Earley Waits for Mail

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Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

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What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet

Little Dove, In Abstentia

landscape-under-snow-upper-norwood- Camille Pissarro
(Landscape Under Snow-Upper Norwood- Camille Pissarro)

Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He  looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.

He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.

It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.

It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.

In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.

He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.

Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.

When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.

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(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)

They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.

Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.

“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”

Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”

Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”

So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there.  Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.

Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.

It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?

His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.

“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.

“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all  his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”

The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.

When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.

Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia