Winter 1992, Volume 9.1


The Gift

You know how he died. Died not badly. If, by that, by badly you mean dying after a long, slow, painful and probably inordinately expensive illness. Was more than ninety years old, still able if somewhat fragile, able to move about and to look after himself, still alert and thoughtful and blessed and cursed by a clear memory; though he sometimes complained, saying that he remembered or dreamed things he would rather not have. Died quietly, dreaming or dreamless in deep sleep in his own bed and his own house after only a few days of not feeling so very well. Feeling a little poorly, thank you.

Died not badly or poorly, though he did sure enough die poor. Not as poor as you can be and still be alive, that's true. God knows, and so do we, that we bear witness to enough of that in fact and flesh and in the flickering images on our TV screens. He had his social security and a few dollars above and beyond that, thanks to some of his working children and grandchildren. Lived those last years, after busy years spent elsewhere, in a raw and simple frame house, a sturdy, one-story shack, really, set up on stilts because it was built on a little spit of land close by tidal water. Certain winds and tides would sometimes get together and let the rising water come to leap against the front steps. He said at times it was like being on a boat again.

Lived not all alone, but with always a couple of hound dogs (who, like the animals out of the old stories and myths, crawled up under the house and cried and howled for three days after he died). Always dogs and cats and some chickens and once upon a time a pet turkey gobbler and, oh yes, a country woman, lean and pale and younger by many years, a cracker woman if the truth is known and said out loud. (Which was and is seldom if ever.) A lean, pale, more than a little careless and slovenly cracker woman who could cook the plain southern food that suited him and also kept his house for him, more or less, as clean as she knew how to. A companion, then. Some kind of a distant cousin and blood kin to him and to all the rest of us. Though that truth was seldom, if ever alluded to, either. And when it unavoidably was mentioned, it was all vague enough, the women, keepers of family and tribal flame and memories, being uniformly unspecific as to how close and what kind of kin to us that woman might be. When he died in his sleep and the dogs crept underneath and took to howling, she, too, slipped away (with no tears anybody heard or saw) and with most of the family flat silver and whatever modest valuables were handy and portable. Though who could blame her for taking anything she could carry away with her? And, anyway, she didn't take it all, not even very much of it, did she? There were things left over, some of them precious only by memory and association, true, for everyone in the family to have and to share, after all.

You, yourself, have his best gold pocket watch and watch chain, don't you? Must remember to take it to a jeweler and have it cleaned and set one of these days.

But this is not a story about that. Not exactly. Maybe not at all. We'll see. This story goes back years and years before that. Before you were born and able to see and feel and think for yourself. You were a witness only to the last part, that part you have already told. And you probably told it first, started there to try to identify and perhaps prove yourself at the outset as a kind of credible witness. Someone at least entitled to imagine and to believe in the time before your time.

This story begins by going back to the time when, for a time, he was a rich man of good repute. A man with an earned reputation as a man of honor and industry and dignity and integrity and courage and style and so forth and so on. All of those things which facts of wealth and good fortune, in and of themselves, could not and cannot confer outright upon anyone. But nevertheless there are, as we well know, qualities which wealth and good fortune can greatly enhance and help to maintain and preserve. Whereas the chief qualities of character and repute which can conceivably arise out of conditions of poverty and bad luck are apt to be more inward and spiritual than outward and visible. Way of the world.

Old father Job has some words of wisdom on that subject. But this is not a story as bleakly sad as his. Nor does ours come, as you already know, to a happy ending.

Our man made two great fortunes in his lifetime and he spent three. Which is how they always politely described it. He made his money honestly and honorably enough, according to the lights and mores of those times. (Which, may I say, were in many ways and means more strict than our own hypocritical guidelines.) Made it not by stealing anything from anyone. Not by any kind of clever gouging or any sharp practices. Not by cruelty and arrogant indifference to the needs of others. Not by tricks of the trade.

Hard to believe or imagine such things nowadays, isn't it? In part you choose to credit it to the circumstances of the times. A time when good name seemed to matter so very much, maybe most of all. Therefore a time when shame was still possible. Call it all a kind of hypocrisy, if you choose to, but bear in mind how many of our own hypocrisies are the forces which lead us, ready and willing or not, to try to act virtuously.

In some ways the whole story is so aptly familiar to its times, so shaped like a work of fiction, that it may challenge credulity. Consider the orphan child raised by poor kinfolk and coming to manhood and maturity in the long shadowy days of the Reconstruction South. Growing up, in fact as it happened, only a few hundred yards away and in the same village as the place he returned to and died in. From early childhood having learned to be perfectly at home in deep woods and on the open water. His first work for a living, while still no more than a large child, involved both sea and forest. Cutting timber and bringing it out with mules. Then with an old man in charge, sailing boatloads of timber down the coast and into Charleston harbor. Where once, when he was still very young, not yet 12 years old, the old man was knocked unconscious by the boom and the boy had to bring in the large clumsy schooner, through wind and rough water, all by himself. As soon as he was old enough he was licensed as a pilot. Then earned and saved and with those earnings and savings studied and learned the Law. Then practiced Law, soon with success and later on with honor and high offices. Married a beautiful and gifted woman and with her had and raised his family of five sons and three daughters.

And you have seen them for yourself in old and slowly fading photographs, all standing solemnly, straightfaced, together. Except, sometimes, for a white-haired great-grandmother sitting on an incongruous chair in the midst of them. Liveoaks set the scene like columns. Leafy, mossy canopies all around them, casting a wealth of light and shadow. And themselves standing together a little stiffly, darkly handsome and somehow enigmatic as they squint to stare out of that dappled shade and across time as if from some other, far shore, all attention fixed on an unseen and now unknown photographer.

It is another side of that life and times, his, that has always interested you most. You were a child, then a young man, and loved to hear anything and everything about his passion rooted in the cold indifference of the archetypal gambler. Gambling meant not merely with money and possessions, which he surely did, but, in his daily courtroom trade, for instance, with life and death. Betting it all on life and love and light as you, yourself, wrote about it in a poem a long time ago.

Lucky and at the very peak of his good luck and worldly wisdom, he had a whole and enviable stable of horses—trotters and pacers and jumpers and fine carriage horses and riding horses and ponies for the children. And automobiles, too, when they began to arrive and to be part of the scene. Because his sons, your uncles, rose early to take the cars before he could or was ready to, he had six automobiles, finally, scattered all around the yard. They were living in those days in Ortega across the wide St. John's River from Jacksonville. And, so the story goes, one morning he took his car, last of the six remaining when he finished breakfast, and drove it to town to work. Stalled on the narrow drawbridge at its high center. Couldn't start that car if his life depended on it. Struggled with the obstinate machine while all behind him a restless line, a mob of other cars and horse-drawn carriages, and probably the crowded streetcar, too, honked and hooted and tooted, jeered and hollered. Then he, weary of all that, climbing out of his car, stepping lightly off the high runningboard and walking to the edge of the bridge and dropping the car keys over the rail, seeing them glint and glitter in the light and flash, white and brief as a gull's wing, as they hit and splashed and sank to the deep bottom. Looked down and saw the keys vanishing forever, then walked away to his office, to work, never looking back and (as they all said ever after) never once asking about and never once caring what became of that stalled automobile.

What a time he had!

Hunted big game in far places—Africa and India and the Arctic. And when the family enjoyed an inland vacation, in the mountains of western North Carolina or maybe in the villages and old farms of Vermont, why it took a whole railroad car to carry them and their companions and servants there and back. By sea he had the use of his own steam yacht, the Cosette, lean and fast at ninety feet and drawing so little water that he could nose her into many a small harbor, shallow river or creek. In the open sea, the Atlantic, he himself, handled her in good weather and foul. For the fun of it sometimes challenged other yachts to race. None ever came close to beating the Cosette.

All of that and almost everything else except for odds and ends, flotsam and jetsam of his life, was long gone before you were born. Gone, too, now that you suddenly think about it, gone by the time he was your age.

Anyway all of this interests you, fascinates with an odd kind of feeling, as you grow old with your few and perfectly commonplace possessions, owning nothing at all you would fear to shed, nothing you cheerfully couldn't do without. Nothing you have is worth more than a shrug, really. Except for memories. Which, of course, have to include his life and the lives of others.

Remembering now, at least for here and now, one moment among them all.

He would have been middleage then. Getting on, as they used to say. All of his children grown up and gone away except for the two youngest—Jack and Chester. Jack who would soon become a fine professional golfer and later a drunkard. Chester, the dancer, soon to dance in great cities all over the world. And then soon after that to fight in the Second World War and live to see it end at Linz, meeting the Russians on the bridge over the Danube there. There where, by the mysterious and wonderful synchronicity of things, you were to find yourself on duty, sometimes on guard duty at a checkpoint on the selfsame bridge.

But then, on that day, in those days, they were boys still. The last of his boys. And it was, happened to be the birthday of one or the other of them. I forget which. And does it matter? Not worth mentioning or worrying about now, really, except insofar as it gives an apt occasion and an edge of anticipation to the playing out of the story. At least from their point of view. For, in a sense, it's their story more than his, even though it is about him.

As they would learn gradually and later it was on this very same day, and all day long, that he gambled grandly and lost his last fortune. Last of it. All of it. Everything he owned in the world. Except for the house in Ortega which he would soon enough have to sell just to make ends meet. In one bad day he had managed to lose everything except the cash he had in his wallet. Two hundred dollars. Which was no small sum by any standard or measure in those days. Ten or twenty times what it would be equal to today.

They had come over to town in one of the cars to pick him up at the office and to bring him home for the birthday dinner. He came out of the front door of the office building at a minute or two past five, neat as a pin in his three-piece suit, his tailored shirt and tie. From high white separate collar to the fold of his cuffs as neat and crisp, unwilted and unwrinkled as he had looked in the morning when he left for work. That was his style and was not even noticed by them until much later when they tried together to reconstruct that day when he had lived through, spent, even as all his little house of cards collapsed and fell apart and was shuffled and then he was dealt out a sequence of impossible and implausible hands to play and to lose with. He came out of the entrance to the building, most likely nodding a good evening to the doorman, crossed the sidewalk, smiling a greeting to them where they sat in the car, parked with the motor running, at the curb.

"It's a lovely day," he said looking up and around at blue skies, thin clouds, light breeze. "And I've been cooped up in my office all day long. Let's leave the car and walk home."

A walk of several miles. But it was a fine day. And why not? He gave the doorman the keys to the car and a coin or two. They set off walking in the direction of the St. John's River.

Closer to the water, they came across a hand-lettered sign, pointing down a narrow lane to a dock. Advertising a boat for sale. They paused a moment, went to take a look.

It was a fat little wooden sailboat, single mast, cockpit, high-railed. A native version, squat and sturdy, of a New England catboat. Only a little bit larger. Looked in pretty good shape, all in all, though no doubt she could use some paint on her bottom. The man who owned her and was selling her came out of an unpainted shed nearby. Fellow with rubber boots and a beard flecked with pieces of gray and a grin with raggedy teeth.

And then their father, your grandfather, took off his coat, loosened his necktie and hunkered down with the old fellow to bargain for the boat. A duet of mumbling and of pauses. More muttering and silence. Oldtimer stood up and hawked and spit a gob over the edge of the dock into the lapping water.

Your grandfather stands up, too, and shakes his legs lightly to let his trousers fall neatly into place.

"Done, then," he says.

Offers his hand and shakes on it. Then pulls out his wallet and counts off a hundred dollars to pay the old man.

"It's yours," he says to the boys, or to whichever one whose birthday it was then and nobody can remember now. "Let's sail home. Plenty of time left before the light starts to fade and . . ." (here looking out at wrinkles of wind sprinting across the river, at the wind and the glitter of small waves) ". . . it's a nice breeze."

They sit down side by side on the dock and untie and remove their street shoes and socks. Barefoot they step on board and stow their shoes. Carefully stow his folded coat. Unfurl and check the sail. Fix the centerboard, rudder and tiller in place. The old man returns and adds a paddle to the deal. They untie the ropes fore and aft, paddle a moment or two to clear the end of the dock. And then your grandfather settles into place and takes up the tiller and the sheet. She luffs briefly, catches wind, and in a moment is pointed and skimming, heeling slightly, on a starboard tack.

It's going to take them an hour or so, not a lot more, taking turns at the tiller, to bring her home to their own dock and float at their house. When they do get there, the wind will be up and shifting direction and the tide will be turning. And it will be a little tricky to come in and dock her gracefully. The boys will ask him to do it himself, half hoping, it may well be, that he has lost his touch and will bang and shake them all when he rams the float. Unspoken, it's a kind of a bet or a dare. And, of course, he takes the dare. A kind of a last bet (as he has always bet on life and love and light) with half of all his remaining wealth in the world. Betting nothing at all and yet, for a moment, that one, everything that matters. He takes hold of the tiller and sheet, swings around and runs with the wind as if to crash into the float. Boys are holding tight now and gritting their teeth when he suddenly yanks the tiller toward him and jibes her. She swings around and he lets the sheet loose and the sail crackles and luffs as, urged on by her own slight wake, she lightly touches the float. They leap out and snub and tie her fast. Remove the mast and furl the sail. Pull up the rudder and raise the centerboard and then sit side by side to put on their shoes. Sun going down, wind touched with a chill and the salty sense of the open sea.

"Nice little boat," he tells them. "A little clumsy, but she'll get you there."

They tote all the things including the paddle. While he walks in the middle between them, his arms over their shoulders as they go along up the twisty path from the riverbank towards the shape of the house among the trees, house where, window by window, evening lights are coming on.

"You know," one of those brothers, your uncles, will tell you so many years later, "I don't think I ever saw Papa as happy as that. Sailing that boat home with not a worry in the world."

That's how he sees it and remembers it. How he takes it to be.

Well, why not? This is not the story of Job. Nothing like that. Only another story of winning and losing. Lightened by a gesture, the last real gift. Anyway, the children of fortune seldom arrive at happy endings.

Of course, it's not the same for you at second hand. You can't and won't come to believe that the inevitable shabby end of things would not lie heavy upon even the stoutest of hearts. But, still, consider that he seems to have known a blithe and simple way to lift his flagging spirits. First by an impulse and an act of unthinking generosity. And next by giving himself over to it—to water and air, to the fire of fading sunlight on the river and to the solid earth of a smooth landing and a safe return. And thereby all the rest of it, beginning and end, bitter or sweet, is nothing at all. Good luck and bad luck, all the rest of it, none of it means or matters anything at all.