I could smell the cigarette smoke before I could see him. A few steps closer, and I could see the shadow of his cane.
He sensed me coming through the trees. Before I could say anything to him, my grandfather said, “Be quiet. Stand Still. Listen carefully.”
So I stood still, quite aware that I could not be as still as him. When my grandfather decided to be still it was as if he had subtracted his body from the air.
I listened. I could hear my grandfather drawing on the eternal cigarette in his mouth.
I also watched, looking into the twilight, trying to see what it was that he wanted to show me. The meadow was as familiar to me as our kitchen or our living room. This space was work, the forest was food, the meadow was our heat.
Not far from where we were there was a stand of trees. Just in front of that stand, in a space hollowed out in the forest soil, there was a salt lick. That salt lick was used by local deer and it was occasionally their downfall. Every fall my father would roam the hills with his rifle looking for a deer to kill. Occasionally he would take me along, gun bearer for an extra rifle with a more powerful caliber and a different style of scope, in case he wanted to try a long-range shot. After roaming the mountains for hours, my father often found that year’s deer standing at the salt lick, less than three hundred yards from our front door.
Just as often as I went hunting with my father, I would be left behind. I was a noisy walker, and my boy’s stamina was not compatible with rigorous hunting. And so, almost every autumn, while reading a paperback in front of a warm wood stove, I would hear a shot ring out. And every winter and spring we would have a deep freezer full of venison.
In that same meadow, under my father’s guidance, I learned to shoot a child sized .22 rifle. My grandfather had loaned us that rifle; he insisted that I learn to shoot. Afterwards, on occasion, I took a shotgun down the abandoned logging road that circled this meadow, looking for a grouse to put onto our supper table.
As I kept waiting, listening, and watching in that meadow, I took in the slash. These leftovers from a recent logging project sat reminding anyone who cared to look that the meadow was not a natural phenomenon. Throughout the summer and fall my brothers and my father and I would work on dismantling these twisted piles. My father would slice up the rejected logs with a chainsaw, and then his press-ganged sons would load the firewood into the old pickup truck he had driven into the meadow. We would drive to an old shed that stood behind the house, and stack the rickety structure tight with winter fuel. When the snow began to fly in October and November, my brother and I would transport three or four wheelbarrows worth of wood from the shed to the wood-bid outside the entrance.
Growing bored with the meadow and all of its day-to-day familiarity, I turned my eyes toward my grandfather.
As a boy, all I could see was an old body.
As I see him now, looking back through my boy’s eyes, I can see the vestiges of youth.
One of the last men to attend the University of Idaho on a boxing scholarship, he still had the air of a man who could receive and deal a substantial blow. His boxer’s stance had never left him; even as he leaned on his cane, rapidly approaching the age of 70, he gave the air of a man who could strike at any time. His large, brown, weathered hands, thick with powerful fingers, retained generous hints of speed and calculated violence.
I can see his beauty. I see why, after some forty years of marriage that was often as troublesome as not, my grandmother still got a look in her eye when she talked about the handsome young man who courted her decades before. There was still an air of the charming young U.S. Navy sailor in his flat-top haircut. That haircut had sailed with him around the Pacific on a U.S. Navy destroyer. He sailed, he told me, because of ‘man’s foolishness,’ the only way he would ever refer to the conflict that shook the planet to its core in the 1930s and 40s, and likely carried away any vestige of innocence his rural, Depression-era Nebraska and Idaho upbringing had afforded him. A barber levelled off any growth on that flat-top every two weeks until his death.
There, in the 1980s, my grandfather could still charm a room with a witty remark, a mischievous grin, and warm brown eyes that had seen too much decades before. Just as easily, he could cut a room in two with his barely repressed rage.
The late summer twilight made the tall pines around us cast impossibly long, slender shadows.
I shivered in the growing chill.
Then, finally, I heard.
His grin laced his words in the gathering darkness. “Hear that?”
A long, patient drag on his cigarette.
And then I heard another impossibly huge snort.
“There’s a buck at the edge of the meadow, right over there, just behind the tree line.”
The buck snorted again.
My grandfather’s face crack into a ragged smile. “He can smell us, smell my smoke.” He inhaled the cigarette again, and my trained eardrums let me hear, almost feel the sandpaper warmth of the smoke entering his lungs.
“He’s waiting for us to leave. So that he can come down and use the salt.”
The buck’s anger and impatience sounded in his nostrils again, and I could hear the emotion, and I smiled myself.
My grandfather finally turned to look at me, those brown eyes creased and full of boyish mischief, “Oh, he’s awful mad at us.”
Thirty years later I squat in front of a wood stove, trying to coax a flame to life.
A wood stove, I am relearning, is all about momentum. The stove acts to conserve heat: it concentrates heat and packages it into forceful bundles that will drive back even the most recalcitrant drafts. The stove’s efficiency relies on a nearly air-tight space, and thus the initial fire can sometimes be reluctant to initiate; getting the oxygen to circulate through the stove properly, and thus let the fire ignite, takes skill if the wood is even a bit wet from a driving blizzard or rainstorm. The fire has to reach a self-perpetuating inferno. It does not run on fire so much as it runs on red-hot coals.
The woodstove that I am trying to light stands in a living room on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland, more than three thousand miles away from that Idaho meadow. Outside the living room window, I can see the Bay of Islands, once work and food and transportation for so many. Looking slightly to my left, out the corner window, I look toward the open sea. I look west, and when I look west, I look at everything I thought I left behind.
My son sits on the floor, chirping at me, asking me to play with him. I explain I have to build a fire. I tell him that his mother, crouching on the sofa under a blanket, is half-frozen.
As I do so I wonder how it is—after all of the borders and crossings and metamorphoses that have led me to this strange and beautiful and terrifying place—I have come back to a woodstove that looks and acts and behaves so very much like the woodstove I grew up with.
The momentum of a woodstove will relentlessly reduce everything placed in it to powdery ash. The heat it produces is immensely satisfying; its inexorable warmth permeates your body and your spirit. An hour later, my spouse stirs and mentions how the heat of the woodstove always relaxes her, and the effect of the heat on her body is almost immediately noticeable. She is gently snoring on sofa a few minutes after she mentions this, and my plans to thaw her out and seduce her have backfired: I have sent the object of my lust into sleep.
As I prepare our son for bed, I ask myself, am I the same person I was, reading those paperbacks in Idaho, learning to shoot? Or am I different person entirely?
Every week or two I scoop the ashes in the woodstove into a metal trash can, making room for new fires.
When my grandfather died from pancreatic cancer a couple of decades after I stood in that Idaho meadow, they put what was left of his body into an oven and reduced him to ash.
We never spread the ashes. We never had his ashes. That absence was his instruction. He told my father that there was no way to know if we were really getting his ashes or if we were getting the ashes of the accountant or the check-out cashier that had met the flames in the cremation sessions that came shortly before his. Do not, he was saying in his own way, indulge the sentimentality of spreading the ashes of my remains. Ashes are ashes, dust is dust, the body another cigarette butt to be tossed aside when tumors have forced it to shut down and smoking one more cigarette is no longer a possibility.
My father told me all of this when he called one afternoon to tell me that my grandfather was dead. What my grandfather told me, via my father, has stayed with me ever since I got the news.
It is May of 1980.
I am young enough that almost nothing is really surprising. When the sky begins to rain ash on a Sunday afternoon in May, I take it that, just perhaps, the sky does that sometimes.
My mother is worried. She is not used to ash falling out of the sky. She herself does not know exactly why she is worried. It’s hard to know what to do, or why you should be concerned. But still, it is all very strange, and she is worried. She only knows that my father went to the golf course with friends that afternoon and now the Idaho sky is dumping ash on us and she doesn’t know where her husband is.
And then a station wagon is pulling into the driveway, and then men are smiling and jumping out of the station wagon and joking and laughing and wondering at the Biblical plague of it all. Then Dad jumps out and into the house and he is fine.
And the next several days—then weeks—blur together. We are sealed up in the house, holed up, told to stay by the radio, the TV. Perhaps—the serious men on the TV and radio warn—the ash is poisonous. Perhaps it will corrupt our lungs. Perhaps these gritty, dusty remains of the past, these incinerated guts of the earth—spewed up into the atmosphere by an angry volcano—will poison, suffocate us all.
Stay inside, stay inside, stay inside, the voices whisper.
And then the blur clears and I am standing on the porch with my mother. We watch a single bird track across an ashen sky, a slate gray sky that should be spring blue with wispy white clouds, full of birds returning from Mexico. Thick layers of ash still cover the lawn, the garage, the house, the window-sills, the neighbour’s dog house.
Throughout Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, we spent weeks and months cleaning up all of that ash. We tried our best to sell it packaged in small glass jars to gullible tourists. We kept the ash in our garages, along with yellowing newspaper accounts of the volcano. And then we moved to another job, to another mill town, across the state line, and before we left, we cleaned out the garage. One day the ash was gone.
Now, sitting in a house in Newfoundland in 2017, I like to imagine that my grandfather’s body, dead from pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2003, travelled back in time and blew up into tons and tons of ash, and all of that concentrated experience and disappointment and wisdom and bitterness and movie-star good-looks and everything that he ever was coated much of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho in a thick, inescapable layer of ash that I could never get out of my lungs.
Every time I write, ash explodes and falls from the sky and settles on whatever story it is that I want to tell. It clings to every object I try to describe: the eyelashes of small children; the confused, over-sexed graduate students; the robots; the spaceships; and the mostly empty, very clichéd dinners where lovers fight their last fight late at night. They all end up stinking of smoke and destruction as much as they do sex, murder, birth, and death.
As I watch my wife’s breasts rise and fall in the rhythm of sleep, standing somewhere in rural Newfoundland, I find that I want a cigarette. I have never smoked much, but now I want to strike a match and let the mysterious sex of the smoke curl up around my head and into my lungs and watch a teaspoonful of ash accumulate in the same kind of glass ashtray that stood on a cheap plastic TV tray, next to his easy chair.
I could never spread his ashes.
But perhaps I can stand still and listen carefully for something making a strange noise at the edge of the treeline. I can bring all of that hope and despair into my lungs for a brief moment.
And then I can exhale.
And then I can flick the end of my cigarette and watch the brief moments that make up any man’s life fall homogenously into an ashtray.
And in the early morning, when I know the night is over, I can empty that generic ashtray into an anonymous trashcan.
Perhaps every time you fall in love you cross a border.
Once upon a time in another country, I used to teach the nineteenth-century British marriage plot novel on a fairly regular basis. Pay attention, I would tell my students, to the pair produced at the end. Waverly marries lovely Presbyterian Rose, not Catholic Flora; and thus, noble Highland Scotland may have been lovely, but we must understand that she was always doomed; whereas we now realize that Lowland Scotland could be brought into British modernity. Anne Elliot finally weds—and presumably beds—sexy Captain Wentworth at the end of my favourite Jane Austen novel; the British navy men who were saving England from Napoleon were heroes, despite the class apprehension of Anne’s father, the spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot. Margaret Hale of England’s agricultural south finds northern industrialist John Thornton’s tactics with his striking northern factory workers cruel. Well, up until the point she marries him and learns something about the importance of industry and John learns to break bread with the union at the end of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Daniel Deronda leaves England at the conclusion of his vehicle, not with the flawed English rose Gwendolyn, but with the pretty Jewess Mirah. The newlyweds head toward Palestine to carve out the borders of a new, Jewish state, a Victorian fictional ambition that had profound nonfictional twentieth century repercussions. And twenty-first ones, for that matter, as I look at this morning’s disturbing headlines.
And thus I taught. And taught, and taught, up until the time I met a Newfoundland poet at a conference, and began a marriage plot of my own, one that eventually led me to cross a series of borders myself. Those border crossings put an end to teaching the nineteenth-century British marriage plot novel to American undergraduates. And our plot’s twists did not end with the alter, or the pregnancy, or the baby, as they often do so demurely and decorously in the Victorian novel. Things didn’t even end with my successful application for Canadian Permanent Residence, oddly enough. Life’s ability to keep serving up plot elements makes it come closer to a television soap, perhaps: long running, questionable acting, and ever more bizarre plot twists.
One day—with an infant asleep somewhere nearby, and my spouse teaching a class—I jotted down a few paragraphs about my grandfather enjoying a cigarette in the Idaho forest of my childhood. In writing those paragraphs down I crossed a border of another sort, from reader and scholar to someone who writes. My own marriage plot—or television serial—demanded I reinvent myself, as a husband, as a father. And now, apparently, the sensation fiction plot demanded, ruthlessly, that I reorient my relationship to literature.
Since writing down those paragraphs I have published and even performed much of my writing. But those original paragraphs never did see the light of day.
Until today. Today, I am very happy to see them in Montréal’s carte blanche.