Frenchman’s Lake, July 4, 2007
People began to line up at the pig, at the keg, and at the picnic tables to spoon out salads and to butter ears of corn. Now I was sitting on the edge of Tony’s chair holding a manila folder in my lap watching my grandfather.
“Oh Nora,” he said when he finally noticed me. “Oh my beautiful Nora.”
“Oh my beautiful Tom,” I laughed, mimicking if not quite mocking him, “I think you’re going blind. I’ve been sitting here for five minutes.”
“I was wool gathering. Time honored pastime of the very old.”
“I have something for you.” I held up the folder. “I wrote a paper about you.”
“Based on some of what you told me last summer. I needed something for a class in personal historical narrative and, well, I used your story. “
* * *
No one knew what Tom would do with himself when he didn’t have Tony to take care of, so the summer of Tony’s death I was drafted to come spend a few weeks with him. He was annoyed and I was reluctant. I knew that he felt his new freedom impinged upon. As for me, I had just found the place I’d long been looking for. I had grown up in the suburbs and gone to college in a small town and didn’t feel at home in either place, but I did in Evanston where I was in grad school. It was full of bookstores and coffee houses, of people who had conversations in German or Italian on park benches, of people who rode bikes to hear string quartets on Sunday afternoons, of people who not only read books but wrote them. And I had made wonderful new friends there, witty people full of insight and passion, morose, cigarette smoking fatalists, people with causes and complex belief systems, people who got emotional about Descartes or the Fabians or game theory over plates of noodles in cheap Thai restaurants. And then suddenly I was uprooted to babysit Tom, and I was resentful.
I arrived with one small suitcase and two large cartons of books. It was a statement. I set up shop in one of the dormered bedrooms on the second floor that overlooked the lake. For the first three days, I only emerged from my room for the dinners Tom cooked me. At that, I read at the table. On day three over grilled salmon, roasted potatoes and blanched asparagus, Tom said, “I want to thank you for coming out here to take care of me.”
I didn’t acknowledge his sarcasm, but the next afternoon I came to sit in Tony’s chair beside Tom. Still, I read and took notes on a legal pad. The next day I came again and finally put my book and pad down. When I did, Tom said, “D’you like Evanston?”
“I love it,” I said a little fiercely I suppose, as if to contrast Evanston and unEvanston, which was here.
It should be said here that a few years earlier, I had been a sweet, compliant girl, and now I am, at least I hope I am, a fairly confident, fairly grounded woman. But the summer that I went to stay with Tom, I was in transition. I was just learning to be assertive, and I wasn’t very good at it yet.
The next afternoon I came outside with a pack of cigarettes. I shook one out and lit it a little defiantly without asking Tom if he minded. Tom pointed at the pack. “Okay if I have one?”
“I’ve never seen you smoke a cigarette.”
“I’ve never smoked one in your lifetime, but I used to smoke a lot of them.” He took one, lit it and inhaled it. “Whew. First pull still makes me dizzy. So, what are you working on?”
“Oh, just some interviews. They’re part of my research assistantship. I’m helping a professor with an oral history project.”
When he saw that I was being intentionally vague, he didn’t ask any more, but another day he said, “Only oral historian I know is Studs Terkel, and I suppose he’s not a real historian, but I did like The Good War.”
“Because you fought in it?”
“Yes, and he got it right, I think, although the people who quote him all the time, mostly politicians, must not have read the book because they don’t seem to know that the title is ironic.”
“As in ‘there’s no such thing as a good war.’”
“Not even World War II?”
“Especially not World War II.”
“Sixty million people died. Only one of them was Adolph Hitler. None of them was Hirohito.”
That warm evening we ate dinner at the picnic table on the lawn, and Tom opened a bottle of dry rosé wine. Perhaps it was our earlier conversation or perhaps it was the wine; perhaps it was the evening or the high lacy clouds lolling about the heavens. I’m not sure what it was, but when Tom asked about my research, I answered him.
“I’m helping a professor named Maria Donlon write a book. It’s a bunch of case studies, really, that have to do with the failure of marriage in the Twentieth Century. Interviews with contemporary women.” I went on to describe several of the women as he listened and nodded.
When Tom said, “why only women?” I remembered instantly and exactly why I had resolved not to talk to him about any of this in the first place. Of course he wouldn’t understand. He was a man and an old man at that. What did Belchirre say in class that day? “They are still living in the Twentieth Century.” I had explained semi-patiently (I suppose I didn’t mind betraying a little frustration) that an institution set up by men to serve men could not, by definition, fail men, except, perhaps, situationally, certainly not systematically.
“I see,” he said. “Now I see.” And of course I immediately felt guilty for quite intentionally and unkindly patronizing him.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I thought about my grandfather. All the things I’d assumed. All the things I didn’t know. I thought about the watery, blue eyes through which he had been watching me, a quiet voyeur observing my naked pretention, his long face that I realized suddenly might once have been handsome, his odd, old sense of humor; where had he learned that? His patience.
In the morning I went out and sat beside him in the pink chair. “May I ask you a question?”
He looked up from his book and smiled.
“How did you meet Julia?”
“Your grandmother? Do you really want to know?”
“I really do.”
He studied me for a while. “Well, let’s see….
* * *
Now here I was sitting in Tony’s chair again holding Tom’s story.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll read it on the plane.”
“You ready?” I asked. At first he wasn’t going to tell anyone, but then that didn’t seem quite right. It was too punitive or angry. No, he finally decided that he wanted one person in the world to know where he was and what he was doing, and to my surprise it was me.
“Think so. Hope so.”
“Using your mp3 player?”
“Every day. Love it.”
“You been going to the library to check your e-mail?”
“Often as I can.”
I cocked my head. “I sent you a message.”
“I haven’t gotten there in a couple days,” he confessed.
I smiled and decided to let him off the hook. “Running away from home,” I teased him quietly, “at your age!”
“Isn’t that funny? Listen, there’s something I need to ask you.” He wondered if I’d like to have his little truck. Not much of a city vehicle, he said; “You might not want it.”
But I did. I could already see myself picking up Catherine or maybe Hector in it, waiting on the street, gunning the engine a little. I could imagine myself one day having a dog to ride in the back of it. I was already thinking about buying a pair of black, lace-up combat boots at the Army Surplus Store.
“Title’s in the glove box signed. You can take it tonight if you want. Drive it home.”
“If I do, I don’t know when I’ll see this place again.”
“I never will.” Of course, that meant we might never see each other again either, but that was more difficult to say. No, it was easier to talk about the old frame house with the big screened porch across the front which I turned now to look at, the lawn, the lake, the cottonwood trees at the water’s edge.
“How many years Tom?”
“Fifty-seven.” He’d obviously figured this out recently. “Long time.”
“I remember the first time you ever saw it,” I said, “or really the first time you ever didn’t see it. In fact, I put it in my paper.”
Peter Ferry’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Fiction, OR, Chicago Quarterly Review and StoryQuarterly; he is the winner of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Short Fiction. He is a frequent contributor to the travel pages of The Chicago Tribune and to WorldHum. He has written two novels, Travel Writing, which was published in 2008, and Old Heart, which was published in 2015 and was named Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and Van Buren County, Michigan with his wife Carolyn.