So We Buried It Under the Roses

The only indication that anything ever bothered Grandpa was the rose garden. The thought came to him in the middle of a January thaw, and he was celebrating with a folding chair on the drive way. He asked Grandma to join him when the sun was out — she did not.

Instead they watched each other from across the yard, him from the sun spot beside the mailbox, and her from the window in the company of Sean Hannity and the dog. Icicles over the front window dropped water into holes in the snowbank.

He did not know if he loved her anymore. Certainly not a new thought — delusions about love died before many of their grandchildren were born. He accepted it as one of those transitions we’re all required to endure.

She was an accomplished organist, a terrible cook, lover of Elvis and Michelob Lite. Importantly, she was co-witness to 50 years of shared existence. An existence that, upon inspection from this end of things, may not have been shared as equitably as it could have been.

As the sun lowered behind the cold front in the west, he buttoned his coat, placed the chair in the garage behind the lawn mower, and went inside. The next day he bought three bushes, on sale at Home Depot after Valentine’s Day the year Barack Obama was sworn in for the second time. He kept them in the garage until they were ready to plant.

We don’t visit much anymore, Rochester being such a far drive from Kansas City and all. But in a way this works out, Grandma never runs out of stories to tell, forgetting that she told them last time we met. Always the same introduction: Her front room fit 8 children spanning 13 years. She can take anything life has to throw at her. She says this defensively. It’s here that she plugs in one of a dozen stories she likes to tell.

So the story goes, Grandpa is planting the roses outside the front window, under the hummingbird feeder. They are for Grandma.

The houses on their street are short, and made of brick. A rusting Norwegian Spruce towers high over the flagpole, higher than I think it was supposed to grow. Her father planted that spruce as a cutting, a sprig taken from the knuckle of a tree farther north on the lake. The lawns and family lines are well maintained: Mason, Miller, Clawson, Kenny, Kremer, and D’Angelo on the end.

Dozens of children between them, thousands of polaroids: hockey on the canal, camping trips, half naked toddlers marching up and down Cullens Run on the Fourth of July. My Dad somewhere in the middle, his sister Barbara at the front, the rest trailing behind, peripheral and non-distinct to me. A train of firefighters, nurses, teachers, Public Works employees. Each with a little plastic flag in hand, I see a standing army heavy with the potential of my generation, faces of present day cousins and brothers and sisters 30 years off.

Grandma is sitting in the chair by the front window, one eye on Sean Hannity, the other on Grandpa’s red face — a little sweat creeps down his cheek. He has the hand rake against the pot bound plants, busting roots loose. The roots have work to do, the yard is green but compacted, soil pressed under years of project cars and stomping feet. He sets them in the ground like memorials. Not grave markers, but something similar.

Grandma tells me later that it is a good thing she was watching. Her husband, the Marine, didn’t even notice the largest cat she’d ever seen creep out of the Millers’ side yard. It slinked across the street, and came to rest under the spruce tree. All the while Grandpa is planting these roses in hot, dry May, totally exposed.

Dad’s drinking did not scare her like this cat did. Facebook, and the millennium’s new internet gods couldn’t hold a candle to this frightful moment in May. It sent her to the screen door, hand to her throat.

The cat watched Grandpa as he backfilled the hole. It adjusted its four limbs in the bare, cool soil beneath the tree. She whispered through the crack:

“Harold.”

He doesn’t notice, but the cat’s eyes flick towards hers. Venomous and unknowable — inevitable. The muscles ripple under a thin layer of fur. It really was exotic looking, the size and shape of a bobcat, with fur like “a pissed on kind of beige”.

“Harold.” A little louder.

“Harold come inside.” Grandpa straightens his back and looks out from under a pinched red brow.

“What?”

“You need some water.” Grandpa looks down at the dirt, and the last unpotted rose plant. She gets so worried, so anxious. How many summers had she spent in that same plot — the front of the house growing more and more bare, her willingness to dig fading with the skin infections that came on so easily now. Most years she claims to have forgotten to plant anything altogether.

He plants both hands on the ground and pushes himself upright. Swinging the door open she flinches and backs into the living room.

“What are you running from, Myrna?”

“There’s a humongous cat under the tree.”

He suddenly realizes why she asked him to come inside. He turns to see for himself. It really is humongous, and when they recount the story, he corroborates the size to his grandchildren. Just the same, he draws a glass of water, and gets ready to plant the last of the roses.

“Harold!” He has the door open, and he is ready to step outside. “Harold don’t go out there, what if it attacks you?”

“Myrna, it’s — it better not.” There was only one more to plant. If he could get it in the ground, he would gladly spend the rest of the afternoon inside. They would heat up chicken for dinner, have a glass of wine each. She would fall asleep watching baseball on tv.

“Let the dog at it.”

“Shut your mouth, it’ll kill him. Close the door please. Have you ever seen anything like that? It’s so big.” He pulls the door closed and looks through the screen. The cat is lying on its side, cleaning between claws with a long red tongue.

Grandpa knew he could call animal control just as quickly as argue.

* * *

When Uncle Bob met Aunt Jan in their sophomore year of high school, he got her pregnant. When Grandpa found out, the story goes, there was a bad fight. Grandpa hurt Bob, Bob put a hole in the wall with his head, Grandma watched in silence.

Bob and Jan moved to Wayne County where they still live, and I don’t think Grandma ever thought Grandpa deserved forgiveness for that. Even if Uncle Bob spends his Sundays in their front room with coffee and bagels. I don’t think Grandpa was very bothered, until recently.

He took a keener interest in Sunday conversations. He became acutely concerned with the works of John Wesley. He became an expert at weaving his wife’s memory’s loose threads into the conversation. He planted the roses for her as a way to hold the ground she was giving up.

Grandpa’s mind is on the roses when the animal control guy tells him they don’t make runs on Sundays. Asking what should be done, the man on the other end of the line suggests turning the hose on the creature.

“Harold!”

He hangs up the phone and runs to the front room, Grandma clutches her throat and gazes horrified out the window like she’s watching a python swallow a dog.

The cat is now in the roses, looking up at Grandma through the window with half closed eyes.

Without saying anything Grandpa rushes through the front door, and away from the cat, to the hose. Grandma is screaming.

Coiled by the spigot, he finds the rectangular lawn sprinkler still attached to the hose. Worse, his arthritis keeps him from unhooking it in a hurry. The cat has it’s ears are pricked. Grandma stops screaming, and locks the door. This makes him pause. Then he says, “fuck it”, takes aim with the sprinkler and cranks the knob on the water. At once the sprinkler’s 18 little nipples erupt.

Victory!

The cat explodes from where it sits, water kicking up mud and dust, splattering roses and the vinyl siding. The spray feels good on his red skin.

To Grandma’s mourning cry from behind the glass, the cat settles back under the tree, licking itself clean. It looks up at Grandpa, who walks with the hose at full extension and directs the water into the branches. The cat only casually moves to the end of the driveway. Now no matter how he arches the water, the hose option has reached its limit.

This was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, which is the time the Kenny’s grandson Tyler gets out of his classes. He hops in the Ford truck his father gave him for his 16th birthday, and drives it to his grandparents’ like someone preferring 5–10 years downstate for manslaughter to the ripe and exciting hell of finals week.

The sprinkler suddenly twists loose from Grandpa’s hand, dousing him, sends him reeling backwards howling.

More effective than the water, the sound of grandpa’s authentic, silly rage terrifies the cat, which leaps reflexively under the wheels of Tyler Kenny’s truck. Young Kenny kept his homicidal speed, slowing abruptly only as he swung into the driveway at the end of the street.

“That asshole jumped out of the driver’s seat, fixed his ball cap in the side mirror, and jogs up and into his grandparents’ house, lightest conscience of anyone.” Grandpa says.

“On any given day”, he tells me, “a guy has a bag limit on how much harm he can cause.”

Grandpa puts a heel on the hose and the water slows to a trickle. With an utter stillness in the cat and the heat, he is struck with the full weight of having exceeded that limit.

For a few minutes he crouches in the sun, watches the mess, sweating. He hears grandma unlock the door, but she stays inside.

Finally he goes back to the house, turns the water off. Next he takes the spade from the garage, and scrapes the cat off the pavement, “Like an egg burned to the pan”.

The sun is cooking the water out of the bloody fur. Laying it beside the garden plot, he sets to deepening the final hole. Grandma watches unblinking from the front window. With gloved hands he lays the broken animal beneath the final rose bush, purchased for $14 at CVS.

Often Grandpa sighs after telling this part of the story. He sits looking at the ends of his toes for a moment. “And you know, Pete, after that I was pretty tired.”

He went inside and poured two glasses of wine. Grandma turned on the Yankees game and he called Uncle Bob. He called my Dad, and told him it was time I gave them a call. Grandma fell asleep before the 6th inning.

It is 9 years on, and today the roses are blooming fat and smelly. The house haunts me in the way heirlooms accentuate the disappointments for which you owe your family payment. But I love those roses, I love that story, and so does Grandma. She asks him to tell it every time she realizes she can’t remember my name, or if she catches cousin Ryan rolling his eyes at her rambling. Grandpa leans into the story like a chastisement, she sits back and watches as if he was saving her life.