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You could always hear Grandpa’s truck before you could see it. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t associate broken mufflers and rattling exhaust pipes with my grandfather, and on this particular day there was no exception.
Sitting on my front steps, my dad’s old green rain jacket bundled tightly around me, I waited in the dawn light for the headlights of his pickup to turn around the corner. Sure enough, his arrival first came with a low rumble, hoarse and raw against the silence of our suburban street.
He pulled into our driveway and cut the engine. Spotting me on the steps he waved and smiled. I smiled back and heaved the backpack containing our lunch onto my shoulder. My mom had dropped it in my arms earlier that morning while eyeing me up and down, taking in my uncombed hair and sleep not yet swept from my eyes. “Try not to think about him,” she had said. And so, I thought of him.
Now I climbed into the truck and plopped the bag in between my grandfather and myself in the middle of the front seat.
“Provisions,” I said.
“Your mother can’t help cooking even on the smallest occasions.”
I laughed, longer than necessary.
Grandpa looked at me. I looked back at him, knowing that any attempts from this point forward to hide how I was truly feeling were lost. Nobody could fake anything with my grandfather.
“Want to talk about it?”
“No,” I confessed.
“Okay,” and then he started the truck and backed out of the driveway.
The drive to Wallow Lake was two hours. Grandpa mostly talked and I listened. He talked about the new neighbours that moved in across the street from him and their especially loud German Shepherd. He talked about his friend who he goes to coffee with every Wednesday and how he recently won a lifetime supply of toilet paper at the local grocery store. He talked about my mother and how when she was my age she decided to learn the violin and was exceptionally bad at it. He kept up the one sided conversation effortlessly the entire drive and not once did he comment on my silence or act any differently because of it, and for that I was grateful.
We arrived at Wallow Lake at 8:00, “The best time for fishing,” my grandfather said. Wallow Lake was surrounded by a handful of homes, shops, diners and a motel with a neon sign that had burnt out years ago. The town of Wallow’s economy relied solely on the lake and for that reason, most of the shops sold bait and fishing gear and the restaurants advertised their unique fish soup specials.
I took this all in with a pleasant familiarity and for a few rare moments felt completely free of him. Then I remembered.
Grandpa turned down the side road that led to the dock and parked the truck in a shallow ditch covered by shade from the tall pine trees. We got out of the truck and headed towards the dock; backpack, fishing rods, and bait all in tow. We reached the dock and soon the soft crunch of gravel translated into the faint hollow thumps of our feet on rotting wood.
We walked to the end of the dock and set down our equipment. It was a clear day, and a soft breeze skimmed the surface of the lake. Grandpa handed me a rod and baited it for me, then baited his own. Soon we had both cast our lines out on to the lake. Grandpa got his far and out on his first try, but it took me 3 times before I was satisfied.
Grandpa didn’t say anything, both of us silent as we leant on the rail of the dock; arms bent at the elbows, hands grasping the cool metal of the reel. There is something about the stillness of an entire lake that makes you go quiet. The water sweeps out on all sides, shimmering in the brilliant light. Wisps of reflection paint themselves on the glossy surface, the colours seeming to be carried out by the soft ripples, lapping against the side of the dock. Nothing needs to be said when you first see it, and we said nothing. We stood; arms bent, and beheld it in silence.
Time leisurely drifted by with neither of us getting a bite. I wasn’t troubled by this but more so by how the silence demanded honesty. Here on the lake there was no escaping the blunt forcefulness of your own thoughts, and as I looked upon the water, the slight undulations giving it a quivering appearance I finally spoke to my grandfather,
“It’s over,” I started. “It just… ended.”
My grandfather didn’t say anything, but listened, waiting for me to finish.
“I spent a long time just going over who’s fault it was, who said what, what I did wrong, what he did wrong. But I just realized now that it doesn’t matter. That it’s over and done, and will not be again.”
The sun rose higher in the sky and the lake lay restlessly.
My grandfather didn’t speak and the air felt more dampening than just moments before. I thought maybe I hadn’t even spoken at all in the first place. I turned to look at my grandfather.
His brow was slightly creased, and his pale blue eyes peered behind his glasses calmly. He breathed in like he was about to say something then stopped as though he was trying to figure it out in his head first. I knew then that he had heard me and I waited.
“I knew a man once,” he said finally, pausing as he usually does when he’s about to begin a long story, “He was young and trusting, and captive to life’s…iridescent light. As most people are at that age, always caught up in anything shiny.
“Well, there he was, young, careless, impulsive; everything a man is until one day he isn’t. Well, it was on this one day when he met a young woman. He was at Union Station, Chicago, after just saying goodbye to his friends who were leaving for the holidays. He was on his way out the door when he saw her. Standing on the opposite side of the platform in a white summer dress, hair glowing in the slanting light from above. Her face was turned in the direction of an oncoming train, and he remembers to this day the sad look she had on that platform. She stood there elegantly but in a lost way, as though she was uncertain as to where that train was taking her. He stopped then, in the middle of the platform, just staring at her and realizing with a growing certainty that this was the woman whom he was going to marry.”
Grandpa spoke with a steadiness as though he was just relaying facts but in his words there was a hint of tenderness, and as he continued I realized that I had heard this story before a long time ago.
“The train pulled into the station then, and she made her way slowly to the nearest set of train doors. People came streaming off of the train past her and she looked bewildered for a moment at this sudden movement. She glanced over her shoulder once sweepingly; searchingly, and then stepped up on to the first step leading to the train compartments. He called to her then and ran up to her feet. She looked down at him quizzically but it was too late for him to turn around, he was already in those few seconds, emotionally invested in her. ‘Don’t get on that train,’ he said. ‘I know you don’t want to. Don’t. Just don’t get on it,’ he told her this ardently and with that young passion. And she looked down at him and cocked her head to the side and fixed her eyes on him squarely. She smiled then. ‘Why I think you’re right,’ she said, and took the hand he offered to help her off the train.
“And so… That was the beginning of their great love. He learned later that he was the one that stopped her from getting on the train that would have taken her to a job she didn’t want and away from the education that she did. They loved each other generously, and married within a year of their first meeting. They grew up together, had children together, and watched as their children grew and had children of their own.”
He turned his gaze from the gleaming water and glanced at me.
“I’m having a hard time believing that this is your friend we’re talking about here grandpa.”
We both laughed, and he nodded undeniably. Our laughter floated out on to the water and seemed to soften the edges of everything before us.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, that I loved your grandmother very much, and I never thought that we could ever be separated. Throughout the time we were together I was so lost in our love but so certain that nothing would ever come between us. I couldn’t imagine anything at all that could corrupt that. But then…She was gone. And it ended. It just… ended.” He finished with a small but heavy sigh barely audible as a slight breeze began to whisk the water and corrugate the surface.
We were silent for a moment as both of our thoughts were in the same place.
“See, but that’s the thing,” he continued in that low mahogany voice my grandfather has, “Nothing lasts. There is always and most certainly an ending. And that’s just the way life is…we find something good and then we lose it. Then we go looking again, if we can, and find something good again.”
Every word he spoke resonated with the raw honesty one gets when they’ve reached into that cavernous space, where senses bump right against your bare bones.
Then, suddenly, I was with him again. On one of our better days. And we held hands and laughed at something outrageously hilarious. And the sun shone. And there was that air of fondness that was so sweetly simple.
I let myself wallow in this delicate memory just for an instant, then, with a certain finality, let it fall with the rest; a pile of withered leaves. Dead, but naturally.
The wind was picking up now. It felt fresh and clean against my skin. Still leaning against the dock, hands on the reel, I felt the first tug on my line.
Tentative at first, the fish nibbled at the bait. Then abruptly, tugging harder, it moved swiftly through the water carrying my line farther out into the lake. I kept a firm grasp on the reel, trying to keep steady against the wild pulls of the fish. Then in one final flurry the fish broke free, and my line lay still.
I looked onward at the dark glossy surface of the lake, knowing that somewhere below the fish swam, still searching through the hazy waters.
“Don’t worry,” Grandpa said, “Something good will come.”