Grandpa’s Ghost

Grandpa was a quiet man who, on occasion, told stories about the Old Days. He was born in 1903, the year the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, the inventors’ home town, and saw their latest biplanes wobbling overhead. He remembered the 1913 flood that submerged downtown beneath 20 feet of roiling, muddy water. His family lived in a higher ground neighborhood to the southeast. Grandpa said, “My father would mark the edge of the water on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. Every day the water rose and covered the chalk. He’d make a new mark. We knew that the flood was falling when the old marks showed up again. I got a job downtown shoveling mud out of the stores. There was mud and broken glass everywhere. And dead horses. You wouldn’t believe how much they stunk.”

He lived alone for thirteen years after my grandmother died in 1980. At holidays, he tended to brood over days gone by, over the good times that had vanished. But he stayed active ferrying sisters and widows to stores and church and took up with a woman named Clara.

After I married and move east, I came to town for occasional summer visits. My parents hosted family meals that included Grandpa. He mostly sat in silence and smoked Camels at the table while we ate dessert. But at random moments, he jumped into conversational gaps to say something strident about politics. New trends in music or fashion had no value. Often he drifted into morbid remembrances: Aunt Bertha died of suppurating something; Willie fell beneath the ice and drowned; Hal ignored that lump until it was too late.

He surprised me one visit by inviting me over to his house for a private talk. He didn’t ask directly but used my mother as an envoy. I felt uneasy as I walked up the sidewalk leading to his porch as I never knew how I stood with him.

He had been kind and patient for the most part when I was a boy. He stopped by our house on Saturday afternoons to bring his three grandchildren treats (chips, orange juice) and to see how we were doing. But my sister had been my grandmother’s overwhelming favorite. His wife ruled the roost, so Grandpa engaged with me and my brother sporadically. I saw less of him as I grew older. We barely spoke at family gatherings. When I was in my twenties, I heard that he had mocked me for taking too long on a series of paintings commissioned by a great aunt. I had struggled to paint three floral still lives having been trained in college to make awkwardly sincere abstractions. My mother reported that he sarcastically observed to my great aunt, “Great art takes time.”

I knocked on his door. He shuffled slowly through the house, got ice tea for the two of us and asked me to sit on the front porch. It was already too hot inside unless we set up a fan. We didn’t talk about anything important. He wanted to hear how my family was. He had always liked my wife. We finished with the domestic news and drifted into a comfortable silence. Squirrels chased each other in and out of shadows at the base of his sycamore. Robins poked the ground for earthworms, and cardinals trilled.

He died a few years later. He stopped eating after he found out that his arthritic knees had permanently frozen. A cane would no longer do any good. He’d have to spend the rest of his days in nursing care, a fate he rejected. He’d seen others linger for years.

He appeared to me in a dream shortly after his funeral. I saw him in the half-story room of his last house. He wore a dress shirt and baggy pants and was about sixty. He looked like my boyhood memories of him. He shuffled through a little soft-shoe dance and said, “Look at me now.”

My sister lived down the street from that house. She got off work at two in the morning and sometimes saw a light on in that same half-story room as she drove home. She worried that someone had broken into the unoccupied house, but when she went to investigate, she always found the house locked and undisturbed.

My brother and his wife bought Grandpa’s house from my mom and uncle. He reported that they frequently found a window open upstairs. A draft would wash down the steps letting him know that Grandpa’s ghost had unstuck a window that no living person could open without using a crowbar. A formerly broken doorbell rang at odd times. No caller stood on the porch when he or his wife opened the door. Their toddler would sometimes turn away from his television program to point at something crossing the room. The boy would exclaim, “Grandpa!”

The strange occurrences bothered my brother’s wife. She hadn’t planned on living with a ghost. She went to a medium to inquire after Grandpa’s intentions. The woman reassured her. Grandpa communicated to her that he felt attached to the house, that he had been happy living there. He meant no harm and would be stopping by from time to time to see whether everything was all right.

Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

One Helluva Year

In the summer of 1983 I had just graduated from Wright State University with a B.F.A. and worked at Miami Valley Hospital.  I was the third shift receptionist at the nursing school dormitory on weekends, and my chief duties were preventing the uninvited from entering the building and expelling the invited (boyfriends) who stayed past the curfew hour.  I spent my free time painting and drawing to get ready to apply to graduate school. I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy trying to manage the end game of a disastrous relationship with a woman named Jane.  I decided to wait her out until she finally decided to dump me as I knew from experience that she could be vindictive if she felt wronged.  She finally came by uninvited on a Sunday morning an hour or so after I had fallen asleep.  She seemed surprised to find me in bed, even though she knew my working hours, but pressed on.  Jane quickly said her bit and was out the door before I had completely woken up, and I remember feeling a mixture of annoyance and relief as I heard her quick, sharp footsteps retreat down the hall.

I intended to take a break from romance for a while, but Dave, a friend of mine from the University of Dayton, had other ideas. He may have been listening for the sound of my front door slamming when Jane exited my life. Before I had time to revel in my new found freedom he arranged for me to meet two women who were complete strangers. The first appeared to have been coerced, and maintained an attitude of vigilant indifference whenever I spoke to her as I attempted to figure out why she was sitting in a chair next to me. (Dave the Matchmaker tended to strike without warning or explanation.) The second woman was Judy, who in less than a year’s time became my wife.

Judy and I began dating steadily, and we both knew early on that our relationship was significant. We shared many interests and attitudes and spent a lot of our time together simply talking. Unlike some of the women I had dated in the past, she had a kind heart and a steady moral compass, and was direct. She didn’t care to play games, and I began to trust her completely. I thought that I had finally found a clear, straight path to happiness, and was surprised when twists, turns and obstacles sprang up before me.

My sister Carla gave birth to her first son in early September. My family’s happiness was undercut by our growing concern for Tony, my younger brother. He had gradually become more and more listless after losing a job a few months earlier. In November he landed in the hospital the day after we celebrated my Grandfather Reger’s 80th birthday. The diagnosis was complete and irreparable kidney failure. Tissue compatibility tests were performed shortly after, and it turned out (as I somehow already knew) that he and I were a nearly perfect match. I agreed to donate a kidney when the results came back. Tony was surviving on dialysis but only just. He needed another chance.

Judy and I got engaged in February, and my brother and I went under the knife about one month later. I almost died during the operation when the stitches burst on the cut end of my renal artery and I lost half of my blood in a matter of seconds. The surgery was a success for my brother, and his health was restored almost immediately after receiving the kidney. He still has it thirty years later and is healthy and happy, and I have suffered no after effects.

It took me a few months to recover. In the scramble to reach the burst artery my intestines got battered and rearranged, and I had the uncomfortable sensation for weeks afterward that my insides were roaming about trying to find a stable, new configuration. Judy helped take care of me when I left the hospital and offered comfort when I dealt with two difficult things that occurred while I was still recovering: one of my cousins committed suicide shortly after my brother went through a minor rejection episode.

Judy and I went to visit her parents when the pain from the operation had largely subsided and my strength had begun to return. Her Mom and Dad knew about our engagement, but we had never so much as spoken on the phone. They lived in eastern Pennsylvania, about 12 hours down the road from Dayton. I was nervous about meeting them because Judy had told me that her parents had disapproved of a previous boyfriend that she had brought home, and he, obviously, was no longer in the picture. We stayed there for three days, and I managed to pass muster. When we got back Judy and I began to plan the wedding.

In the middle of the summer of 1984 we both began to have trouble with our roommates. Our impending marriage seemed to stir up envy and animosity in both households, so Judy and I decided to move in together. We found a small house to rent near the western edge of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and shared a few anxious moments when huge bombers violently rattled our windows as they descended  to land. The first time it happened we had no idea what was going on, and I was struck by the odd notion that giants had suddenly come from beyond the horizon to crush us.

I wasn’t sure whether we’d make it to the altar as we began to learn how to live together. Our families had radically different assumptions when it came to domestic matters, and we were both surprised at times when our expectations were not met with enthusiasm and understanding by the other party. Most of my relationships had been ended abruptly by girlfriends who suddenly found me unworthy of their affection. I spent three weeks waiting for Judy to come to a similar conclusion, and only relaxed on August 25 when she walked down the aisle of Immaculate Conception Chapel and joined me at the altar.

Judy and I have gone through other roller coaster years during the thirty years we’ve been married, but few match the sheer intensity of the year of our courtship. I could call that time a trial by fire as we both had to find inner resources to deal with the more difficult moments, but there were so much happiness in the mix that no title seems to fit. When I look back I’m sometimes surprised that we managed to pick our way around the rubble and potholes of such a difficult path, and sometimes have the sneaking suspicion that our marriage was preordained. No obstacles could have blocked us. At other times I think that we just got lucky to find each other and stick. In the end all I can say is that it was one helluva year.