My grandmother was eighty-nine and blind
and I was a young boy hungry for quarters,
so, in the waning light
of Sunday afternoons, my parents gone,
I would ring the doorbell
(my friend Raymond smirking
from behind the stairwell) and listen
for the slow shuffle of slippers
in the hall, the soft thump
of her body against the closet.
She would come to the door,
my parakeet Jerry trapped in her hairnet,
stammering a "Who's there?" in minimal English,
between the chain and the doorjamb,
and, without hesitancy or shame,
in a cracked, mock-Hassidic voice,
I'd answer: "United Jewish Appeal,"
swaying my hand, like a small plane
moving over an airstrip, toward her.
She would open the door—tentative,
timid, charity having won out over terror—
and reach a palm out into the hallway,
the way she reached out under the candles
to bless me on Sabbath. "My daughter . . ."
she would stammer, "she is not home now,"
poking her eyes like Borges into the vastness.
A better heart than mine was
might have stopped there, but I was a boy
ravenous for malteds and baseball cards,
so I repeated the words of my small litany,
"United Jewish Appeal," and reached my hand out again
until it almost touched the blue print of her smock.
All the while my parakeet sat there,
dropping small coils of bird shit onto her hair
until she retreated again down the long yellow hallway,
reading the braille of the walls
with her hands. And I would wink
at my good friend Raymond behind the stairwell
when the rattle of change clanged out
from my parents' bedroom, and we heard again
the slow sweep of her feet, and, at last,
the shiny fruits of cleverness and hunger
fell into my palm, and my grandmother Johanna,
the parakeet still flapping like a crazed duck
in her hairnet, closed the door behind her,
leaving me and my friend Raymond
to frolic off into the sun-licked,
agnostic streets of Washington Heights,
full of the love of grandmothers
and of change, forever singing the praises
of the United Jewish Appeal.