Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
I was at home, finishing up a summer as a boxboy and bagger in a grocery store. Me, a senior in college, and that was the best I could do, stuff frozen dinners and asparagus into bags. My friends had the hookups and good jobs that tied into what they wanted to do for the next thirty years of their lives. Clerking at a law office. An internship with a big accounting firm. An assistant account representative at a public relations outfit. I wanted to run from the room screaming whenever I heard what kind of jobs they lined up. It hurt. I couldn’t brag because I had nothing to brag about. I needed a job, I needed money, and that’s why I ended up saying about two hundred times a day, “Will that be paper or plastic, ma’am?”
I had no connections. Zero. My father owns a small photography studio and is hardly a titan of commerce. My boxboy duties called me back from my daydreaming: “Can I help you to the car? Can I get that door for you? Oh, that’s quite all right—we have kids getting sick all the time in the store. It’s just nature’s way of saying, ‘No thanks, stomach’s not quite ready for that,’ and I’ll just get the mop and bucket and hustle right on down to aisle four. Don’t you worry. We hope little Junior feels better. Cute little fellow, he is.”
Don’t get me wrong. Dad takes magnificent photos. He makes people
happy, and his handiwork is on display at hundreds of homes in our city, right over their fireplaces. He’s a pure artist and a good technician and a lousy businessman, and he makes ends meet. We’ve lived in the same house for twenty-five years and will never move out or move up, we’ll never want for family photos, and our Christmas cards are gorgeous.
Get the picture? That’s my life.
But back to the original question. Why me, why am I in North Dakota, and why am I questioning the spherical relevance of the planet I call home?
Again, my answer: money. I like the stuff. I need it. Cash. Greenbacks. Bucks. Lincolns, Grants, and Franklins.
It’s like this: My aunt Barbara called one evening and chatted with my mother, just as I arrived home with my boxboy apron still hung around my neck. I faintly became aware that the conversation had moved on from the oh-hi-how-you-doing, how’re-the–kids, and is-Gene-still-taking-pictures tone and seemed to be heading in my direction. It was not hard to pick up the clues.
“Oh yes, he’s going back to school in a couple of weeks. No, not doing much. Bagging groceries. I think he’s bored. It hasn’t been much of a summer for him, I’m sure. No girlfriends, at least that we know of.”
My ears began to burn. I ripped off my wretched grocery apron. I’d cleaned up two aisles that day.
“Oh yes, I’m sure he remembers Loyal. Down in Utah County that time. In the park. In the canyon. Such a sweet man.”
Loyal? Uncle Loyal? Yes, I did remember him, but barely. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Uncle Loyal and his wife, the one with the flower name—Rose, Pansy, Tulip, no, Daisy. That was it. They were there. Quiet people. Uncle Loyal sat on a small camp stool and hardly moved the whole time. Round face, big honkin’ eyebrows, that’s all I remembered about him. He looked like this really nice old guy. Good thing he wore the name tag. I wouldn’t have known who he was.
Aunt Daisy was there next to them, and they sat and watched and held hands and smiled, and that was about it. Sweet people, I guess. They were from some third world country, one of those places you can see on a map but you’re not sure really exists. North Dakota or Manitoba or Monrovia or someplace that sounded flat, cold, and boring. But about them? I didn’t remember a lot.
Mother motioned me toward the phone. “It’s Barbara, and she wants to talk with you, Levi. She has an idea that she wants to discuss with you.”
Aunt Barbara is an interesting woman. There are things I admire about her. One. She is rich, loaded, wealthy beyond the comprehension of my feeble imagination. She married my mother’s brother, Warren, and while Warren will never be mistaken for Warren Buffet or Donald Trump, he got in on the ground level of some kind of vacation-and-condo partnership exchange about fifteen years ago, which, near as I can tell, is a glorified pyramid scheme that caters to people who have too much money and need to find new places and ways to spend it so that they have all new fodder for their next family Christmas letter.
My guess is that Aunt Barbara is the go-to gal in the business, the brains that keeps it in the black, the oil in the money machine that lets it purr and hum. She has presence. She can be sneaky. She has a certain kind of latter-day chutzpah. She’s a bit on the large side, wears her bleached blonde hair big, and jangles wherever she goes due to the approximately nineteen pounds of jewelry hanging from her wrists and neck at all times. She is a woman whom I’d call formidable, the kind of person who commands, demands, and gets respect. I want her as a friend, not as an unfriend.
Memo to Aunt Barbara: You have a bright, adorable nephew named Levi who is going to graduate with a business degree in the next year. Hint: He needs a job. Hint number two: Why not keep your business all in the family? I can book people to condos in Costa Rica.
Don’t mistake her for a bad person. She’s not. I think she has the grace and will to do some good things with her money, and she has the proverbial heart of gold right under all that jewelry. And, as I was about to learn, it is the combination of a good heart, her desire to have her father a little closer than North Dakota, and her willingness to depart with a few bucks that had me reaching for the phone, curious about what scheme my aunt had in mind for me.
“Levi, Barbara here. How is the grocery business this summer?” she asks.
“In the bag, Aunt Barbara, I’ve got it in the bag.”
“Levi, that was awful. Simply awful. You should apologize.”
“I should. It was. I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry.”
“How much longer before you go back to school?”
“Two weeks. A little less.”
“Your senior year, right?”
“Yep. Then it’s off to see what life is all about. Places to go. People to see. Impressions to make. Upward and onward. I’m going to make a dent in this world.”
“I have no doubt that it will be a large one. A very large dent. You have good skills.”
I was thinking that Barbara was my favorite aunt. I could hear clinking and chinking as she moved the phone from one ear to the other and her baubles and bracelets flopped around. I could picture the light bouncing off her bleached blonde hair, sort of like a sunset over a big lake.
“I have a business proposition. Would you like to earn a little pocket change? I have something in mind.” She paused, and then she said slyly, “I’d make it worth your time.”
I liked those words
. I liked them very much.
Worth my time. Speak on, Aunt Barbara.
“I’m interested. Anything to boost my meager checking account. What were you thinking about?”
“It’s my father, Loyal Wing. He lives in North Dakota, alone now. My mother died a long time ago, and I worry about my dad and the awful winters and being far from us. I want to bring him to the valley to live, but it’s not as easy as putting him on a plane and getting him here. He doesn’t like to fly. And he has some things that I know he’d like to take with him that he couldn’t get on an airplane. And he likes to drive. He
to be chauffeured. He’d just rather drive and look out the window and watch things go by than get in a plane and zip here in three hours. He’s a quiet man but a perfectly
Okay, I was thinking, so what did this have to do with me?
“He has agreed to come and live here in an assisted living home, but we need to get him to Utah. He lives in North Dakota, where I grew up. Did I already say that?”
This was becoming clearer. She said something about pocket change. Talk on, Lady Barbara. Speak to my heart, with words bracketed by dollar signs. Speak to me!
“I was wondering if you could get away from the grocery store, although I am sure they would miss you there because I am also sure that you are an excellent employee. I wondered if we flew you to North Dakota and rented a car, if you could drive the two of you to Utah.”
The punch line. I was about to become a chauffeur, a driver for hire. But what about the bottom line? My bottom line, to be exact. I thought,
Minimum of three hundred, plus expenses.
She must have shifted the phone again from one ear to the other because the clatter of two armfuls of jewelry came tinkling over the phone.
“Of course, we’d pick up
The plane ticket, the car, money for food, and we could pay you five hundred dollars for your time and driving my father back.”
My mind whirred with giddy delight. Five hundred dollars! Let’s see, at my paltry boxboy wage, times forty hours, take away a little tax and the kick-in for the union dues, and cha-ching, I’d get to see beautiful North Dakota and take home
more than twice
what I would earn in the employ of the gigantic grocery store chain where they treat cans of tomato soup better than me. All of this was zinging through my head, and I was about ready to say, “Deal!” But Barbara, mistaking for reluctance the silence that accompanies my quick calculations, chipped in, “I know it’s a
, Levi, and you would probably rather spend the last weeks of your summer with your family. Would six hundred dollars be fair compensation for your time and labor?”
Fair? Yes, more than fair. Twice as fair as what I had in mind. This is a deal. This is easy money. Take a flight, pick up the uncle unit, and then bomb back to Salt Lake City in record time, and I’ll have six hundred bucks in my pocket. For six hundred smackers, I’d go pick up Attila the Hun on an elephant in the Alps.
I was coy enough to speak slowly. “I
hoping to spend time with my family because family comes first and we are close, as you know, but I think I can help you, Aunt Barbara. And I’d like to help your father out, because he’s family too. You bet I remember him. Uncle Lewis. A great man, an idol to me. Yes, Uncle Lewis. What a sweet guy.”
Uncle Lewis, no, Lawrence, no, Loyal. Loyal, Levi, not Lewis or Lawrence. Tall or short? Bald or full-head of hair? Thin or round? I was clouding up. Bald. Camp stool. Quiet. Them’s the basics. And arched, bushy eyebrows that framed his face into a kind of triangle.
I heard Barbara clear her throat, and then her smooth, deep voice came flowing across the phone line. “Then let’s put the plans together. Do you think you can make the trip next week?” She must have been happy because I heard clinking from her arms, her ears, her neck, and maybe even her toes. It was a happy clinking, I thought.
“I guess so. I’ll check my calendar. Next week.”
And so we made the plans. It was all quite simple, really. Just what she described. Fly to Bismarck, rent a car, pick up Uncle Loyal, and then zip him to the promised land. North Dakota. Is that where the place is where all the presidents have their faces carved into rock? Maybe we can take a little side trip. This is too easy.
Way too easy.
Pass go and collect my six hundred. I am The Road Warrior. I had worn the green grocer’s apron for the last time. I gave notice the next day at the giant grocery conglomerate of which I someday hope to be the CEO.
That’s the way it started, and how I came to blast across this dry, flat land on my way to pick up Uncle Loyal. It was as simple as that: a series of remarkable coincidences. Right place, right time, punch out of the grocery store, and set out on a most profitable and satisfying journey. Six hundred bucks! Whoa!
Let me make the noise one more time.
I think Loyal is already becoming my favorite uncle.
He Comes for Me in a Very Fast Red Car
I sat on the front steps of my home for only a quarter of an hour. I know what time my great-nephew arrived at the airport. I added in a little time to arrange for a car and then another two hours to make the drive to my old brown house. I assume he will drive fast across the flat land. There is a rhythm and cadence to life on the plains, and I have lived here long enough to understand it and the way it influences the comings and goings of people.
Levi, I am certain, will drive fast across the plains. He will think them ordinary. He likely knows no better.
What is there to do? Everything is packed, sent off, or sold. I taped a note to the front door for the new owners of the house—welcoming them, telling them it is a wonderful home. I understand they are a young couple. He has a sales route that takes him to the farms around this part of the state. They came from Wisconsin. They have two young children. I think my house will enjoy the young voices, the scuffling, the laughter, the joy of a cold Christmas morning when bright paper is sheared from gifts with abandon.
Across the street, Harriet Van Acker peers at me from her window. We have been neighbors for more than three decades. She lost her husband, Carl, six years ago. She waves to me shyly. She will not come out and bid me farewell. She did so a few days back, packing with her warm sweet rolls and a photo of Carl and me from many years ago, standing stiff as toy soldiers in front of my house. I cannot recall the occasion, why the photograph was snapped. Maybe there was no special occasion, just that we were there and someone had a camera. I am glad for the picture now. Carl was a good man and a good neighbor.
We have relied on each other, Harriet and I. Not in large ways, not in tangible ways. But we both knew the other was there and that we had the shared experience of losing a spouse. At times, that knowledge alone was helpful. Neither of us was quite alone in what we thought and felt and remembered.
“I will not come over to say good-bye,” Harriet told me, her words sharp and chippy. “With Carl gone, and you leaving, and with Daisy and all. I feel alone now. Do you know? Yes, you must know. You feel it too.” She lifted her hands, palms up, almost in an act of supplication. Then she dropped her hands to her sides. There is nothing to be done. She knows I am leaving.