We watched the cat saunter in the open door. A yellow tom named Whiskers. Neighbor's cat.
"Here kitty, kitty, kitty," called my grandfather in a falsetto croon.
Whiskers, a rather gregarious fellow, yowled his hellos and curled up around my grandfather's leg. In return, he received a friendly ear rub before he set off for the kitchen and the waiting dish. Grandpa's last cat died of cancer a month ago, right after a Costco run to stockpile cat food. This made Whiskers the beneficiary of an otherwise tragic event.
My grandfather turned to me and spoke in that loud monotone, peculiar to the recently deaf, "Did I ever tell you about Benny?"
I had heard every story my grandfather ever told at least a dozen times, but they were genuinely interesting to me so I patiently shook my head no.
'Well, Benny loved peas. We had an icebox -- you know what that is? A man would deliver a block of ice every Tuesday and we'd wrap it in newspaper and set it in a rectangular box which kept the food cool. Beneath the ice box was a gap for circulation. Dad would throw raw peas under there and then we would watch Benny fish them out."
Grandpa laughed and I smiled.
As his laughter dwindled, his eyes softened and his face slackened. "He was the best dad anyone could have."
I studied him closely. You would had to have known him twenty-five years ago. His emotional spectrum ranged from impassive to enraged. Now though? Now he had discovered positive expression.
"I have an appointment for the tax man on the 22nd."
Inwardly I sighed. "I know. I'm taking you," I replied pleasantly.
"But I have a dentist appointment at the same time."
"It's 3 hours later and I'm taking you to that too."
He seemed more clouded than usual so I asked him if Melody had been by to see him yesterday. The intent wasn't to confuse or highlight his forgetfulness, but to gauge his state of mind.
He hesitated and then said haltingly, "I'm pretty sure she didn't come by."
She had been there for two hours and made him lunch. His memory was never good these days but the whiskey and Oxycodone didn't help. I wondered which he might have partaken from today.
"Look up in those trees there," he said, pointing at the four firs that rose imposingly from the neighbor's bottomland. "There's always people climbing around in those branches up there."
"I think he rents out that land to some oddballs."
I turned away from him, staring at the tree without comment. Following the deep grooves in our ritual track, he then said, "I've always seen spirits, but this house is some sort of gateway."
Facing him again, I gave him the customary expression of contemplative interest, waiting for the rocks.
"And that picture there (it's taken near the four corners, you know), if I stare at it closely enough, I see a man disappearing into those rocks."
Hunching my shoulders slightly and narrowing my eyes, I diverted my intent gaze to the picture in question. It's actually a good one, not his best, but he certainly had talent back in the age of film and dark rooms. The picture broke roughly into thirds. A jumbled V of grey stone in the foreground funneled the observer onto a red desert plain stretching placidly through the midst of the picture. A distant ribbon of mountains separated the last third, a cloud pocked sky of bright blues and whites. It made me a little sad to see these pictures. He loved the desert and had always wanted to live out his last days there, that is until my parents were murdered and he took me in.
"You may think I'm crazy, but it's true."
I smiled at him kindly and he grabbed the remote to turn on the tv. Once on, he flipped to one of the many military channels the satellite dish afforded him. Turning the volume to a level usually reserved for heavy machinery, he sat back in his overstuffed leather chair.
Deciding this was an opportune time to make dinner, I retreated to the adjoining kitchen. While cutting the stems from some brussel sprouts, his favorite, I vaguely heard him ask a question. I walked over to the bar cutout and yelled, "what?"
"I said are you spending the night?"
"Yes, my wife is out of town."
I repeated it a second time at his request and then he picked up the remote saying, "Let me turn this damn thing down."
Once he'd found the mute button, he turned to me again. "You spending the night?"
"Yes, my wife is out of town."
"Your wife is scouting the crown?"
Irritated, I tapped my ear, my signal for where the hell is your hearing aid?
I got out the bacon and set up the frying pan while he put the hearing aid in.
"Now what did you mumble?"
"I said, yes I'm spending the night since my wife is out of town."
"Oh, that's what you said. Well, good."
Soon I had bacon-sprinkled brussel sprouts and pre-mixed fettucini alfredo cooked up and ready on the table. He tottered into the kitchen and ate with surprising gusto. Unusual, but I was glad to see it.
Later we settled down to watch the last half of Gone With The Wind, he on the couch, I in the overstuffed chair. He had been appalled that I had never seen the epic film and taped it for me to remedy the gaping chasm in my education. I quite like Clark Gable, so even with the soap-opera-ish plot and questionable historical context, it was enjoyable to watch with him. It reminded me of his stories of the Deep South and all the charming nuances of the region that his tales had led me to explore for seven years.
As the silhouetted oak tree filled the screen and the bold fonted "The End" appeared from the red sky, I looked over to see my grandfather sleeping. Throwing the blanket over him -- he always slept on the couch these days -- I turned off the tv and lamp.
Feeling my way downstairs I headed to the couch, since it was doubtful if the sheets had been changed on the guest bed in the last five years. Not yet sleepy, I turned on the study light and pulled some of his Harvard Classics from the shelf. Interestingly, he had 3x5 cards in the front giving a synopsis of each book, to include favorite page numbers.
After thumbing through several I paused. Psalm 25, verses 16-18 were underlined on one page, the very same verses I had written in my own journal years ago when I had reached my lowest ebb:
Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses.
Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins.
I read the verses a second time and then closed the book, turning out the light, my mind curiously blank.
I awoke to a mild thump and an angry shout that coalesced into a coherent, "Get away from me, you bastards."
I paused, still somewhat groggy and unsure exactly what was happening.
"I told you sons-of-bitches to leave me alone."
This time I could hear the slurried sleep in his voice. Well, not being in danger of imminent death at the hands of some intruder was a plus. However, as I heard the flashlight come on with an audible click, I knew this was in one hand and his M1911 Colt .45 in the other. I watched the light beam cut through the night outside, whenever his sweep passed the west facing windows. As the flashing light slowed its sporadic sweeps, I went halfway up the steps and called out my childhood name for him, "Bapa."
"Is that you, boy?"
"It's me," I shouted, continuing up the stairs.
He sat on the couch, pistol in one hand, light in the other.
"Put the gun down, there's nobody here but us chickens."
He grinned at hearing one of his own platitudes and put the gun under the couch while I sat in the chair, turning on the lamp.
We sat for a moment in silence. I had just nodded off when his voice stirred me.
"I see those people in the tree. Let's go see what they are doing."
This didn't seem as strange to me as perhaps it should have, so I agreed and we went out the front door and towards the neighbor's yard. Crossing the lawn, we slid through the split rail fence and shuffled down the hill to the base of the firs.
Looking up, I saw a distinct yellow glow in the branches above. Before I could comment, a wooden platform lowered to the ground and we both stepped on. Raising us past the heavy limbs the platform stopped beside a particularly broad branch. A young woman, a young woman suffused with yellow light to be exact, took our hands and led us onto the branch.
"Who are you," I asked.
"One of the oddballs," she laughed, eyes twinkling.
Be nice, Hannah," said a handsome youth, also emanating a pleasant yellow glow. "My name is Kendrick," he said, shaking our hands.
A melody, like cascading water, washed over us and Hannah clapped her hands in delight. "Let's dance."
I never would have figured that my grandpa could do more than a dozen steps without collapsing in a heap, but we moved our feet and swayed our hips for what seemed like hours. Kendrick and Hannah laughed and smiled infectiously through it all, others drifting in and out of the dance in a treebound festival, replete with white and orange stars twinkling all about us like 4th of July sparklers. All of these strange people exuded a soothing happiness that made one relax completely in their presence.
I knew it must be getting near daybreak and said that my grandpa and I should be going. They laughed and said, "Let him stay here with us for a while."
Again, this should have signalled something to me probably, but hey, it was Kendrick and Hannah. I mumbled something about bringing him home soon and they gently guided me to the platform. I hardly remember climbing the hill and crossing the yard, but when I walked in the house, I finally understood.
There I sat in the chair and there lay my grandfather on the couch. I went back to the chair and looking through my own eyes again, peered first at him and then the firs, silhouetted darkly against the blue-black sky. I was not filled with panic or a budding grief as I had envisioned. Simply a pleasant sorrow that I chose to savor for a few minutes, knowing it made no difference when I made the calls I had to make.
Looking up at the picture, the one taken near the four corners, I distinctly saw my grandfather clambering down the gray rocks to the red desert. I leaned forward, my interest not feigned, smiling lightly. He turned once and waved and then descended into the vast plain.