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Monday, November 27, 2006

Trained Digestion

When I was a kid I thought my grandfather was fairly average. He smelled like a grandfather - caramel corn and some sort of homemade aftershave. He sent us grandfathery and often times recycled gifts on our birthdays: quilts, Swiss Army knives, mittens. He flashed his gold teeth like they were rewards for some unfathomable act of bravery - the President might have pinned them on him. I hoped to win my own someday, and on nights when I cited his shiny smile as an excuse not to brush, my mother was too charmed to shatter my perception of it.

The summer I turned fourteen, my parents divorced and my dad disappeared with one of his 24-year-old students. My mother wanted to send me to stay with my grandparents in Washington for a month, but I threw a fit. All my friends were in the summer soccer league that I would have to miss, and much like any boy approaching puberty, I was more interested in exploring the paralysis inspired by the opposite sex than I was in whittling wood or building model airplanes or whatever desperate-attempt-at-relating-to-our-modern-youth my grandfather was likely to initiate. Mom didn't argue with me. She told me, "This is not optional. I need some time to get my shit straightened out." The only other time my Mom had cursed was when my Father totaled the car. She handed me a small bound book and told me to read it on the plane.

The book was a collection of stories about my grandfather written by my mother's oldest brother. On the first page, he'd written a little preface declaring that every word was true, and may God strike him dead otherwise. That same uncle ate rat poison last Christmas Eve, so for several minutes I poked at these related statements, like a kid examining his first dead thing. I read the first few pages with a bitter taste in my mouth, sickened by my own irreverence.

My Grandpa flew a P-51 Mustang in WWII. He shot 29 Nazi planes out of the air. In ’48 he saved an entire family in a tenement fire in Brooklyn (my uncle had included the clipping as proof). He collected junked Jeeps and rebuilt them. Sometimes he rebuilt them into boats. He constructed (from scratch) the three houses my mom's big family grew up in from 1931 to 1952. He invented numerous kitchen gadgets for my grandmother to experiment with. He was a child psychologist for nine years, one of the first to get a PhD. in the field. He coached my uncles’ high school fencing team to the state championships four years in a row. He raised hawks in the garage (because my grandmother threw the whole operation out of the study). He taught each of his six children a different instrument and, on his twenty-year wedding anniversary, conducted them all in a live performance of the opera he'd written for my grandmother. He spent two years in Central America building ovens for women whose husbands were taken away in the night by the government. I would not have been surprised if the book had included accounts of him teaching the X-Men how to kill a man in two seconds or something. My grandfather was a superhero.

When I landed in Washington, he and my grandmother picked me up and took me out to eat at Chuck-a-Rama. For the next few days my grandfather tried to Miyagi me into manhood - chopping wood, laying tile, waxing the old Toyota. If I hadn't read those stories on the plane I would've disappeared into the wilderness on that first day, but I kept looking for a glimpse of that superhero. When I'd cleaned every inch of the house and witnessed nothing otherworldly, I began really pushing, "What was the war like? How many times did you almost die? Did you ever wrestle a panda?"

He just sort of laughed or said, "Those were different times," or he'd make a big production of turning his hearing aid off and then leave the room. My Grandma was equally cryptic but I was able to badger her into showing me some old photos. Here he was beaming next to a hooked 5-foot swordfish. Here he was with a group of militia-looking men, a prisoner? Here he was holding a trophy of some kind in front of a big rig truck. Here he was shaking hands with the Secretary of Defense.

"Your Grandpa's not all he's cracked up to be, but I could've done worse," she winked at me while we painted with watercolors on the back deck. The month flew by, and when it was time to go, I still hadn't learned how to work a single miracle. I said so to my grandmother and she said, "Gavin, when the time is right, your Grandpa will teach you everything you need to know." She kissed me too much and he shook my hand and called me "Captain Gav" for the first and last time (thankfully) and then I was on a plane and back to the shattered family.



I'm 27 now, and my grandfather is 82. My mom has insisted that I drive her car across the country with him to "get my shit straightened out." I lost my third adult job last week, and cheated on my pregnant girlfriend of four years for no apparent reason. Then I confessed it to her. Again, for no apparent reason. The same day Rachel took all her stuff and went to Connecticut my mom called and told me she needed her car, which was parked at my sister's house in Portland, Oregon. My mom lives in Westchester, NY. Against all logic my mom decided the best thing to do was to have my grandfather and I drive it across the country to her (instead of simply selling the 1992 Rav 4 and buying a newer, more gas-savvy car). I'm not an idiot. I knew what she was doing. She offered to buy my flight, pay all the expenses, and hotel us the whole way. A good mother knows how to fix things and somehow protect your pride in the process. I have a good mother.

So we left early from my sister's and drove all day until we hit Salt Lake City. The first hour we didn't really even speak. I tried to put music on, but doing so presented me with an unexpected paradigm - I can't enjoy my music unless it's loud, but turning it up might expose him to the gritty and sex-laden underbelly of modern pop, in which (he knows) I'm whole-heartedly invested. So, grappling with choosing discontent or discomfort, I opted to just give up and try to love Middle America. Weird how east coasters think of anything west of DC as "middle America" (unless it's LA or Seattle). I scanned this quip for obscenities and then presented it out loud. The sympathy laugh I received made me immediately regret the safe comedy. Sometimes I think he plants the few signs of his Alzheimer’s so he can catch me off guard all over again with that sudden incisiveness.

I counted Volvos for the next hour or so. At this rate we'd have favorite A-Team episodes covered by Kansas City and maybe a second recounting of That Summer When You Were Fourteen And You Came To Stay With Us just as we hit Columbus. I was impatient, yes, but the thing is I saw my grandfather as a bottle of knowledge completely bubbling over and the idea of him dying without letting me tap any of it was really irritating to me. I wasn’t sure I could even use the knowledge he had, which made me feel a bit guilty… maybe I just wanted it because it was a romantic idea: being a self-made, all around "handy" guy. It was irresistible to women. Knowing these things would make me classic. Classy. But he didn't seem eager to lavish me with them. I thought the idea with grandparents is that they're always trying to push dated advice and caution on you, but he seemed content to just talk about snacks and look out the window a lot. I felt cheated. Unless it was the Alzheimer’s ---- then I should feel sympathetic, right?

When we pulled into the Holiday Inn two exits east of SLC, the only knowledge I'd gleaned for the day was to keep our velocity as steady as possible to maximize gas mileage. Later I read it word for word on a little sticker on the gas pump at Shell, thusly voiding even that tiny accomplishment. We checked in, he nodded off quickly, and I tried to find wisdom in his bovine snoring but to no avail. Maybe if we were camping or riding motorcycles we would have The Moment.

We spent most of the second day stopping so Grandpa could go to the bathroom. Yeah, you'd think that was at most a ten-minute ordeal, but on two separate occasions he wandered off while I was in the stall or getting a snack and I had to actually go find him in the adjoining picnic area or even down the highway once. From a distance he looked confused and foggy, but when I caught up with him, he was visibly annoyed with me for treating him like he was lost. It was uncomfortable for both of us I think.

A lot of our conversations seemed like a dance. I didn't know how much he knew about my current situation, and I wasn't really eager to offer the information, though, paradoxically, I longed for his advice. He seemed at first very curious, but mainly about peripheral things - my college experience, my interest in computers, my relationships with my sisters and mom. In fact, come to think of it, the topics of my love life and occupation were clearly being circumvented.

We ate dinner at a nameless and overly american restaurant several miles off of Rt. 40 in Topeka. I drove two more hours past Kansas and pulled over in a rest stop to rest my eyes. When I woke up, I was in the passenger seat and Grandpa was pulling us into a Mobil for refueling. Over breakfast (fruit, granola, Combos, 7up) Grandpa, unprompted, started telling me about my dad. He told me a story about the first time my dad came to dinner and how he (my grandfather) had been fixing a buddy's gun at the kitchen table when my dad walked in. The unspoken punchline was, of course, that my dad was spooked. I laughed when he told it but he didn't. It was clearly a comedy, but he delivered it like it was the last rites or something. I felt weird, but glad to learn a little more about my dad. I asked for more stories and he told a few, some of which seemed to be about his father instead of mine, but I'm not sure he could make the distinction. He drifted off in the middle of one about a fishing trip and I was so bored with that one that I let him sleep.

He woke up in the late afternoon when I was on the cell with my mom to let her know that we were ok. She was clearly less interested in the wellbeing of her vehicle and/or father than she was in how I was feeling. She wanted some indication that this was a life-changing trip, and I couldn't give it to her, both because my grandfather was right there next to me to hear me say it, and because it wasn't. She spoke with him for a while about their plans when we got to NY, and then he hung up.

"Your mom's a smart cookie, Gavin. She must be less adopted than the others," he told me with the golden mouth and I cracked up, for him and for me.

That night he negotiated with the lady at the counter of the hotel and got us a room for half price because there were already so many vacancies. I never even thought of hotel room prices as negotiable but my mom had always said I got my frugal bargaining bug from my grandfather and poof! here it was.

When he stayed in the bathroom for 45 minutes, I panicked. I didn't really want to investigate because I was thinking it was some Old People Bathroom Thing and I'd end up helping him wipe himself or something excruciatingly embarrassing, but then I started thinking about how my mom had told me I was there to make sure he arrived in one piece, and so I called out to him. He didn't answer, so I called again and knocked this time. A full minute later he slowly opened the door to see who was calling (did he know who I was?). He had shaved and was halfway through cutting what remained of his hair. He went to bed quietly without finishing the haircut. Who shaves before bed?

On day four, he was suddenly exactly as I remembered him from that summer long ago - cognizant and calculating. He began asking pointed questions at 10 am and didn't let up until Harrisburg, where I kind of lost it.

"Do you think UMass was the right college for what you want to do?"

"Did you love your job?"

"Do you think you deserved to lose your job?"

"How old do you think is the right age to have kids?"

"What happened with Rachel?"

He didn't ask the questions like he was curious, he asked like he was collecting data to give me a horoscope. Or as if he already knew the answers. When he started talking about Rachel I realized he'd known everything the whole time and I was embarrassed and pissed that I had wasted the trip avoiding it and that maybe my mom had already told him about the accidental pregnancy. We were a few hours from NY and I was still not classic or wise or "beyond my years," just jobless, loveless, and without the inner compass that was supposed to be hereditary. I was crying then, from the relief of just talking about it, and because I was such a mess next to this man who was the very definition of composure, and because I couldn't give the right answers to any of his questions.

When the sobbing was inhibiting my words beyond recognition, my grandfather put his stumpy fingers on the back of my head and massaged the area where my neck meets my skull.

"Gavin, if you're willing to listen, I'd like to tell you about something that happened to me," he said in the voice that I will never have.

"I don't know what to do,” I sputtered pathetically, not really in response to what he'd said but as an assertion of the general state of things.

And suddenly words fountained out of that golden mouth, more words than he'd ever given me, more than enough to fill the giant space between us and kill my sniffling. His voice had a Morgan Freeman effect, every word indisputable and demanding reverence. As if scripted, he methodically unfolded this story as we eased towards New York and my mother,

"In 1987, your Grandma and I joined the Peace Corps and moved to the Philippines for two years. You may remember the tiny paintings your grandmother sent you or the shell necklaces we sent to your mother and sisters... You must've been eight or nine at the time. When we first arrived, right when we got off the boat, this small boy with this giant smile that, let's see... how'd your Grandma put it, 'tested the boundaries of his face' haha he tugged on my shirt and insisted that I follow him along the shore to a tiny cove maybe 400 feet from where we'd landed. I didn't want to leave your Grandma alone with the group, see, but she was so excited by the people that came to greet everyone that she pushed me off with the boy.

“He showed me a small hiding space, oh maybe forty feet away from the water, fashioned out of driftwood and giant leaves, and from it he pulled out a small Bolivar cigar box. He opened it and handed me the baby Sailfin lizard he'd kept inside. I could see there were bugs and leaves in the box, so he'd been raising this lizard for a little while maybe. Now the Sailfin lizard can get to be, oh... 3 feet long? It's a big thing if they live long enough, but I didn't really know how to say that in Tagolog, which is the language they speak there mostly, and so that weekend I helped him build a bigger cage for it from chicken wire and some lumber I traded a hat for.

“Now Paolo became a regular student in my English class and my mathematics class. His big smile was usually the first thing I saw in the morning - really brightened my day. He'd bring me all sorts of tiny gifts that he'd found on his way to class: shells, flowers, Mangos, burned out rockets and fireworks. Every day he'd present me with something before class and say in this formal voice, "This is for you Mr. Castleton," grinnin' like a hyena, funny little Paolo, and I'd act surprised all over again, and carefully place whatever it was in my desk drawer with the others. He was the guy that asked all the questions in class. I could see... I could really see that he really wanted to learn. I’d say a 'student' in the truest sense of the word. He’d walk me back to our quarters each night after class, asking more and more questions about words or numbers or America, but I didn't mind because I would practice my Tagolog on him... On more than a few occasions he'd appear in the window of the mess hall smilin' - always smiling! And I'd pass him (Grandpa lowered his voice here, as if the other volunteers had been Gestapo) my leftover plantains when no one was looking. He was with me everywhere, but never bothered me. He was very polite and respectful of my space, never came in our house uninvited or stayed around where he wasn't wanted. And I gave him that same respect.

“One evening he came to our quarters around... maybe 8 or so. Now we usually went to bed around 8:30, so we were in our pajamas and the lights were out except for our nightstand lamp and I hear this little voice at the door, ‘Mr. Castleton, please... it's Paolo, come quick sir!’ (he does the high voice, but it has the gravel of a 40-year smoker) Now, knowing that Paolo was not the type to bother us unless it was important, I put on my day clothes and hustled outside while your grandmother stayed inside, oh, fretting and worrrrrying, Gav, as grandmother's are wont to do." (He said that last part in a voice that was somehow supposed to be much older and more fragile than he was I guess, and I chuckled).

"And so I crept outside and there was that big Cheshire grin leading me quickly down the path. I tried to quietly ask what was the matter but he shushed me and pointed at the sleeping huts around us and motioned that it was just a short distance up the path. We came to a clearing where you could go left to the beach or right to the irrigation center and there were four other boys there, all silent and waiting for us. Paolo helped one of the other boys remove the carefully thatched blanket of leaves that was covering a small hole. And there, hopping around down in that hole, Gavin, just about screeching it's head off there was this beautiful Falconet with a broken wing." (As soon as he began talking about the bird, my grandfather's voice took on a very delicate tone. It was the voice he spoke about birds with)

"The boys explained to me that they had hidden it because some people in the village would kill it for its feathers if they found it. (he said this part as if he were learning it again, right then. He had the amazing ability to teach you in a learning voice) I thanked them and told them that it was a very special bird and one of the smartest kinds of bird on the island. And I looked down and I could see that the bird had a... a broken wing." (He was distracted for a few minutes by the NY skyline in front of us. I don't think he'd been here since the 70s)

"And I gathered it up in my shirt and it did bite me but I let it hold on until it realized that I wasn't going anywhere and then it calmed down and I could examine the wing and see that there was, yes, a dart poking through it, right near the joint. And it was clearly a native dart because it was fashioned by hand out of bamboo and tiny red feathers. Paolo had shown me once that each group of hunters uses a different color feather on their arrows and darts so that if you find a kill you would know who had earned it and then... and I... so the boys were very excited that I'd come to help and wanted to know if I could... If I could save the bird and we sat for a moment in the dark and I explained that mending a bird's wing is a very long and meticulous process and that there was only one way to do it right. If you don't mend the wing correctly, then the bird will die... and I knew that Paolo had a love and a respect for animals so I told him... we... Why not go ahead and shop where you want to shop dear?"

"What?" I asked, confused.

"Well, what happens if we don't? It's not like you can't get it wherever you want in this town," he said into the windshield, as if to New York itself.

"What happened to Paolo, Grandpa? What about the Falconet?!" I begged, but when he looked at me, he had no idea who I was or why we were in New York.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But what happened with Rachel and the baby?