The Storyteller: Only a quarter

The horn blasted from a stopped car behind.

“Hey, get that piece of junk out of the road,” a man yelled.

My grandfather’s normally smiling face had stiffened and his eyes squinted as he stared into the rearview mirror. He wore clean light-blue overalls and heavy, worn boots. In his left breast pocket he carried a harmonica and in the right he had a pack of unfiltered cigarettes. The interior of the truck smelled like motor oil and burnt metal. As the honking increased, his fingers tapped incrementally slower on the dashboard, making a sound like slowing heavy raindrops on a wood-shingled roof.

Finally he gave me a slap on the knee.

“Wait here,” he said and then jumped out of the truck.

Unencumbered by a seatbelt, I twisted around and peered out the broad back window. I had no idea why we’d stopped in the middle of the road after passing through the Carquinez Bridge tollbooth, but I was sure he was about to give whoever was honking behind us a piece of his mind, or maybe even worse.

The day had started early.

I had awakened to the muffled sounds of my grandparents’ voices as they talked in the nearby kitchen.

“Rise and shine,” my grandfather’s voice called from down the hallway. “Time to get going — big day ahead of us.”

I nodded into my pillow and then rolled out of bed and dressed quickly. The entire house was already filled with the smell of freshly prepared biscuits and bacon-fat gravy, and both lured me to the brightly lit kitchen with its shiny, sun-yellow Formica countertops.

“Eat up, it’s getting cold,” my grandmother said, gesturing with her lit cigarette toward a single plate on the kitchen table.

I smiled and sat down quickly, intent on devouring my meal, greedily lifting forkfuls of one of the few family traditions I knew.

“Slow down,” my grandmother said. “It lasts longer when you eat slower.”

I looked up to check if she was smiling. She wasn’t. She didn’t smile often, but when she did the gesture was often followed by a subsequent thrusting out of her dentures in what I considered a disturbing display of senescence but what they both seemed to think of as a hilarious act of comedy. I nodded and quickly looked back down to my plate.

“He’s almost 10,” she said, “but the way he eats we might make him into an Okie just yet.”

My grandfather laughed a deep-rolling laugh. I just kept my eyes safely fixed on the plate.

I knew nearly nothing of my family’s history, but from what I could gather, unlike my mother’s side, my father’s parents had not been in California long, having come from Oklahoma to work in the shipyards during World War II. Beyond that, all I knew was “Okieness” seemed somehow connected with having dentures — they both had them — and also associated with a variety of foods that I loved, such as the hearty breakfast I was enjoying that morning and the chewy handmade noodles and creamy chocolate pies that materialized on holidays.

They sat across from me at the small table. He lit a cigarette.

“Big day today,” he repeated. “Good to have the help.”

He reached under the table and squeezed my knee. I jumped and looked up, relieved to see both of them had their teeth still in place.

“You still trying to get that job over in Crockett?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Yep, some new construction over there starting — I’m sure all those new homes need some cast-iron work. Things might be tight now, but you just wait.”

She nodded slowly as she reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette. They then lit it in a sort-of smoker’s kiss, the tips of their cigarettes meeting before hers glowed red.

“I hear the toll workers at the bridge are on strike,” she said, her voice high and tight as she released a stream of smoke.

“Yep,” he said. “I’ve been throwing the quarters into a bucket when I pass.”

My grandmother continued nodding rhythmically. “Buckets,” she repeated.

“Buckets,” he said.

“I bet some people are not paying and just driving through,” she said.

“Might be,” he said.

There was a long pause before she rose from the table.

“Well, you two better be off,” she said. “Gettin' late.”

My grandfather was quiet as we drove first to his shop, where I helped him collect a few of the beautifully crafted, black twisted iron samples of his work. Then, from Benicia and across the Carquinez Bridge, we turned off the main road and stopped at various construction sites. I remained in the truck and listened to an A’s baseball game on a crackling AM radio. The announcer, Bill King, called out his famous “Holy Toledo!” now and again, while my grandfather spoke to a few men, showing them his work. They nodded at first and then invariably shook their heads before he returned and we drove to the next site.

On the way home, after crossing the bridge, he slowed the truck as he reached into his pocket, searching for a quarter. When he pulled out the shiny coin he rubbed it between his fingers for a long time before slipping it back into his pocket as we drove past the unattended tollbooth.

He looked over at me.

“Will we have chocolate pie tonight?” I asked.

He stopped the truck and his face contorted as he shook his head as if he were trying to shake water from his hair. The cars behind us skidded to a stop and began their honking and yelling.

After he’d exited the truck he quickly walked to the bucket filled with coins.

“She’s going to make the biggest pie you ever seen,” he called over the noise.

He stood there poised motionless for what seemed like minutes, honks and yells from behind creating a sort of blanket of sound. He didn’t seem to notice any of it as he finally, seemingly reluctantly, reached back into his pocket and fumbled before he pulled out the quarter. He lifted it toward the sky for a moment and then dropped it into the bucket before returning to the truck.

On the way home he pulled out his harmonica and played a song with one hand while his other held a cigarette and the steering wheel.

“Whipped cream or ice cream with your pie tonight?” he asked before reaching over and squeezing my knee.

“Both,” I said.

He laughed and then went back to playing his song.

We’d have plenty more adventures before he passed a few years later, but that is another story.


Originally published in the St. Helena Star, September 2017