My grandfather’s face is a topographic map of his nearly century-long life: a deep line down the left side, from his years at Texaco; several softer, branching folds at the corners of his eyes, from years of chuckling at the shenanigans of my brothers and sister and me; another particularly distinguished furrow above his brows, from losing a son in ’80.
His skin is worn and cracked, like the seat of a saddle that hasn’t been conditioned in the seven years it has dwelled in the barn, uncovered. A hooked nose forms the saddle horn, darkened from years of exposure in the scorching Kansas sun. His upper lip forms a neat little downward peak in the middle, though I rarely see this peak, which flattens and stretches like a plateau when he reveals a crooked, ornery grin.
My grandfather’s ears are large and hairy. This is a truth I may have written in the unswerving honesty of a third grader, which remains valid today.
His hands are speckled with scorch-marks from summers spent under the watchful eye of the sun, from the seat of a 60s-era Allis-Chalmers tractor (which also bears the faded mark of long afternoons outdoors). These hands fascinated me as a child: they are rugged and gnarled, his index fingers bent at the uppermost knuckle. This crook in his fingers may have been due to accident, but I prefer to believe the crook exists by design—the bent knuckle is just the right angle and size for wet willies.
My grandpa’s belly protrudes out over his belt, a perfectly watermelon-shaped curve. If I reach back into the furthest corners of my memories, I cannot recall a time when that hard, round belly was smaller, or larger, or nonexistent. It thrives on a steady diet of orange slices, black licorice, and the occasional bottle of Bud Light. This belly, coupled with roly-poly ankles that twist and bend of their own accord, creates a precarious gait that involves a sort of prancing, high-kneed step, step, step.
If Grandpa were a literary archetype, he would be the trickster. From an early age, I distinctly remember his gnarled fingers reaching for earlobes to twist with a high-pitched “EEEEEEE!” and the toothy chuckle that reached his glittering eyes.
When my sister and brothers and I were too young to drive but old enough to engage in free manual labor, Grandpa would gather us up in the worn out flatbed chore pickup and haul us to pastures to chop weeds and small trees.
On the way, he told stories.
He told of racehorses he raised with his brother, R.P., and the transition from lithe horses to black Angus cattle on the Simon ranch. He pointed out the pasture where Dad and Terry hopped on the hood of the ancient hay truck and rode the five blacktop miles home, clinging to its headlights. (“But don’t tell your grandmother, kids.”) At our cajoling, he recounted tales of the mischief my dad and uncle engaged in, often involving everyday items like manure, perfume, and our Aunt Syndi.
Grandpa’s mind was a gold mine of historical truths blended with familial legends.
When I was in high school, Grandpa’s name changed to Waterboy.
It all started with cross country. You see, when I was a freshman, my school finally agreed to start up a distance running program, if the prospective coach could drum up enough interest. I hadn’t run long distance before, but I knew that my skills as a volleyball player were limited . . . and after watching Missy, an upperclassman, (unintentionally) pile-drive a ball straight into the nose of one of my classmates, my resolve was firmed. Cross country it was.
I quickly discovered that I was surprisingly good—enough so that my grandparents and parents didn’t mind driving two hours to watch me run for fifteen minutes. (Okay, maybe that had a bit more to do with their unconditional love for me.)
Grandma and Grandpa never missed a meet. Despite my grandfather’s wobbling trundle—or perhaps, in spite of—he could always be found at the starting line, and the finish. While my muscled legs (aka genetically inherited thunder thighs) pounded the earth with youthful dignity (and often, agony), he walked in that almost-stumble from one vantage point to another. Right knee up—eighty degrees—belly tilt—right knee down—ankle flutter—step. Left knee up—eighty degrees—
Grandma often perched at the start and finish, too, but found a place to rest beneath the slightly more temperate shade of a cottonwood tree or on the sticky seat of some ill-used picnic table. She guarded the cooler.
Before the finish, my grandfather would take those painful-looking steps to grandma’s bench, unzip the cooler with his twisted forefinger and thumb, and draw out a miniature bottle of Dasani. He’d head back toward the finish line with deliberate determination, brow furrowed beneath his Flinthills Mustangs cap, beads of sweat on his upper lip.
When I crossed the finish line, legs wobbling from the kind of exhaustion that can only be produced by 4,000 meters of rolling golf course terrain and ninety-three degree Eastern Kansas humidity, there he was: my Waterboy. Sometimes he stood back, waited for my parents to congratulate me and lead me to shade before offering his own congratulations; but often, he was somehow immediately at my side, bottle of water in one gnarled hand, the other reaching around my waist to prop me up.
His brow was never furrowed at the finish line. His lips were always stretched back in a silent chuckle, his dark eyes glittering with palpable excitement. After I could stand on my own, he would reach for the stopwatch that hung around his neck and compare times with my dad. Nobody could be more proud, or more invested. He was my Waterboy, and that was a great honor.
Now my grandfather is even more unsteady than when I was in high school. His walk is a bit more deliberate, a lot more terrifying. His knotted fingers struggle with the twist-off caps of Bud Lights, with the keys of his car, with the fork at dinnertime. His ears are still large and hairy, but I no longer believe those hairs are sound-feelers; even with hearing aids, conversations are a struggle.
He forgets things, too. The count for the Leonard pasture; a word, mid-sentence; his 60th wedding anniversary; how to exit the Sprecker, a pasture we’ve rented for twenty years; how to start the car; where the burn barrels stand; the name of someone he’s known for years. He forgets these things, and he knows that he’s forgotten. The recognition of forgetting flashes in his eyes, and they glitter once more—but not with joy, or mischief; they shine with panic, and fear, and frustration.
We watch his memory deteriorate like a sandcastle on the shore at high tide, a few particles at a time until no more remain. Those of us who watch from higher on the beach stand with shoulders slumped, hearts writhing somewhere between our stomachs and our feet. We stand together, separate in our own memories, unable to rebuild the sandcastle with the same particles of sand; bitter that no one warned us the castle would fall so soon. Or at all.
I like to think the roar of water reminds my grandfather of something, though; perhaps sizzling afternoons on browning fall grass and a time when he was called Waterboy.