By Anthony Varallo
The thing with Grandfather is, he can’t help the noises he makes. Those noises are just a part of Grandfather. So, we can either accept the noises Grandfather makes or we can just forget about accepting Grandfather at all. Understand? We say that we understand, but we do not understand Grandfather. We do not understand why we must be left in his care, from time to time, when he never seems glad to see us, never asks us anything about our lives, school, friends, interests, or hobbies, and rarely remembers our names. “You,” he says, or, “Hey, Red,” or, “Pipe down, Buster.” Why must we listen to him snore in his armchair?
It’s not that we don’t like Grandfather; it’s more that he doesn’t seem to like us, which makes liking him feel sort of strange, like waving to someone who doesn’t wave back. Why doesn’t he care? We can’t deny that we find his habits, rituals, and repeated phrases fascinating, though. Like, for example, the way he butters corn on the cob by dragging a fork up and down its length, the fork holding a pad of butter that melts until it disappears altogether. Or the way he wears a V-neck undershirt every single day, no matter the weather, no matter the time of year. We’ve never seen him wear anything else, really, except for when he dies, and someone hilariously puts him in a pinstriped suit—but that is later. Now we watch him eat peanuts by breaking the shell in one hand and expertly tossing the nut into his open mouth while watching Westerns. Now we hear him say, “Hits the spot.” Now we watch him fall asleep like falling asleep is nothing at all. Now we hear faint, familiar bodily noises. On TV, men in Stetson hats ride white horses into the horizon.
The TV is the idiot box.
The refrigerator is the ice box.
When he dies, Grandfather says they are going to put him in his box.
But why does Grandfather take us to the movies, only to fall asleep in the theater? Because it is too goddamn hot to do anything else. “You could fry an egg,” he says, and we do not argue, even though you can fry an egg whenever, can’t you? We see movie after movie, most of them too young for us, but Grandfather says we can’t beat the value: the kiddie movies are one dollar. Grandfather gets a large popcorn he doesn’t share until he falls asleep and we ease the tub from his lap. Grandfather snores. Sometimes heads turn. Sometimes we get shushed.
“Sir?” an usher says. He aims a flashlight at Grandfather’s feet. “No feet on the seats.”
“Hey,” Grandfather says, roused from dreams, “what’s the big idea?”
“Sir, if you don’t remove your feet, I will have to tell my manager.” The usher’s voice does a funny thing where it sounds like he’s asking a question when he’s not really asking a question.
“Keep your shirt on,” Grandfather says, then puts his feet down. “Don’t get all bent out of shape.”
Afterward, we drive home in Grandfather’s Jeep. The Jeep smells like maple syrup and motor oil. “What the hell kind of dohicky movie was that anyway?” Grandfather asks.
We tell him that’s our favorite movie. We’ve seen it five times. Breathlessly, we recount the entire plot.
“What the hell is a wooket?” Grandfather says.
“Wookie,” we say. But it’s no use. Grandfather is already yelling at the driver in front of him, who can’t hear Grandfather, the way we can. Outside, cars with families in various stages of misery offer up faces impossible to read. Is life like this for everyone?
Later, we brush our teeth and get ready for bed. We know we should tell Grandfather goodnight, but he’s already asleep in the recliner. No, we decide, we’ll let him sleep. We can tell him goodnight some other night. Some other time.
And, much later, at Grandfather’s funeral, we will recall the time he took us to see the movie about the deer whose mommy gets shot by a hunter. How the theater began to fill with sniffles and sobs. How parents and children daubed their eyes with crumpled napkins. How those sobs turned to tears, until Grandfather, waking from sleep, looked around the darkened theater and announced, “Aw, for Christ’s sake, it’s just a goddamn movie!” How the usher opened the exit doors to find an audience laughing at loss.
Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections: This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; Think of Me and I’ll Know(TriQuarterly Books); and Everyone Was There, winner of the Elixir Press Short Fiction Award. Currently he is a professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the Fiction Editor of Crazyhorse. Follow him at @TheLines1979.