My grandfather Jack is a mystery to me. Few are the actual recollections I have of him, even though we shared the same house for the last declining decade of his life. Yet those sparse memories are the most vivid of my childhood. I see Jack struggling to rise from his chair near the downstairs front door. I hear the heavy footfalls of his wide-stanced gait as he lumbers toward the unheated bedroom behind my grandmother’s kitchen. In my memory the echoes of his angry curses still sound in long-vanished rooms.
Where my grandfather’s anger came from I do not know with certainty. Years after his death my mother told me that her father-in-law had been very wild as a youth, and that his marriage to my grandmother, a woman several years his senior, had been an effort by the family to tame Jack’s ferocity. But when my mother told me this her own memory had been clouded by ninety years of living, nearly thirty of which had been spent at war with her mother-in-law. So time and the emptiness that comes with having outlasted one’s enemies may have clouded her recollection.
I do know that from his early youth Jack had been a real toper. Indeed, at his wake I remember old Tighe, a drinking buddy from the American Lithuanian Club, telling the story of Jack’s once dipping into jars of new elderberry wine my great grandmother had put up in her cellar.
“Jesus,” says Tighe in a breathless whisper, his eyes wide and rheumy with remembered excitement and new drink, “When he was just a little guy even, th’ kid goes down there half loaded with some farmers’ matches an’ a bit a candle an’ tries to re-seal th’ bottles so’s his ma won’t catch on. But he don’t know that there’s air in ‘em jars when he melts the wax or whatever. Pretty soon, they’re blowin’ up underneath th’ old lady’s bedroom in th’ middle of th’ night! Then she’s scared and won’t go down there fer days in case a jar explodes when she gets close to it. An’ yah know, his ma never did find out what made them jars explode.” The constant tremor that moves Tighe’s pig-pink head from side to side increases in amplitude.
“Damn me, if he was never that lucky again in his whole life!”
Huddling over Tighe, my father and his brother share a quiet chuckle well out of earshot of my grandmother and aunt crying at the bier.
They wept for three days of the wake, and their tears flowed even faster at the graveside than the dark torrents of November rain. Then all the crying stopped. Jack’s meager bed and wardrobe were dispatched to the Salvation Army, and his name was never again mentioned in the house that three generations of our family shared.
And yet for me Jack is more than an angry alcoholic, for if we care to acknowledge it, experience teaches that others close to us defy the simple labels. We share with them the web of hopes and fears that befuddlle our own hearts. For us they can never be just a son, just a mother, just a drunk.
My earliest memory of Jack dates to when I was five or six. In a kitchen redolent with the salty sweet aroma of roasting beef, my younger cousin and I are ushered to the table, our chins close above its dented grease-green metal edge. An important mystery of the adult world is about to be revealed. Jack, resplendent in sleeveless undershirt, sits close at the head of the table, his face dominated by a nose as massive and angular as the head of a splitter’s maul. The jaw line is broad enough to complement that nose and makes his head look as though it were a wedge struck haphazardly from a larger piece of granite. Up close I can discern the pink and grey patina of his weathered neck and cheeks. Before him is a plate heaped with steaming beef fat. Against the crackles spread like spider webs across the porcelain glaze the rinds bubble dark brown, their pearly inner surfaces glistening in all the colors of the rainbow. Great slabs of yellow cheese rim the edge of the platter.
“Here, c’mon, eat this. It’ll make men outta yah!”
My cousin suddenly clamps his mouth shut and starts to whimper, but I am older and shrug off the enticement of his tears. I will not cry and manage a lung full of air sour with the odors of whiskey and stale sweat before the quivering forkful is shoved against my lips. I bite down hard, as I imagine a man would, chew a bit and swallow. But there is no mystery. There is only the insipid taste of gristle. I want no more. I try the cheese, but its sharpness stings my tongue and my eyes tear. I back away from the table as Jack turns from me, silent, dismissive. It is as though we both understand that I have not measured up to a man’s world, and I am angry at myself and at Jack for he has shown me that I am too soft and gentle yet and cannot see the beauty of strong and savage things.
It is the last year of Jack’s life. March rain turns a long grey twilight blue-black as I watch wind-driven water ripple against the thin panes of the bay window. I fancy myself grown now, capable of knowing Jack. At my back, the warm kitchen fills with the bustle and chirp of my grandmother and aunt as they move about preparing supper. Yet beneath the comforting aromas of the warming meal lurks the sharp odor of pine bleach. It is a hint to my youthful understanding that what is not approved must be ruthlessly scoured away. Still my heart is buoyed when Jack appears at the front door, drenched and sober from the road. With heavy step he moves past me without a glance. I wait, listen cautiously, hopefully, but in the kitchen, recriminations begin. The floors are wet, the voice too loud, the demand for dinner too early and too often made.
“Shh, shhh, the boy’ll hear.”
I see Jack, at bay, turning to his wife and daughter, crying with a heart that must speak loudly and at once, “So what if he does! Let him know what he’s in for too … someday!”
“Now look, you! You’ve made him cry!”
The women’s angry shrieks surpass Jack’s sputtering thunder. Again and again their sharply scolding voices harry him; to me he seems a dying bull tormented by the sword. The door to his unheated bedroom behind the stove slams shut, and I am left alone staring at my reflection in the dark windlow glass.
Sunday night. In celebration of St. Patrick, Jack’s been gone two days. Every light in the house is lit, and I am at my accustomed space on the overstuffed sofa, my feet not quite reaching the floor. The women move from room to room whispering words hard-edged with fear.
“Oh, he’s over at Kavanaugh’s, sleepin’ it off, probably.”
“Tom Kehoe saw ‘im at the ALC Saturday afternoon. Said he was in no shape to come home. Said he probably was afraid to anyway.”
In the brightness the familiar livingroom has become cavernous, its dusty walls and stained ceiling violently beaten back. Car brakes squeal and light flashes across the window curtains’ deep folds making them appear like thick white bars set against the black night. Men’s voices rumble cautiously as their footsteps shake the porch. The knob rattles a bit, turns slowly, then the door swings wide revealing Jack, white-faced, slack-jawed, with outstretched hands grasping the jamb. He lifts one shaking foot onto the threshold and rises, braced from behind by old Tighe and the cabdriver. Struggling, they lower him deep into the flattened cushion of his chair just inside the door. Jack raises his elbows high onto the armrests so that his outstretched forearms are nearly on a level with his chin. Then his head droops forward. Old Tighe straightens up. With an apologetic grimace he offers, “Had a bit much at the ALC, he did.”
Carefully watching the carpet Tighe pivots about and makes for the open door. The cabdriver follows him, and they vanish into the night.
Jack sits Lincolnesque in a stupor until the call to supper comes. My father and uncle approach, gently pull him upright. They try to move him away from the chair, but his weight is too much for them. All three are borne down toward the tray table. In slow motion I see Jack sit down upon the bottom tray and hear the sharp crack of its cut lace wooden edge breaking off. The furies in the kitchen who’ve been silent until now are roused.
“Oh, look what he’s done! My mother’s table!”
“Oh, whatever he touches he turns to rubbish.”
“You’ll see! You’ll get that fixed. You’ll have Andrulis do it. Dirty drunken old man, you’ll pay for this!”
The warm days of summer arrive. In the few months following his retirement from the road, Jack has become for me a worrisome presence lurking about the neighborhood. At any moment of the late afternoon he’s liable to appear, silent, wooden-faced, ham-fisted, his cane tapping fitfully on the pavement as he makes his way home from the ALC. I am always on the lookout. When I catch sight of him, I escape to my bedroom, there to fear the slow staccatto of his step along the porch, the crash of the front door slamming shut, the tempest from which no one in the house finds shelter. Even when he is not at home, I feel the weight of his heavy step and thunderous voice. As the days advance, my heart grows angry at the burden.
When the last storm comes, it is strangely brief. A few curses deep and low are answered by higher-pitched accusations fleeting as the quick rap of hail against a window pane. I wait in the long silence that follows until the rank smoke of Jack’s soiled trousers slowly burning in the backyard fireplace finally drives me from the house.
That silence lasts into late November. The long shadows of a Sunday afternoon steal quietly across cold gray pavement when the screaming of women explodes in the hallway. Then comes the stumbling rush down the stairs, the hurried phone call and the siren song diminishing as it nears our house. Hidden behind a chair shoved against an upstairs window, I hear the footfalls of firemen thundering on the porch below. Later, in the livingroom downstairs, I want to hide again. But there is no sanctuary large enough now to shelter me behind the sofa or beneath the bay window. I watch as Jack’s shroud-covered body, strapped to a board, is levered erect from the undertaker’s guerney and carried through the narrow doorway into the silent night.
Dave Northrup’s fiction is set exclusively in the eastern Mohawk Valley of upstate New York and often deals with characters coming of age in a region that in the course of the twentieth century has suffered the economic and social upheaval characteristic of the American South during the 1800’s.
© 2010, Dave Northrup