Monday, March 05, 2007

"You can work all you want to, Jay...

"...but I'm not going to pay you."

My grandfather, dead nearly seven years now. Angry, bigoted, fair, loving, talented, alcoholic, childish, paternal. Self-taught professional engineer, building contractor, jazz pianist. He was the only person in the family who had a library that looked like it had once been used, the only person I knew as a kid who repaired small electronics. He did this not with the zeal not of a hobbyist, but with the loving devotion of a skinflint, and it was not that he was cheap, exactly, but he was careful about where the dollars went. He was the guy who'd peruse Consumer Reports for a month before purchasing an appliance, make the decision to buy a piece of crap anyway, and then keep it running indefinitely. He was the guy that tuned his car perfectly and then drove it at twenty miles an hour, leather gloves on his hands and the most unstylish cap imaginable slung jauntily across his brow.

I must have been 18 that summer, living at home between college sessions. My grandfather hired me on the weekends to cut grass, trim hedges, install (but not finish) drywall, you name it. He did this out of both charity and a sense of grandfatherly character-building. Even though he was starting to get on in years, he still had more energy for pure labor than I did, and I don't think he really needed teenagers to work for him. I did it because I felt obligated--both to my parents and to the old man himself. I had a weekday job, but it was understood that if Mom and Dad were paying the tuition, I'd spend the summers scaring up whatever cash I could to help out. He paid six or seven bucks an hour. It was a matter to pride to offer something competitive with whatever I might be earning on the outside with my limited skill set.

When Jay pulled his econo-styled vehicle into the driveway, I was poised with pickaxe over my head, unflatteringly shirtless, knocking chunks out of granddad's concrete retaining wall.

"Jesus K, what the hell are you doing?"

"What the fuck does it look like I'm doing?"

"Are you almost done?"

It was, I'll add, something of a perfect July afternoon. In my mind's eye, I can see the soft blades of the old man's perfect lawn right there on my left, gigantic maples swaying in the slight breeze and casting mottled shade across the lawn and the wall and the black driveway a level below. Free of the tree, the slanting rays held promises of the sort I could still read in those days.

I was not anywhere near done.

"I've got to finish breaking off all this crumbling stuff, and then get down just a little deeper than that."

"You got another pickaxe?"

My wife doesn't really understand why Jay and I haven't drifted further apart over the years. This sort of thing is a big part of it. Gamely, he picked up a hammer and started swinging. We were at it a good half hour before my grandfather stormed out with those words, famous now in our memories. It was startling at the time, but with twice the years under our belts, we joke about them. (For my grandfather's part, I think he really enjoyed shouting them out.)

I painted three houses in my youth, for pretty much the same reasons. One was the home of my dad's boss, who was shaping the place up (on the cheap) to sell. Another was, along with a couple of my friends, the summer cabin of Dad's work buddy. We spent the weekend on some forgotten pond somewhere in New Hampshire, minors, armed with employer-provided paint and beer and a free place to crash. It should have been the best house-painting experience ever (in truth, we sort of failed to seize the moment), but it paled next to the caretaking of my grandfather's house.

It must have been the year after the wall, though possibly it was the same year. I try to pinpoint the moment by the succession of junk heaps my younger brother was driving. Since I'd by then done the painting gig a couple of times before, Granddad hired me to paint his house while he went on vacation with his wife, $500 for the whole thing. It was more than generous in his mind, considering the quality of the help he was getting. He was probably right.

I had only a couple of weeks to get the project done, so I subcontracted Jay and my brother as helpers, offering them a cut. $500 dollars seemed a little parsimonious to us budding entrepreneurs, so we compensated the income by shamelessly raiding the old man's liquor closet. My parents had a liquor cabinet, but my grandfather had a fully stocked armoir. He bought gin and vermouth in bulk, at whatever discount he could find, and though he could keep track of every cent he spent, the booze itself had a habit of disappearing by its own accord. (Hey, he was retired.) It took a lot of balls, but the incursion wasn't really very risky.

Ladders and gin mix about as well as you might imagine. Jay and I still debate just who put the end of one through the kitchen window, but on the plus side, keeping those muscles loose probably saved my friend's life when the footing gave, and the ladder slid two stories to the pavement, with Jay perched at the top.

Here's where he interrupts. "Dude, tell 'em about the car!" It's one of those stories that requires this sort of excited interjection at points. (I'm doing my best here.)

My brother wasn't much into the "work" part of the project, and, annoyed with constantly seeing him through the windows slouching in front of the TV, Jay and I deemed it his job to run to the store for tonic and limes, and to keep the pitchers full. My brother failed miserably at even that, and, it was determined, required a lesson in responsibility and consequences.

He drove a sputtering little wreck of a Nissan, my brother did, and we two older kids determined (picture the drunken sagely nods as we discussed this) that it needed a paint job. Some flowers here maybe, yeah, a lot of flowers, that's just the sort of class we're looking for. A peace sign spanning the hood would be perfect. Oh, and let's write 'Mystery Machine' on the side. Oh yeah, now that's nice!

I know my brother cursed us for evil bastards, but I didn't hear it, laughing as hard as I was. Frantically hosing and scrubbing his shitbox down was the closest thing he did to work over the course of the whole two weeks. Thank god for latex paint. The gutter on the street flowed hazy green all the way down the hill. Drunk on power (and hung over on gin), I took my brother's indiscretion out of his salary.*

"Only two kinds of people drink straight gin..."

My grandfather again, fast forwarded a couple of years, at a party for my college graduation (if I remember correctly). By then, he was actually starting to look a little frail. He probably shrank an inch in height since he castigated Jay for working. More noticeably his discretion had shrunk, but that might have been his diluted gin talking (it had come within a few inches of a vermouth bottle that may have even been open). When he visited my parents for things like this, he often took his dinner martini in a little suitcase, guaranteeing he got 'em how he liked 'em, or maybe it was to keep from getting cut off.

One of the kinds of people who drink straight gin, according to my grandfather, is Englishmen. It's interesting to get to know someone as an adult after seeing them your entire life from a child's eyes. The other type, Bowdlerizing a little here, is African-Americans. This is another story that's humorous in recollection, but that's only because of the jaw-dropping shock value. It's not something he'd be likely to say sober, and not in front of the kids, even of the nearly adult variety. Any racism in my family was carefully hidden from the young generations (usually), and in my little pocket of the clan, I got a pretty strong and constant dose of judging people on their internal worth, which I value to this day. I wouldn't guess till I was older how this was a rebellion of sorts on my mother's part. I knew he hated lawyers and doctors and unions and FDR, but somehow I grew up without reading the racial code words in my granddad's speech. I couldn't get over the brazenness of using that word in broad daylight. (Jesus, the man played fucking jazz. I wish I could go back and ask him about his influences.)

My grandfather was a great proclaimer of things, and enjoyed the center of attention, the head of the table, where he could profess the way things ought to be, and pontificate on how they ought to be done. He was a Lebowski sort of Republican: though he did pull off some amazing feats of will and accomplishment in his life, he didn't exactly start in the gutter. It was all pretty tough on his children, growing up under that opinionated sort of authority. Most of them abandoned their northeastern roots at an early opportunity. He was great to the grandkids though, endless affection and an easy way with the young children even if the transition to adulthood often stressed that familial bond. (I know that his oldest grandchild, my talented and unaccomplished cousin, disappointed him--I'd have never guessed that he'd outlive our grandfather by such a small number of years. I'm researching Seattle flights for a final get-together and send-off for the summer. It's what's pulling out all the reminiscences now.)

Though he was the other family member that stuck around for the brunt of the later years, I don't think the old man ever got through to my cousin very much. Not enough that he'd turn down a free meal anyway, but my cousin liked to spend time with family too, and even in the worst moments, he always kept his oddball composure. With only one foot anchored in that side of the tribe, I had my some survival tools of my own as well. My mother's family are not ones for witty repartee, but they're not humorless either, and evidently with too little silliness in their lives, my father runs through these people like a whirlwind. It's fun to watch. I got some of my dad's wit, that straightfaced unseriousness (but unfortunately, little of his ability to make people feel comfortable enough to laugh), and it's been enough to carry me through.

My dad called his father-in-law "the chief." I think he did it because it carried an insincere brand of respect, but in later years, my grandfather assumed an uncanny resemblance to Ed Platt's version of the character. (But then so do a lot of old men.) Or maybe it was one of my father's many subtle protest moves: do you think he was good enough to marry the chief's daughter? Under no circumstances would my father call the man anything as affectionate as "Dad." You could have easily painted my grandfather as the old bastard father-in-law in Bachelor Party (played by George Grizzard, I didn't find a good photo), but I like him even better as the lamented Ted Knight , certainly on the golf course. And I know if that hat did come with a free bowl of soup, the old man would have taken it. And complained about the soup.

As part of the cast that still lived nearby, we visited my grandparents often when I was a child, a lot of dinner parties. (Most of the other regulars disappeared over time, dying or moving.) They had a nice dining room and a great screened-in porch, and they loved to entertain. Those memories are mostly fond, and the best picture I can conjure has my grandparents standing in front of their house waving as we drove away.

But there were moments, even then. One time when I was young, I remember I called my brother a nigger at their table.

"What did you just say?" (My mom, about four octaves higher than usual.)

Confused, I whispered the offending word. I had no idea what it meant.

"Where did you learn that?" (Two octaves now, and dropping.)

I learned it on the playground. Some asshole kid had called me it that afternoon, and then knocked me over. I tried to explain.

"Don't ever use that word. It was... it means very hurtful things." She explained without explaining.

There was a rumble from the head of the table. "Well, actually..." A couple of martinis in, and a rant was taking shape, a little calling of it as it was seen. It was going to be a ripper. I had no concept of the momentum at that age, but even I could sense that something in the room was off, like the pressure drop before a thunderstorm. There was still light oustside, and suddenly the swings looked like a good place for me and my brother to play. Or so we were encouraged. And so we went. The voices inside grew louder than usual, but the two boys had already forgotten their own argument.

About twenty minutes later, my father came out to join us, quietly and almost formally.

"Hey Keifus, mind if I sit here?"

"Daddy? Is everything OK?"

"I'll be all right."

He sat there for a while, staring in the general direction of the sunset. I looked at him too, also quiet. It couldn't have been very long that we sat out there, and we went in together soon enough, once the voices from within quieted to their normal level.

But I've got the clearest image of my father sitting on the swing in the dusk, swaying a hair boozily himself, staring, uncharacteristically pensive. His hair is full, beard red, and he's thin. In the picture, he's the same age as I am now.




* In the interest of full disclosure, my brother doesn't agree with all of these details.

6 comments:

Archaeopteryx said...

That's an interesting contrast to growing up in the South, where the racism was casual and acceptable.

Nice piece of writing, too.

rundeep said...

What a great sketch Keifus. Really excellent. Captures your grandfather and the historical circumstances beautifully.

hipparchia said...

wow.

Keifus said...

Thanks y'all. Been wanting to get that one out for a while now.

K

twiffer said...

it's interesting how we'll forgive or ignore things in family, what we'd never tolerate in others (or even ourselves).

made me miss my grandfather, ya bastard.

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