It was 5:15AM when the boy heard his grandfather washing his hands in the sink of the laundry room. His grandparents had an old fashioned wash basin in laundry room that the grandfather used after work. The grandfather had returned for the boy after watering plants at some offices. He usually left at 4:00AM, which meant he’d risen from bed between 3:00AM and 3:30AM and had had his coffee before leaving for the first round of work.
The boy knew the grandfather’s routine. He sometimes heard the grandfather leave the first time, but not often.
It was dark outside and the boy thought of it as night. He usually woke on the grandfather’s return without prompting. The boy pulled on his jeans and t-shirt and ran to the kitchen. He ran back to grab a wind breaker in case it was cool. It was almost fall.
The boy went into the kitchen and sat down at a small table, not the larger, fancier dining room table over the partition. He thought about this situation: why did they eat here if the other table was better? He thought and then remembered the answer. His grandfather had always said, “I like to eat here, remember old days when we had farm, and house with a little table in kitchen.” He was glad he could remember the answer even if his grandparents would laugh and not mind and say he was just a little boy. He ate quietly as he watched, through the window, his grandfather smoke on the backyard patio. The old man surveyed his Japanese garden. The boy thought the garden seemed perfect. Everything was neat, trimmed, and green yet he did not see his grandfather work in it. His grandfather had landscaped the garden a long time ago. “He works in it while I’m away, when I’m with Mom and Dad,” thought the boy.
The screen creaked open and shut. “You want anything else?” asked his grandfather as he walked into the kitchen. “You want eggs?”
“No, I’m okay,” said the boy. He felt an impulse to hug his grandfather, but he had done this a few times and the grandfather was embarrassed by the show of affection. “We don’t hug here,” the boy thought. His grandmother who had just got up from bed didn’t hug the boy either, but this did not make the boy sad. It was just that the rules were different here and sometimes he forgot. “I’ll remember what to do,” the boy thought, “I’ll remember everything today.”
“Grandpa, why do you get up so early?”
“Just an old farmer. Old farmer, can’t change this.” The boy knew the answer, but he could not help himself from asking. He liked the way his grandfather talked.
“Let’s go,” said his grandfather. They walked to the green Ford van loaded with burlap sacks and all manner of gardening tools. As they climbed in the boy looked at the black metal motor casing that he thought was like a camel’s hump between the two front seats. Sometimes the boy had to sit on the hump because his grandfather had a helper for some of the very heavy work he could no longer do. It was just the two of them today.
The boy felt happy to be alone with his grandfather, and he liked the smell of oil and gas that came from the lawnmowers and the other tools. “I bet I’m the only boy up this early on Saturday. I’m the only one who can do it,” he thought. The sun was not up all the way, but it cast a dim orange light over the streets as they drove to the first account. His grandfather called the houses and offices he gardened accounts. The boy didn’t quite understand this, but he knew the people paid his grandfather to make the lawns, yards, and plants beautiful.
The grandfather lived in San Jose, California, and his accounts were spread out over what they called the south bay area. The boy thought it took a very long time to get to some of the places, but it might be because driving in the dark or dawn fooled him as to time and distance.
They drove in silence and the boy watched the long, Kool brand cigarette that stayed magically in the corner of his grandfather’s mouth and never dropped. The boy didn’t know if smoking was bad or not, but he had recently been given the job of filling his grandfather’s Zippo lighters with fluid, and he felt some pride that he had done it properly, without mess or accident. He was staying over a few days so the boy thought he would check the lighters tomorrow in case his grandfather needed one.
The boy looked back at the rear of the van. He was always impressed how clean and orderly his grandfather kept the van. The gardening work required cutting grass, trimming bushes and trees, and yet the blades of the mowers dropped very little grass; the cutting tools were cleaned after each stop; the water hoses were replaced on hooks on the walls of the van and secured from unwinding by using old leather belts; the rakes and hoes never had dirt on them; the burlap tarps which held the trimmings, grass and leaves never burst open. It was if the tools were not used at all, yet the work was always completed.
“Will we eat hamburgers for lunch, Grandpa?” asked the boy.
The grandfather laughed. “You want to, eh? Okay, don’t eat too much! You cost a lot of money!”
They arrived at the first place, a residence in the hills overlooking a town. It was 6:00AM. The one story house was not special, but the view from the house was: the town and the surrounding mountains seemed as still as a painting, beautiful and peaceful and the sun broke just above the tree line in spectacular fashion.
The boy liked gardening the homes best because he found the houses and yards much more interesting than the businesses—“commercial accounts” his grandfather called them--which had a boring quality. The cold commercial buildings did not have interesting features and seemed unfriendly. And the commercial accounts had gigantic metal trash bins that forced the boy to either climb up and dump trimmings, or attempt to throw the burlap tarp up and over the side while simultaneously letting go of one edge so the contents would spill over and in. Sometimes he miscalculated and the various trimmings and leaves fell on his head and he had to sweep them up again. He preferred the homes because they had garbage cans he could open easily.
“Get electric grass shears. Trim along stones. Front only.”
The boy obeyed and began his job. The grandfather pushed a mower through a gate to cut the backyard lawn.
The boy always felt awkward and slow when he performed his tasks. His grandfather was so much faster and efficient even though he was 65 years old. The boy knew he was taken along so he could learn, and because his grandfather liked being with his grandson, but he still felt inadequate. The boy maneuvered the shears around the stepping stones on the lawn with both hands on the tool.
The grandfather came back through the gate 15 minutes later. The boy had not finished. Little beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he peeked up at the old man.
“Done?” asked the grandfather.
“Almost. I still need to sweep up the grass.”
“Don’t worry, no rush. We do easy way.”
The grandfather meant he would use his gas powered blower to clean off the stepping stones. The grandfather lit another cigarette and walked to the van.
The sound of blower was like a motorcycle, but lower. He watched his grandfather make sweeping motions as the grass was corralled into the sidewalk gutter where it would be swept up by the boy.
The rest of the morning was taken up by the same tasks at different houses. The back of the van was now filled with tied burlap tarps full of trimmings and grass.
They took a lunch break at a nearby McDonalds restaurant.
“Grandpa, were you in the war?” the boy asked as he ate his hamburger, French fries and Coke. He always ordered the same meal.
“You funny! Funny guy! Always order same thing!”
“Grandpa, were you in the war? I mean, were you in the army?”
“No, too many kids already. My brothers, your great uncles go, though. They younger. No families.”
“I saw soldiers in old pictures in the albums.”
The grandfather laughed. “We in war camp. Government say, ‘for your safety.’ ”
The boy had heard this before, but his teacher had told him there were no camps. He knew his grandfather would not lie, but this family history caused puzzlement.
“What were the camps like?”
“Dusty! Your grandma hate dust. Me too. Can never keep room or clothes clean. Always, always messy!”
“But you got out when the war ended, right?”
“Yeah, then go back and farm.”
“But you aren’t a farmer, right?”
“Ha! That’s right. Easier make plants green than make strawberries taste good.”
Satisfied, the boy finished his lunch quietly. They left to drive to their final stop. His grandfather lit yet another Kool cigarette as he maneuvered the van through traffic.
They arrived at a very long rectangular building on a deserted side road. No workers were there because it was Saturday.
“See bushes along side? We trim all along those, then pick up, dump, go home,” said the grandfather.
The boy felt happy the work day would be over after this and he could go back to the house and play with his toy soldiers in the garden.
While the boy waited for his grandfather to trim the shrubs with the shears, he pretended his rake was a rifle and he was on a very secret mission behind enemy lines. When his grandfather had cut enough ahead of him, he began to sweep the droppings into a lawnmower basket and then dump that into a burlap tarp spread on the ground. The work was boring, but the boy occupied himself with the soldier fantasy while he raked. They worked about an hour.
“I’m going to go drive van around building, dump sacks, and come back—wait here,” said the grandfather.
The boy sat on the curb of the sidewalk that bordered the front of the building. He was glad his grandfather had taken the sacks to dump. He was tired.
Their work day was over. It was noon. The sun was high in the sky and the boy felt warm and took off his jacket. He’d grown tired of being a soldier and he tried to think of something new. He failed and kept being a soldier; he crept around the side of the building, peered around the corner, and reversed direction to do the same on the other corner.
The grandfather still was gone. The boy thought he was taking a long time, but he didn’t have a watch. He began throwing rocks across the empty parking lot aside the to kill time. He thought maybe it was taking a long time to dump the sacks, but there were a lot. Maybe his grandfather had taken another cigarette break.
Now the boy felt scared and began to walk behind the long building toward the back. He had been there before and knew where the dumpsters were located. The bottom of his sneakers felt hot. He saw the van and ran toward it, but it seemed small and far away. It was parked next to a steel dumpster large enough to place a pickup truck in.
He finally neared the van in a dead run. He was breathing very hard.
“Grandpa! Grandpa! Are you here?”
No voice answered.
The boy looked left and right, then he circled around to the van’s open rear doors and saw one full tarp.
The boy thought: maybe grandpa is collecting on the month’s bill, maybe he’s talking to someone. He likes to talk to people. Then he remembered it was Saturday, and no one was in the office, and his grandfather didn’t collect bills on Saturday.
“Grandpa!” he cried again.
The boy then smelled something burning. He looked up and saw smoke coming from the dumpster. He climbed the metal ladder up the side of the garbage dumpster and the 6 feet felt much higher. He looked down.
The grandfather lay on his back on a bed of leaves and trimmings. The Kool cigarette had fallen out of his mouth and landed among the leaves. Some smoldered and smoke rose up. The boy felt his panic disappear. He had found his grandfather. He jumped into the dumpster, landed hard on the leaves, and touched his grandfather’s face. No breathing came from the man’s mouth or nose, his chest was still. Tears began to form in the boy’s eyes because he realized his grandfather was dead.
The boy thought about his grandfather’s perfect garden, and the funny stories, the funny way he talked, summer days spent helping him garden early in the morning, hamburger for lunch.
The boy lay down next to the grandfather and hugged him. He buried his face in the grandfather’s chest and drew himself as near as possible. He hugged the grandfather and thought that no one would tell him to stop.