Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Before he developed Alzheimer’s, my grandfather was stern and taciturn, but after the plaque started to build up around his synapses, he turned into a different man, and in many ways a better one. He started to laugh at things, like the way one of our pigs would chew bubble gum, or how the barn kittens played in the hay. Normally these sights would have caused him to grumble or even throw a rock at the animals for not acting the way he felt they should. A few times, when my brothers and I were fooling around and not doing our chores, he’d pitched shards of limestone at us. My grandfather frightened me, and I tried to avoid him, going out of my way to make sure we didn’t spend time together. But the disease changed him.
Fred Crandell was my father’s father, and he’d spent his life moving from farm to farm, renting the land, living in run-down houses, and keeping less than 30 percent of the profits from the harvest, after the loans were paid back and the landlord had subtracted his share. When he got too old for farm work, he and my grandmother Rose came to live next to us, in a trailer we towed along and set up on whatever land we were farming. The trailer didn’t even have a proper skirting, so the tires showed underneath, and sometimes I’d stare into that dark space, where cool loam and writhing earthworms could be found in abundance, and I’d ponder the fact that my grandparents lived in a home that could be pulled behind a truck.
One spring morning, a Saturday, I was walking from the barn to the house when I saw Grandpa strolling about the side yard and smiling widely. This expression seemed so foreign to him that I thought he might have just inherited some money from a long-lost cousin. I stopped and used the hose to spray manure off my boots and wash my hands, the ice-cold water blasting my arms. My mind was occupied with a plan to call a girl from the nearby town of La Fontaine, Indiana, and ask her to a middle-school dance, so I didn’t pay much attention to what my grandfather was doing. When I looked up, he had gone. I walked briskly toward the house to call the girl. I was supposed to be helping my father and brothers prepare a field for planting, but I would make it quick.
I was halfway up the steps when I heard giggling. I stopped and listened intently. The air seemed to pulse with the crisp notes of chirping sparrows. Then the giggle came again, as if a child were playing a solitary game. It echoed slightly, like someone laughing into a kettledrum. I walked back down the steps, pausing on each one to listen. Three more times I heard the sound from the direction of my grandparents’ trailer. My grandmother was grocery shopping in town with my mother and sisters, and my dad and brothers were expecting me in the field, so I was alone. Dad had lectured us on how we had to make use of the warm weather to get the seed in the ground, but I was curious about this strange laughter, which sounded fake, as if someone were pretending to be tickled. I imagined it spelled out in a cartoonist’s dialogue balloon: “Tee-hee-hee.”
As I approached the trailer, I bent down and looked underneath. At first I couldn’t make out anything; my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark. Then I saw Grandpa lying on his side with a coal miner’s hat on. He had a bucket of the red paint that we used for the barns, and he was dipping a brush into it and slathering the trailer’s tires and rims with the thick russet pigment. He was talking to himself, but not grumbling like before, when he’d complain that something hadn’t been fixed right on the farm; he was cheerily commenting on how pretty his work was. Red paint covered the raised veins on his hand.
“Grandpa,” I said, “what are you doing?”
He looked up at me, his gray-haired head almost bashing the axle. I wasn’t sure what to expect; maybe he’d turn angry or suddenly slip into one of his sullen moods. I certainly didn’t expect the reply I got: “I’m giving this chariot the speed it deserves, that’s what,” he said, and he started to whistle.
I had a feeling something was wrong, so I watched him for a while, listening to the tune he whistled. After a bit I asked him to come out from underneath his house.
“My house?” he said as I helped him crawl to his feet. “This isn’t my house. This is a place of worship. A holy temple worthy of a good paint job.”
In the past few minutes he’d spoken more words to me at one time than I could ever remember him doing. I was enjoying this new person, even if I didn’t understand what had caused the turnabout. His eyes actually twinkled, their dark brown seeming to flicker with silver as he explained that his goal was to get the trailer ready for liftoff into the great unknown. I escorted him inside the trailer and helped him to the couch. He was grateful and chattered on about what a good boy I was. Then he drifted off, and I rushed to the field to tell Dad that his father was painting a spaceship.
Our family doctor diagnosed Grandpa with dementia and sent us home with brochures about his illness, which my grandmother called “old-timer’s.” She seemed angry with Grandpa as he marched into senility, preaching to an imaginary congregation in their living room or whispering to her across their rickety breakfast table that he wanted to “ravage” her bountiful body. They didn’t have a phone in their trailer, and she often held a metal pot outside the trailer door and hit it hard with a wooden spoon to call us over to help with Grandpa. About this time he started to refer to me as “the bone boy” — because I was so skinny, I assumed. He acted as if it were some sort of top-secret code name: when he said it, he’d cut his eyes to the side and poke the tip of his tongue into his cheek. For some reason I became his confidant, and when Grandma banged the pot with the spoon, my mother and father and brothers and sisters would look to me, smiling, knowing that I’d soon be hearing about Grandpa’s latest effort to get the trailer into orbit.
It took me a while to trust that my grandfather had been transformed, because I had vivid memories of his cruel behavior. When I was nine years old, we’d had a pack of feral dogs attacking our pigs. The dogs would descend on our paddock from a high ridge behind the main barn in the early morning. We’d notified the landlord, but he didn’t really care: only the wheat, corn, and soybeans earned him money; the livestock we raised were ours, and so were any troubles associated with them. Grandpa decided to take matters into his own hands and bought a .22 rifle. I despised what the dogs were doing to our pigs — killing them just to kill, sometimes as many as ten at a time — but I didn’t want the dogs shot either. So I chose to pretend none of it was happening.
Every time one of our pigs had a litter, I would keep the stunted ones and raise them as pets. One morning I went out to the barn to feed my runts, and I stumbled upon two of them, gutted, their eyes still open. I bawled and stomped around the interior of the barn, snotty and mad. Grandpa walked through the barn door with the rifle over his shoulder. He was thin and scruffy and revved on coffee. He looked at me and then at the dead pigs. He didn’t like that I rescued the runts, but he liked those dogs even less. “Come on,” he said. “Follow me.”
I staggered behind him, my tears so thick I couldn’t see well. I thought he was going to talk to me, maybe even console me, as we both sat down on a huge boulder at the back of the barn. The sun had just come up, and the air was cool. Grandpa poured a cup of coffee from his thermos and didn’t speak. I sniffled. Suddenly he raised the rifle in the direction of the ridge. A large brown dog stood there, and Grandpa fired off three shots. The dog hopped into the air, ran ten feet, collapsed into the weeds, and went still. I began another round of bawling, but Grandpa said, “Shush now. You gotta kill what kills yours.”
I hated him then and promised myself I’d never forgive him. I ran away, back to my dead piglets. I would close their eyes and bury them by the creek.
When I started eighth grade, it had been over a year since Grandpa’s diagnosis. For a while he’d slipped back and forth between his old self and the new, but lately he’d remained changed and full of wonder. Grandma was still banging the pot to call me to help out. One time I had to coax Grandpa down from a chair he was standing on, holding his own pot, which he was using to summon people he called “maroons” from the “attic.” Another time I convinced him to stop singing a song about traveling to Mars.
That fall I was awakened one morning by the sound of the clanging pot. It was foggy outside, and when I walked over to the trailer, Grandma answered the door, her face twisted into a sour look. She pointed toward a grape arbor and said, “He’s out there.” Then she banged the door shut in disgust.
Through the dense white mist I could make out a figure moving alongside the grapevine like a ghost, as pale as the fog itself. I squinted and heard humming as Grandpa slipped around to the rear of the vine. After chasing him round and round, I finally came upon him. At first I thought he had on a pair of thermal underwear, but when he started to slowly twirl in a circle, I realized my eighty-five-year-old grandfather, all 140 pounds of him, was as naked as the weather, his thin white legs ripe with purple veins and his forearms covered in red paint.
“What are you doing, Grandpa?” I asked.
“I’m painting the town red!”
He stopped spinning and leaned against the arbor. The fog was lifting some. I was both sad and happy for him. All of his life he’d played the part of a serious-minded, pragmatic farmer. Now I could barely glimpse that person.
I managed to find his clothes, which were strewn all over the yard, his underpants hanging from a sapling. When he pulled his shirt over his head, his white hair sprang up in all directions, and he got a look in his eyes, as if his thoughts were further ignited. I’d always been so wary of him, but now I wanted to sit with him and talk. We plopped down at the old wooden picnic table. I was glad to get to know him in this markedly different persona. Mom and Dad were so busy working that they’d not spent much time around him, and my brothers and sisters saw the pot and spoon as my call to answer. As Grandpa smoothed his wild hair, I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain or Albert Einstein.
In the pasture a herd of Holstein steers emerged from the fog: black faces first, then the rest of their bodies. Grandpa sat up straight and let out a satisfied sigh. He pointed to them, his long, bony finger suspended in the air like a petrified root. “Those are my precious creatures,” he said. “They come to the fence, and I lie down and stare up into their eyes. They know me.” He didn’t let his finger drop.
“They’re wonderful,” I said. I remembered him driving the cattle mercilessly, slapping their backs with a whip and cussing as he corralled them into a pen for slaughter.
“They’re more than wonderful,” he said. “They’re not of this world. They’re holy. I’m taking them with me in the vessel.”
Over the next year and a half Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters would all spend time with Grandpa and start to enjoy him too. Even Grandma would smile when he’d say something so poetic you’d think it was a line from Henry David Thoreau. He went on painting things red and preparing to leave the earth in a spaceship. The last private moment he and I shared, we were sitting at that same picnic table in the sunshine and eating sandwiches: soft white bread with pimento cheese. He’d never liked soda before, but now he slurped from a can of Orange Crush. The steers came to the fence, their long, drawn-out moos like a chant. Grandpa moved closer to me on the bench until our shoulders were touching. He pointed again to the livestock. “I don’t deserve them,” he said, and he leaned into me and wept, his hands and wrists stained red from all of his work.