word or forget the date from her peripheral like it's a tiny insect, fanned away from her focus by her own bliss.
I keep both hands over the steering wheel, tightly wrapping my fingers around the rim. My body sometimes betrays me, usually when I'm not attentive and allow my mind to wander free.
The doctors call it Lewy Body Dementia, such a funny name for a wicked disease. I once knew a guy named Lewy; he was rather serious, brash even, and had a wide gap between his buckteeth. He wasn't at all funny, maybe, that's the thing about Lewy's, their names make them seem comical and tame, unable to lash out and show their fangs. Lewy was a hunter who skinned deer and sold hide on the market real cheap. He was stern and liked killing; he wasn't known to show mercy. I think this Lewy is the same, a predator that's devouring me slowly.
I'm the animal, being chewed by its teeth.
Mer-Mer loves the aquarium. I've been taking her here ever since she was three. She tells her classmates that I've got an important job here, that sometimes she has to be my sidekick at work, so she enters the place for free.
The other kids and their parents wait in line while we cut through the ribbon of people and walk in using the employee entrance.
Hello, Jan, I say, greeting the guard at her post.
Hey, Derek, she says. I see you brought Meredith to tag along today.
She's been begging all week to come. You know how she is, I say.
Can't get enough of her veggies.
Yuck, I hate vegetables, my granddaughter says. What are you talking about, Jan? I'm here to see Pimento and Sweet Pea!
The sea turtles, right? Jan laughs.
Yeah, the sea turtles, Mer-Mer says while raising herself onto her toes.
Well, let's not keep them waiting any longer. See ya later, Jan.
Bye, Meredith, the guard says.
I love how Mer-Mer sees my job as special or unique; how to her, it's a privilege to come into work with me. I tell her I'm a custodian worker, a fancy word for a janitor, that I have to keep the aquarium clean for all the sea creatures so that they feel more at home.
My boss isn't very fond of children. Dennis thinks it's a risk to have them roaming around the tanks and glass corridors. Little kids and teens are just begging to cause trouble, he generally says.
But Dennis likes Mer-Mer. He's known her from birth and went to school with her mother, Margie. Dennis was there when Margie got pregnant; he helped her by offering a job at the aquarium and getting her into the company's health plan. Dennis was also a big help when my daughter left, swept away by life's currents, by the anonymity and mystical calls of the big city. I asked if I could take a leave from work to help take care of my granddaughter, and he told me to take all the time I needed.
While I mop the floors and wipe the glass that children insist on putting their mouths on to imitate the fish, Mer-Mer walks around the maze of tanks and tunnels, pretending she's a water nymph or sea witch.
She scurries around the blue tunnel and makes wooshing sounds as if she's blasting off in an underwater spaceship.
She's read at least all the plaques in the aquarium tens of times and knows a good chunk of the facts by heart.
What's GPO stand for?
For Giant Pacific Octopus, she says.
And how fast can they...
They can change color in one-tenth of a second. Come on, grandpa! You can do better than that, she says, taunting me.
Alright, alright, I say. You want something a bit tougher, eh? I'll give it to you, Mer-Mer. What are the names of the seven species of sea turtles?
She blows me a raspberry and tells me I need to step it up. The Green Turtle, the Loggerhead, the Hawksbill, Leatherback, Flatback, the Kemp's Riley sea turtle, and my favorite, she says, the Olive Ridley sea turtle!
Haha, great job, kiddo, I say. Follow-up question, when were Pimento and Sweet Pea rescued and brought back to the Oregon Coast Aquarium?
Um...um...I don't know.
In 2021 and 2023, I say. Pimento was brought here a month after you were born. And Sweet Pea was found by a rescue team in Mexico just shy of your second birthday.
Okay, you got me, Mer-Mer says.
Still, you did well, I say while placing the stringy mop head into a bucket of water and suds.
My turn, my turn, it's my turn to ask now.
Hit me, I say.
How many sea creatures does the Oregon Coast Aquarium have?
There are currently 1,600 sea creatures in the exhibit. More than half less than a couple of years ago when we had 3,500.
Mer-Mer looks at me, a mixture of disbelief and sadness.
I know, I say. We've lost quite a lot in these past years.
I think about the numbers, how I remember them so well. How I was here, noticing the fishes dwindle and die out, helping the employees transport species of stingrays and sea leopards to institutions of a higher caliber. How Mer-Mer was only four and cried when one of the whales was put on a truck headed to Costa Rica.
What's the oldest multi-organ animal on Earth?
I know this. Hold on just a sec, I say. It's the um...um...
Mer-Mer sounds off like a buzzer, unwilling to wait for me to recollect the information swimming around in my brain.
It's the jellyfish.
The jelly what?
Haha, don't play dumb, she says.
But I'm not playing. I honestly have no idea what my granddaughter's talking about.
Hey, why don't you go to the dolphin tank and ask Gus if he'll let you help out feeding Gilly and Tails?
Okay, she says, sounding chipper. Can I then ask Gus if I can help out with Pimento and Sweet Pea?
Sure thing, Sweet Pea, I say.
That's not funny, she says with a straight face. Sweet Pea is a turtle's name, you know that.
Mer-Mer turns and skips down the hall, the sound of her flats clapping on the cement ground. She turns back.
Guess what I am? Think, she says while waddling away. She goes on, looking brave and giddy, with her head up high and chest puffed out.
An Emperor Penguin, I say.
She turns the corner and I think to myself. How long?
How long will I get to see my granddaughter in this way?
Her grandma's worried about me working still, but I can't stop; I can't stay at home and wait for the bits and pieces of me to erode. I need to create new memories, new happy snippets to replace the ones I'm bound to lose someday.
Part of me also could never stop working, at least not yet, not while Mer-Mer loves to come here to play. My granddaughter doesn't find my job boring or trivial; it's a task laced with bubbles and underworldly creatures on display, with tentacles and fins, and stories, and colorful words on signs with graphs and blue mirrors and warped reflections and all the fun facts you can drink in.
The doctors say that I could have a good five to eight years in me.
Only five to eight?
Unfortunately, your condition is progressive; there's no cure.
What does that mean? Will I eventually forget everything?
Maybe not everything. Your mind could still retain a few things.
Anything it finds really important.
I wonder if I will remember my granddaughter or if the disease will kill her off, poisoning that branch of my mind and leaving her memory to fall and be stepped on like spoiled fruit.
Don't worry, I say to myself. I grab the mop and bucket and walk to the supply closet, crossing an arch of glass and water, feeling like a creature in a foreign land.
She'll be fine. Eight years, I say. Eight years, and by then, she'll be fifteen, she'll be tall, and strong and well-taught. Mer-Mer won't be small, and she'll know more about the aquarium than anyone I know. She'll still come by and see Pimento and Sweet Pea and help out Gus and talk to Jan by the entrance. Maybe Dennis will help her out with a job, just like he did her mother. Perhaps, she'll stay, or maybe she'll leave to travel the world.
I throw out the dirty water in the small porcelain sink of the cubicle, leave the mop by the dark corner close to the entrance. I then exit the closet, turn off the lights, and lock the place up.
My hand doesn't release the knob. Instead, it tremors as if the handle's delivering an electric shock. My arm's vibrating flimsily like rubber. I tug, I tug, my fingers break loose.
Hey, Derek, are you okay?
I turn around and catch sight of the aquarium's caretaker with my granddaughter by his side.
What's going on? She looks to Gus and then to me. Gus thought we would find you here, she says. Are you okay?
I'm fine, Mer-Mer. Thanks for taking care of her, Gus. I owe you one.
No problem, he says. Meredith is a doll; she reminds me so much of my little girls.
Gus reaches out his hand but stops midway. He murmurs something while seeming unsure of his gesture as if it's offensive. His arm shifts and grabs my shoulder. See you tomorrow, he says.
He turns, pats Mer-Mer on her head, and leaves. My granddaughter is unreactive, standing like a scarecrow, looking at my limb.
I squat down. I think it's about time we go home, I say. Your grandma's probably missing you already.
What's wrong with your arm, grandpa?
Nothing, I say.
I place my hand on her chin, look at the warped silhouette of my body cast in her eyes. Grandpa's just feeling a bit tired. It was a long day, I say.
Mer-Mer nods. Does that mean we can't see Pimento and Sweet Pea one last time before we leave?
Of course not, I say. Let's go see those two together one last time.
We walk down the hall, Mer-Mer's shoulders bump against my waist.
Did you ever bring mom down to the aquarium? You know, when she was a little girl.
I don't think so, I say.
But being completely honest, I actually don't remember.