Death followed my grandfather like a promise. He saw it in every vein and freckle. It glowed within him, threatening every day to burst like a flickering star.
“Let me tell you something, boy.” He’d always called me boy for as long as I could remember. It was entirely possible he’d forgotten my name years ago and had never bothered to ask. There was no way to tell. “Always protect your hands.” He presented his own hands to me with some disgust. He laid them out in front of me like a burnt roast. They were liver spotted and coarse. I didn’t feel them but they had the texture of something ancient and forsaken. “I’d have done it all different but most of all my hands.”
I nodded with concern. I think that’s what he wanted, mostly. Someone to be concerned with his body with an equivalent fervor.
~ ~ ~
It was his restless heart that kept him up at night. He would think of the most frivolous things like mice on trapeze and the smell of gemstones. All the wonderful confoundments that chased his dreams as a child. His wife, my grandmother, was always soundly asleep by ten, and he would stare at the back of her blonde head wondering if he could ever leave her. The answer was usually no. It was not done at the time.
He used to cover his ear with the comforter when he was young to block out the sound. Now he can’t sleep without the noise, his ears exposed, their curly hair lassoing the peculiar sounds of the night: glass, wind, and the heat through metal pipes.
He couldn’t hear well since the war. He was a naval gunner in the Pacific. The U.S.S. Biloxi. A kamikaze hit it, smashed through three decks, but the bomb never went off. It was a dud. That’s why I’m alive.
After the war, back when everyone wore hats, he found work in an electrical company. He’d always been good with his hands. He could take any two things and make a third thing out of them that seemed completely unique. He loved my grandmother in a very official way, the way a mailman cares for his pouch.
~ ~ ~
Everybody likes a good cleanup story. Mine starts on the day my grandmother died. Death can sometimes be comfortably predictable. She died at ninety-one in her sleep. My grandfather watched her that night, and later realized he knew the exact moment of her passing. “It’s like letting the air out if a person,” he’d say later. I don’t think he meant to sound profound, but he did. Or anyway, I thought he did. Maybe profound wasn’t the word for it. Desolate.
A wake for an old person is very strange because no one knows how to feel. It’s sort of like a nineteen-year-old dog dying. It’s got to happen at some point, and everyone’s surprised it’s taken so long.
My grandfather found great fear in his wife’s passing. For the entire afternoon, he wore a look of a man about to fall. It always rains the day of a wake. Even if it’s just a little. It rained when my mother died, too.
My grandfather seemed paralyzed by the immediate and sudden loss of his past. He couldn’t eat his pasta or drink his cold red wine. He couldn’t even really form thoughts other than cat-like whimpers. The first time he said something all day to me was when I was ready to go to bed. It was early, but funerals have a way of making the day shorter.
“You still have those deer tails?” We were outside, and it was cold, so his breath foamed out of his mouth and wobbled in the air like a storm cloud.
Of course I knew what he was talking about. Several weeks back seven deer tails in a Hollister bag were delivered to my grandparents’ door without provocation. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out. Now their bloody stumps lay in the back of the garage, frozen, under a box of pajama bottoms my grandmother was supposed to bring to Goodwill.
“I’ve got them.”
He grabbed the collar of my black pea coat. His grip wasn’t strong like it used to be. He was smaller than I remember, too. Diminished. The fabric kept slipping out of his scaly hands. His fingers smelled like bathroom soap. “It’s important that we figure out–” He stopped and looked down the block. He’d lived there fifty years, but braced himself as if the sidewalk had shifted on its axis, and he was now about to roll down the sidewalk and off the world like some Niagara Falls barrel trick. The cold forced a tear down his ruddy nose.
“You said the butcher was dead right? Isn’t that who you thought it’d be?” I prodded him to remember.
“That butcher never stood a chance.”
I believed him.
“Just know it’s more important, boy,” he said. Then, as if losing his train of thought, he stared up into the gray sky. “It’s cold out here.”
More important than what? I wondered. I led him with his walker and long gray parka back inside and propped him up against the leather couch. He still had some weight to him. He clicked on the TV as a matter of habit, and began dozing off almost immediately.
“Tell Mom to turn the heat down,” he mumbled, ruffling his parka on the beige leather.
I nodded, as an act of courtesy.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, my grandfather stood over my bed holding the Hollister bag. I woke up from the smell. It reeked like an old freezer steak.
“Jesus! You scared the shit out of me.”
“This is important,” he said.
The bottom of the bag glowed red. I thought it might drip on me, but it was still frozen solid.
“I told you those keys are only for an emergency.”
He wiggled the bag in front of me.
I sighed, rubbing the wet sleep out of my eyes. “I’ll get my coat.”
~ ~ ~
The first place we went to was old Mrs. Sefante’s. She’d lived in the neighborhood since before the neighborhood was built. I imagined her bartering with the Indians and surviving the cold winters by burning horse fat and eggplant parmesan. She was as integral to the landscape as the sky. She was an old school Italian with an accent that reeked of early New York. Mrs. Sefante didn’t move much anymore, but you could always find her on her stoop. She enjoyed observing. This was the perfect place to start our investigation.
I held a hot cup of Greek coffee in my hands and leaned against the aluminum pole that held up her green awning on one side.
“My husband build that pole out of a fig tree and three apple sauce jars.” That was the first thing she said. We’d been standing with a Hollister bag filled with deer tails for over a minute, right in front of her, and that was the first thing she said. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding.
“How about the other pole?” I asked, smiling.
“Whatya mean? It’s a pole. Some company made it.”
My grandfather nodded to me. I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing the talking.
“Mrs. Sefante.” She was only wearing a flower pattern moo moo and slippers, and it was very distracting because of how cold it was. “Did you see anyone place this bag in front of my grandfather’s door? It would’ve been about three weeks ago.”
“I’m real sorry about Marie,” she said.
“Thank you. She was a fine lady,” said my grandfather.
“As for your bag. It’s the first time I seen it. But Mr. Papadopoulos has been by a few times of recent.”
“The tailor?” asked my grandfather suspiciously.
“He come and look, and once I asked him, Mr. Pop, cause his name is too long, Mr. Pop, I says, did you want something there? Ya know what he says?”
We waited anxiously, but she also waited. My grandfather and I glanced at one another. He gripped the bag tightly. The twine handles made impressions in his palm as if it were made of chocolate.
“What?” I asked, finally, sick of the suspense.
“He said, ‘I’m just looking.’ Like it was the Five and Dime or something.”
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Sefante. We’ll be in touch,” I said because I liked the way it sounded, and we left.
~ ~ ~
Mr. Papadopoulos, even at seventy-four was still a very busy tailor. Some said he was the best, but fans of Uno Gambelli found that to be blasphemous, and so there was a very secret but very real tailoring war that divided the neighborhood.
Mr. Papadopoulos wore a white fedora with a black rim. His gray mustache bent over the sides of his mouth, and he always wore a vest snugly over his sweater, regardless of the outside temperature. He had the eyes of a feral cat, always darting around the room as if in grave danger.
He recognized my grandfather right away, and dropped his measuring tape on his customer’s lap to greet us. “How are you?” he said, embracing my grandfather’s cold, slick hands. “This must be your grandson.”
I shook his hand, too.
“He looks nothing like you,” said Mr. Papadopoulos. “You should have seen the guy who came in here yesterday. Big as a house. Wanted me to tailor him a suit.” He expanded his hands as far as they could go attempting to show the man’s girth. “I said, my friend, it’s going to cost you double, and I’ll have to hire assistants because of the angle, you know?”
“Of his body?” my grandfather asked.
“You know, the angle. Tailoring, most people don’t know, is about the angle. Like fishing, you know?”
My grandfather nodded as if he knew. He used to be a great fisherman. He held up the Hollister bag. It had sunk deeper into his pliant skin.
“I’ll be honest, and I didn’t want to say this, but that don’t smell too good.”
“It’s seven deer tails,” I said.
He touched his finger to the bottom of the bag, then rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Like stories about deer?”
My grandfather shook his head.
The customer whom Mr. Papadopoulos had abandoned grew impatient and huffed. Another man walked in and sat down on the middle of three chairs in a waiting area by the front door. Christmas lights blinked in the reflection of his glasses, but it was no longer Christmas.
“Mrs. Sefante said you’d been by the house,” said my grandfather. It wasn’t accusatory, necessarily, but these two had some kind of past I realized I might never understand.
Mr. Papadopoulos licked the tips of his mustache hairs, one by one. “You know her husband built one of those awning poles out of a fig tree?”
“How is that possible?” I said.
Mr. Pop furrowed his brow. “I heard Marie was under the weather, and I thought of coming by a few times. I thought the better of it. I left.”
My grandfather held the bag up higher. “This?”
“That bag, I dunno. But if it’s deer tails the only thing that makes sense is the butcher.”
“Thought of it,” said my grandfather, “but De Luca died last year.”
“He did,” Mr. Papadopoulos returned to his customer, retrieving his measuring tape from the man’s lap. “But his son took over.”
My grandfather looked puzzled. “I didn’t know he had a son.”
“Neither did anybody til he died. Then De Luca left everything to him, including the shop.” Mr. Pop leaned his white head over to us once again and whispered, “Affair.”
~ ~ ~
As it turned out, De Luca’s son also went by De Luca even though his real name was Richardson. It must have been good for business. Nobody wants his meat cut by a guy named Richardson. Maybe if you want to buy a speedboat or a classy hooker. Maybe then, said my grandfather.
My grandfather made our way over to De Luca’s shop. It was in some disrepair and had been closed for over eight months after the original De Luca passed. It was open now, but there was sawdust on the floor, and a man who must have been a plumber was pacing back and forth anxiously with a pipe in his hand. It seemed he’d removed it but wasn’t sure from where.
The Hollister bag weighed on my grandfather. His right arm dangled impotently, and the bag nearly skimmed the floor as he walked. I offered multiple times to carry it, but he adamantly refused. The twine handles sliced deep red marks in his palm.
“What can I get you, boys?” said De Luca. His voice was too high-pitched to be a butcher. He sounded like he was from the Midwest, but was affecting a clipped Italian inflection.
My grandfather took all his strength to hoist the bag up onto the deli counter. The deer tails had defrosted and leaked onto the glass.
“Usually I’m the one selling the meat,” said De Luca and laughed.
“Did you leave this bag for my grandfather?”
A couple of customers lined up behind us.
“Who’s your grandfather?”
I pointed to him.
“This is pretty unusual. Are you guys cops or something?”
“No, he’s just my grandfather, and there are seven deer tails in this bag, and everything we’ve done all day has led us here.”
He took the bag out of my grandfather’s grasp. My grandfather wrung his hands like he’d burnt them. De Luca poked his head inside the bag. He wasn’t afraid of the stench. He lived in the stench.
One of the customers grumbled behind us. “I just need some pork loin.”
De Luca inhaled. He removed his head from the Hollister bag and took my grandfather’s hand. “You’re Marie’s husband.”
“Yes,” said my grandfather. He was so relieved someone finally called him that. “My condolences. I remember now. It was Marie who wanted these deer tails.”
“Why would my grandmother want a bunch of bloody deer tails?” I asked.
“For you,” De Luca said to my grandfather. “For your birthday. She said you used to use the hairs for fishing lures, and she was going to pluck them and make them for you like you used to be able to do.”
I watched my grandfather’s hands shake. He tried to hide them in his long puffy coat.
“She never got them?” asked De Luca.
“I guess I picked them up and brought them in before she did,” I said. I realized I’d ruined her surprise. She’d had to act the whole time like it was all a mystery. I felt bad about it. “But what about the Hollister bag?”
“My daughter. She loves the stuff, so I try to recycle. They’re nice bags, don’t you think?”
“It’s my birthday today,” said my grandfather, as if realizing it for the first time.
I’d gotten so obsessed with the deer tails that I’d completely forgotten. My grandmother always used to call and remind me. She made a big to do out of it and always bought pistachios, which were too expensive for any other occasion.
“Well then,” said De Luca, sliding the deer tails over the counter, “happy birthday.”
My grandfather and I left the store. He cradled the deer tails like bowling balls. The magnitude of them exhausted him. “I was hoping it would be something more,” he said.
In my mind the statement was much grander than maybe he’d intended. Listening to him was like trying to understand cats’ eyes. You think you know, but you can never be sure.
“I haven’t breaded chicken since 1991,” he said, the words spooling out in dry white strings.
For a few months after that, I helped him around the house when I could. The sheer girth of my grandmother’s household duties staggered me. She had quietly run a small grandfather-driven civilization. Sometimes he woke, searching for the white of her head on the pillow beside him. It had become part of his dreams.
In July, I came over to visit my grandfather. I’d taken to letting myself in because he couldn’t hear the doorbell anymore. The hallway was dark, and all his taxidermied animals alertly greeted me. The brown bear on its haunches, the twelve-point buck as still as the moment it was shot. I dragged my feet as I always had along the dark carpet, and inside, in the fluorescent kitchen light I found my grandfather, his hands cold, and his face flush against the plastic tablecloth. He’d been sculpting the very last of the deer tails into fishing lures; one of them remained, twisting between his fingers.