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Kim Culbertson

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Member Since: Mar, 2008

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By Kim Culbertson
Monday, March 03, 2008

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A young boy finds his grandfather to be a thing of unusual beauty.


            That July, we found my sister sitting on the steps of my grandfather’s apartment building in San Diego.  She was crying, her hands twisting the ends of her blonde hair into little ratty nests like she always did when she cried.

            “What’s wrong with you?” my father asked her.

            “Grampie said I’m a cheater.”  Her words slurred through sobs, she looked up at us, our tall bodies casting long shadows over her. 

            My dad took her hand and half dragged her up the steps into my grandfather’s apartment.  Inside smelled of Vick’s Menthol and cigars.  My grandfather sat in his plaid  armchair holding the clicker at the TV like a pistol.

            “Dad, what the hell?”  my father asked, standing in front of him. 

My grandfather careened his neck to look at the TV and announced, loudly, “that girl’s a cheater.”  The proclamation sent my sister crumpling to the ground, her fists in her hair.

            My father looked at the backgammon game set up on a table near the window in the kitchen.  “She’s six.  And you’re playing backgammon with her?  Jesus.”

            “Jesus,” my sister repeated, looking up through watery gray eyes.  My father told her not to take the Lord’s name in vain.

            “Why can’t you play something her age?  She brought games.”

            My grandfather answered my father by turning up the volume on the TV.  He was watching a fishing show and the fish they were wrestling from the water went slap, slap, slap.

I sighed.  Why didn’t I have a normal grandfather who gave us candy after Sunday School or let us win at cards like Justin Donlan’s grandpa who always brought him gummy bears in a clear plastic sack?  “Sarah, come on.”  I extended my hand to the crumpled lump that was my sister. 

My father ran his hand over the top of my head.  “You’re a good brother,” he said, still watching my grandfather, who had crossed his arms under his chin like a knotted rope.  He had thin white cotton candy wisps of hair that seemed to float up from his freckled scalp.

I fished through my sister’s pink backpack and extracted a pack of My First Uno

cards with Rugrats characters.  Sarah crawled into the chair next to me, her face mottled.  She looked like the Raspberry Cream Savers hard candy that I was sucking on.  I pulled another one from my pocket and handed it to her.  She split open the wrapper and sucked the candy into her mouth.  Smiling at me, she pushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes.  When my sister smiled at me like that, I would have done anything at all.

            We had played two games all the way through when I felt my grandfather standing over me.  I looked up at him.  He stared intently at the pack of cards in my hand.

            “I’ll sit in on this round, I think, Maxwell,” he told me, jabbing a finger at the pack.  My name is not Maxwell - just plain Max; still my grandfather always insisted that Max must be short for something.

            “Do you know how to play?” my sister asked skeptically.  She pulled her knees to her chest and her white dress down over her knees.  She looked like an egg.

            “Young lady, I fought in a war.  How hard can it be?”

            “It’s sometimes hard if you don’t get any wilds,” she informed him. 

            My grandfather banged the table with his fist.  “Deal!”

            I complied instantly, and then flipped over the first card of the desk to start the game.  A yellow number seven Angelica, the bratty Rugrats character, glowered back.

            “Red seven,” Sarah chirped, slapping a card down on top of Angelica.

            My grandfather said, “I can play numbers or colors?”

            Nodding, I watched him place a red two on top of the cards, lining it up evenly with the card underneath.  We played in a circle, the silence interrupted only by Sarah’s announcement of the color and number of each of her cards and the slap of the card on the pile.  My father had disappeared into the back bedroom.  Probably taking a nap.  For years, my father slept more than he was awake.  He sometimes even missed church.

            “Uno!” Sarah yelled pointing at the one card my grandfather held in his hand.  “You have to draw two.  You didn’t call Uno!”

            My grandfather cinched up his lips.  “You didn’t tell me I had to call Uno.”  His accusatory stare fell on my sister who watched him with wide eyes.  He looked to me.  “Maxwell?” 

            “Um,” I started, my gaze slipping to my sister.  She had her cards pressed to her chest, her elbows sticking out in triangles.  She was watching me intently.  “You have to call Uno when you get one card; otherwise, you draw two.  But we forgot to tell you, so never mind.”  I saw my sister’s tongue flick out for a moment in disgust, then she snapped it back in.

            My grandfather waved his one card over his head, “Oh, no,” he said, dramatically  eyeing my sister.  I’m not a cheater.”  Carefully, he drew two cards from the stack.  “One.  Two.”

            The circle began again. Sarah uncurled her legs from under her dress and began to kick her feet back and forth against the chair legs.  I kept drawing more cards.  In no time, my grandfather yelled, “Uno!” again.

            “Jesus,” my sister said under her breath as she shuffled cards around in her hand.  I kicked her under the table.  Not hard.  But she was developing some seriously bad habits.  I placed a green three down on my grandfather’s blue three.  He cinched up his lips again, and scraped his one card on the underside of his chin, back and forth, like it was a razor.

            Sarah sat straight up and placed a wild card on the stack.  “Yellow,” she told us, breathlessly.

            My grandfather threw down his card.  “I win!” he yelled, pushing his chair back away from the table.  On the stack of cards, he had placed a blue five.

            ‘Grampie!” my sister said, pointing a straight arm at the pile.  “I said yellow.  That’s not a yellow card!”

            “You said blue.”



            They both looked at me.  I muttered, “Um.  She said yellow, Grandpa.”  My sister beamed.

            My grandfather swept a great hand across the evenly stacked pile, and cards went flying.  “Both of you!”  he yelled.  “Cheaters!”  Then he strode from the room.

                                                *                        *                        *

            My grandfather took me to the zoo, once, just after my mother died.  He said God had taken one of his beautiful creatures away when he took my mother.  He wanted to go to the zoo to be sure that God had left some beautiful creatures for us to see.  I thought that was weird, but I was ten and glad that we’d left my three year old sister at home.  Plus, I wanted to be away from my father who mostly just cried and flipped through the catalogues that continued to arrive for my mother.  L.L.  Bean.  Pottery Barn.  With one of my thick red Crayola pens, he would circle the clothes he knew she would have liked.  In a J.Jill catalogue he had ripped out the picture of a blue crushed velvet jacket she had wanted and taped it the refrigerator door alongside the sympathy letters we’d received from people at church.

            I missed my mother, her long brown ponytail tied with the blue ribbon from a birthday present she’d received.  I missed her brownies with caramel swirls, and her deep laugh during the re-runs of The Simpsons we would watch during dinner when dad had a late meeting.  But I was aware of the world rushing on.  The ice cream truck still jingled by.  The mailman still dropped our mail through the slot of the little house in La Mesa even the same day my mother died.  I remember the whooshing sound all the letters and junk mail created when they came through the door and puddled onto the floor mat just inside.

            During that time, I was aware of many sounds.  Lawnmowers.  Passing cars.  Dogs barking.  Our neighbor, Mr. Jenners, cussing at a football game on the television in his living room.  The Chargers were having another disappointing season.  I could hear it all, and knew that nothing outside our world paused for my mother.  So I didn’t want to pause either. 

            My grandfather bought us two passes into the zoo and held my hand through the metal turning gates that looked like teeth.  His hand felt clammy, papery.  Inside the gate, he dropped my hand, peering at the map they handed him at the ticket window.  I wanted to see the hippos and the monkeys, but my grandfather insisted we start by looking at bugs.  How could bugs be some of God’s beautiful creatures?  My mom always let me  see the monkeys first.  I screwed my face into a scowl, and followed him.  He didn’t notice the scowl. 

The bug room was almost empty and very cool and the air smelled strange, sort of sweet and gummy.  Inside cases, big black beetles crawled over sand, and millipedes squirmed and wriggled.  One case held a bunch of cockroaches.  Madagascar Hissing Roaches, the small name plate read.  The roaches, sat near the large log in the tank, mud brown things with bits of black.  My stomach felt light as I stared at their legs, bent at weird angles, and covered with tiny spines.  They were ugly.  Scary.  I wanted to hurry to see the monkeys. 

“They’re beautiful,” said a voice next to me.

I looked quizzically at the man who had spoken.  He leaned toward the glass of the tank, scrutinizing the roaches. 


“Beautiful.  The roaches.”  He placed both of his hands on the outside rims of his glasses and pushed them up on his nose.  He had a gentle, blurry face like the soft inside of a baseball mitt, smooth and lined.  Kind and uninteresting.

“I like the monkeys,” I told him.

“Monkeys are ordinary,” he said.  “Everyone likes monkeys.  Someone has to like these creatures the best.”

“I guess.” I pointed at the roaches, “but I think these things are ugly.”

The man laughed.  “Sometimes beauty isn’t obvious.”  He paused and looked closely at me.  “Like love.”

 What was he talking about?  I shrugged and looked over his shoulder for my grandfather.  He was standing a few feet away at a tank full of what looked like shiny grasshoppers.  He was tapping on the glass.  He wasn’t supposed to do that.  On our last field trip to the zoo, Timmy Clark had to stay right next to Ms. Burrow for the whole day because he had tapped too many times on the glass.

“When they get angry, they make a hissing noise,” the man told me.  “That’s where they get their name.  From the hissing.”

“What makes them angry?”  I turned back to the man and watched as he adjusted his glasses again.  His hair was thinning on top and very pale blond, like Sarah’s eyelashes.  Did someone love him?  Think that he was a beautiful creature?  Behind me, I heard my grandfather tapping on the grasshopper glass, tap, tap, tap.

“Well,” he exhaled and stuck his hands in the pockets of his tan pants.  “They don’t like to be picked up, and they get mad if another roach invades their territory.”

That made sense.  “How do they know what territory is theirs?”

“They just know.”

“Maxwell,” my grandfather placed a gruff hand on my shoulder.  “Time for monkeys.”

The man nodded at my grandfather, and then leaned toward me.   “Remember what I said about the monkeys,” he whispered.  “And the roaches.”

I nodded and allowed my grandfather to steer me away from the bugs.  Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the man place his palm against the cockroach tank and close his eyes.  The skin of his scalp showed through his thin blond hair, and it was shiny like the grasshoppers my grandfather had been watching.

                                    *                        *                        *

During the year after my mother’s death, my grandfather lived with us in the La Mesa house.  My sister had nightmares almost every night and my grandfather would go into her room at night, wrap her in a blue fuzzy blanket, and rock her until she fell asleep.  Sometimes, when I heard her cry out, I would walk the dimly lit hallway to her room, and watch the shadow of them on the wall rock back and forth.

                                    *                        *                        *

Last June, we moved from San Diego up the California coast to San Francisco.  “We’re swapping saints,” my father said, rolling the window of our silver Honda Accord all of the way down.  “San means Saint in Spanish.”  A warm wind came in past him, smelling of taquerias and sand.  I sat in the passenger seat, and my sister sat in the back, and we watched the palm trees speed by us, their finger fronds waving goodbye.

During our first week, San Francisco awoke each morning gray and cold, and I missed the yellow sun of San Diego.  Then, a week after our arrival, my grandfather visited us at our new apartment on Polk Street and brought the sun with him. He stood in the hallway and looked around our tiny one bedroom apartment. My grandfather frowned as my father explained that he took a room and I took a small alcove in the back and my sister made up her bed in the dining room, hanging a mobile of cut out angels on the old hanging light.  “The house was nicer,” my grandfather grumbled.

My grandfather stayed for a week, taking my sister and me to Golden Gate Park, to our new church, and down to the Marina to see the boats.  Sarah loved boats with tall masts and she brought along her coloring pens and paper so she could draw page after page of boats with one single blue wavy line under them for the water.  I chased seagulls while my grandfather dozed on a bench.  That week, the fog stayed away, and the air smelled of sand. 

On the third day of his visit, we took the bus across the bridge to Sausalito even though I had wanted to take the ferry.  We bought ice cream and watched the city from across the glittering bay.  My sister chased seagulls like she has seen me do in the Marina and I walked with my grandfather, listening to the slow breaths rattling in his chest next to me.  He walked slowly, and didn’t seem to pick up his feet from the ground.  I spotted a shiny dime on the ground in front of me and bent to pick it up.  I blew on it twice, two quick breaths, and rubbed it against my shorts.  “For luck,” I said under my breath.

“Your mother used to do that,” my grandfather said, stopping and staring out over the water.  I had never heard my grandfather speak of my mother.  “For luck,” he repeated.  “She and Elisa kept their lucky dimes in a coffee can on their dresser.”  My Aunt Elisa was divorced twice and worked for the DMV.  She and my mother really weren’t very lucky at all.

I turned the dime over.  2001.  Not a lucky year - it wasn’t even.  I sent it sailing into the blue bay waters.  A seagull dove at where it sank beneath the waves.  Stupid bird.

“Do you miss her?”  I asked him.

He paused, considering.  “Yes.  She is an easy person to miss, Maxwell.” 

“I miss her taking me on walks down by the beach in La Jolla.”  I looked at the blue sky and the thick white clouds, and thought of my mother’s hand holding mine. 

“You’re mother saw the beauty in everything, Maxwell.  Not many people can do that, you know.  Even to the end, she saw the beauty in everything.  She loved this world.”  His eyes became glossy and he looked away.  I was embarrassed for him.  I knew he didn’t want me to see him cry.

‘I didn’t cry,” I informed him proudly.

“That’s unfortunate,” he frowned, watching my sister stare over the edge of the walkway.  “You’re mother was certainly worth your tears.”   He called gruffly to my sister,  “Sarah, watch that edge now.”  Then muttered, “that girl.  No brain.”

I tramped ahead of him, his words heavy in my stomach, making knots.  The concrete walkway dropped down to a tiny lip of sand and the bay waves curled onto it.  As I walked toward Sarah, she sat down on the edge, kicking her legs against the cement.  She had chocolate ice cream everywhere – her face, the front of her yellow T-shirt.  I sat down next to her.  She had ice cream on her knee.

“Why is Grampie so mean?”  she asked.

“He doesn’t mean to be.” 

She continued to kick her legs against the edge, back and forth. “But he’s always yelling.  Mom never yelled.”

“You remember Mom?” 

“She put grape jelly on my cinnamon rolls even though you thought it was gross.”

Something hot shot through me.  The memory from my small sister.  The smell of cinnamon.  I glanced back at where our grandfather stood, staring out over the water, his white tufts of hair curling up in the sea wind.  “A guy I once met said that love isn’t obvious.  With Mom, love was obvious.  You understand?”

She shook her head.

I swallowed.  “He just misses her.”

“So that makes him mean?”  She pulled her knees up to her chin.

 I looked at my sister’s blond head, her eyelashes nearly white, her small, round face.  “He’s just not like Mom.  Grampie said Mom saw the beauty in everything.  Not everyone is able to do that.”  I paused.  “I don’t think he can do that.”

She nodded and blinked at the bright light on the water.  “So, I guess that seems fair.”

“What seems fair?”

She sighed.  “That Mom is there and he’s here.  Grampie, here with us.  Still learning.”

I nodded, my chest tightening again.  Using the cuff of my sweatshirt, I wiped the ice cream from her knee.

                                    *                        *                        *

            Sitting in the front pew, I am struck by how different my grandfather’s casket is from the one my mother was buried in.  She had a sprawling glossy dark colored wood with a strip of bright gold all around it.  It had seemed massive to me.   My grandfather’s casket is a washed pine, very boxy and much smaller than he seemed to me.  I can’t imagine him in it, and I think that if I walk up and open it, it will be full of those little popcorn packing pellets and not my grandfather.

            Our church smells like furniture polish; it is a thick, oily smell that makes me nauseous.  Sarah sits next to me, her small hands folded in her lap.  I am proud of her for not kicking her legs against the pew.  My father stands at the back of the church, thanking people for coming and handing out tiny slips of paper with the directions to the reception.  In the back pew, a group of men are hovering around a small radio, listening to the NCAA tourney.  They whisper excitedly.  My father tells them that they should take the game outside like he used to do with Sarah and me when we threw a ball in the La Mesa house.  He sounds tired.  Dipping their heads, they quickly leave.

            “Did Mom also die of old age?” my sister asks me, folding the front of her navy blue dress into little pleats.

            “No, Sarah. Cancer,” I remind her.

            She nods, staring at the casket.  “Do you only die of old age when you’re old?”

            “Yes.”  I pause, and then say,  “But you can die of other things when you’re old, too.” 

            “You can die from a lot of things,” she says somberly.  “I could die.”

            “You’re not going to die.”  But she seems fragile enough to die, and I run my hand along the top of her blond head.  Her hair is soft and warm from a beam of yellow San Diego sun coming in through the stained glass windows.

            “I hope you don’t die, Max.”  Tears wet her cheeks, and she leans into me, sighing, “Jesus.”  And this time, it is a prayer.

            Dry eyed, I look down at the top of my sister’s head.  It isn’t fair that she has already been to two funerals of people who should be in her life longer.  I don’t want my sister attending my funeral.  Not ever.  “I hope so, too, Sarah.”  Ahead, a slant of stained glass light has painted a thin blue band through the center of my grandfather’s blonde casket.

                                                *                        *                        *

            The next day, I go to his gravesite alone.  My father lets me take a taxi.  He understands that I need to be alone.  When I asked to go, he just nodded and gave me a twenty dollar bill.  I am nervous as I step out of the taxi, and the sea wind hits me. We buried my grandfather on a family plot overlooking the sea, near his wife and my mother.  I haven’t been to my mother’s grave in over a year.  This place is different now.  But still so quiet.  Flowers dot some grave sites while others sit bare.  I have no flowers to place at our site, not even for my mother, and I feel ashamed. 

I walk the small path to our section.  My grandfather’s headstone is white marble, flecked with gray, like my mother’s.  His grave smells fresh, grass and dirt.  I kneel next to it.  A wind picks up and blows into my face. From the pocket of my sweatshirt, I pull out a small card.  A blue Uno card from my sister’s game that she never plays anymore, hasn’t played since my grandfather sent the cards sailing across the room.  Attached to the card with an old, yellowed piece of scotch tape is the catalogue picture of the blue crushed velvet jacket my father had taped to the refrigerator in the La Mesa house.  I peel it from the card and, standing, cross to my mother’s grave and set it on the mossy earth.  Stepping back, I realize the wind will get it, so I find a rock and secure it with that.  I run my hand along the top of her grave.

Turning, I place the blue card on my grandfather’s grave.  The dirt is loose, and I half bury it there, so that just the top of the card peeks out. My cheeks are cold and I realize that I am crying. They are slick, fast tears, and I drag my sweatshirt sleeve across them, and stare, confused, at the wet on the red material.  I look quickly around, but am still alone with the orderly rows of graves and abandoned flowers.  My gaze returns to the card and the white marble of the stone.  It seems cheap and plastic and out of place in the polished uniformity of the cemetery.

“Blue,” I mumble, awkwardly through my tears, and listen to the rustling of the leaves of the eucalyptus above.



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