“Why are fire engines red? Because books are read too. Two times two is four. Four times three is twelve. Twelve inches is a ruler. Queen Mary was a ruler. Queen Mary was a steamship. A steamship sails the ocean. The Ocean has fish. The fish have fins. The Finns fought the Russians. Fire engines are always rushin’ so they’re red.”
Papas finished his spiel and smiled. His cheeks were as red as the fire engine I had summoned up in my imagination. The whole family called them his applecheeks. He chuckled and pushed me off his lap. “Uh, you are getting heavy! Go pester someone your own size!”
Papas, my father’s father, had nicknamed me the Blond Bombshell soon after I began to walk. My hair at that age was like down, it could be mistaken for the silk which was shed when shucking corn. To juxtapose that fineness the rest of my body was a storm of whirling curiosity and clumsiness. Papas was soft. Soft white hair. Soft roll of belly fat cozy to lean against. Soft, buttercup yellow sweater with a green alligator on the chest. The only thing hard about Papas, or rather sharp, was the smell of his breath. Like medicine and pine needles the scent was rekindled each time he sipped from his glass. Ice cubes clinked and three olives bobbed in the clear concoction. He wet his whistle in between the ramblings that rolled off his tongue with a wit-filled eloquence.
There were no toys at Mamu and Papas house. “They do not match the decor”, my grandmother would proclaim when I inquired. There was though, a long, narrow backyard which became more strange the further away it extended from their modest house with its spruce green shutters. I would burst out the backdoor onto a slate patio. The roots of a humongous oak undulated up between the flat stones revealing the tree’s spread and strength, like the back of the Loch Ness Monster. I had memorized those roots and hopped, small small big, over their trip traps.
The patio ended at a rock wall which I launched myself from, past bright orange lantern-like plants, tumbling onto a spongy lawn. A beehive marked the middle of the lawn. The insects' drone grew louder and more multiplied as I approached, but it’s danger was like a repelling magnet. I looped around it and accelerated back toward my family, fear conquering curiosity. I cannot tell you what lay beyond the hive, because I cannot remember, because I never found out.
Galloping to the right of the house and into the front yard I entered a blanket of dark green ivy which stretched to the black top of the road. I waded through the tangled sea to an island of rock. Here stood a single occupant, a black figurine who held a lantern and who wore a red vest that matched his red lips. I climbed up to join my lonely companion. I was not much taller than he, but just tall enough to see over the wooden fence and into the neighbor's yard. There lived a pack of handsome dalmatians. Not one hundred one, but lots, and they all seemed to be springing about each time I spied on them. I whispered in the black boy’s ear. He was happy to hear the pups were thankful for his lantern-nightlight, as I too would be if I slept outside like the them.
Twenty something years later I was reading Flannery O'Connor's parable The Artificial Nigger. The image of my black-figurine-friend floated to the top of my memory. He had a name now, the Lawn Jockey. A ripple formed in the warm wading-pool of my tenderness for Papas, the man who had adorned his front yard with such a racist object.
From the precipice beside the Lawn Jockey I began to realize that like the figurine’s face, Papa’s face too was very different from most of the people in our town. Papa’s applecheeks sat on high, sharp bones and those cheeks were so round that when he smiled his eyes were not eyes but rather crevasses, no pupils and irises, just slits.
I had watched countless time, The Secret Garden, but Papas did not look like these English characters even though my father told me this is where his parents came from. I was obsessed with the, “where is your family from?” question, a distinct American inquiry. Learning that my great grandparents had been English, German and Hungarian was wondrous to me. These were far off places that I could read about in my mother’s massive dictionary. Our small town could not be found in that dictionary. And Papas was interesting because he belonged nowhere and therefore everywhere.
I painted a flowing sea which stretched between his far-flung roots, spreading from China to deep inside the Navajo nation. I swam in this space and in my mind Papas was beside me. We dove together toward the sandy floor, where it was still and calm. Where the dimness erased our features and we could play and explore endlessly, free of the fear of the space beyond the beehive.