18 • Keats & the Grill
Will followed Joe out the door, clapping a hand on his shoulder as he passed.
“Careful on the sidewalk, Will, ” Joe called back. “Been meaning to have someone take a look at that.”
Will walked behind Joe, stepping around the large pieces of concrete that had been broken away.
“Heaved and broke the winter after I poured that cement.” Joe tapped a smaller chunk with his toe. “Sometimes I think we should just all stay indoors in the winter. Learn to live like bears. Sleep from December to March.”
“Sounds like a great idea to me, Joe. But, umm, I think the sidewalks are still going to heave when it gets cold, even if we’re all sleeping.”
“You know what?” Joe asked, not waiting for an answer. “It’s guys like you who kill good ideas. It’s like you crouch in the bushes with a bayonet, just waiting for some poor sucker with a spark of an idea who’s foolish enough to say it out loud, and then you lunge out and impale it with your superior insight.” Joe was behind the garage now, Will a few steps behind. “You cut right through me, Phillips. It’s a good thing the fellow who invented the wrist watch didn’t know you. Or Marie Curie. Or Al Gore for heaven’s sake.”
“Alright, alright Joe. Point taken. But remember, I get paid to poke holes in things. It’s what I do. Sometimes I forget I’m off the clock.” Will came around the corner of the garage to find Joe next to a Weber grill leaning against the wall with one wheel missing.
“Gotcha, ” he said, grinning.
Will shook his head. “This is it?” He squinted at the rusted cover of the small grill and thought of all the reasons the grill would never light, but thought better of naming them off to his optimistic friend. “Well, let’s see what we can make of it.”
He brushed the leaves off the cover and leaned into the handle to lift it. The cover fought back, hinges whining. He raised his eyebrows at Joe.
“Nothing a little WD-40 can’t fix, ” he smiled.
Will crouched to turn the valve on the gas tank and hesitated with his hand on the knob.
“Rightie-tightie, Will, ” Joe said. “Leftie-loosie.”
“Never has a more useful rhyme been written, ” Will said, “assuming a guy knows which is his left and right.” He struggled against the knob. “Hmm. Won’t budge. Have a vise grips in your garage?”
Joe cupped his hand over his chin and cocked his head. Will waved him off. “Never mind. I have one in my bag. Be right back.”
As he rounded the corner and walked quickly back to the road, his boot caught the lip of one of the sidewalk cracks and he stumbled forward, catching his balance just before he would have tumbled onto the ground. “This is an idea you could have stood to poke a hole in, Phillips, ” he said to himself. “You’re never going to get supper. And you’re never going to get home.”
“Yeah, yeah, ” he answered himself back. “But I’m here now. Nothing much to be done about it but enjoy myself and do a good thing for the old man.”
At times like these, Will felt like Fred Flintstone, caught between a small figure on each shoulder shouting in his ears like the universal balance between good and evil was about to be tipped on his one small act. The Fred-devil stood on one side, jabbing at him with his pitchfork and appealing to his baser instincts while the Fred-angel glistened in white on the other, imploring him to do good.
How did Flintstone manage the voices? Will wondered. How did he reconcile these competing parts of himself—clearly they weren’t external forces but fragments of his own self that cajoled him—each convinced he was independent of the other, wholly separate and able to survive on his own.
Kids in front of the television had no clear understanding of Flintstone’s struggle to survive the competition. As a boy, Will sat for hours and watched the cartoon, never knowing it wasn’t written for children. Hell, it was hardly written for adults. Polarized voices plunged through his ears and into his brain, vying for domination of a man’s psyche, neither willing to give ground to find a common space between them. Flintstone labored in ways a cartoon audience would never appreciate, a man’s man, doing a man’s work in the quarries, wearing a rough-hewn blue necktie and a dress. The man who sported a five o’clock shadow all day long wore a dress.
Keats said it. Perhaps it is the thing that pins all men in some way to the mat: “My mind has been the most discontented and restless one that was ever put into a body too small for it.”
“No, John Keats, ” Will said aloud. “You don’t get that medal. You were not the most restless and discontented one. Believe me. There were others. Are others.”
Will was at his truck now. He grabbed his tool bag from the cab and jogged back to the garage.
“Keats, Joe, ” he said as he got down on one knee next to the grill. “If I ever get this thing going, we need to talk about Keats.”
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination, ” Joe said, eyes closed. He opened them. “That Keats?”
“Yes, yes. That one.” Will clamped his pliers onto the valve and gave it a hard crank. “There you go, Leftie-loosie. Got it.” The knob turned freely. He pulled off the grips and stood up. He punched the ignition button twice with his thumb. “Let’s see what this old baby can do.”
Joe looked inside the grill. “Hmm. Looks like nothing. Push it again, Will?”
Will pushed it again with no response. He pulled his lighter out of his pocket and flicked it, reaching his hand into the grill hoping to catch the stream of gas with his flame.
“Nothing, ” Joe said.
Will got down on the ground and lay on his back, his head next to the tank on the cart. He pushed and pulled on the hose, checking the connections between the tank and the grill.
“I’ll just stay down here by your feet, Will. That way if it blows up I can drag you away form the conflagration by your boots.”
Will lifted his head to look at Joe. Joe smiled.
“Old firefighter tricks. You know.”
“It’s not going to blow up, Joe. There’s no gas coming out.”
“Oh, gosh. And I was just getting in the mood for heroics.”
“I might still need you to drag me out of here, even if I’m not on fire.” Will pulled his head out of the cart, rolled onto his side and pushed up to his knees.
“Aw, you’re still pretty spry. You’ll be fine.” Joe put out a hand to help Will to his feet.
“I don’t know if the line is plugged or if the tank is empty, but it’s not going to go. How long did you say since you used it last?”
“Probably last summer, maybe the summer before, ” Joe said.
Will studied the grill, all of the black paint replaced by rust. He looked back at Joe and wiped his hand across his mouth.
“Oh, who am I kidding? I have no idea. It’s been years. You know that.”
“I’m about hungry enough to eat the steaks raw, Joe. What’s our next step?”
Joe paused. “Charcoal.”
“Charcoal? That’ll take an hour. And do you even have any?”
“Nope. But the store is still open. Get in my truck.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Will asked. “Listen, why don’t we just grab something at the Main Street Café and call it a night?”
“No, I’m not kidding. I eat four meals a week at that café and I’ll be damned if I’m going to eat one there when I could be grilling steaks. Besides, they don’t serve past lunch.”
Joe dangled his keys in front of Will’s nose. “Just get in. Let’s go.”
Will shook his head and looked at the ground while Joe half skipped to his Silverado in the driveway. It was as though Joe’s body was restoring itself in front of him. You started this, Phillips, he thought to himself. You can’t walk away from the old man now.
He smiled at Joe, who was grinning behind the wheel like a teenager ready to go pick up his girl.
“You win.” He climbed in and pulled the door shut. “Let’s go.”
When they got to the grocery store, Joe went in by himself. “I’ve been there once today already, ” Will said. “I think I’ll wait for you here.”
The two men returned to Joe’s house with a bag of self-lighting charcoal.
“Do you have a Little Smoky or something, Joe? Or are you thinking we just pile the briquettes in the driveway?”
“Hmm. Forgot about that part now, didn’t I?” Joe took off his cap and ran his fingers through his white hair. “Let me think.”
Joe opened the door to his garage and disappeared inside. Will waited in the driveway, knowing Joe would come out empty handed.
“Too much junk in there, ” he said when he came out. “If I have one, we won’t find it tonight. Just dump them in the gas grill.”
Will stared at Joe for a long minute, then shrugged and said, “What the hell. You’re the firefighter.”
The two tinkered with the grill until long orange fingers curled around the briquettes. Will stood back with his hands in his pockets admiring their work. “Well, Joe, I think we got her.”
Joe smiled, arms folded across his chest. “Been a while since I actually accomplished something around here, Will. Even if it took some improvising, this is really something.”
“My granddad was an improviser, ” Will said, poking at the charcoal with his wrench. “Used to stay at the lake with him and my grandma when I was a kid. I remember introducing him to s’mores one day after he’d grilled burgers for supper. Told him all about how I’d learned to make them in my camping class at school. He thought they sounded great and wanted to try them out but didn’t have any of the right supplies.”
Will folded the empty charcoal bag in two and dropped it into one of Joe’s silver trash cans. “So we rummaged through the cupboards and found some of the tiny marshmallows and a box of stale vanilla wafers. When my grandma wasn’t looking, he showed us her secret stash of chocolate stars.”
“Every grandma has a secret stash of something, don’t you think?” Joe said. “My grandma used to hide walnuts. Grandpa used to say she was part squirrel.”
Will laughed. “Well, by the time we had it all figured out, the coals had grown cold outside, so we put our makeshift s’mores in the broiler. Burned ‘em to a righteous crisp. They were terrible and wonderful at the same time.”
“There’s much to be said for the circumstances of our experience, Will. The most simple and mundane things can take on deep and memorable dimensions depending on where we are, or with whom, or any number of things.”
“What do you mean, Joe?” Will leaned his back against the garage.
“Well, if I were to serve you charred mounds of cookies and chocolate and marshmallows after dinner tonight, I’d bet you would eat one to be polite, because you’re that well-mannered, but then you’d excuse yourself from any more, probably quip about wanting to keep your girlish figure. The burned treat had meaning that day because your grandfather served them, not some nutty old man you barely know.”
“Probably true, Joe, ” Will said. “Though I have to say no one has tried to serve them to me since.” He smiled.
“But I’ll venture to guess that you have a fondness for chocolate stars. And that you never indulge in them even so.”
Will raised his eyebrows. “You’re good, Joe. Very good. I’ve never thought about it before but yes. I’m fond of chocolate stars but I never eat them.”
“’Touch has a memory, ’ Will. Your man Keats said that.”
“Did he, now?” Will looked up.
“He did. If it had fit into his poem, I think he would have said taste and smell and sound have a memory too.”
“What more is there to say? He said what I’ve been saying. Aesthetics matter. Place matters. Our senses remember and replay these things back to us, to our fingers, or our nostrils, or our tongues.”
Joe looked at Will. Will said nothing.
“Let me give you an example, ” Joe said. “When I was a young man I spent some time in South America. There was a customary tea, a ritual really, the mate. It was served in a communal cup and shared among friends. Nasty stuff. It tasted like burnt pumpkin and was taken boiling hot through a metal straw. Eventually, I acquired a taste for it and brought some home with me. I brewed it in my apartment in Chicago just as I had been taught to do, but it was back to tasting like burnt pumpkin. Well, I’m not the kind of fella who gives up easily, so I tried it again. But this time, I held the mate under my nose and breathed in the steam. As I did, I remembered the steam rising from the tea pot as the cup was refilled. When I ran my finger along the lip of the wooden cup, I felt the brush of a friend’s hand against mine as she passed me the cup. I began to hear the laughter and storytelling from a cold night around a fire next to the Rio Parana, and all of a sudden the tea tasted like mate, not like burnt pumpkin, enough so that I refilled the cup again and again and was transported to that riverbank.”
Joe held out his hand and rubbed his thumb against his fingertips. “Our senses have memory, Will. Memory is physical. It’s embedded into our cells.”
Will stared silently at Joe’s hand, rubbing his own thumb against his fingers with his hand in his pocket, feeling skin against skin. He remembered the feel of Barbara’s skin, a particular spot behind her knee, and despite the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid six feet away, was sure he smelled Chanel Nº 5. Could you have been any more of a cliché, Barbara? he thought.
“Tell you what, Joe, ” Will said. “I want to test this theory of yours and Mr. Keats. Let’s go in and see if we can’t find a bottle opener. I’d like to see what my tongue remembers about Sam Adams.”
Joe clapped his hands together and smiled. “Yes! Let’s go do that.” He started walking up the sidewalk to the house. Will hesitated a moment, watching his happy friend approach the back door, then shook his head lightly and followed.
(to be continued)