Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax
{the ways we know eachother}
  megan ayers

I recognize my grandfather waiting for the bus in a gray suit, white shirt, hat in hand, and collar open, except, except I’m driving in the opposite direction and he’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive. I watch him recede in the rear view mirror. He wipes a white handkerchief across his face and checks his watch.

He is the age he always has been, the age of the portrait that used to sit on my father’s bureau, a heavy double frame that opened and closed like a book, edged in tarnished gold filigree. When closed, the outside of the frame depicts a Germanic hunting scene in bas-relief: a stag, arrow-stung, leaping from death, blood pierced from his heart.

On the left of the open frame is a portrait, my grandfather smiling in black and white, proud in his military uniform. I guess his age to be about forty, though he could be younger. He is lean and lined, stained teeth. My father has his eyes in that smile. The partner picture on the right is a black and white of a couple outside a modest house grinning down at a baby in diapers that rests shirtless in his mother’s arms. The baby is my father, a tuft of dark, wind-blown hair raised wispy and transparent. He is squinting and yearning toward his mother’s face. My grandmother is very pretty, shapely in a white blouse and skirt, smiling with perfect, undivided love at her baby boy. My grandfather, Stanley, stands beside them, pipe in hand, grinning and unbalanced in the photo. His sleeves are rolled to the elbow, his collar unbuttoned. I wonder who has taken the photo, who has been allowed to capture this unguarded moment.

I remember hearing a story when I was young, told around the adult table of how one summer afternoon in Ohio, my uncle was working on his car in the garage on his back beneath the driver’s side. When reaching for a wrench he saw a pair of shoes walk up to the side of the car, and my uncle scooted out to see who was visiting. In the garage, beaming down, was his father-in-law, Stanley. My uncle wiped his hands to shake, joked with him, and spoke of small family things for most of the afternoon, until the sun’s light took on that sideways quality, the late light of the passing summer. Perhaps it was the easy pleasantness that made him forget, or the familiarity of a Sunday afternoon in the garage with Stanley, but my uncle confessed to the listeners around the dinner table that he’d forgotten Stanley’s death, and in a moment much like the car pinning him to the garage floor, slowly pressing the air out of his helpless body, the heavy grief of loss came upon him, paralyzing his hands and heart moments later. Down the street, children’s voices echoed between the close suburban houses, a game of stickball being negotiated in the street. Fireflies began winking across the twighlit back yard, and through the open kitchen window, the sounds of his wife preparing his dinner. In that moment of realization, I imagine my uncle young and handsome, confused and sad; feelings of unworthiness insinuating themselves in his head as he smoked alone in the growing darkness, unsure of the meaning in that visitation.

In bed that night, beneath the covers in the intimacy of the space next to his wife, my uncle told her how Stanley had stopped by to chat. He held her then to his chest while she sobbed open-mouthed and unashamed, mourning again the unfairness of life in its most true and graceless moment.

I take a quick left into a bank parking lot and turn around to whip back into traffic. Immediately I pull into a driveway next to the bus stop, McDonald’s, stop the car and roll down the window.

“Excuse me,” I call, leaning out the open window into the afternoon’s flat heat. He doesn’t hear me, his face turned toward oncoming traffic. He checks his watch again, pulls out the handkerchief, and wipes the back of his neck.

I roll up the window, half afraid that if I take my eyes off him he’ll disappear. I park the car and get out. It’s bright and hot, August. I put on my sunglasses, lock the doors.

“Stanley?” I face him. He is my father and grandfather, both. He is young and also older than anyone can ever be. He is waiting for the bus on a summer day in the hot sprawl of Phoenix, heat radiating from the cars and the pavement, red adobe walls surrounding tile-roofed houses, cactuses waving friendly from the landscaped entrances to strip malls and courtyards, and he’s been dead since 1972, just after my parents married.

“Would you like a ride?”

I’ve gotten his attention. He turns to me and smiles the formal smile of one who is practiced in common politeness. He tilts his head to the right and toward me, touches behind his left ear to turn up his hearing aid. I repeat myself. He doesn’t answer me, but turns to follow me back to my car.

My father always said that Stanley would have really liked me, and though I always shrugged off comments like that from my dad—a sensitive, lost sort of man who wanted nothing more than to be able to express love for his family and still managed to fail at it—I find myself looking at this known stranger and wishing desperately for him to admit to loving me. But we are under a spell, one which I know that if I make him speak, he will disappear, and so I stop thinking of trying to find out about where he needs to go and what he’s been doing since he’s been dead, and tell him instead about my father, my life, how things are turning out, how I kept his family name because I was the last one with it, how my children have the name now, two girls, and they wear it proudly. Stanley stares out the window, nodding his head and making a small humming sound in the back of his throat. I tell him that my father never recovered from the death of his parents, not because Stanley would feel good in knowing this, but because I want him to know the kind of man his son turned out to be: quiet, gentle, cautious, indecisive, lonely.

I pick my daughters up from day care and introduce them to their great-grandfather.

Celia to the back of his head: “Aren’t you dead?”

Her little sister chimes in with a high pitched joke, “Dead man riding!”

They laugh at one another and do sing-songey rhymes alternating in subject between their dead great-grandfather, Stanley, and a cat who is very manly. They’re both convinced of their comedic vocation.

When we get to the house, Celia and Liz jump up and down tugging on Stanley’s arms, asking for a picture. To answer, he swings Liz up into his arms and tweaks her tiny nose. I run into the house to get the camera. In the picture is my grandfather holding my youngest daughter. The sun is in their eyes and they squint, eyes tearing, at the camera. Celia holds fast to his leg, leaning into him with her tongue wagging out of her mouth. Everyone is happy. Stanley stands tall, relaxed. It is clear by his posture that he is a man who knows himself and his reason. I suppose life is not a complicated or fragile gift for the dead, but more a day in the sun; the passage of time marked only by those keeping score.