This originally appeared in Grain Magazine
This is how I imagine it:
An old man, dressed like a vagrant in oil-stained denim, wearing a mesh ball-cap with the embroidered logo of some farm equipment company. He’s shuffling along a thin gravel drive, carrying a rake, maybe a spade. The drive, which leads up to a small white farmhouse, is edged with blackened turf; the grass is smoldering, the wind is carrying sheets of gray smoke up through the trees. Stoked by the wind, the flames at the edge of the drive begin to grow, blooming from the dry Saskatchewan soil like orange and yellow flowers. The old man, moving in slow-motion, tries to beat them down with his rake or spade, but something happens, he faints from the exertion – maybe has a heart attack – and collapses into the burning grass. Then my perspective shifts: I’m far away, a vast patchwork of green and yellow and brown is touching the horizon, and in the distance there’s a thin line of smoke, growing thicker, growing darker, rising up and dissipating in the atmosphere.
This is how we find out:
A phone call interrupts our supper. A strange voice asks for my mother. I hand her the receiver, and after a few awkward minutes of whispered conversation, she hangs up and says to us, matter-of-factly: “My dad died.” I’m seventeen when this happens, sitting slouched at the dining room table, and when my mother speaks these words, their combined literal meaning not seeming to match the analytic tone of her voice, everything stops. All ambient noise fades to silence. I stop chewing, abandon a wad of partially liquefied broccoli in the hollow of my cheek; my step-dad’s fork hesitates at the precipice of his mouth, a piece of breaded liver hanging at the end of a tine; even my sister, four years-old and prone to babbling through mouthfuls of food, is quiet, sensing that, despite the coolness of our mother’s reaction, something significant has just been said. We collaborate to maintain the silence. Mom sits down and resumes eating, and seconds later, given permission by her calm, I swallow my broccoli, my step-dad puts the liver in his mouth. When she’s finished, she brings her plate into the kitchen and calls back to us: “Who wants cinnamon buns for dessert?” We all do, so we sit around the table eating cinnamon buns, filling the leaden silence with the sound of our chewing, and eventually my sister opens her mouth to say something and a saliva-slick piece of half-chewed bun falls to the table. And just like that, everything’s back to normal.
This what I know about my grandfather:
Not much, except for the abbreviated history provided by my grandmother. It goes something like this: he stuck around until my mother was eight, then there was an accident, he got burned, he left, and we haven’t heard from him since. I might say that this condensed version of events sated my curiosity, but, in truth, there was no curiosity to be sated. He was rarely – if ever – on my mind. And this despite the fact that in the previous year my mother, for the first time in decades, had been in contact with him. I remember that he called us. I remember that my mother sat on the stairs and detailed, in her intimate school-teacher’s voice, the specific nooks and crannies of our familial unit; how, from the spare parts of broken things, we had assembled this machine of suburban subsistence. I spoke to him, too, for a short time; just long enough to explain who I was, and, in the bottomless silence that separated our words, make known my discomfort with his intrusion into our lives. And so he remained, despite this little bit of contact, an old man I’d never met, who I knew nothing about, who I could pass in the street without giving a second look.
Nevertheless, a week after the mid-dinner mystery phone-call, our family is on the highway between Saskatoon and Tisdale, going to make peace with a colony of relatives that we’ve never before met: my grandfather’s side of the family.
This is how it starts:
With a long drive through the linear terrain of central Saskatchewan, all perpendicular lines and right angles. We arrive, after steering through a maze of skinny ridge-roads, at a large farm. It’s mid-summer, and the place is glowing green and brown, a kaleidoscope of messy earth-tones somehow more vibrant than the man-made colors that call out for our attention; red, for example, which is the color of the barn, or green, which is the color of the thresher, or yellow, which is the color of the house. Scattered between these three landmarks are bales of hay and sheds and massive pieces of multi-pronged, multi-bladed farm equipment that look like the post-apocalyptic décor from a Mad Max movie. When we step out of the rental mini-van, all I can smell is shit. The air is filled with it: the rich, fecal odor of the prairies. I taste it with every breath.
A man emerges from the yellow house and approaches us. He’s wearing dark green coveralls stained with oil; a mesh ball-cap sits crooked on his bald head: Firlotte Bros. Farm Equipment, the embroidered badge says. He stops and wipes his hands on a rag. “How come it smells like poop?” my sister says.
“You’ll get used to it,” the farmer says. “Everyone does.”
I realize then, with a spasm of embarrassment, that we look exactly like what we are: city-folk, decked out in khaki, pale-white and soft; interlopers, phonies. The mini-van we rented at the airport, which in the city, among the tiny Japanese coupes and hatchbacks, had seemed such a stout and aggressive vehicle, is dwarfed by the machinery, by a nearby pick-up truck that possesses the proud posture of a veteran workhorse. The mini-van, with its tiny wheels, so low to the ground, seems to shrink away in disgrace So do I.
The farmer, my mother’s uncle, my grandfather’s brother, says: “It’s nice to finally meet you.” He hugs my mother. He shakes my hand. He holds his hand out to my sister, but she hides behind my step-dad’s leg.
We will spend a week on the farm. Two farms, actually: this one, my great-uncle’s (where we will sleep in a camper parked behind the garage), and the farm down the road, my grandfather’s (where, two weeks ago, he burned to death). We will spend the coming week cleaning up the considerable mess he has left behind. We will erase all evidence of his existence in the same way he was erased: with fire.
This is the farmhouse:
A perfect white square wearing a pyramidal top-hat of asphalt shingling. And it’s falling apart. Decaying, actually, like a rotten tooth. Stooped to the side like a staggering drunkard (and that’s an appropriate analogy, believe me), and stained along its foundation with starbursts of grayish stuff; the entire outer surface is scuffed so evenly that it seems almost a deliberate pattern. The house was built when my grandfather’s grandfather first crossed the ocean from Norway; it was passed along to his mother, and then to him, and that it continues to stand despite the weight of decades that presses upon it, despite the recent years of neglect that are decomposing it from the inside out, is nothing short of miraculous. Junk of every kind is scattered across the front lawn: scrap wood, scrap metal, a hollowed engine block, disassembled sections of rusted farm equipment, thresher blades, combine spokes, an old mattress, a mangled child’s bicycle, a kitchen chair, a wire rack for holding vinyl records, a rotary-dial telephone, some nails, some screws, some golf-balls. And there are empty cans everywhere. Empty beer cans and empty liquor bottles. All the bottles are the same brand: Gold Seal Rye Whiskey.
The degree of squalor in which the tiny farmhouse exists – in which my grandfather apparently lived – cannot be accurately measured; it exceeds the comprehension of a person born and raised and living in contemporary modern society. The smell alone, resulting from the animal feces that litters the floor, both cat and dog (and probably rat and mouse and deer and elk and wolf and whatever else), is enough to gag even the stoutest farm folk. Because there was no front door, the animals came and went as they pleased. Whether my grandfather actually fed them, or whether they merely scrounged for stray bits of food from empty cans and packages, we will never be sure.
There is already a group at work when we arrive. They are sorting. They disappear into the darkness of the house and emerge carrying various broken scraps of my grandfather’s half-life. They are my great-uncle’s kids; my mother’s cousins. She has met them already, and introduces me, and I am suddenly ashamed of my pale complexion, my thin girlish arms and the effeminate language of my body in motion. What good am I here in this rural place? What little muscle I have was built in suburban driveways, shooting baskets; my dexterity was honed inwards from my fingertips as I wasted sunny weekend afternoons playing video games. I shed my potential as a farmer’s son long ago. Maybe I shed it before I was even born. Nonetheless, I am given a pair of leather work-gloves. Even my sister, who, with her chubby cheeks and pig-tails is immediately the center of attention, is wearing rubber boots and gardening gloves, ready to get to work.
The job I am assigned is this: to remove all the junk from inside the house and separate it into two piles:
Pile #1: Things to be sold at the estate sale.
Pile #2: Things to be burnt.
There is already a heap of assorted material aflame in the yard. Broken chairs, moldy cardboard, sections of carpeting, dirty clothing, books and magazines wrinkled with moisture. Two of my mother’s brand-new cousins come out the front door carrying an old green chesterfield. There is a human-shaped stain on the cushions, as if someone
slick with cooking oil took a nap there. The two cousins, thick with that unpretentious farm-bred strength, dump the chesterfield upside-down on top of the pile. Smoke seeps up like curling fingers and takes hold of it.
My mother faces the reality of her father’s living situation with aplomb. She is fairly calm by nature, and as I walk around the property at her side she observes the chaos with the detached air of a scientist. Only once does her composure break, and only for a split-second; standing outside the house, my step-dad reiterates, for perhaps the thousandth time, that he can’t believe a person could live like this. She finally snaps, and says, “For Christ’s sake, I know!”
This is what I figure out:
That my grandfather was a bad man. A vagary, yes; the details are hidden in the whispers that sneak around the corners of my great-uncle’s house. I turn down the television and listen close when my mother and great-aunt sit down for tea in the kitchen; something about forging cheques, something about threatening someone with a rifle, something about keeping his mother captive in an upstairs bedroom. A lot of fuzzy images, but no plot to link them together. The stories my mother tells me are stories of his drunkenness. I suppose, since I am seventeen, she thinks I will find them funny.
She tells me about the time he ran his truck off the road: it was late at night, the height of winter (which, in Saskatchewan, is the true height of winters everywhere) and unable to get his vehicle back on the road, my grandfather wandered off in search of shelter. And instead of bringing the flashlight from his toolbox, or the flares from the glove compartment, he took with him the case of beer he’d just purchased. He carried it across the snow-covered field towards a constellation of faint blinking lights that turned out to be a farm. His brother’s farm, actually, though in the dark, and in his drunkenness, he didn’t recognize it. Not wishing to disturb anyone (how polite of him!), he broke the lock on the tool shed and found shelter inside. In the morning they discovered him leaning against the wall amongst the shovels and spades, asleep. The beer was gone.
My mother tells me, also, about the snowmobile he built: understandably, after two or three too many DUI arrests, my grandfather’s license was permanently suspended, and in order to get back and forth between the nearest liquor store – in Tisdale, fifteen kilometers away – he purchased, second-hand, a beat-up snow-machine. He had it for only a week before he crashed it into a tree, demolishing the fiberglass cowling and tearing off a ski. But he was apparently a handy fellow, and persistent, and quite creative: he built the snowmobile back up, reattached and realigned the ski, constructed a new cowling out of a plastic milk crate and scraps of wood. And it worked. A hideous patchwork contraption, a Frankenstein’s monster; but it worked. There were sightings of my grandfather (like sightings of the Sasquatch, imprecise and difficult to verify) speeding along the edge of the highway, straddling some strange thing that appeared to child’s soapbox-racer fitted with tank treads.
I think to myself: maybe his drunken escapades are the least pathetic stories my mother can think of to tell? Which makes me wonder about the rest of it. Where, besides the ditch next to the highway, besides a neighbor’s tool shed, did his self-hatred propel him?
This is how I almost die, like my grandfather:
It happens while I’m helping to empty out his house, a task which proves, as the days wear on, to be quite difficult. We are past the initial stage of cleaning it out and have now begun to salvage valuables from the grime. We’re like a team of archeologists, my secret second-cousins and I; but instead of toothbrushes we use shovels; instead of rock we dig through human waste. After a second full day of continuous labor, the pile that smolders on the lawn has grown taller than my sister.
As evening approaches, as the sky grows dim, I find myself alone outside. The cousins have filled a pick-up truck with junk and are taking it to the storage unit in town; everyone else is in the house, exploring, searching through the shrapnel for the few things worth keeping.
I am handed a rake by a second-cousin and left in charge of the bonfire. My instructions: prevent the fire from spreading through the grass by raking into submission any fugitive flames that sneak out from beneath the smoking pile. I soon learn, however, that the flames – well fed and in a tranquil mood – aren’t eager to escape, and that watching over the fire, which at first sounded quite thrilling, is no great responsibility at all. When another second-cousin (so many of them!) emerges from the house and asks for help carrying a piece of the wrought-iron bed-frame down from the second floor, I jump at the chance. Finally, a chance to prove my worth as a manual laborer. I leave the fire behind, head upstairs, and we lower the awkward piece down through the kitchen. I take as much of the weight as I can, lift it high, yawn, scratch my cheek, hop backwards down the stairs at a dangerous speed. When we set the iron frame against the wall, he offers a curt thanks and heads back up the stairs.
When I step back outside, there is a sea of flames. The fire has spread across the front lawn, up to the rot-speckled foundation of the house, back towards the bushes; it seeps outward like spilled liquid, creeping up to our helpless rental mini-van, still shrugging away, still crouched low and terrified. My rake, still in the grass where I dropped it, is engulfed. I pull on my leather gloves, snatch it up and chase the fire, raking up dirt, stomping with my boots, beating down the flames as best I can. The cuffs of my jeans are scorched, I feel little tongues of flame crawling up my pant-legs, licking at my leg-hair, curling it.
Though I manage, after much flailing, to contain the fire, it is impossible to conceal my ineptitude: the whole yard is singed brown, and the wooden handle of my rake is charred along its entire length. At least nobody has seen my pathetic rake-smashing panic. I think. I hope. The second-cousins, when they return from town, peer down at the burnt grass, but politely say nothing.
I am given a new task, something slightly less life-threatening: clear the yard of scrap-wood and stack it in the back of the pick-up truck. I feign disappointment, slump my shoulders, frown. Oh, what a tedious chore, this stacking of wood! Secretly, though, I’m glad to be out of harm’s way. I wander, eyes on the ground. I come across a patch of blackened grass, far from the radius of the spreading bonfire. It’s round, like the crater a mortar would leave, and there is something in the center of it, something that looks like a piece of fabric: red and black, plaid, like a plaid jacket. And hey, there’s another piece of fabric, part of a green canvas jacket, I can still see the zipper. It takes me a moment, but I realize that my grandfather died on this spot.
His body wasn’t found until hours after the fire had died. A neighbor stopped by and found the charred corpse, still smoking like a tossed cigarette butt. I look down at the tiny shred of burnt clothing, and I think of his skin turning black, curling off the flesh, his insides boiling and spilling fluid into the ground, the hairs on his head sizzling and sparking and burning down like the wicks on sticks of dynamite. It happened to him like it almost happened to me; in the blink of an eye, no time to react, no time to think. Suddenly: fire everywhere.
This is how I get the ring:
On the day of the funeral, as I’m standing in front of the mirror trying to button up a shirt that is two sizes too small. My mother climbs into the camper and holds out her hand. She’s holding a ring. “It was your grandfather’s,” she says.
It’s gold, heavy, an old man’s ring. It’s set with a brownish-colored stone; a cat’s eye, I think. When I slip it over my finger, it fits perfectly.
This ring, I realize, must have been on my grandfather’s hand while he was being slow-roasted. It must have been given to my mother afterwards by whoever is in charge of such things; the coroner, the director of the funeral home, whomever. I wonder what else, besides this ring, besides that small scrap of his shirt, survived. The coins in his pocket, maybe? The metal toes in his boots?
“Something to remember him by,” my mom says, and she leaves me alone to finish getting dressed. I check myself in the mirror: scratch my cheek, adjust my tie, point at something, gesture in imaginary conversation. It’s an awkward, obvious piece of jewelry, but I like the way it looks. I like the post-adolescent sagacity it adds to my face, the depth it adds to my personal history. I imagine the girls at school asking me about it, I imagine telling them that it was my grandfather’s ring, that he died, burned to death, that this ring was the only part of him that survived the fire. They will melt at my feet. So, I decide that I like the ring. I decide that I will keep it, and I will wear it just like my grandfather did.
This is how the funeral goes:
Long and dry, in the fashion of most religious ceremonies, but not as boring as I expected. I am interested to hear, for the first time, something positive said about my grandfather. The Reverend is old, stooped low over his clasped hands, his complexion so pallid and his hair so brightly white that his face is difficult to make sense of, washed out like an overexposed photograph. He speaks in that intimate tone of holy men, as if, like God, he has witnessed each passing second of my grandfather’s life and knows him better than anyone. In his shrill old man’s voice, he tells my grandfather’s sad story: born in that old house, raised without schooling, but smart in the ways of the wider world; a shrewd young man with ambitions, a charming young man with a taste for women and a taste for liquor, a troubled young man who became a troubled young husband who became a troubled young father. “But when he wasn’t drinking,” the Reverend says, “he was a friendly man – garrulous, helpful.” Garrulous, because in soberer times he ate lunch everyday at the same small diner, and with the other regulars pontificated for hours upon those indivisible prairie passions: crooked politicians and Rider football. Helpful, because in soberer times he was always willing to take a look at a rattling engine or bald tires or a sticky clutch. He was a recluse, but did not avoid the company of others; he had his troubles, as we all do, though, unfortunately, his were more public, and spilled over too easily into the lives of others. The Reverend concluded (getting tired by now, almost inaudible): “Let’s remember that better part of him. Let’s remember the man he was when he wasn’t drinking, the man who helped you fix your car, the man who was so eager to share his passion with others. Remember those bright moments.”
But all I have to remember is that one conversation. That brief, uncomfortable exchange of silence. And all I can think – as a hymn rises from the choir sitting behind us (a chorus of part-time congregates, secretaries and teachers and farmers’ wives with harsh, creaking voices, none of whom knew my grandfather, or knew him only in legend, had only heard the stories that I’d heard; who, I suppose, knew him just as well as I did) – all I can think is that, when I was talking to him, he was probably sitting on that fetid green couch, sitting in that dark shape of himself, breathing in the acrid stink of shit and mold and must. I imagine his five senses at that moment: the touch of worn fabric, the acid aftertaste of rye, the reek of decomposition, and on the far side of a stuttering telephonic connection, through a tear in the membrane that separated our worlds, the sound of my indifferent voice.
This is the truth:
Which I learn from my grandmother. What is kept secret by these new relatives, she reveals. And she knows so much more about my grandfather than anyone else. She was married to him, after all, she lived with him, and the brutal insight she possesses makes their opinions and experiences utterly irrelevant. She drives down from Saskatoon for the funeral, and in the glances I steal between breaks in the service, as people rise and sit, move to and from the dais, she looks more frail and gray than I have ever seen. She travels separately to the quaint country cemetery where my grandfather’s body has been interred, and stands at the foot of his grave, her head cocked to the side, her hand cupped against her chin and cheek; an expression I recognize, one that occurs, usually, in unison with the sudden strike of some pleasant thought, a reflex that seizes her when she tells stories about when I was little. Strange to see her looking like that, like there is some happy part of her past buried there beneath her feet. But that is what she does; she dredges from the muddy soil tiny flecks of pure stuff. Like a rake dragged through grass, turning up dirt to extinguish a flame.
I am reminded again of her stories when, later on, we are driving together in the mini-van, patrolling the grid of ridge roads that surround my grandfather’s property (our property, now). My mother and step-father sit up front, consulting a map; they are searching for some correction line or another, trying to determine the physical borders of her inheritance. They joke about building a golf course, and it seems to me, though neither will admit it, that they are both half-serious. I sit in the back seat with my grandmother, and on the bench-seat behind us my sister is sprawled and sleeping. I am reminded of those prayerful summer stories, because it is with the exact same tone of voice that my grandmother tells me about my grandfather, and the things that he did.
She tells me: “When we were first married, we lived in that old house with his mother – who was an evil old woman, it’s no wonder he turned out like he did, but that, like we say, is a story for another time – and, so, as a wedding gift, my parents were going to give us the tract of land they owned south of Blaine Lake. There was a house there, it was already built and ready to go, and it was nearby to everything, but the condition was that we live there ourselves, that we farm the land. But Albert wanted to move to the city. And he wanted the land anyways. So he went to Gramps one day, and he said, hey fella, you promised me that land and I’m going to take it. And when Gramps – you wouldn’t know this because you never met him, but he was always the calmest man, and never raised his voice to anyone – when Gramps told him that he couldn’t have it, not unless he lived up to his end of the bargain, then Albert threatened him. He said that he would send his friends over, that they would convince him, that they would burn his house to the ground. And he was serious, too. That’s the kind of man he was. Just like Gramps was calm and quiet, Albert was serious, and always meant what he said. So, for the next few nights Gramps stayed up and stood watch with a rifle in his lap. It wasn’t loaded, because he would never shoot anyone, he just wanted to scare Albert if he came back, and the way Albert had spoken to him, it seemed like he would.” A beat; she touches her cheek for dramatic effect, the skin on the back of her hand like crumpled-up paper made smooth again. She says: “I can only imagine what they must have thought – my mother and father – how they must have felt that they’d let their daughter marry this kind of fellow!”
She tells me: “He would get angry so easily, and when we were first living together, when your mother was just a baby, we would have words with each other, we would have words all the time. I can’t remember why, exactly, just that it happened, and just that he hated to be told he was wrong – because he was always right, of course – and one night I told him he was wrong about one thing or another, and that put him in a black mood. And we were in the kitchen, and he was trying to open a jar, and he was doing it the wrong way, trying to pry it open with a knife, and even though I told him not to do it like that, he kept at it, and finally the jar shattered and he was covered in jelly or brine or whatever was inside. All over his shirt and pants, and I didn’t know any better – I was still young, then, hardly older than you – and I started to laugh. It was funny. And I remember, so clearly, that he had a smile on his face, too, like he was going to laugh, but instead he came towards me and he grabbed me by the arm, like this, and he twisted it behind my back and he pushed me down against the counter, and with his other hand he put his knuckles into the small of my back, and he pushed hard, and it hurt so much. I told him to stop, but he didn’t, he just kept saying, what’s so funny, and he kept his knuckles pressed there until I couldn’t hold myself up anymore, and I fell to the ground. And I was scared, because I couldn’t move. It was like I’d been paralyzed. But he picked me up and he made me stand up, and told me to stop acting like such a little girl. So, from then on, I didn’t laugh at him. I didn’t say much of anything. And that was the way he preferred it. But, of course, keeping quiet didn’t keep us from having words, and it didn’t keep him from getting in one of his moods.”
All this in her soft, storytelling voice, as if the memory of his digging knuckles and the memory of our long ago summers together are made from the same psychic stuff. I slide my hand beneath my leg, hide the ring. I hope she hasn’t seen it. I wonder: does there remain, in the flesh of her lower back, the tiny concave impression of a cat’s-eye stone?
This is what I can see from where I stand:
The sun: an edgeless white disc looming high above, a spotlight shining straight down, announcing this, here, as the center of things. A field: yellow flowers breaking at my feet, reaching for a flat horizon that bears its flatness like a surface of water; currents breaking straight lines into traveling arcs. On the other side of the road the flowers resume their march towards the opposite horizon, which is the same horizon, because here, where the earth is an even plane, where things are fair – here, at the center of things – the horizon is unbroken, and its circumference surrounds everything. There is a smell, too, that seems particular to this place: something like grass – that same tender chlorophyll sweetness – and something like the odorlessness of floating dust, the nothing-smell that gets on your hands when you dig through sand. I might have known, in another life, what these yellow flowers are called. I might be intimate with the tiny black seeds that grow in their closed, conical bulbs. I might be an expert in the process that threshes the flowers from the stems, or digs their shallow roots from the soil. I might understand the worth of such tiny things, and see, in the mechanics of the outside world, the essential function these tiny black seeds perform. I might be better able to better describe the smell that permeates the air; I might say that it is the scent of this plant, blown in from this direction. But all I can say for certain, right now, is that I can no longer smell shit in the air. I am breathing clean. I feel initiated.
We have stopped to check something on the map. There is supposed to be a marker somewhere, a stake in the ground with a number on it. “There’s no way we’ll ever find it,” my step-dad says, and makes an expansive side-to-side gesture: “It could be anywhere along here, it all looks the same.” Nonetheless, he strolls along the edge of the road, hunched over and peering into the yellow and the green. My grandmother has elected to stay in the vehicle with my sleeping sister.
I keep my distance. I stretch the stiffness out of my legs. This place – the wide sky, the fields, the road – seems to me like another dimension, like the nothingness between molecules. In comic books, super-villains would be banished here. And yet, there is a stillness here that is heavy and pleasant. I can imagine a younger version of my grandmother in this place, and I can see how she might miss the stillness. I can see how, in this stillness, my grandfather’s wild blows might have taken longer to land, the velocity of his flying knuckles swallowed up by the milk-thick atmosphere. Maybe, in those stretched-thin seconds, she was able to see the history of vicious blows that preceded the ones that struck her. Maybe she understood, a little bit. That’s not forgiveness. But something like it.
This is what I do with the ring:
I throw it into the field. I take a long step, put my weight into it, like I’m trying to gun down a runner heading for home plate. It leaves my hand and arcs into the sky, twinkles, and disappears from sight. I wait, listen for it to hit the ground, and I think I do, but it might just be the imperceptible sound of an insect brushing up against a blade of grass, or a tiny black seed falling from a flower.