By Mike Smolarek
The clouds above floated in the sky, dropping shadows across my face as I lay in the grass, staring up at them. People always told me you could see shapes in the clouds, like horses or faces or things like that, but to me they looked like white fluffy balls of cotton. Maybe I was the only one who couldn't see the other shapes. Maybe it was just me.
"Paul," my grandfather called to me. He sat on the back porch, looking out over the lawn to see where I was. I leaned with my head up against a tree with my back to the porch so Grandpa couldn't see me.
"Paul," he called again. He knew I was there.
"Yes Grandpa," I replied.
"Time for dinner." I got up slowly, still watching the clouds, hoping that I would see something. The clouds started back at me blankly. I stopped looking and walked towards the house, the scent of my grandmother's stew and dumplings tickling my nose and setting off a growling in my stomach.
It was the summer after my father died. My mother was working full time and decided that I was too young to stay home by myself, so I was sentenced to a summer in a big old house with my dad's parents. There was more to it than just my mother worrying about me being home alone, but I was too young at the time to understand. I didn't really want to go. I wanted to stay home and play baseball with my friends, but I had no choice in the matter. Grandma and Grandpa were ready to do anything to help my mother, and they had no reservations about me staying with them all summer. Besides, my mother would come visit on the weekends.
The old house had many rooms filled with some of the most exciting objects an eight-year-old has ever seen. I spent days in each room, rummaging through things, listening to Grandma tell stories about each and every item. There was the lamp that Grandma won in a raffle during a cruise her and Grandpa took when they were first married. To me, it seemed like a strange gift to win on a cruise; I would have wanted something more exotic, like a lifetime supply of tuna or a really big crab to have as a pet. But Grandma was so proud of the lamp, it's pale green shade faded from the sun's rays. Somehow, the lamp was always dust-free.
"It's the only thing I've ever won," Grandma would always say.
My favorite thing in the house was the old, wooden, chestnut radio that sat in the study upstairs. It's dark red finish couldn't hide the aging it had done since it was a top of the line first rate centerpiece of the living room. It sat on a heavy wooden table, almost immobile from it's immense size. The wood had small nicks chipped into from years of bumps and bruises.
"It was the first radio we bought," Grandma said. "Way back in nineteen thirty nine." She began to smile, the wrinkles on her face bunching up more.
"Do you remember listening to Glenn Miller and his orchestra on that old thing?" Grandpa asked, fiddling with the knobs. He looked at Grandma, and they both smiled at each other, probably remembering the days when the used to dance together, both all dressed up in the best, holding hands, cheek to cheek. I could only see them as they are now, my old grandparents, a little wrinkled and still happy together. My attention turned back to the radio, and I rubbed my hands over the metal speaker screen, my fingers tingling from the motion.
"Of course I remember Glenn Miller," Grandma said moving closer to each other. They hugged.
"Eww, mushy," I said turning away from them. "Does it still work?"
"That old thing hasn't worked in years," said Grandma. "Not since your Grandfather tried to fix it fifteen years ago." She laughed, and Grandpa slowly joined in the laughter.
"I'm still fixing it," Grandpa said between laughs. "I've just been taking a break for the last fifteen years."
"That's what you said ten years ago when you couldn't fix it."
"I'll get it done," Grandpa pleaded. "I promise I'll get it done.
"Oh, you will, dear, I'm sure you will." Grandma started laughing again.
I spent the summer sifting through the rest of the house, looking at the objects, and laying in the backyard trying to make shapes out of the clouds. Often, after the clouds could no longer be shaped, I'd imagine a baseball game that I was missing at home with my friends. We'd be playing in the yard, fans crowded around us. The bases were loaded with two outs in the ninth inning, with my team up by a run. Little Johnny would be pitching, and I'd be ready out in center field, waiting for something to be hit my way. Then, the crack of the bat, and I sprang into action, chasing down the hard hit line drive. At the last second, I'd dive, the ball smacking into my mitt. I'd crash onto the ground, the mitt clutching the last out. After the game was over and my team had congratulated each other on the mound, I returned to the clouds to think.
That summer was the first summer I was without my dad. I know it's a cliché, but you really don't know what you have until it is taken away from you. We were supposed to go see the Yankees play that summer, but we would never seem them play now. I always thought that dads were not supposed to die until after their kids were grown up. My dad's dad was still alive. Why did mine have to die? I was young, and had trouble with long division, so how was I supposed to understand death?
Grandpa somehow sensed I was down and he tried hard to cheer me up. He'd check on me all day, making sure I wasn't brooding about or causing trouble. He even took me fishing. We got up early in the morning and dug up some slimy worms in the backyard for bait before we climbed in his truck and drove off to the lake.
"Fishing is the greatest, most relaxing hobby," Grandpa boasted, one hand on the wheel, the other draped around my shoulder. "Your father and I used to fish."
"Dad went fishing?" I was so used to seeing my father wearing a suit worrying about his next project that I couldn't picture him relaxing at all. Even when we played catch, he still had his shirt and tie on.
"Almost every day when he was your age," he said. "It was either fishing or baseball."
"I like baseball," I said. I thought back to the game in my mind, and the diving catch.
"I know you do," Grandpa said smiling. "I've seen you make game winning catches. He looked over at me for a second, a little twinkle in his eye, then looked back at the road.
"Grandpa, I miss my dad."
"I know. I miss him too." He paused for a second. "But sometimes things just happen and no matter what you do, you can't stop them or change them. It just turns out that way, no matter how much you wish it didn't."
The truck was silent as his last few words echoed in my ears.
"Grandpa, do you like baseball?"
"Yes I do. I loved watching your father play. Watching you is just like watching him." He pulled the truck over right by the pier and we hopped out.
"Time to catch us a great big fish," he said.
That was the only time all summer we talked about my father all summer, and the only time we went fishing. I never quite got the hang of it. I just didn't have the patience to sit still waiting for the fish to bite. Grandma tried to teach me how to cook one afternoon, but I kept sneaking a bite instead of paying attention to what she was doing.
The long summer finally ended and I went back home to my mother and friends and school. I never did see anything in the clouds that summer and I haven't fished since. I still saw my grandparents once in a while, and even got to go back to the house every Christmas to look at the radio.
* * * * *
When I was sixteen, my grandmother died, leaving my grandfather all alone. The funeral was no different that any other family funeral I had been too. Everyone was wearing black and crying.
One night a few weeks later, my mother and I were eating at the kitchen table, her eyes wandering as she mindlessly twisted her fork in her green beans.
"Is there something wrong, Mom?" She was shaken out of her thoughts by the question and looked over at me.
"I'm just worried," she said. "I'm worried about your grandfather."
"What do you mean, Mom?"
"He's all alone now. He's outlived his parents, his brothers, and sisters, his wife and his only son. The only thing he hasn't outlived is you." This sunk into my head. "Why don't you go out there for the summer again?"
"You know, keep an eye out for him. Make sure he's alright."
"The whole summer? Come on Mom, I've got stuff to do."
"Okay, maybe for just a month." I stared my mother down.
"What about my baseball team? I just can't get up and leave them. Who'll play center field? And I've got to work to pay for the car."
"A few weeks," she said. I looked at her again, my eyes stern. "A week. Come on, Paul, he's your grandfather for heaven's sake."
"Okay, Okay," I gave in. "I'll go when school ends, but only for a week."
After the last day of school, I packed up some clothes, a few books, and my baseball glove and drove out to the big house in the country. This time, I was watching Grandpa, instead of the other way around.
"Hey, Grandpa," I said as I opened the screen door when I arrived. "Grandpa?" I repeated.
"I'm upstairs," he hollered. I dropped my bags and walked up the stairs, each one creaking as my foot landed on it. I reached the top of the stairs and heard some clanging and banging. I followed the noise to the study. When I walked into the room, Grandpa had the top of the radio off and was fiddling with the various wires and tubes.
"Wow," I said. As many times as I had seen the outside of the radio and imagined what was inside, what I finally saw was nothing like what I had expected. There were two tall coils of red wire in each side of a big clear tube. Various other wires and thingamajigs were all over the base of the radio covered in dust. It looked like a giant mangled mess, not an early technological achievement.
"Your mother said you would be here by noon. What took you so long, Paul?" Grandpa asked, concentrating hard on a small, black piece he had in his hand. He looked up from the parts at my astonished face.
"Oh, the radio. I've fixed it before and I'll be dammed if I don't fix it again." His whole face was scrunched as he stared at the piece. He really didn't know what to do with it, and was almost embarrassed that I was watching.
"I'm a bit stuck right now," he said. "Let me help you bring your bags in."
Grandpa was serious about fixing the radio. While I spent time cooking with the little knowledge I had picked up from Grandma and the things I learned at home cooking for myself, Grandpa spent his days working on the radio, only taking a few minutes off to eat or to run to the hardware store for another part. Occasionally, he took a morning off to go fishing, but he always was back when I was getting up. I'd come in and see how he was doing on the radio, but he always told me I couldn't see it until he was finished.
When I wasn't cooking, I relaxed in the hammock in the backyard, thinking back to baseball games from summers past. In little league, I had never made the game winning catch or hit the game winning homerun. I wasn't the worst kid on the team, I just came and played. Fantasy is usually better than real life. I'd return to looking at the clouds, wondering if eight years more life experience would help me see the shapes I couldn't see before. It didn't. Still just white things floating overhead. I guess some things never change.
One day after cleaning up from the macaroni and cheese lunch I made for us, I saw Grandpa laying out on the lawn, looking up in the sky. It really puzzled me, so I went to go see what he was doing.
"What are you looking at, Grandpa?" I asked as I shuffled up behind him.
"I'm not looking at anything," he said. :I'm just trying to get everyone who sees me here to look up, too. Then I'm going to leave and no one will know what they are looking at."
"Grandpa!" I said, amused.
"Just joking, Paul. I'm stuck on the damn radio." His eyes focused straight up. "You've been looking up in this spot every time you've come here. Does it give you answers?" He patted the ground with his palm, telling me to join him. I slowly sat, then laid down.
"No, not answers," I said.
"Well, what are you looking at then?"
"Yes, the clouds," I repeated. "People always say you can see shapes in the clouds, but I've never been able to."
"I don't know. They always look like cotton balls. I'll look at them and they'll look right back at me, shapeless."
"You can't go looking for the shape," Grandpa said. "You can't make a cloud into a shape. It has to float along already in that shape." He looked over at me to make sure I understood what he was saying. "That cloud right there," he said pointing with his wrinkled finger, "that one is a sailboat."
I followed his finger up and right where he was pointing was a white sailboat, floating by in the blue sea of the sky. There was another one that look like an elephant who's tail was as long as it's trunk. Another one looked like a big blowfish.
"That one looks like Elvis," Grandpa said laughing.
"You're not that goo," I said. We spent the whole afternoon staring up into the sky, pointing out the shapes and objects that floated above. It was the first afternoon that I had been there that Grandpa didn't work on the radio.
After dinner that night I went for a walk by myself. The sun was starting to set and the sky was on fire with bright reds and soft pinks highlighting the clouds that spanned out to the west in front of me. I walked down the dirt driveway to the two lane country road that passed by the house. "County Trunk J," the sign read. Not a very imaginative road name, I thought.
I wandered throughout the country, passing small forests thick with maple trees. Some of the sparse houses had bushes that began to bloom as spring turned into summer. The sun was falling fast so I headed back to the house. The last remnants of light faded behind me as I climbed the driveway.
The house was quiet when I came back, Slowly I sneaked up the wooden steps and carefully opened the screen door; I didn't want to wake up Grandpa. The kitchen light was still on, so I went to turn it off.
"Where did you go, Paul?" Grandpa asked.
"Oh, I just went for a walk. I didn't think you'd still be up." I stepped into the light.
"Just because I'm old doesn’t mean I have to go to bed when the sun goes down." He smiled at me.
Grandpa was sitting at the table, a plate full of chocolate chip cookies in front of him. He lifted a tall glass of milk to his lips and took a sip. He set the glass down on the table and noticed that I was staring at him.
"Just because I'm old doesn't mean I can't have milk and cookies." He stood up and walked over to the fridge. "Let me get you a glass, too." He opened the door and took out the glass pitcher full of milk. He grabbed a clean glass from out of the dishwasher and quickly filled it without spilling a drop. I moved over to the table and sat down, just as the glass appeared in front of me.
"Do you do this often?" I asked.
"Every night for the last thirty-five years," he answered. "Your grandmother would leave me a plate of cookies and a glass of milk every night I would come home late. It was her way of waiting up for me." He smiled again. "It's hard getting used to doing for myself." The kitchen got quiet for a minute, and the only thing we heard was a car passing by on the highway.
"Sometimes I wish I would have listened to your grandmother's stories more often. She knew about everything in this, from top to bottom." He took a gulp of milk. "I miss her." His eyes watered then turned to sobs. He put his hands on his forehead, his elbows resting on the table.
I didn't know what to do. I figured by the time you were my grandpa's age you understood death and were used to it. But even then, no one is really ready.
"Grandpa," I said. "It's alright." I got up and hugged him. He cried for a little while longer, then stopped. He composed himself and I release my hug.
"Thanks, son," he said, wiping away the tears. "Thanks."
That was the only time I have ever seen my grandfather cry.
The rest of the week went by quickly. Grandpa continued his work on the radio, but always had time to share cookies and milk with me. I was almost ready to return home as my last day in the country approached. Our last dinner was only a few hours away, and I spent most of my time in the kitchen, following Grandma's recipe for beef stew and dumplings. Finally I was finished and dinner was served.
"Grandpa, dinner is ready," I called up the stairs.
"I can smell it," he answered. "Be right down."
I walked over to the kitchen table and looked over the meal we were about to eat. I was impressed with myself, and I thought even Grandma would be proud.
Grandpa came down and we ate together in silence. He liked the stew and had seconds and thirds of the dumplings. When we finished, we cleared off the table and washed the dishes.
I put the last of my clothes into my black duffel bag and hauled it downstairs to the foyer.
"Grandpa, I'm leaving," I called, hoping he was somewhere he could here me.
"Come upstairs and say goodbye," he yelled back. I slowly walked up the stairs.
I made it to the top of the stairs and walked into the den, expecting to see Grandpa fiddling with a new object, not knowing what it was used for. Instead, the top of the radio was back on, and no spare pieces that once cluttered the table were around. Grandpa stood next to the radio, smiling.
"Does it work?" I asked again.
"I don't know. I'm afraid to turn it on and find out."
"Come on Grandpa. You've worked a long time. Turn it on."
He looked at me cautiously, then looked over at the chestnut radio. He took a step towards it and stuck out his trembling hand. He reached for the know, and slowly turned it on. The radio popped, the speaker crackled, and then went silent.
"Whoops, forgot to turn the volume up," he said, his face reddening as he switched his hand over to the other knob. He slowly turned the knob up, and the silence turned into talking.
"Thank you for joining us for tonight's edition of Big Band Jazz on WNDB," the announcer's voice crackled. "As we leave, we'll leave you with an old one from Glenn Miller." As the announcer's voice cut away, the opening notes of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" filled the den. Grandpa's face beamed with pride, like the radio dial illuminated by the light inside.
We stood there listening until the end of the song. Grandpa turned the radio off and hugged me.
After a long hug, I finally left my grandmother alone in the study with the radio. I could hear it again as I walked down the stairs and out the door. I got in the car and started it up, looking up at the clouds one more time.