“Where’s the crackers?” my grandfather gruffly asked the waitress. She had just placed a bowl of the soup of the day, cream of chicken, in front of him. Globules of oil beaded the surface of the yellowish gluey concoction.
The sour-faced waitress disappeared for a moment and returned with a single crushed packet of saltines. She slapped it on the table in front of him.
I winced, desperately wanting to start digging a hole out of there.
His clear blue eyes, mesmerizing even in his old age, shot her an icy glare. For a split second she held his stare, then turned to walk away.
“You dumb shit,” my grandfather muttered under his breath. He tore open the crackers and dumped the crumbs onto his soup. The soup was so thick they sat atop it like a pile of rubble.
The waitress paused and shifted slightly. Don’t stir the pot, I pleaded inwardly. He’s not trying to pick a fight; he’s just a grumpy old war vet. Just spit in his fries if you have to… I prayed a silent prayer that the lady would know better and keep walking. It must have worked, because she soon turned her attention to a gaggle of old women at a table on the other side of the room. I watched as she yanked a coffee pot off the warmer, the liquid sloshing violently, and headed their way.
We ate our soup in the usual silence, as if all were normal. And it was, for the most part, though typically the profanities were reserved for the food, not the staff. Eating with Grandpa wasn’t about enjoyment; it was about getting the job done. I quickly learned that by keeping my head low and my mouth shut, I more than halved the likelihood for conflict—or conversation.
Before the waitress could make another appearance with the second course—shrimp in a basket with fries for Grandpa, grilled cheese for me—my grandfather pushed a quarter across the table and cocked his head toward the entry. My soup finished, this was my signal to proceed. I grabbed the quarter greedily, stood up, and scurried away to play Pac-Man.
* * *
Grandma had died the previous summer, when I was eleven, and since then I’d unwittingly become a sort of stand-in companion. As the youngest of the grandchildren, and the only girl, I suppose I had the weakest defense as to why I couldn’t go out with Grandpa for an afternoon. My two brothers both had part-time jobs, and my mother, with her various and everchanging food allergies, claimed the only “safe” restaurant was McDonalds—one of those flimsy excuses that, as a kid, I never thought to question.
Our visits started with a phone call telling me that he’d pick me up in half an hour to go to “the Family” (short for the Family Restaurant, our local diner). I silently acquiesced—what choice did I have?—though in those early days the dread of what he would say, and to whom, was almost too much to bear. But gradually I got used to it, knowing that in exchange for enduring the occasional rude comment and eating what amounted to institutional-grade food, I would at least get to play Pac-Man. As long as I stuck to the script.
* * *
He entered the war just after D-Day, dropped somewhere in the fields of France and reported MIA soon thereafter. The legend went that my grandmother received a telegram regretfully informing her that her beloved husband was presumed dead after several weeks of no contact. Just as she’d begun to reconcile herself to her fate as a childless widow, another telegram arrived saying that he’d been found in a hospital in England and would be shipped home as soon as he’d recovered from his wounds.
And they lived happily ever after… was how the story was supposed to end. And perhaps it did. He came home, they conceived their first child (my mother), then a second, went out to eat every Saturday, and lived in marital harmony for the rest of their days—till death do us part.
The implicit assumption—as certain as the glass slipper fit Cinderella’s dainty foot—was that my grandmother was overcome with joy and relief at the news of her husband’s resurrection. But gnawing at the back of my adolescent mind was an unspoken question: was she secretly disappointed, just a little bit?
* * *
To my relief, I had Pac-Man all to myself. On occasion I’d have to wait awkwardly as another child finished, trying to remain nonchalant and keep a disinterested game face. I’d always sneak a glance at their score, determined to beat it. I usually did. Call it a hidden talent, but I had a clear knack for guiding my pie-shaped avatar through the predictable, orderly maze that was our world.
I put in the quarter and gripped the joystick, gobbling up yellow dot after yellow dot while steering clear of the googly-eyed ghosts. As I beat the first level, then the second and third, the game got more difficult, the ghosts gaining on me. I had to think fast, anticipate the enemy’s movements, play defensively. That day I was on fire, reaching the fifth level before I’d lost even one of my three lives. But then the nerves set in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the waitress. I lost two lives in quick succession.
With only one remaining, I determined to get back on track. Keep your eyes on the ball, my softball coach would urge me menacingly from the dugout, after I’d swung and missed twice. More often than not, I struck out, trudging back to my place at the end of the line-up with slumped shoulders, avoiding the pointed stares of my teammates. Next time, they’d say limply.
This was my time to win, I told myself. My chance to beat my all-time high score. But a different, more pressing, impetus compelled me. The longer I played, the less time I had to spend sitting at the table.
* * *
There'd been another woman in my grandfather’s life, a fleeting liaison in his first winter as a widower. Her name was Lynn, and she was at least twenty years younger than he was. I’d found out about her when I spied a photo on his keychain: of him with his arm draped territorially over the shoulders of a plain-faced, stocky, but clearly much younger woman. When I mentioned it to my mother, she rolled her eyes and said matter-of-factly, “That’s just some floozy he met at the firehall. She’s only after him for his money.”
As far as I knew, he didn’t have much money. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen, did odd jobs before enlisting, then drove heavy machinery until retiring in his sixties. I found it hard to wrap my head around the idea of my grandpa with a girlfriend. It was like thinking of my teachers with a life outside of school; it just didn’t mesh with my image of the man. Whether she got any money out of him, I didn’t know and didn’t ask. I’d never met her so couldn’t make a sound judgment. What I did know was that at Christmas my grandfather showed up with three meticulously wrapped gifts for me and my siblings, the tags on all of them reading “From Lynn” in fancy script. I opened mine to find a delicate purple and blue patterned nightgown that fit me perfectly. If nothing else, she had good taste in pajamas.
But sometime after the new year, the keychain disappeared and I overheard my mother and aunt talking in hushed tones: “That’ll show him . . . Who does he think he is? . . . Hope he learned his lesson.” Worried my mom would make me give the nightgown back, I stashed it in a drawer under my socks. But every once in a while I’d pull it out and slip it on, if only for a few minutes. Then, I’d take it off, fold it neatly, and return it to its hiding place.
* * *
I got to level seven before the pink ghost finally brought my winning streak to an end. I’d missed beating my high score by a measly twenty points. Instinctively, I checked the coin return in the vain hope that some poor kid had forgotten to take a rejected quarter. No dice.
With a sigh, I said goodbye to the game and patted it consolingly. Next time, I thought, then reluctantly made my way back to the table where my grilled cheese was waiting for me. At least I’d missed the waitress.
Grandpa was already halfway finished with his shrimp in a basket, the fried tails, which he’d nibbled to a nub, neatly stacked on one side, the anemic-looking fries piled on the other. He’d covered it all in prodigious amounts of ketchup and tartar sauce, which I guess made it palatable.
“How’d ya do?” he mumbled between bites.
“Nearly beat my best score,” I replied, and eyed up the smudged plate in front of me. The cheese had already begun to congeal and harden at the edges.
“Eat your stuff,” he said, nodding toward my meal.
“Thanks, Grandpa,” I said, well accustomed to this, the first rule of play: always say thank you. The irony of me having to remember my manners was certainly not lost on me, especially that day.
“Humph,” he muttered in acknowledgment.
The most important rule was to finish your meal, no matter what. From a young age, I learned that not clearing your plate was a surefire path to perdition, which in this case meant no more quarters. I figured that grilled cheese was a relatively fail-safe option.
I took a bite, then another. Not bad, I thought, chewing methodically and stopping to take an occasional sip of coke. The glass was slippery with condensation.
I was making steady progress with my sandwich, only a tiny equilateral triangle remaining, when I noticed it—a hair protruding from between the bread. I waited a moment, until Grandpa had nabbed another shrimp and raised it to his mouth. Using stealth tactics, I put the sandwich in my lap, out of sight under the table, and grabbed the hair, pulling it gently. But as I pulled, the cheese came out with it, and before I knew it, I was holding a knot of gooey, dark, cheese-encrusted hair. He spied it before I could conceal the evidence.
“Gimme that,” he barked, and leaned over the table, snatching the hair from my grip and heaving himself to his feet, knocking over my nearly empty drink in the process.
“No, wait—” I started, but the glower in his eyes spoke of a man who would not be thwarted in his mission.
I quickly righted my drink and brushed the remaining shards of ice into my hand, then deposited them back into the glass. This, I knew, would not end well.
* * *
Apart from our regular trips to the diner, Grandpa also liked to take me fruit picking—strawberries and raspberries in summer; apples and pears in fall. “Like” was perhaps an overstatement, but in his own way he must have got some enjoyment from the process. There was a certain ceremony to it all, the two of us driving to the fruit farm, boarding the trailer that would take us to the designated field, and bracing ourselves for the bumpy ride while perched on our respective haybales.
Then, for an hour or two, we’d pick, silently filling bags and bags full of fruit, which we’d load into the trunk of his car and take to my house. Mom was always ready to meet us when we got back, eager to see the spoils. For all his faults, he was not a miserly man. He’d keep only a handful of the pickings for himself, the rest carefully boxed and loaded into our garage, or packed into the freezer.
“Don’t let it spoil!” he’d warn every time he left.
I wouldn’t dare.
* * *
I intercepted my grandfather halfway between our table and the cash register, where the waitress was busy settling another customer’s bill.
“Please, Grandpa,” I said, grabbing his arm.
He turned to me, dangling the glob of hair between his thumb and forefinger.
“I’ll talk to the lady; it was in my food, not yours,” I pleaded, and snatched the hair before he could stop me.
I must have spoken a little more loudly than intended, because the customers at the tables around me had momentarily stopped eating, their forks and eyebrows raised in anticipation.
Suddenly feeling much older than my twelve and a half years, I marched boldly to the waitress, catching her just as she was handing the change to an overdressed and heavily made-up old lady. As the lady turned to leave, I could see that her lipstick wasn’t quite square with her lips; it had been spread on sloppily, like a child coloring outside the lines. I waited a second for her to be out of earshot then spoke up.
“Excuse me,” I said in the most authoritative tone I could muster.
“Ye-es, my dear,” the waitress said, her mouth curved into an exaggerated, Joker-like smile. “And what can I do for you?”
“I found this in my sandwich,” I said, producing the evidence.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said without hesitation and reached behind the counter, producing a spray bottle and rag.
Strike one, I thought. My resolve floundered. I glanced over my shoulder to see my grandpa looming, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. I had to fix this quick.
“Well, it’s not my hair,” I continued, grabbing a chunk of my blonde hair and holding it up next to the dark hair. “Look.”
At that her fake smile disappeared and she leaned in close, wielding her spray bottle like a weapon. “Now you look,” she hissed, her voice a barely audible whisper. “I know that he”—she nodded in the direction of my grandfather—“put you up to this. What kind of pathetic old man uses his granddaughter to try to swindle his way into getting a free meal? You tell me, huh?” she said, so close I could smell her breath, an unsavory mixture of coffee and cigarette smoke. Strike two.
“But he didn’t! And he’s not a pathetic old man!” I exclaimed. “He’s just lonely. Please,” I continued, lowering my voice, “could you just fix this—get me another sandwich that doesn’t have hair in it, or give us a free dessert or something?”
I felt my heart beating at an alarming rate as I waited, trembling, for the next pitch. As far as I could tell there were two options: either she’d throw another fast one, I’d strike out, and Grandpa would be up to bat; or she’d show a little mercy and pitch me an easy one that I could actually hit. A simple grounder that would get us back to our seats without a scene.
* * *
In our twelve-and-under league final, I was batting. Two outs, bases loaded. It was the bottom of the ninth and we were down by two runs. The pitcher, a tall, sinewy girl who looked closer to fifteen than twelve, eyed me with a knowing look. For her the game had been won the moment I stepped up to the plate. It was my third time at bat; the first two times I’d struck out. Three smooth, straight fastballs, met by three wild, empty swings.
“C’mon batter batter!” my teammates cheered halfheartedly, more out of duty than actual enthusiasm. Even my coach had given up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him starting to pack the spare bats and balls into their respective duffels.
Never one to miss a game, my grandfather sat stoically in the stands. I glanced his way, his steely eyes meeting mine.
“Batter up!” the umpire beckoned, and I stood squarely at the plate. The pitcher faded into a blur, my eyes trained on the ball as it came barreling toward me.
I swung, knocked it out of the park, and ran all the way home.
* * *
Then came the curveball. “I’ll tell you what, Miss,” the waitress said. “We just had a new manager start this week. Why don’t I go and get her. I’m sure she’ll know what to do about this hair problem.”
Victory bubbled within me. Surely she would fix it, this new manager.
The waitress went to the back of the restaurant and stuck her head through the Staff Only door.
“Lynn!” she called, loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear.
“There’s a girl here who has a bone to pick with you.”