This story is by Joe Oswald and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On the first day of summer break Grandpa appeared at our front door. He didn’t have car, so I wasn’t sure how he got there. I only knew he startled mom when he did.
“Of course you can come in,” her guarded smile betrayed any hint of joy that followed.
Filing past, he hoisted a bulging suitcase with one arm and swung it into the foyer, the exposed fabric of a well worn shirt or trouser poked its way through a seam where a broken leather strap once secured the luggage at that end.
“Staying a while?”
“Not long,” his reply interrupted by the stub of an unlit cigar stumbling near the corner of his mouth. “I need to find my own place. It’s not working at Bill and Jean’s.”
I was only seven but for as long as I remembered Grandpa always lived with my Uncle and Aunt. And, as long as I remembered he’d show up at our house in this exact same manner, stating that exact same reason for escape and elicit that exact same reaction from mom, who’d then stand in the open doorway searching for any sign of the car that might have brought him. For a time, dad suspected Uncle Bill.
“Well, if you didn’t bring him, who did?” Dad would scold his brother by phone, thinking Uncle Bill wasn’t taking good care of Grandpa or believing Grandpa couldn’t take care of himself. It didn’t take them long to figure out how convincing Grandpa must have been to his tablemates at the church smoker, his poker buddies at the Legion, or the steady stream of perfect strangers who frequented Ray’s Tap, negotiating trips of great distance to a drop off point, not up the full length of our asphalt drive, but to the corner of our long pea-gravel street where he hiked the last quarter mile through a succession of overgrown, undeveloped lots to our house at the crest of a lonely cul-de-sac.
Dad and Uncle Bill argued back and forth about what to do about Grandpa’s wanderings, right up to “placing him in a home,” which besides making mom cry made little sense to me since he already seemed to have two.
As before, dad decided that Grandpa stay with us. And, as before, within a week, the knobs on the TV began disappearing. At first mom simply asked and he’d reach deep into his vest or shirt pocket, placing them one at a time into the open palm of her hand. True to form, as the days wore on he became less willing to simply hand them over, making her sit through stern lectures about how children watch too much television and that they should be doing chores or playing outside instead.
“Fresh air will do them good!”
Mom listened to his reprimands, even thanking him for his advice, until empathy no longer pried their whereabouts from him, leaving the TV’s glass picture tube stranded on the vacant bandwidth between channels. When he’d tire of its spectacle of grey and black dots, he’d reach behind the console, pull the plug and make them disappear.
More than his appearing out of nowhere at our front door or making TV knobs vanish, I had by that age fashioned Grandpa as sort of a magician the way he’d conjure chocolate éclairs and cream puffs out of ordinary ingredients stashed in his nearly empty cupboards whenever we’d visit. Once, I peered with him through the black glass of the oven at their rising shells. Not knowing what to look for I started wondering away.
“Here, let me show you a trick.”
With his flour-caked hands swollen by years of practicing his trade, he slid the index finger of one hand over the thumb of the other, pulling it in two before sliding it back together again.
Later, as the two of us stood by the sink …
“Did I ever show you this?”
Wide eyed I watched him take a mouthful of water and squirt it out his nose, a true wonder later exposed by dad to be nothing more than the birth defect that made his father’s deep hollow voice harder to decipher with age.
Of course Grandpa’s favorite trick was turning the contents of miniature whiskey and Brandy bottles my parents displayed under a soft blue light in a dining room glass cabinet, into ordinary tap water. But, he must have just been practicing that one, because he’d only attempt it when no one was around, never quite perfecting the mending of the torn paper seals on the bottles’ tiny tin cap’s – a small detail – but one that always seemed to upset dad.
“How many this time?” His interrogation began as mom whispered for him to lower his voice and ushered him into another room.
To encourage a different pastime, mom offered Grandpa her favorite chair.
“This is a good chair!” he’d shout to her in a distant room, his cigar prying loose the shadow of a grin on one side of his mouth.
The chair appeared to work. As summer progressed he rarely left it. He no longer seemed bothered by the TV or by how much fresh air we were missing, but rather charmed by the view he now had by way of our living room’s double-paned window. Far from the frozen inlet of Point Barrow and the Quonset hut ovens he once mastered, or the hot canvas shade of tent cities he once baked under while working dam projects in Utah, that crop of ranch style homes sprouting on the ridge at the very top of our subdivision might have seemed as foreign a land as any he’d encountered along the way. And, as that scene wore on him, even a most comfortable chair no longer curbed his more ancient urge to roam.
It began innocently enough with walks around the yard. Mom easily tracked him by way of the picture window, or a slightly smaller but well positioned window in the dining room, or an even smaller window over the kitchen sink. But the north side of the house, buffered by bedrooms rarely occupied during the day and containing windows whose views, obstructed by lilacs inexplicable tall for the clay soil they were forced to grow in, made it difficult to track him in that quadrant. For that, she relied on our neighbors and when the phone rang she’d know to walk as far into the kitchen as the coiled cord allowed, not knowing I’d hear every word from where I sat eating lunch at the dining room table.
“I know you don’t realize…”
Grandpa had mistaken a neighbor’s bushes for an outhouse.
That night, I lay in bed listening to my parents talking about Grandpa, about me, about the neighbors, and then about Dad’s car making an odd tapping sound. But when I woke the next morning dad had long left for work and mom was once again rocking in her favorite chair, looking out the picture window watching Grandpa walking up and down our dead-end street. His tan fedora matched his herringbone jacket that unbuttoned revealed his favorite short red linen tie with the fashionably frayed end hanging to where his once barreled chest met his now formidable belly.
For days walking alternate lengths of our gravel street became his routine, until the day he reached its only intersection and instead of turning around as he had countless times before, he turned left onto the road that led into the subdivision. Mom reassured me he’d be perfectly safe. She said the road in that direction made a perfect loop right back to where it began. She reassured me that the neighbors were gracious, even those at the top of our subdivision who we saw but never spoke to at church on Sundays. Sure enough, when the phone rang we’d learn Grandpa’s precise location, or which neighbor just had the most pleasant conversation with him and that they were sure he was on his way home. But mom couldn’t reassure me of what she didn’t know.
Summer break had ended, meaning I wasn’t home the afternoon Grandpa’s inner explorer got the best of him and instead of turning left onto the road that ended back where it began, he turned right onto a much longer and straighter road that, with a little help from kind strangers, took him far from our house in the suburbs, to a neighborhood deep within the heart of the city he once lived, to a bar and a stool and a bartender, who much later that evening called Dad with directions of where to find him.
Not the next day, but not many days after, Dad was on the phone with Uncle Bill. His voice was calm. His eyes were closed. His free hand kneaded his brow.
“It’s not working.”
Confused, I looked at mom.
“Grandpa’s getting a place of his own.” But, her eyes betrayed any hint of joy that followed.