Swede

by Lance Larsen

The last time I tried to write about Grandpa Larsen
was over Christmas break. The fruit room door was
open and the light was on over Dad’s fly-tying desk,
where a peacock feather lay among some half-tied
nymphs. The basement was cold and quiet, except
for the pipes humming with water. When I closed my eyes I saw
myself standing by a window. The curtains were blowing against
my arms, and Grandpa was sitting on the patio. I wrote:

It was last Wednesday
in the warm afternoon
when your heart iced up.

The blue sky tightened-
once, twice-then held.

And in a puff of breath
you slipped into June.

When I think of him, I start with that afternoon and work
backwards. Grandpa in a Gregory Peck hat stepping out of his ’68
Falcon, dusty green. Digging in his pockets for licorice or a roll of
mints. Bending over steaming loaves, his baker’s hat specked with
flour. Snubbing out a cigarette.
These pictures make sense to me. It is only when I try to force
them into order-sorting them like a deck of cards-that I run into
problems. It is the same way when I write . Instead I fill a notebook
with fragments. There is this one, which I wrote the day of the
funeral:
I woke up when I heard Mom in the kitchen fixing breakfast. I
sat on the edge of the couch and stared down at the carpet. Today
is Thursday. Today is the funeral. Today I will see my grandfather

in a casket. And they will close it, carry it co the hearse and
cake it co the cemetery. There, they will lower it into the
earth and cover it with dire and rocks. He seems like a stranger.
The funeral made me think of Aunt Ella, who died m
a rest home, incontinent, delirious, unable to distinguish us
from the tormenters in her dreams. She got sent to the home
when she started sleeping on the davenport and eating cold
food out of cans. With Grandpa, it was the oxygen tank and
the mask and the snaking tubes and his wheezing when he
walked from the bedroom to the kitchen. Then his eyes dimmed;
and one Saturday morning, he didn’t recognize my sister LeeAnn.
He apologized and my grandmother scolded him. I never told
my parents.
It’s been three years, and I no longer write that he seems
like a stranger. I see now that I was trying to feel the weight
of death; the words were my way of groping . I didn’t mention
the seven Jello salads the Relief Society brought or the curled
hair in the grass from the trim Kris gave my brother after the
viewing . Nor did I explain how the funeral changed my plans to
visitJacqui. But there’s meaning in these details, too, as much as
I can find.
I also have Grandpa’s letters-the ones to his mother during
World War I that Grandma was about to throw out last November
when Kris happened to call her. This one comes from Queenstown,
Ireland, on Christmas Day, 1917 :
Now chat I have grown up and chis old war has given me a broader
and wider field of vision, I am surely a man in thought if not in
age . I am more than thankful chat I case my lot with the rest
of the boys and it is something I will never forget. le sure has made
a man of me.
I haven ‘t read all the letters, but I’ve read enough of them to know
I can’t crawl into Grandpa’s skin .
I grew up watching Walter Cronkite on our Curtis Mathes. With
guns going off behind him, he reported Vietnam. Other reporters
told about the protests. I remember the long hair and the tie-dyed
pants and the peace signs plastered on bumpers. I remember the
head shop downtown that sold water pipes, posters, used records,
and stickers saying ” Make love, not war.” And on the way to baseball
practice, Randy Thomas and I sang anti-war songs by Country Joe
and the Fish that we heard on his brother’s stereo. No one agreed

about anything. In World War I it was different-the enemy was
a black-hatted Snydley Whiplash:
I think I will leave this island about xmas time for somewhere in
the Atlantic. That’s when the real test will come but I am sure
going to give a good account of myself if ever I get a chance . I
will show them how the Utahns knock hell out of rats. Gee but
I would sure like to get a few Germans.
When I read a letter, I mark its date on a sheet of paper and copy
a passage . Cataloging-there is something healthy in this, like
exorcising spirits. I free the words and they hang in the air-and
it’s all right that I don’t understand.
Then there are the things I didn’t know about until after he
died, like his boxing . The day before the funeral, we were at
Grandma’s. Everyone was downstairs but me. I heard a knock. The
couple at the door smiled in unison-a chinless lady wearing a green
dress, and her husband . Her fifth, she said . When Grandma came
upstairs the lady took her hand .
“Remember me, Duchess?” she said, ”I’m Ruby .” Grandma
blinked . “Your Swede and I used to go dancing at the Elks Lodge
and once he boxed my brother Sam. I said, ‘Damn, Swede, that
was my own brother you knocked out. Why’ d you go and do a
thing like that?’ ”
That night in my grandmother’s kitchen Dad explained things.
Grandpa had boxed for the money. On Saturday nights, a fight
drew a big crowd. Most of the townspeople would come, and
farmers, some of them driving their teams twenty miles or more
and staying for the weekend . They’d bet, then Grandpa and another
local would slug it out for the pot. I picture him circling slowly,
eyeing his opponent, his trunks high on his waist, his fists ready .
And when he slugged, he was Jack Dempsey, letting loose a flurry
of punches.
I never fought, only watched . Usually it was ninth graders.
With my friends I’d wait behind the church. A circle would form,
and the fighters would have at it. They’d swear and slug and wrestle
until one of them gave up or started to bleed . The mud and clumps
of hair left me empty and excited. And in class when Victoria
Saunders, the first black girl I ever spoke to, told about using her
“cake cutter” if someone jumped her, I listened, tight kneed . We
followed the title bouts, bet our allowance on Cassius Clay. In our
minds, we knew him-he was a local boy going fifteen rounds at

the YMCA. Never a fighter, I talked blind, while my grandfather,
two towns away, sat watching afternoon soaps, a retired brawler.
I never knew. Of course I would have asked him things, but this
way it was better-he didn’t have to apologize . This way there was
more glory.
I did know about the country dances-the orchestra, the
buggies in haphazard rows, the girls with stacked hair. The summer
Grandpa was working on his uncle’s dry farm, he had to ride twelve
miles to take home the girl he was courting. Once while sitting on
the porch swing eating ice cream, they fell asleep. It was eight in
the morning when they woke up, and the girl’s father was shaking
Grandpa’s shoulder.
”Breakfast’ll be ready in a minute,” he said. ”Get washed up.
You’ll be going to church with us. ”
Grandpa told me this story in our front yard when he was
having a smoke, and I considered it confidential, not to be shared
with even my dad .
His stories about the Depression are a jumble. I can’t remember
if the man selling apples door-to-door was him or someone I read
about in seventh grade history. It doesn’t matter. What matters is
that he can remember when buying a hamburger for a nickel
was extravagant. Because of this, when he gave us money, I
acted solemn.
I remember Sunday visits the best. He and Grandma would
drive down for Mom’s pot roast and cherry pie , and afterwards
we would gather in our front room. The adults would talk, Kris and
Jon would sit quietly, and I would lie on the floor with my cat,
and when it came time, Grandpa would take out his wallet-a dollar
for each of us. I folded mine and smelled it; the edges could cut
a finger. It seemed like a promissory note to a portion of Grandpa
I had never seen. I spent it on candy.
He valued the smallest things-a Mercury dime , flour cloth
dish towels, a bolo tie, a sack of groceries. For my mother shopping
was something you squeezed in on Saturday morning; for Grandpa
it was a ritual-a favorite rosary he went through, each item of food
a single bead. It was the same way when he filled his lawn mower
with oil or lifted the hood of his car. He liked it that things
fit together.
I remember how he used to admire his leather slippers. Had
he been a poet, he would have written odes. Belly straining against

his sleeveless T-shirt, he would lift a slipper, hold it like a kitten,
examining ic from every angle-the scuffed toe, the worn sides.
“The miles,” he would say, “are incalculable. The garden
puttering, walks co the park, up and down stairs, co the score,
through aisles and aisles, clean as bone .” He flexed the shoe,
walked i c through air.
After breakfast one morning when he found out I had never
seen a pig, he got the car ready and we went driving. There were
fields and a dusty road . I don ‘t remember the pigs. He stopped
the car by an irrigation ditch, plucked a couple heads of grass and
had me put chem under my shirt. The vibration of the car made
them climb . In my mind it is the same road my dad cook when
he went fishing with his high school buddies and got stuck . An old
man in a pickup stopped , but wouldn’ t help chem because they
had no money. Finally he pulled the car out, taking their poles as
collateral. Grandpa drove back chat afternoon and paid the man.
”Mister,” he said , ” you better hope you ‘ re never in a mud
hole up co your neck, because if you are, you s.o .b., I’ll seep on
your head and watch you sink .”
I cry to see Grandpa caking the poles, his face going red , his
hands balling into fists, bu c i c’ s harder now. The images are vaguer.
When someone dies, you can ‘t reconfirm your impressions anymore .
There are only memories-one ghost co compare against another.
And, if you’re lucky, a few mementos, though they ‘re unreliable ,
coo . I have Grandpa’s wool trench coat and one of the Gregory Peck
hats. And I drive his ’68 Falcon . I don’t keep it up very well . I
drive it with bald tires and don’t change the oil until the light
comes on.
Last week, LeeAnn brought his bolo ties over co see which ones
I wanted . She ‘d been up co visit Grandma for the weekend .
We each ended up with three. Mine hang in my closet next co
Grandpa ‘s gray and black bathrobe I’ve been wearing for three
years. On cool nights I cake the robe co the jacuzzi. I seep from the
bubbling water and wrap it eight. Sometimes people ask about
it.” he belonged to my grandfather,” I say, as if that somehow
explains things.