Me and Granddad
By A.P. Fuchs
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When Granddad called me up and invited me to the family cabin for the weekend, I was surprised. Well, it wasn't actually the family cabin. It was his but he let all his siblings and their children use it. He and Grandmama had purchased the lot up by Lake Winnipeg sometime in the early eighties. With the help of his two daughters and their spouses, over the course of a summer the cabin had been built.
The cabin's a fair size. It runs roughly thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide, the ceiling starting at ten feet by the door, rising to sixteen in the middle, then descending back down to ten feet on the other end. And I'm proud to say that it had been my suggestion, when I was around sixteen or so, to make off with the ivory paneling on the outside and install artificial dark brown logs, giving it an old pioneer/early settler kind of feel.
I'm twenty-three years old now. Granddad's seventy-four. Grandmama is only sixty-seven...if you consider such an number as "only" when it comes to an elderly person.
Someone once asked me when I was helping Grandmama at a supermarket, loading groceries into her cart, helping her home, how old she was. The gentleman had guessed by her looks and zeal in her voice that she was in her mid-fifties. When I told him her real age, his eyes went wide, not believing me.
She keeps a positive attitude and that impresses me. Especially now since Granddad had fallen ill, lung cancer manifesting itself to its full extent as a result of his forty-some-odd years as a smoker. Granddad had been in the hospital twice, the second time being just two nights ago. Like I said before, I was surprised when he called up today and asked in his raspy, gurgly voice (his throat burnt to a crispy from the years of hot smoke, no doubt), "I just got out of the hospital, Robby, and I was wondering if you wanted to come up to the lake with me this weekend?"
"Do you really want me to come," I said, "or do you only want me there because I always have a pack of Winstons with me?"
He chuckled on the other end of the line, knowing I was on to him. Ever since he had come down with cancer, Grandmama had forbade him to buy any more cigarettes. "You're not going to help yourself to yer deathbed as long as I'm around!" she would scold him.
Of course Granddad, playing the sheepish innocent, obliged to her demands, only to secretly stash a cigarette here and there around the house. Knowing that he would do such a thing, Grandmama scoured the house top to bottom and found every last tube of tobacco, yelling at him each time a cigarette was found. Granddad didn't learn his lesson and often came to me, always complaining of a nic' fit.
Grandmama would have a bird if she knew I was slipping Granddad smokes, but, I figure, who was she or I to deprive him of one of his favored pleasures in life? In return for my supplying him with cigarettes, he treats me to different things: taking me out for breakfast, giving me gas money for my car...things like that. So far, our secret trade has gone on beneath Grandmama's notice.
However, since Granddad's recent turn for the worse, I've decided that I do not want to be responsible for his next visit to the I.C.U.
"I'll come along," I told him, "but I can't give you smokes anymore, Granddad."
"Aw, come on, Robert. Ah, okay, you win. Just don't smoke in front of me, okay?" he said, sounding as if I had just broken his heart.
"You know I can't let you smoke because I care about you, right?"
He sighed. "I'll pick you up Friday night around eight. We'll be at the lake before eleven."
I told him that sounded good. This should be a interesting weekend. Maybe I'll leave my cigarettes at home for the next two days, just to be safe?
* * *
The gravel seemed to crunch louder than usual when Granddad and I pulled into the cabin's driveway. It was more like a short, small stone covered path than a real driveway, the path not far from the road. I watched the headlights from Granddad's Ford pickup bathe the cabin with a yellow glow, transforming the dark brown of the cabin into a deep tan.
In all my years of coming here never have I arrived at night. Usual family trips to the lake were either done Saturday morning or afternoon, plenty of daylight left when we arrived.
Granddad put the truck in Park, idling it, gazing at the cabin as if it were a lost relative. And, in a way, I suppose it was. The cabin was as much family as both of us.
After a few minutes he turned the motor off and got out of the truck. I got out, too, rounding to the rear and pulled my duffel bag off from the bed. Hoisting the bag's strap over my shoulder, Granddad, giving my back a hard pat, gave me the key to the front door of the cabin. He told me he had to run to the outhouse at the left of the property and he didn't want me standing in the chilly night air waiting for him.
Granddad went off, disappearing into the night. I watched him dissolve into the darkness, and waited a moment in case anything went wrong. I don't know if he is able to manage himself as well as he used to since he had gotten sick. Once Granddad was out of view, I adjusted the bag's strap on my shoulder and made my way for the door.
A sudden gust of cool wind sent a shiver went up my back and down my arms. Bad timing, too, because my eyes had been locked on to the three black windows of the cabin, one for the kitchen, one for a bedroom, the last for the living room. The windows seemed to draw my eyes into their void, only darkness emanating from them, extinguishing the pale moon light that shone against them.
I walked up the two steps leading to the front patio landing. The screen door squeaked on its hinge as I opened it, revealing the door I had the key to. I stole a glance at the window to my left before entering, then perked an ear for Granddad. Blackness glanced back and silence hung on the air. I don't why I was being such a chicken shit. Actually, I do know why: too many scary movies and violent comic books. Disregarding the thought of an ogre with a human skin cloak waiting inside for me, I put the key into the lock, heard its unlatching, and went in.
I turned on the light. The cabin lit up. There was only two light switches other than those for the two bedrooms and the bathroom--one for the front door and main living area, the other for the back porch.
I slid my shoulder out of the strap, my bag falling to the always-dirty welcome mat beneath me.
Any childish fears I had when standing outside had vanished. It felt good to finally be back here. Startling me out my lamentation, the screen door behind me screeched open.
"So, are ya comin' in all the way or are ya jus' gonna stand there like a bellhop?" Granddad asked, putting a hand on my shoulder.
"Of course," I replied.
He appeared all right. His leathery skin was a bit paler than usual but he looked healthy enough. He smiled at me, lovingly, the crows feet by his eyes rising up. The gray hair atop his head was slicked back, as if he had just got out of the shower.
Picking up my bag, I shuffled off into the room where I'd be staying. The room was across from Granddad's.
I turned on the light and tossed my bag on the bed. I heard the coils of the mattress squeak from the weight. My room was plain, with pale yellow walls, a curtain-less window, a small closet and an oak dresser with mirror, all blending in nicely with the worn dark brown carpet of the floor. The carpets. That was another thing that I enjoyed about this place. Each room had a different colored carpet, most of them similar to the brown one in my room but different shades of brown nonetheless, except for the floor of the kitchen (the floor sharing the floor of the living room), which was covered in light tan tiles. The inside of the family cabin was a perfect testimony to the earth-tone theme of the seventies and early eighties.
Taking a few of my things out of my bag, I heard Granddad clanking around in the kitchen. He was probably preparing us a snack of some sort and some beer (he had come up here last weekend to stock the fridge and pantry).
Putting a sweatshirt on a hanger, I watched myself in my peripheral on the mirror to my left. It took a moment after hanging up the sweatshirt to actually look at myself squarely. I never liked what I saw when I looked in the mirror. And the reason I don't like it has nothing to do with my appearance. In the end, it all comes down to one thing: a child's vision of himself as to how he would look when he grew up. Back between the ages of seven and ten, I always envisioned myself growing up into your well-built, stubble-cheeked, deeply tanned, just-the-right-amount-of-blond-highlights-in-the-hair underwear model gentleman. Instead I look like his younger brother: pale-faced, sweaty-banged, thin-shouldered, beer-bellied-wino, with glasses and an AC/DC T-shirt. So much for being Don-Juan.
High school finished in June and I got a month before first semester at the University of Winnipeg. Not sure what I'll be when I grow up but in your first year of post-secondary, that doesn't matter. Everyone is enrolled in some University One program that came into being a few years back. It's basically Grade 12 all over again but maybe a little tougher.
Granddad hollered from the other room, telling me to get my ass in the kitchen. I shouted back, saying I'd be right there.
The kitchen table was neatly set: two frosted beer mugs set on opposite ends, a black ashtray in the table's middle. Granddad turned from the counter, a beer bottle in each hand. He set each bottle to a mug. I took my seat at the end of the table nearest the door. Granddad always sat at the end of the table farthest from the door.
He tilted his mug as he emptied the bottle. I did the same. He held up his mug, as if a toast, then took a large, satisfying swig. He let out an audible "Ahh." I took a swig of my own beer, the carbon of the beer stinging my throat on its way down.
"I say we should turn in early tonight," Granddad said. "An' tomorrow, we'll get up early an' hit the lake across the way, there." He gestured to the panning window opposite us which looked out onto the back property. The yard extended about a hundred feet then tapered off into a man-made lake, cleaned yearly, as well as stocked with fish. A two-minute walk from the yard and there was a path that led up to an old rickety bridge that you could sit on, hang your line from and wait until the fish bit.
"Sounds like a plan," I said.
He nodded and took another gulp.
I could tell he wanted a cigarette by the way he slouched in his chair, one hand gripping his mug, the other resting on his belly. He looked off somewhere through the kitchen window. As if he could see anything through the darkness that filled them. His eyes went from the window to me to the window again, then back to me, checking to be sure that I knew what he wanted but was to shy to ask for.
It was kind of amusing at first, seeing how long he could keep up his subtle yet obvious hints that he wanted to smoke. Soon it became annoying. Though Granddad was your Jack-of-all-trades grandfather, I was finding it disturbing that he was acting so childlike.
Knowing that it wasn't a good idea, I reluctantly removed my cigarette package from my jeans pocket and dropped it on the table. (I couldn't leave the smokes at home; fishing and smoking go hand in hand.) Granddad made like he didn't notice but I could see his eyes salivating at the package of coffin nails. Indulging him, I made show of removing a cigarette, putting it behind my ear and putting another between my lips. I paused, building his anticipation. His eyes took me in then peered back out the window. I thought to toy with him but decided against it, figuring Granddad had already had enough torture from being in the I.C.U.
I held the pack out to him, proffering him a cigarette. He made like he didn't want it then leaned forward in his chair, his arm extended, his fingers just touching the edge of my pack.
"You sure?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said, "go ahead. Just don't tell Grandmama."
He smiled his famous Granddad smile, the stubble on his cheeks scraping against each other in the folds of his skin.
He took the smoke and I slid my lighter across the table. He took a swig of his beer and lit up. I grabbed an ashtray from the cupboard over the sink then sat back down. Granddad said that he was having a good weekend so far. So was I.
* * *
It was sometime deep into the night, around 3:30, when I head the tick-tick-ticking of a clock. Hearing such a patterned noise in the silence of a house, hotel room, in this case, cabin, is normal. What bothered me about the ticking was that, as far as I was aware, Granddad never kept a ticking clock at the cabin. As old-fashioned as he was, his clocks were digital. He was also a light sleeper and even though the ticking was relatively quiet, it still would be enough to wake him.
I wondered if he was awake now or, perhaps, since I haven't spent the night here in so long, if Grandmama had insisted that Granddad install that antique analog clock that has been stationed above the stove at their apartment since God knows when, simply because she never liked digital, unlike Granddad. Such "nouveau" clocks were disrespectful to the old way of doing things, I recall her telling me. Maybe it was that old clock that was making the ticking.
Granddad wasn't one to be pushed around by anyone--except by Grandmama. She had Granddad wrapped around her old and wrinkled finger. I once asked Granddad why he cowers under her like a puppy in trouble with his master, and he responded with a wink, "'Tis called love, kiddo. I may not like it but I'll be damned if I don't make her smile by doin' what she wants now and again. You'll know what I mean when ya find yerself a cute little honey one day. I guarantee that. Jus' you wait and see, boy."
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I rolled over and tried to ignore the tick-tick-tick that seemed to have grown louder over the past ten seconds. I cleared my mind and waited for the drowsiness hanging over me to turn into a full-fledged fatigue and whisk me away to La La Land, far away from the ticking.
I started to slip away, that good feeling of inevitable sleep setting in when the ticking grew even louder. Granddad must surely be awake now. How could he not be? Forty bucks says he'll shut that damn clock up and in a minute or two he and I will be back asleep and in the morning, neither of us will remember waking.
The ticking's loud and I can only imagine how loud the ticking is on the other side of my closed door.
Come on, Granddad, hurry it up, I thought. Turn that damn clock off!
I groaned, frustrated, and threw my blankets back, the cool breeze coming from my open window immediately attacking all the skin that isn't covered by my boxer shorts. I took a moment and let the goosebumps seize me before getting out of bed.
There's enough light in my room to help me find the door. Shivering, I stepped out, creeping into the dark gray of the cabin, the shapes of the furniture vaguely outlined in the subtle amount of available light, no doubt minimized by an overcast of cloud.
I was right, too, about the ticking being louder out here. Sounds seem always louder in the dark, too. Don't know why.
Granddad's door is partially open. He is asleep. I can hear his snoring, which is more like a garbled wheezing. Not wanting to disturb his sleep, I followed the sound of the ticking. It got louder toward the back porch. Why the clock is back there, I don't know.
The door to the back porch is closed, not that it would matter during a break-in. There is no lock. Only the door that led from the back porch to the back lot has a lock. Not that the lock would help anyway. It's one of those rinky-dink locks that all you have to do is push against the door from the inside then turn it to lock it. A burglar worth his loot would have no trouble getting through that "impenetrable" security.
"I remember the day when we didn't have to lock our doors at night," Granddad once told me. He got a lock for the back door simply because all the neighboring cabins had one. And he had a lock on the front door, too, so might as well make them match, right?
Anyway, I opened the door. The ticking doubled in volume. I glanced toward Granddad's room to see if he's awoken by it. He isn't. I can still hear him wheezing in his sleep.
Flicking on the porch light, I stepped in, my eyes adjusting to the glare and as they do, I scan for the source of sound that had interrupted my sleep. It seems to be coming from the back corner, beneath a box of historical romance novels that belong to Grandmama.
There's hordes of other junk in the porch, too--a couple of broken chairs, a table, Granddad's tool box, blankets and other old-people antiquities that make you wonder why they even bought such things to begin with, like a porcelain ballerina that's missing a leg with faded paint as old as time. There's a bunch of other crap there as well.
I stepped carefully between boxes of more junk, tripping over a couple, as I made my way to the corner.
The ticking is far more louder, here. This can't be a clock. Sounds more like a bomb (as if I'd ever heard a bomb tick before--only in the movies).
I bent over and wrapped my hands around the back edges of the box of novels. With a mighty heave, I lifted the box and placed it on the vintage kitchen table beside me. I was right. There was something beneath the box of Grandmama's books. Another box, without a lid. On top of it a well-worn orangy-red towel is draped over a smaller box (the box the clock is in). With the tips of my forefinger and thumb, I picked off the towel.
And there it is: a well-polished, antique box. I can see that the box has a lid. The clock's inside. It better be because I don't like the idea of the ticking coming from somewhere else in this cramped little porch. It'd be a lot of work to find it.
I picked up the box--it's fairly light--and opened its lid.
It's not a clock. It's not a bomb, either. It's a metronome, secured in a blue velvet-mould within. I removed the metronome's wooden cover and watched as its arm rocked back and forth across the ivory front, counting the beat to a song that isn't playing.
Since we have one of these things at home (my sister plays piano), I know how to turn it off.
Granddad's wheezing suddenly increased. It sounds like he was panicking in his sleep. A bad dream, perhaps. His wheezing gets louder. I wonder if I should go and check on him, make sure he's all right. I don't want him back in the I.C.U. He coughs in his sleep and begins wheezing again. I should go check on him. I suppress the arm and replace it under the bracket at the top of the unit. Then...
Granddad's wheezing fades.
* * *
The next morning I woke to the neighbor's dog barking and to the twittering of a small bird outside my window. Groggy, I checked my watch. It's close to 10 AM. Knowing that if I sleep in Granddad'll have my head (he's an early riser; "The day's a'wasting," he used to say), I got up and went to the bathroom before going into the kitchen.
My ears are expecting to be greeted by Granddad's congratulating me of joining the world of the living. "Good Lord," he usually says, "look at what just rose from the grave."
The kitchen is empty. I took a quick glance around. The living room is empty, too. The blinds are open, so is Granddad's bedroom door. I walked over, knowing he won't be in there (I just sensed it), but went to check on him anyway, just in case he's not feeling too well (he was, however, lying peacefully when I went to his room last night after being in the porch, so he should be up). He's not there. His bed is neatly made, blankets drawn tight then folded in on an angle at the corners of the mattress, military-styled.
I went back to my room, threw on a Megadeath T-shirt and a pair of ripped jean shorts, and returned into the kitchen.
Something suddenly doesn't feel right. I gaze out the window above the sink, expecting to see Granddad's truck. I don't. Instead I'm looking at my car, a half-rusted, silver Toyota Camry, parked askew on the gravelled driveway.
"What the hell..." I raked my fingers through my hair. The taste of morning-breath suddenly seems stronger. I looked at my car again, this time noticing the dashboard littered with burger wrappers and beer labels.
"Granddad?" I called into the cabin.
Without putting on my shoes, I went out to my car, shouting for Granddad all the way.
I ran my hand along the hood of my car and reached the driver-side door. The door's unlocked. I open the door and am greeted by the pulsing beep of the car telling me that my keys are still in the ignition, the car turned to ON.
Plopping myself down in the driver's seat, I turned the key back in the ignition and turned the car off. Then I tried the ignition. No go. Dead. Drained the battery.
Confused, my eyes roamed over the messy dashboard, the passenger seat that has a case of beer on it, the cigarette butts that have spilled from the ashtray, the butts of two joints stubbed out in the cup holder.
I don't know two things. One, how the hell my car got here. Two, if someone drove it here last night, how all the booze got in here. Certainly not from anyone in my family. My dad gave up drinking, even socially. My mom has never touched a drink in her life. My sister, Stephanie, is too young to drink let alone drive a car.
Granddad? No. Even if he did decide to be reckless and booze it up on the way back here, say, if for whatever reason, drove his truck back to the city and came back here in my car early this morning, it still doesn't explain the joints in the cup holder. I don't think Granddad even knows what a joint is. And who would he get one from, anyway?
My thoughts are distracted when I hear the telephone ring from inside the cabin. Knowing that I shoulder answer it or get in shit from Granddad if it's an important call, I got out of the car, close the door, and walked to the cabin. My feet are suddenly sensitive to the prickly grass on the way there.
As I pass the outhouse, I consider the possibility of Granddad being in there. About to go to the outhouse instead of answering the phone, I stopped, reconsidered, then headed over to the cabin, picking up my pace. The phone has rang over eight times. Whoever is calling hasn't given up yet.
Inside, I picked up the old rotary phone mounted next to the refrigerator.
"Hello?" I answered.
"What are you doing there?" my mother asked.
"What do you mean what am I doing here?" I'm not following her. I leaned up against the counter. "Granddad invited me up here yesterday."
My mother cleared her throat. When she spoke her voice was weak, concerned. "Robert, Granddad was in the hospital yesterday. He died last night."
My insides suddenly felt empty. What was she talking about, he's dead? Last night Granddad and I...
I see the ashtray is gone from the table. I placed my palm on the countertop and pulled it away, feeling something dirty on my skin. My hand has a thin film of dust on it. I looked around the cabin. The couch in the living room, the chair, the TV stand, and the coffee table all have white blankets draped over them.
"Are you okay?" my mother asked. "Why are you out there?"
I didn't respond but instead looked out the window, past my car and to the For Sale sign staked into the ground beside the mailbox near the edge of the driveway.
"Mom, I..." I can't finish. My head feels as if my thoughts and memories are scattered like a filing cabinet ransacked by an intruder, the files dumped on the floor.
My disbelief of my mother's claim of Granddad being dead faded a little and was replaced by the hollow pain of heartache.
"Listen," Mom said, "just stay there and Dad and I will come and get you."
"O-okay," I said. My legs wobbled as if rubber, so I sat down at the table.
About to say good-bye, I heard a ticking in the background, on the other end of the line.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's Granddad's metronome, back when he played the piano."
Mom went on. "Stephanie's going to play a song for Granddad's funeral. Grandmama insisted she practice with Granddad's metronome instead of her own, making it more special."
I can't believe what's going on.
"Granddad had that metronome beside his hospital bed during his last days," my mother said. "He said the rhythm from it calmed him down and made him less apprehensive about death. I'm surprised it still works, though. It's real old."
"Why?" I asked not really knowing why I asked.
"Because," she said, "it stopped its beat when Granddad died, as if the beat was keeping him alive and someone then decided it was time for Granddad to go."
I flashed back to the night before and how I stopped the metronome from ticking. Granddad's garbled wheezing stopped then, too. How could I have, if I did...I'm not sure what I'm thinking. I didn't kill him. But given last night, maybe I was somehow in a place outside of time, out of reality.
Needing to be alone, I said good-bye to Mom. She said she and Dad will be out here this afternoon. I told her that was fine and hung up.
I went back to my room, grabbed a cigarette and lit up.
Here's to you, Granddad. Here's to you.
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