My dad got me an ice cream cone for the drive over. It made me giddy. It didn’t seem odd that it was the first time he’d ever bought me a treat without my having to beg and whine. All I really cared about was licking every last drop of chocolate mint as it ran down my wrist.
I hung my head out the rolled down window like a dog so I could smell each house as it passed by – bacon, motor oil, fertilizer. Sometimes I couldn’t place the smells, but filed them away fondly anyway.
It was an old street, one where every house looked different than the ones next to it as if each had been built during a different year by a different mind with a different concept of beauty. But all the houses did have two things in common – a crumbling sidewalk with each slab either a half inch higher or lower than the next and an identical oak tree in the middle of the front yard, its branches splaying out in perfect angles for climbing, its roots the cause of the sad sidewalk.
As always, as soon as our car swung into the driveway I jumped out before it stopped moving and ran toward the front door which was always swinging open at the same instant as if my grandpa had been waiting, watching with his hand on the knob all morning.
That day, though, something caught my eye and I stopped. Grandpa’s house was on a bend in the street which caused it to share a bit of driveway with the neighbor’s house and caused the two houses to almost face each other. I always imagined the houses were watching each other.
What caught my eye was a little girl about my age wearing a bright yellow dress playing on a swing in that opposing front yard. The swing was made out of a red board, part of an old wagon, and it hung from the oak tree on two ropes, one short and one long to allow for the slope of the branch. A man was gently pushing the girl on the swing back and forth. They were both laughing.
When the girl saw me, she waved and said, “Who’s she daddy?”
I started to walk toward her, but my dad took me by the arm and led me toward grandpa. I looked up at him, about to whine for the first time that day, and saw a hurried, worried look in his eyes. I think I saw grandpa give him a slight nod as he patted me on the back and closed the front door. I turned to watch my dad walk quickly back to his still running car and drive away.
Grandpa waited for me to follow him. He was finding it harder all the time to get around. He didn’t really walk. He waddled. He wore dress pants way over his belly, held up by red suspenders over a sleeveless white t-shirt. His pants were pulled up so high that I could see the tops of his black socks. My friends joked, “Is he expecting a flood?”
He was waddling slower than usual though. He’d usually get ahead of me and have to waddle back to hurry me along as I stopped to peek in the coat closet. That’s where he kept the basketball and Hula Hoops. But he stayed right with me as if he was leading me somewhere.
Before we were halfway across the living room, I already knew we’d find grandma waiting in the kitchen, the smell of peach pie lifting me from my feet and carrying me away. And, there she was all pajamas, apron, and a smile. Two plates were set out on the table, each with a still steaming slice of pie and a scoop of quickly melting vanilla ice cream. One can never have too much ice cream I thought and licked my wrist.
I never saw her eat though, ever. Even when we had Thanksgiving dinner, she never sat down. She was always running back and forth between the table and the kitchen for more gravy, sweet potatoes, or pickles. I just figured that’s how she always stayed so skinny.
Grandpa didn’t notice the plates. He and grandma just kept looking at each other like they were having a silent conversation. He led me toward the basement door and she kept walking toward it as if to get in our way. We all arrived at the same time. Grandpa cleared his throat and grandma scurried away. He reached for the doorknob and gave it a twist – I swear he would’ve done so even if she was still there, his hand passing through her like a ghost. A gust of cool air blew against my bare legs and I shivered just slightly. He led me down the stairs.
Going down into the basement seemed to be a journey like going to a faraway fantasyland, the smells of the kitchen dissolving into smells just as memorable of film, dust, and mildew. I imagined I was walking down into the past.
Grandpa wasn’t a movie buff. If he was, those basement walls would’ve been covered with posters from Gone with the Wind or some such movies instead of old calendars and cobwebs. But he loved to take movies of his family, and he loved showing them off – his family and his movies. Almost all of my memories are of him holding a movie camera. I even had dreams when I was a kid where he had a camera instead of a nose. I always expected to end up in his basement, his theater, every time I visited.
He sat in his big leather chair by the projector and patted his knee. I hopped up and leaned back against him, my feet dangling far from the floor and said, “Let her roll.” He switched off the light and flipped the switch on the projector into the up position.
There was a bit of clickety-clacking as the film started feeding through the projector. The first images were white with a streak of red down the middle. Then images of my dad and my grandpa burst onto the screen. My dad was a little boy and grandpa looked so young, so handsome. Dad was climbing the oak tree in the front yard, he wasn’t climbing very high. Grandpa held his hands out to catch him if he fell anyway.
Grandpa seemed nervous. There was something heavier about his breathing and he kept saying, “Hm,” the way he always did when he was about to say something important. Then he started to talk:
“That house used to be so nice, so pretty. It was freshly painted green with white trim and had pink rose bushes all along the front. The smells of fresh baked bread drifted out through the kitchen window every morning. Mrs. Shelton could always be seen at the window adjusting her apron and smiling. Mr. Shelton would head outside in the cool of the morning to mow and edge the lawn, trimming extra carefully along the sidewalk. The sidewalks were happy then.”
I kept watching the movie as I listened. The scene had changed to grandma bringing grandpa and dad lemonade and sandwiches on the porch and then sitting back to watch them eat. Grandpa’s story continued drifting into my ears like narration:
“After Mr. Shelton had a heart attack, Mrs. Shelton moved away to be closer to her kids. The house sat empty for months. Times were tough and houses weren’t selling. And they were getting closer all the time.”
“Who was grandpa?”
“It all started when the meat plant opened just past the turnpike. All those animals, those niggers started to go there to work and to move in little by little, closer and closer. Then some of them moved in just down the street and the weeds started to grow. And the smells started too.”
I glanced over my shoulder at him. “Smells?”
“Every time a nice family took a look at the house next door, mom and I got our hopes up. Then we’d cry when we realized they weren’t coming back.
“Then they showed up. They didn’t even have the sense to think about it. They took one look and just moved right in.”
The movie on the screen went back to white with a streak of red down the middle and then the end flapped out of the projector, the reel spinning quickly, wildly.
“It makes me sick. The parties and the cars parked on the lawn, crushing the rose bushes. There were people stumbling in and out all day and night cussing and throwing up. And the smells coming from inside the house were so bad the paint started peeling down the sides of the house. It was like the house was crying along with Grandma and me.”
Grandpa took a long breath. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“They don’t even use the bathroom. They just go wherever they are in the house and then they try to cover it up like cats. It makes me want to throw up.”
Grandpa reached over and switched the projector off. He threaded the film back into its original plastic reel, flipped the switch down, and the film raced back to where it came. He pulled the reel off the projector and carefully slid it back into its little yellow Kodak box. He plucked another box from the shelf and fed the film through the projector.
When images of me at my first birthday party filled the screen, he started to chuckle. He was breathing easier now and I leaned against his belly and started to laugh along with him.
I always lost track of time while in the basement with grandpa. We probably watched dozens of movies that day, so many memories of my dad and me. He finally said “time to give the eyes a rest” and we slipped off his leather chair and went upstairs.
Going up was usually like returning through time to be welcomed again by the smells of grandma’s kitchen. That day though, it felt like the past was following us up each step like fog from an old horror movie. There weren’t any smells of peach pie still lingering and the ice cream was gone. I licked my wrist hungrily and tasted only dust. And where was Grandma? Her craft room door was closed and I could hear her sewing machine whirring like it always did when she wanted to be alone.
Then I noticed that grandpa was gone too. He was no longer following me. I checked his bedroom thinking maybe he’d slipped away for his afternoon nap. Then I saw him out on the front porch, just standing there. I went outside.
He was staring at the house next door and saying “Hm” softly over and over. He reached his hand out without looking and I took it. His hands were rough and pudgy and one of his fingers was only half as long as it should’ve been. He called it his “saw finger.”
I stared at the neighbor’s house too. The girl and her dad were no longer playing on the swing, it was empty, swinging side to side instead of back and forth and twisting slightly in the wind that was starting to blow. The sun and the oak tree were in just the right places to cast shadows on their front porch that looked like a twisted hand.
I kept squeezing grandpa’s saw finger and wondering about the gaps in the flower bed where rose bushes used to be and about the tears of paint peeling down the side of the house.