An Imperfect Gentleman
My grandfather was the kind of man who could light up a room and make you feel like a million bucks. But in his otherwise gracious mind there was an inexplicable snarl.
My grandfather was three years old when his axe-wielding sister severed three fingers on his left hand.
But it wasn’t like she hadn’t warned him. He’d been leaning on a chopping block; she’d hoisted an axe above her head. She’d told him to move; he’d refused. I can’t say what Aunt Effie was thinking when she let the axe fall, though she’d likely assumed her brother would come to his senses at the last minute and move out of the way. But her brother, as it turned out, was a decidedly stubborn and single-minded boy, and he refused to budge. Thus, the blade fell and subsequently split three tiny fingers—pinkie, ring, and middle—at the knuckle. They would not be reattached. My grief-stricken great-grandmother, Pansy, buried them in a matchbox under a sycamore tree.
Effie never forgave herself. But my grandfather? He never looked back.
If John Thomas Gilbert was self-conscious about his hand, he never said so; in fact, the way he rubbed his finger-stumps together during conversations at the kitchen table made me think he sort of relished the disfigurement. He was surely no less of a man without those distal and medium phalanxes and, if the stories about his youth were to be believed, he’d proved this by beating the ever-loving hell out of anybody who attempted to challenge him.
Back in his day, he’d explain, boys didn’t play ball: They fought. With their fists. John T. was no exception. He loved to fight. He claimed to have whipped boys twice his size, once slapping the side of a redhead so hard it sounded, in his words, “like a shotgun going off.” In these stories, those who messed with John T. lived to regret it. The man was light on his feet and lightning-quick, even into his 80s. I sparred with him a time or two in my grandmother’s kitchen. He’d sway from side to side, bite his lip, fake me out with a phantom left swipe, then slap my face with his right and grin. I’d never see it coming. And it stung.
I don’t know what my grandfather thought about my inability to defend myself. In general, he had no patience for incompetence. He could not abide the pathetic or the feeble. His jokes were as fast and hard as an uppercut, but he was not—nor ever—silly. He was a man who, at least until the very end, appeared to be utterly in control of his destiny. If he wanted to do something, he did it, and not only did it well, but did it as well as or better than anyone: hitting a golf ball, cutting wood, riding horses.
I would brag to other kids that my grandfather was a jack-of-all trades: a dentist, a mechanic, a cowboy, a boxer, an amateur filmmaker, a book collector, and a badge-carrying member of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. (Once, after witnessing somebody run a red light, I saw him flip a switch which activated a siren in his 1976 Chrysler New Yorker as he pulled over the offender.)
He was embarrassingly generous, slipping folded 50s into my palm when he said goodbye, encouraging me to have more ice cream because there was another giant tub of Baskin Robbins’ French Vanilla in the basement freezer. He loved coffee and Hershey bars and slabs of cheddar cheese. He was often served—by his sweet and long-suffering wife—a peeled banana on a plate. Unless he was swimming he did not wear shorts: always pants and long sleeves. He often disappeared unexpectedly and without explanation. He called his wife Marg. He delighted in his children and grandchildren. In the stories he told, he was usually the hero, not because he was superhuman, just competent and ingenious in a world inhabited by people who were not. I feared and admired him, longed for his admiration and approval, felt inferior in his presence, sensed that he not only knew more about the world and its operations but also could stand up to fight—and if not beat, then put a serious hurt on—anyone who might challenge him.
And yet, he was not a brute. Sure, he had a healthy streak of lasciviousness, appreciated with gusto a voluptuous female form, but he was also a gentleman, a man who knew how to deliver a compliment, work hard, clean up, and look sharp. He had a knack for making people he liked feel special, and not only because he might treat you to Krispy Kreme doughnuts if the “Hot Now” sign was lit up, or take you to Sunday brunch at the Hyatt downtown. He was the kind of man who could light up a room, and when that light was directed your way, it was hard not to feel like a million bucks.
Even so, I grimaced—as I’m sure all my cousins did—when he used the N-word, often drawing out the first syllable with what seemed to me like gleeful disdain. I found this contempt to be puzzling, confounding, disturbing.
He had employed a black man named Gene—a man who washed his cars—and often bailed the man out of jail when the police arrested him for public drunkenness. My grandfather’s longtime and beloved dental assistant, Ida, often babysat his children. He looked with admiration upon black boxers, especially Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. But if he happened to catch you watching an NBA game on TV, he’d question why in the world you’d want to watch a bunch of (racial
epithets) throw a ball around.
His racism seemed both comprehensive and indiscriminate, an inexplicable snarl in a mind that seemed, to me anyway, gracious and kind.
I like to console myself with the idea that my grandfather—as one of the most generous people I’ve ever known—would help anybody who needed it, regardless of their skin color. I like to tell myself that Pa-pa was merely a product of his generation. But it’s hard to understand and thus forgive him for what seemed like such irrational scorn, and harder to forgive myself for never asking him why he thought the way he did.
My grandfather now lies buried at the end of the field he used to mow. An assortment of stones and chunks of rock has been arranged on the dirt where his casket—a pine box, not unlike the outlaws I gawked at in his leatherbound Time/Life series of Cowboy books—was lowered into a hole in the ground. The first time I saw these stones, I thought, They’re trying to keep him from coming back up.
I’ve known no one more willful in all my life; the stubbornness that inspired him to refuse to remove his hand from a chopping block solidified in him and helped to make him what—and who—he was. If anyone I’d ever known could rise from the dead, it’d be him.
It’d be good to see him again. To ask him what it was like on the other side. And to let him know, too, that I had some questions, some things I wanted to get straightened out. It’s nice to believe that I could talk to him with such frankness, but when I imagine him sitting at the kitchen table, his purple cowboy shirt crusted with dirt, drinking coffee from a mug that looks like it’s been carved from sandstone, I imagine myself dumb-struck.
He might wonder why I didn’t have the TV turned to FOX News. He’d probably notice that I’d gained weight, though it wouldn’t stop him from asking if I wanted a bowl of ice cream or a Hershey bar, which I’d feel obliged to decline.
And if he happened to drop the N-word, or say something disparaging about a black news anchor, I like to think I’d hit him up with a direct question like, “Why don’t you like black people?” But I’d probably recycle the preposterous reasoning I always employed in these situations: I’d tell myself that Pa-pa was from another time and place, that it wouldn’t be fair to question his bigotry, that I wouldn’t want to make him—the grandfather I loved—uncomfortable. So I’d simply pretend, as I always had, that nothing had happened. I’d watch him rub the stumps of his fingers together, and the whispering of those bloodless nubs would underscore the room’s resultant silence, for which I—as much as he—could rightly be blamed.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of the short story collection Future Missionaries of America and inscriptions for headstones, a collection of essays. He directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech University, and worked with Wabash students last spring as a visiting writer.