End of a Journey

By JB Grant

7.1 A-smalls the half-sized yolk-yellow bus rolled into the asphalt parking lot behind the school, the twenty passengers groaned in unison. Right away, David spotted the station wagon. They drew up roughly parallel to it, and there was his mother, crocheting in the driver’s seat, her fine-featured, permanently tanned profile contrasting with the off-white Aran Islands sweater that was her pet garment from November until May. Watching her crochet—the familiar sight of her absorption in the tiny dance of the slender silvery hook—David felt the past ten days clot, solidify, and slither toward unreality. He and the others, till twelve hours ago a noisy, star-eyed pack of outlaws, were back to a world of studied moves, an existence proper and predictable.

Early that morning they had left the mountains as summarily as they’d arrived. But while the trip north had fostered something expansive in everyone, the long drive back had put straitjackets on them. Winding around the school buildings and into the parking lot was like re-entering the gate of a correctional asylum. As Mr. Jacobsen unloaded skis and doled out the baggage, David stood by in a dopey daze. The articles piled up beside him. His mother hailed him once from the nearby station wagon, but he pretended to be lost in thought.

No snow here. The sky was overcast, and a dull sheen on the pavement hinted at recent rain, but there was no snow, only the drabness of late March and the orderly scatter of genteel suburban residences. When they had reached the ski resort, it had been after midnight and they’d tottered numbly into the dormitories, so their first real exposure to their new surroundings was dramatized by the brilliance of a mountain morning. The snow lay four and six feet deep, blue-shadowed, and with ragged whoops they ran outside and jumped and tumbled in it. For more than a week they’d been stirred by its novelty and soothed by its monotony. Set against a fathom of soft white, their feats on the slopes, their wrangling and feuding, and their surges of boy-girl attraction were both highlighted and mellowed.

David sniffed at one of his hands. Gypsy-brownish with leather stain, it smelled faintly of wet glove. A fading souvenir.

Mr. Jacobsen was holding out a rack of ski boots. “Isn’t this the last of it?” Nodding apathetically, David took the boots. “Okay, then,” Mr. Jacobsen said, “see you in class on Monday.” He turned away before David could muster the energy to reply.

David balanced skis and poles on his right shoulder, steadying them in the crook of a draped right arm. He hooked the boot rack to the dangling fingers and gathered up sleeping bag and duffle with the free hand.

John brushed by, en route to a similar station wagon. Since he’d been David’s best friend prior to the trip, John was still someone to communicate with now that the pack was breaking up and dispersing. “Three days left,” he said. “Later, Dave.”

“Come on over tomorrow,” David called after him.

“Maybe,” said John, going his way. “I’ll let you know.”

“We can listen to records and shoot some pool,” David said, half to himself. John was wincing in the embrace of a doting father.

David stumped over to the car. His mother looked up from her crocheting and said, “Hi.” David mumbled a response and went around to the back, where the tailgate was already open. He slid his gear inside, shut the tailgate, then climbed in front.

“Got everything?”

He shrugged. “Guess so.”

His mother started up, and they drove out of the parking lot onto a slick black street.

“Did you thank Mr. Jacobsen?”

“Mm-hm.”

“I’ll bet you didn’t.”

“He was busy unpacking everybody’s stuff…. Okay, I promise I will on Monday.”

Eyes adrift, David took in more of the snowlessness. Lawns and vacant lots were as dreary as the asphalt—almost an embarrassment.

“Well,” said his mother, “was it fun?”

“Yeah, we had a pretty good time. Thanks for sending me.”

“What did you do?”

“Skied, mostly.”

“And that’s all?”

“Not every minute. We ate meals, fooled around a bunch.”

“You don’t sound too enthusiastic. Anything the matter?”

“Not really. I’m kind of tired is all.”

But it was lethargy, not fatigue. David felt trapped in a bubble of stale air.

His mother appeared to understand; she didn’t keep after him. The station wagon purred along the blacktop, tires hissing faintly on the film of wetness.

When they came to the state highway she turned right. Home was in the opposite direction, and the unaccustomed turn roused David somewhat. Puzzled, he perused his mother’s face. She was gazing straight ahead, bland of expression, hands side by side at the top of the wheel as always.

“Hey,” he said, “what is this? Where are we going?”

His mother angled a glance at him. “Your grandfather has had a stroke,” she said carefully, eyes on the road again. “It happened shortly after you left. No great surprise; at his age, we’d been expecting something of the sort—though when the phone finally rings, you’re never quite ready for it.” Her chest rose and fell: a soundless sigh. “We thought of sending you a telegram, but it didn’t seem …”

She trailed off. David was alert now, free of the torpid confines. Having drawn a prefatory breath, he said, “So I take it he’s not dead or anything.”

“No, but he may be dying. It’s impossible to be sure. His right side is paralyzed, and he can’t talk—or won’t talk. Other than that, however, he appears to be holding his own. The doctors let him go home from the hospital yesterday.”

“That’s what he wanted, huh?”

“Absolutely.” She smiled then, and David looked at her closely to see if she might start to cry. But she only said, “I think most of us, given the choice, would rather die at home.”

David coughed. “So he’s still aware of what’s going on, even if he can’t say words.”

“Well, you ask him a direct question, and he’ll move his head yes or no—part of the time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve gotten through or not. But he was adamant about wanting to get out of the hospital.”

“I forget,” said David. “What did Dad’s father die of?”

He pictured their annual trek to the flat gravestone in the lee of a scaled-down marble edifice with mini-pillars, topped by a brassy breast of a dome.

“Heart failure,” his mother said, “That and a combination of other ailments.”

She took her foot off the accelerator and they began coasting downhill into the slow zone of the next town. It was 18.6 miles from David’s house to his grandfather’s: up and down through three small towns, then a stretch of level farmland, then another big hill, culminating in a quick turn onto a gravel driveway that zigzagged up a forested slope to a high terrace. An old stone mansion hulked at one end of the terrace and commanded an easy view of the valley below. When David was younger, he and a cousin used to sneak out a third-floor dormer window and clamber up the slate roof to the tallest of the chimneys. Hanging on to the chimney, they could stand on tiptoe and discern a distant river, an intermittent thread of silver against the dusty grey-green of faraway.

Since his grandmother’s death, their visits to the country mansion had tailed off. At one time the whole family—his aunts and uncles and a raft of cousins—would congregate every other Sunday for late-afternoon dinner. Then, two winters ago, his grandmother lost control of the big round-fendered Packard and skidded into the path of an oil rig; David remembered the church full of old people, the ladies in long fur coats, the heavy strangeness of so many flowers in January. Now his grandfather lived alone with a housekeeper, and David and his parents and his brother and sister paid brief calls about once a month, three seasons of the year. Summers, they occupied adjacent houses on Fishers Island. But here again, where there had formerly been much coming and going between the two houses, now they shared only an occasional lunch or light supper: and David and his grandfather hardly spoke to one another, except during their weekly golf game.

“If you’d rather,” his mother was saying, “you can stay out in the car. We’ll all be back tomorrow, so there’s no great rush.”

“You mean Liz and Brian haven’t seen him yet either?”

“Oh, yes. At the hospital.”

“Then I’d sooner see him this evening,” David said, “unless you want me to wait till tomorrow.”

“No, but a while ago you were saying how exhausted you felt.”

“Just kind of tired. Anyway, now I’m not.”

“Well, suit yourself.”

“The only thing,” David said, “I don’t quite know how I should act. I mean, is there anything special I should do or say? Or shouldn’t?”

“Tell him about your ski trip. He was a skier himself, you know, one of the first in the state to take up the sport, so I’m sure he’d love to hear all about it. And maybe I’ll get a chance to hear about it too.” She puckered her mouth and shot David a look.

“Okay, okay,” said David. The idyll of mountain snow had already coiled into a tight whorl of memory. “But is there, like, anything I should watch out for?”

“Not that I can think of. Just be yourself. You’ve always been a favorite of his.”

“Me? You gotta be kidding.”

“It’s true. My hunch is you remind him of himself as a young man. There’s the physical resemblance—yes, there is. And you’re definitely the one in the family whom he prefers to play golf with.”

“But look at how he treats me. You know how everybody calls him Judge, even if he isn’t one. Well, that’s it. It’s like he’s constantly sitting back and judging you: adding up your good points, subtracting your bad points.”

His mother laughed a little. “And he’s never quite done with the arithmetic, is he—a devastating trait in the courtroom, especially for a prosecuting attorney. ‘The scourge of the scoundrel,’ as your father likes to say. But the fact remains, he’ll be happy to see your face, no question about it.”

“No question about it,” David muttered to himself, pleased at this, pleased also at having been labeled a favorite. Suddenly, however, he began to buzz with a swarm of questions that he wanted to ask—brash, nosy questions. Such as: who discovered the stroke taking place? And what, exactly, did the symptoms consist of? Were there convulsions? Did his grandfather cry out, turn purple? Was an ambulance summoned to whisk him to the hospital? Did it cost thousands of dollars to save him? And now what? Could he chew and swallow?—open his eyes?—control his bowels? One of David’s uncles was a local doctor, a respected orthopedist. David hoped that later on, if he managed to phrase things intelligently, his uncle might part with a few answers.

Yet his nosiness shamed him. So hard-edged and impersonal. A raw form of concern, maybe; but he’d never felt chummy with his grandfather, never thought of him as an elderly pal, or as someone wise and venerable. His grandfather was a rival: a white-haired, wily-tongued rival.

Their summer golf games were tests of adversarial will—skills be damned—through which David smoldered his way. Each Tuesday morning from mid-June until the day after Labor Day he reported to the first tee at nine o’clock sharp, scrubbed and combed, ready for their eighteen-hole match. He always lost. It galled him beyond expression that while he often scored in the eighties and could do battle with any of the boys his age, against his grandfather he rarely shot better than ninety-five. Head to head with this stiff old man, he played almost as pitifully as Mr. Morrow, the worst duffer at the club.

Over the past summer David had dreaded Tuesday mornings—all the more so after the second week in July, when he got caught toeing his ball out of a bad lie in the rough. The Judge said nothing, just glared at him … after which David slunk along behind, mortified, while the old man forged briskly onward, appearing to relish every one of David’s subsequent muffs and errors. Several times, looking up from a foolish dub and glimpsing his grandfather’s supercilious smirk, David had to turn away hastily because of the tears that sprang into his eyes.

And then, the last Tuesday in August, the old man stopped to gather in his shirttail. They were out in the middle of the fairway, two shots along on the par-five seventeenth. A foursome dallied on the green ahead of them. The old man lowered his white golfing trousers to tuck in the loose shirt, and David saw to his astonishment that, underneath, his grandfather was wearing nothing at all. David had already been skunked for the morning, match play as well as medal, but for some reason he started feeling more cheerful. A week later, he won their final round of the season by half a dozen strokes.

* * *

Having passed through all three towns, the station wagon was cruising the stretch of open farmland. Afternoon had shifted into twilight, and David was mulling over what had begun to take shape that August day on the seventeenth hole, emerald marsh-grass and harbor blue at the rim of it, like a frame around a photograph. The old man’s dipping of his trousers was no senile gaffe but casual behavior in the company of a presumed equal. Since then, in peculiar response, David had amused himself in idle moments by imagining his grandfather as he might have been, years ago: recipient of a youthful spanking, newlywed husband, race-car driver—roles both realistic and absurd.

Now, though, David funneled into a stark mindfulness of the effects of aging. His grandfather was someone who had attained much in life; yet he had also endured the breakdown and loss, gradual or sudden, of nearly every major component: children grown and gone, retired from his law practice, his wife dead, his body a caricature of what it once was—someone who kept on existing nonetheless. After fifty years of eminence in a busy profession and all the socializing that went with it, what could he do to while away the hours? Apart from their golf games, David had observed him reading books and newspapers, puttering around the yard, and driving his maroon Lincoln sedan at an austere rate of speed. Pretty meager fare for one so fierce-willed.

Maybe he was fiercely willing himself to die—possibly in the hope of being born again in some afterlife. David wasn’t at all sure about an afterlife; but it was interesting to picture his grandfather so ready to quit the mortal world that, on a crest of boredom, a blood vessel in his head obediently burst.

Toward the summit of the last and biggest hill, they slowed for the turn into the driveway. The station wagon crunched onto gravel, then growled up a steep incline. The engine coughed; the transmission whined. David felt things squirm and flutter within his ribs. He drew a deep breath and wiped his palms on his jeans.

The housekeeper greeted them at the service entrance in a torrent of hoarse whispers. Then she took his mother by the arm, earnestly confiding the latest developments as she shuffled the length of the back hallway. David loitered after, attentive only to scraps of medical data. He gathered that there was a full-time nurse, presently asleep upstairs. David approved of the nurse. It was good to have somebody around other than Miss Helbing, the dumpy little housekeeper, whom he and Liz had dubbed Miss Helpless, and whose waddle and fervent talk they mimicked shamelessly.

One thing he noticed: the house smelled more or less as it always had—a semisweet, elusive aroma that used to be stronger while his grandmother was alive. When Miss Helbing first opened the door, he had wondered if there’d be a smell of illness. “Like death warmed over!” his mother would exclaim as she recoiled from an offensive odor. But perhaps dying smelled tolerable, even if death did not.

They paused on the top step of a small dais at the door of the large sunken living room. Nearby, a lamp with a woven shade provided a dull glow. The rest of the lights were off. At the far end of the room, however, the stone fireplace was filled with leaping flames, reflections of which writhed up the dark-brown wall paneling. The old man sat in an armchair not ten feet from the fireplace. He sat quite still, silhouetted against the blaze, a fixed reference for all the crackling and gamboling.

“I want to put some more light on for him,” the housekeeper whispered fretfully, “but he won’t let me. You should see how he looks at me. So I keep the fire built, what he seems to like best.”

David’s mother nudged his elbow with hers, and he went down the three steps and across the oak floor, avoiding the archipelago of oriental throw rugs. There arose in him a childish compulsion to flee; but he jiggled his shoulders and cleared his throat, and it subsided. Now he stood politely alongside his grandfather. The old man was staring ahead and slightly up, apparently unaware of his grandson. Remembering the paralyzed right side, David reached for his grandfather’s left hand where it lay passively on the chair arm.

“Hello, Grampa,” he said, giving the hand a gentle squeeze. “It’s me, David. I just got back from skiing.”

He relaxed his own hand to let go the other. To his surprise, the hands remained clasped. David realized that his grandfather was holding on to him, that he’d have to use force if he wished to break the grip. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was resolute. David peered again at his grandfather’s eyes; they continued to gaze at the flame tips, the pupils extra big and receptive.

At a loss for anything else to do, David sat against the plush arm of the chair and put their hands in his lap. Now he and the old man faced the fireplace together. The fire was a beauty. For a space the two of them watched it side by side in silence.

David began to relax, to feel more self-contained, even a bit expansive. When he spoke up, it came out of him almost as if he were listening rather than talking.

“Yup, pretty nice fire… Up at the ski place they had a huge one going every night. You could play checkers, cards, Ping-Pong, dance to records. Mainly, though, what I liked to do was just sit around with everybody next to the fire, watch it change, break up, cave in—all the way down to coals; then just kind of quivering there, like a … a heartbeat.”

At the word “heartbeat” David prickled all over, then reddened with the panicky remorse of a junior sorcerer who may have inadvertently uttered a command to drop dead. Yet there was still a pulse—regular, insistent—that throbbed between them.

And if the old man was dying, at least he was doing it bravely, with dignity. He hadn’t lapsed into a coma or succumbed to some messy horizontal struggle. His eyes were still attached to life.

David felt better again, consoled by a wave of certainty that his grandfather was somebody whom he didn’t mind resembling. Not only did the wave wash away the ash of his remorse, it revealed to him that the old man cared not a whit for hearing details of the ski trip. Nor had he ever really cared who won their Tuesday-morning golf games. Their rivalry had been merely skin-deep, camouflage for the unspoken connection.

David gave his grandfather’s hand a final squeeze. Then he stood up and, breaking the clasp, returned the hand to its prior place on the arm of the chair. There was no resistance.

And now the mother and daughter stepped forward. Having seen all that had just transpired, she began to chatter away enthusiastically, making much ado about the world that went on, while the old man sat cradled in the heavy chair, motionless, his eyes upon wriggling flames that rushed up the chimney into open air.

 

——————–
Ex-marine, multi-genre musician, competitive athlete, and longtime family man, JB Grant is wholly or partly responsible for a half-dozen nonfiction books (mostly about sports), one novel (The Unamericans in Paris, Celestial Arts, 1988), as well as numerous stories, poems, and articles in small magazines. An admirer of Turgenev and Mansfield, he aspires to present contemporary human truth in all its sordid glory and banal complexity, with a leavening of quirky humor.


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