A Road Not Taken...A Trip too Long Delayed

A Trip Delayed

Pierce still sleeps. I pick my way down the narrow, tricky path to the beach of Kronos. One slip would launch me into a deadly vertical journey onto the sharp roaring rocks far below. I pause now and then to look out at the Mediterranean. I want to drink every blue today from sunrise to sunset, learn every shade and shadow. So, I borrow your eyes, Grandpa, your artist's eyes, so clear and gray, as though constructed to filter nothing, letting the "is" of reality smash full upon your soul. I wonder: did so much pure "is" breaking upon your free and pure spirit eventually break it, even as the sea breaks the rocks?

I look back to the white domed houses, watch the sun light them, watch the blue behind them. The blue. The blue! Almost too much to bear. And, there, behind the crag, much of the hidden spectrum of the shadowlands. As you taught me once so many years ago.

"Look at the shadows," you said. "Most people only see the color where it's light. But in the shadows, yes, in the shadows shines the subtler rainbow." Your paintings continue your lessons, the lessons that began in your solarium.

What all did we discuss in that plant-lined window room? Einstein, classical music, psychology, Plato, Ruskin, Russell, and Russia. At seventy-five, having taught yourself French, German, and Russian, you decided it was time to go back to that blue cradle of so much -- Greece. And so you spent the year teaching yourself Greek, learning the history, the geography. You looked at paintings and photographs, but nothing could have prepared you for the sheer blue of this reality's sky and sea.

At last I reach the safety of the sand. I let the breeze caress my face; smell, taste the salt of the sea. I let the roar and crash of ocean flow through me and I dance the wave and tide. My legs quiver a bit from the tense trail-trek down. All my years of running, biking, weight lifting -- but in the end, Time himself trumps effort. Probably, he plays the card a little later in the game, but he will play it, nonetheless. He will play it, eh, Grandpa?

You taught me canasta once. We had a special double deck of bicycle cards, blue and patterned on the back. You taught me the rules, I should say. Strategy, I had to teach myself. Did you want to win, or was that too a trick of your tutoring? So much of my doing well in high school and college relied on your careful preparation, painted patiently with shadow more than light, on the canvas of my mind.

You and I had spent that spring of my college Sophomore year preparing -- more you than I. You knew -- I had other things to do -- Biology, Calculus, Psychology, Chemistry, English -- but I learned a little Greek; checked the maps with you. Planned out the trip together. We would sail the seas of Odysseus. We would walk the paths of Greek warriors, poets, philosophers and statesmen. Oh, how you longed for a leader like Pericles, lamented his absence in twentieth century America.

Did Pericles ever stand on this same beach where now I stand? Did he ever look out into this infinite blue? How did he see Duty above his own pleasure and gain? It couldn't be just the blue, for even in those times of ancient Greece, not all men were wise, and not all wise men always acted wisely. But this blue must have helped; must have shown the possibility, the purity of light, the purity of spirit.

Those last paintings of yours persist, decades later, hanging on my study wall, colors intact as you foresaw. Water color pigment, patiently applied dry, shadow by shadow, you painted in long hours with your steady artist's hands, blue-veined and thin. You restricted yourself to four metal oxides -- changeless paints -- that and magic. You painted scenes of autumn and then, finally, of winter. The white of your snow -- so real -- is all pure illusion. And so I learned so many years after the fact, that you played other illusions in your life; one's that didn't work quite so well; trying to hide the fact of other women, women other than your wife. The hands that brushed canvas so patiently, the artist's blue-veined hands, brushed silk and skin as well.

And what did we not discuss? Your own deep disappointments, your infidelity, your quick and deadly judgments -- death itself. Certainly, not death itself. But then, once, you did say it was time for you to paint winter scenes, just as it had once been your time to paint spring scenes. That final fatal trump card though, we never really talked about that, did we, Grandpa? I knew the rules all right, but the strategy, I had to infer on my own.

And, after a year of teaching yourself Greek, after our spring of planning, what then? Your sons and doctors told you not to go. Your health couldn't take it. You wouldn't be up to the journey. What if something happened? There you'd be, in a foreign land without the aid of modern medical miracles. So, cooler heads prevailed. I spent the summer making money as recreational director for a children's psychiatric hospital. You spent the summer playing cards with destiny.

You never strolled this golden beach where now I stand. You never drank this deep blue sky. You never sailed the seas of Odysseus. You never stared at the pure white houses bleached in the salty air. Instead, you fell and failed in your own house, in your own hometown, where you could take a short, convenient ambulance ride into the matrix of modern medicine. Instead, you had new partners in your grand little card game, and they played so many cards -- drugs and needles and tubes and tests. Oh, my! So many bright shining cards, cards of metal and plastic and chemical. And, at the end of the week, all their bright shiny cards so carefully laid out on the table, Mister Death took his turn; he smiled, blinked, and put down a single card, blue bicycle wheels churning. He flipped it over. Queen of Spades. Trump. Canasta. Gin. Checkmate. Game over. The frame -- rigid and fixed -- the frame was in place. Beneath the glass, the painting was done.

No-one was there to see your gray eyes flutter, to hear your last words, to see your blue-veined artist's hand tremble, if it did. No, but at least you didn't die here, on this bright golden sand, not beneath this infinite blue sky, not with me. Instead, your white-coated partners who knew all about such things were very efficient at picking up the losing cards, cleaning the sheets, and readying the room for someone new.

I did not see your gray eyes flutter. I did not hear your last words. I did not see you go, raging or not, into that good night. So, it was not real. Could not be real. It was only a shadow, an illusion. It could not be true. Your heart too strong, your will too hard, your mind too sharp -- you could not die. People were surely badly misinformed, badly mistaken, involved in a bad joke in very poor taste. What would you paint next, I wondered? What language, after Greek, would you be studying? When would you be well enough at last to make our trip?

The family played out the charade well though, and thoroughly. They even had my mother call, all in tears, telling me of the tragedy. They held a funeral and everything. A joke in poor taste. Very poor taste.

Only -- when I went to visit you in your big white house with green shutters, Grandpa, strangers lived there. And the garden had gone to seed and weed. Someone else's name was painted on the mailbox. Fall dandelions dotted your fine Kentucky bluegrass. At my mother's insistence, I drove her to a tombstone. Someone had carved your name on it, Grandpa. A rainbow of colors hid in the shadows of that gray granite. She placed a basket of blue asters by the stone. She swore that you were really gone. That you had painted your last painting. That you would never join me in the Greek isles. That's what she swore so many years ago.

"Grandpa!" I turn now and shade my eyes a bit to peer better up the path. It's my grandson, Pierce, waving. He's running, for God's sake, down the path. I want to call out to him to be careful, to go slow, but instead, I simply let my heart hammer in my chest. I see his sure, thin, cat-like body shining in the sunlight as he pounces and lunges down the path. In seconds, he's beside me, smiling. He turns his head to look up into the infinite blue.

"Wow," he says staring at the sky of Pericles, the sky of Archimedes, and Socrates and Aristotle. "Now, that's blue!"

I laugh. "That's an understatement."

"Come on up and let's have some breakfast!" Not waiting for a reply, he's already running back up the path.

"Okay," and I wonder if my sound waves even made it through the roar of so much roaring sea, so much throbbing life. I begin to trudge my old legs up behind his young ones. Up ahead, the path bends. There, behind the rocks, a rainbow of shadow-color shimmers in the shade. "Hey, Pierce!" I shout, "did you ever notice that there are colors in the shadows too?"

He stops; skips back down toward me; pouts and puzzles his face at me. "Colors in the shadows? What do you mean, Grandpa?"

"Here, let me show you --let us show you."

Jennifer's Invitation
Story on the Tokyo Subway
Short Story Index

To contact the author: truthtable@aol.com

Last modified: Sun May 18, 1997