Brian's life-changing find in the dark cellar.
| Brian opened the cellar door and the stench of stagnant air rushed out and surrounded him, choking his throat and blurring his eyes. Peering into the subterranean expanse, he discerned little, narrow windows filtered only trace amounts of light into the cellar.
“Damn it,” he said as he grabbed the rail and started down the shaky wooden steps.
Brian hated the beach, hated the people, hated the hot sun, and hated the sand which always managed to creep in between his fourth and fifth toes and was impossible to get out without spreading them wide and wiping the webbed skin with the side of his finger.
Eighteen holes of golf, that’s all I wanted to do today, watch one stinking round of golf on television, but I can’t even do that–I don’t know why she couldn’t have taken the kids to the beach by herself, he thought as he stepped onto the dirt floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Brian squinted into the shadows, searching for the cooler his wife ordered him to retrieve. Finally he saw it in between two stacks of boxes at the far end of the room covered by spiderwebs.
“I’ll never forgive you for this, Melissa,” Brian said and shuffled quickly across the room. Misery piled upon misery; spiders being the only thing he hated more than sand between his toes.
As he got closer he saw something on top of the cooler in a spot strangely devoid of webs. It was a wooden box, nearly a foot-and-a-half long and probably a foot high. He picked it up and turned it over, inspecting the smooth surfaces, polished from years of service. He knew exactly what it was–his late Grandad’s toolbox.
“I’d completely forgot this was down here,” Brian said, his voice echoing off the cement-block walls.
Death’s pain fades very slowly, and never really leaves the heart. It lies dormant like a sleeping volcano, or a peaceful fault-line, waiting to awaken. It had been more than ten years since the passing of his grandfather, and he hadn’t felt sad about it for the better part of the decade. But occasionally something would trigger a memory and grief would take hold of the nearly-healed scab and rip it off, exposing the old wound to the air.
Brian thought back to the last time he’d seen his Grandad. It was Sunday morning and the last full day he would spend at his grandparents North Carolina home–his flight back to Boston, and his parents and friends, departed at 6:30 Monday morning.
Not wanting to waste the last full day of his vacation on something so dull as church, Brian convinced his grandmother, or Mama as she was known, that he was too tired to attend worship services, so she left him to get some rest. But the moment gravel started popping under the car’s tires, Brian eyes opened. He leapt out of bed and ran to the kitchen where his Grandad was busily fixing breakfast.
“Thawchew’s tired?” Grandad asked in his lazy, Southern drawl. He was holding the handle of a frying pan in one hand and a discolored metal spatula in the other. The thick aroma of bacon and eggs filled the kitchen, spilling over into the living room where a pajama-clad Brian stood, now trying to sell his fatigue.
“I am,” he said, then added a wide yawn as further evidence.
Grandad smiled, revealing a row of tobacco-brown teeth. “Relax boy, I ain’t gonna tell’er ya faked. I can’t say I much blame ya, neither, seein’ has I woudda faked too. I don’t like sittin’ in that stuffy room, nex’ta all them stuffy people any more’n you do. Why that woman does I’ll never know.” He motioned to the table with the spatula. “Sit,” he said. “We’re gonna eat sum real food fer once.” He brought the hot frying pan to the table and served up four strips of crispy bacon and two eggs, deep-fried in the residual fat from the bacon, on each plate. Drops of grease popped from the pan landing on Brian’s arm and stinging him like angry fire ants.
Grandad slid into his chair and grabbed his fork, “Ya sure she’s gone, boy?”
“I listened for the rocks under her tires just like you told me,” Brian said. “But why are we hiding this from Mama?”
“She got some fool-headed idear about me not eatin my food no more. Somethin’ about my cogesterawl. That crazy doctor she dragged me to told her all that mess, an I’ll be damned if that woman gives me another bowl of plain oatmeal fer breakfast.” Grandad looked at Brian through narrowed eyes. “Ya ain’t plannin’ on tellin’er is ya?”
“Nah,” Brian said, diving into his fried-eggs and bacon.
“Grandad?,” Brian asked after his plate was cleaned.
“Hmm?” The old man grunted between fork-fulls of egg.
“How come you still eat things that’ll kill you?”
He slurped the last of the eggs off his fork and looked up at Brian. Swallowing with an exaggerated gulp, he leaned back in his chair. “Whadjew say boy?”
“Why do you still eat all this bad stuff if you know it’ll kill you? Do you want to die?”
Grandad cracked the hint of a smile and picked up the last piece of bacon from his plate. “If I could teach’ew one thing in yer life, it’d be this.” Using the bacon as a spoon, he scooped up the remaining egg-yolk from the plate. “Livin’ even one day a yer life tryin’ not’ta die, means ya awready have.” He tossed the greasy, yolk-covered bacon into his mouth and chomped it with an overstated finality which Brian would come to associate with his Grandad’s life.
“Brian?” came the voice from the top of the stairs, gently pulling him through twenty years of time.
“Brian?” his wife called again. “Come on, honey. The kids are ready.”
Behind her, he could hear his two sons, John and Tyler, playing in the front yard, yelling and giggling with juvenile abandon. He looked back to the vintage toolbox in his hands and blinked away the tears threatening the corners of his eyes. Why did I love the old man so much? he thought. Why after all this time can I still get choked up thinking about him? The answer was embarrassingly simple. Grandad played with him: catch, tag, even a game or two of touch football; childish for proper adults, but the whole of the universe to kids. The summer before he died, we used this toolbox to build a tree fort in Mama’s big Oak tree. When was the last time I played anything with my kids? Brian wondered, but he couldn’t remember. He knew it had been a long, long time though. Ten years after I’m dead, will they still get tears in their eyes thinking about me? I don’t think so, but it doesn’t have to be this way, he thought, and from now on it won’t be.
“Brian? Are you still down there?” Melissa repeated, a hint of worry in her voice.
“Yeah, babe. I’m ready.” He grabbed the handle of the cooler and tucked the toolbox under his arm. “I want to stop at the lumber yard on our way back from the beach,” he called up the stairs. “It’s about time the boys got a tree fort.”