My grandfather, he pointed to a place on the map, and my grandfather, he said, “I’ve been there, once when I was very young.” And the place he pointed to was New Orleans. My grandfather pointed to that place on the map, and he said, “I was hanging out of windows in my shirtsleeves. I was drunk. Oh, Lord. How I was drunk. How wonderfully drunk I was.” My grandfather paced around the room in this place where we now lived. My grandfather stopped, and he said, “I found the dirtiest church in town. I walked in and sat there at a pew. I made up things that I believed in. I’m not sure if I even prayed. I twiddled my thumbs. I fell asleep, I think.”
My grandfather, he pointed to a place on the map, and my grandfather, he said, “It was just before I went to war. I’d never even used a parachute before.” And the place he pointed to was New York City. My grandfather pointed to that place on the map, and he said, “Even the tartan boys weren’t making fun of anybody. It was all bad weather and worse jokes. It was stale cigars and shined shoes and endless rounds and wild, knee-buckling hugs from barmaids. It was singing I’m Making Believe and buying a round for the bar. I remember the smell of matches. The way we all waltzed with brooms. Sawdust on the barroom floor. And, hell, all those pats on the back.” My grandfather scratched at the back of his neck and sighed with a raspy wheeze, “Most of those boys never made it back.”
My grandfather, he pointed to a place not on any map. The sky, perhaps, opened a tad. With watery eyes and a congested heart, my grandfather told me, he said, “Son, there aren’t any ways I know of to get back what you never thought’d ever be gone once it’s done being what you’ve always just had.” My grandfather coughed into the crook of his arm; he creased his brow’s pleats, working his wrinkled flesh like the bellows of an accordion; and my grandfather, he said, “Your grandmother swam in so many lakes. She swam so far; she swam so far out; hell, maybe even beyond the smallmouth grunts and the goldribbon soapfish; and she was never scared. But I am not a life raft. I am not holding together or on to any of it anymore.” My grandfather, he said, “Son, you go out and swim in those lakes that held your grandmother’s shape in them. Swim out so far that you don’t remember who you are or where you were before. Son, you will know from where you came by where you will go, and past even those place too; and Son, never worry…with courage, always, of course you will stay afloat.”
My grandfather gazed where there was nowhere left to look, and he told me, “Son, remember, you are just a player piano in a small room in which there are only other player pianos who are all merely playing music for the other player pianos, all of whom can’t hear any music above the sound of their own. So. Hell. Smash all of the other pianos; sell ’em for firewood. We are and have always been plenty with less.”
It rained all day on the day my grandfather died. A legend’s sendoff with rifle fire and taps. The creosote scent of railroad ties imbued it all. I stood and cried on the freshly mown grass, and I said, “Farewell to all that,” to all the places on the map.