His drool makes a paste of the coal dust where my grandfather falls in the cellar.
Weird he can’t taste it, he thinks. He has swept the floor clean every day of the sixty
years he’s owned the house and lived in it with my grandmother. Still, the smut
has settled in the pores of everything. The stacks of scrap against the bowed stone
walls. The twisted joists. The splintered crossbeams on which the weight of the duplex
rests. Lumber was not planed so smoothly then, a two-by-eight actually two-by-eight.
From his vantage—shouldn’t he feel his cheek against the roughened floor?—the cast
iron coal furnace looms monstrous and alien, the knot of steam pipes punched through
the ceiling to the grates above. Most of the block has long since gone to gas, but every
fall after the first frost he finds it satisfying to open the heavy door with its spring-
wound handle, scrape the burner clean, and fire up the beast to feed her again until
the last April blizzard, well beyond baseball’s opening day. Not that he had time
for baseball, too busy with all the jobs that paid for this house and others besides,
owning property the reason many like him had borne the long sickening passage.
He left baseball to his American sons, all who went to college. He thinks of their
mother, his wife. How they no longer share a bed, though there was still a time even
after he moved rooms she didn’t swat him away when he lifted the covers to join her.
That was never the problem, six children to prove it, my father the baby, though
the least interested in the old stories my grandfather told to me instead, the grandson
who saw the dark cellar as adventure rather than work and wasn’t afraid to listen to
an old man talk and curse over the scrape of shovels and the thrill of fire. Not one to
hide his light, he’d puff up at what I’m writing now, him at the center, for none of us
would be here without him, a fact he liked to hammer home. The stairs are ladder
steep, open-backed. They sway with his dead weight, the left arm an empty sleeve,
the leg a heavy sack. His good right arm reaches and pulls, one step at a time.
His knee fights for purchase. Sweat dribbles down the one side, itching under his
work shirt as he belly crawls the tiled kitchen to the front room where Grandma naps
over her sewing. It never occurs to him to stop. Miles and years away, I urge him on.