March 15, 1910 Grampie was
born. He’s gone 27 years now and I only knew him the first 15 of mine. That’s strange when I think about it because I think about him enough that “gone” doesn’t mean the same as it does for that fish that wiggled off his line that one time he took us fishing, or that bike he built me when I was 12. Those are gone. There’s something about him still around. Maybe I’m keeping that something alive, maybe not. But there’s something, keeps me thinking.
He had a pool table in the basement and he showed me how to play. Hold the cue like this, chalk the tip, rack like this, this is the bridge — all that. The table was old by the time I was old enough to reach it. Grampie still had the receipt, a yellowed handwritten slip from — was it the hobby shop in Middletown? Was it Namco? — I’m not sure now, but it was $100 back then, sometime in the 50s I think. Back when the family was intact and flush with cash. Well, more flush than he was when I knew him, living off social security, longer than he or the government expected, I reckon.
I’d open the basement door and flip the light switch up at the top, walk down careful because Grampie always said “be careful.” At the bottom of the stairs was an oil tank that fueled the furnace and we weren’t to touch that, so I didn’t. Over to the left was the old dining table with Christmas decorations stored on it, and behind that was the old upright piano with “White Christmas” sheet music ever in the stand. Over by the dart board and boxed games, behind the stairs, was the pool table.
I’d reach as far as I could to the cord dangling from the light fixture over the table. A single bulb. There was a little brush by the chalk and cues and I’d sweep away the dust and cat hair and rack up the balls and squeeze my thumbs between the balls and wooden triangle and I’d pull away slowly so only a couple would roll out of the set across the wobbly plywood table, the felt threadbare by the spot, just plain-old older than my world.
Down there in the basement all by myself, I’d break, and the coloured balls scattered and if one went in I’d whisper shout “Yes!” I’d call to Grampie upstairs, sitting at the kitchen table, his chair angled out the window, watching. I’d wait. Maybe stroke another ball into a pocket. And I’d hope he’d come down.
Sometimes he would and we’d play and he’d show me how to line up this and that. I thought he was amazing. But truth be told, neither of us was any good.
After, we’d have lunch. It was always either hot dogs or canned spaghetti. We’d save the spaghetti cans for Uncle Bill, who’d use them to patch up holes in the muffler on his Firebird.
And we’d sit there.
And we’d play cards.
And he’d show me the Mercury dime in his special cigar box on his dresser.
And he’d tell me the story: he was a machinist and he and his friend (who knows the fellas name anymore) were walking down the street when they spied a dime on the sidewalk. The depression, you know. Both went for it. “You take it.” “Naw, you take it.” “Naw.” So they took it back to the machine shop and cut it in half and both took it.
And that’s what memories are.
what memories are.
I was 7 when Reagan got elected. Grampie loved Reagan, and I’m pretty sure it was because they were both a couple of old guys. Grampie’d been a flagpole painter, a tool and die maker, a machinist. His father’d been a mason, and we still had his wood-handled trowel in the shed out back. They’d worked hard. They’d worked damned hard and lived damned hard and they retired broken, sitting by their kitchen windows listening to grandkids shoot pool on wobbly old plywood tables. I suppose Reagan spoke to that spirit. That broken spirit.
And that was OK.
It was OK, they said, to wish the coloureds who’d moved in 3 houses down would just goddamned move back out. And watch out when you hang clothes on the clothesline kids. They steal.
It was OK to laugh off the gays across the street and whisper funny names when you seen ’em on their mopeds. Funny gays. But don’t talk to them.
It was OK to warn us about the Jews who took all the money and would cheat you out of half a dime if they could. “Will they all go to Hell?” “Yes.”
All of this was OK.
And Reagan was president, speaking to the broken.
And I was 7.
At the Formica table, shuffling cards while the canned spaghetti simmered on that old Tappan stove range, brand new 30 years before.
Grampie in his chair, saying he’s got to cut back that goddamned forsythia before the neighbours think coloureds moved in here.
And the phonograph.
And the Philco black and white set with Wheel of Fortune after the 6 o’clock news.
And the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
And the cuckoo clock they’d wind when we asked for the hundredth time.
And the Morris chair, olive leather seat worn through ripped out but its still a good chair.
And half a bottle of Bay Rum we could sniff if we acted right all day, set on the dresser next to the special cigar box, hiding that half dime from the damned Jews.
was the last time America was great.
Grampie probably didn’t know where to find New Zealand on a globe. I sure wouldn’t have, had I not travelled. Now I live here.
My chair is just beneath the cuckoo clock at the table by the window. From here I see long white clouds over the harbour. I see a volcano and a shipping channel and I know how big a world lies beyond and within. Charlie’s buddy was born in Africa, and they can both find his birthplace on a map. He dreams of visiting Scotland because of more friends and because the greatest bicycle stunt rider he’s ever seen lives there. His memories won’t be like mine, I think, yet then again, they will be nearly identical.
We don’t have a piano. But we have a couple guitars and Charlie’s learning. We don’t have a pool table. But there’s a rugby club across the street and Charlie runs and rides his bike and rides his bike and runs.
Charlie is 6 and he builds Hot Wheel cities. It’s not the crack of pool balls. It’s the crash of race cars fumbling off the track.
And he calls to me.
And sometimes I go to him, as Grampie had come to me.
I show him . . . .
This morning Charlie and I rode our bikes to school. It’s Splish Splash day and I carried his swim bag with his towel and extra clothes. He carried his backpack with his John Deere lunch box I pack every morning. He rode up the hill of Kerr Street as I egged him on “mash, mash, mash!” He made it.
“Daddy can you leave your bike by the gate?”
“I want to walk you back.”
“You want to walk me? Sure buddy.”
“So I can spend a little more time with you.”
My days start off like this now. And I come home to a quiet house and I pour a cup of coffee and I sit in my chair just beneath the cuckoo clock and angled toward the window. And I get some work done. And I catch up on the news of the world.
By 10 I’m hungry enough to pop open a can of spaghetti. Into it I slice some rings of sausage leftover from last night. I simmer it in my cast iron skillet. It simmers as I sit by the window, and I notice the hedge I need to trim back. Later.
And this. This life. These memories.
No matter what you know or where you’ve been, if you don’t believe the past repeats itself, you’re dead wrong. And that’ll haunt you.