George wears high-waisted tan polyester trousers with a brown belt and keeps a plastic liter of vodka on the kitchen table, which my grandmother carefully wipes around with a yellow sponge before setting out a glass dish with fresh cherries and another with salted cashews.
My brother and I drink cokes with maraschino cherries trapped at the bottom and sneak glances at our new exotic windfall – a drunken grandfather we never knew we had until that day.
We wear street clothes in the middle of a perfectly good beach day, which makes us feel formal and restless, like anything could happen. George wears his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at first and then he is shirtless. He puffs out his chest and pumps both arms to show off his muscles. His body odor seeps into the kitchen and won’t leave.
The strangeness of it all forces me to reassess our other two grandfathers, who had seemed perfectly adequate up to that point.
One grandfather takes me for donuts and coffee at a place with spinning barstools and sugar encrusted coffee rings against gold-flecked formica. We stare at the donuts behind the counter instead of each other, and this is better than fine.
The other grandfather lets me lie along the back console of his plush Buick – the flat area against the window where he normally keeps hats or a box of travel tissues . We listen to talk radio and wind along the beltway on some fool’s errand to please my grandmother.
Grandfathers in my family are benevolent background, busy cogs that keep family dinners moving. The grandmothers think they run the show but who do they think mashes the potatoes or ducks out to buy them in the first place?
My grandmother tells me George used to pinch my mother when she was a baby so he wouldn’t have to hold her. She couldn’t understand why my mother always screamed and cried until she noticed red welts on the backs of both plump baby thighs.
* * *
George puts his hand on my grandmother’s arm when she finally sits down and laughs when she swats it away. She won’t look any of us in the eye. George tells my brother and I to do good in school and listen to our parents without seeming to have any idea who they are.
We never see him again.
A few years later, I find a black and white 8×10 photograph of a man wearing a Viking hat slipped between the pages of a dictionary my grandmother gives me. She says the dictionary used to belong to George. There weren’t many personal effects. He died penniless and his body was not found for several days, even though he was rumored to have a longstanding lady friend. (I picture Faye Dunaway’s character from Barfly.)
The photograph is a close up of the Viking’s face, though I can tell he is at least shirtless and standing in a meadow. He is smiling, victorious, and has a wide gap between his front teeth and wild, long hair.
I will always wonder what the hell happened to that photograph. Losing it will haunt me forever, I imagine.