Our narrator is sitting in something called the Zodiac Cottage in sunny Grass Valley, California, complaining about some dude named Rodman (1.1.2). Hope he's not talking about Dennis.
Oh, okay—Rodman is the narrator's son. We guess the narrator is an older man because he keeps talking about how Rodman and his wife, Leah, look down on him due to his age.
Finally, we get a few details about the old man (don't tell him we said that). His name is Lyman Ward: his wife (or ex-wife, it seems like) is named Ellen. He's also bound to a wheelchair due to an "amputation," though he doesn't go into any detail about it (1.1.10).
It turns out that the Zodiac Cottage is Lyman's grandparents' house. He's there because he's writing a partially fictionalized account of his grandparents' lives.
When he's not whining about his mega-hippie son (Rodman makes Jim Morrison look like Mister Rogers), Lyman loves hanging out in his grandmother's art studio.
Lyman now tells us about Rodman's most recent visit. Rodman had acted all panicky and overprotective, begging his dad to either stay with him or ask their family friends Ed and Ada to stay downstairs. Lyman shoots him down on both counts.
Rodman told Lyman that he should write about someone more interesting than his grandparents. Lyman thinks that this is insane, especially because Grandma Ward was actually the "best-known woman illustrator of her time" (1.1.36).
Lyman tells us a little bit about Grandma Ward's story, specifically how she traveled west with her engineer husband, Lyman's grandpa.
Lyman looks at his grandma's work as he waits for Ada to stop by to help him into bed. Ada and Lyman go way back: her grandpa worked for his grandpa's mine way back in the day.
Lyman's lucky to have her around. Because one of his legs has been amputated, he needs help even getting into the bath. It's a bit embarrassing.