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I was fifteen the year Tom died. But this story isn’t about him. I was fifteen and greyhound lean. I drove an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 Convertible. But this story is not about that beat red, soft-top wonder carriage. It isn’t about the girls Tom and I would ferry from bars in Aurora, down to Tettgouche Camp, to make on the beech by the edge of that dark and quiet body of water- their flesh pale and shivering under the moon, their little cries lost in immensities of Black Spruce and Eastern White Pine. This story is about our grandfather. A tight muscled, brylcreemed, fighting Irishman, who wore his slacks high belted to his chest.
Michael Francis O’Connell had lost his job when Rainy Lake killed off big-pine logging in nineteen twenty nine. After that our family migrated with the work, and the year my brother died, we moved one last time, to a town called Beaver Bay. Barely a place at all, not much more than a barracks while Reserve Mining hurriedly dug in. A place, my grandfather said, where “Three generations of O’Connell could haul ore”. A place for Tom and my father, who’d served in PTO and even then had not returned, and never would, to move past those long sad days away. In later Springs, this little corner of Minnesota, from Red Lake down to the shores of Silver Bay, would become a place of infamy. That Summer, it seemed a miracle hauled from the soft dark loam.
My grandfather had started short and stayed that way, but he’d built up and kept off the liquor, so that at fifty five he was as mean a pioneer as ever sat through mass at St Joeseph’s. Running afterward, the sixteen miles to Illgen City, he’d pick his Raleigh up from Eddy Byrne and cycle ten miles more to Crosby Park. Year round when the mood took him, he’d strip a to steel gray jock strap and swim beneath the waterfalls of the icy Manitou. Then on the banks he’d strike a match and perform his stretches, seahorse curls of smoke falling away like sin.
My grandfather kept pigeons until nineteen sixty three. Well into my thirties they still nestled there, on tight hung chords of clothes line and telephone wire. Nested looking down on the shop I’d built over their former home; conditioned to seek in our yard, a place of rest. I was sat in that yard then, stooped on our back step, staring at the tethered and untethered birds. Birds that looked back, dim and malevolent behind their grills. Every now and then, I’d take a piece of bread from my sandwich and toss it, so that it struck the cheap serrated wire. Each time the tin cage rattled as birds thundered up, a black feathered mass- their orange tags, like hot iron fillings leaping off a sparkler.
My grandfather’s blow was curt and hard, if half expected. I’d felt him coming in the house, or known anyway that he was due. He’d come to tend his flock, a great steel grain bucket swinging from its handle as he walked. I rubbed my head and watched him strike the cage twice and screech a rusted feed tray from inside. The tray was set up on a hinge he’d built, like a prison food slot that swiveled forward to hang exposed outside its cell. With both hands my grandfather hefted the bucket and clacked a dune of grain out for the birds. They squawked and fluttered but did not approach, their small mean brains alive to danger.
I looked away as he passed by me to the house. He moved through the rooms behind me. He set his vacuum radio to clack and whistle across the AM dial, pausing at each station, then on over the mounds and furrows of the ether, with soft flicks and catches of the oiled brass dial. I moved halfway out across our cramped back yard, away from the rising drone of the New York Philharmonic, midway between our house and his god-damned birds. Leaning over the low side wall I looked across the neat cropped hedges of our neighbors. Today the yards were empty. It was Saturday when all that little town escaped. Across the radio, cutting out the orchestra, came the cold old bells of the Angelus, my grandfathers music. I shivered. My shirt had grown dank with the cooling afternoon. Those birds began to shift in coughs and wheezes. I moved back inside the house.
My father came home at eleven with a little drink on him. My grandfather was waiting by the door. Alone in my room, listening and fussing with arithmetic, I whispered to him to leave the poor fucker go and move off to bed. I heard my name ring clear or almost clear. My neck itched under my cotton shirt. In the dark beyond the circle of my desk lamp, my father’s voice died away, then rose again in short spastic agreement. Silence. My father opening and closing the door to his room. The door to the room where my mother lay, awake or asleep but always. A knock at my door. My grandfather bunched in the doorway, silhouetted in the hall light. I took my jacket and hunting cap, and my gray seal skin wallet, and went with him into the night.
I’ve been deputised, granted a solemn duty by my brother, and I have failed. My job was to wrangle a little green from our father, a bit of money for the city. A cheap sour job, and even that I’ve failed. So my grandfather tells me, as we bounce up toward Finland in his old Chevy truck. My father is no good, a waster and a scandal, and amn’t I his son? He fumbles one handed in the glove compartment for a pack of cigarettes. The rumbling of the truck becomes the rhythm of my heart as we ride further into darkness. My grandfather shifts gears, guns the unloaded machine. His eyes are vacuums hoovering the flame of gravel and dirt road. Inside the lined pockets of my coat, my hands began to shake. The cabin is slick with the turpentine and the coconut oil smell of him.
My grandfather has only beat me, really beat me, once. I was six years old and my mother had said I’d eat my food or the Nips would shoot my daddy. I’d called her the worst word I knew. He’d pulled this same stunt then, powering out of Bow String with me beside him in the car, hog tied and horse with fear and screaming for my father. It was midnight when we passed Mizpah and he slowed only a little to kick the door ajar and knock me to the road. Landing snapped my jaw and tore a streak of bacon from my shin. I waited two hours by the roadside in the dark ’till he returned. Two hours hunched up, curled round the base of a Cedar tree, drooling helpless from a hung open jaw, hunting warmth out of knots twisted in my sweater. Two hours flinching every time a wild dog howled.
Tonight he grunts beside me. He twists the wheel, hand over hand like his ship faces an iceberg. His face is invisibly dark under a moleskin Fedora. I am ungodly tired suddenly, and sniffling, grope for a handkerchief in my jeans pocket. He reaches out, and crushes my wrist between finger and thumb. “You’d best not have a blade, boy.”
I shake my head. I lift my open hand out of my pocket and wipe my nose onto my sleeve.
We’re halfway between Cook and Orr when something flashes by, black on black like a boxer in a Bellows painting. My grandfather pushes back hard against his seat, slaps a flat palm on the wheel. He slows to a stop. Looking back out the open window he twists the truck round slow, says “Not a word.”
She was the first colored girl I’d seen, outside of movies. She was alone on that road, her hair strait and flossy under a peach cloche. She looked in through the drivers side window and smiled at me and nodded to my grandfather.
“I was afraid I was stranded out here”.
My grandfather said nothing. His furred hands twisted at the wheel. Reaching up slowly he lifted off his hat. His hair was flattened, slickly silver. He stared straight ahead, out at the road. Back the way we’d come. He leaned suddenly, his arm pressing me into my seat-back, and opened the passenger door. I climbed out, patting myself against the damp. I hauled at the wood railed trailer and swung up behind the cab. Through the oval rear window, I watched her walk around front of the truck and climb up to sit beside him. Resting her head back against the passenger seat, she closed her eyes.
“Thank the lord you came along. I swear I might have frozen.”
In the rear view mirror, I watched my grandfather study her. She was small and Hershey dark, with a soft almond face. When her eyes opened, I noticed they were green like my own. Somehow I’d expected black on white. Catching my glance in the rear view mirror, she smiled again. I imagined I could smell her perfume, rosebud daubs of Chanel number five.
“Where are you gentlemen headed?”
My grandfather looks out over the cooling cornfields. With his tongue, he readjusts his artificial teeth. Her smile falters. I watch her fingers close over the hard lips of her seat. We pass an open level crossing, the white painted barrier sparkling under our lamps. Our truck’s hard tires and dull suspension play tricks with gravity as we cross the tracks. The girl looks out of her window and presses her lips together. In the weak light splashed back from our headlamps, they look berry red. My grandfather half turns in his chair. In the mirror I can see them both, hanging still as we coast, and myself a hidden creature, only the eyes showing, in the blue dark outside. She crosses herself and swells up with an unheard intake of breath. My grandfather shifts into third, forth. Lifting his hands off the wheel entirely, he lights another cigarette. His match is a flare in the cabin. He watches my reflection shrink back.
“Miss,” he said. “What are you up to, out here alone?”
The girl shifted in her seat to face him. Her fingers pulled at one another in her lap.
“If you’d be so kind as to leave me, leave me off at the next town.” A pause. Again, “If you’d be so kind.”
Her voice was East Coast, Chicago maybe. I tensed to speak. I was six years old and my jaw hung loose. My grandfather exhaled a slow trail of smoke. It rushed away into the slipstream, out over Wisconsin and the great lake. It rose diffuse in the dark, collecting beads of sweat that cooled and grew heavy and prepared to fall. Cigarette between his fingers at the wheel, he set his teeth down on his lower lip, to softly whistle. Her cream coat was beautiful, over-sized buttons lining the lapel, like domed and peaceful sleeping towns. She was crying, her chest rising and falling. Her crying was quiet, like a child trying hard not to be heard.
“Promise,” he said, taking another drag, watching my eyes in the mirror. “Promise, you’ll never pull a damn fool stunt like that again.”
The colored girl shook gently. She looked at him and nodded.
“A damn fool stunt,” he said again, and we passed on into the night.