I found my grandfather in the sepia-tone photos of him they kept on the mantle at the wake. He wasn’t old enough for them to be daguerreotypes like in cowboy times, but they kind of looked like it. Only this cowboy had a leather helmet and pads stuffed with straw for Chicago winter, eyes asquint like they’d always be, even when he was happy.
There existed in my mother’s family a whispered legend; not often spoken but well understood–Grampa was eternal, a force of nature like entropy or nuclear fission. This Irish Catholic wake was going to live up to its name. It didn’t matter that Grampa’s sickness turned him into a Peruvian shrunken head with a body to match. He’d be upright in the casket before long, stuffing his pipe and telling us to mind Father’s homily.
Grampa didn’t have names anymore, just initials. PGN. He lost his names in the war. Which war? Doesn’t matter. Tuck in your shirt. And shut the door while you’re at it. Were you raised in a barn?
This was a Special Family Occasion, which basically meant my dad didn’t have to hide his flask. This was the year 2007, after my dad lost his job but before he and my mom divorced. He’d transitioned from telling me about the various alien races that controlled every aspect of society to communing with them directly; telepathically. He kept telling everyone who’d listen that he didn’t kill PGN; it was a setup; they had to believe him. They all just shook their heads.
Mom had on her back brace and splint and foot cast and the trusty sling she’d bust out for SFOs. And the perfume. If you couldn’t hear her telling everyone about how she had scoliosis, and COPD, and kidney failure, and seizures every other Tuesday, then her perfume gave her away.
My big brother Drew was almost out of basic; they let him come home for the funeral. I eyed his crew cut over guzzled cups of coffee and wondered why he was calling me by my real name instead of “Chubs,” why he wasn’t using my shoulder to work on his jab. He told me in basic he saw a guy try to off himself with an M16. Drill sergeant came in as the guy was trying to pick his nose up off the floor, but he couldn’t do it because of how slippery the blood made everything. Told me some other guys were caught fucking each other, that they’d had their heads put through drywall by a different drill, been discharged on the spot. There was a window overlooking the parking lot in this coffee room. I rattled off every car brand in sight before Drew could quiz me on them.
PGN had a yellowed Charlie Chaplin poster hung on the wall at his old house, at the top of the stairs. Charlie looked demented in it. Drew told me he looked fine from his angle, but I wasn’t tall enough to see the difference. We used to collect mothballed pillows and race down the steps whenever Grampa had one of his coughing fits. Would joust with borrowed wheelchairs and stolen tree branches outside the hospital when PGN was first admitted. If he’d seen the silver dollar bruises we gave each other he’d flip his shit, but we hid them well.
Mom came in with her Polaroid to take disposables. We gave her a smiling one and Drew wanted one where we flipped off the camera. That’s the one I kept, one of the few of Drew left after they brought him back in a box and Mom laid up in bed for a month or more, crying for me to bring in more pictures. She wasn’t eating. I told her she needed food more than pictures and she called me a bastard and locked me out. I slept on the lawn that night and watched the stars.
But the wake. While we waited for PGN’s second coming I cornered one of his old war buddies. Tried not to stare at his crocodile skin. Wasn’t entirely successful. Told him my Grampa was a war hero, then tried to squeeze in a question mark at the end. He poured me a little of what he had flasked and told me to sit. I did. His eyes were a blind man’s gray, but I could tell he saw me.
Grampa was an engineer in the war. Built bridges. Worked on one that spanned a deep, otherwise impassable gorge out in the middle of nowhere. His crowning achievement. A beauty. Took months of hard labor, most of which he put in himself. Anyway, when they were about a week away from completion they spotted the enemy, on the other side of the gorge. Ten men for every corps man under PGN. Heavily outgunned. Not a chance in hell.
-So what did my Grampa do?
-What did he do?
-He burned the bridge down.
-He was a good man.
The man’s crocodile hand was firm. I drank what he gave me, mostly so I’d have an excuse for the watery eyes.
PGN never did wake up. Or maybe he did but didn’t want to give it away. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, I didn’t go home with Mom and Dad. Neither did Drew. Instead we marched home together, kicking errant stones and surveying all the land that belonged to us, all the land that could never be ours.