(Below is Jason Gurley's Swinging to the Big Bands, a story of a young man remembering his grandfather.)
(More fiction, by Ry Kincaid, in the print version of The White Crow, available for $2.50 ppd from Osric Publishing. If you know Ry Kincaid, tell him to write to us, since we have lost his address!)
Swinging to the Big Bandsby Jason Gurley
Funny—nobody's saying a word.
There is no restless shuffling of feet, no awkward and sideways glances, nobody strolling in and out. In the end, I suppose that's a fitting testament to the love and respect we all shared for you. I've been to many funerals, and never have I witnessed such a quiet reverie. The minister hasn't begun the ceremony yet, but even now I don't see a single dry eye.
My God, I miss you.
I've never believed in much of anything about the days that follow death—never really put much stock in dreams of a perfect heaven or a tormented hell. But then, I've never lost somebody that's meant as much to me as you still do. Now, sitting here among scores of people I've never met (and a few that I have), I hope that there is a world better than this. I hope you're in it.
"When you pray," you said, slipping gently to your knees between the wooden pews, "you just talk to God like He's your best friend. Like He's right here beside you."
"Like I talk to you?" I asked, my little mind easily accepting what you said as truth.
"Just like that," you answered. "Listen to me while I pray, and then just do like I do."
And I watched through a six-year-old's eyes as you bowed your head over folded hands and began to quietly pray.
I trace the old, scarred pew with my fingertips, following grooves carved by bored little boys with Swiss Army knives. I can almost imagine you here, your familiar, worn slacks grazing the dusty floor as you kneel, your big hands clasping gracefully, your thoughtful eyes warm beneath a furrowed brow.
I remember the words you said that day, and though I wrestle with my belief in God, I often repeat those words—and I'll do so even more, I imagine, now that you're gone.
"Lord," you said, "bless this day, and each day after. Help us to see Your mercy, Lord. Help us to be the men that You want us to be. And, Lord, watch over us. Keep Your hand upon my grandson, this brave young man beside me. Lead him in Your steps always."
I look up to see a somewhat familiar old man in a wrinkled suit take a seat two rows ahead of me. His blue eyes peek out from loose skin as he removes his jacket and carefully drapes it over the arm of the pew. He eases his tired old body onto the pew, his trembling old hands clutching the back of the bench in front of him.
I can't place him—but his face! I feel as though I should know who he is.
He reaches up and delicately removes his hat, a banded felt derby that looks as though it's seen a good many years drag slowly by, each bringing more and more memories to tuck away beneath it.
"No, no," you said, stepping up behind me. Your arms encircled me, covering my own small hands with your own. "Grip the bat like this, about halfway up. You don't want to hold it too low, or you won't have the power to hit the ball past your little toe."
I giggled at that, and you smiled. "Okay. Ready to become the next Honus Wagner?"
I nodded, and you duck-walked to the pitcher's mound, scooping a baseball from a wire basket lying on its side. You toed the mound comically, set your jaw, and went into a crazy windup that had me laughing so hard I dropped the bat.
"Don't let your grandpa go messing with you, son," a voice said, and we both turned to see a tall man in a felt derby standing on the other side of the batting cage, beneath an oak. "You don't want to give him too much leeway, or he'll play like a little kid forever. Get him to show you his good stuff."
"He's my grandpa," I said, and the man smiled and nodded. He crouched and wrapped his fingers through the chain link.
"Watch out for his fastball," he whispered, grinning. "He's got terrible aim."
"This is Roger," you said to me. "We used to play together in high school."
Roger came around the backstop and shook my hand.
"This young man is the next Honus Wagner," you said, and Roger said, "Is that so?" and took off his hat.
The old man bent over and placed his head in his hands. A moment later his back begins to jerk as he sobs, beginning slowly and gaining force as the moments crawled by. A rush of sympathy burns my eyes, and I feel linked to him more than to anyone else in this church—we shared a moment many years ago.
I have a feeling that if friendships were made of red string, there would be a thousands strands weaving in and out of this entire church; you were the common thread between each of us.
At the front of the church, people are slowly filing by your casket, pausing for a moment and then walking away as quickly as possible, as though the sight of you lying prone on the silk cushions were more than their frail hearts could bear.
A woman firmly in the grasp of middle age stops before you, her hands clinging to the side of the casket for support, and I watch her lips move, whispering something to your now-deaf ears.
"What are you doing here this time of night?" you demanded, worried and angry at the same time. "Don't you know that your mother must be worried sick about you?"
"I don't care," I said, my adolescent voice cracking in my throat. "I don't care what she says! I'm not going back there, I'm not!"
"Jacob, Jacob," you sighed, laying a hand upon my shoulder and leading me inside your warm house. A fire was slowly dying in the fireplace, and from the den I could hear the soft sounds of Glenn Miller.
"You must go home," you said. "Your mother will be very worried about you."
"I hate her," I said, and then, a sob welling up inside of me, I shouted it. "I hate her!"
And the back of your hand laid me out on the shag carpet. I hadn't seen it coming. Lying on my back, I looked up through blurry eyes to see you standing above me, stern for the first time.
"You will never talk about your mother that way," you whispered harshly, your eyes hard. "Not like that, and not in front of me, or anyone. She's your mother, Jacob, and my daughter."
Your words didn't heal the rift that developed between my mother and I that day. In fact, the gap between us only grew. But you taught me a measure of respect, and I never spoke ill of her again. To anyone.
I haven't seen her in three years.
She stops whispering, and, beginning to wobble, she places a long-stemmed rose inside your casket. Her eyes close, and I watch her shoulders heave as she takes a deep breath. For a long moment, she just stands there, saying nothing, seeing nothing. Then she turns and begins the long walk back to her seat.
Two shaky steps and she's on her knees, her body spasming with deep, painful cries. Her mouth opens, and a broken wail escapes, loud and tortured. It chills me, and the hairs on my neck rise to attention. For the first time in years, I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her that everything will be all right.
But my mother's husband lifts her and walks her back to their pew. All the while, throughout the sanctuary, I hear the soft cries of others becoming more and more audible.
It's all too much, too overwhelming. I get to my feet and walk quickly from the sanctuary, staring down at my shoes and counting the small pools of light cast by the chandeliers lining the ceiling.
"My father was a bricklayer," you said one night over a chocolate shake. "He wanted me to be one, too."
We were sitting on bar stools at Del's, a small ice cream shop still in business fifteen years later, relaxing over ice cream after watching the Cubs lose – again – to the Mets.
"Did you?" I asked, spooning a heavy scoop of vanilla ice cream into my mouth and then wincing at the immediate freeze that numbed my head.
You chuckled. "Slowly, Jacob. You have to take small bites. Like this."
And you deftly stole a spoonful from my bowl, slurping it down loudly amid my protests.
Defeated, I repeated my question. "Did you be a bricklayer, Grandpa?"
"Become," you repeated. "Did you become a bricklayer. And no, Jacob, I didn't."
"Why not? I like to stack bricks in my fort," I proclaimed. "I want to be a bricklayer."
"It wasn't what I felt inside of me," you said, your voice tight. "And my father wasn't happy with that. I went into the military right after high school, and unfortunately, we never talked again."
Even at eight years old, I sensed the tension of the topic. I played with my ice cream for a moment, and then, as Del watched apprehensively from behind the soda fountain, I ceremoniously dumped a spoon of chocolate syrup into your glass. You laughed, and the moment was forgotten.
For a time.
I splash warm water on my face, a little shaken by my emotional response to my mother's outburst. The water trickles down my cheeks and neck, soaking the tightly-buttoned collar at my throat. I rub away the straggling drops, and then stop, hands to my face, catching my reflection in the mirror. I stare, my dark eyes burning right through myself.
She had always said, for years: "You're so much like your grandfather, Jacob."
I never believed it, though I wanted to, so badly. I was too pale and reserved, too quiet. I was nothing like you – you were alive, vibrant, as though you had captured a rainbow and kept it inside. As a child I never knew how old you were, but for many years I believed you were exactly my age, only bigger, with long, powerful arms and broad shoulders. That sense of safety that I felt when you wrapped me up in those enormous bear hugs – I've never felt it anywhere but with you.
Now, face to face with myself years later, I finally see so much of you in me that it's disconcerting to look. But I can't help it.
Mentally, I add thicker brows to my reflection. I paint a few well-placed crinkles at the corners of my eyes. I smile broadly, imagining deep creases in my cheeks. A trace of gray at my temples and a feather of hair over the top of my ears….
You're there for but a moment before my mind gets the better of me, but it's more than enough.
My eyes sink a bit, and suddenly the tears are there. They spill furiously over my cheeks and fall across my shirt, little blurry stains that spread and expand. I can feel it coming, and I lean over the sink and vomit, retching, though nothing comes up.
"Why are you afraid?" you asked me, sitting calmly beside me in a regal blue pinstripe. "He'll look very well-dressed."
My own suit was a weak emulation of your own. "I can't," I said, shaking my head and folding my little arms. "I don't want to look at him. He's dead."
"Does that scare you?" You put your arm around my shoulders and pulled me into the crook of your elbow. "Are you afraid to see him?"
I looked at my mother, the dark veil obscuring her face, and then stared down at the floor, ashamed. "Yes," I whispered.
"Why?" you asked, your mighty hand squeezing my shoulder. "Your daddy's in a much better place now. Don't you want to see how peaceful he looks, knowing that he's somewhere happy and bright?"
And I did look at my father that day, studying his closed eyes and thin lips. There was a garish smear of pink on each cheek – he looked as though he were playing dress-up with mother's make-up when he died. But thanks to you, he wasn't frightening, and when we returned to the pew, I laid my small head against you and smiled, imagining my father playing baseball with God.
"God is always beside you, Jacob," you said to me as you buckled me into my mother's car that day. "You know that, don't you?"
I nodded, then stared up into his deep blue eyes. "But I want you to be always beside me."
Standing over your casket, an elegant construction of cherrywood and brass, I hold my breath as I look down at you for the first time. Your face is a mask of peace, much as you described how my father would look that day. I notice that, in the years since we last saw each other, you've collected a few more creases in your forehead, and for good measure, added a few more wrinkles around your eyes.
You're in the same old suit, the blue pinstripe, and there is a carefully folded handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket. Beneath the jacket is the familiar white shirt with dark stripes, and…the plaid tie.
My breath catches deep within my chest – it's the tie I gave you for Christmas many, many years ago. I know that you didn't choose these clothes, but I can't help but wonder why this particular tie, after so many years of your secret dislike for it.
I smile – that's one thing you never knew I knew.
Alone at the front of the church with you, I reach into the satin-lined casket and touch your face, tracing my fingers down your cheeks and to the wide knot of that old tie. My fingertips drift down the length of the tie, and beneath it, I feel an out-of-place lump.
Gently pushing the tie aside, I see the faint outline of your dog tags beneath the shirt.
"What are those, Grandpa?"
"These?" you asked, fingering the chain around your neck. You were standing in your undershirt behind an ironing board, pressing a dress shirt. Bobby Darin sang softly in the background – to this day, his music reminds me of you.
"They're called dog tags, Jacob," you answered. "They're your identification when you're in the Army."
"You were in the Army?" I asked, studying the small metal plates dangling from your neck.
You nodded, and the iron hissed as it slid along the sleeves of the shirt. "Of course I was. Almost everyone was."
I sat on the floor and stared at my toes. "Grandpa," I said, my voice quiet, "did you ever kill anybody?"
You stood above me, and the iron stopped, tendrils of steam curling around your bare forearm. I listened to you heave a deep sigh, and looked up to see you staring down at me.
You lied to me. I knew that you did, but I believed you anyhow. It wasn't an easy thing to answer; you did well.
With gentle eyes, you said: "No, Jacob. I never took another man's life, and I never will."
"Oh," I said, relieved. "So what did you do in the Army?"
Bobby Darin launched into an explosive number, and you grabbed me by the arms, lifting me up. "This," you said, laughing, and all afternoon you taught me to swing to the big bands.
I watch as they lower your casket into the cold earth, and around me the mourners slowly begin to disperse. My mother, slightly more composed, lays her head against her husband's chest, and they toddle away, her shoulders still shaking mildly. I wonder if she even noticed me at all.
The minister closes his Bible and stands beside me as they begin tossing shovelfuls of dirt into your grave.
"Good man, your grandfather was," he says, laying a hand on my shoulder. "A very good man."
All I can do is nod.
The months pass, and I go on with my life. It takes all I have to forget, and I manage pretty well. I don't want to, but it makes things easier.
Swamped by submissions this May afternoon, I happen across a short story by a young man from Carolina. The piece is a fondly-written story about his deceased father, and before I know it, I'm thinking of you again. Behind this desk in Manhattan, the door to my office wide open, I succumb to the tears I've denied for so long.
I leave on a Friday and drive to the cemetery, six hundred miles away. When I left the funeral, yours was the only grave heaped with brown; now it's overgrown with bright green grass, and a single dandelion stands tall beside your feet. I pluck it and blow the seeds wild, then spend the rest of the afternoon pulling weeds and telling you all about my life.
Before I leave, I return to you the only thing I've ever stolen: I place the dog-tags atop your headstone, and as darkness begins to fall, I climb into my car and head back to New York.
Somewhere between Hartford and Albany, as the night sleeps on and I fight to stay awake, I turn on the radio to hear the loud, playful sounds of Bobby Darin.
The stars burn brighter tonight than I've ever seen, and I smile as I begin to sing along. These days I like to believe that there is a heaven, and that you're up there, still swinging to the big bands.
Crowright 2001 Osric Publishing. Last updated 05.06.2001