Things in my grandparents’ house, when I was staying there in the summers as a kid, only ever happened without warning. The way I sometimes imagined their lives was as ivy vining its way up a wall: every turn had a reason for it, shadow blocking sunlight or better rainfall on the east side, but the turns were never premeditated, and the plant never stopped creeping forward, never stopped to reflect, never looked back.
It came as no surprise, then, when my grandfather came into the den one July morning and told me that we were going to Chicago to see my aunt.
“When are we leaving?” I asked.
“How fast can you make yourself a lunch and eat it?”
An hour later we were in the old Toyota minivan. I’d brought along my sleeping bag, which I’d carefully packed into its carrying case, and a few days’ changes of clothes, and my new book, and I’d zipped them all into the rolling suitcase I’d borrowed from my dad. I couldn’t help but be a little irritated when I saw what my effort was worth: my grandparents had thrown their sleeping bags, held in crude rolls by rubber bands, right onto the floor of the trunk, and my grandfather had thrown some tubes of oil paint and a drip-prone bottle of turpentine right on top of my suitcase.
I sat in the back seat as we drove along I-94. It was a sunny afternoon, and the flatland around gave the sun room to sprawl out over the fields of corn and wheat and soybeans. As we got further and further from the city, I put my head against the seat belt and closed my eyes, and behind my eyelids there was a sheet of bright red. I thought of Virginia, of all the fun the other kids were having back home right now. They were probably in the pool, and reading on hammocks stretched out in backyards. Nobody in Virginia knew much about Michigan, except that it snowed there in the winters and that Detroit was a mess. Sometimes I found myself embarrassed to tell my friends what I was doing for the summer.
I woke to red lines on my face from having slept on the seat belt and my grandmother saying: “Lindsey? Are you awake?”
“I am,” I said, because my grandmother, who’d brought a volume of Remembrance of Things Past along on the trip to read, didn’t like it when I said yeah.
“We’re getting off the interstate,” she said. “We’re going to go search for strawberries.”
“Is there a time we’re supposed to be in Chicago?” I asked her.
“Probably not until seven or so,” she said.
It had rained the day before, but the country roads were still somehow dusty. Out the window, I saw the faint hint of a storm on the horizon. It was just a line of grayish black, hanging dimly in the east, but in contrast with the rest of the sky, still baby-blue and cirrus-flecked, it looked like a threat.
“Look over there,” I said to my grandfather, pointing. “Shouldn’t we get back on the interstate?”
“It’s just the trailing edge,” he said.
“How do you know that?” I asked him.
“There’s a sign over there, Bill,” said my grandmother, pointing to the west. She was right: a wooden sign, painted red with white letters reading:
STRAWBERRIES — PACKAGE OR “U-PIK” — “FRESH FRESH FRESH”
hung over a barn. My grandfather managed to imbue even the act of flicking on his turn signal with his casual air, and we pulled off the two-lane road onto a long gravel driveway.
“Don’t seem to be many people here today,” said my grandmother. In the parking lot at the end of the drive, I could only spot three or four cars, mostly pickup trucks. “Their loss,” my grandfather said, and he pointed with his thumb to the fields to our left, where we could see row after row of berries, small and a winey crimson.
When we pulled into the parking lot, though, we could see why there were so few people at the farm: the table had a sign that said “ALL OUT: SORRY!”, and the gate to the patches had a chain over it.
“Guess we’re out of luck,” I said. I checked my watch, a waterproof one my mother had given me for my last birthday. The strawberries had looked beautiful, but I was eager to get back on the interstate. If we got in at seven, I’d still have a few hours after dinner to lie on my sleeping bag, rolled out carefully on the floor of my aunt’s basement, and read my book.
“Lindsey,” my grandfather said to me, hunching down a bit to look me in the eye although I was in the middle of a growth spurt and was inching up on him day by day, “you wanna hop the fence?”
“I don’t think we’re supposed to,” I said.
“It’d just be a few strawberries,” he said. “No harm to anyone. We’d leave five dollars on the table. Don’t they look gorgeous?”
“I don’t know,” I said, worried. “I think it’s wrong.”
“If she doesn’t want to, don’t force her, sweetie,” my grandmother said.
“Sal…” my grandfather said, sighing.
“She’s twelve. She can choose for herself.”
“Eleven,” I corrected.
Eventually, my grandfather gave in with a shrug and a shake of the head and a look in his eyes that all but said Lord, kids today, and we got back into the van.
This was what we did for hours on end: see a sign, check it out, leave empty-handed. The NPR station would crackle out, and my grandparents would find another, with a light, fresh buzz of static always in the background. The storm, the so-called trailing-edge storm, creeped on forward. It looked ripe. Ready to burst.
I worried, and my worry, after one wrong turn too many, curdled into anger. I was old enough to know that I could never stop loving my grandparents, and this bothered me, because they were being obnoxious enough that no longer loving them would be a relief. It would let me spend my summers back in Virginia, instead of up here, where the kids were entitled and mean, where my grandfather microwaved summer sausage for breakfast and my grandmother only knew how to cook mushrooms, where I was a thousand miles away from the big calendar in the kitchen back home, the one that told me where to be, and when, and why.
Finally, around six, we pulled into a tiny town. The storm was almost overhead now, and the oak trees on the town’s main street bent and swayed in the wind we could hear whistle even from inside the car.
“Someone around here should know where the strawberries are,” my grandfather said. He had an unshakeable and utterly unsubstantiated belief in the knowledge of small-town folk.
I almost told him that they’d gone out of season, which is what I’d figured from all the closed farm stores along the two-lane road, but I thought better of it, and I hated myself for being too scared to hurt him.
We circled the town twice. It was clear that there were no fresh Southern Michigan strawberries to be had. But my grandfather looked as intent as he’d been when my grandmother had spotted that first red-painted sign hanging over the barn.
Eventually, we pulled into a gas station. We needed gas anyway, but my grandfather had it in his mind, I could tell, to talk to the locals. I was dreading this: it always embarrassed me so much. His obliviousness was no function of old age. My mother said he’d always been this way, even when she was a girl, asking people questions they’d have no possible way of answering.
And, sure enough, as soon as we’d pulled up to a pump, my grandfather spotted a man walking down the sidewalk, a man who was clearly either older than he looked or an eccentric. The window on the driver’s side of the van rolled down.
“Hi there,” my grandfather asked kindly. “Do you know where we could find strawberries around here?”
“Well, hello!” the man shouted.
“Do you know of anywhere around here with fresh strawberries?” my grandfather asked again.
“Yes, it’s been splendid weather, but there’s something coming in.”
“Bill,” my grandmother said, “he’s deaf.”
“Nonsense,” my grandfather said. Then, to the man: “Fresh. Strawberries.”
“A storm, yes!”
“No,” my grandfather said. “Strawberries.” Lord, this was what I found so irritating about my grandfather: he was so set in his ways, even if — especially if — he’d just made them up a few seconds before. He was like ivy, unable to look back, unable to change, always blindly following the path it’d picked even if it vined itself into a corner. He was a blind optimist, and blind by choice, and expected the world to yield to him.
“What?” the man shouted back. He pulled a pair of thick glasses from the pocket of his shirt, put them on, came a bit closer to the car, and smiled. “Could you repeat that?”
“Where are there fresh strawberries?” my grandfather said again, enunciating very carefully so that the man could read his lips.
“In there,” the man in suspenders said, pointing at the gas station.
“Lindsey, go in and grab us a box,” my grandfather said, giving me a $10 bill. “Get two if you can.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Should she really go out there?” my grandmother asked. “We’re supposed to train the kids not to listen to strangers.”
“It’s nothing we wouldn’t have let Kim do,” my grandfather said.
“That was the Seventies,” my grandmother said. “Things are different now. The world is more dangerous.”
“I just don’t think that’s true,” my grandfather said.
“I’ll go,” I said, because I knew if I didn’t the search for strawberries would keep going, and maybe once I went in to make sure there weren’t any in the gas station, we might be able to get into Chicago before midnight.
The wind was fierce, colder than I’d expected. I was afraid of being blown over as I crossed the parking lot. The door to the gas station store dinged as I opened it.
Inside, alongside the wall of beer and the rack of local cheeses and the sad-looking clerk reading a car magazine, there were green cardstock cartons full past the lip with dusky red.
The storm hit as we were leaving town. We’d worked our way, the three of us, through most of the first carton of strawberries.
At first the storm could have passed for mist, but soon the rain was spattering down in drops the size of dollar coins. The wipers on the car barely worked, but my grandfather said we’d come out of this with a cleaner windshield. It hailed, small pellets but still hail, and the two-lane road shimmered with it. When the hail stopped, the thunder started: Midwestern thunder and Midwestern lightning, bolts that cracked and echoed across the whole wide swaying horizon. My grandmother asked me for help working her cell phone, and my aunt seemed plenty understanding on the other end of the line.
I ate strawberries and threw the tops out the window, into the thundering night, into the pre-dusk fields and the thin brushstrokes of forest that the lightning lit up once in a while, and the rain pounded.
“It’s the trailing edge we’re in right now,” my grandfather said. “Just think about the sunset after this.”
I closed my eyes, and I could taste the lingering juice of the berries and smell the rain and feel my long hair on my face. I could hear the fizzling radio and my grandmother’s breathing. My grandfather tapped his fingers on the wheel and hummed some jazz song written long before I was born, and I thought about the sunset.