“If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss.”
by Brock Meyer
I remember the story.
How could I forget? This was the first time, and the last, I ever met my real grandfather.
It was a hot, Northern Minnesota mid-summer day. The family reunion was in the middle of the woods at a campground with clouds of campfires and mosquitoes. The family was not mine; I did not know anyone except for the people I had rode in with, my parents and my brother in the seat next to me.
On the three hour drive from the Twin Cities, my brother and I had played numerous games of blackjack; the remnants of those games lay on the floor in a mess of unshuffled cards.
The gravel road had started to make my brother car sick, which made the ride seem even longer. My father complained every few minutes about the gravel dust ruining his newest car wash, but I had stopped listening. I chose instead to watch tree after tree pass by my window, forming an indiscriminate forest.
Once we found a parking spot, the saturated air hit us as soon as we opened the doors. The heat was almost unbearable, so we tried to quickly find somewhere cool. But I could tell my parents were trying not to draw attention to themselves as we walked by tents and campers full of new, but vaguely familiar, faces.
We landed in a building where lunch was being served. The inside was air-conditioned, which made it an even more desirable meeting spot for adults, children, and the elderly.
We were all most likely starving, but I could tell my parents did not wish to stay long. Rather than letting their children get food, they held us back.
Someone called out to my mother from across the room. She was a tall, blonde lady. My mother smiled, and we all moved toward the woman, past the table of food. Sitting beside the woman was an old man in a wheelchair. Strapped to the back of the chair was a green tank and a plastic tube draped around his face into his nose. A network of wrinkles crisscrossed his tired face, filled with beads of sweat forming from under his trucker cap. His gray hair stuck out of the tiny holes in his hat, which I could tell used to be blonde just like mine.
My mother hugged the woman, my father shook her hand. I could not hear what they were saying over the commotion in the room. After a while, the adults moved us all outside, back into the sweltering heat.
They rolled the old man along a stone path away from the small lunch building. The adults engaged in small talk while my brother and I walked behind in silence, each wondering what we were doing here. Soon enough, my brother found a football game of boys his age. He ran off to join them, leaving me alone walking down this path.
I contemplated joining him for a moment. But I decided against it. I thought I might take a chance to see where this path led.
After a few minutes of walking, my parents stopped. They put the old man in the wheelchair to rest next to a park bench. My mother looked back to me. She said, “Brock, do you mind staying here with Darrell for a little while?”
I shook my head with my characteristic shyness.
“What a good boy,” the blonde woman said. She and my parents walked back the way we had came, leaving me alone with the man. I sat down on the park bench and tried to avoid looking at him. When I did glance over, he continued staring off into the distance, either caught in profound thoughts or asleep with his eyes open.
I looked off into the distance, trying to find where my brother had gone. I could no longer see him.
“How are you?” The old man asked with a hoarse voice. He cleared his throat.
I returned my attention back to him. What do I say?
“Good.” I said without elaborating.
“That’s good.” He said, pausing for a moment. “What is your mother’s name?”
“Kim.” I said.
He thinks for a moment. “What is your grandmother’s name?”
“Jean. Grandma Jean.”
His face lights up. “Jean!” He says. “Is Jean here?”
“No,” I said. “She didn’t want to come. I’m just here with my mom, my dad, and my brother.” I keep looking for one of them to rescue me.
“Oh, I see.” He said. Disappointment filled his face. He kept looking off into the distance with that look of serene idleness. It matched the evenly spaced sounds of his breathing through the oxygen tube. “Jean,” he whispered.
I said nothing in return. I did not know how he knew my grandmother.
“You know how I met your grandmother?” He asked abruptly after a long silence. “No” was the obvious answer, so I did not speak it. I could tell he was about to begin a story by the way he cleared his throat again, and adjusted in his seat to a more upright position. For the first time, he looked right at me.
“I met her when I was a young man. I worked the docks in Duluth with the Hallett Company, loading and unloading. One day I decided to eat lunch off-site, so I went into town to eat. Well, that day, I walked to Canal Park, to a little diner on the lake-shore. Jean was there, working as a waitress.”
He stopped for a moment, and swatted a mosquito from his neck. Once he had remembered where he was, he continued. “I didn’t talk to her at first. I was too scared. She was so beautiful. So, I left. But I went back every day for a week just to get a look at her. One day, I dropped my coffee mug on the floor. She was the one who had to clean it up.
“She wasn’t happy, of course. I said I was sorry, but she ignored me for the most part. She must have thought I was just like the rest of them, the dock workers who came in during the day for lunch, part of the raucous sort that didn’t care about anyone else.” He laughed. “The first time we really talked, it was about Buddy Holly. I know that because her parents hated that music.
“We started meeting up after her parents had gone to bed. She would sneak out her bedroom window. We would drive up to Enger Tower and look at the harbor, with its lighthouses and ships. We had been going out for about a year when I got fired from my job on the docks. I took it hard, not knowing what to do or where to go. I wanted to spend my days with her, not breaking my back at a job I hate. I decided that I would chance it all on a trip somewhere else, wherever I could find work, but I wanted her to come with.
“Jean was upset. At first she must have thought that I was leaving her. Instead, I was inviting her to come with. But she was not ready. She came back with every excuse in the book—her parents, her dreams of college. But I could not leave without her.”
He looked down to his lap. “I could not leave without her.”
“So, I made her a promise. I had very little money saved, but what I did have saved, I would spend on building a new life for us both, whether or not we were together.
“I said that I would wait by the train tracks by her house that night at midnight, to wait for her. If she showed, I said that we would drive until we could not drive anymore. If she did not, I said that I would leave my money for her to take and have enough to find her own place and live her own way.
“I waited there at midnight. But after each passing minute, I realized that Jean was not going to show. I do not remember what time it was when I drove off; I left my money in a paper sack by the train track where I said I would be.
“I could not blame her and I do not blame her. She wanted a life she could be proud of. I gambled, left my chips on the table, and I lost. She did not break my heart. I lived my life without Jean, and I never spoke a word of her again. When I went to Vietnam in 1964, a couple months later, she was everything I thought about. When I left in 1967, I had forgotten her face.
“I started a new life, son. It takes time to lose something you worked so hard for, and in only one night. But the sooner you stop thinking about it, the sooner you can move on and start again. It is kind of late for me to start anything new, my boy. So, I hope you remember what I have said.”
I nodded in agreement, not understanding.
He continued, now in the louder tone of a command, “Risk things when things ought to be risked. You might regret it if you lose, but life is not worth living unless you take a chance.”
I nodded again.
He paused, looking off into the distance again. He whispered, “Is Jean happy?”
I shrugged in the way children shrug to questions they do not comprehend. “I think so.”
“That’s good. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy.” He said, looking back down into his lap. I did not recognize his shame at the time. He simply folded his hands and drifted back into a silent daze left only with his thoughts.
That night, he did gamble his future and his happiness. And he lost both. He said he never thought about it—never second-guessed his gamble. Yet, there he sat: reminiscing on a past that never was; reliving memories that precede a false ending to the story.
Years later, I would learn the truth. But the truth is not important here. What I have with my true grandfather is a story, a story he told me eight days before he passed away from pneumonia. It is not a story he shared with my mother, or my father, or my brother, or my grandmother. In truth, no one cared to listen to him, no one except for me.
My mother, father, and the blonde lady return from their walk. They say hello to the speechless old man in the wheelchair. My father ruffles my hair appreciatively for spending some time with him. My mother grabs the back of the wheelchair and begins moving him back toward the air-conditioned lunch building. The adults keep talking while I trail behind, looking at the families playing and eating on the picnic tables. They are all blonde too—tall and skinny. Each family has small children, adults the same age of my parents, and older grandmothers.
Shortly after, we leave the campground, retreating back into the cool respite of the car’s interior. My brother is tired from playing an aggressive football game with the other boys, who I would later find out were my half-third cousins; individuals that now I would not recognize on the street except for their resemblance to my real grandfather. The cars in the parking lot have license plates from a collection of different states.
I will find an old picture of him in a collection of old photos, taken from that day. My parents must have had a camera; they took a candid shot of me sitting next to him on that park bench, each of us looking in opposite directions. No one else knows from that picture or from that day what he shared with me—a snippet of a memory that I never had but nevertheless lives vividly in my mind.
“Did you talk about anything with Darrell?” My mother asked from the front seat.
“He talked a lot about grandma.” I said. My parents responded with silence.
The blackjack cards were still sprawled across the backseat floor. The trees still merged together as we drove past into a continuous forest. I was no different leaving this place than when we arrived.
Once again, I will not be allowed to speak his name, or to talk about my real grandfather. We all lost him that night he drove off. His risk was not just his loss. And none of us can breathe a word of it around our grandmother.