We stayed with my father’s parents at their little house up in the Rocky Mountains. They lived in a small town named Evergreen, which was no more than a few shops and a couple of bars lining two lanes of blacktop. There was an Elks Lodge, too, and a lake that froze every winter and became a skating rink.
My grandparents’ house was really no more than a cabin pinned in by the neighbor’s horse property. My grandfather fought with the old bastard for years over driveway rights, as access to the cabin from the main road cut through the neighbor’s property. The alternate access was from the foot of the steep hill upon which the cabin rested, a hill so steep that no car had a chance coming or going during the icy Colorado winters.
Inside the only decorating cues to hint at my grandmother’s presence were the existence of a kitchen and one of those hair dryer chairs used by old ladies with tall hair. The rest of the joint was like a museum of bad taste: bullfighters painted on black velvet; poker playing dogs; ornately carved Taiwanese furniture; an electric decanter that at the push of a button released a stream of bourbon from a cherub’s penis. Just inside the front door hung a buck head and a rack of guns. These were war relics for which he’d carved new stocks and now used as hunting rifles.
Everything inside reeked of cigarettes and poodle shit. The only things for children to do were watch either my grandmother cooking or my grandfather drinking, or listen to my grandmother make small talk while my grandfather interjected, “Mable, I never said no such a goddamned thing.”
As a younger boy I dreaded the rare weekend that my sisters and I were dropped off at my grandparents’ mountain home for the weekend, but the drive up from Denver was fun. Inevitably we’d pass a “Watch For Falling Rock” road sign and my mother would tell her story of the Indian brave who ran away when not allowed to marry his true love. I looked and looked, but I never spotted Falling Rock. He’s out there, though. I know it.
Spotting the spaceship house was always a thrill. In retrospect the place looked more like a Mento with a bite taken out of it, but we likened it to a flying saucer that mysteriously landed in the mountains. If you’ve seen the Woody Allen film Sleeper you’ve seen the house I’m talking about. The other thrill in that winding drive up the mountain was passing the buffalo herd that meant Evergreen was close.
Once there, though, my sisters and I were trapped between the cooking and the drinking and the “Mable I never said no such a goddamned thing,” and then the sun would set and I’d try to fall asleep on a war surplus Army cot by the fireplace, bullfighters and gambling dogs flickering in the firelight.
When the sun rose out came the cigarettes and coffee, and my grandmother clanked pans for bacon and fried eggs and shouted “Are those kids up yet?” until we were, then she served us assortment packs of sugary cereal topped with half and half. I thought the miniature cereal boxes were a treat. Only a couple of years ago did I realize that they bought the assortment packs because a full box of cereal would’ve gone stale before we arrived for another visit, and that the half and half for their coffee was as close to milk as they had.
Outside was the place to be, trying to coax the neighbor’s horses close for a visit, or just listening to the wind blow through the impossibly tall pine trees. There were so many of them and so little of anything else that when the wind rushed through their pine needles all outdoors sounded like a waterfall.
But I was 19 now and out on my own, a college student. I wasn’t here to sleep on the cot and eat miniature boxes of Trix. I was here to bury my grandfather, my other grandfather. He was the funny and charming one, the guy who hugged me and told me stories and taught me how to play cribbage. He was an alcoholic, too, the bull in his family’s china shop. He was always nice to me, though, and now he was gone. The next day we were going to bury him.
I didn’t want to listen to my grandmother fill the empty space with things my grandfather claimed he never said. I didn’t want to hear my father try to break through his father’s stoic shell of beer, decanter-pissed bourbon, and Matthausen’s burning ghosts. How’s the Buick running, Dad? Can’t believe gas is almost a buck a gallon, can you? My grandpa was gone, and they were all sitting around that nicotine-stained, poodle-stinking cabin saying the same shit they said every time they’d seen each other since I was a little boy.
I went outside and sat on the stone steps beneath the cabin’s eaves. A light rain was falling, almost a mist, and the afternoon air was chilly. The pine tree waterfall now was a rush of noisy cars. I wasn’t even out of my teens yet, and Evergreen already was being paved over by Denver residents who wanted to live in the unpaved mountains. A shiny new Safeway now crouched within walking distance of the cabin.
Why did things have to change? Why did little towns have to become big towns? Why did Jody have to move to New York, or Stan hire Robert? Why did the little boy in the wire rimmed glasses and the overalls have to grow old and die?
I heard the cabin door open, and then I heard my grandfather’s voice behind me: “Sitting in the rain, Jimmer?”
“Yeah, it’s too noisy in there. Everybody talking and acting happy.”
He sat down beside me, and flicked his ashes. “Yeah, they like to talk.”
“I don’t want to pretend I’m happy, and I don’t want to talk. I just want to get this service over and go home.”
He stared into the distance. “It’s a hell of a goddamned thing,” he said, and then we sat there in silence. I didn’t want him there beside me. I had nothing to say and no desire to fill the quiet space between us. “Well, come back in when you’re ready, ” he said, and he flicked his cigarette butt into a puddle and stood up.
“Okay, Grandpa,” I said. They were the last words we ever shared.