Jim McGarrah's poems, essays, and stories have appeared in many literary magazines, including After Shocks: Poems of Recovery, Bayou Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Elixir Magazine, and North American Review. He is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Running the Voodoo Down and When the Stars Go Dark, a memoir of the Vietnam War entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace that won the 2010 Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Nonfiction, and The End of an Era (nonfiction, Ink Brush Press, 2011). His newest book, Breakfast at Denny's (Ink Brush Press, 2013), is a collection of his latest poems. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist twice in the James Hearst Poetry Contest. He is also co-editor of Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana and a founding editor of RopeWalk Press.
Somewhere around 1960, my grandfather on my mother's side stopped driving. No one knew exactly why. Perhaps he sensed the oncoming forgetfulness that would wipe his memory of what car keys were for in a few more years. It may have been his stubborn refusal to wear glasses so he could pass the eye test, or his disgust at having to pay twenty-seven cents a gallon for gasoline. More than likely, he just decided one day that there was nowhere else he needed to go. Whatever the reason, he parked his pea green, fluid drive, 1948 Chrysler next to the curb in front of his brown shingled house on North Hart Street in Princeton, Indiana, unfolded a lawn chair, and sat down next to a water pipe that rose from the scalded dirt he called a front yard.
The pipe was topped by an ugly cast iron farm faucet. Its handle required a violent tug upward and the stream of water issuing forth was, like a feral river, untamed by any possible adjustment of said handle. On steamy, Indiana dog days I rode my Schwinn from our home on West Broadway to the ball park, stopping at grandpa's for a drink of tepid water that always tasted like metal and dirt. He asked me the same question every day, one he knew the answer to before I even spoke. "Did you ride all the way from over yonder?" The yonder—a distance of five blocks—question generated the same answer each time he asked. "Yessir and I didn't think I'd make it this far."
Originally yonder was a southern slang term to indicate "the far distance." But grandpa had never traveled farther south than the southern tip of Indiana. To him, yonder was a multi-faceted directional tool used to specify where a person had come from and might go to, a language compass so to speak. For example all immigrants came from "over yonder" whether they were Asian, Hispanic, or Eastern European. When people died, their souls traveled "up yonder" unless my grandfather held some complaint against them, in which case they were sent "down yonder."
He knew the exact details of the term no matter what geographical differences might be indicated and he expected the same from you. Many a confused visitor to Princeton, Indiana, stopped, rolled their car windows down, and asked him directions because Hart Street was a central path and his house a hub in the center of that path to the county fairgrounds, the baseball park, the swimming pool, the Elk's Club, the VFW, The Eagles Club, Greek's Candy Store, The Palace Pool Room, the high school, and several churches. His universal reply fit every destination—"It's yonder a ways."—and after pointing a finger toward yonder, he would brook no more verbal interruption in his quest for solitude. Part of this response may have been his stoic and rather harsh German ancestry, but I believe he simply didn't like people all that much, a trait I inherited. For grandpa, a clipped, sharp response was the politest way to get rid of a stranger before he began telling one how he really felt.
Laying the bike on the lawn, I asked his permission to drink. My cupped hands made a leaky vessel, but I knew two things for certain about the old man. First, touch nothing of his without asking permission. Second, never expect him to rise from the lawn chair and offer you a drinking cup. He demanded self-reliance.
I sat cross-legged on the ground, sweat-soaked and wondering why his brain never baked inside that old, bald head, especially since it was perpetually blistered and red from the unrelenting sun. In his food-stained undershirt, he surveyed the surrounding area as a king might inspect his fiefdom, raising an arm occasionally to gesture toward a squirrel climbing a tree or a stray dog crossing the street. As the visible air shimmied above the pavement, he spoke.
"Hot day for a bike ride, ain't it?"
"If you gave me your car, I could drive. You don't use it anymore."
"I suspect that's right, except you couldn't see over the steering wheel. Besides, what if I had to get over yonder some day and you had the car?"
For an instant, I was entranced by Grandpa's smile and maybe a little terrified by his overall appearance as well. With an almost hairless square-jawed head too big for his frail body, thin lips, skin stretched as if someone had shoved his features in the tiny finger of a rubber glove, and a wide mouth with one gold tooth in the middle of several yellowed and worn others, he seemed more like the skeleton hanging in Doc Peck's office than my mother's stepfather. This was the only way I ever knew him. After my grandma died, he lived alone for several years until he reached his nineties and my parents put him in a nursing home. There, he fell in love with a blue-haired young vixen that was eighty-one. My mother almost quit visiting when she arrived one day to find the woman perched on his lap. Incredulous, she stomped around our house for a week complaining to my father that grandpa's behavior was ridiculous and a sin against grandma's memory. My father laughed, reminding her that grandma had been dead six years and, at ninety-two, grandpa deserved a little company. Finally, mom acquiesced with the caveat that dad admitted all men were pigs.
Focused again on the idea that at twelve years old and a shade under five feet tall, driving was impossible for me, I began to delve into the mysterious and wonderful possibilities of both aging and developing a skill beyond my current physical abilities. Would driving a car be as pleasurable a rite-of-passage as learning to jack off, which I heard described by an older boy for the first time a few short weeks before?
"When will I be able to drive?"
"When you're sixteen, and I'll let you take that car over yonder out to chase the girls whenever you want. 'Course, being old enough don't always mean you're wise enough to use something the way you should."
I didn't recognize it at the time, but my grandfather was a prophet, a visionary, a seer of future events. How did he know I would spend many of my future years misusing my penis in the name of love, and how did he know that Billy Ray Peterson had recently left the Eagles Lodge just up the street in his Chevy Impala? After all, it wasn't quite noon. Of course, Billy Ray had a penchant for beer with his breakfast. Everyone said that this habit kept him from making the majors as a young man. Most people agreed that Billy had been one of the finest ball players to every play American Legion baseball in our town, and in those days a good baseball player achieved a status reserved for people like Justin Bieber or Jake Gyllenhaal in the 21st century.
But something had happened to him when he was twenty, something that I didn't understand at my pre-pubescent age. My father and his friends often sat around the Palace Pool Room ticker tape machine drinking coffee and talking while I read the major league ball scores off the tape and wrote the results on a huge green chalkboard for the bookies. They spoke in low tones about Billy's demise, agreeing that he had been whipped severely by—and this was difficult to hear over the loud clacking of that tape machine—something I swear sounded like a pussy. How a talented athlete could have his career destroyed by being beaten with a cat, this matter remained beyond my comprehension for another three or four years till I met a girl named Karen and became pussy-whipped myself.
Anyway, the point was that Billy Ray Peterson had become a cliché of a man and was now driving along Hart Street and at unreasonable speed. By unreasonable I mean slightly slower than I could pedal my bike up Fisher's Hill. Yes, his Chevy crept toward us with the same undeterred resignation as the U.S. government was displaying in its deliberate and stupid crawl toward the Vietnam War. I saw him before grandpa did. Sitting between the faucet and the lawn chair on the ground, I noticed the turgid air between The Eagles and hardware store part like the Red Sea had parted in The Ten Commandments, a strange and horrifying movie about a serial killer god that my mother had forced me to watch during one Easter season.
"Here comes a car swerving up the street, Grandpa."
"Yeah, I reckon that's Billy Ray coming from the Eagles over yonder. He's probably just drunk up his breakfast and trying to get home without hitting anything."
Suddenly, the car ceased its back and forth movement and began a slightly accelerated straight climb up the slight hill about half a block from where we sat watching in awe. As the car swept through the intersection of Hart and Walnut, the top of Billy's head became visible. Yes, that's correct. The top of his head showed over the steering wheel. He seemed to be driving with his forehead, which rested on the huge horn ring.
"Grandpa," I screamed.
"Run," he replied, and we did. I had never seen his arthritic legs carry him so fast away from the lawn chair. Hopping bent-kneed like a Banty rooster, he grabbed my hand and pulled me up the three stairs through the screen door on his porch. We turned back at the sound of metal crackling against metal and saw the Chevy fold, accordion-like, against the grill of the green monster Chrysler. Immediately, the air filled with the stench of anti-freeze and the hiss of a thousand snakes. But, at almost the same instant, the driver's side door on Billy's car popped open and Billy was sprung from his seat, steering wheel in hands, almost as if he were a jack-in-the-box intent on escape. When his body cleared the car, it somersaulted once in midair and he landed flat on his ass facing the faucet in the front yard. His eyes, open now to the size of silver dollars, stared unknowingly at us as we tiptoed down the porch steps. By the time I reached Billy with grandpa a step behind, the stink of anti-freeze had blended with burned rubber and urine. The Chevy lay in ruins, but grandpa's green behemoth rested unmoved and unharmed in a swirling gray and blue mist of steam and smoking oil.
"Morning, Orville," Billy said matter-of-factly and then fell over sideways. By the time officers Zimmerman and Vey arrived on the scene to assess the carnage, Billy had begun to snore slightly. The police were followed closely by an ambulance from Gibson General Hospital, but as near as anyone could tell, the drunken shortstop had landed without injury except for a few minor cuts and abrasions from flying glass. The ambulance driver speculated his state of intoxication reduced his muscular-skeletal system to a state of somewhere near Jell-O pudding. I accepted that diagnosis as a young boy, but now I'm left to wonder how drunk a person would have to be for his bones to not shatter from a flight like Billy's. I have been wobbly on whiskey several times during my adult life and never approached that point of fluidity.
As for Grandpa, he didn't drink, not professionally anyway. Every Friday he allowed himself one can of Falls City beer with his fried catfish fillet. That was his rule and the stubborn old guy never broke it, at least not until Billy landed in the yard. After the police, the ambulance, and a few neighbors who had gathered to gawk drifted away, he turned to me, visibly shaken, and pointed at his lawn chair. "Better move that chair up on the porch. It don't seem safe over yonder anymore." Entering the house, he returned quickly with a can of beer. It was Wednesday and barely afternoon.
Four years after the flying Billy Ray incident, my grandfather decided the time had come for me to travel yonder. He surrendered the keys to his Chrysler on the day I turned sixteen years and one month old. This was the day that Indiana granted a driver's license to any teenager who had passed Driver's Education in high school. Of course, that was long before cell phones and the concept of suicide by texting. The laws have changed now.
"It's time somebody got some use out of the old girl," he said, and my father had it towed to a friend who was also a great mechanic. The car had been sitting in the front yard for so long that the seals and gaskets had dried and cracked causing everything to leak, like Grandpa. Unlike Grandpa, the battery had to be replaced as well. Once the work had been completed, the heavy green beast ran perfectly. After the process of backing over beer kegs, bumping into various other vehicles on the way to yonder, and drag racing on the Old Petersburg Road—an act that car did with the speed of tree sap leaking—my days as its driver came to an end. I became the proud owner of a 1957 Chevy Bel Air during my senior year in high school.
By then, Billy Ray had moved to a small town halfway between Princeton and Louisville called English, where he bought a tavern with some money his wife inherited from an aunt who died from tertiary boredom. The tavern business lasted long enough for him to develop cirrhosis, his wife to leave, and the bank to foreclose. My grandfather had stayed in love and served out his term on earth at the local nursing home. Soon after graduation I took grandpa's advice and spent my life looking for the vanishing point on the horizon where Yonder meets Arrived. I have traveled around the world several times and been in love from Southeast Asia to the Balkans and have reached the age where I'm beginning to realize that I'll be traveling to visit Grandpa one of these days. I'm just not sure whether that's up yonder or down yonder.