He is calm. A gentle human who walks with a limp and smiles whenever he gets the chance. He only buys quality, and I can tell with the shirt he’s wearing. He says Grandma got it for him at this fancy place called Nordstrom and brags that it’s the softest shirt he owns. I can almost hear her laugh as I walk through the gloomy halls of their home. He’s right about the shirt—we hug and my hands feel like they graze across a kitten’s belly. He’s old so I am gentle, but heavy vise grips carrying the sharp smell of gasoline pinch my back. He supposedly retired six months ago, but that doesn’t stop him from walking down to the shop every day.
Through halfway blown out speakers the old record player lets out a scratchy resemblance of Christmas tunes through the side of the house. Grandpa’s favorite news program on channel four still controls the living room like always. The deep voice of the anchorman collides with the muffled sound of “Jingle Bells” at the dinner table. The noises around us seem louder this year. Nobody talks as much. This is the first time Grandpa sits across from an empty seat, but I always sit down next to him for dinner—that won’t change. The turkey radiates from its oval bowl. The smell is so strong I can almost taste it. Almost. My mouth used to water right about now, but my appetite ran away around the same time my sleep did. I grab my prayer book from the china behind me. Everyone has their eyes closed and is thanking God for this moment. Time stalls as Grandpa’s hands enter my vision, which are folded on the table. His sleeves are rolled up, and his skinny arms make their way down into the dark dumbbells he has for hands. They look like his old leather shoes in the garage. They’re ripped and torn and they shouldn’t be used anymore. Half of his nails are black or missing, and old burns permanently wrinkle his skin.. Do they even function anymore? I don’t know how his hands fold into each other without breaking, but his grip is still gentle. Amen.
Grandpa is dressed in all red. He always has since I was a little kid. He crawls on the floor like a gorilla searching for his grandchildren’s names, crushing boxes under his hands and knees, while my cousin tears and rips at wrapping paper. He’s smiling—it’s still hard for me. Grandpa wrapped all the gifts this year. Well, he tried. The wrapping paper isn’t folded over on the edges, and the tape is stuck in all different angles—another thing he never had to do while Grandma was around. As he hands me a small box, his hand softly rubs against mine. I want to check If I’m cut from the razor blades that stick out of his fingers. Or if I have a mark from the oil that has been piling up on his hands for the past forty years. But it doesn’t matter. The gift is clean; I look around and everything is—only his hands are dirty. I know he won’t complain either. He finally is able to spend time with his family, which he reminds me is never guaranteed.
The speakers have either finally stopped working, or Grandpa snuck away and turned them off when we weren’t paying attention. We say our goodbyes and our existence makes its last echo through the halls. Before I drive off, I look through the front window to see an exhausted face—motionless, blending into the shadowy painting in the background. The house is dark and there you are, Grandpa—alone. You see her by the fire, you see her making ham sandwiches in the kitchen, you see her gardening through the back windows. I see her, too. All memories. Your arm reaches out, I know you feel her touch your hand, and I know you want it to last. The rough edges are starting to smooth out, and the color is coming back.
Now you are beginning to fade; there’s no debate—we all can see it. You’ve fought and fought with a smile on your face, and soon you will dance again. And one day, when I come to visit an empty house, I will see you both—by the fire, in the kitchen, at the garden. And when you reach out to grab my hand, I won’t need to check if I have cuts anymore. Your hands will be revived and renewed. Soft and gentle.
I try to live in the moment, but my mind still wanders. Until that day comes and you have taken your last breath, I pray that you will give your hands a break, but I know you’ll find your way down to the shop one more time, and another after that.
Until Grandma calls your name and tells you to come be with her once again.
Max Gray is a senior literary studies English major at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, where he is a captain wide receiver for the Battlin’ Bears football program. This past season he was selected to the Google Cloud Academic All-America Team. This is his first publication.