Saturday, June 16, 2012


On June 6, Ray Bradbury passed away.  He was one of the world's great writers, a master fantasist whose words enchanted millions of readers for more than half a century and will go on doing so for as long as people read.  People have been posting for days now about the importance of Bradbury, what he meant to them, their sadness at his passing.  When I sat down to write something about Bradbury, this is what my pen put on the paper.

    "So what do we tell him about Ray?" Ellen asked me.
    "The truth, I suppose.  What else?"
    Jimmy's plane would land in a few hours and we would pick up our grandson and spend the next six weeks enjoying his presence and trying to keep up with a ten-year-old boy who never went anywhere at less than a dead run.
    But this summer there would be something missing.  There would still be the zoo and the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and the carnival that passed through town every summer and the late night drive out past the edge of town, out past the lights with the old telescope that I'd somehow kept since childhood, so that Jimmy could see Mars and Saturn's rings and the double star that was the middle of the Big Dipper's handle.  But part of the daily ritual was over now, because Ray Spaulding had died this week.
    Ellen said, "I don't think he knows anyone who's gone, does he?"
    "No, not that I know of."  Our grandson, at ten, had not yet been touched by death.  He had not yet lost a pet or a friend or a family member.  The people important to him were still in their proper places.  Death was something he knew only from movies and stories, from the occasional roadside animal struck down by traffic -- it was an abstraction, a concept only.  But this summer it would become real for him because Ray Spaulding was gone.
    Ray Spaulding was a writer; he'd written fantasy and science fiction since the late 1940s, he was famous in his field though not widely known outside of it, and he was still active though not at anything like the pace of forty or fifty years ago.  He'd grown up near here and had moved back a few years ago, the same summer that Jimmy's annual visits had begin.
    Jimmy had never known his father, and his mother, though devoted to him, had to work.  While she spent her evenings and weekends with him, a chunk of that time was eaten by necessary household chores.  The company she worked for had inventory and other end-of-year processes late each June, so a few years back, we'd started keeping him for six weeks in the summer.  Ellen and I were retired, and while we were slowing down, we were still able to do things with him, like the zoo and the carnival.
    One afternoon that first summer, as Jimmy played in the sprinkler on the front lawn, he ran through the spray and then kept going, out of our yard and into the next, stopping at our new neighbor's front steps, and I heard him say, "Hi.  I'm Jimmy.  What's your name?"
    Ray Spaulding sat in a chair on his front porch, enjoying the summer sun and smiling at the soaking wet seven-year-old boy.  "I'm Ray.  Do you live near here?"
    I caught up to Jimmy.  "The grandson," I said.  "We've got him for six weeks."
    "Good for you," Ray said.  Then he looked at Jimmy again.  "So.  Jimmy, is it?  What do you like to do?"
Some kids are shy; Jimmy was not one of them.  And what he liked to do burst out of him, the words tripping over each other in Jimmy's rush to answer Ray Spaulding's question.  The words poured forth so quickly that Ellen and I could hardly understand everything Jimmy was saying.  But Ray didn't seem to have any trouble with the torrent, and while Ray was old now and visibly frail there was in his eyes as he looked at our grandson more than a touch of the child he once must have been, the child that perhaps he had never forgotten how to be.
    And for the next hour, Jimmy and Ray talked about dinosaurs and magic tricks and comic books and Halloween and ghosts and what might be on the dark side of the moon.  Whatever Jimmy brought up, Ray seemed to know of it.  Ellen and I were old, and so was Ray -- he was older than we were by perhaps twenty years -- but Ellen and I thought of ourselves as old now, and standing there listening to Ray and Jimmy it seemed that Ray could never have thought of himself as old, had kept his sense of endless youth through all the decades of his life.
    Some time spent talking with Uncle Ray became part of the daily ritual for Jimmy during his summer visits.  Every day, at some point, of a morning or afternoon, or sometimes after dark with the moon full and the fireflies challenging Jimmy to catch them as they winked at him on the front lawn, he would sit and talk a while with Ray Spaulding.  And later, Ellen and I would find ourselves with Jimmy at the bookshop or the library, getting a copy of Treasure Island or Oliver Twist or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and we would read to him at night until he fell asleep.  Some of the words in these books had to be going right by him, but Ray had told him enough about the stories that he listened, rapt, the whole time.  One afternoon, after he'd talked about dinosaurs with Ray, Jimmy asked us about two movies, and we took him to the video store and found copies of the original King Kong and The Lost World.  Jimmy was spellbound by them, and so were we; neither Ellen nor I had seen those movies in decades.
    On Jimmy's next visit, he was still happy to spend time with Ellen and me, but the main attraction for him was the chance to spend some time with Ray Spaulding.  Ray told him of things we would never have remembered to tell him, things we might not have thought important enough to pass on.  Ellen and I could remember the trains that had run so often between the lonely prairie towns where we'd grown up -- Ray remembered the smell of the coal-fired engines, lingering for a while in the hot still air of summer after the trains had passed by.  We could remember that we'd run and played in woods that seemed, when we were ten or eleven, to go on for miles even though they were probably not nearly as deep as we thought -- Ray remembered those woods and he remembered the tree-houses that our parents had never seen, remembered nights spent in high branches or in tents in clearings with ghost stories accompanied by the moaning of lonely night winds and the glow of eyes just beyond the reach of firelight.  We could speak of some of these things to our grandson, but Ray knew them.  To us they were memories, fading as we ourselves were beginning to fade -- Ray knew them as if he were still the child to whom they were all as new as today's sunrise.  To us they were dead leaves pressed in scrapbooks, but to him everything from all those years gone by was fresh and alive and flowing from him to Jimmy, and Ellen and I couldn't begin to express how much we envied him that gift, that capacity to capture all those details from all those decades and pass them on apparently so effortlessly.
    Gone now.  And we knew that we were going to miss Ray Spaulding as much as Jimmy would.  While we didn't see him every day when Jimmy wasn't here, we would see him sitting out on his front porch at least two or three evenings a week in good weather, and spend a little time talking with him.  We found him as captivating as our grandson did, and if Ray found us as dull and stodgy as we thought we must be in comparison, he never let on.
    And now we had to tell Jimmy that he wouldn't be seeing Ray any more.
    There had been no time to prepare him for it, no time to call and let his mother break the news.  We'd been away for ten days, visiting friends in Phoenix, and Ray had a stroke and died the night we'd left and by the time we got back home the night before Jimmy's arrival, it was all over.  The family had made the arrangements, Ray had been buried next to his wife in Eugene, Oregon, and Ray's son and daughter were going through paperwork and possessions as they prepared to close up and sell the house, and we didn't realize what had happened until this morning and Jimmy was already on his way here.
    When we picked him up at the airport, he was already bursting.  He was ready for the zoo, of course, and the telescope, and the Fourth's fireworks, and all the things he wanted to tell Uncle Ray and all the things he wanted to ask Uncle Ray.  As we pulled into the driveway, he immediately noticed the two cars parked in front of Ray's house and asked who was visiting.  We went inside and sat in the front room.  We didn't know how to tell him, so we just told him.  "Jimmy," I said, "Mr. Spaulding died last week.  He's gone, son."
    No tears, just silence and a look of solemnity that seemed to me beyond a child's capacity.  Then Jimmy said, "He said that might happen because he was old and he was sick.  But he never seemed old."  He was silent again for a few moments.  "Will we visit his grave?" he asked.
    "I'm afraid not.  His grave's quite a long way from here."
    Nobody said anything then, and finally Ellen and I said almost in unison, "Are you hungry after your trip?"
    Jimmy said he was, and we fixed ham sandwiches and lemonade and took them out on the front porch.  The porch swing and the trees gave us shade for now but the sun and the clear sky promised heatstroke weather by late afternoon.  We talked a little as we ate, talked of inconsequentialities, about anything but Ray Spaulding.
    We were almost finished with lunch when the front door of Ray's house opened and Ray's son and daughter, Dennis and Barbara, stepped out.  They noticed us and waved, and then stepped back inside.  When they emerged again, Dennis was carrying a box.  They came to our porch, smiling.
    Dennis said, "I'm thinking that you'd be Jimmy.  Am I right?"
    Jimmy nodded, and Dennis continued, "Well, Mr. Spaulding was our father, and he told us about seeing you here the last few summers.  Did your grandparents tell you what happened?"
    "We're going to be around another couple of days, going through things."  He hefted the box and smiled more broadly at Jimmy, and I was struck by how much he resembled his father -- something in his eyes, and much of that resemblance was there in Barbara's eyes too.  "Our dad said he'd been telling you about books and other things, and we think he'd have liked you to have these."  He put the box down next to the front door.  "Maybe your grandparents will read these to you later.  Okay, Jimmy?"
    To us, he said, "We'll be in and out of here the next couple of days -- we'll stop by before we lock the place up and leave, if that's all right."
    "Of course."
    And they were off, and in a little while we went inside, bringing the box with us.  Jimmy made no move to open it, and neither did we.  It was the last he had of Uncle Ray and he was in no hurry to use it up.  He didn't open the box that day or the next, and we didn't say anything about it.  I'm not sure that we really wanted to see it opened either.
    Years ago, after the death of my father, I ended up in possession of a box of his things.  There were half a dozen of his favorite books, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart he'd won during World War II, some photographs of people I didn't recognize, and a packet of letters he'd received from a few of his army buddies as well as some letters he'd send them, returned to him after their deaths I suppose, and some newspaper clippings of obituaries.  Without Dad present, these objects had seemed like simply debris from his life, cast-off things already crumbling to dust.
    We wondered if Jimmy somehow felt that opening his gift from Ray would let whatever remained of him escape into final oblivion, leaving only a box of discarded toys that would one day seem like clutter rather than holy relics.  Maybe Jimmy was afraid to open the box; I'm sure that I was.
    Two days after Dennis and Barbara had given Jimmy the package, they knocked on our door to let us know they were leaving.  "We'd like to tell you again how much Dad enjoyed your grandson's visits," Barbara said.  "And your company as well."
    Dennis was looking at Jimmy.  "Did you like your package?" he said.
    "I didn't open it yet," Jimmy told him.
    Dennis didn't seem surprised by that, and I thought that somehow he knew just what Jimmy thought would happen if he opened the box, that he also knew what I'd felt about my father's things.
    "He read stories to you, didn't he, Jimmy?" Dennis said.  Jimmy nodded and Dennis continued.  "He read to us too.  All the time.  He read to us from Dickens and Verne and Wells and Melville and Poe and Burroughs.  He read us short stories and whole novels and poetry.  He read us books that we couldn't have fully understood or appreciated at our age, but it was clear that he loved the things he read us, so clear that we loved them too.  But he always read to us from other writers; he never read us his own stories.  When we were your age or a little older, he showed us the books he wrote, just to let us know they were there.  He knew that we'd read them some day because they were his, but in the meantime there were all these other writers he wanted us to meet."
    Jimmy, still silent, looked from Dennis to the box.
    "When Dad was a little bit older than you," Dennis said, "he went to a carnival, and one of the carnival people told him to live forever.  And he will, as long as people read what he wrote."
    "Is that what's in the box?  His books?" Jimmy said.
    "And some others, but yes, his books are there.  When you feel like you're ready, open the box and read them.  He wrote them for you."
    Dennis stood and looked at me and Ellen.  "We'll be going now.  It was nice meeting all of you."
    "And you both," Ellen said.  "And again, our sympathies."
    Barbara said goodbye to Jimmy, and moments later they were gone, leaving an empty house next door and a package, waiting to be opened, on the coffee table.
    Jimmy stepped to the coffee table and opened the box; he began removing the contents, stacking the paperbacks and comics neatly on the table as he did, and stacking Ray's titles separately.  He picked one of Ray's titles from the stack and handed it to me.  "Grandpa, will you read me this one?"
    We sat on the sofa, Jimmy between me and Ellen, and I opened the book and began to read:  "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."
    And I kept reading, as enthralled as my grandson, long into the warm summer night.


Note: Ray Spaulding, of course, is and is not Ray Bradbury.  Spaulding is unknown outside the genre, while Bradbury was world-famous.  Spaulding returns to live a few of his last years in the area where he'd been a boy, while Bradbury did not.  Spaulding has a son and a daughter; Bradbury had four daughters and I have no idea what stories he read to them.  Both Spaulding and Bradbury loved books and reading, and both had retained the sense of wonder they'd had in boyhood, and both had been able to communicate that wonder to readers of all ages.  The book that the narrator begins reading to Jimmy at the end of the story is Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes; if you haven't read it, or The Martian Chronicles, or The Illustrated Man, or The October Country, or Dandelion Wine, or so many of his others, you're cheating yourself.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Keep 'em clean and civil and we'll all be happy.