by Steven Beach
Grampa was a drunk. He was a disappointment and embarrassment to every grown-up in his family. He was a homeless person before that phrase existed. Back then, they were called hobos or bums. Those dirty men, victims of life, drifters, winos, boogey men, who could be seen in the alleyways drinking from paper bags. They were filthy. They stunk. My Grampa was one of them. And he was the most important person in my life.
Grampa's been dead for 20 years. I think about him all the time. I think about him when I drive a nail, and when I carve wood. And I think about him when I sharpen a pocketknife. Grampa could sharpen a pocketknife better than anyone in the world. Grampa drank beer from sun-up to sun-down. And, as often as he could manage to buy it, he drank whiskey from a bottle he kept in his pocket. He didn't have a tooth in his head. And when he ate, it was always something like baloney, or tomatoes that he would first peel with his pocketknife. He could eat a tomato like an average person eats an apple. He would lean over and bite it with his gums. The juice would run down his hand and drip to the ground. He didn't care. It was a meal.
For awhile, Grampa lived in a broken Studebaker out back. It had that old car smell, like when a car has rotten seats and has been sitting in the sun with the windows closed for too long. It's a special smell. Somehow it smells like goodness. Or restfulness or something. He lived in the backyard because Mom wouldn't let him in the house. She hated him. Still says so too.
He had a special name for me during those years. I was the "Duke". And he had his own way of saying it. I'd walk up to him, and he'd grab me by the shoulder and pull me in. He'd hug me, maybe slobber on me a bit, and then he'd say, "You're the Duke." And he'd say it in a way that made me know that to be the Duke was something very special. I loved being the Duke. I was the Duke. I was somebody.
I had three brothers and two sisters. They weren't around much though; they could go in the house whenever they wanted. They played games and watched TV. Stuff like that. Grampa and I pretty much stayed in the back yard. Sometimes we'd go into the Weeds. The Weeds was ten acres of abandoned farmland. It consisted mostly of broom straw and blackberries. Beyond that was a feral plum orchard. The two of us turned the Weeds into a forest by planting plum trees with our mouths, although we didn't realize it at the time. At least I didn't. When the plums were ripe, we'd go pick whole bags of them. Walking home we would suck the juice out of them and see who could spit the seeds the farthest. And now it’s a forest.
Grampa was a carpenter when he had a job. He taught me to make things. Some say that the student can benefit just by being in the presence of the master, to be touched by the master. The master passes the essence of mastery to the apprentice with a touch of the hand. Maybe that's why I can sharpen knives so well. And I can make just about anything with my hands. I had his touch. And now I have his touch.
I saw Grampa's grave for the first time this summer. He had a plaque set in a piece of stone, flush with the ground. I guess they figured they'd spent enough money on him while he was alive. It wasn't much. It wasn't much at all. I don't remember now if I knew when he died; I used to travel a lot. That's about the time the phrase "homeless person" came around. I guess maybe I was homeless for a while. There's a lot I don't remember from those years. I guess that's to be expected.
But things have changed for me. A wonderful woman saved my life. She believed in me when no one else did, including myself. And now I have a life in the mountains close to where my Grampa was born. And I have a beautiful daughter. And through her, I now have a grandson. She has a name for him, but I’m going to call him the Duke. I’m going to teach him how to drive a nail and to carve wood. And I’m going to teach him how to sharpen a pocketknife. I’m going to tell him about my Grampa. And we’re going to plant a forest together.