The 4th Pip: The Early Years — Part III
At ten years of age, Red finds an unexpected benefactor, struggles with sock garters, and clutches a broken record player to his chest.
Revival on the Front Lawn
Red’s grandmother was staring out of the guest bedroom window. The lawnmower that woke her, then kept her up, had, mercifully, puttered out of gas. She had scissor-kicked her way out of the bed to see — with her own eyes — exactly who was mowing a lawn at 7:00AM on a Saturday morning.
Her grandson, the culprit, was the one mowing the lawn at 7:00AM on a Saturday morning. He wasn’t done either. She saw the boy topping up the self-propelled mower with gas from a metal gasoline canister.
It was a sight.
The lawn looked like it had been visited at half time by a distraught football coach. Endless arrows and directional half-moon markings had been mown into peculiar, but clearly not random hieroglyphics. The grass patches were already mown down to an inadvisably-deep yellow.
Impossibly, her grandson wore a powder-blue, ruffle-chested suit and dress shoes. Her mind didn’t know where to start.
After five pulls on the cord, one of which set the boy free like he’d let go of a spaceship tether, the boy fired the engine up. Three feet in, he let go of the auto-propel handle, allowed the mower to drift towards the lawn’s edge. He dropped into rear fade #1, drop back, arm rotate forward #12, arm rotate backward #3 and reconnected with the auto-propel a second before the mower crossed into the neighbor’s yard. In this fashion, he continued about the lawn retracing hieroglyphics, lifting and depositing the mower like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers.
A quarter of an hour of this.
He mowed. She stared. He danced.
From time to time, he lost his balance on a move and careened into thick grass. The mower would choke up, the noise level would drop, and his grandmother would hear sudden bursts of backup singing from I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
“Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa, I gotta go… gotta go…. gotta go…. gotta…”
Without taking her eyes for a second off of the front lawn, she groped for a stool.
Twirl, shimmy, tightly hunched rapid in-place jog…
She would later learn that it took him four tanks of gasoline to exhaust every move of his “Volume 1 of My Diary of Pips Moves.”
And then, at last, moments before the lawnmower ran out of gas for the last time, he allowed it to traverse solo across the width of the lawn. It carved its way over the mowed and un-mowed.
His voice rose even over the din now.
Not too much longer would you be mine… Heard it!… (heard it!) Yes I am! (yes I am!)
Then chug, chug, putter, putter, neighbor’s shed, out of gas.
It was a revival.
On the front lawn.
Red’s grandmother didn’t leave her room for the rest of the day.
A Woman of Astrological Vision
For dinner she emerged with dramatic solemnity.
She only spoke when the dishes were cleared, at which point she got up from her chair, stood in the kitchen doorway, and examined the door jamb critically.
“I would like everyone’s attention,” she commanded.
“Red, you now have a benefactor. I will purchase something for your journey to Pipdom every time I visit. I will continue this as long as your height moves up this self-same doorway.” She pointed to a height roughly in the vicinity of 6’2”. “And a day shall come when you shall grow no more, and on that day I will set myself free.”
The revival spirit was strong in her — she was a woman of astrological vision — but any reasonable person would admit she got carried away. It was better to listen to her “music” than her “lyrics” her daughter would say.
But she meant business.
“Put your shoes on. Don’t cheat yourself out of a free gift,” she insisted, grabbing the boy by his narrow shoulders and positioning him firmly against the door jamb. Ordered to do so, her son-in-law retrieved a now familiar pencil tucked deep into its kitchen drawer. The first rough scratch was marked.
“There,” she said without looking at anyone. “And on the day you reach your resting height, my vision will be complete. I shall pass at that very moment.” It was a lot even for a ten-year-old who was something of a child of vision himself.
“You shall indeed,” said Red formally. “You shall indeed.” They both spoke like Bibles.
Before turning off his bedside light that evening, she let the boy know that, in her day she could start a lawnmower with a single pull. Then she tucked him in so tight he couldn’t rotate away from the grandmothery perfume and the goodnight kissing. The woman had a vise grip, and she kissed like a machine.
“Your book title is certainly a mouthful,” she noted from the doorway. “Is there a Volume II?”
“Hmm,” she said and then repeated that sound several times at varying pitches. “I’m not sure The Pips will be able to keep up.”
Family Vacation Headphones
“You should have heard him speaking tonight,” his grandmother said to her daughter. “He is ten-years-old. He dances and sings like he is twenty, and he speaks like he’s forty. He is an old soul. A very old soul. A Pisces.”
These conversations were entirely too much for Red’s father. He retreated to his wingback chair and put on his “family-vacation” headphones. The twirly, twelve-foot Radio Shack cable snaked behind the television, around his standing ashtray, below his chair, and over top of the Columbia House records.
His entire household was out of control in some spectacular way thanks to the Record Club. They were now sending him records that he hadn’t even selected twice a month.
The boy made a steady, but unspectacular pencil-marked ascent up the kitchen doorway. His grandmother’s arrival became an event. It was marked by an immediate measurement before she’d barely set her bags down at the front door. Their joint venture was as thrilling for the both of them as the weigh-in in for a title fight.
By 5’2” Red had received an LP with companion matching cassette for every album Gladys Knight and the Pips had ever recorded. Red’s closet had filled with a polyester suits for each pencil scratch on the height ruler. Powder blue, champagne yellow, a brown that stubbornly resisted adjectives, wide suit collars, wider suit collars. Platform shoes for stability, smooth flats for the electric slide, and quite unexpectedly, sock garters.
The sock garters came directly from his late grandfather’s top dresser drawer. They were presented to Red in quiet ceremony, his grandmother choking up and covering her lips with the one-finger silence gesture. The gift was moving for the both of them. The boy tried them on. He struggled with the length adjusters, but not so much as to spoil the moment.
“We need to keep the rear toe-lift sock flashes clean,” his grandmother explained. She’d now regained her composure. “Your socks are bunching. It’s all detail,” she said with her vise-grip, straight-jacketing him into his bed.
“I can imagine your grandfather right here with us,” she whispered and quickly returned her index finger to her lips.
A Stub of Pencil
By ninth grade, Red’s home was in domestic free-for-all.
When it got particularly challenging, Red’s father would tap his pipe so hard on his overflowing stand-up ashtray that ash would puff up into small storm clouds. And on account of frayed Radio Shack wiring, his “family-vacation” headphones only worked when he tilted his head like a confused dog.
Meanwhile, Red’s mother had been influenced by “wacky ideas.” Liberated was the word she chose.
“For that matter you can iron your own shirts and empty your own ashtray.” She’d taken to going on offense. At the time she was ordering him to raise his feet as she pushed her vacuum — on purpose he insisted — straight into his records under the wingback chair. Still, she cleaned. She balanced point-making rudeness with the need to keep the house in order when her mother was coming to town.
This pace continued until Red’s height locked onto its final destination of 5’4”. It was clear Red was fully grown. He was seventeen years of age. After seeing this and double and triple-checking, his grandmother put her finger to her lips and passed away in the kitchen doorway. Everything was exactly as foretold.
She died clutching the Columbia House pencil.
A Diamond-Encrusted Walking Cane
In the reading of the will, there was one final surprise. Her attorney reached beneath his desk and then presented the boy with a glistening walking cane. It was the actual diamond-encrusted walking cane that William Guest — Pip #2 as he was numbered in Volume I of My Diary of Pips Moves — held on the Christmas Celebration album cover.
“The very cane,” the sixteen-year-old told his parents, staring at it in amazement. And with this last grand gesture, his grandmother, also a Pisces, somewhere set herself free.
A Broken Record Player
That evening Red locked himself in his closet.
He clutched a broken record player against his ruffled blue tuxedo shirt, a shirt, by the way, that still fit him.
“I can imagine you here with me,” Red whispered and pressed his index finger to his lips.
Feel something. Twice a week.