I Had a Jar of Marbles
There, all the important Granddad smells smelt strongest: Old Spice, Dial soap, dust, shoe polish, bourbon.
I had a jar of marbles. Some of them were very old and had belonged to my uncle or even my grandparents. Most of them were the cheap kind you buy at Jo-Ann's Fabrics to fill vases with. When the cousins came over, I would corral Ryan into my room to play a war game I'd made up. There were flat, green marbles that were mines and a precious handful of flat red marbles that were probably super-mines or something. The light blue iridescents were enlisted men. The clear were...I forget now. Cobalt were cavalry. And the old ones, the cats' eyes and aggies, were the generals and lieutenants. I had half a dozen walnut-sized novelty marbles that were the shooters. We'd spend perhaps half-an-hour setting up our lines of defense and getting our men into formation while arguing the finer points of marble warfare, such as" Should mines go in the front or the back? And then we'd take turns shooting at each other across the wall-to-wall carpet.
We played this twice one afternoon. Lunch was over and all the other girls--my aunt, our grandmother, my mother, Ryan's sister--were downstairs. My uncle was in our grandfather's room, which signaled that the visit was nearing its end. We could hear their voices, jovial and tense, from across the hall.
"I have an idea," I said. "Let's play secret mission." I explained the rules in a whisper. We had to get all around Granddad's room without being detected by either adult. Granddad would be in his bed in his boxers and a white tee shirt as he always was, and my uncle would be sitting in an ancient rolly chair across the room by the record player, leaning back, hands cradling the back of his head. We had to slip in and under the bed to the right of the door in one fast, fluid motion. Once we'd wiggled the width of the bed, we had to dart under the desk (at which point we'd be in my uncle's direct line of sight, so make it quick) but on the other side of the desk was the safe cover of a mustard yellow La-Z-Boy in the corner of the room. We could meet and re-group behind it. From there we were in no-man's land, exposed, but in no one's direct line of sight. Childhood rheumatoid arthritis had left my grandfather unable to move his neck, so my uncle was our only worry as we would scurry along the southern wall, past the radiator beneath the window to the relative safety behind my uncle's chair. From there we had to be quick: skirt the t.v. and the record player, dive into the closet, and then past the dresser with the model ship on it and out.
Ryan agreed. I led.
It couldn't have been much later than this afternoon that my grandfather started turning his room into a fortress. He stopped accepting his dinner trays and he stacked the radiator beneath the south facing window with cans. He brought in a full-sized fridge and put it next to the record player. He put a microwave on his desk. But this was before all that began in earnest.
Our first mission failed under the desk. The enemy spotted us and we retreated to regroup in the hall. Our second mission failed under the window. But our third mission (Oh, glorious third mission!) was perfect. Seamless. Not once did either of us cough or giggle. We glided, as on ball bearings, from under the bed to behind the La-Z-Boy. We slid, undetected, behind my uncle's chair. We eased ourselves past the dresser and out into the hall and neither my uncle nor Granddad noticed us. We might as well have been invisible. We felt invincible. We fell on my bedroom floor giggling, unable to quite process our victory.
"They didn't see us!" I crowed. "We made it all around the room and they didn't see us!"
As an adult, on the verge of saying to a friend's child, "You really got me!" the realization hit me that they did, in fact, see us, that they were indulging us. I like to think that they had a moment of conviviality in letting us think we were getting away with something, that they shared a joke for perhaps the last time.
Years later, there was an awkward period when Granddad was gone but no one quite knew what to do with his stuff. I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn't to go into his room, but I got home from school a full half hour to forty five minutes before my mother or grandmother did and I would often sneak in, heart pounding. I jumped when the door squeaked as it opened. I kept looking out the window to the driveway. I looked behind me every time I opened a drawer. Again and again, like a prayer, I opened his sock drawer (rows and rows of black dress socks folded neatly), his shirt drawer (stacks of shirts folded with military precision), and his desk drawer (pay stubs and various papers thrown about, disorderly, as though rifled through). Of all the places in the room, I liked the corner by his closet best. There, all the important Granddad smells smelt strongest: Old Spice, Dial soap, dust, shoe polish, bourbon.
Somewhere in that first month after he was gone, the model ship on top of the dresser got smashed. My grandmother said it was an accident in a tone that brooked no argument.
Within half a year, his things had been cleared and new furniture was bought (or old furniture was re-purposed) to make a family room. I would nestle into the new armchair in the half hour before my mother and grandmother came home, to talk to boys on the phone, heart pounding, ear tuned to the window overlooking the driveway.