My grandfather saw the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. He stared from the deck of the U.S.S. Greenlet toward the thin strip of land that was the shore, and he thinks he saw puffs of smoke, the distant beginnings of a new war as the other died. His ship was outside Vladivostok. He was 15, and now, at 92, he isn’t sure he remembers what happened in Vladivostok correctly. His memory slips. He calls me by my mother’s name. He lies in his bed in the nursing home, voice thin as paper, and whispers pieces of stories. I try to catch them. I catch what I can. I create our history out of the pieces, pick them up, fit them together. Puffs of smoke.
I’m sitting in the gray half-light of early morning, alone. Just like Grandpa, I can’t think clearly. He’s looking back; me, forward. Try not to look at the borders, at the possibilities, I tell myself. They are boundaries into whole new worlds.
The kitchen is cold, and I’m wearing my favorite wool sweater and a long flannel nightgown, the same outfit I wore yesterday, and the day before. I couldn’t sleep, and I slipped from underneath the heavy weight of Al’s arm and came downstairs. I stole his fuzzy bear paw slippers to wear, and each step I made on the hardwood floors sounded like I was being hushed back to sleep, from restlessness to calm. Upstairs, Al snores softly. He’s sound asleep, head under one pillow, arm thrown over mine.
“I can’t believe you two planned a vacation in Iowa,” Mom had said.
I called her last week to let her know we’d be out of town, to ask her to feed the cat. Alber hates to be alone. If somebody doesn’t come over and lavish him with praise on a regular basis, he’ll take revenge on the plants.
“We’re staying in an old farmhouse,” I said.
“Where else would you be staying?” Mom paused. “Whose idea was this?”
“Al’s.” I felt the conversation degenerating. “Mom,” I said. “We just want to get away for a while.”
“Oh, trust me, you will.”
We rented the house for the days before New Year’s, hoping to slip away into a quiet and calm that the previous months had not allowed. I had a feeling then, in the way planning the trip made Al more buoyant, in the way he crossed days off on his calendar, that for him the vacation meant more than escaping a trying three or four months. Last week, when I wasn’t looking, the box with my grandmother’s wedding ring disappeared from the top of my dresser, and now, almost through our vacation, packing to leave, I wait for him to give it back to me.
The realtor reminded us the amenities were few, just before we signed the rental contract for one of the few properties that fit his budget.
“No coffee pot,” she said, raising a penciled brown eyebrow, gauging our response. Her name was Mrs. Swenson, and she had an office right down the road from Al’s office at the university. Mrs. Swenson wore a bright red jacket and gold earrings. She smoked thin cigarettes.
“No coffee pot?” she said, and her voice rose at the end.
We stared at her blankly.
“No washer and dryer.” Again, the eyebrow went up, and again, we were silent. “No shower,” Mrs. Swenson continued, “only a bathtub.”
Al leaned forward. He smiled. He said, “Does it have toilet?”
The eyebrow stayed up. “Yes,” she said.
“Then we’re dandy.”
I had watched Al sign the contract, his hand gliding over the page. It seemed so easy, being definite.
This morning, when I put a kettle on, blue flame hissed and sprang from the burner, and there was something beautiful about it in the darkness. Outside, for miles, the view is of snow and trees. There are no lights lining any highway, no garbage truck that thunders past, flashing yellow lights across the ceiling, nobody telling me that what my ads really need are borders to give them a little pep. Out here, lost in the long land that is farmland, I sit at a kitchen table of solid maple, and drink tea that is hot and strong. Later, I’ll drive down a dirt road, bump along until I reach pavement, and then glide past field after field, just for the fun of it, just to feel open space, wide open space, like I haven’t felt for a long time.
“Will you feed Alber?” I finally asked my mother when we spoke on the phone last week. Lately, we’ve communicated by telephone, sending ourselves from one side of Minneapolis to the other, over the snowy roads we refuse to traverse, over the long gray landscape of winter.
“I’ll even take him for walks,” she had said.
I doubted Alber could make it more than two yards, but I didn’t say so. Alber could use exercise, like Al. They’re a pair. They stretch out on the couch together and watch college football on fall Saturdays. On occasion, I’ve even seen Al slip Alber a victory potato chip when the Gophers scored.
“What’s happening?” Mom asked. “You quit your job, now you’re enamored of Iowa.”
I knew she was joking, but underneath the joke, she didn’t understand. For months now, Al has been like a signal man on a Navy ship who waves flags at boats on the horizon. The signals are sometimes subtle, sometimes not and then must be decoded, but the message is clear. Where will we spend the holidays next year? How do I feel about the ring my grandmother gave me, her ring, the ring she has slipped off her finger already, for me, now? That’s what he asked me when I brought it home and showed it to him in October, placed on a white cloth in a small white box. He asked, “Is that the one you want?”
I think, being honest with myself, which sometimes is hard for me to do, that Al was willing to wait for me until he started hanging out with my Grandpa. Al’s signaling started with Grandpa, who has decided I need to hurry up so he can be here to see it all. Al’s signals are like the smoke in Vladivostok that warned Grandpa at age fifteen that something was beginning, something big.
Last semester, Al taught in the mornings. He rode the bus to campus and taught a lecture in Religion 125, Religions of the World. In the afternoons, he stopped by the nursing home. He climbed off the bus early to do so, switched lines, and walked the last block or two. He had no living grandparents.
The first time he visited, he brought flowers for Grandma. Grandpa made him leave the room, and when Grandpa yelled for Al to come back in, Al pretended not to notice the whoopy cushion. He took his seat, in the chair between both beds, and sat down hard. Grandpa roared. He laughed so hard, he cried; and even Grandma, who bit her lip, who said that cushion was the worst toy in the world, even she began to giggle. Al’s visits became a regular activity, a daily ritual, and Grandpa kept his checkerboard open to their last game. Their game was always open; they never finished. Al played every afternoon, because it was the one thing Grandpa could do. Grandpa could grab his elbow to move his arm, pick up the pieces, and slide them slowly across to a space. There were times when he couldn’t see black and red, so Al told him the color.
“Red,” he’d yell. “Black.”
But he never moved Grandpa’s pieces for him, and he never played to lose.
I caught them recently, huddled together, whispering after their game. I’d dropped by on my own, and there was Al, sitting on the foot of Grandpa’s bed, telling him a dirty joke. It’s a favorite memory already, Al leaning over, speaking directly into Grandpa’s good ear, if he has one anymore, and Grandpa, hand on Al’s shoulder, holding himself still and listening. I smile remembering how Grandpa tilted his head back, laughing long and hard.
Grandpa was the first to realize that Al was the one. Grandpa knew before I knew. I don’t know how. Usually, Grandpa isn’t observant, but Glennie, insists that when it comes to us, Grandpa is a hawk. He zeroes in, she says, he watches.
Al and I met at a Gopher football party during my senior year of college. That year I invited Al to Thanksgiving, even though we’d only been dating a few weeks. His parents lived in Chicago, and he couldn’t afford a ticket home. He was part-way through his Ph.D., too, and he had a thesis chapter to write.
On Thanksgiving Day, given the miserable performance of his football teams, Grandpa ensconced himself at the kitchen table, in the way of the busy dinner preparations, and drank his second scotch of the morning. I walked into the kitchen, and there he was, surrounded by china plates, dipping his hand freely into the salad for croutons. I walked randomly throughout the house, waiting for Al to arrive.
Grandpa and Dad had a saying, an excuse, for drinking scotch. They pretended they’d seen a snake in the basement, come up waving their hands in front of their faces, fanning themselves, and then collapse into chairs. They said the only cure for seeing a snake was a glass of Glenlivet.
When the doorbell rang, I tried to beat Grandpa to it. Who knew what Grandpa might say if he answered the door?
Grandpa got there first.
“What do you want?” he asked, opening the door, glass in hand.
“Hello, sir. I’m Sarah’s boyfriend, Al, and I’m here for dinner.”
The cold air streamed in through the door, and I stuck my head out around Grandpa and smiled at Al. Al wore a white shirt and a beige sweater and a pair of pressed pants. He carried a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of red wine.
“Grandpa,” I had said, hoping to prompt him to let Al inside, “This is Al. I told you about Al, remember?”
Grandpa sniffed. He said, “Al, I saw something frightening in our basement this morning. I saw a snake.”
I wilted a little.
Al paused. He took a deep breath. He said, “Sir, if you have seen a snake, then you deserve that drink.”
Grandpa stepped aside, and with a flourish of his hand, asked Al if he had seen any snakes. Al shook his head. No, he said, he had not seen a snake, but he’d be damned if he hadn’t seen a bear in the middle of 35W on the drive to our house. He got a double.
I worried how my parents might feel, climbing up from downstairs with Grandma to say their first hellos. I worried about what they would think of Al. My grandmother reached the landing first, then my mother, and they didn’t seem to notice the drink, or to think twice if they had. Maybe the bouquet distracted them. Dad reached the landing and made his way to me.
“What’s his name again?” Dad asked.
“Al,” I whispered in his ear, and over Dad went, hand extended, saying “Al, Al, Al,” repeating the name to cement it in his memory. “Welcome. My, there are a lot of snakes out today.”
“There are even bears,” Al said.
It was like water, his arrival, a smooth transition. Add a boulder to the stream and the stream works around it. No upsets, no tension, just the rearrangement that comes with multiplying. Al said later that he’d needed that scotch. He’d been nervous as hell, having all my family standing around him at the kitchen table, asking question after question, under fire.
Grandpa had winked at me later, as Mom fluttered around Al, thanked him for the flowers, as Grandma reached for his hand to tell him a story. He had winked at me and laughed to himself, and I realized that he’d planted that drink in Al’s hands, that it had been his gift, his mercy.
Before Christmas, Grandpa called me. He never called because he had trouble hearing over the phone, but one day, he picked up the receiver and probably turned up the hearing dial by using his magnifying glass.
“Sarah?” he said.
For a minute, I think we were both stunned, him at having successfully completed the call, me at hearing his voice.
“I want you to take me to the mall,” he said.
Grandpa hated the mall.
“Sure,” I said. “When?”
“Today. Could we go today? I want to get Al a Christmas gift.”
“You do?” I felt pleased, really. I felt like somebody in my family ought to get Al a present. He, after all, had presents for them, albeit small ones. He’d bought Grandpa a new whoopy cushion.
“What are you getting him? “I asked.
“Slippers,” Grandpa said.
I picked Grandpa up that afternoon. He wanted to be dropped off, so I spent the free hour looking around the shops myself, and we met later. He said nothing, and I never thought to ask. Slippers were slippers.
Later, Grandpa called again.
“Time to deliver it,” he said.
THE gift. I didn’t notice the wording then, slow to realize how special Al was to Grandpa.
The light is in the sky now, spreading, like a stain. Upstairs, Al sleeps on. Finals are over. Before we left, he graded a hundred essays about Buddhism. He now hates Buddhism. More than that, though, he hates what freshmen have to say about it.
“Buddhism is an act of faith. So is love,” he quoted from a student paper. He was sitting at the kitchen table the night before we left, final papers spread out in neat piles in front of him. “Oh God.”
The small happinesses, the small things. These are what keep me going. Al at the kitchen table, red pen out, correcting comma splices and failed logic. Al singing in the shower. Me half-asleep, a snow coming down gently outside, and that’s all, that’s my world.
Whole new worlds, I think, staring out at the snow. Lines shift. Lines change. Boundaries are redrawn. Whole new worlds, created out of bits of the past, from what is passed forward, accepted again, taken and renewed. This, too, is an act of faith, the going forward, the continuing on.
To family, my grandfather had thundered, raising his glass, years ago. We are a dynasty in our own right, with our feet planted in the soil of a new country, the generations traced back to Vimmerby, to Glasgow, to Sarahstina, for whom I was named. I was named for a woman who fled her homeland, created a new life, recreated herself. I have never asked why she fled, why Grandma uses that word in particular, as if she had a fear too large to stay in the country, a fear only distance could swallow whole.
“What are you afraid of?” I speak out loud, my voice low, breaking the stillness in the kitchen. I imagine Al marching downstairs with Grandma’s white ring box, maybe tucking the ring in the pocket of his robe. I don’t know what I will say. Can I say, may I have twenty-four hours?
“What is so frightening about the possibility of marriage?”
I have no answers for myself. I have no answers at all.
Immediately after we’d rented the house, I dropped by the nursing home to tell Grandma and Grandpa we’d planned a vacation. The deposit receipt seemed to burn a promise through my purse.
As I walked through the double doors into the main reception area, I saw Grandma seated in a fold out chair in the front row of the current events lecture. The current events lecture took place every night before the first dinner shift, and the regulars wheeled themselves down in time to get the best seats, the seats right next to the speaker.
Grandma was a streak of teal blue sweat suit, a white head craned toward the podium, as I passed by. She didn’t lift her head. She didn’t move her body. She listened. The speaker, a heavy-set young woman, a volunteer, read the headlines slowly and loudly. Today in Angola. I knew my grandmother well enough to know that in her mind, she traced the name back. Angola, before it was Angola, was what? A hand shot up in the air as I rounded the corner, and a strong voice asked the volunteer to repeat. Today in An-go-la.
I heard Grandpa muttering as I walked into their room. He lay in bed with a stuffed cat on his chest. He was talking to the cat, little words, small words that I couldn’t understand. His feet and hands shook, like usual, but not his voice. I wished I could bring Alber over. Alber would stretch across his chest and not wriggle away. He’d love the attention. He’d never want to leave.
I bent over and gave Grandpa a kiss, and he laughed. He wore his favorite baseball hat, a gift from Mom. The hat said he was the world’s best dad.
“I’m going on vacation,” I said, and he nodded. He said nothing, asked me nothing. He hadn’t heard. I pulled up a chair, took his hand in mine and talked on, knowing he wouldn’t hear, but thinking he might catch bits, like Grandma, a word, something to keep his mind busy.
I told him about the farmhouse, how an old farming family built it back in the early days of the century, how the hard wood floors sagged in spots, apparently, and the curtains on the kitchen windows were crocheted in a fading white and pale pink. I told him what Mrs. Swenson told me.
“Where’s Al?” Grandpa asked, interrupting me, hands shaking, feet in spasms, as though he was itching to move.
“Working,” I yelled.
Grandpa nodded. “Are you going to marry him?”
The question hung in the air between us. I felt a creeping fear rise in me. What word had he heard? Al’s name. Maybe house. Maybe nothing. Maybe he simply had our potential marriage on his mind.
Grandpa said. “You oughta’ marry him.” He looked at me, raised his hand. “You have the ring.”
“I don’t want to get married,” I said. I meant to add to the word “yet” but the word never made it out of my mouth.
Grandpa hadn’t heard. Deafness can be selective. He hears what he wants to hear.
I changed the subject, a good strategy, I thought. “I’m quitting my job, Grandpa. I’m going to get a better job.”
He nodded, picked up his cat, stroked the fake fur. “It’s good to have a job,” he said. “Everybody should work. My first job was at a brewery,” he said. “I delivered beer. No, not the first time. I worked inside first.”
“What did you do after beer?” I asked.
“The war.” He patted my hand, held his cat tightly. He muttered the story of Vladivostok, again, a favorite. “I was afraid. The smoke, I didn’t know what it was. I thought we were going to have to fight. I was on watch, and I called to Jimmy Robinson, and he watched with me. We watched that smoke, it was smoke, I think, and we never went in. We were ready to go, Jimmy and I, even though we didn’t know what we’d face.”
I fitted the blanket around him as he spoke, like he used to do for me. He seemed to be telling his cat, not me, reciting. His words trailed off, puffs of smoke themselves, final outbursts splitting into silence. I had closed his blinds, returned my chair to its proper place, when I turned and saw him watching me, following my movements.
“Don’t make a mistake here, Sarah,” he said.
His words trailed after me, a hoarse whisper as I breezed out the door. I turned. He’d turned, too, to watch me leave. To him, I was a gray shadow, indistinct, shapeless, a trick of light.
Al pounds quickly down the staircase. He pulls his slippers off my feet.
“Traitor,” he says.
Then he retreats.
Al comes downstairs, for good, when the full light has reached the sky. He has nothing in his hands, no fist curling around a hidden treasure. Out in the glare of sun and snow, nothing moves. Nothing I can see anyway. I make him a cup of tea.
“What have you been doing?”
Al sips his tea He shuffles across the hard wood floor in his slippers, and the slippers remind me again of Grandpa, and I look out the window at the line of trees, the only distinct shape in view.
We’re quiet. The kitchen fills with something I don’t understand. I think of Vladivostok. I think of being 15 and scared shitless and looking out at the smoke, not knowing then exactly what is was.
“Al,” I say suddenly, and Al comes to me.
Loss. I am afraid of loss.
Al rubs my arm and asks nothing. He is simply there.
Al and I build a snowman in the yellow light of morning. We build him outside the kitchen window, and the air, like ice, burns our faces, makes us hurry. We roll the snow, push it down the only decline in land we’ve seen for miles. We roll his middle, and we roll his head, and we stand back. I give him my scarf.
“What’s wrong?” Al looks for a twig with which to make arms.
“What do you mean?” I stay right where I am, feet planted firmly in the snow.
“I mean, what’s eating you?”
I think, be honest with him. Be honest with yourself. I say, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of losing people.”
There is no wind here, nothing to stir the snow, or my words. Nothing that will take my words and send them away. What I say carries, is clear, stays with us.
“I’m afraid of being left.”
Al kicks the snow with his boots, and snow flies up, falls. He puts his hands on his hips and leans back. He stares at the sky. “If you don’t trust me, we have nothing.”
I can’t say that I trust him. To say so would be a lie, and so we stand there, him staring at the sky, me at him. It’s cold, suddenly, and I close my eyes and let the cold flow into me, think of freezing, right here, right where I am. I don’t want to be without him.
“If I tell you that I can’t predict my future, but I always see you in it, will you marry me?” he asks, still staring at the sky.
“Yes,” I say the word carefully. I enunciate, and for a long time neither one of us moves, we stare at the snowman. The word slips out of me, and the world moves on. We let the word sink into the quiet.
Al is eating sugar cereal, as my mother would call it, the kind of cereal kids love but shouldn’t eat. He loves mornings, and sugar cereal, and his bear paw slippers from my Grandpa. He loves me. He’s wearing his flannel pajamas and plaid robe, both which he has had since college, both of which are full of holes. “You’re quiet,” he says.
He’s right. I haven’t said much this weekend, except “I do.”
We leave tomorrow. We’ll drive at night, letting the truckers guide us home. We won’t see a city for an hour, and then one will reach out to us, slowly at first, the McDonald’s by the county line, the increased traffic of semis, the convenience stores and gas stations, multiplying, fanning out, as we drive in. Classes start again soon, and Al has to teach another section of Religion 125. The class starts at eight am.
“That in itself is ungodly,” Al said, just before we left for Iowa, staring at the schedule he’d received.
I’d laughed, and he had, too. We had a vacation planned then, a place to go and get away, and it didn’t matter how bad our jokes were, or our teaching time schedules, or that I had, that very day, resigned my position at IBM.
“What will you do now?” Mom had asked, when I called about her feeding Alber while we were gone.
“I will start by breathing slowly in and out,” I said.
I accepted Grandma’s ring but never put it on. I accepted the possibility of marriage only because she insisted, insisted that I recognize cycles, her death, my beginning, and I refused to wed the two. Now we are going home engaged. I can imagine what my grandfather will say. He will make a joke at first. He will say, “Engaged in what?”
But he’ll laugh, and my grandmother will nod, and in the midst, as I turn from face to face, ring on my finger, telling them the story over and over until they hear, faces blurring, I’ll move easily, having faith in the turn.
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned her MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University. Her short stories have been published in Puerto del Sol, Wisconsin Review, Hypertext Magazine, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Mud Season Review, and Long Story, Short. Her short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was published by Fomite in August 2017 to excellent reviews nationwide. It won the Phillip H. McMath Post-Publication Book Award and Silver in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Award for Short Stories. Also, it was featured on The Millions and was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Find her online at http://www.caitlinhamiltonsummie.com