Table of Contents - Vol. III, No. 4
The Best People in Town
It snowed hard all day. It was roaring, a real bite to the wind and the snow drifting high against trees and hedges. It snowed so hard they closed down most of the stores by noon. Just a few bars and restaurants down by the harbor stayed open.
That's when Jack's kid Shep and Robbie and I walked down to The Bag. We went down for a bite and a few beers and just talk. We walked about a mile down Route 1 and never saw a car. Walked right down the middle of the road. That's how shut down it was.
They had the wood stove going at The Bag and we shook the snow off and stomped our boots. Hardly anyone was there. We could take just about any table we wanted. We sat at the big table by the window and made ourselves comfortable. The windowpanes were all steamed so you could barely see the ships in the harbor.
When the waitress came over, Robbie said, "Hi, Patty, how's it going?" Like he knew her. But Robbie's my son and I know it's just a kid trick he picked up at college. He reads the nametag. Sometimes it even works.
"Oh, you're not snow-blind after all," she said without a beat and everybody laughed. You see, even when it doesn't work, it works. I think he should go into sales.
"All you need is a few good jokes and you could really make out in sales," I said. His hair was all messed and wet from the snow. When he got that crazy grin he looked the way he did when he was five. He's a good kid. "Molson draught right around," I said.
We were flushed from the cold and the sudden heat. The beer was icy going down. They ordered cheeseburgers and I got liverwurst and onion on rye. We were set. We talked about football and the bowl games and Notre Dame this and Miami that, and how we hoped they got shredded by the Penn State defense, and didn't you know Oklahoma was cheating right along. What about that little running back. And how about that awesome linebacker. Dumb talk. Beer talk. End of the year when football's about to dry up talk. The kind of talk that gets you used to one another again. Women hug and kiss and guys talk beer talk, even when there isn't any beer.
I ordered another round. We sipped the cold beer and were quiet for a while. Then all at once, Shep looked me right in the eye and asked, "Do you think I did the right thing about my dad?" I could see he'd worried about it for a long time. He'd probably keep worrying about it. That's just something you never get right.
"How do you feel?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said.
"I think Jack's fine."
"I hated having him all alone on that hill in Kansas City. It just didn't seem like home."
"Yeah, it's nice here by the sea. It's a perfect little graveyard."
"And it's where Grandmother and Granddad are," Robbie said. Shep looked at him like he'd forgotten he was there.
"It's just I don't think he ever liked K.C. and nobody's out there anymore."
"What you did is fine," I said. He was the one Jack hugged just before he died. "I love you, oh I love you so much," Jack had said to him just before he went into a coma. Five years after the burial, Shep had the body exhumed and cremated and brought it back East. He was in college then and he asked the religion professor and the philosophy professor and the local clergy and just about everybody else in sight, just to make sure what he wanted to do was right. Then he called up his mother who'd gone West to straighten out. She said she'd talked to this Navajo shaman and he'd told her they shouldn't disturb the dead. But finally she gave her OK anyway, and Shep took care of it all on his own.
"He fought like hell," Shep said. "He really didn't want to die, even though he was in awful pain. He was mad. Even when he was in a coma, he said, shit, shit, shit."
"Bless him," I said. "I hope I rail half as much. I hope I kick and scream and tell the Almighty just what I think of him." Then I saw Patty standing there with a strange look on her face, so I said, "You got any of that special French beer left?" And she brought over three big brown bottles with corks stuck in them. It was richer and stronger than the others going down.
It was hard for me to say how I really felt about Jack. I guess I'd thought his dying would be different. You get distance on people. You think you've moved apart. I mean, you expect it to be hard with your mother and dad. But maybe Jack's death had been harder. In some ways we'd been closer. He'd always been there when I was a kid, going before me. There had been a time when I hadn't even questioned him. When he'd done it, I'd done it. He'd just been that much older and stronger and smarter. And every damn teacher had said the same thing. Oh, you must be Jack's little brother. He should've been there with us, knocking down that French beer and talking dumb stuff.
When we finished our beers, we paid the tab and left. "See you around, Patty," Robbie said.
The wind outside was swirling and driving the snow into our faces so we could barely see. We went on down to The Wharf to see what was happening. We saw Kate's black Jeep parked in a snow bank. It was one of the few cars around. Everyone else had slogged down on foot like we did. But it was a lot busier in there.
"Hey, Kate," Robbie waved from the bar. Kate was from my dad's second wife's family. She came over and hugged us all very warmly. Like family. But she was with friends and I could tell she really didn't want us over there.
"I'll see you later up at the house, OK?" she said. She was with a real crowd of people. A couple of the guys Shep and I'd played doubles against out at the Country Club when my dad was still alive.
"Remember those guys?" Shep asked.
"Yeah, I remember," I said. "We whupped 'em."
"We crunched 'em," Shep said.
"And that other guy crunched you," Robbie said.
"Yeah, but that wasn't fair," I said. "I was set up."
"Did you win any games?" Robbie asked.
"Sure. I won the first game. Then he got mad."
"You let one of those Country Club guys beat you?" Shep asked, surprised.
"He wasn't one of those guys. He was the guy."
"It's just a good thing there weren't witnesses," Robbie said.
"You're doing pretty good," I said.
"I hope you didn't tell Granddad," Shep said.
"You kidding. He's the one who set me up." We crowded into the middle of the bar.
"I'll get this one," Robbie said. "Three Buds." Good old Dad, I was thinking. He never even asked me about the match. When anybody mentioned it, he just kept his poker face. But I know he was laughing himself silly inside. What a setup. You had to love the old guy.
"I went over to Granddad's house yesterday," Shep said. "It was all cleaned out. God, I felt awful."
"I hear they're going to sell it," Robbie said.
"It was their mother's house," I said. "Now that he's gone, now that they're both gone, what else they going to do?"
"You're right," Shep said. "They've been real decent to us."
"It just seemed like home to you guys," I said. "Country Club, house at the lake, a boat to use. But it was Granddad's town, not ours."
"I've had some really good times here," Robbie said. Like a kid with his face pressed against a candy store window, I thought.
"We all did," I said. "But it was Granddad's town." Then Kate came by on her way out and looked at us funny.
"You guys all right?"
"Sure, Kate," I said. "We'll see you later up at the house."
"Let's blow this place," Shep said.
"Let's go for a run," Robbie said.
"Let's jog out to the graveyard," I said. They looked to see if I was serious. Then they grinned all over.
"Sure," Shep said.
The wind had softened but the snow was still heavy. It was two miles up along the harbor to the cemetery. The plows had been by and the snow was packed hard so it squeaked under our boots as we ran. We ran up the steep hill past the Yacht Club and then down past the big houses that look out at the bay and then through the thicker woods, dark and silent in the falling snow. And sometimes the snow had drifted back onto the road and it kicked up around our ankles. But we had our rhythm and we ran on. It felt like we could run forever.
When we finally came up around the curve in the road to the cemetery, it just looked like a great open field. We had a tough time figuring out where the plot was, because all the low tombstones were under the snow. Then we remembered the large maple tree just past it, and we guided ourselves by it.
The three headstones were almost completely covered, so we started digging around them. Then we started digging the snow off the full length of the graves, scooping the snow with our hands. Which is pretty crazy when you think about it, because Dad and Jack were just in little urns under the ground. Then we blew the snow out of their names on the markers. Then we lay down on the ground where we'd cleared off the snow. We lay on our backs, looking up into all that blackness and the snow falling fast.
Shep lay on Jack's grave, Robbie on his granddad's and me on my mother's. It was peaceful lying there and the snow covering us over, like having blankets pulled up over you. Then Shep said, "Maybe you could tell me about when you and Jack were kids." For a long time I didn't say anything, because I didn't know what to tell him.
"Tell the one about the lawnmower," Robbie said. I was smiling. I mean, I could feel my face smile in the dark. It had been ages since I told Robbie that story.
"You remember that," I said.
"Go ahead," Shep said. And suddenly it was like lying in bed in the same room with Jack on hot summer nights, talking kid stuff.
"Well, you know how the two of us loved baseball," I said. "Soon as the season started, we went to our radio and listened to our New York Giants. They were like giants to us on the radio. Bobby Thomson and Willy Mays. Stanky and Dark. Whitey Lockman and Wes Westrum.
"But there was a lot to do around our place, especially when Dad was home on weekends. Mother and Dad worked hard and they worked us too – cutting down trees and brush, planting and weeding the garden. But we were best at mowing the lawns. We'd fire up that mower and get it all done quicker than you could say you know who. Then we'd wheel it down by the pond and leave it behind some bushes with the engine still running. Loud. So they could hear the engine but they couldn't see us. You know what I mean. And we'd sneak up to the house and listen to the ballgame."
"Underhanded!" Shep shouted, laughing. He was loving it.
"Well, we couldn't help ourselves. You see, it was our passion. We'd lie there on the livingroom floor in the heat and play out those games on our backs, full of dreams. Well, this one day, it was late in the game and we were behind 3 to 2."
"You really remember the score?" Robbie asked.
"Sure. It was against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. We had two on and Monte Irvin hits one off the wall. We started jumping and dancing all around the living room. You know, going crazy. And just then, I caught sight of my dad out of the corner of my eye, through the picture window – Granddad – coming up the hill from the pond at a trot, all red in the face. He was mad! Well, I never said a word. I just sort of dodged behind the couch. Dad came in while Jack was still jumping around, yelling over that hit. He really got caught right in the act, and my dad vented his anger on him. He wailed on him! So, by the time he saw me there too, it had all gone out of him, and I just got yelled at."
"You set him up," Shep said.
"You bet," I said. Then nobody said anything for a while. We just lay there. We must have had an inch of fresh snow on us. "You know, it's too bad," I said, finally. "I can't remember how that game ended. We had to turn it off."
After what seemed like a very long time, we got up and started back to town. When we were out on the road, walking down this long hill, Shep suddenly said to me, "That was a mean trick you played on my dad."
"That's what little brothers are for," I said. "You got to get even somehow. It doesn't mean you don't care."
"Mighty mean," Shep said and he blindsided me into a snow bank. Then Robbie blindsided him into the snow bank. Next we knew we were all wrestling in the snow like a bunch of crazies. Laughing and diving at each other.
That's how Kate found us. Headlights drove up out of the snowstorm and she was yelling out at us.
"Hey, you guys, everybody's wondering where you are. They thought you'd died out here. They're all waiting dinner on you."
"Well, Kate, I hate to keep everyone waiting," I said, shaking off as much snow as I could. "But it might be better for us all if we just walk on back."
"I see what you mean," Kate said. I felt bad about putting them out. They were damn nice to have us to dinner. But as Shep said after Kate took off, they'd just have to forgive us. After all, we'd just been visiting with the best people in town.
© William Reese Hamilton