The Old Man
By Julie Genisot
“I’ll never forget the day Eddy found water for us. The old well went dry, and ma was sick and tired of the laundromat. It was something, the way that copper rod floated on his fingers like he wasn’t even holding it. He told me to try, and it dipped right where he said it would. Course it moved more for Eddy because he had it in him,” my cousin said. “You probably have it in you too.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll have to try it sometime.” I doubted that I ever would. There was little of my old man in me, and I resented my cousin for that memory. Felt cheated. “He found water for a lot of people,” I said.
My cousin, a postal deliveryman from Milwaukee, had travelled six hours to be at the old man’s funeral. He’d put on his best dress pants, and a button down shirt at least one size too small. He’d combed his hair in a way that didn’t look natural, a strict part on the side, greased back with hair gel borrowed from his wife. “Well, anyhow,” he said, “it’s good seeing you again”. He stood up from the chair beside me. “Too bad it’s always for this kind of thing.” He put a pained expression on his face, a commiseration I found strange to see, fraudulent, though his grief could have been sincere. I had to remind myself that other people actually liked my old man.
“You too,” I said, relieved to be rid of him.
I wanted to go outside, put my face up toward the sun, and hold my hands out to catch the wind coming off the lake. To be free of the constant stream of relatives who had shown up for the funeral, but to do that I’d have to leave altogether. Get in my car and drive away. I knew from experience a good number of people would be outside on the front lawn, smoking cigarettes, and catching up on each other’s lives. If I went out there, the conversation would stop, everyone would put on their saddest face, and I’d have to walk through a multitude of hands placed on my back, and purple-stained kisses from overdone lips.
The damn funeral was too much. I’d spent the past month going back and forth to the Grand View where the old man died of cancer. A fifteen-minute drive each way, one I could do with eyes closed, relying on the dips and curves of the highway to guide me home, my hands trained to travel the familiar distance. We tried Hospice, but it didn’t work, Ma couldn’t handle it, and I had to work all day. So we had him admitted to the hospital. Every morning, I’d call the nurse to check on him, hold my breath in case he’d died. She’d give me a report, and I’d go to work. Every evening, I’d go home, pick up Ma, and drive to the hospital to check on him again. Finally, I got the call.
“Is this the Edward Salmi residence?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m his son.”
“I’m calling to tell you Edward has passed.” She paused as if to let me catch up to her news. “He was asleep when the nurse checked him at eight o’clock, but he left us shortly after. I’m sorry,” she said. “What funeral home shall we call for his remains?”
She waited patiently while I processed the information. Ma and I hadn’t talked about his funeral; we were busy with his dying. “Johnson’s,” I said. “They’ll do it.” I didn’t need to provide any more information, in our small town, everybody knew the funeral home.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her voice sounded hollow, as if she’d said those words too often.
“He’s resting now,” I said.
I hung up the phone, then, I went to tell Ma the news. She wouldn’t break down, she never had before. Never dropped a tear for him. They’d had a rough marriage, like the kind you read about in books. The old man was a drunk, and I saw him beat her. He hit me too, sometimes a punch, sometimes a kick after he’d thrown me to the floor. I suppose he did it because he could, back then there was no one to stop him. It was easy for everyone, relatives, police, whoever, to just look the other way, easier for us too if no one bothered to notice. Even after he quit drinking it wasn’t much better. We’d all suffered too much by then, couldn’t love him if we tried, none of us, not Ma, not me, not my sisters. Whatever made up a family was almost dead in us.
Ma was in her bedroom watching a movie. “The hospital called,” I said. “He died.”
She didn’t look up at me, kept her eyes on the screen. “You’ll have to call everybody,” she said.
I made myself focus on the funeral as my aunt Marie approached me. She was married to my uncle Voito who had died two years prior to the old man. She bent into her walker, kneeled on its metal arms for support, her almond shaped, brown eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “How are you Carl?” she asked. “Eddy was such a good man.” Tears rolled down her cheeks as she sniffled from a nose that looked pickled as though she’d pricked it with a needle. “I’ll never forget him.”
“I won’t either,” I said. “He wrote his name all over the place. It’s on the oil tank, the bulldozer, the house foundation.” We laughed at that until she had to go to the bathroom.
Before he quit drinking, on long weekends away from his job in the mine, the old man went down to the basement, propped one leg up on a chair, and binged on Old Milwaukee beer. I remembered the cloud of smoke that hung over his head, hazy carcinogens that would eventually help to kill him. The basement was always dank, the walls damp and moldy. He’d have a light on overhead, a bulb with no lens that turned on and off with a gray, fraying string. He’d be down there for hours, must have pissed into the floor drain. I thought it was normal. Thought everybody’s dad spent the weekend in the basement. I didn’t know, didn’t bother to think about things like playing catch, or fishing. It never occurred to me that he should be doing those things with his kid.
After we found out he was about to die, the old man started to teach me things I needed to know about the house. He’d built the thing himself, dug the foundation with a shovel, pounded in almost every nail, ran the electrical, and later plumbed the place. I admitted to myself, though never to him, how remarkable it was. Nobody had taught the old man a whole lot. He’d quit school in the seventh grade. Yet, he’d built a house from scratch, as if it were no more than a cake recipe.
While he could still think straight, he explained the water pumps, told me how to switch from the good well to the bad well, a water source that poured out iron ore red. He attempted to explain his electrical system, showed where he kept his extra light bulbs. Gave me lessons on the sewer. I’d have to keep the plow truck running. Learn the mechanics of the bulldozer. Split wood and keep the stove burning in the winter.
Before he was dying, even though the old man was always around, I did my best to avoid him, but I couldn’t do that in those last months. For once, I had to ask, and listen. Learn things I didn’t really care about. Take direction from a man I’d never learned to call dad. For his part, the old man seemed to know he didn’t have time to be impatient. Finally, he seemed to understand how to be a parent.
“He was like a father to me,” said my second cousin, Marlene. “He always had time for us kids.”
I nodded, unable to add anything good to her assessment. Marlene wouldn’t have recognized the man I knew. She’d never known him as I did, wouldn’t have wanted too. If I were cruel, I could’ve told her how about the time I was ten, could have told her how Eddy gave my tire swing to another kid. I would’ve mentioned the sandbox without sand because he’d hauled it all down to her house.
“He brought me sand one time,” she said, “in a wheelbarrow. Such a great guy.”
Before the last one got him, the old man had survived throat cancer. He spoke through a hole in his neck, aided by a machine. He’d clear out his windpipe with a wheeze, emit snotty discharge, and wipe it clean with a handkerchief. Then he’d talk in a mechanical voice, with no allowance for tone. Often, he’d simply point. Use his hands to speak. I liked it better than his real voice.
I went up to view the old man in his casket, wondered if there was more I should have learned from him. But it was too late. His hands would never flip the pump switch, or pound another nail. He’d never climb up on the roof to shovel off snow. Never split a piece of wood and throw it into the fire. Somebody had cleaned his nails. The undertaker, or his wife, must have clipped them, dug out the grease. They’d joined his fingers over his belly, and in them, as if he could still hold onto it, they’d placed the voice machine.
Ma was off to the side of the room, surrounded by mourners who cried the way she couldn’t, or perhaps, the way she refused to cry. I never tell her I love her. We don’t do that. We don’t kiss and hug either. It’s just the way Finns are, stoic, our feelings kept hidden, as if you should just know how we feel inside. All I do know for sure is that Ma kept us fed when there wasn’t much food. She kept us warm. Made us go to school. The drunker and meaner Eddy got, the stronger she became.
My sister Tina asked her why she stayed with the old man. “Where was I supposed to go?” Ma asked.
But I think Ma used up all her strength. Whatever happened, I’m in charge now. Tina is great at saying I should move away, out west where I’d always wanted to live. But I have Ma to consider. The day after the old man died I asked her if she’d ever leave. If I took her, would she go?
“But what about the house?” she asked.
“We can close it up,” I said. “Use it on vacations.”
“I rather just sell it,” she said. “What if someone broke in? We can’t leave it empty.” She shook her head as if to indicate I hadn’t thought about it enough.
“Someone could watch it for us,” I said.
“That’s a lot to ask,” Ma said. “No, we can’t leave it.”
So that was it. The house, for all the bad memories, meant something to us. Held us tight. Ma said the night the old man died she felt a pat on her head, but didn’t question where it came from. She knew it was him. He’d come to check if everything was all right. Maybe, to make sure the stove was off, or that we’d locked the front door. Perhaps he was there to say goodbye. When she’d told me about it, her eyes welled for a moment. It was as close as she got to grief.
“Carl,” my ma said, “they say it’s time we say goodbye. They need to close the casket.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
I looked down at him. The old man’s skin was pasty, thick with makeup. Like a wax figure I’d seen on a TV show. His eyes were shut tight, and I wondered if they’d glued the lids together. His cheeks, drawn and sunken from his illness, looked full again. I’d heard once that funeral directors would break the legs of cadavers if they didn’t fit in the casket. Then I thought how the old man’s legs were probably short enough. I reached down then, touched the old man’s plastic-like fingers, not sure what I expected from the gesture. They were hard, cold, as unfamiliar dead as when he was alive. But still, they were his. The catch in my throat happened without my consent, a constriction of misbehaved muscles, as the whole of my life with the old man passed through me. A brief replay of moments gone. “Goodbye,” I said. “Goodbye.”