Tuesday, September 18, 2007

See Off This Mountain, Part 2

The following is Part 2 of a serialized work of creative nonfiction. As it was once a single whole, the pieces are meant to be read in order. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

It was inspired, somewhat, by a piece of music by South Carolina-born singer-songwriter Edwin McCain. If you're interested in hearing the music, you'll find it here.

“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

See Off This Mountain (pt 2)

(a memory evoked by the music and lyrics of Edwin McCain)

Continued from Part 1.
During my grandfather’s life and our childhood, every Sunday night saw my mother walk my two younger sisters and me across Enochville Avenue to his house, where the smell of Banquet fried chicken, or Banquet roast beef, or a Swanson Turkey TV dinner met us as soon as we entered the door. This was supper, every Sunday, without fail. TV dinners on TV trays, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and then The Wonderful World of Disney. The 36-inch console color television sat at one end of the rectangular room, capped by the dial which rotated the antenna on top of the house. Grandpa sat at the other end, directly beneath an ornately framed twenty-four by thirty-six inch portrait of my captivatingly beautiful grandmother. Along the two longer walls, on Naugahyde couches, were arranged the venerable old man’s progeny: three grandchildren and his only child, my mother, who inherited both her mother’s beauty and its curse.

Grandpa never said more than five or six sentences during any Sunday evening visit. “There’s more chicken in there.” “There’s ice cream [small cups, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, wooden spoons wrapped in paper] in the freezer.” “Take some of those Reese’s Cups home with you.” “Don’t you want a Hershey Bar?” He was never senile. Nor was he ever weak. Six foot five and gangly, but solid as a rock. When I think of him, walking around the store, left hand in pocket jingling change, he seems so long-legged to me now that he emerges in my memory as the man on stilts at Mardi Gras. I never saw him smoke, but neighbors have told me that he used to shovel the butts out from behind the counter at the store, literally, shovel. Then, sometime before I was born, a doctor told him that he wouldn’t live beyond another year if he didn’t give up smoking. Grandpa said he’d get things in order then, because he knew he couldn’t give up cigarettes. The doctor replied with six words: “If you’re a man you can.” Vastine threw what was left of the pack in his pocket in the doctor’s trash can and never touched another.

He was strong enough to live on until the winter I completed my ultralight, but not long enough to see it fly. He would not come into the basement of the store to see it under construction. It would be another two and a half years before I would understand why. He lived on, but he did so as a walking ghost. His mind was all there, but he was not. He was as sealed off from me and my sisters and all the world as the tightest tomb of the pharaohs. That he loved us, we never doubted, for he opened to us the coffers he had closed to my mother and her mother, Deer Haven notwithstanding. There was no gift he would not have bought us for the asking. But we never asked, for they came faster than our awareness of desire. A second cabin on Lake Norman, a ski boat, a boat house, skis, a diving board mounted to the pier, all he said he bought for his grandchildren. Soon after he bought it, we named it “The Getaway,” and the appropriate routed and burned wooden plaque appeared shortly thereafter at the turnoff from the paved road. After 1965, we spent every weekend there, from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, when we would return to supper at his house. He himself came to that cabin not a dozen times in as many years. He preferred solitude.

He “retired” from the store after another doctor told him that if he didn’t get off his legs and stay off them, he wouldn’t last that year either. Somewhat grudgingly, he complied. His days, became a rotation from bedroom, to the chair beneath my grandmother’s portrait, to the kitchen where he lived on canned soup and toast with butter and apple jelly, back to the chair beneath the portrait. What did he watch on that TV all day? Did he have favorite soaps? What did he see in that room when no one else was there? How did he stand even being there? How was he able to keep walking through that front door after coming home for lunch from the store that February day in 1960? God himself is more merciful on the damned. All I ever knew was that Grandma had died before my first birthday. Not until I was twenty-seven, and my grandfather, whose quiet retreat into himself I had never been perceptive enough even to try to understand, had been dead himself for some three years, did I learn that my grandmother had taken her own life by putting a bullet through her heart. And it was by accident that I learned this fact even then.

Shortly after I moved from Goldsboro, North Carolina, to Merced, California, in 1985, I came home to my apartment from an eight-hour flight and debriefing to find a message on my answering machine. My father’s voice, more tired and defeated than ever I had heard it. “Chris . . .“ That single salutation and then a long pause during which I hypothesized the death of my mother and each of my sisters in turn. “This is your father . . .“ Well no shit, Dad! And then another long pause, during which I fumbled to get the desk chair beneath me as my knees gave way and hypothesis congealed to certainty and a single death grew to some catastrophic accident that had left him and me alone in the world. “Someone broke into the store two nights ago, and the bastards burned the thing down.” Hallelujah!

My father had been awake for over 48 hours when he made that call, so I forgave him for killing and then resurrecting everyone dear to us both. A day later, after a long and well-earned sleep, he began the task of sorting through the ashes of what had been our family’s livelihood for two generations. He began by himself, a single man with a shovel, clearing away all that had burned, which was, in fact, everything but the brick walls. Within two hours there were no less than forty people with shovels at work in those ashes. By the day’s end, Bill Durham had driven an eighteen-wheeler into our yard, backed a front-end loader and backhoe off a trailer and said simply, “Let me know when you’re done with ‘em.” Within two months, the store would be rebuilt, though only a single story tall now. When I came home on leave from California months later, Dal’s Bread & Bolts was not only open again, they had added a grill and dairy bar.

During that leave, I agreed to ride to Charlotte one night with my much older cousin, Marty, pilot, drag racer, car dealer, occasional Special Agent for the State Bureau of Investigation, and all around good ol’ boy. Sitting in the lounge at a Holiday Inn on the north side of the Queen City, I was sipping Scotch and soda to Marty’s Jack Daniels and listening to him brag about the damage he had done to one of the druggies who’d broken into the store. The poor sap and his partner had had the forethought to set the place on fire to hide the fact that they’d broken in, but then for some reason, while one ended up hiding in the knee-deep poison oak that filled the gully behind the store, the second, disoriented by the smoke or by his own drug-induced haze, ended up cowering in a corner of the hardware section, where Marty found him as he swept through trying to find the source of the blaze.

“I just said ‘Well, come on fella, let’s go,’ and would you believe that sumbitch took a swing at me? I just took that six volt lantern and whopped him right square on the top of his damn head, then picked him up off the floor by his collar and his belt and started haulin’ his limp ass out of there. About the time I get to the nail bin, sumbitch wakes up and starts swingin’ at me, while I’m carryin’ him. I just swung backwards with him and plowed his face into a tray. When I stood him up, there was roofing nail hanging from his cheek right here and I just thought, ‘What the hell’ and so I hauled off and drove it on in for him.”

As Marty is telling this story, I’m thinking this has to be the umpteenth time that his newest wife, bleached blond and chain-smoking-thin Luann has heard it, but I sense she’s not so much listening to him as studying me to gauge the reaction of the family fly-boy, home from California for a visit.

“So I pick the bastard up again and start toward the door and this time when he starts swingin’ at me I’m standing beside all the glass scraps your Dad leans up against the wall by the glass cutter, so I rare back again and swing his face through about six plates of odds and ends. When I drop his sorry ass that time he stumbles up and there’s a whole flap of his face from one corner of his mouth around to this ear sort of hanging off and I said, ‘Alright fella listen. I’m not gonna carry your ass one more inch out of this store. You're gonna walk out, and I swear to God, if you swing at me one more time, I’ll flat kill you right where you stand.’”

Were it anyone but Marty I would think this exaggeration, but it is Marty and I know him well enough to know he’s probably holding back, if anything.

“So I get this asshole outside and your dad says to me, ‘I’ve got to get one more thing. I’ll be right back.’ And by this time it’s not just smoke pouring out of the upstairs windows anymore, it’s fire, and I mean the parking lot was lit up like day and it was startin’ to get pretty warm. Do you want to guess what he comes carryin’ out of there?”

“I can’t imagine,” I say, honestly.

“He crawled all the way back to the safe and comes back out carrying two things: the money bag and that .32 revolver.”

“Jesus!” I say. “It’s a fireproof safe. Why didn’t he just leave it to dig out the next day? And what the hell is so special about that gun anyway.”

“Don’t you know?”

“He always told me it he brought it back from Alaska when he got out of the Army. I thought maybe it was the only thing in his life he ever stole.”

Marty stares at me incredulously. “Son, that’s the pistol your grandma shot herself with.”

Silence. Then, “Uh oh.” Then, “You didn’t know.” This is not a question.

“Grandma Smith?” I say.

“Oh shit,” says Marty, and for the first time I can remember in two decades, I see my cousin at a loss for words.

“It’s okay, Marty,” I reassure him.

“I will just be damned. You’re kiddin’ me. You didn’t know at all, did you? Not just about the gun, I mean, you really didn’t know. Shit! I’m sorry, man. Christ! I’m really sorry.”

“Really. It’s okay. It’s time, I guess. I can’t believe they kept it a secret all these years.” I’m no longer looking at him now but at the suddenly too small glass of Scotch in my hand.

“Damn I’m sorry,” says Marty, quiet now. He tosses back what’s left of his Jack Daniels, picks up Luann’s from the table and tosses it back too. “Damn it. Just damn it all to hell.”

Concluded in Part 3, here.