Friday, October 21, 2011

Faded Picture

Three oaks lined the driveway, sprouting icicles like daggers. A tiny fir stood in the yard, bent low by the weight of the storm. A sheet of ice lay, hidden, beneath the snow. Ricky Ortolano lifted a shovel full of heavy snow and remembered just how dangerous it could be.

They call it black ice when it hides out of sight. When it blends in perfectly -- waiting. They should call it what it really is, what is easily forgotten: nature's booby trap. Pristine prettiness, a winter wonderland.

Slipping in a winter wonderland.

He had the habit of reworking song lyrics to fit his needs. That one fit. Not that he wanted it to, but he couldn't change the past. Turning back time remained the futile hobby of fools and dreamers. Ricky saw himself as neither. Yet the past always lurked, rearing its sometimes ugly head when he wanted to forget.

Ricky smelled hot chocolate and coffee, and felt the warmth of a space heater drive the cold away. He saw the old man with an ugly purple bruise surrounding his left eye. Saw his Gramps as he used to be and remembered.

"Looks like you're going to have a shiner for a while Dad," his father had said. "What happened?"

"Slipped on some ice shoveling this morning."

"Smacked it hard too," said his grandmother, entering the room from the kitchen. "We put some ice on it so it wouldn't close up. Joe's son came over and finished up the driveway."

"It could have been worse, Dad. You'll just look like you fought Muhammad Ali for a while."

"Just tell everyone that the other guy looks worse," Ricky said.

They sat on the sunny, enclosed porch that Sunday almost ten years ago and ate fruit pastries as usual. His father and grandfather discussed seed catalogues and Red Sox spring training. Ricky ignored them all, lost in the comic pages.

Now as he shoveled his own driveway he saw his grandfather as a different man. His injury had turned out to be much worse than just a black-eye. Gramps had begun to complain of headaches and dizziness several weeks after his fall. Doctors diagnosed the blood clot on his brain and scheduled immediate surgery. There was no usual anymore, only the unexpected.

Slipping in a winter wonderland, indeed.

"We'll be back in a few hours, honey," Ricky's mother had said. "Don't stay up too late."

With this, his parents had left for the hospital. He had been too young to go, instead he had stayed home with precious memories of Vincenzo Ortolano. Too young to go to see Gramps the night of the surgery, but still old enough to worry.

"You threw that one just like Nolan Ryan," shouted Gramps, dressed in his customary tough cotton work pants and a white t-shirt. He always had time to show them how to hit with the ancient wooden bat from the garage. Always made time to put on the split, worn catcher's glove with its dangling rawhide laces and catch their fastballs. The baseball bat and glove shared the garage with assorted gardening tools and a blue Chevy topped by a cracked vinyl roof. The car looked run-down but ran fine, carrying them to the Cape in the summer and the mountains in the fall. The upholstery had holes and cloth hung like a canopy from the roof but Gramps and the Chevy always took them where they needed to go. The winter before the surgery, the car quit. Gramps said the cold finally killed its engine.

Blueberry bushes lined the back fence of his grandparents' huge yard and one resilient apple tree stood crooked in the center. It always seemed that these blueberries and apples made the best pies. Pies with light crusts and fruit oozing when you cut them. Ricky could mark the seasons by the fruit. He sat on the big handmade wooden swing in the summer while his parent picked the blueberries, and Gramps worked, whistling out-of-tune, in the garden. In the fall he gathered fallen apples from the ground and put them in brown paper shopping bags while his father picked others from the branches.

His whole life that white house had functioned as the meeting place for any family gathering. Countless holidays, birthdays and Super Bowls were all celebrated under that roof. How many of these traditions would change?

"Don't use the sticks when you go down there, okay boys?" Gramps would always say.

The younger grandkids had only been allowed to use the pool table if they used their hands instead of cue sticks. It made for strange games of pool, but saved the delicate felt from ripping under spear-like shots. The table filled the middle of the basement, too close to the walls on two sides. On these sides cut-down sticks had to be used, changing the shape of the game but not for the worse. The closets in the downstairs spare bedroom made excellent hide-and-seek hiding spots.

"Come on!" a voice would occasionally yell from upstairs. "Reagan's policies are horrible."

Ricky knew they weren't really angry. The adults would argue over their wine and enjoy every minute of it. "Mix it up," as Gramps liked to say.

Gramps didn't die that night in surgery, but a member of the family did. An allergic reaction to the anesthetic resulted in a coma, which lasted several days. He finally awoke as just a shell of the man they had all known. He gained consciousness as a familiar stranger to them while they darted as blurry shapes on the outskirts of his confused memory. Ricky couldn't imagine anything more horrible than introducing himself to someone who had watched him grow up. He couldn't begin to understand how much more difficult it must have been for Gramps. Once, a strong independent man, Gramps suddenly needed help doing everything from walking to eating to remembering people's names. The family lovingly took turns walking with him along the corridor as rehabilitation for his stiff limbs. Simple prayer and patient reminding treated his mind.

They watched him clench his hands, striving unsuccessfully to make a fist. Those same hands had once propped up broken tomato plants and had picked tiny blueberries from their bushes. The hardest part for Ricky was watching Gramps struggle to eat, something he had loved to do. "Mangia," he would say as he passed the bread basket. "It'll put hair on your chest." After the surgery, Gramps fought to just hold a fork. He held everything clumsily in his left hand because his right no longer gripped with any strength.

"Try reading this line, Gramps," Kate said, pointing with her finger and Ricky remembered when these roles had been reversed. Gramps and Kate had always enjoyed riding together to the library, where she developed a great love for books. One entire wall of his house had been covered with Reader's Digest abridged books. Now he stumbled over children's stories.

The memories troubled Ricky. He kicked a chunk of snow in frustration and cursed himself for being selfish. Gramps hadn't died and that was good. There was no reason to turn back the clock; he still had his grandfather.

When the last section of driveway was clear, he drove the few miles to the brick apartment building his grandparents now called home.

His grandmother sat in the kitchen with her back on a pillow, cursing the checkbook. "He always did this," she said nodding down the hall. "After all these years I still can't get the hang of it."

Gramps sat, slumped in an over stuffed chair in the den, watching television. The light from the set reflected brightly in his glasses. He looked up when Ricky entered the room.

"Hi Gramps, how are you?"

" you?" came the reply, slow and calculated. Gramps needed time to phrase his sentences. Ricky could tell that he knew what he wanted to say but the words didn't flow quickly anymore.

"Not bad," Ricky said. "It's a nice day, why are you in here?"

"There are good stories on today," Gramps answered and turned back to the television. As Ricky walked over to watch with him, he noticed a framed picture on the end table. It showed a yellowing bride, groom and wedding party, smiling at the camera. He had never noticed the old photograph before.

"Is this you and Gram?" he asked.

"Yes," Gramps said without looking up.

The picture had faded a lot with some spots completely bleached out. The pictures on the table next to it were all crisp and new. Ricky wasn't sure that made them any better. As faded as the wedding picture was, he could still make everyone out. Faded, sure, but still there.


Author's note: I originally wrote this short story in 1992 for a short fiction class at Fairfield University. The inspiration for the story then was my paternal grandfather, Leno "Pancho" Ridolfi, who passed away this week on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. My Grampa was survived by his wife Lillian, three sons, a daughter, ten grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Personally, from a very young age, I learned about kindness and hard-work from him. His public obituary on Thursday morning summarized his life: family, baseball, work, his garden and his faith. He put everything he had into those things. Consistent, passionate and thorough in all that he did. He will be missed deeply, but no doubt remain reflected in the family he left behind.