My grandfather ate himself death. He didnt drink or smoke cigarettes in his old age, although he may have done these things years before I was born. He was a crew cut, Pacific Northwestern man who spent his vacations living out of the back of a camper strapped to the back of his Ford truck parked in the Okanogan highlands. He managed to think he was living a pure, manly existence as a big game hunter, and follower of the lifestyle portrayed in sixties era mens magazines. A cool, athletic intellectual, he was a man alone with the wilderness, his literature, his green cardigan, and his tortoise shell pipe.
In the autumn, he often stopped at our house in Snoqualmie and dropped off hunks of white packaged venison.
During the year, my grandfather lived in a tiny studio apartment just below the S curves on 405 in Renton, at the edge of the hill where the Cedar River spills out of the Maple Valley, where dead salmon accumulate in the fall. The odor of rotting fish mingles with the burnt rubber drifting down from 405.
The tiny studio apartment sat below gigantic highway department pylons. From my grandfathers front porch, we sometimes watched the tops of the trucks and busses pass around the sharp turn. He had packed his studio with the accumulated hoard of his lifestyle. He labeled and organized his cartons of treasure. He stacked the boxes six high except for the narrow gap where he passed back to his bed under a decades old gas station calendar. The boxes contained fountain pens, National Geographic, Playboys, bowie knives, and munitions.
He killed himself with Keebler pecan sandies and Pizza Hut sausage pizza.
Aside from the incongruous image of my grandfather as the great white hunter saddled with stacks of extra bellies, the other image I have of him is sitting under the draped window of a Pizza Hut at his favorite franchise in the Renton Highlands. He preferred this one over the somewhat dingier one at the foot of Rainer Avenue at the base of Skyway, a rough neighborhood lost between South Center Mall and Seattle. High school girls staffed his Pizza Hut. We sat at the table with a candle burning in the knobby red globe glass, waiting for the sausage pizzas to arrive.
Do I have to describe a sausage pizza from Pizza Hut in the early 1980s? It is different from the pizza that they serve today — different sounding as if it better. The differences are differences in the industry. My grandfathers Pizza Hut pizza remained essentially pizza. It was clearly something a cook had prepared in the kitchen. It had a dough crust, a layer of tomatoes sauce, topped with waxy cheeses and masticated meat product. The smell of the cooks preparing pizza filled the franchise. Todays Pizza Hut Pizza is assembled in the kitchen, heated, and put into the clearly labeled and branded box. It arrives not so much as mere pizza, but as an expression of the Pizza Hut brand. My grandfather would still have consumed this pizza to his death because he wasnt just eating a pizza — although the quick flush of sugary red sauce and pizza dough under melted fat and peppered with savory hunks of unidentifiable meat — this is what he ate but he ate something else, too, and Im unsure what this was, why he returned to this building and listened to this jukebox and over tipped those girls.
My grandfathers decline entailed repeated stints to the hospital where they would proscribe mandatory diets; and then his sneaking off to his Pizza Hut. His kidneys gradually failed. He ordered my mother to provide her childrens kidneys (that is, MY kidney) and then finally this hunger, this urgent requirement for Pizza Hut finally ate his internal organs, and this resulted in his death.
The same thing was happening to the city of Renton at the time. My grandfather would not recognize the place where he had lived for the majority of his adult life. When he lived there, the downtown core along the Cedar River operated lunch counters with the towns businessmen seated eating Reubens and egg salad, their jackets hanging from the coat rack, a JC Penneys where they bought their kids school clothes, and an active movie house showing first run movies where they brought their families on Saturdays. None of these things remain. As the city died, it reshuffled itself, first around a long-lived shopping center (that predated South Center Mall) and most recently around a light rail station. The final marker, I think, that the city has passed along is that it sold off the name of local parade, Renton River Days (the shrill civic mindedness of this itself an indication of a terminal illness) to Ikea and this is now the Ikea River Days Parade.
The growth and change of American towns is a common enough theme. Rip Van Winkle comes down from twenty years asleep in the forest to a town that had grown beyond recognition. But Rip Van Winkle gradually recognizes the old town through the layer of growth. But what has happened to Renton isnt growth; it is replacement. If my grandfather came back twenty years after his death, he wouldnt find that Renton had grown beyond recognition, but there was a complete absence of the city that stood during his lifetime. This is death, then, the complete absence of what there was before. The body that operated in life is buried, decays, and is scattered.