Whether the deep, greying grooves of his face marked his years of crying or his years of laughing, my respect for him reached much higher than the mournful atmosphere of the room. As I watched him slowly bring his cup of coffee to his lips, I pictured the way the spidering fissures around his eyes and the salt-and-pepper caterpillars above them illuminated guile when he would start into one of his stories, always beginning with, “This ol’ boy…” and always ending with an unuttered question, spoken only through the eyes of his listeners, regarding its credibility. There were no stories today, however. His eyes were not wily; they did not spring joy and laughter as I was accustomed. Instead, the creases around them curved downward and would act as drainage ditches to his tears, while the liveliness of his eyebrows had ceased, replaced by a perpetual furrow. He had always been somewhat of a mystery to me, a promise of revelation, unkept.
I tried to eat my toast, tried to remember a time my parents’ house was more somber than that day, tried to look anywhere but his eyes, tried not to wonder about his pain–all in vain. Then, as if the silence of the house acted as a key to the story locked within him, he began to speak. His voice, a Southern vernacular he often referred to as “the King’s English,” was worn and soft, almost imperceptible, but gained strength when he said her name, her very existence keeping him from crumbling.
“When I firs’ saw her wawkin’ down the wawkway, she was wearin’ a yella western suit; she was meanderin’ amongst the corrals, and she was the mos’ beautiful woman I had ever seen. I am usually shy and bashful around beautiful women but I jus’ had to stop her, so I stepped out and interduced myself–found out she was married, I was recen’ly divorced, as ya know. We wawrked togetha ever’ summer, and fer three months out of ever’ year, I got to be with her.”
He paused to take a drink of coffee, dampening his scratchy voice, tattered from years of living. I looked at him now, unable to restrain my captivation; his wrinkles had become shallower and cast less shadow on the parts of his face still untouched by age, but his eyes told me he was no longer sitting with me in the early morning hours: he was somewhere in the 1970s, dreaming of the woman I called Grandma.
“Durin’ my third year at the track, she stawrted workin’ in the same area as me.” Finally, a laugh, strange because of his situation, slightly suppressed by the thickness of his grief, escaped.
“We had mo’ fun. There was mo’ fun and laughter thar, with ya Gramma, than any otha’ place. I never ast her for a cup of coffee; we jus’ wawrked togetha and laughed togetha. I know how to respe’t a married woman, but boy, was she a beauty. When I wasn’ with her in the summatime, I was thinkin’ about her.
I din’t show up for our fifth summer together cus my dad had died. She panicked, thunkin I warn’t gonna show up. When I did get thar, I found out she had been thinkin’ about me over the winter, too.” He spoke now like a teenage boy, full of hormones and promise, having just scored a prom date. “Her marriage was in trouble, and we began discussin’ seri’sly ‘bout gettin’ mawrried. When we decided ta get married, I ast her if she went to church. She said, ‘No, I’m a Heathen.’”
The creases on his forehead had vanished now as he remembered a time when his skin was as unsullied as his love for her.
“I wull never foget that. When I ast her if she would go ta church wit’ me when we were mawrried, she said, ‘Sure, what church do you go to?’ The look on her face when I told her I was Southern Baptis’ was nuthin’ I’d ever seen: I coun’t help but laugh out loud. I dunno what she had heard about Southern Baptists, but it coun’t have been good.”
Now, he inhaled the motionless air, laden with the unmistakeable scent of coffee grounds, trying to acknowledge the reality that surrounded us. Then, he finished his story with the only certainty in his life,
“She came wit’ a lot of baggage, and I din’t know how much she had ‘til we were mawrried. I had to pay a lot of her firs’ husband’s bills. It din’t matter though, she was wort’ it. She’s still wort’ it.”
Up until this moment, my Grandaddy was a riddle I was always trying to solve. It became clear as he told me that long awaited story of irrefutable love that he was in fact a very simple man, controlled by a love still stainless and unrelenting even in the midst of death, a love many will never know.