This story was inspired by my many summer visits to my grandparents, Amy and Ethan Papineau, in Redding, California. It appeared in Issue 6 of Pushing Out the Boat.
Going to Town with Grampa
by Christine Laennec
It was after lunch, and very hot. Granny was going to go sew in the cool back room. She was making a new housecoat – what we called a bathrobe, but “housecoat” sounded so much more important. She’d asked Grampa to get a few things for her, and he called to us, “You girls – anyone want to come with me into town a while? I’ve got some errands to run.”
Sarah was playing with Nancy next door, hanging Barbie dolls from the lower limbs of the hawthorn bushes. (Were they hanging them, I wondered, or just hanging them? I glimpsed tiny pink high heels dangling from slender plastic feet.) She shook her head no, too busy to look up, but I wanted to go. I liked running errands with Grampa.
“Goodbye, my love,” Grampa went over and kissed Granny on the forehead. She swatted his hand away in make-believe annoyance.
“Don’t forget the hemming tape, now,” she said, her mouth trying not to smile.
“Bye, Granny,” I said, swinging slightly on the door frame.
“You look after your Grampa,” she told me, “don’t you let him be getting up to any tricks, now.”
“OK,” I laughed, swinging on out.
The door of the pickup truck slammed shut on Grampa’s side. I was still climbing up into my seat, my white legs burning on the hot webbing as I leaned back out to pull the door shut. With a clang and a shift of the long gearstick we were off, bouncing slightly down Magnolia Street. Grampa turned right at the lights, waiting patiently for the traffic to clear.
“Now you see there,” he told me, “that fella there was coming too fast, I knew I didn’t have room. But there’s a lot of folks who would try to turn, and that can cause a bad accident.” Grampa believed you should learn something new every day, and he liked to share his love of learning with us.
Down the wide, hot road he drove, out into the town that I could never quite figure out. Redding was a collection of familiar places connected only by Grampa’s driving. We went over a railway bridge, and then turned into the parking lot of a grocery store called Nardini’s. Through the glass doors into the coolness we went.
“I come here for fruit,” Grampa said. “They have a lot better prices than at Safeway. Looka here, these are good cantaloupe. Do you know how to tell if a melon is ripe?”
I shook my head no, obligingly.
“Well now, you see, first you give it a good thump, like so.” His strong hand gave the veined flesh a firm and loving pat just as it did sometimes on our bottoms as we ran past him. The melon resounded promisingly. I tried thumping in my turn, but my smaller hand just made a weak slapping noise on the rind. “That’s it, that’s a girl,” Grampa said. “But then, now looka here, then you need to smell of the end of it too. Smell of that.” He sniffed the round spot where the melon had come off the vine and handed it to me to do the same. A subtle sweet smell, only somewhat muffled by the air conditioning, met my nose. “Now you see, that’s how to pick out a melon.” Grampa was both matter-of-fact and very pleased.
We paid, put the fruit in the back, and went on to the next errand. This was buying a new watchstrap for Granny at Larson’s jewellery store. Grampa circled around the block and found a parking space under a sycamore tree. “You don’t have to lock the door, honey. This isn’t Portland.” I rolled the window back down. A big clock stood in the middle of the sidewalk. It had four faces, one on each side, so that you could see the time from any direction. Its tall cast-iron base had a kind of dolphin leaping up into a frozen splash at each of the corners.
I caught up with Grampa inside. He was leaning on the counter talking to Mr. Larson, and as I came in he was saying, “You know my granddaughter Carol? Ruthanne’s eldest. That’s right. And how’s Thelma? I haven’t seen her in church lately.”
I looked in the cases as Grampa talked with Mr. Larson. There were Swiss army knives, presentation paperweights, earrings, engagement rings. When he’d finished putting the watchstrap on, Mr. Larson gave me a big smile and told me to say hello to my Granny. I said I would.
The five-and-dime was just next door, and it only took a minute to get Granny’s hemming tape. Grampa took a little scrap of fabric out of his shirt pocket, and we found the best match for it, a slightly darker navy. I liked how all the colors looked so beautiful together, the rainbow of shades exactly repeated by the zippers in the next display case.
The next stop we made was the cobbler’s to pick up a pair of Granny’s shoes. It turned out that the man there had been one of the kids on Grampa’s schoolbus before Grampa retired.
“Papineau – I knew I knew that name. Did you used to drive the route out by Central?”
“Why sure I did!” Grampa said, his face lighting up. Laughing his deep laugh, Grampa stretched his hand over the counter to shake the man’s hand. He asked how life had treated him.
“Well, I got two kids and a steady job and you can’t ask for more than that these days, can you?” the man said.
Grampa was delighted to be consulted, and leaned forward confidingly: “Well you know now, I have been doubly blessed in my life because I not only have three children, but eight grandchildren. This here’s one of `em,” and he squeezed me to his side. I got to carry the brown parcel with Granny’s shoes and there was an all-round state of happiness when we left.
When we got back to the pickup the sun had shifted so that the steering wheel was hot but the seats weren’t so bad.
“Well, I’ve got just one more stop to make,” Grampa told me. “How would you like a piece of cherry pie?” His eyes twinkled mischievously at my surprise. He knew I’d like that just fine. Granny’s cooking was so delicious, I’d never been anywhere else for pie in Redding. But Granny kept strict tabs on how much dessert Grampa got. She was worried about his cholesterol. He would ask for seconds and she would laugh and say, “Ethan, you need another piece of pie like a hole in the head!” And that would be that.
I almost asked, “Shouldn’t we just go home?” remembering my promise to Granny. But Grampa wasn’t waiting for an answer, he’d already started the pickup. He drove out past the car dealers and big motels, until he finally turned in and parked the pickup in front of a silver diner. “The Crossroads Café” it was called. When we came in the door, the old guys sitting at the counter nodded to Grampa and touched the brims of their caps, murmuring hello. The waitress behind the counter wiped her hands on her apron and beamed at him:
“Well hello there Ethan! And who’s this?”
Her voice was gravely, and she had peroxided hair and long nails. I stood there, not much higher than the silver stools, and was introduced. Her name was Lois and she just ignored the fact that I wasn’t very happy to meet her. I knew Granny would think she looked cheap. Grampa picked me up and sat me on the stool beside him. In the cabinet in front of us was not only cherry pie, but coconut cream and apple pie as well.
“My granddaughter and I are going to have some of your delicious cherry pie, Lois.”
Lois asked me what I wanted to drink. I turned to Grampa, frowning. I wanted to say, Grampa we should be going home: I promised Granny I’d look after you. I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
“A glass of milk for my darling here,” he said, just as if nothing unusual was happening.
“Cup of coffee for you, Ethan?” Lois asked.
I looked down to the booths at the other end of the diner, where two women were sitting and smoking over coffee. Their faces looked drawn and one of them made a point by punching the air with her cigarette a few times and then blowing smoke half over her shoulder, looking for a split second like a contortionist. Grampa was talking to the man on the other side of him. “Sure has been hot lately,” he said. Well of course it’s been hot, I thought. This is California and it’s August. Lois came over with our pie, coffee for Grampa and my milk. She gave me a soft look.
“You know, you are one lucky gal to have such a nice Grampa.”
I said “Yeah…” lamely, thinking of Granny at home sewing her housecoat. Lois continued:
“He is such a sweet man. Last summer in the middle of a heat wave my air conditioner broke, and it was Ethan who found me another one.” I had to admit that despite all the blue eyeshadow, Lois’s eyes were kind.
Grampa broke off the conversation he was having with his neighbor about property taxes and said, by way of explanation, “It was one that Hal had just replaced so I told him, ‘I know a little lady who sure could use that for her restaurant’.”
Lois said simply, “Your Grampa is a good man.”
Grampa took another sip of his coffee and as he set the cup back down into the saucer, he addressed us:
“Well, it’s a funny thing, you know. I have just always found that whenever I can do a good turn for others, good things seem to come my way when I need them. The Good Lord has always provided for me.” He turned to me: “You remember that, honey.”
The cherry pie was hard to eat at first, but it got more delicious. I wondered whether Lois used the same kind of cherry-pitter as Granny did. Grampa had turned back to talk to his neighbor. His plate was licked clean. Grampa looked so happy, finishing off his coffee. Well why shouldn’t he get a treat sometimes? He obviously didn’t come in here every single day, so his arteries were probably not in grave danger. After all, he was still hunting and fishing and putting up fence with CH. He was a pretty trim and active 78-year-old.
“Welp,” he said slowly, easing off his stool and starting to help me down off mine, “We’d better be gettin’ back. Don’t want to be late for supper now.” There was a general assenting murmur and goodbyes all around as we went out the door back into 102ºF.
I held Grampa’s hand as we walked over to the pickup truck. He looked at me, an unfamiliar hint of pleading in his eyes. “You needn’t say anything about this to your Granny,” he said. “She wouldn’t understand.”
“Or Sarah,” I added, giving his hand a squeeze. It would have been great to tell her what she’d missed out on, but there was no way she could keep a secret. I knew that if she had decided to come along, Grampa wouldn’t have made this last stop.
As he started up the pickup, he turned to me with a slight frown: “Those melons will be more than ripe, the time we get home in all this heat.”
“Well,” I said, “We can have the melon for dessert tonight. But you’d better not ask for ice cream, or you’ll be in big trouble with Granny – and me.”
His booming laugh was just a little bit louder than my joke deserved. I watched the brim of his straw hat turn as we rounded the corner.
“You’re right about that, my darling. Right about that!”
Published in Pushing Out the Boat: New Writing from the North-East of Scotland, Issue 6. © Christine Laennec 2007