We gathered at my aunt’s house, just as my mother’s side of the family always had. My older cousins now had children of their own, a new generation to slide down the stairs, hunt Easter eggs in the manicured backyard, and badger my aunt for sugary treats. The grownups sat on the back porch drinking beer and pop.
There is no better verbal indicator of American regionalism than how one refers to carbonated beverages. The Midwest prefers “pop,” the West Coast opts for “soda.” Some regions go for “soda pop,” perhaps because they’re indecisive. In New Jersey these beverages are inexplicably referred to as “Did you take care of that thing?”
Upstate South Carolina calls carbonated beverages Coke, as in:
“What kind of Coke do you want?”
“I’ll take a 7-Up.”
And if you’re wondering why Americans don’t call these beverages “fizzy drink,” I say cheers to you, mate.
My grandfather was out on the porch, surrounded by his children and adult grandchildren, enjoying a soda-Coke-pop-fizzy-drink. He didn’t look like he had cancer, though I don’t know what I thought that would look like. Pale, maybe – thin, weak. He just looked like Grandpa: rubbery, stubbly face with nose reddened from years of sun and alcohol; denim shirt with pearlescent snaps, a pack of smokes in the pocket.
“Hello, boy,” he said.
“This is my girlfriend, Jody.”
“I’ve heard so many good things about you,” she said, and she took his hand.
“Well bonus snowshoes. Grass in your ass and all that toro poo-poo.”
Jody laughed. “What should I call you?”
“You call me Grandpa. Everybody calls me Grandpa. When I go to the Nugget even the pit bosses and dealers call me Grandpa.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” she said. “I’m pleased to finally meet you.”
My uncle stepped out from the kitchen. “You doing okay, Bill? You need a coffee or a pop? Well hey, Jimmy, I didn’t see you come in. Who’s this?”
“This is my girlfriend, Jody.”
“What’s wrong with her? You need anything, Jody? A pop? A new boyfriend?”
We took Grandpa to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for an exhibit of original Far Side cartoons. During his last hobo camper visit I tore each day’s Far Side from the school library’s newspaper and we shared a laugh while playing cribbage. Walking around the museum with him was every bit as fun. He didn’t bring his cancer with him.
Outside the two of us sat on a bench, waiting for Jody and my mother to catch up. “Are you still down at that art college in Georgia?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m just home for the summer.”
“Well you stick with it. You have talent.”
You get that from your grandmother.”
“I didn’t know she was an artist.”
“Oh, yeah. She could draw anything you put in front of her,” he said. We sat quietly. “Don’t waste your talent, boy,” he said.
“I won’t, Grandpa.”
After the museum we went to dinner. The table was a black hole from which no sound could escape. Grandpa rarely spoke around my father. My mother couldn’t speak for the cancer-riddled elephant in the room, and my father was preoccupied with thoughts of the check, the noise in the dining room, or the inconvenience of it all.
The waiter brought our salads: iceberg lettuce, three croutons, and a cherry tomato. Our forks clinked against the chilled plates. I poked at my cherry tomato and it rolled across the plate. Jody smiled. I poked at it again. The tomato rolled back across the plate. My mother laughed. I stabbed at the tomato over and over again like a Chaplin routine until everyone at the table was laughing, except my grandfather. He remained head down, working his way through his salad. “Keep after him, Jim. You got him on the ropes,” he said.
Back at my aunt’s house, Jody and I joined my cousins on the back porch. My oldest cousin was reading tarot cards. She scooped them up and asked us to sit down, and then she laid them down again.
“How long have you guys known each other?” she asked.
“Three years, but we’ve only been dating a month or so,” I said.
She looked at the cards again as if they were a column of numbers that weren’t adding up. “This is weird. Are you guys considering getting married?”
Jody and I looked at each other. Well? Well? Well? We chased the tomato around the plate, smiling at each other. Well?
“Oh for Christ’s sake, just say yes,” my cousin Lindsey said.
When we left that evening Grandpa walked us to the door. “You take care of yourself, Dad,” my mother said.
“Don’t worry, hon. I’m going to beat this thing,” he said.
I gave him a hug, knowing damn well it was the last one. “I love you, Grandpa,” I said.
“I love you, too, boy,” he said, and then we were gone.