BellaOnline Literary Review
Tentacles by Christine Catalano

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Non Fiction

Grandpa Snake-eyes

Toni K. Pacini

Grandpa was a heavy drinker in the days before the cancer. While he was still able to work, he smoked, drank, and raised hell. Most of the hell he raised was directed toward his family. This created secrets that my grandparents insisted never be shared outside of our home. "Don´t let the neighbors know. Never tell."

A big part of Grandma´s purpose was cleaning up after Grandpa´s tirades so no one would know what went on inside our thin walls. It was not an uncommon occurrence for Grandma to have to take a long, cane pole, designed ‘specially for this purpose with a scoop on the end, and fish Grandpa´s teeth out of the outhouse hole after he lost his dentures, along with his cookies, the night before. Maybe it was because Grandma’s father was a raging drunk too but she seemed to accept such duties as part of being a wife.

Grandpa was adopted. He didn’t seem to know much of his own history. He looked Irish, and he said he was, but his surname was a Sax name. No one talked about race when I was a child. Anyone who wasn’t a pure white Protestant was a heathen sinner or a foreigner to be watched.

Of course, most of those pure white Protestants were at least part Native American, who were called Indians when I was a child, or African American – I won’t say what they were called – or Polish, Greek, Italian, or – fill in the blank – Americans. However, no one would admit their true blood, their heritage, because of well-placed fears of discrimination.

The last names and faces told the story, but no one spoke the truth. Working in the cotton mill and living in the village automatically labeled us as white trash. So the dirty laundry and our personal roots stayed buried in shame at the bottom of an invisible, well-guarded closet. So much so that my siblings and I grew up not really being sure of our own true heritage and nationality.

What a sad society that makes one´s roots a source of shame. Our lives were built on generation after generation of shame. How the "telling" heals. That’s why I sit at my keyboard tonight alone – on the eve of Thanksgiving – lost in the telling. Grandma couldn´t tell; she just kept cleaning. Momma could never tell. She just kept drinking.

Grandpa. I can still smell him, a combination of Old Spice mixed with the pungent aroma of chewing tobacco. Grandpa took a bath every Saturday – whether he needed it or not – and it was always a major production. He had a way of dramatizing everything – and after a performance or the telling of a tale – he always concluded by saying, “Snake-eyes." No one knows why.

Grandpa quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes on July 26, 1950, the day the doctors removed one of his lungs due to cancer. That same day Grandma gladly retired her cane pole, no longer needing to rescue grandpa’s dentures from the outhouse. Absent the booze, it soon became clear to everyone – except Grandpa – that he had been self-medicating a serious mental problem. Years later – after bizarre episodes where he would accuse my grandmother of having affairs with the mailman and the paperboy – he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

After Grandpa’s lung was removed, he spent the rest of his life dying. I cannot remember the passing of any holiday – or anyone´s birthday – that he did not announce with sincere reverence, "I ain´t gonna be here this time next year."

Yet he lived for almost twenty-five years after his surgery. I can still see him sitting in his chair, his pocketknife – which had a bone overlay handle, yellowed by age – in one hand and a square of Red Bull tobacco in the other. He would cut off a plug and plop it into his mouth and was never far from the sweet pea can he used as a portable spittoon. His face was very wrinkled, and the tobacco juice would collect in tiny rivulets at the corners of his mouth.

Grandpa always had a pocketful of toilet paper, and to pass the time, he would entertain himself as well as us kids by rolling tiny squares of paper like mini tusks and horns and stick them in his ears, nose, and mouth, a poor man´s origami. Once when a young girl from the village came by to see me, Grandpa couldn’t help himself – he loved a new audience – so he had paper sticking out all over. Angie already found this as odd as I found it embarrassing, but when, for his grand finale, Grandpa stuck out his tobacco juice-covered dentures, little Angie ran home in terror and would never come into our house again. Grandpa roared with laughter; he thought it was hilarious. I did not.

Almost daily he would walk the quarter mile down the highway to Dubois’ Service Station. Since the removal of his lung grandpa walked bent and hunchbacked. He appeared to be walking against a harsh wind. He would sit with his friends on a bench in front of the station for hours. The ground around the old men´s feet and the tops of their shoes would be covered with tiny wood shavings. Some pieces were blonde or almost white; others were a variety of reds and browns. Whittling small pieces of wood with their pocketknives kept their hands busy and gave them an excuse not to look at each other as they talked.

Grandpa sat there all morning till he had to get home for lunch or risk catching hell from Grandma. He spent hours gossiping with the other men who were too sick or old to go into the mill anymore. They heatedly debated politics, religion, and anything else that came up. Momma called that bench, "The dead peter bench." Now that was funny.

One of my few fond memories of Grandpa was when he would have me sit on his lap while he told me the story of the fairy that lived in a little hole in the corner of our living room ceiling. He told me to look at the hole and concentrate really, really hard, and I might get to see her. I would. I would concentrate so hard while watching for the arrival of the fairy – so focused on that little hole in the ceiling – that when all of a sudden candies would fall from the heavens I’d jump, startled from my concentration. I would slide off Grandpa´s lap running about the small room gathering my special presents from the fairy. When I got old enough – I caught Grandpa tossing the candies with his right hand – while distracting me with his left.

Grandpa’s only household responsibility was washing the dinner dishes. He would ceremoniously put on the long, white apron that fell below his knees and fill the two speckled and chipped enamel bowls in the sink, one to wash the dishes and one to rinse. If he were in a good mood, he would sing, when he wasn’t talking to himself. Grandpa often made up his own silly little ditties, a habit I inherited. His favorite song was "Adam and Eve in the Garden," which I have never heard anywhere except from his lips. It went like this:

Adam and Eve in the garden
when the world was very new.
The earth just contained two,
and dressmakers very few.
Now Adam said to Eve in the garden,
I have a dandy scheme for you.
When autumn comes
I’ll tell you what we’ll do.
You’ll wear a tulip – a big yellow tulip –
and I’ll wear a big red rose.
And in Adam´s expressing, you could tell by assessing.
That he had invented clothes.
Now all the girls in the city were all very pretty,
They each had a smile that glowed.
But if the styles keep on daring – all the girls will be wearing –
is a smile and a great big rose.

And as always, he concluded his performance with, “Snake-eyes!”

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Reader Feedback:
I liked this one even better than the first one. You certainly are adept at capturing the atmosphere of the time and place as well as the unique characteristics of the hero of the story. Congratulations! Well done.