Under the Influence

In his prime, my grandfather could hit the most beautiful fly balls. Behind his wood-frame house, on the long narrow lot with the overpopulated rabbit pens in the back and the fruit cellar where we hid from tornadoes, sat his own field of dreams. Here my grandfather was king—on the empty diamond, glorious in its isolation, the clean, white chalk of the foul lines, the unattainable fence, the comforting summer smell of fresh shorn sod, and the raked dirt, ground to the fine black dust that is the fertile blood of eastern Iowa .

My grandparents—bless their dear departed souls—lived their entire married life on the southwest edge of Cedar Rapids , an Iowa city in the final throes of the industrial revolution. The Quaker Oats plant and a Brer Rabbit Molasses plant laid out static sheets of grainy stench in the air. Just below those clouds was the smell of the working class: an oily, rusty stink found in machine shops and feed stores, where men like my grandfather Chuck, with his sixth grade education, could punch the clock and make enough to buy a house, an out-of-date Chevy pickup, and where he could marry well and raise three lovely daughters in relative comfort.

My grandfather seemed old to me then, but he was actually only in his forties, just half his life lived. His years were structured by routine. Up at 3 a.m., he’d leave for his job at the Cedar Rapids city bus garage. Grandmother awake with him for the moment packing his feed bag: a steel thermos of Folgers, white bread sandwich of beef or pork, hard boiled eggs (in their shells), a kolache or a sugar-dusted piece of poppy-seed coffee cake. This was their life—year after hard-working year— until the cancers and heart disease, then the divvying-up of the back yard junk that some in my family coveted as potential antique gold (but, alas, was in the end, simply rusty junk), the eventual razing of the house that held so many memories, and the final distribution of an estate of which there wasn’t much, but somehow five hundred dollars each for the grandkids.

On the baseball diamond is where I had Grandpa all to myself. While I ran to my position in the outfield, he stood at home plate, a cigar propped in the side of his mouth, a long ash ready to drop. He wore his off-work uniform of Oshkosh overalls and either a v-neck white tee or a short-sleeved shirt, and, even with the humidity, a scuffed pair of Wellingtons . For the bowling leagues he slicked up in pressed slacks, western-style sports shirt, and spit-polished oxfords—all courtesy of Armstrong’s in downtown Cedar Rapids , where Grandma also bought my schools clothes the week before I returned home to my mother in Chicago . She took time to indulge her lunch delicacy in the store’s cafeteria: a goose liver sandwich.

In those days, the yard teemed with snakes—racers, greens, and garters—easy for a city boy to catch. They curled around my wrist like reptile bracelets seeking warmth and calming. And even when they bit I hardly gave the pain much thought. Hurt was temporary then and was easily soothed with the balm of the next thing—Popsicles, a bike ride, or a swim. What I do remember about those summer days is this: The world seems large and incomprehensible. The hardwoods near the house were wild. The Cedar River that flooded and receded along the edge of the woods was as wide as the Mississippi itself. Furrows between cornrows were trails without end. The train trestle over the river was a trapeze without a net. And just once I did walk across, frightened with each step, cautiously listening for whistles and watching for the cyclops of light announcing the freights coming across the Plains.  I stopped taking those risks as I gradually learned of all the unannounced ways the world can trip you up when you are not even daring it to. And I soon learned that some pain—the kind that doesn’t involve bandages and scars—is permanent.

My grandfather’s hitting technique began with a ritual warm-up that is similar to the movement of an oil derrick. Bat in the left hand, ball in the right, he would swing both arms up and down several times searching for the perfect timing, when both bat and ball were in harmony. Then he would lob the ball above his head, grab the bat with both hands, and crack!, a soaring fly—a “can of corn”—to his waiting grandson from the dark, urban streets of Chicago, a place my grandparents equated with Gomorrah.  Grandfather would step back from his swing, let out a cloud from the stogie, and admire the arc of the ball that would, for just a second, disappear into the humid air.

At that perfect baseball moment, he seemed to be there and not be there, in a state of in between. What was he thinking? Dreams and feelings he kept to himself. I understood and respected his introspection. After all, I was a shy boy who could not ever begin to express the tide of complex emotions that engulfed me: divorce, visitation, separation, stirring hormones, and a wish to attain baseball purity. Mostly I did what I was instructed to do. I went where I was told to go and each summer at Chicago’s Union Station my mom gave me a kiss and put me on the Empire Builder for the train ride to Iowa to spend long weeks alone with my grandparents.

His revelry would only be interrupted by his certain disgust when he saw me flailing around in center field unable to catch the easy fly. “Jesus Christ!” was all he had to say and I, the sensitive arty boy, was temporarily ruined.

Almost every weekend during those summers Grandpa would take me along on visits to his parents’ failed farm, somewhere around Chelsea , where the Iowa River cuts a handsome swath and where my Czech Aunt Herring still cooked on a wood-burning stove. It was on those drives, after he drank several beers in dimly-lit taverns in corn towns like Keystone, Vining, and Elberon, where my grandfather at last let his feelings show. Mostly these were private, under-the-breath dialogues. Punctuated with swear words I was not allowed to say, he carried on imagined conversations with relatives—living and dead—that had done him wrong. The transformation was gradual, intensifying with each beery stop. I usually waited in the truck with a soda and a singing bladder. When I snuck out of the pickup to peer into the dark, blue-collared bars, I saw men just like my grandfather: hard-working guys sipping Old Milwaukee and Wild Turkey without guilt in the middle of the afternoon, with the fog of Lucky Strikes and Swisher Sweets highlighting their faces in a blue glow. My grandpa would be standing at the bar, slapping down the box of dice to see if he could win his drink.

These were men who lacked surprise and who rarely strayed from the arc of the pre-ordained station of their lives. They knew the general direction their lives would go—thirty years of toil at factory or farm, a modest pension, and then all that fishing. They knew that escape routes— St. Louis , Chicago , California even—could not compare to the familiar.  Nor was it worth the disruption. When you pushed against the mold, they believed, it always ended badly.

After a half hour or so, Grandpa would come stomping out, toss me a bag of beer nuts, and off we would go to the next town. His emotional change—and the increasingly erratic driving—was startling. It was if I no longer existed, although I sat close to him on the Chevy bench seat. He cracked open the side vent and lit the damp, partially chewed cigar that had been in his mouth most of the day. The summer wind blew the hot ashes back onto my bare arms. The ashes stung, but I refused to flinch. I imagined the sharp stings as snakebites.

By now it was late evening. The truck headlights shone on moths and mayflies, and the corn and soy fields were ablaze with lightning bugs. Grandma would certainly be worried, looking out the front porch windows and getting angrier with each passing moment. The truck heaved and groaned, and when I dared to look at the speedometer I could see we were driving eighty miles an hour. Grandpa was passing cars on steep, stomach-fluttering hills and blind curves, swerving and swearing as he steered in the general direction of Cedar Rapids . Pedal to the floor, slamming the stick shift in conflict with the abused clutch, Grandpa’s tirades intensified. Such-and-such was a whore, a no good son-of-a-bitch, a bastard, and worse. For emphasis he would roll the window down and spit in disgust. Who knows why we never crashed? He certainly was drunk. Lucky I guess. Seatbelts and air bags were non-existent then. Only jagged metal, sharp windshields, and the gravelly washboards roads.

It was during those wild rides that I felt closest to Grandpa. I never criticized or complained. I kept my mouth shut because I had been raised to do just that. And I dared not judge him. I didn’t know at the time that drinking and driving were wrong. I only knew that I hated the same people he did even though I had not met them. All that mattered was that they had wronged Grandpa, my grandpa who hit fly balls to me in the park behind the rabbit pens, the piles of rusty junk, and the remnant prairie grasses where the snakes basked. I snuggled closer to him to show my loyalty. See, I am your grandson. I belong to you. Placing my head lightly against his shoulder I could smell the oil, the sweat, the Old Milwaukee, and the pain. 

At that moment I loved him completely—my grandfather, who could fix anything that broke down in all of Iowa , who made sauerkraut and homemade wine in the garage, and who let me win at poker. I listened to him rage and I heard every word that came spilling and unfettered from the darkest chambers of his heart. And I beheld him in the holiest of lights—the soothing glow from the yellow dashboard of the wobbly Chevy that would miraculously carry us back to the home place, to the rabbits and snakes, back to my grandma, and back to my roots.
Stephen Lyons
is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.   He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. His next book—profiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwest—will be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in the anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com.