January 2014 - Comments Off

Breadcrumbs

Andrew Plimpton '14

My grandfather used to leave me trails of breadcrumbs. He would leave the house holding a loaf of bread, dropping crumbs behind him. I would follow at a distance, eating the crumbs as they fell. These journeys took us all around my grandparents’ spacious property, which was separated from the beach by a deep thicket of thorn bushes and trees, wherein lay paths to the beach, an aging boathouse, docks, and other houses. Sometimes we trespassed on the lawns of our neighbors, but we were never caught. When we reached a stopping place – such as a stump, an abandoned tree house, or a rock garden – my grandfather would leave me what remained of the bread loaf as a treat, then depart without a word.

This game began, with no explanation, the summer I turned seven. Back then I had a problem with eavesdropping, spying, and sneaking into places where I was not welcome. I got in trouble for this at home and at school, but it was never so bad as when we went to visit my grandparents at their house by the beach. There I could spy on all my relatives easily, for the house was old and large and there were many places to hide. That being said, I was almost always caught, and was consequently a source of great embarrassment to my parents and a nuisance to the rest of the family. Though I will never know for sure, I believe that my grandfather invented this game to keep me occupied – he saw how bored I was as the youngest of his seven grandchildren, and knew that some attention on his part could keep me out of trouble. He always had sympathy for the youngest, for he had been the youngest himself. But since we never spoke of these journeys with breadcrumbs before he died, I will never know.

This tradition ended rather abruptly the summer I turned eight, on a day I remember vividly. It may have been the hottest day of that summer; in several days a massive storm would break the heat. That day my grandfather left the house holding no loaf of bread, dropping no breadcrumbs behind him. I followed him anyway. He opened the door of the sunset porch and walked across the grass towards the deep thicket of bushes wherein lay paths leading to the beach. Once his dark torso was barely visible through the green, I set out after him.

It was late afternoon, hot and dry, bright light glistening off the slick green leaves of the bushes. I set my foot down on the splintered boardwalk – first my toes, then, gradually, the rest of my foot. I proceeded slowly and steadily, making little noise. My grandfather’s dark, hunched shape glided among the bushes. He didn’t look back. I laughed softly.

When I was older, I learned that my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, imported strange plants and trees from all over the world and surrounded the house with them. Back then, trees with twisted trunks loomed large above my head with no explanation. Bushes with oddly colored flowers flanked me, hissing with hidden insects. My mother forbid me to walk these paths, for they were strewn with tics, insects, thorns and poison ivy. My grandfather seemed to know them by heart, for he walked them frequently and had many friends in the area.

My grandfather and I never spoke to each other of our journeys with breadcrumbs. We seldom spoke at all. He would sit in his study, behind glasses and books, other times surrounded by strange and distinguished adults he invited. Sometimes he and I would encounter each other alone in one of the house’s long halls. We would stop, size each other up, his brown eyes wide, then he would mumble a few words to me in his deep voice. I would say a few back, then we would continue on our separate ways.

Soon I was crouching low, my head among the dark thorns where I would bring my action figures and pretended that they lived in thorn castles. I ducked down and bobbed up, looking for my grandfather’s feet, then his torso, gliding through the bushes like a ghost. Through the buzz of insects, the lapping of the waves, and the hum of distant speedboats, I heard nothing but the steady thump of my grandfather’s feet and the beat of my own small heart against my ribs.

Eventually my grandfather stopped. I looked up at him from my hideout in the bushes. He stood at the base of the ascending dune, where the foreign thorn bushes mixed with the tall wispy beach grass. Here the sound of the sea was louder, the smell of salt stronger. Before my grandfather lay a fork in the path, one path lead to a dock on the far end of the beach, another continuing along the ridge of the dune towards houses I had never seen. Places where I think my cousins had gotten in trouble for breaking things. Signs that said “No Trespassing” and “Boathouse.”

Here the bushes faded into beach grass and the path, once curving and twisted, now proceeded straight along the ridge of the dune. I could see my grandfather in his entirety, head to foot, and we walked on sand instead of wood. I hung low as not to be seen by people on my left. I assumed that everyone on the beach saw my grandfather in his black suit, red tie, and white shirt gliding through the grass.

Because I crouched so low I saw nothing but my grandfather for a long time. The afternoon light began to wane. I started looking behind me, wondering if I should go back, wondering when dinner was. I realized that we were no longer on my grandparents’ property. My grandfather did not once look back.

My grandparents’ house was a curious place. Old and spacious, it served as a gathering place for the family in the summertime. I have many fond memories of the place – much of my youth was spent haunting its closets and corridors, and when I was older I spent most of the time at the beach with my cousins. But even as a child I was dimly aware of the aura of hostility that pervaded this place when my entire family was present. This hostility is almost impossible to place, for very few visible arguments took place between the adults, and everyone’s attitude towards each other was, for the most part, friendly. Furthermore, it was not the absence of love; it was merely something that stood in its way. It surfaced behind closed doors, when feuds erupted about such trivial subjects as who got to sleep in what room, though they never grew into actual confrontations. Relatives came to my grandmother with complaints about one another, and she tried desperately to make everyone happy, while my grandfather sat behind his spectacles and took no notice.

My grandfather’s shape disappeared down a slope ahead of me. I ran to catch up, hurrying down the tunnel of beach grass in the waning light.

The path ended before a drop off in the dune, almost like a slanted cliff of sand. Straight ahead stood the house into which my grandfather disappeared.

This house was not unlike my grandparents’ beach house, not unlike many others in the vicinity. Shingles grey and weathered from the ocean air, white shutters, screen doors with shiny black metal handles. Other doors tall and white with curved archways and shiny, golden brass handles. Silk curtains behind slightly open windows.

And yet it was not my grandparents’ house. It was like looking down at silverware in a guest’s house – yes still a fork, but slightly off, not a fork as I have always known forks. A tall black weathervane stood dark and austere atop the grey--shingled thin roof against the sky. The sun was beginning to set.

I looked behind me. I could no longer see the place where the path began, only the long hall of seagrass. I looked at the deepening color of the sky. I thought of my mom. My dad. Dinner. A lone gull cried somewhere. A cormorant flew low, skimming the surface of the sea. I looked at the gaunt, sharp angled house. I trotted along the thin curved path towards it.

Empty chairs sat on a porch overlooking the sea. Beyond this porch stood a screen door through which my grandfather had presumably disappeared. The hot wood stung my feet. The hot handle of the screen door stung my hand. I put my hand in my mouth to suck away the pain as I squeezed through the door. It creaked like an old person waking up. The hinges were red with rust.

I stood in a pantry, much like the one in my grandparents’ house. But it was different. The fridge and stove were in different places. The window looking out onto the beach was smaller, only letting in a thin stream of light. My heart beat faster. I thought of my mom. I thought of dinner. I thought of my bed.

An open cookie jar sat on the table in the center of the room. There were still cookies left. Dark brown, rectangular Pepperidge farm cookies with indents in the middle. I looked from side to side, tiptoed up to the jar. Stuck my hand in. Took out five.

Then I heard a sound above me. Footsteps, slow and methodical, my grandfather’s gait. I stood still. I heard only his footsteps, my beating heart, the waves and the wind outside. He seemed to pass over me, then his steps grew quieter as he moved away. I tucked the cookies in between my underpants and my skin, because I had no pockets. I went in search of stairs.

When I was older, I learned that I was not the only one of the grandchildren who had a problem with sneaking. We were all of us infected with a peculiar breed of restlessness that I find difficult to place. Sammy, four years my senior, used to steal signs that said “No Tresspassing” and “Boathouse” from a particularly mean neighbor, and swim incognito into the ocean. He often got in trouble with these neighbors – they called my grandparents with complaints many times. Amanda and Laura, my two oldest cousins, used to go streaking at night on the greens of wealthy golf clubs. They were never caught.  My older sister used to snoop around in my grandmother’s make up drawer, and even though my grandmother found this amusing, my parents were furious with her.

Furthermore all seven of us, at some point, tried to sneak into the master bedroom, where my grandparents slept. Not only was it the largest room in the house, but it was almost always closed. Whenever we snuck in, we could see some of the oldest furniture in the house, such as an old white dresser and the largest mirror I have ever seen, and we were given access to a balcony that we could only see from the outside.

Even now, it is difficult for me to explain exactly why we all had this problem, but when I try to think of an explanation, the first thing that comes to my head is the tall white door to the master bedroom.

I turned the corner of the pantry to find a dark brown set of stairs, with a low white ceiling, like a tunnel. The stairs curved up and led to a long hallway with an oriental rug. At the end of the hallway stood a door, slightly ajar. From behind it came murmurs. These were the only sounds in the house.

I approached the door slowly, heel on the carpet first, then the rest of my foot. The long white door loomed larger as I came nearer, the murmurs became louder. One voice was clearly my grandfather’s, the other I did not recognize, it sounded like a woman. I could not hear what they were saying. It was not a steady conversation, the murmurs would come and go, mimicking each other, then lapsing into silence.

The glass doorknob was level with the base of my neck. I could hear murmurs and movement, chuckles, still no words. The crack in the door was just my size, as though this had been planned. I slipped through it.

I found myself in the antechamber of a master bedroom, much like that of my grandparents, staring at quaint, green wallpaper. To my right stood a small dressing room with a white dresser and a white rimmed mirror. To my left a white door with a glass doorknob, slightly ajar, like the door I had just passed through. The door was all that separated me from the noises I heard – the voice of my grandfather, and that of the mysterious woman, but I still could not understand what they were saying. I tiptoed closer to the door, and peaked my head through. This is what I saw.

My grandfather stood at the foot of a king size bed, completely naked except for a dark, rumpled leather mask. In his hand he held something long and dark. He looked like one of my action figures.

On the bed lay a naked woman, much younger than he, but older than my mother. They could have seen me if they had merely turned their heads to the side, but they were watching each other.

What passed between them I did not yet have words to describe, save that it was fast and violent, and, as soon as it started, I ceased to recognize my grandfather.  They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I couldn’t tell why. I ran and did not look behind me.

Once, when I was very young, I threw sand in my best friend’s eyes. I did not do it maliciously. I did it to see what would happen and, as strange as it sounds, I had no idea what this would do. But when he began crying and my teachers sternly approached me, I was seized by such an overwhelming sense of guilt that I did not stop apologizing to him for weeks, and I asked my parents every night if I was a bad person because of what I had done.

It was this same feeling that seized me as I ran frantically down the path back to the house, only this time it was stronger and I could not tell what I had done wrong. The sun had almost set, and the path was now held in dim shadow. I was panting, I was tripping, I could barely see my way. But the image of my grandfather wearing the mask shone again and again in my mind, lighting the darkness like a flare gun, and I did not stop. Now, there was no avoiding the thorns and splinters, no avoiding the poison ivy and the tics. I ran as though my grandfather chased me, breathlessly, apologizing with every step.

Sometime after the sun had set, I walked into the living room of my grandparents’ house, where the whole family, except for my grandfather, had gathered. I was panting, my legs were covered with scratches and bruises. I burst into tears.

Somehow my parents whisked me away from my prying relatives and up to my room, where they tried to coax some answers from me – where had I been, why hadn’t I told them I was going, what happened. Every so often my sister would peek into the room and try to take matters into her own hands, convinced that she and she alone could get me to talk, and every time my father led her gently from the room. I told them nothing. Fixed in my mind was the image of my grandfather in the leather mask, and so long as I saw him there, I would not open my mouth.

Eventually my mother gave up and held me as I cried, my face buried deep in her sweater, and my father’s firm hand clasped my shoulder. When my tears had subsided, they brought me down to dinner.

The hum of conversation came to an abrupt halt as I took my seat at the long dining room table. I was starving, I didn’t realize how long it had been since I last ate, nor how fast I had run. I had just picked up my fork when I heard a deep voice come from the head of the table.

“Are you feeling better, Oliver?”

My grandfather was back, sitting at the head of the table beside my grandmother. Our eyes met briefly. Before my parents could stop me, I bolted from the room towards the beach.

I was watching the dark ocean rise and fall, wondering if I could swim my way back home, when my mother shined a flashlight on my back, and for a brief moment the waves shone brighter than the rest of the night. This time, she asked no questions. She put her hand on my shoulder and we walked for a long time, picking up my favorite shells and putting them in a plastic bucket. When we were done, we sat by the shore and listened to the steady rhythm of the sea. Eventually, my breathing slowed, and my mother led me up to bed.

The whole house seemed to have gone to sleep as we walked down the long, dark hallway where the children’s rooms were. These rooms used to be servants’ quarters. Consequently all of them had sinks in them that no longer worked. When we got to my room, we turned the light on. There, on my sheets, lay a loaf of bread.

At first, I was filled with rage. I picked up the loaf of bread and threw it against the wall. I was going to stomp on it when my mother grabbed me and told me to stop.

“What are you doing, Oliver? Crumbs are getting all over the floor. Here,” she picked it up. “I’ll throw it away.”

Then, moved by some irrational force, I seized the loaf of bread from her hands, and begged her to let me keep it.

That night, I clutched it to me as I went to sleep.

Published by: in Issue 1: Fall 2013, Prose, Volume 70

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