“In joined hands there is still some token of hope, in the clinched fist none.” —Victor Hugo
If it wasn’t for me, maybe he’d still be dreaming. When I told my dad I wanted to live forever, he said, “Just wait ‘till you get to be my age, then you’ll wish you were dead.” I was eight. He was twenty-eight. He was always joking, never kidding.
He’d sing this old song, “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” We’d sing, “The worms play pinochle on your snout.”
If it wasn’t for me, maybe he’d still be laughing. He could be a retired Navy captain, a college professor.
If only I hadn’t shown up when he was too young to know better, maybe…
I remember the day he broke. When he came home that night, there wasn’t any air left. He was a popped balloon. All of his edges sagged.
When a man can’t do it on his own, the failure puts notches in his spine, bends him, twists him up like knotted wood.
He’d sing, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest.” We’d sing, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”
My dad cut his leg sawing lumber for a playhouse when I was five, before he lost his job, before he started over digging ditches.
I looked on from the sandbox, as he yelled out and the saw fell from his hand. I felt sorry for his hurt as blood bubbled to the surface. I remember thinking it looked like blackberry jam.
And then I thought, “He’s real. He’s a real man.”
Gramps was six-and-a-half feet tall and wore bib overalls everywhere, even on vacation. His hands were as big as raccoons. He taught me how to tie my shoes.
The surf was pounding and he had just seen the ocean for the first time. Not just that ocean, but any ocean. He was seventy-two years old and not impressed. Granny strained against the blowing sand, bent against the wind, her hair caught up in a clear plastic rain bonnet. I wanted to untie the stiff bow at her chin, let it fly away so she could feel the wind in her hair.
“Well, that’s a damn waste of space,” Gramps said, looking out, enormous thumbs tucked into his denim bibs, thin jacket flapping around.
Then he turned his back to the sea and I was afraid. I’d been told a thousand times that turning your back to the ocean was the most dangerous danger that exists. I thought I knew it was true because a sneaker wave got me once, flipped me on my back. I floated there, frozen, staring at my yellow boot tops for what seemed like a week before someone hauled me in.
Gramps had decided to unzip and take a leak, right there on the beach. I didn’t know then why he turned to face the row of beach houses and hotels instead of the vacant sea, but I found out later, he just couldn’t manage a piss with that menacing ocean staring back.
Granny squinted her eyes and looked out at the thin horizon. She crossed her small arms and shifted her white sneakers in the sand.
“Lord a’mighty,” she said, “just think of all the corn that could be growing out there.”
I turned to run down the beach and stumbled, my laces having come undone. Gramps caught me up and set me down. “Remember the rabbit ears?” he asked. “No,” I pouted. He patted my head and reached down, tugging the laces into place with fingers thick as oaks. He twisted the tiny, striped loops, his somber face starkly lined against the light of the setting sun, the lonely, wasteful ocean rising behind us.
An older man and woman walked along the shore. I was with my husband at a clothing optional riverside beach and the couple wore nothing but hats. Hers was a floppy white beach hat. His, a faded green baseball cap. Below these coverings, nothing was hidden and nothing was revealed. Their skin and fleshy contours sagged atop old bones. The woman’s arm was hooked beneath the man’s elbow.
They stopped directly in front of me, several yards from where I was lying on a beach towel. The woman reached down and I could see small movements. I focused on the motion of her arm and realized she was pressing her hand into the man’s hip, rubbing in careful circles. I noticed his belly, his gut protruding, the way old man bellies do. He looked away from the woman as she worked on him, north towards a mountain in the distance floating above the tree line framing the bank. Her head was bent, a breeze fluttering her brim. She leaned, tilting into him, pressing. Her lips were tight. She went on, rubbing for five minutes or so. Then she straightened up and hooked her arm again. No words were spoken during any of this. She adjusted her hat and they moved on, slowly. Then I noticed that he was limping and that she was propping him up.
As they limped together down the beach, I wiped an unexpected tear from my cheek and pulled my sunglasses down. I looked at my husband in his beach chair, reading, his lips curved with pleasure. It was a beautiful day, the world billowing with a kind of perfect calm. Yet, watching the old couple, I recalled a time when I was a caregiver once for a dying aunt, long ago in my youth. I remembered that I know what death is, have sat with it for days, and smelled it on my own hands. I know what it requires of the living, the little cuts it demands along the way, how it can come in minutes.
The couple stopped again a little further down the beach. They’d barely gotten anywhere. She was leaning in like before, massaging. My husband pulled on a beer, blissfully unaware of the hive of my thoughts. He began talking but no sound came out. A bee landed on his thigh. He didn’t see it and I didn’t say anything because he isn’t afraid of anything that I know of—unlike me—not stinging and not death. He smiled at me as the bee licked salt from his damp skin.
I stared at the couple again in spite of myself and felt afraid that I wouldn’t be able to press my small fists bravely into my husband’s decay like that if the time comes, lean into his pain, prop him up. Not because I’m not strong enough. This is not a matter of strength.
I wanted to grab his hand just then, pull him towards the water and run—dive into the green-grey depths of the slow, cold river and drift.
My father-in-law revved the throttle, sending the four-wheeler hurtling through the hardwood forest. He was eighty-three years-old then and still had the energy and passion of ten young men.
He was still working full time as a doctor in the emergency room of the hospital he helped build in rural Wisconsin. But on this rare Saturday off, his strong hands gripped the handlebars instead of a scalpel, and we roared along the dirt track towards the ridge above his rambling acreage.
As he worked the gears and gas, I thought about all his hands had seen, saved, and lost. The babies they’d caught. The bodies they’d opened. The wounds they’d closed. The hearts they’d re-started. Once, he brought a man back to life after more than an hour of chest compressions. Some, though, couldn’t be saved. He buried his own baby daughter long ago, the grief transformed into a glacial layer of scar tissue, his pain contained only by an icy river valley of passion for duty and healing.
That day, he pushed the machine faster and faster until the maples, birch groves, and white pines blurred into a green-brown rush of leaf, needle, and bark.
We stopped at the top of a ridge and looked out. He pointed to a landmark in the distance, told me about the bear and deer and coyotes that roam this land.
Then we were off again, my small, unsteady hands around his waist as we headed back down towards the safety of the fields.
The photograph fell out of an old album as I was looking at family pictures with my grandmother. She hadn’t opened the box since my grandfather had died. I picked the faded image up off the floor and we stared at it together.
“A friend of Dad’s?” I asked her. The face didn’t look familiar.
She was silent for a minute or so as we took in the scene—a teenage boy standing on what looked like a pool deck, shirtless, in loose shorts. The photograph was in color but washed out a little from age.
We stared and stared. Then, grandma gasped.
“It’s Johnny,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “Your cousin Johnny.”
My tears came instantly then, not in sobs, but in a hot stream, my throat caught up in a deep ache. I think I felt ashamed that I didn’t recognize my own dead cousin. He’d killed himself in his parents’ garage not long after high school graduation. It’s not that I’d forgotten him, but so many years had passed since I’d seen his face.
Before putting the photo back, I snapped a picture of it with my camera. Later, after my grandmother had gone to bed, I looked at the photo of the photo, searching for a sign of Johnny’s pain, a hint of the future. In the image he appears happy, relaxed. He’s smiling, arms loose at his sides. But as I scanned the photo from top to bottom, I finally saw it, and my heart broke again as something else came into focus—my lost cousin’s fists, clenched tight, balled up and angry, caught too late, on film.
At my grandmother’s house, I picked up a National Geographic and showed her a photograph of an old woman in a story about secrets of the world’s oldest people.
“Check it out, Grandma. This lady is one hundred and five years old.” Granny hung her head. “Nobody should ever live that long,” she said. “What a shame. Such a shame.”
The old woman in the magazine didn’t look displeased about it. She wore a floppy orange hat and bright red lipstick. Her eyes shone, her smile turned up.
“When are you leaving? Going home tonight?” Grandma asked her caregiver Lafiti again. “No, Margie, no,” Lafiti said calmly. “I’m here four days, then three days off. I go home to my grandchildren. Then I come back.” “Oh, I didn’t know that,” Grandma said. “Nobody told me. Nobody tells me anything.” “Did you fall? Are you hurt?” she asked Lafiti next, out of the blue and without context, like usual.
“No, Margie, you fell. You hurt your head. You fell down the stairs; remember? You hurt your head and your leg.” My grandmother touched the place on the back of her head where she had eight stitches after falling backward off the stairs while trying to catch her cat. Grandma shook her head, shut her eyes. “I did? I fell?” Then she clenched her small fist, as tiny and bony as a pigeon talon, and hit herself in the forehead.
“Sawdust! There’s nothing but sawdust and straw in here now.” She turned to me. “Tell her. Tell Lafiti I haven’t always been this way. Tell her I haven’t always been so stupid.”
That night in bed with my ex-husband, one of too many with our backs curled opposite, one foot away, miles apart, I listened to the clock ticking in the kitchen, feeling utterly alone, craving a hand resting on the small of my back, wishing for warm fingertips against my spine, any touch at all, really.
There in the dark I remembered the story of Harry Harlow and his Rhesus monkey love experiments from the 1960s. Deprived of their mothers and of touch, the baby monkeys turned to cloth surrogates for comfort, clung desperately to rags, just for something to hold.
A few days later, I booked a massage, requested silence. I didn’t want the sounds of the sea or a mountain stream or Zen bells. What I wanted was to feel something. I wasn’t expecting much, but when the therapist dimmed the lights, warmed and oiled her hands and began kneading the desperate muscles of my back, I melted into quiet tears, just another lonely primate.
Gina Williams is a Portland-based writer, photographer, and artist. Her work has been featured by or is forthcoming most recently in River Teeth, Okey-Panky, Carve, The Boiler Journal, Kudzu House, Great Weather for Media, The Sun, Fugue, Palooka, and tNY Press, among others. Learn more about her and her creative pursuits at GinaMarieWilliams.com