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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

Conjuring the power of dreams, memories, and Google Maps, Charlie Quimby ponders the complexities of place and the importance of stories—whether they're in books or not.


The Phantom Parking Meters

by Charlie Quimby

I am visiting my grandmother at her old stone house on the steep eastern outskirt of Rifle, Colorado.

Though Mom and Pop’s home is small and dark, a post-frontier box made of solid gray blocks, it is roomful enough to supper our family each Sunday after eight of us pack the station wagon and follow the river downstream a marathon distance. We stay after to watch Lassie, since our television did not survive the move back from Virginia, and reception via the mountain microwave tower in Glenwood Springs is too snowy to justify buying a new one.

Other times, I am alone here, learning cribbage and contesting checkers with Pop, who never throws a game. The first time I stay up until midnight is in that living-dining room, counting the nineteenth-century ticks of the windup clock that now tocks in the house of a brother named Bror, after Pop, railroad man who never drove a car and subscribed to a Swedish weekly his entire life. I am Charles, after the grandfather who died when my mother was twelve, and Russell, after both of my parents’ fathers, who fortuitously shared a middle name, since my other grandfather forbade saddling any child with the name Homer. The brother in between is Robert, our father’s name.

I bounced little Bror off the porch settee where I was supposed to be watching him. He banged his head on the floor and set up a fuss. I didn’t confess it was my fault. He went to Harvard, so there is justice in the universe.

From this house, my grandmother walked me down to the Colorado to fish. Taught me to shoot at the dump.

From this house, my grandmother walked me down to the Colorado to fish. Taught me to shoot at the dump. Hired me to do inventory at the Dodge dealer where she was a bookkeeper. Gave me my first rifle, a cornet, vocal lessons, and unconditional love.

Later I live a summer in her house. My visiting Dutch girlfriend and I watch men first land on the moon. Later, we ease down the vertiginous stairway to two cellar bedrooms. We make one bed after the Folks go to sleep; this is socially advanced for all of us. A back door leads to a garden where we share a smoke and then pluck fresh carrots from the ground, wash the dirt from the crevices with notoriously putrid Rifle city water, and crunch our way to clean breath.

The entire spread could not have exceeded two acres, but scaled child-size with a chicken house on the back of the garage and a vacant barn on an adjacent lot, it seemed like a farmstead. Besides the vegetable plot, my second grandfather grafted fruit trees that sprouted varieties of plums, including one he called an Italian prune. He water-witched with a forked branch from one of his trees. I don’t know how many wells resulted, but people paid money in that parched country for him to try.

I digress.

My visit was intended to drop off something that I had left in the car out front. When I excuse myself to fetch it, my grandmother says, “Oh, no. You didn’t park on the meter, did you?”