What Grandpa Taught Me
At the time no one could figure out why he did it. I myself was confused, at first. Although the motive was obscure, his method was clear to me the moment I found the note taped onto the back screen door. It hung there like a paper gargoyle, the efficient lettering filling any who understood it with the same dread ignorant peasants felt when seeing the medieval version sculpted in stone. Both carried the mark of master craftsmanship in service to the gods of death.
Grandpa knew we'd stop by after my wife and I had picked up the girls from dance practice, as we usually did on Wednesdays. The folded sheet said, in Grandpa's characteristic Palmer method script, "For Jacob's eyes only" on the outside. I knew what it was the moment I read the note. "Keep the girls downstairs. You'll find me upstairs," it said. Reading it seemed like a formality. I had already seen the gargoyle's leer.
I followed the instructions and advised my wife to keep the girls busy in the family room. There was something I had to attend to upstairs. My hand at her arm froze her before she left, as I looked her in the eye and said, "No matter what you hear, do not let the girls go upstairs, OK?" She paused, and then dreaded recognition came into her eyes. "Ok. Come back down here as soon as you can," she said. When she turned away I knew she understood the circumstances. One only tells another to stay out of a room for two reasons: either it's dangerous, or it's something horrible. Grandpa's note said to keep the girls downstairs, and Grandpa wasn't dangerous.
There are fourteen steps from the ground floor up to the second floor of Grandpa's house. I'd counted them many times, evenly divided as they were, seven up to the four-foot-square landing, then turning ninety degrees right and going up another seven. I counted them now, sliding my hand along the mahogany rail, kept dark and smooth from Grandpa's semiannual treatment of steel wool and linseed oil. The steps didn't creak. Grandpa hated creaking and spent an entire afternoon last fall fixing the second step to keep it to the customary worn silence of the rest. That silence became the background for my own breath, suddenly loud in my ears, a ragged melody backed by the driving rhythm of my quickened pulse. My last touch on the railing left a sweaty palmprint as I left the stairs.
There's a certain smell to old people's houses. I'm not sure what it is, and I don't know if it's the same smell for everyone, but it was all over the second floor. The first floor of the house was too busy with children and grandchildren to acquire it, but up here, in the relatively undisturbed privacy of this level, the presence of my grandfather was strong.
None of the decorations were newer than the early Fifties. The paint was old but not in bad shape, the end result of a quality product finally beginning to show the ravages of time. Grandpa was not into "brick-a-brack," as he called it. Most of that stuff he cleverly managed to give away to us kids as mementos when Grandma died. Up here was his version of their world, tasteful but Spartan.
I turned left, heading toward his bedroom. I knew he wouldn't be in the spare to the right. That was still set as a shrine to my uncle, killed in Vietnam. After he died Grandma made Grandpa paint the room white, "a home for an angel," she said. Grandma was sentimental to the same degree that Grandpa was often blunt. The bed was always made with tight military corners, hard, white and flat, their personal tombstone over their memories of him. No one ever slept there. I know that Grandpa changed the sheets and freshened it up every now and then, but he denied it whenever I asked him, too proud to admit his grief.
The hallway was a testimony to family memories, lined with pictures, each one showing Grandpa with every member of our family at some point in time. My picture was from my fourteenth year, when my brother, Grandpa and I went fishing. We were novice anglers and young enough to still listen to our elders. We caught bass by the dozen, although the proudest moment of my day came by way of misfortune. In my excitement of catching my first bass, I snagged my right index finger with the hook while taking him off the line. It went through to the barb, but at a shallow angle. Grandpa said there were two things we could do: push it through and cut the barb off, or slice the finger down to it and lift it out. The first would mean less blood but a lot more pain, the second just the opposite. It was up to me. I pushed it through myself, shedding only two silent tears. Grandpa snipped off the barb and quickly pulled it out. A little bandage from the first aid kit, and I was back to fishing. On the way off the boat Grandpa patted me on the shoulder. "You done good out there today, Jacob. I can see you're going to be a good man in this family." He had paused slightly, emphasizing man, as if that were the only respectable thing I could be.
I continued down the hall. The door to his room was ajar. My heart began to race as I stood there for a moment, searching for a way out of going into that room. There was none. I slowly pushed the door open, turning on the light. Nothing appeared amiss. His bed looked made, as always (now that I think about it, I don't believe I ever saw him sleeping in it), the dresser and mirror sitting stoically across the room. My mistake at thinking the room would look any different became apparent. That wasn't Grandpa's intention. He'd have one last chance to avoid searing an unfortunate image in the girls' minds, should they venture upstairs. That was going to be my task, handling that image, whatever it might be.
I began to wonder, as I slowly scanned the room, what he might have done. We had a cousin who shot himself in the head many years ago, another martyr to the cause of drugs and teenage rebellion. He'd done it in the bathroom, creating a giant-sized Rorschach test of red on white. I didn't think Grandpa would be that messy, although he didn't have any fear of guns.
No, he'd be someplace they wouldn't look. I closed the door, went over to the closet. Somehow I just knew he'd be in there, dead, cold and stiff, the final chapter in a lifetime of memories for me. I had grown up to be a fine man, and in his eyes this was my duty. In a way it was a very high compliment. I confess that my hand shook as I reached for the handle, my rapid pulse returning, but I didn't make any sound as I opened the door.
Grandpa had hung himself in the closet, using some boating line from the garage. Even as I see it in my mind's eye now, there are odd little details that seize my attention, like the brightness of the buttons on his shirt, or the odd angle of his wingtips, drooping as if he were an ancient, wrinkled ballerina in brown leather toe shoes.
It seemed unusual to me that there was a clothes pole mounted that high, but it didnt look like he had installed it recently for this purpose. His limp body just hung there, not twisting, not writhing or moving at all. The surrealism of the moment beckoned, begging one to believe that it was as if Grandpa were using an elaborate magic trick from a rock concert,and was about to spring up and yell, "Gotchya!"
But Grandpa never moved. I quietly shut the door and returned downstairs. My whispered news in my wife's ear brought tears, but she kept her composure. I had her take the girls over to her sister's, so they wouldn't have to be there when the police came. We'd break the news to them later. Grandpa had gone to some length to spare them, and I wasn't going to spoil his last wishes by making them part of the official process.
The police ruled it a suicide, although besides the note on the door there were no other messages from Grandpa. There were no signs of struggle, and the only mark on Grandpa (besides that from the rope) was a small shaving cut. Nobody paid much attention to that, for it seemed reasonable that any man at the age of eighty-two who still shaved every day with an old-fashioned straight razor would get a nick every now and then.
They did examine the razor, of course, just to be on the safe side. Its actually something of an antique, a Wilkenson Brothers model from 1863, according to the inscription on the blade. Grandpa inherited it from his father. My dad never learned how to shave with a blade, preferring an electric. Grandpa was big on tradition and pointed out to Dad on several occasions (and any of us other male family members in earshot) that the straight razor gave the best shave. "Smooth as a baby's butt and twice as cute" was Grandpa's motto. The police found nothing unusual.
I began to piece together some things after the funeral. It fell to my brother and I to clean out the house, a task we dreaded. My dad and two aunts couldn't agree on who would get the house or for how much, so they decided to sell it outright and split the money. In exchange for our services we got first pick of Grandpa's things.
Although Grandpa was Spartan, even one of his breed accumulates a lot of stuff after living in a house for over fifty years. Thicker were our memories of the place, as it was the one house large enough for the major family gatherings. My earliest memories come from that house. The farthest back I can remember is a large family dinner, Thanksgiving, I think, when we had at least a dozen people there. I remember standing by the door, my grandpa's little gentleman as I greeted everyone who came in. At that time I was the only child; my aunts hadn't married yet and my brother was on the way. Since I was well mannered I could sit at the adult table, boosted by a couple of phone books. Grandpa carved the turkey with a precision that I would learn was customary for him. He lived the essence of something he always told us: "any job worth doing is worth doing well."
Two days into our cleaning and sorting, I found a box of picture albums in my uncle's bedroom closet. They were arranged in chronological order, neatly dated annually, and despite their location in the house they were current to last year. I wondered at first why they weren't with the other pictures on the dressing-room bureau. All the albums were of the same size, although the materials of the covers changed, starting with a hardy leather and progressively cheapening to plastic. Each was dated with a year, beginning with the first year of my grandfather's life up until the year before his death. Apparently he would have finished another one in a few months.
The volumes were slim. I wondered about that as I opened the first. It certainly couldn't hold many pictures; perhaps twenty at most. This first volume seemed like some type of catalogue of Grandpa's first year. There was a full-length shot of him in his baby clothes, a riot of frills and white lace. All babies of Grandpa's time looked girlishly angelic regardless of gender. There were pictures of his hands and feet and some of his clothes. The last four pictures were a diaper, a pair of booties, a bib, and a baby bottle. They were arranged in a square, reminding me of a coat of arms.
The second volume had the same format, but over the next year. It's true that babies change a lot in those first years, and Grandpa was no exception. The last four pictures were the same things, but different items. This pattern continued in the other volumes, until I noticed that the pattern of the last four pictures changed in the fourth year. There was a pair of pants, a small pair of shoes, a bib, and a baby bottle.
In subsequent years the same format held for the books; full-length shot, hands, feet, samples of clothes and some personal items. Always there were the four pictures at the end, settling on the pants, shoes, a napkin, and a knife and fork. These items were different every year, and often showed the extent of Grandpa's growth, or at least his taste in shoes.
The age of eighteen was the first time the razor showed up in the last four pictures. That made it a pair of pants, a knife and fork, a napkin and the razor. After the age of twenty-one the napkin was replaced by a bottle of whiskey, and no more changes occurred in the last pictures after that. Each year Grandpa grew older, fatter, then thinner and grayer (he never did lose his hair), until he looked back from his full-length picture of last year, standing in the back yard next to his rose bushes. His eyes were clear and bright, his stance firm, his smile genuine and relaxed. I turned the page, finding the now-familiar last four pictures. At least Grandpa favored single malt scotch the last five years, I thought.
Which reminded me of our last Christmas together. My brother has an almost allergic reaction to whiskey. He can drink beer, vodka, even tequila, but he'll turn pale as a ghost and hug the toilet for hours if he has even one shot of whiskey. Grandpa liked to ride him about that, sometimes with my help. Last Christmas we were teasing him, tossing back our own shots. "A man who can't have his whiskey isn't worth a damn," Grandpa taunted as he proffered a double to my brother, who under the watchful eyes of all there turned him down. Grandpa drank it himself, turning over the shot glass with a smile.
Obviously these albums had been started by someone else, but Grandpa must have carried on with the series when he became old enough. That meant they were more than just albums of memories. They were a record of Grandpa's life, certainly, but there was something else here, staring me in the face; something essential, yet so plain as to be missed. Or rather, so well done as to be missed, like one of Grandpa's furniture repairs, the mended part fitting seamlessly into the rest of the wood.
That's when the key to everything fell into place. I had not made sense of those last four pictures until now. It seemed plain in this light not only what they were, but why they were placed last in each book.
Those pictures were representations of the things Grandpa had to master in order to live, or in his mind, to "be worth a damn." As an infant it was nothing more than filling a diaper and eating properly. Later, responsibility crept into those things. He graduated from the childishness of a bib and bottle to a napkin, knife and fork. The style of the shoes and pants was up to him. As a man he acquired adult skills: drinking and shaving. They were skills important enough to catalog. If he couldn't do those, in his mind, he wasn't worth a damn.
There comes a time in every person's life when the reality of death catches up with them. For some people it happens in relative youth, like the athlete who's a bit slower than last year, for whom the gentle touch of the reaper can be shrugged off with additional skill and practice. Sometimes the shock of the first serious illness brings home the terror of individual death, as the coughs and aches become signposts on the road to the grave. Whatever the cause, even if it can be beaten for a time, it marks the transition of life from hopeful expectation to anticipated decrepitude. These four pictured things were Grandpa's markers for that transition. Once he had crossed one of them, he knew where he was heading.
I can still picture him standing there in the clarity of that moment. That morning would be like any other at the start, until the usual time for a shave. I wonder at what point in time he cut himself, at the beginning or not until nearly the end. There would be that small, sharp pain, almost unnoticed except for one's concentration on the area. Then the dot of blood would appear.
The first thought would be of the cut itself, the greater meaning of the event not appearing yet. It would take a few moments as his mind searched to make sure it wasn't some kind of accident in the normal sense. Grandpa probably resumed shaving, perhaps with more purpose. Undoubtedly he was human and nicked himself from time to time. But this would be different. This time the cause would not be carelessness or a dull razor. His inability got in the way, the reaper's hand just heavy enough on him to hinder an ordinary, daily routine. The honesty of this realization would cut sharper than the blade, severing him from all other paths in life.
Perhaps he stood there looking at his reflection after he finished, thinking about the future. Stretching before him was a path lined with the progressive compromises of age. His hand would shake more and more, until everything from straight razors to soup spoons would betray him, each leaving their telltale accusations of spilled blood or broth. His step would become less sure; eventually the upper level of the house would be denied to him as he faded from cane to walker, walker to wheelchair. Even food would provide no solace, those tasty meals of yesteryear replaced by the drab silver boxes of Meals on Wheels, their contents supposedly full of nutrition but drained of flavor. Waiting patiently at the end of this road was the nursing home, a horrifying parody of life, all the colors gone into an institutional white that framed the yawning blackness that awaited the residents. Color any of those pictures as you will, pour in all the rainbow brightness of hope or the shining platitudes of religion, but the blackness is still there, waiting to eat you in pieces.
Nothing he could do would stop it. This was now inexorably his path. In that instant, he knew from that moment on, in increments large and small, he would slide down a destiny in the reverse order of his pictures, losing his life piece by piece until he came back at last to the bib and diapers. His future self was before him in that mirror, staring, slack-jawed, another nursing home resident with nothing more in life than waiting for the indignity of filling his pants.
Grandpa would have had none of that. That's why there wasn't a partial volume for the remaining months of his life. Those pictures were taken at the end of the year, a statement of sorts. I'm still here. I'm still holding my own. I'm still worth a damn. He didn't want any memories of him any other way.
From the luck of a coin toss I won first pick of Grandpa's things over my brother. I wasn't worried that he would choose what I wanted anyway. I knew he had an eye for Grandpa's 30.06. Even though it didn't have a scope it was a collector's model in mint condition. I chose Grandpa's shaving kit, which surprised everybody.
It's taken some getting used to. I can see now why Grandpa referred to shaving with a straight razor as a "lost art." But after a few weeks I've mastered the technique, and I have to admit it's the best shave I've ever had. Smooth as a baby's butt.
There will be the day, of course, when my hand shakes a bit too much, or my eyes no longer see a sharp reflection in the mirror. I've often wondered about that time, when the crushing weight of mortality will bear down on me. None of us knows when it will happen, but it will. If there's one thing Grandpa taught me, it's that there's a lot worse than death. Perhaps on that day, as I stand there, the white foam marred by a single red splotch, I'll gain some comfort from knowing that Grandpa has been there ahead of me. Hopefully, I will have the strength to follow him.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM