By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”
“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.