When I heard that my grandfather had barricaded himself in his room, I wasn’t surprised. He and my mother had been battling one another since our first day in the house outside of Cheshire, Massachusetts, and no surrender was in sight from either side. But if my mother’s phone call was not surprising, her worried tone was.
“I just don’t know, Jamie,” she said. “He won’t eat, he won’t go to the doctor, or take his pills. He just sits in his room, staring at nothing with the shades drawn. He won’t talk to me, even to argue. He acts like he’s just waiting to die.”
“It’s not unusual around this time of year, Mom. The holidays are hard for many people,” I said. “And at his age, the incidence of depression is high.
But I’d want to get him down to the city for a full evaluation before I would venture a diagnosis.”
“Come home,” was her answer.
“Mom, I’m coming tomorrow for Thanksgiving anyway. Can’t it wait?” “Come,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been called home to calm him down. My grandfather and I had always shared an understanding. Soon I was leaving the hospital parking lot in my Jeep, braving the Thanksgiving-Eve Boston traffic on my way back to Cheshire.
Two hours later could have been twenty years before. The town square was festooned with Christmas decorations older than I was. Somehow MERRY XMA and HAPPY NEW EAR were more cheerful to me than their correct counterparts in the Boston shopping malls.
Once through the town, the holiday shimmer vanished quickly. Only my headlights penetrated the primal stillness of a true Massachusetts winter night. As I turned the Jeep down the bumpy drive to my grandfather’s home, tree branches gave warning, whipping the windshield for fifty feet or so.
I stopped next to an old pickup. The red paint hadn’t faded, but ripened somehow to garnet. The truck bed was full of snow mixed with fallen leaves. Ice covered the windshield.
On a summer day some twenty years earlier, my mother and I had moved from Boston into my grandfather’s old stone house. My father’s death had left us little choice. Before we even could unpack, my grandfather and I climbed into the spotless cab of his red pickup and crept down an overgrown road behind the house.
During the early Nineteenth century, a small quarry on our land had rendered the stone for our house and most of the other houses built in Cheshire at the time, which was most of the other houses built in Cheshire. By the early twentieth century, the quarry had been abandoned. The hand- built homes were all most people remembered of the old quarry and the industry that had sustained the community.
My grandfather parked the truck by the ledge of the pit. Morning sunlight exposed half of the quarry. Squared-off quartzite monoliths were strewn around a pond that had collected in the deepest part. At our feet, the chasm, hidden in shadow, could have been bottomless for all I could see.
We walked carefully along the path covered with damp slippery green that skirted the rectangular edge of the quarry. Halfway around, my grandfather led me down into the pit along a broad track still ridged with hardened grooves from the carts that had hauled the stone. We swam the chill water, dined on apples and lemonade, and never said, nor needed to say, a word.
By the end of the day, the sun had shifted enough to light the quarry wall beneath the truck. My grandfather scanned the wall, forty feet from base to top, picked a spot, and began to climb.
Without a thought I followed. Footholds were easy to find, the rock still scored from picks and pry bars long gone to rust. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty feet up the scarred stone face I climbed. I was twelve at the time. He was sixty-five. He beat me to the top and stood there, grinning.
Back at the house I couldn’t wait to tell my mother everything about our day, including the thrill of our final ascent. She was furious with me. But for hours that night after I went to bed, she raged at my grandfather.
“He’ll remember this day for what he did and not what he lost,” was all my grandfather said, which didn’t exactly smooth things over.
I killed the engine of my jeep and sat a minute. Two lights shone in the house: one downstairs and flickering; one upstairs and shaded. He’s old, I thought. I had never thought of him that way before, could not imagine him that way. A shadow passed across the shade.
My mother’s face appeared at the front door, half lit in firelight. “I have supper ready.”
“I shouldn’t have called you.” “He’ll be fine.”
Climbing the stairs, I stepped at the noisiest points. We’d mapped each creak together long ago, he and I and they’d stayed constant through the years. I tried the door to his room but it was locked.
“Grandpa, open the door.” “Who is it?”
“You know who it is. Open the door.” “Come back later.”
“When it’s time.” “Grandpa, open the door.”
The door was hardwood, not wimpy strips of molded pine, but oak maybe, a door meant to keep out or in. I wasn’t sure I could break it down and I didn’t want to try. But the bolt scraped and slipped. The door cracked open with nobody behind it.
“Come on in then,” my grandfather grumbled, stumping already to the stiff-backed chair in the corner. But he didn’t sit. If I had carried an image of him wasting mournfully away in this room, his glowering countenance quickly dispelled it.
“Close the door,” he bellowed, “And lock it. If you’ve come to save my sanity, you’re wasting your time. I’m sharp as I’ve ever been, sharper than most by a long sight. So save your breath.”
“Can you tell me-“ I started.
“None of your doctor games either. Never held with it..”
“Well then, what the hell is going on, Grandpa? This isn’t like you, locked up in here.”
His head bowed slightly at that. I waited. He closed his eyes tight. “It’s the smiles, Jamie,” he whispered. “I can’t abide the smiles.” My mind ran quickly through the possibilities: depression, stroke, dementia…
He glared at me again and shook his head. “Young eyes.” “Young eyes? Smiles? I don’t understand.”
“Young eyes haven’t learned. Old eyes see everything,” he said. “At first, they only flashed out the corner. Look at them full, they’d disappear. But now…” He stopped.
“But now?” I prompted.
“But now, I see them all the time. Grinning at me everywhere.” “What?”
“The smiles, dammit. Every smile I’ve ever seen is back to haunt me.
Wherever I go, they hang there in the air. Just the mouth, no face. Taunting.
Taunting. Every joy I ever lost. Every pleasure I can’t enjoy. Everything I had and have no more.”
He stopped, but I was too confused, and too shocked, to speak. He looked around the room.
“This room is safe,” he muttered. “Your grandmother died in this room. No smiles here.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and walked out into the hall. How could he have slipped so far so fast? I had to get him to Boston right away. There were tests that could help determine—
The door slammed open.
“You don’t believe me, do you? Your old Grandpa has finally cracked, you think. Well, I can still teach you a thing or two. Come on.”
He plunged down the hall and threw open the door to my mother’s room.
“There. In the corner about three feet up. Your grandmother held your mother in her arms, and smiled¾look what we made¾sweet enough to break your heart.”
He looked at me.
“Right there,” he shouted, pointing to the corner by the window. “See?”
“Of course you don’t,” he cut me off. “Well then, come on.”
He charged down the stairs, nearly knocking down my mother who had been listening from the landing
“There,” he said from the living room. “That’s where your father stood and smiled as he watched you open presents the year he died. Right there, plain as day, so bright I can hardly look. Do you think I can bear to see that every day?”
He whirled into the dining room and pointed accusingly at me. “There’s your own smile, when you carved the turkey the first time for
us three. There’s mine, and your mother’s, hidden behind her hand, as we watched you stand on a chair to cut with that knife and fork near as big as you.”
I shrugged, helpless. “There’s more,” he growled
He took me that night on a miracle tour, year by year and smile by smile, through each room of the stone house. Each corner held a story, and behind each story somewhere was a smile. Some glad, some grim, some sad, some wistful, some burning through with joy.
I saw nothing, of course, except through his eyes. But occasionally something might have lingered at my back, a glimmer at the edge of vision. But when I turned, nothing was there. A trick of the light, I told myself, the remnants of our frozen breath.
Finally he plunged out the front door into the night air, down the frozen path behind the house. We came at last to the quarry behind our house and stood near the spot where he’d waited for me twenty years before. We waited again in the full moonlight, both trying to understand what he was seeing.
“Grandpa, those are wonderful memories.” “They are. But when they are all you have…”
And I saw him then, frail muscles binding a fading frame by will alone.
I saw him as he saw himself, knowing what he had been.
Then there it was, floating in front of me. A gift. A beacon shining through nearly twenty years, gleaming down at the boy who smiled up. Only the smile, the outline of the mouth, but it was enough.
It held victory, for he loved to win, and pride, that I dared to follow him, and joy, that we were there together for that moment.
“I see it,” I whispered.
I grinned and grabbed him, and pointed at the ledge. “There. I see it.”
“Course you do,” he grunted. “I can still teach you a thing or two.”
He looked at me then, as he had twenty years before. Once again he flickered a smile back at me.
“Let’s go home. It’s too damn cold, and your mother will give no peace about it.”
He marched back into the dark of the brush. Giving one last look, I followed him.
He never left the house again, though he would leave his room for meals. I watched him gazing dreamily at the Christmas tree, trying myself to see the smile I knew was hanging there like a keepsake ornament. He seemed finally content.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, he died, slamming open the door and plunging into death as he had the open air a month before.
On Christmas Eve now, my own son and I go out to the quarry behind our house and stand for a few moments at the ledge. I imagine one day he’ll see my grandfather’s smile, and mine, and maybe his own, suspended in the frosted air.
Stephen Evans is a playwright and the author of THE MARRIAGE OF TRUE MINDS (2008) and A TRANSCENDENTAL JOURNEY (2014).