Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Christopher Johnson

Travis Monroe settled into the coach seat, which felt unutterably soft and plush and luxurious. He waved to his parents standing on the platform immediately outside the window of the train, and they waved back. His mother smiled bittersweetly and dabbed the tears in her eyes with her kerchief, and the train started to pull stealthily out of Chicago’s Union Station. As his parents shrank into dots, he felt a surge of trepidation and excitement, this being the first time—at the age of thirteen–that he had ever traveled alone without the encumbrances of brother and sister and parents. He felt as though the train were carrying him into an unknown future, and he felt the unknowability like a charge of electricity that made his entire body hyper-alive.

Almost 400 miles to the east, in the gritty smoky industrial city of Cleveland, Ohio, his grandparents—Gran and Grandpa Schmidt–would be waiting for him, and he would begin his sojourn with them in Euclid and then, four days later, with his Grandmother Monroe in Cleveland Heights. It didn’t matter to him what they did when he got there. It would be different, unpredictable; it was always so, especially with his Gran and Grandpa Schmidt—his mother’s parents—who invariably had something up their sleeves–they would surprise him with something–something unanticipated.

He looked out the window as the train slipped as quietly as a mechanical eel through the South Side of the city with its belching factories and squat bungalows and winding South Branch of the Chicago River and black steel bridges. The train turned east and fought its way through the hellish red smoke billowing from the smokestacks of the steel factories of Gary, Indiana, and the train rolled past Gary and gradually entered a bucolic world of endless agricultural fields, and he saw a farmer plowing a field. Travis’s imagination wandered into the consciousness of the single solitary farmer, and he wondered what it would be like to inhabit the rhythms of the seasons and the sunrises and the sunsets. Outside the window, the world was a pictorial diorama that twirled past him at 90 miles an hour.

In the window, he could see the vague reflection of himself, dressed (overdressed, he felt) in his gray corduroy sport jacket and natty black trousers and tie and purple plastic tie clasp that he had made in shop class, buffing it and buffing it until it shone like a sparkling Lincoln penny. He continued looking at the reflection of himself, and his heart sank. His arms were too long; they dangled like the arms of an ape. He stared down at the floor. His feet were much too large for his body. They were clodhoppers! He stared again at the indistinct reflection, and beneath his shirt, he secretly knew that his chest was more shrunken than bold, not like Charles Atlas’s chest in the advertisements that lurked in the back pages of Mad magazine and promised boys that they, too, could have physiques like Mr. Atlas’s if only they would buy the barbells that the mighty man himself endorsed.

As the train steamed east, it stopped in South Bend and Fort Wayne and Toledo, and as it rolled along, Travis read the Superman and Batman comic books that he had thought to purchase in preparation for his odyssey. In Fort Wayne, an elderly woman climbed elegantly onto the train and asked him in an impossibly polite tone whether she could sit next to him, and he shyly nodded yes. Her face was riven with wrinkles that crisscrossed her skin like the imprints of a long life, and she smiled at him with implacable and even bold gentility. She asked him where he was going, and he said Cleveland, where he would visit his grandparents, and she said that that was where she going also and that she was going to visit her sister and her husband, who had fallen recently and was in the hospital so it was somewhat of a sad trip.

“Sonny,” she asked, “what are you reading?” Travis felt drawn to her by the intimacy of “Sonny.”

“Superman and Batman comic books.”

She tsk-tsked and shook her head ever so slightly. “Now you seem like a bright young man,” she said. “You should be reading better things than that. You should read books by Robert Louis Stevenson, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped!”

He shrugged, feeling immediately defensive about his proclivity for stories about superheroes, and said, “But Superman and Batman—they’re very exciting to read! And Lois Lane is so pretty! And you never know what’s going to happen!”

She chuckled and shook her head at his Philistine tastes, and he felt even more defensive. Soon, though, the woman dropped into sleep and started to snore. Her snoring grew louder, and at one point, Travis nudged her and then nudged her again, and she stirred in her sleep but at last stopped snoring.

Finally the train reached the railroad terminal that squatted in the belly of the Terminal Tower and pulled into a dark, dank tunnel that was like entering the gate of Hell itself. As the train came to a standstill, the porter awakened the woman and announced, “We’re arriving in Cleveland, Ohio, ma’am.” The lady smiled at Travis and said that he was the most polite young man that she had ever met, and she wrapped him in a hug that squeezed his ribs.

She said good-bye to him, and as they descended the steps leading from the coach to the solid concrete platform, he realized with some regret that he had never asked the woman her name and he would never see her again in his life and that this was one of many brief encounters in which people’s lives touched like randomly scattered amoebas and then parted and went their separate ways. He almost chased after her to learn her name–but she had disappeared.

He walked to the end of the platform. There they were—Gran and Grandpa Schmidt. They hugged him like vises, and he noticed as they embraced him that Gran’s breath smelled, and Travis couldn’t quite identify the smell, but the odor made him want to turn his head and hold his nose.

His grandparents were in their sixties—born at the tail end of the eventful and formative nineteenth century—the transition from the Revolutionary era to the modern world. Grandpa was tall and rotund and wore an elongated face and instant oatmeal smile and deep-throated laugh and a bald head with a fringe of red. He had told Travis once that during World War I, when he’d been in the Navy, his buddies had bet him that he wouldn’t shave his head. He took the bet and did the shave, and lo and behold, the bulk of his hair never grew back! As he told the story, he laughed with an explosion that reminded Travis of Santa Claus.

Gran was a foot shorter than Grandpa—short and squat with sharp blue eyes that darted around like small fish, and pudgy cheeks and a mouth that bent down from years of wear and tear and worry. She loved the color purple and she loved flowers, so the dress she was wearing radiated with purple flowers and green vines that intertwined like the Fates. He noticed also her earrings, which were long and adorned with sparkling moons. She gathered him in a tight squeeze and whispered that it was so very good to see him.

They asked him how the train ride had been—his first foray into independence in his whole still unformed life, and he told them about the lady who snored and how she had tsk-tsked him for reading Superman and Batman comic books and had told him that he should be reading Robert Louis Stevenson instead. Whereupon his grandmother sighed and said, “Travis Monroe, that woman is absolutely right! You should be reading fine literature by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson instead of Superman and Batman.” She tsked-tsked him–just as the elegant elderly woman on the train had done.

His grandfather laughed and said, “Oh, Edie, leave the boy alone.” Gran darted him a look.

As they started to leave the terminal to retrieve their car, Gran turned to Grandpa and said, “Harry, darling, I think we need a drink before we head home. In fact, I know we do.” Like homing pigeons, his grandparents knew instinctively where the saloon in the terminal was, and the three of them peregrinated to it and seated themselves in the wooden-backed stools. The bar was dark—wooded with mahogany–dimly lit—a perfect meeting place, Travis would learn as he grew older, for lovers and adulterers. The bar felt exotic, mysterious, adventurous, as if the mahogany itself held secrets that it would slowly reveal as time went by. Travis immediately felt older, as if, simply by entering the bar, he had instantly expanded the world of his experience.

Gran ordered a martini, and Grandpa ordered a Carling’s Black Label, and Travis had a Shirley Temple, which he was slightly embarrassed about but soon found himself drawn to its exotic pink. The color somehow made him think of Tahiti, which he had just read about in his geography textbook. Soon his grandparents were knee-deep in conversation with the bartender about the state of the Browns and the Indians and the Democratic politicians who were running Cleveland into the ground.

Travis marveled at how his grandparents could make friends so instantaneously with the bartender. Occasionally the bartender would wander off to serve another drink-needy customer, but inevitably he would return and resume the conversation. Travis listened attentively, eagerly. Gran and Grandpa were so worldly, so cosmopolitan, compared to his mother and father, who never ever sat in bars and would have been appalled that they had taken Travis to one.

They ordered another round of drinks. Gran retrieved an ornate purple cigarette case from her purse and placed a cigarette elegantly into her mouth and allowed the bartender to light it for her. As she imbibed her second martini, she giggled at a joke the bartender was telling. The joke had something to do with a minister, a priest, and a rabbi who walk into a bar, and when the bartender came to the inevitable and naughty punch line, Gran and Grandpa exploded with laughter. Meanwhile, Gran blew elegant smoke rings that spiraled toward the dingy ceiling of the saloon. Travis noticed that, in the dim light of the bar, Gran looked twenty years younger.

Finally they finished their second drinks and paid for them, and the three of them took their leave of the bartender, Travis with his suitcase in hand. On the way out of the bar and to the car, though, Gran started to wobble. Grandpa immediately put his hand out and held her tight by the elbow and guided her gently down the steps that led from the terminal to the parking lot.

Gran and Grandpa’s house was a bungalow with a magnificent porch that stretched across the entire front of the house. The interior of the house was replete with multiple vases of flowers that Gran had grown in the back yard. In the cellar was Grandpa’s workshop, where he was forever tinkering.

But to Travis, the most fascinating thing about the house was the photographs hanging on the walls—clinging to the walls—dozens of sepia-colored photographs of his grandparents’ own parents and grandparents–some pictures dating from before the Civil War. The people in the photographs were stiff, formal–the women wearing full-length Victorian dresses covering a foundation of corsets made of whalebone and hiding the contours of their bodies. The men wore stiff collars and starched collars, and as they stared from their time into Travis’s time, their lips were thin and unsmiling and their eyes distant and vacant as they held their austere poses for the length of time required to complete the camera’s exposure. Travis felt intimidated by the severity of expression that each of the subjects wore.

He suddenly realized something—that the people captured in these ancient photographs—they were his ancestors. Their blood flowed in his veins. The structure of their faces defined the structure of his face. The contours of their arms and legs shaped the contours of his limbs. Never before had he felt so connected to the past. Judging from the subjects’ uncompromising visages, the lives of these ancestors had been relentlessly grim with endless obstacles and precious few rewards. He suddenly felt a profound respect for them—for their lives of unending duty and suffering and sacrifice. The photographs stood in such contrast to the snapshots that he and his brother and sister took with their Polaroid, which produced pictures of a modern world that was Technicolor bright and filled with shiny happy people grinning as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

Meanwhile, much to his amazement, he found on his grandparents’ well-stocked bookshelves a copy of Kidnapped by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson! One late afternoon, Travis sat on the majestic porch and opened this newfound treasure when Gran passed through the door that connected the living room and the porch and joined him. She carried two objects: a photograph album and a martini. He was sitting on the sofa that his grandparents kept on the porch. It was mid-August, and the air was hoary with humidity, the asphalt of the street shimmered with heat, and the leaves on the stately two maples in the front yard stood stock-still. Gran dropped unsteadily on the sofa next to Travis and placed her martini carefully and even tenderly on the floor in front of her.

“Honey,” she said, turning to him. “I saw you looking at the pictures that we have hanging the living room. The album that I’m holding has even more photographs—pictures of the past that are very special to me, and I would like very much to show them to you.” She started turning the pages of the album. Some of the photos were the same as those on the living room wall—spare photos of formidable, unsmiling ancestors.

As she flipped through the album, she came to more modern photos—ones from the 1920s and 1930s. As she regarded the photographs, Travis felt her slipping back through the years–sinking into the time machine of memory. She came to a photograph of a young woman. The picture had been taken, he could tell, in the 1920s–the era that he recognized from movies starring Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. The young woman in the photograph was wearing a short dress and a raccoon stole around her shoulders. Travis examined the picture more closely. “Gran!” he finally exclaimed. “That’s you!” Images of girls dancing to the Charleston in those Cagney and Robinson movies flashed through his mind. “You were a flapper!”

She smiled. She blushed. “Oh, my goodness, all the girls were in those days! We went to speakeasies and did the Charleston and all sorts of things like that.” She bent over and grasped the glass and took a long drink of her martini.

 “And Grandpa did the Charleston!?”

She laughed. “Well, he most certainly did! And he danced very well, too! He was quite the gallant in those days!” Travis looked again at the photograph and noted how pretty his grandmother had been–how incandescent her eyes had been—how mischievously she had pursed her lips. She looked different now—she had aged–but her soul was no different from what it had been when she’d been young. The visage had changed, but the spirit had remained the same—playful, teasing, loving of the beautiful things of the earth like flowers.

Gran flipped to another photograph. Three girls stood next to a young man, who wore an enigmatic smile. Travis recognized Gran, who looked to be about twelve years of age. She pointed to the girl to the far left in the photograph. “That’s your Great-Aunt Hilda,” she said. Travis knew her well; she and Uncle Ed lived in a spacious apartment in Shaker Heights, and his family visited them frequently. Gran pointed to the next girl. “That’s your Great-Aunt Mary. She moved to California many years ago, looking for year-round sunshine, looking for the right man–always searching for the right man.” She paused. “And never finding him.”

Gran said nothing about the young man in the photograph. He was a little older than the three girls. He wore knickerbockers. A cap sat jauntily on his head. His smile bordered on a smirk. He was separated from the three girls by a small space.

“Who’s that?” Travis asked, pointing to the unknown young man.

She looked at Travis. “He’s a ghost.”

“A ghost?”

She sighed. “I mean, he’s been gone for many years. Not dead, but gone. So he’s a ghost to me and Aunt Hilda and Aunt Mary. His name was Calvin.” She paused. “At one time, he was our brother.”

Travis looked at his grandmother. “I’m confused, Gran.”

She bent over and picked up her martini from the porch floor and raised it slowly to her lips. “Soon after this photograph was taken, when he was eighteen years old, he left us.” She paused. “We have never seen him since. He never wrote. He never tried to get in touch with us. Calvin was very stubborn and strong-headed. He was lovable and cruel and sarcastic, all at the same time. Our father—we called him Father—your great-grandfather—had no patience with him at all. They fought. Constantly. They even fought each other with their fists! It was horrible. It tore Mother apart. She tried to hold Father back from hitting him.”

Travis felt his grandmother tremble. He felt guilty for bringing up her long-lost brother. But he couldn’t help wanting to know this secret knowledge—this family knowledge. “Gran, what did they fight about?”

“Everything. Everything. They fought because he left high school before he graduated. They fought because he was fired from his first job at Marty’s the local grocer’s because he kept showing up late. They fought because he came home drunk one night. They fought because he was caught shoplifting and served thirty days in jail. They fought because Father didn’t like his girlfriend.” Gran looked at Travis. “I admit that she was a floozy.” Travis didn’t quite know what a floozy was, but he knew what his grandmother was getting at. She continued, “They fought because he took out the car one night without asking Father’s permission. They fought because Calvin talked back to Father.” She paused. “When I think about it, they’d been fighting since Calvin was little. They fought because Calvin wouldn’t eat the rutabaga Mother served and spat it out on the plate. They fought because Calvin stopped going to church. They fought about anything and everything.”

Gran stopped and took another sip of martini and wiped her azure eyes and nibbled her lips. She continued, “One night, after a fierce argument, he stomped upstairs to his bedroom, packed, and left. Left without a word. He dragged his suitcase down the stairs and crashed out the front door. Father continued raging against him. Mother could not settle him down. He stomped into the kitchen and started drinking. All this time, Mother was crying.”

Travis felt the electric, kinetic energy of his grandmother’s skin touching his. A cloud bent her eyes downward. She stopped talking. She continued trembling. She murmured, “I need another martini.” She lifted herself unsteadily from the sofa and in a few minutes returned, another martini in hand. She stumbled as she crossed the threshold from the living room and onto the porch. She steadied herself. She sank down onto the sofa next to Travis.

By now, her voice was unsteady. “We never heard from him again,” she said. “Once, Aunt Mary told me, Calvin visited her in California. Mary said he seemed lost. She said his nose was like a Christmas-tree bulb. He was a ghost of who he had been.

“One time, Mother said that she missed Calvin very much. I was there. I heard this. Father thundered, ‘I never want to hear his damn name again! Never!’ Mother ran from the room, crying. But she never said his name again.

“When Calvin left, a black cloud came over our family.” By now, Gran was leaning heavily against Travis. She shook her head, closed her eyes. “It was a dark cloud that hung over our family.” She paused. “Calvin could at least have written to us! He could have reached out to us! Hilda, Mary, and me–we had no argument with him. We took him for who he was. Stubborn and difficult and sarcastic and funny. He was who he was.”

“I’m sorry, Gran,” Travis murmured.

“Oh, honey, you have nothing to apologize for. You were just curious. You were curious about our family. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Travis was frightened—frightened for his grandmother. He wanted to do something for her, but he didn’t know what. He sat on the sofa, feeling awkward.

She forced a smile and tousled the hair on his head. She sighed and said, “Well, I’d better start dinner, or your grandfather will never forgive me!” She started to get up but fell back onto the sofa. Travis rose from the sofa and gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. Empty glass in hand, she walked unsteadily through the door from the porch and into the living room. He followed her to the door and watched her. She wove through the living room and into the dining room and into the kitchen. She passed Grandpa, who was absorbed in the news on television, unaware of the exchange that Gran and Travis had had on the porch. Travis didn’t know what to think or how to feel. He was stunned—by her honesty–by her inebriation–by her loss.

He turned around, sat down on the sofa, tried reading Kidnapped. He could not. He stared at the two large maples that dominated the front yard. He stared into the canopies of the trees, which were overwhelmingly green and rich and thick. He wondered what it would be like to climb up among the branches and limbs and reach the very top of the tree and feel himself floating alone above the ground, far from the troubles of the people who inhabited the earth. Minutes passed as he lost himself in the canopies of the trees.

He was snapped out of his reverie by his grandfather’s voice: “Travis! Travis! Come here—quick!” He ran into the living room. Grandpa stood at the passageway between the dining room and the kitchen.

Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen. Travis ran into the kitchen. Grandpa hurriedly opened the back door and the windows in the kitchen. He and Travis grabbed towels and started waving them as hard as they could to chase the smoke out of the room. Smoke billowed from the stove. Grandpa jerked open the oven door. Smoke poured from three burnt steaks in the broiler. He grabbed the broiler pan with the steaks and pulled the pan out of the oven and dropped it onto the stove-top. The steaks were charcoal.

Where was Gran? Travis didn’t notice her at first. He looked around. He saw her. She was slumped at the kitchen table, across the room, in the corner. She was dead asleep, her head on her arms, the spilled martini glass next to her. The smoke slowly diminished as Grandpa and Travis frantically waved towels and dispersed the smoke. They stopped waving the towels. Grandpa walked over to the table. He stared down at Gran. “Goddam it, Edie!” he muttered. “Goddam it!” She did not hear him.

As Gran slept, Travis saw a bit of saliva slither from the side of her mouth and creep slowly down toward her chin. The drops of saliva kept sliding from the corner of her mouth. Tears crept like diseased worms into the corners of his eyes. He turned away so that his grandfather would not see.

By now, Grandpa had waved most of the smoke from the kitchen. Gran kept sleeping. The saliva kept creeping from the corner of her mouth. Grandpa stood over her, his face red, his arms akimbo. He shook his head and tightened his lips and narrowed his eyes as he stared at her. “Goddam it,” he muttered once gain. He looked at Travis. “Let’s get her into bed—if we can.”

Grandpa bent down and whispered into her ear. “Edie!” He shook one of her arms.

Her eyes slowly opened. “Wh-what?” she muttered.

Travis and Grandpa both put their hands under her arms and slowly lifted her. She was heavy. She half-woke up and staggered to her feet. Grandpa held her up on one side, and Travis held her up on the other side. They slowly guided her into the bedroom, which was on the same floor. Grandpa pulled back the sheets and blanket, and they guided her as gently as they could onto the bed. Gran was only vaguely aware of them. Grandpa tucked her in. He stared and stared at her with a strange combination of anger and love. Travis looked at her, lying so helplessly in bed. The diseased worms crawled back into his eyes. He turned away.

The next day, Grandpa and Gran drove Travis to Grandmother Monroe’s house. In the car, Gran was groggy and fatigued. No one said a word in the car. There was nothing to say. The events of the day before hung over them. As Travis sat in the back seat, he stared at the back of his grandmother’s head. She wore a flowered dress—a dress with red roses that were choked by heavy green vines that wrapped themselves around the roses. She smoked silently as Grandpa drove. She said nothing, but Travis could sense her embarrassment–her shame–but also something else—that she was relieved of something—of this secret that she had entrusted to Travis.

They pulled up to the front of Grandmother Monroe’s house, and she came out to greet them. She was short and round and was dressed much more conservatively than Gran Schmidt. Gran and Grandpa and Travis all climbed out of the car and exchanged hugs with Grandmother Monroe. Gran Schmidt turned to Travis and looked into his eyes. Her eyes were bent with shame. She gathered him to her and hugged him. As she did, Travis felt that she was more real–more present to him than she had ever felt before. She said not a word, but she would not let go of him. She clung to him, and he clung to her, hanging on for their lives.

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