from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS
Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997. See also “Butterfly Dress,” the first in the series: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/butterfly-dress/
Two or three of his fingers were missing. Just nubs remained. He had lost them, so I’d been told, over the long years working in butcher shops. These nubs were not scarred or ugly, but smoothly rounded over. I imagined how they helped him knead the muscles of clients in the Turkish baths where he worked. He had for some time now been a masseur in Manhattan and Coney Island, going down into those primitive caverns of rejuvenation whose tiled walls echoed Yiddish in the dizzying heat. How do I know this? Surely he had taken me into them, places with names like Luxor, airless rooms that looked like flooded subway stations. Steam, clouds of huge white towels, glistening tiles, rumbling voices of business and prayer and the pleasure of pampered muscles. Places without women.
But I didn’t visit him in the city very often. And he wasn’t always easy for my mother to find. Separated for a long time from Grandma Ida, he drifted from one rooming house to another near the Coney Island boardwalk. He wouldn’t stray too far from the baths that were his source of livelihood, and others who worked there knew his whereabouts. He was often drunk, his eyes misty, and even when marginally sober, his liquored breath made me want to back away – and he saw it, the bit of fear in my eyes; and I saw him seeing it, the pain in his.
My mother was the oldest child and the first to escape the city. Soon after the close of WWII, she and father had bought a small house in Oceanside on the south shore of Long Island. It was one of those many communities that sprang up to accommodate returning veterans. We still had the pre-war Buick through the remainder of the 1940s.
When the days began to grow warm, my father would come back from the city on Friday nights with Grandpa Jake in tow. I’d jump up on the running board to greet them. When Grandpa picked me up and took me around in a big Romanian hug, I’d feel the nubs pressing into my back, wondering whether they had some special power. He’d grin his teary grin, and I’d stretch my neck and turn my face away from his mouth. Sometimes he’d stay for a week or two. Mother had set up an attic guest room for him.
I don’t how we talked or what we talked about. Even at 7 or 8, a bright American kid, I had treasures of school fact that would mean nothing to him. I had baseball, scouts. He had memories. You could tell that he had memories, but no language. His English, which carried no nuance or detail – no full sentence structures – was less than my skeletal Yiddish. Yet something flowed between us, and I learned his songs and jokes, whiles his eyes filmed over and I swam in them.
We’d go fishing together.
As I watched him rebait hooks, heft sinkers, and cast his line, I also watched those damaged hands in all their deftness. He worked an odd magic. And when he’d take out his fishing knife to filet and clean the catch, my head swam and I’d grasp the railing on the fishing pier. I knew how he lost those fingers, and yet he took no special care as he severed heads and drew out spines. Sometimes the fish went home heads and all. He was from a world in which fish heads were good eating.
Several summers passed like this: days at the beach; days with friends on bicycles wandering (without permission) up toward the distant, mysterious North Shore; afternoons running lemonade stands or engrossed in comic books; evening hours in friends’ homes as one and then another neighbor got that new miracle – the television set. And days with Grandpa at some favorite fishing spot – a bridge or pier stretched over an ocean inlet. Wordless companions in the damp salt air, our shadows moved in tandem under the slowly arcing sun.
By the early 1950s, we saw Grandpa Jake less and less. He was pretty much a vagrant by then, and mother was busy enough with her husband and children. In 1951 we got a sleek 1950 Plymouth and she learned to drive. Soon after, I had paper routes and started Junior High. By the time we left Oceanside in 1954 and moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Grandpa had vanished into a cavern of vapory memories, an eerie dream of piled towels, truncated fingers, fish, whiskey, and Roumania, Roumania, Roumania resounding off the tiles.
There is a picture of Grandpa Jake in my 1962 wedding album, hunted down and cleaned up for the occasion, a tuxedoed stranger in our midst. But I knew something had ended for us back in 1949.