He walked into the reception room and sat in one of the many chairs arranged in a semicircle. They were early because they were family, but Zach was uncomfortable in the stiff shirt and tie his mother had made him wear. The suit coat was itchy but he had been warned of taking it off for any reason. He sat in the chair, his feet barely meeting the floor, and waited while his parents spoke with a group of people Zach had never seen before. The room was quiet and filled with the perfume of old people. That dusty, masking smell that permeates buildings and all who enter until a feeling of nostalgia sets in for a time they never knew. Zach felt as if he had entered the past just by remaining still and looking at ancient design in the carpet.
Twenty minutes passed before people began arriving. To Zach it felt like two hours had passed. Though he was grateful to no longer be the only one sitting in the waiting area, he was a little sad that no one who came neared his own age. The closest was a man in his early thirties with a large beard and wrinkled suit that looked as if it had been dug out of the back of a closet. Zach doubted anyone was less than twenty years older than him, so he sat quietly and avoided eye contact. Even with those who offered their condolences to him. He didn’t know the word, but he knew the meaning behind it considering their tone and the reason for their being here.
The reception room filled quickly and it soon regained its purpose. Everyone was waiting for things to begin. Zach didn’t know it was customary for visitors to wait around and offer their sympathy and support to the family. He just wanted to go home and play his Nintendo.
Then, through the din of conversations, Zach heard a woman begin a story about his grandpa. He didn’t realize they were talking about his grandpa at first, but he quickly realized it had to be about him.
“I remember one time,” the woman said, “when Gus had to come pull us out of the mud. Do you remember that, Brad? We had just started dating at the time and were out near Hawk’s Ridge when it started raining. We were….a little preoccupied at the time to care…”
Laughs circled the room and Zach offered a chuckle so as not to feel left out, even though he had no idea why everyone laughed.
“…but it poured down. Brad started the truck to go home because we were cutting it close to my curfew. Within seconds the wheels had buried themselves. Brad ran into town and knocked on Gus’s door asking for help since he knew Gus had a truck big enough to tow, and of course Gus was happy to lend a hand. He always was. So he came out and started pulling us out of the mud. He even dug out our back wheels in the rain to put the boards under them. He had us out in under two minutes and we made it back just in time.”
“I don’t know if your dad would have let me take you on a second date if we broke your curfew,” the man next to her said. He was holding her hand. Zach noticed the woman was pregnant because it looked like she was hiding a basketball under her shirt.
“I remember when Gus took that truck and plowed the high school parking lot and all the bus routes so the kids wouldn’t miss a day of school.” A man sitting across the semicircle from Zach said. He was probably older than his grandpa had been. He held a cane in his hands even though he was sitting and a goofy, toothless smile now spread across his face. “The next morning, the superintendent decided not to call off school because all the roads were cleared. Those kids were mad as hell.”
Zach could imagine his grandpa plowing snow. He was allowed to join him one time when he was only six. His grandpa had brought a big thermos of hot chocolate for the both of them to share. His grandma had packed a lunchbox of cookies too. Zach had sat in the passenger seat, thrilled to be out well beyond his bedtime, and out working with his grandpa even though the only work he did was eat the cookies and drink the hot chocolate and eventually fall asleep in the passenger seat only to be carried in the house by his grandpa at three in the morning.
He could imagine those kids being mad at having to go to school on an expected snow day. For some reason, he had a hard time realizing the man named Gus in the stories was his grandpa, and that his grandpa had been anything but the white-haired old man who came to his house a few times each year and was always smiling.
“Did you know that Gus once worked at the hotel where they filmed a Marilyn Monroe movie?” It was an older woman who said this. “I remember him always telling this story when we were at dinner parties. I think it was Some Like It Hot, or maybe it was Love Nest. I can’t remember. Anyway, he worked there the summer they filmed the movie and actually got to meet her.”
“I remember that,” another old woman chimed in, “Nancy hated when he told that story. She would always get flushed and hide her face, but we would all laugh when he said he missed his chance with Marilyn and settled for Nancy.”
“She got flushed because she didn’t believe us when we told her he was lucky to have her. Even though he knew she was the one who settled. That’s why he spoiled her so much.” The two women continued their story but it faded into the background as Zach turned his attention to a man in a military uniform who was talking about how his grandpa, referred to as Zip in the story, had saved a man’s life during their time in the army. Zach listened in wonder at all of the stories everyone was telling of the man they had come to say goodbye to.
He no longer felt the stiff, itching of his clothes. He no longer felt bored and even didn’t want to go home. He was in awe learning about his grandpa from the strangers surrounding him. He wished he would have known all of these stories before today so he could ask questions about them, but he was soon ushered into the chapel nave where the open casket waited. Zach could only wonder at what else the man who was his grandpa had done as people went up to the podium and spoke for the next hour. He realized he wasn’t sad anymore. Instead his imagination was filled with wondering who his grandpa had been before he had white hair and thin, speckled skin. He wondered what kind of person his grandpa was as a kid. He imagined an entire life for the man he only knew as grandpa.