Family, Guest Posts

Staying Out Of The Doghouse

May 9, 2024

As a baby, I didn’t like men. I would squirm and cry to the point you would have thought I was having an exorcism, even around my father from time to time. My grandfather was no exception until the day he saved me from a relentless, paint encrusted clown in Gunther Toody’s. I sat, pinned inside my plastic tower, without the use of my legs and hardly any control over my own voice. My grandpa offered me one of his fries, and after that, my mother said he became one of my best friends.

Rick wasn’t my real grandfather; I didn’t look a thing like him and neither did my mother. But even from a young age, I never disregarded his love. My maternal grandfather Clarence was long disowned and dead, having left my grandma with four young kids in the 60’s. My mother was only four, the same age I was when my own father left.

“I saw Rick at Margie Stewart’s house at a party, I don’t remember what for, and I told myself ‘I’m going to marry that man one day.’ And I did, didn’t I?” My grandma used to chuckle, deep and rich from her belly.

My grandpa Rick had big steel blue eyes, larger than any harvest moon you’ve seen. I always knew him as tanned from the sun and leathery with age, but in a solitary photo of his adolescence, he was a cherub in sepia. During the Depression, he hitchhiked on train cars with his brother from Arizona to California, working odd jobs and sending money back home until he was old enough to enlist. Rick had all kinds of professions – banking, janitorial, landscaping, automotive. He never retired until he had to, cleaning an elementary school for a decade until he broke his hip. After, he volunteered the last decades of his life to maintain the grounds and facilities of the Synagogue across from their house. No one in our family was Jewish; they held his memorial service.

With a floppy, checkered bucket hat tied around my chin, I used to sit in the cool grass watching grandpa pull weeds until the soft, green blades had formed divots in my chubby toddler legs. When I was old enough, he let me help, though that mostly consisted of me sitting on a roller cart and scooting myself around by thrashing my small body back and forth, running over corpses of weeds discarded on the sidewalk. On one occasion, I remember helping wheelbarrow rocks, most of them as large as my head. I thought I was Wonder Woman doing the heavy lifting, but photos show him carrying the ends of the handles behind me.

He used to drive me to McDonalds in his old Ford Ranger and we’d share a large fry. Travel-sized tissues, loose change, tire pressure gauges, and old sweat-stained hats were smashed into the crevices of his windshield. There was always a bottle of water on the faded bench seat, sliding and sloshing through every turn.

At fifteen he took me for a joyride before Christmas Eve, when I’d turn sixteen.

“Stop being so goddamn chicken or Mom will put me in the doghouse for taking you out in the snow. She’s not supposed to know we’re out here and the longer we sit here the sooner she’ll come looking.” He put a large hand on my shoulder. “Now, that’s the clutch, that’s the gas, that’s the brake. I’ll help you shift.”

His ever-present doghouse was a metaphor he had used since before I could understand English. Instead of threatening me with a time-out or no supper, he’d tell me I’d have to sleep in a doghouse if I continued to act out. Or worse – he’d get thrown in the doghouse if he took the fall. If ever he was in trouble, or trying to get himself out, he’d pout out his bottom lip and widen his blue eyes in protest like some cartoon character.

“Don’t put me in the doghouse, Mom!”

He got out of almost everything. They didn’t even have a doghouse, let alone a dog.

That afternoon, I eventually stopped stalling the truck and got the foot dance down. We traded seats on the way home so he could drift oblong circles in an empty parking lot full of fresh powder. He hardly ever smiled; taking pictures, we’d unanimously groan at his lack of enthusiasm. But he smiled that day, and I’m almost glad I don’t have a picture of it. Almost.

Not even a month after I graduated high school, we moved to Colorado. My mother had lost her business and the house had fallen into foreclosure. All we had left my senior year was an SUV, a pawn with which we played an unaffectionate game of hide-and-seek with the repo man as we bounced between rental houses in California; he eventually won.

With no one to turn to, no hands to lift our tired bodies, we came home to the peppered foothills of the Rockies. Moving in with my grandparents was a last resort. They were the mirage in the desert, an island chain through chasmic ocean. We were stragglers tumbling in for a drop of water, never asking if it was drinkable.

My grandfather had continuously rising medical issues that sent him to the hospital every few months, a result of his covert drug use and lack of dietary fiber. However, they refused to pay for an ambulance. So instead, one of my aunts or uncles would get woken up, drive thirty minutes out to their little turquoise house with the little chain link fence, and race him to a fluorescent facility only to find he was constipated and not, in fact, having a medical emergency.

They lived in a cracker-box tri-level house with a yard my grandfather meticulously manicured. The lot was disproportionately sized, like a one-room cabin in the middle of a national park. While we found our footing, my mother and I moved in. We helped with everything from cleaning, to cooking, to ordering oxygen bottles. I started working full-time so we could eventually afford a place of our own.

I slept in the same twin bed in which my mother experienced growing pains, draped in the same dark green and gold paisley quilt she always loathed. The same collection of Little Golden Books, the thin ones with ornate metallic spines, sat in a cardboard sleeve on the tall dresser; my grandma used to read them to me on long forgotten afternoons. The same jackrabbit hung on a wall the color of robin eggs, stuffed and glued together in such a terrifying way that I could not bear to open my eyes lying down, even as an adult. It always stared down into me, its lifeless eyes calling attention to its deformity and making me feel small.

Every night, my grandfather would play his country music. 98.5 KYGO lulling him to sleep and keeping all of us awake until my grandmother decided to hit the hay around midnight. Except, he never really was asleep, because you would always hear “Love you, Mom” and “I love you too, Dad” through the white striped wallpapered walls. They always called each other ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, their names long overgrown with the curling tendrils of parenthood.

On a February morning, I brought waffles up from the basement freezer because grandpa had mentioned they needed to be eaten. Frozen in a basement and completely encrusted with crystalline flakes of freezer burnt delicacy. Probably expired — but who cares? — right next to the pork loin.

We usually sat together before the sun took its first yawn, when I left for work and he went outside to inspect his yard. He would have his liquid breakfast, black and steaming in a once-white coffee mug. I made myself a slice of Wonder Bread with salted butter, sometimes jelly. As people of few words, we hardly ever said anything to one another other than morning greetings, but just having company was conversation in its own right.

My mother would later tell me that after I left for work, he would have a side of Percocet with another cup of watered-down coffee, the grounds stretched out with water from the hot pot rather than a fresh pour.

I was oblivious to such things until after he died. I helped my grandma go through the house to find his hiding places. Little white pills, some of them half and some of them whole, tucked under a dusty doily, peeking around a ceramic platter in the cupboard, or hidden inside an antique Ritz Cracker tin can. Many still tucked away in his jacket pockets, folded inside used napkins, or powdered into ashlike embers.

On this particular February morning, I wanted to do something nice for everyone. After I had thawed the ice-block waffles, I scrambled some eggs. I offered a plate to my grandfather even though he never had breakfast. But then he did something that surprised me — he ate it. I left a sticky note sealed with a smiley face for the matriarchs, the waffles sitting on a red plastic plate next to the sink while the eggs steamed up a glass lid.

When I came home that evening, the entire house was dry heaving with tension. The walls stretched, the roof groaned, the shades pulled themselves into a knot. Crossing the threshold, everything was quiet. Where Steve Harvey’s voice usually rang out, threatening to pop the speakers with “Name something” this or “Name something” that, a silence violently spoke. I left my shoes by the door and my mother whisked me up the ever-tired stairs. Her eyes were red, puffy, and distant as she told me my grandparents were beyond upset that I had cooked the waffles without asking for permission. She had packed our suitcases in anticipation, having been kicked out in her twenties over some nonsensical argument.

Blood filled my chest and cheeks, the heat blistering to my ears at the thought of causing an argument over breakfast. I marched down the narrow, creaking staircase and into the purple and green kitchen where my grandma was stirring brown gravy on the stove. The forty-year-old original cabinets shone with remnants of steam and oil residue, yet the wood refused to peel. School photos of all my cousins stared at me from above the kitchen table.

“Why are you upset about the waffles? I didn’t mean to make you upset, I just wanted to make breakfast for everyone.”

“You’re eating us out of house and home,” she had said, faceless and unmoving.

I stared at my grandmother’s back. Her words rang out the way one might turn a cheek to a stray dog, unwilling to acknowledge the animal’s needs yet holding all the power to change its circumstance. The words ‘What a poor dog’ become piteous comment instead of action.

I remember letting my voice expand into the space between us, thick enough to lean on. “We’re grateful for everything, but we don’t ask to be fed. We buy our own food, so you don’t have to. I just wanted to do something nice for everyone.”

My grandfather came in from the garage, a stream of smoke trailing behind him that coagulated with the scent of gelatinous packaged gravy. He started using language I had never heard the man use in my nineteen years of life before vanishing back into his cave.

“Don’t you raise your voice at your grandma. The both of you get the fuck out of here, or I’ll call the cops and they can remove you! Get out of my goddamn house.”

I should have known then that he was high, but I didn’t. My grandfather’s soft-spoken nature succumbed to the euphoric-induced rage of his addiction, unleashing a violent and abusive man that no one would have predicted. My grandmother played along, enabling his outrage and the absurdity of it all. In fact, until the day she passed, she denied the event ever happened. Everything after that — scrambling out of the house, vocal chords growing hoarse — is a blur, as it should be.

With a life and dogs in the back of our SUV, we drove to Walmart. After every call to an aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend in the state, we were told that they just could not take us in, especially with pets. For months we cleaned ourselves in public restrooms, heated microwave meals from Dollar Tree in Seven Elevens, and slept in our car though we didn’t really sleep. While I worked, my mother would sit in parks with the dogs or pet-friendly cafes to look for work, commandeering the Wi-Fi.

If you ever want to feel the heat of an eye narrowing in on you through a magnifying glass, brush your teeth in a public restroom. Better yet, wash your face and comb your hair, and you can almost feel your flesh start to smolder with smoke under the concentrated light. People will gawk and side-eye you like you’re naked, standing for all to see with a big sign that says ‘Look at me’ hanging off your neck.

“Haven’t they ever seen someone brush their teeth before? What are they looking at?” My mom would complain. She ended up standing in stalls so no one would look at her.

The car was spacious enough with third row seating for all of us to fit — my mom, myself, and two dogs — but only if we kept our bodies in specific positions. I hated the way the windows mirrored my body lying in the seat and I avoided looking at myself whenever I could. Only, the windows also let the outside peek in. The world never settled the way a house does, constantly yelling and moving, just like the voice in my head.

Two Februaries later and a week after my grandmother’s birthday, my grandfather passed. I stood in a churning sea of impatient people on a median at LAX trying to get home, clutching a suitcase to steady my knees against the swells of disbelief. My face was ugly and my voice no less as I cried into the phone where he silently listened. I imagined my mother holding the phone to his ear as he laid in a hospital bed, buried beneath a gown too large for his bony, tired body.

“You be a good girl and stay out of the doghouse, okay? I love you baby.”

My grandmother called me one afternoon asking for help changing a bulb; she was family and frail, so I didn’t turn my cheek. One way or another, we became inseparable. She didn’t know how to pump gas, so I showed her one stuffy June afternoon; she never did it again and had me fill her old Buick up once a month. We used to go thrift shopping on Saturdays when Goodwill was half-off, buying Christmas presents throughout the summer so we’d be ready come December. My mom ended up getting rehired by a company she left twenty years prior with her tenure. She’d travel a few weeks out of the month, so grandma would have me over for dinner. We’d watch her favorite shows and I’d sit in grandpa’s matching periwinkle recliner, the old tufted armrests weathered from years of rocking.

On her deathbed, grandma gifted me her wedding ring. My grandfather worked so hard for the small, jeweled thing that replaced her simple band on their twenty-fifth anniversary. It’s reminiscent of the Red Sea Moses parted in Exodus, with ten small diamonds holding up two waves of smooth gold. One of the only times I ever saw him cry was when he gave it to her, complete with a big old kiss right on the lips — something they seldom did in public. One aunt told me to melt it down and distribute the diamonds. Another told me it was weird that I’d wear a dead woman’s ring. One uncle told me I needed to sell it to refill the estate coffers. I wear it every day.

My grandma died on my birthday in the living room, which became mine and my mom’s four years after the waffle eviction. We closed on the house — by pure chance — on my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, July 6th. I almost wish I made this up. Our procurement of a home prompted my aunt and uncle to sue us for cheating them out of inheritance; a judge ruled in our favor. My mother and I spent months touching every single thing my grandparents ever owned, cleaning up the remnants of their life like diligent hostesses after a party, deciding what was trash and what was suitable to be kept.

Natalie Gramer is a pilot and ground instructor holding a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing with a minor in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Science in Aviation & Aerospace Science from MSU Denver. Natalie has been published in the Shot Glass Journal and enjoys mythology and history.


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