One of those days where the sky is heaven. A blaze of deep blue. Blinding even. No wind to speak of. And if you did, a person could hear you from way over there, across the wheat. Fields of it. Fields and fields. Fields and fields and fields. A conspiracy of squares. And in the middle of all this endless gold, a white house sits precariously on wheels behind a giant truck, crawling down the road toward a town: a row of tidy houses, waiting just beyond a solitary thicket of trees, coolly sitting on their shadows.
Birds are close to the ground. Crows mainly. They pace alongside the ditch. Magpies shuffle sideways across telephone wires. Gulls stick to the open fields.
The heat turns everybody into pedestrians. Ha! Who’s going to fly in this heat? My grandpa’s sayings. Bullshit. Endless, perfect bullshit. One after another. This is how I remember him. Being full of life, he said, for example, means avoiding death — which he did for seventy-two years, and then didn’t.
For now, though, he is very much alive, sitting in the red International truck straining to pull his house across the county. Murray, his brother’s son, bald and over-anxious at thirty-five and constantly red-faced, no matter the conditions inside or out, gears down the engine and stops the truck. They get out and look up. Study the telephone wires that cross in front of them.
A big problem, said Murray, who looked over his shoulder at the house being towed by the red truck. A problem of at least six or seven feet. The house is too tall. Jesus, we’re stuck.
Grandpa was sweating buckets, wiping at his round face with the bushy eyebrows with a dirty white towel he always hung around his neck, over his denim coveralls. A pain in his brain from thinking too much, he has said over the years, thinking of ways to make Mother happy. Mother, his wife, Trudy, who waited in the town, waiting at the spot she chose near the Temple Baptist Church. An empty lot with three evergreen trees in the backyard and a garden already planted with potatoes and pansies. Waiting at the lot with the minister of the Baptist church, Leo, the man who has convinced Trudy that being close to God meant being closer to the church, in fact, just down the block. Leo was the kind of minister who loved to pace behind the pulpit; a nervous believer who always looked to heaven even at the slightest shake of thunder. He was the kind of man old ladies loved because they just did. Crisp white shirts clung to him like drunken monkeys, said Grandpa.
Grandma said, you’re just jealous. This man has more faith in his big toe than you have in your entire being.
Grandpa said, well, he must have a hard time finding footwear.
Grandpa was a prairie atheist. A faith ground into him from years of squinting into the dry wind, waiting and hoping for that bumper crop that never came. Every fall a new calamity rose to give doubt to any belief in Christ Jesus. One year it was an early blizzard, another time it was hail, and often it was lack of rain or too much rain. On rare occasions it was infestations: grasshoppers or gophers or flocks of hungry seagulls. Sometimes it was the lack of machine parts or time to fix them. Sometimes it was the government, the goddamn NDP or the Ontario Liberals or even Americans with their goddamn farm subsidies. But mainly it was the heat. It was the hottest year on record every year.
What kind of man, short of Job, would put up with this shit? My grandfather, for one. He saw hope in every failure, in every broken dream, in every deserted homestead, in every ruined crop. He was the kind of man who could pick up and move a three-storey house if he wanted to because he knew somehow he could. He would sit on the porch, take out a stubby chewed-up pencil and chart out his every move, his mind crackling with possibilities.
We are born with a brain, he told me while offloading grain at the Co-op grain elevator at the intersection of Road 231 and Road 14. You can either use it or lose it.
A collection of red-faced farmers was also his audience.
We’re a dying breed, men. People who live off the land, not each other. We have the capabilities to survive pestilence, war, heat, floods and bad marriages. We live by loving mother earth and we die in her embrace.
Amen, said the men.
My grandfather said quietly, this isn’t about God, it’s about being alone and goddamn knowing it.
Trudy heard about her husband’s theories one way or another. Usually it was after church, where the townspeople frowned on any theology coming from the country. After all, country people were not the sharpest pencils in the box. And their clothing often smelled like bacon.
It was now midday. The house, stuck in the middle of the road, was sucking up heat.
Grandpa circled it slowly, wiping his brow with the towel over and over again. He was thinking.
You see, my grandpa was a natural problem solver. A man with umpteen degrees in his head. A man who knew how to keep his coffee hot without a thermos and what kind of beef gave old people gas. And now he was faced with telephone lines that hung six, seven feet below the top of his house. My grandpa was not the kind of man who would phone Saskatchewan Telephones. Not the kind who would have a telephone crew clear the way for him. No, this was the kind of problem he knew he could solve once he set his mind to it. Murray expected this. Everyone did. That’s why at this moment, at this very moment, Murray was shocked to find Grandpa sitting under the shadow of the house, blood trickling from behind his ear.
What’s happening, Uncle Albert, asked Murray. What’s happening?
Mother threw the book at me a while back. Domestic dispute, nothing to worry about.
Murray said, Did you tell the doctor about this? Did you?
Nah, said Grandpa, trying to get to his feet. This white house with the blue trim would not be his Waterloo, not a chance in hell.
I have this image of him, though, holding onto the side of the house in the shade, holding onto it as if letting go would be the end of it. His breathing, raspy and deep.
He is dying. And he knows it too.
To be continued…