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“Hard as he was, my grandfather had an Irishman's insensibilities toward beauty. One day he left his house to take a walk. He walked every day. This day, he didn't come home...."

uncle louie
by jeremiah o'hagan


Louie was my mom's uncle. He was married to Eleanor. Eleanor is short and fat, with a helmet of white curls. Louie also had white hair and a white beard, but he spent his life with tools and the tools shaped him. His hands were knotted and his forearms ropey. His cheekbones chiseled and his eyes stony.

When I was 4, Louie unsettled me. He looked sharp as a drawknife and hard as a sledge. He teased me and made me feel foolish, and I resented him.

Then Louie died. Had a heart attack while he was driving home from work. He was already gone when his car hit the tree. I remember my mom weeping. I remember being relieved.

Louie was nothing like my Irish grandfather. My grandfather's name was Stuart. He was my dad's dad. He was nearly deaf. He was a hard man, too. He retired from a sawmill and had a reputation for fighting. He never began a fight, the stories went, but damn did he finish them. One fight shut down the green chain while he and his opponent punched each other from one end to the other and back again.

My grandfather was hard in other ways, too. One man at the mill made a show of being a Christian. He packed a Bible in his lunchbox and read it during breaks. He antagonized my grandfather because my grandfather was poor and deaf and talked funny and wore the same pants and sweatshirt every day. My grandfather never said a word in return. Just took it. One day the man walked up to my grandfather at lunch.

“I owe you an apology,” he said.

“You don't owe me anything,” my grandfather said. "Apologize to God.”

Hard as he was, my grandfather had an Irishman's insensibilities toward beauty. One day he left his house to take a walk. He walked every day. This day, he didn't come home. My parents worried. My grandmother worried. He showed up in the dark that evening. He had simply decided to walk to a neighboring town, he said, because it was a nice day for walking.

I loved my grandfather. If I wanted to hear the same book seven times, he read it to me seven times. If I wanted to walk to the river, we walked. If I wanted to climb on him, that was fine.

To my grandfather, there was nothing more beautiful that watching an unfettered animal. “I love to watch her run,” he said about Heather.

Heather was my first dog. She was a liver-and-white Springer Spaniel. When she ran it was like water flowing. Sometimes my grandfather took Heather walking. My dad made him keep her on a leash because she was just as insensible as my grandfather. She would chase sticks, birds or dandelion seeds.

One day, about a year after Louie died, my grandfather let her off the leash to watch her run and a car hit her. She died.

I remember sitting on my parents' bed, holding a picture of Heather and sobbing big, eye-scorching tears.

“I hate Grandpa!” I said.

My mom told me he felt bad.

“Good! He should!”

I forgave him. Not consciously, but implicitly. Because he kept reading to me. He kept playing catch. He loved my next dog just as much.

Like Louie, my dad has spent his life with tools. Like my grandfather, he has spent it with lumber. My dad's name is Patrick. After high school, he got a job framing houses for his friend's dad. He's been a carpenter since. Now, instead of framing cookie-cutter developments, he finishes $500,000 walk-in closets for rich people. He signs non-disclosures saying he won't tell who owns the closets.

After Louie died, Eleanor had a garage sale. I remember going to the sale with my parents and loading the back of our station wagon. I specifically remember the two Schwinn bikes. His and hers models with blue-and-white paint jobs, sweeping handlebars, springy seats and fenders.

It's been 29 years since I saw Louie. Almost that many since he died. Eleanor is still alive. Still has a tight helmet of white curls. She's on oxygen now, and mostly sits. A couple months ago, her daughters moved her out of the house she shared with Louie. There was another garage sale to get rid of the rest of Louie's stuff, and most of hers. My dad drove his truck to Eleanor's house and loaded the bed with buckets of Louie's tools. Hand drills and drawknives, chisels and box planes. A sledge.

My dad stopped by my house on his way home from Eleanor's. He said he had something for me, and rummaged through one of the buckets.

“Here.”

It was a tiny dagger. My dad knows I collect knives. Everyday tools for everyday men who live only in memories, like Louie and my grandfather. The dagger's blade is about 4 inches long, the handle 2-1/2. It was made in Mexico. I imagine it slipped in someone's pocket. Peeling oranges. Spearing tortillas from the griddle.

The natural salts from the leather sheath had corroded the dagger's blade. I knocked off the big flakes of rust with 80-grit sandpaper, then doused it with Liquid Wrench. I used 320-grit until I could see bare metal. The blade is pitted in spots, and the pits are black, but it cleaned up pretty good. I oiled the leather sheath and brought the knife to work. I keep it on my desk in a coffee cup full of pens, and open mail with it.

Every time I stick the blade into an envelope and slide it across the top, I'm acutely aware that the dagger was Louie's. I'm acutely aware that 33-year-old me is using a tool that belonged to the man that 4-year-old me was relieved to hear was dead.

What is there to do? I keep opening letters. I hold the dagger gently. I glide its blade through the envelope as smoothly as I can. But it's an old dagger with a pitted blade. If ever it was sharp, it isn't now. The blade catches and the paper tears. There's no such thing as a clean cut. Only a ragged edge.

(illustration: john richen)


Jeremiah O'Hagan was a high school English teacher and is now a newspaper reporter. When he's not reading or hammering a keyboard, he likes to wander agape through wildness and hang out with his partner Amanda and their son Roman, recently welcomed to this world. More From Jeremiah O'Hagan can be found in the Smokebox Archives.

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