To Harvest Ruins, part two

by Shaun Terry

part one

Grandpa reappeared from his den of Fox News, military plaques, ribbons, gold medals, Breitbart.com, and stale pride and simple provinciality. His gait was intentional as he bellowed, “I know you kids don’t go to church much anymore. You weren’t blessed with the kind of faith your grandma and I have. And it hurts us to know.

“You might be surprised. You know who else in the family has faith like we do?”

I was silent for a moment, but he just stared at me. He actually wants me to respond to this?

“Who?”

“Your Uncle Tom. He’s thinking of joining the Knights of Columbus.”

Columbus was a piece of shit racist exploiter, by the way, and Uncle Tom is a capitalist who could’ve been a great man but got sucked into living in the suburbs and driving his kids around in his luxury SUV and all the kind of shit you’d associate with those things.

“When I was your age, I was getting close to retiring from the Army. If you look here,” he pointed at some perfectly framed and matted documents on the wall, “I eventually got letters of commendation from every branch of the military.” He paused to revel for a moment. “I was good at my job. I didn’t always like it, but it had value to me. I liked the security that came from doing a good job and making enough money, but I guess not everyone’s interested in that.

“When I took my second career, I decided I was going to take care of my family as best I could. I was the first one in the building and the last person to leave. I appreciated the security and freedom that making money gave me. I know some people get degrees in Anthropology and Women’s Studies and all that bullshit, but why? Isn’t that so stupid?”

He looked at me awkwardly. Again. Shit. He wants an answer again. Why is he asking me these loaded questions and expecting answers?

“I don’t know.”

His voice rose incrementally: “Well, what would anyone do with a degree like that? They should make money first, get a career, take care of themselves, and then worry about that other stuff. I’ve got to say it bothers me that people think they can waste all this time and money — my money, OUR MONEY — on something as worthless as that. I can’t stand that they take MY FUCKING MONEY and spend it in these stupid ways. What gives them the right to do something like that?”

It was the first time I’d ever heard him say “fuck.” I don’t give a fuck who says “fuck,” really, and I’m sure he’s said it a million times before, but he wouldn’t have said it in front of me if he weren’t really fucking pissed.

In fact, he was attacking me, but I didn’t care about that. Here was this decaying old man with too much time on his hands, trapped in a bunker of security and vitriol, built by him and a few profiteers. It was a self-centered, simplified paranoia and rage, helped along by some of the most insidious agents in society.

Since he’d retired, he was like someone blindly, skilllessly trying to swim up from the bottom of an ocean he was thrown into. He hadn’t wanted to make a career out of the military, but he’d been good at the work he’d done and it’d made him feel safe. He hadn’t wanted to manage commissaries for the couple decades that followed his illustrious military career, but it was work that he could do well with low risk and he got accolades for that, too. Now, he had to justify his life to himself and it wasn’t hard because the way to do it was right at his fingertips; there were people who’d built careers by assuaging people just like him. His network of conservative pundits had built him a new home, customized just for him in the same way that someone having a house built for them might slightly alter the blueprint of the builder’s base model.

What I wanted to do wasn’t to argue with him or to try to win something, but to show him a softer, more fruitful, calmer way. I wanted to help this hapless old bell-ringer to be better to himself, to his wife, and to others. For everyone’s sakes, but maybe mostly for his and for Grandma’s.

“You know, I think we need different kinds of people in the world in order to make the world function. We need people to run charities and NGOs and we need people to work as counselors and all kinds of other things. We need professors. Maybe we need some of everything. In other parts of the world, the idea that people are just here to make money and buy stuff isn’t as popular as it here. Maybe convenience isn’t everything.”

“You know…” he let out a short sigh. He wasn’t resigned, but he also wasn’t defensive. “I’m not saying money’s everything. Money’s a tool, but life is a lot easier when you take care of yourself and your family.”

I had been sitting at the table, waiting to eat Grandma’s delicious food, as this odd old man had been shouting from the other side of the table. Finally, Grandma broke the tension by setting a plate in front of me. She smiled. Her face was a field of round ridges, all wrapping around her face to form one great big grin.

She asked me about how I’d been and what I was up to. I didn’t want to talk about those things because they’d just worry, so I kept my answers short. But Grandpa wasn’t having it. He’d heard I’d been driving across the country on the way to see them.

“You’re not that young anymore, Hugo. Life’s not just a big adventure that you get to play around with until you’re 80. You’ve got to settle down some time. All that driving ages a man.”

“Yeah, I agree. Maybe it’s good, sometimes, to just sit still and appreciate what’s around you.”

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