Grampie was an expert pincher
of pennies who smelled strongly of Canada Mints and old clothes. For the entire time I knew him, which was fifteen years, he lived in a little green house with his youngest son, Uncle Bill, half way down Grove Road, which ended in a cul-de-sac, which could have run straight through to Watrous Park had the city not put a fence between the two. In front of the house were two evergreen trees which Grampie had planted as seedlings when he bought the place in the 1950s. By now he owned the trees outright, and the rest of the house for that matter, having paid off the mortgage fairly quickly. So, when the one on the right fell across the driveway in a hurricane, the only fuss was to clean it up on the cheap.
We often mused that you could put price stickers on everything and open the house as an antique shop. Not much had changed since its original furnishings, twenty-something years since I’d first seen the place. The kitchen fridge, which Grampie always referred to out of habit as “the ice box,” was at least twenty years my senior and continued to hummm to life reliably for decades. (You can find reproductions in fancy appliance dealers these days, looking like Westinghouse’s answer to drop top Plymouths with tail fins. Grampie’s fridge outlived him and looks as though it will similarly outlive Uncle Bill.) The kitchen table was (and still is) a yellow Formica, metal-framed six-top pushed against the wall opposite the fridge. Grampie’s seat was at the window that overlooked the driveway and his 1969 Pontiac Custom station wagon (which wasn’t quite the newest car in the yard, as Uncle Bill sported an Atoll blue 1970 Pontiac Firebird, whose speedometer topped out at 160 mph, though reportedly the needle had only ever tickled 110. The Schwensfeirs were always a Pontiac family.)
In the kitchen drawer (you know the one, because you have one and so does everyone you know) Grampie kept a deck of cards and a slip of paper from a stenographer’s notebook. On the paper we would keep a running score of our setback games, scribbling down 2s and 3s and 4s in the positive and in the negative with the golf pencil he’d swiped from Edgewood that one time he played, well before I was born. The pencil was but a nub, but remained functional in my six-year-old grip. With the smaller hands between us, I was typically the scorekeeper.
The stove was an electric-coiled Tappan, and next to it, to the right, was an automatic clothes washer. Peculiarly, I don’t remember ever using the washer, though I do remember fiddling with the dial even after having been told to never fiddle with the dial. This might have been a contributing factor to Grampie’s first heart attack, and was likely the primary reason he chewed Canada Mints and smelled of dirty clothes.
The backyard on Sunset Drive was the biggest quarter acre you’d ever see. It was lined with bushes across the back, with a big old pine tree in the corner. We’d climb that thing half the day and get covered in sap to which any and all dirt would stick, and I think science still hasn’t found a method to soften that stuff out of clothes. There was another line of bushes up the property line on the Libera side, separating us from their grapes they’d use to make wine in Autumn. Stay away from those vines, everyone told us, and we did. Up the other property line across the yard was mostly trees and a small work shed painted the same brick red as our house trim. On the shed we had a basketball hoop and every time the ball bounced into the Mastergeorge yard next door I felt like a burglar having to run and snatch it back to our side. We also had an apple tree out behind the concrete septic tank cover, and that thing was thriving like you wouldn’t believe. Then there was the cherry tree out behind our small vegetable garden and just beside the cutout in the bushes that led to the concrete factory beyond, smashing and crushing rocks day in and day out.
In summer, off school, mom went to work and Grampie would drive over from Grove Road in his ocean of a station wagon. Of course, Grove Road was the next street over, so the Pontiac was probably overkill. He wore khaki slacks, a flannel shirt, and a fishing hat all summer, and to be honest the whole ensemble wafted a bit funky by the time we flipped the calendar to August. The fishing hat was a funny thing because I only knew Grampie to have gone fishing once. It was with his brother, Uncle Paul, somewhere out in Hampton or somewhere they took us. We cast off a bridge into a dribbly river, cars running behind us the whole time, trying to hook some rainbow trout. I didn’t catch anything, but my brother did. Five inches as I recall. We took it back to Uncle Paul’s and he butchered the creature and fried it up and everyone said it was delicious, so I agreed even though I hadn’t the capacity to tell. I always remember Uncle Paul’s place seemed impossibly bigger than ours, probably because he had a camper van out back that we were allowed to play in, and in it there was an armchair and a floor mounted ash tray. It was a rolling hotel, a whole world within a world. But I’m digressing here.
The thing was we grew up with fishing poles, practicing casting into a bucket we set up out by the apple tree, Grampie in his fishing hat, grumpy about something or another, swearing at the corn we planted that wasn’t growing quick enough. All this and we never went fishing, and I don’t even know where we’d have gone had we decided to go anywhere.
Days we’d fool around in the yard for a while, get bored, and go in and watch game shows on the little black and white set in the den, the room that jutted out the front of the L-shape of our little brick house. Wheel of Fortune was on just before Price is Right, and that was just before lunch. Grampie would boil up a couple chicken hot dogs — they were ninety-nine cents a pack and a pack would last all week — and we’d eat them on white rolls. I’d pour a line of ketchup across mine from the good old fashioned Heinz glass bottle. We never were a Hunts family, and I have no idea why. (Heinz was probably on special more often at Sav-Mor, the favoured hometown supermarket down the street, until the corporate giant, Stop & Shop, drove them out of business with their store brand bargain condiments.)
After lunch we’d either go to the Dinosaur Park up in Rocky hill, which is probably why Grampie drove the car over, or we’d dig tunnels under the cherry tree and zoom our Hot Wheels and Matchbox over and under the roots till mom got back. Grampie would look on in disapproval. Every now and again he’d boil over and yell out that you’ll kill that damned tree acting like that! Then he’d grumble something about goddamned kids never minding right, and what’s this all coming to.
Turns out he was right about the cherry tree. It died alright, though I think it was a disease did it in. I never was able to forgive myself though, even if I didn’t believe I was the active cause of its demise. Funny thing guilt is, for the skeptics and self-doubters among us.
I cut down the cherry tree, though I probably could have just pushed it over by then. I think we used logs of it in the fireplace on top of a Duraflame at Christmas. Imagine turning diseased wood into ash and smoke and polluting the hell out of poor little Cromwell, Connecticut like that. But then again, you’re never the only one to do whatever you’re doing, even in a world this small.
These days, nine thousand miles from back then, Charlie points at all the fancy cars parked along the street with their alloy rims and shiny detailing and says “Look at the Hot Wheel!” and I’ll tell you what, he means it. It’s boy racers and Audis and that glossy brick-orange Crayola-coloured tow truck from the panelbeaters down in the village, a Chevrolet wouldn’t you know. A rare species of vehicle around these parts.
Most days we walk home from school up the hill of Mt Cambria Reserve, which was a volcanic hill back in the day. After decades of quarrying, it’s a soccer field at the bottom and a plateau looking over the harbour up top. The park reminds me of birthdays, because we had his party here when he turned five. With six on the horizon, I asked him while we walked up the scoria steps toward our house, “What kind of birthday you want this year?”
“Hot Wheels!” of course. Well what should we do? We cooked up a half-baked idea to run a drag strip down the hill. So I did what I knew I had to do to avoid my inevitable procrastination: I committed the idea to words before I had worked out the finer points, sending out invitations without a race track plan in hand, and with a budget no bigger than a 1:64 scale model.
First I picked up some cardboard tubes at the emporium downtown, the sort they use to roll up fabric, nicely thick-walled. I figured I’d cut them in half the long way, making U shapes for the cars to run in. I managed that well enough with a crosscut saw, then taped up the edges so they wouldn’t fray, then spray painted them orange. We stuck them together the long way with tape, just to see how the cars would run, and wouldn’t you know, it didn’t work. I mean it was 8 metres of colossal failure. Turns out this hill is mighty steep and gravity did a number on the Hot Wheels, which flew all over creation when they hit the least little bump.
I sat there that evening, looking out the French doors to the verandah, a cruise ship motoring past in the harbour, and I noticed the roof over the verandah could use a cleaning, covered in dust and cobwebs after all winter. Then it occurred to me: tin roofs. They’re curved just like those cardboard tubes, but they’re slick when you paint them. This could work.
The next day, I poked around the timber yard and I thought about how I might cut roofing sheets by hand, and truth be told, I got discouraged. I drove back home and nudged the car up against the pile of old kauri floorboards in the back of the garage and I noticed something. Thin sheet products stacked behind some cabinets that came with the place. Upon further inspection: it’s a sheet of Formica. Slick as an oiled eel, at least as far as a Hot Wheel goes, and pancake flat. So I used a circular saw to cut double wide tracks, Liquid Nails-ed strips of plywood along the sides and up the middle, painted the whole thing Hot Wheels orange, and out we went to test.
Those cars absolutely flew! 14 metres of high-speed drag racing awesomeness, and the race was on. Sixteen kids with a shiny new Hot Wheel each raced head to head, with only minimal weeping over losses. Along with watermelon, chips, and cake, the kids ought to remember this one for a good long while.
I guess what I’m saying is this:
No cherry trees died this year.
Nobody stood on the back stoop and grumped about goddamned kids who won’t tow the line, all the while stinking of sweaty peppermint.
I’m saying that maybe it’s OK to look back with optimism — even with romance — sometimes.
Because maybe this world is turning out a better place than it started after all, and some days we could probably all use that kind of reminder.
I figure before this whole thing is over, I might even don just the right hat and take Charlie fishing. Chew down a couple Canada Mints, for old time’s sake.