My ninety-three year old grandmother sits on the back porch of her grandfather's house calling for Gervais, the rat that lives under the pfitzers. Gervais bounds over the grass to the mess of fallen birdseed under the feeder hanging from the hawthorn. My aunt Leslie comes out from the kitchen with crackers spread with peanut butter. They have been scattering birdseed and breadcrumbs for the quail the construction scared off. Now they are feeding the rats.
"I had no idea you had such a fondness for rats," I say. "You could shoot him."
"I don't do that anymore. I am surrounded by neighbors I love. I worry that my .22 might go through and kill them," my grandma says.
"We could get you a 20-gauge shotgun."
"I have a 20-gauge shotgun."
Years ago, my grandmother sat on the porch with a scoped .22 rifle and shot starlings out of the mulberry tree. Mulberry trees grow quickly when first planted but growth slows as they mature and they rarely exceed 50 feet in height. The mulberry tree towered over the yard, dwarfing the blue spruce my father planted along the fence, the two cherry trees where my cousins climbed, and the house itself. The tallest tree in the world is called The Hyperion Tree. The most voluminous is called General Sherman. Both are sequoia. I live near sequoia. The mulberry tree, when it stood, was sequoia sized, rising from an enormous girth to a wide canopy that dropped a carpet of mild, almost soapy tasting mulberries all over the lower yard. When it fell, lifted out of the earth by a gust of wind and dropped sidelong across the canal, it exploded the bridge my grandfather and I had built some years before. It was a footbridge, three feet wide by maybe six long, but we built it for the ages. Many of the bridges across the canal range from single planks to the corroded gangways where a single plank once stood. Ours rested on 6x6 pylons cemented into postholes, with 6x6 beams supporting a deck of 2x6s and railings on both sides made of 2x4s resting on a palisade of 2x2s. The 2x2s were affixed with four screws each, everything else with carriage bolts. He drew the bridge on a napkin in the shop with his nameplate fastened to the door. I cut the lumber under supervision. He followed me up the lawn using a cane. I deposited the wood and climbed down into the canal.
"This bridge is going to last a hundred years. Well after I'm gone it'll still be here," he said.
As they tell it, the wind came on in a sudden late-summer storm that obscured the mountains and turned the sky the color of a black-blue prune. A gust came down like a wave through the neighbor's yard, lifted the mulberry tree out of the ground, and dropped it across the bridge, shattering it into splinters. Leslie kept a few rings cut from one of the lesser boughs. They would have served nicely as two-person tabletops. After the tree blew down we talked a lot of shop to get around talking about the sadness. Were mulberry trees native to Utah? Did RJ plant it? How did it get so big?
"They're just shrubs," somebody said.
"That tree was fully grown when I was a little girl," my grandmother said.
She was referring to Calvin Coolidge's first administration.
A new mulberry tree is coming up fast but it doesn't seem likely it will ever reach the size of its predecessor. Certainly I won't live to tell. The heat waves earlier in the summer scorched the grass, turning large pools of it straw colored at the roots, though the leaves stayed green and are soft enough to walk barefoot. The tractor scared off the quail but not Gervais. They pack in the backfill and tamp it. A long path of black earth follows the broken water line.
"Here Gervais!" she calls, raising her arm.
"Tell him about Pericles," Leslie says.
"Oh you know about Pericles, my rat," my grandma says.
"Your fondness for rats is total news to me," I say.
"Well when I was a girl I had a beautiful white rat named Pericles. He was long and white with a long, sleek tail. He escaped from his box. My grandpa RJ built him a little wooden box but he chewed through the wood in the corner. After that he lived in the basement and I would call, 'Here rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat!' and here he would come up to the landing. I would give him a piece of toast with peanut butter and he'd raise up and take it in his teeth like this and carry it back down to the basement where he had his business," she said.
"She used to wash out his ears," Leslie said, scattering breadcrumbs on the lawn for the rats and the quail.
"I did. I would give him a little bath and wash out his ears and wash his tail. He had a long, sleek tail. Then I would pat him dry and put him in a coffee can up on the top of the coal stove, cause that's what we used to have back then," she said.
"To dry him?" I asked.
"To dry him," she said. "Then one day he died. I don't know why. There he was out in the yard. He didn't have any wounds. There wasn't any blood on him so I don't think anything got him."
"He probably died of old age," I said, and immediately regretted it.
"How old do rats get?" Leslie asked.
We didn't know.
"I think rats only live a year," Leslie said. "How old was Pericles?"
"Oh three or four," she said.
The meanest guy I ever met was my father. Not that he ever hit us but I've seen him put his fist through a cupboard door. My dad grew up across the street with three sisters, the four of them raised by a single mom before there were many single moms like ours. He did a lot of fighting in the neighborhood. He was a poor Irish kid at Granite High. He did not think highly of being a Granite Farmer. When I was too young to walk very far he carried me in a backpack to a frozen pond near the football stadium where he liked to throw sticks for Basil. Basil was a Chesapeake Bay retriever. Basil would run out over the ice after the stick and plant his paws to catch it and slide. This particular time Basil fell through the ice. He was out in the middle of the pond with his front paws up on the edge of the hole but was unable to kick strongly enough to get the rest of him out of the water. My dad took off the backpack with me in it and set it down beside the pond and smashed a channel through the ice, wading at first, stomping the ice, then smashing it with his fists, swimming as he went, until he cut a passage out to the hole where Basil had fallen in and the two could swim to shore.
The meanest guy my father ever met was my mother's grandpa Leonard. Leonard was RJ's son. He once invited my father to a bit of so-called Indian wrestling. My father was in his early 20s and had the kind of build you get from throwing around bags of cement when you don't want to. Leonard was 80 and had two fused legs. My father didn't win. They had plenty to wrestle about. When my dad was a boy Leonard shot his dog. My dad is dog man. His mother worked as a cashier at 7-11. She brought home expired food.
"One day a beautiful pure-bred collie with no tags showed up on our back porch," he said recently. "Lionel was a big, beautiful dog. Strong. They've bred collies into a pussy breed. But back then they were big and strong."
Leonard was a sheep man. He got into the wool business with his father during the wool boom brought about by the First World War. A lot of boys died in Flanders wearing wool from out West. Leonard wanted to go to college, write poetry, and be a gentleman. Instead he spent six months a year in a saddle leading sheep from Vernon to the back of Utah Lake and up the old highway to Parleys Canyon and over the 7,120 ft summit to the cool hillsides of Summit County and then back again. Leonard announced that he would like to leave the sheep business and go serve his country instead but his father informed him that as his eldest son he was too important and could not leave. His younger brother went to the war and came back with a medal. The girls had lots of questions. What had he seen? Where had he been? What had he done? Leonard gave him a nickname that has stuck through four generations – Uncle Hero.
My grandmother is still mad about RJ and Leonard. RJ is for Ruben Josiah.
"My father loved school," she says, "He loved English and writing poetry. He won the mile and they carried him on their shoulders. But RJ said come on up to the U and we'll talk to one of your professors and see what he has to say about it. So up they went and knocked on this professor's door and this professor said, 'well you'd be a fool to get out of the wool business with the price of wool so high.'"
The wool boom ended with armistice and Leonard invested in chicken farming and real estate. Gervais was eating birdseed under the hawthorn where RJ used to sit and roll Prince Albert cigarettes. Leonard bought a house a few doors down on the same side of 1300th East. My grandmother is sitting on her grandfather's porch. My father grew up across the street. Behind RJ's house and Leonard's house the yards reached to the ridgeline where Highland Drive now runs. The ridge runs mostly north to the edge of RJ's yard where it makes the introductory moves of a fishhook and curves due west. The water in the canal is Utah Lake water, pumped up to the foothills over Millcreek, and runs along the ridge from Leonard's yard through RJ's yard, under 1300 East to my grandmother's brother's yard. Some people call the neighborhood Baileyville. The tone of voice isn't entirely positive.
Because he had not been permitted to go to college and be a gentleman but instead had spent his young adulthood saddleback learning a thing or two from the Basques, who arrived for seasonal labor and as much as the Scots seemed natural born sheep men, and the Paiutes, whose natural medicine he employed when my grandmother or her brothers fell ill, Leonard did not move into the city and learn a trade. Instead he bought chickens. He built a commercial egg laying operation in his backyard. He bought up the land around him. When you came over the pass out of the desert from Vernon and turned north at the edge of Utah Lake, you followed the highway up the valley floor along the edge of the mountains, until, just at the southern edge of the city, where Sugar House opened into farms, the highway ran smack into the corner pocket of an L-shaped ridge where springs flowed out of the slopes and formed a series of cold pools. It was good land to buy. The late 20s were just a bad time to buy it.
My grandmother and grandfather often talk of the army trucks that would drive up the U-shaped road of what is now called President's Circle but was then nearly the whole campus of the University of Utah. To hear them tell it a whole class would climb aboard, one whole class at a time, and go off to boot camp, and then to North Africa or Europe. They speak of their friends who died in the war, most of them, like many soldiers from Utah, killed in the mountains of Italy, as though they had recently lunched together. Their dead aren't abstractions, like the youthful selves of my grandma and grandpa are to me. They are friends who reached and died in adulthood; who wore jackets to class at the University of Utah and sat on the grass after class and proposed picnics and hunting trips. They probably all died virgins.
Recently I asked my grandmother if there was any part of her life she would particularly like to live over again, if there was any particular period she liked most of all in what amounts to nearly half of American history. She reported that all of it was a treasure, even the war, or especially the war, despite the grown friends who bled to death lying on their faces, and the interruptions, the shifting and movement of people and loved ones, the mobilization and disruption of life plans and routines. My grandmother was born in a world that would have looked familiar to Tolstoy and has lived to see the prophecies of science fiction prove obsolete. In the scope of it all, the only passage she would not repeat was the Great Depression.
The bank seized the land her father had bought, one property leveraged on another. Nearly everyone they knew plunged into poverty. Contracts for eggs fell through. The bank hung foreclosure notices on the mailbox near the street, not wanting to venture too far down the drive. My grandma as a girl stormed down to the mailbox and tore them up. They bartered eggs for milk and ate chicken so often that my grandmother will not eat chicken still. Baileyville was significantly reduced. Leonard who had wanted to go to college and become a gentleman but became a sheep man in the wool boom had traded his future to cash in on the upswing of an economic cycle and lost everything when the cycle turned. He held onto his house and most of an acre. After the war, he got a job at one of the refineries. He was well known in the neighborhood. In his old age a chimney at the refinery fell on him, landing on his shoulder, and blew out a knee. He had the leg fused. Sometime later he was hit by a car crossing 1300th East. It ruined his other knee and he had that knee fused. My father recounts taking Leonard for a drive back to Vernon in the 1970s. It was a landscape Leonard knew about as well as the Paiutes who leant him their medicine. There's a lot of looking from a saddle. The whole drive he stared at the speedometer.
"Sixty miles an hour..." he said in disbelief. "Sixty miles an hour..."
For decades now I have told the story of how Leonard shot my father's dog as a kind of Roman augury for my parents' eventual divorce.
"How could it have worked out?" I asked. "Could you marry a girl whose grandpa shot your dog?"
In the version I have been telling Lionel crawls home and dies in my father's arms. The other day he set me straight.
"He winged him," he said. "He shot Lionel in the ass."
Leonard was very adept with a rifle. During their years in the sheep business, RJ once signed up his son to fight a touring ex-prizefighter who was crossing the country fighting one local roughneck at a time. It was amateur, bare-knuckle fighting. RJ happened to be at the store in Vernon when the fight promoter came through. A week later Leonard, who had wanted to be a poet and a gentleman, found himself in an impromptu ring in the West Desert fighting a retired prizefighter in a match he had no interest in. Many years later, Leonard ran into the fighter at a gas station. He was passing through in a big convertible, promoting fights. He had stopped fighting years before and seemed to have been rather successful as a promoter. They recognized each other.
"Just a minute," he said, and went out to the convertible.
He came back in with a .30-06.
"Do you know you're the only guy who ever beat me on that whole trip? I fought guys all over the country. Here, I want you to have this," he said, giving Leonard his rifle.
Leonard tried unsuccessfully to refuse.
"So Leonard didn't kill Lionel?" I asked my dad. "Do you know how many people I've told that story to?"
"He winged him."
"He was a crack shot. If he had wanted to kill him he would have."
"He still shot my dog," he said.
During the war, my grandma married an egg-headed genius who was fascinated with metal. He would object strenuously to being called a genius.
"I made a very miniscule contribution to a very miniscule field," he once explained to me when I asked him how he had managed to become a genius.
Genius or not, he discovered processes that significantly increased the productivity of one of the largest copper mine in the world. At his funeral, I tried to calculate what .01 percent of 10 percent of $1 billion was. I figured that probably would have been a rather modest contribution on Kennecott's part, considering. But he was a scientist through and through, and never showed much of a business interest in mining. He grew up in the Avenues, and later near 9th and 9th. His father had a good job with the government so they did fine during the Depression. He had gone to school and so was made an officer when the Army came calling, and had studied chemistry so the Army pulled him out of the infantry, where he had been preparing a platoon of Brooklyn hoodlums to kill Nazis, and sent him to artillery school, where he stayed until with the war in Europe almost done and the invasion of Japan in the works the Army sent him back to the infantry. He and my grandmother married in uniform after she joined the WAC, and they spent the first years of their marriage travelling cross-country from California and Georgia to meet up briefly on leave. By even the most restrictive definition of the word, they served in the war, but neither of them bled out on a white Italian road. After it was over, with my aunt Christie born between the bombs, he finished the studies the war had interrupted and accepted a job as a professor at the University of Utah. Shortly afterwards they bought RJ's house and moved back to Baileyville.
As long as I have known her, I have known my grandma in connection with her house. She bathed me in her kitchen sink. When we were kids, my cousins and I, a great brood of us, romped in her yard and swam in the canal. We piled into the back room to watch movies where three of my grandma's young cousins had died of diphtheria. As kids, Leslie would tuck us in, saying, "don't worry about the ghosts. You're related." This February my grandfather died in the house he had made his own. We buried him the cemetery at the top of the ridge. There is a plot next to him for my grandma when she goes. None of us know what will happen to the house after she dies. Like the other ranch houses and old farms along 1300th East it will probably be torn down and a dozen tiny condos with walls you could put a fist through will go up after they raze the blue spruce my father planted, and the cherries where my cousins climbed. They will likely pave over the canal, because somebody's kid might drown swimming in it. All that will remain will be their two stones in a cemetery grown so large the pumps that water its great, green lawn long ago dried up the springs that seeped from the ridge and the freshwater ponds where the sheep men stopped and bought land and built houses and where my grandma as a little girl was baptized by her father after the two set off one morning and walked up alone.