The Old Gentleman

~ Nancy

artwork by Linn Bankson

“Come with me?”
He saw himself in her eyes, reflected on the pastel rainbow from the mists beyond ...
“Where shall we go, Catherine?”
To wonders … worlds beyond dreaming … it was all of that just to be with her.
“To see Severino. I want to thank him for helping us with Brian the other night.”
“How is Brian … after everything?”
“You mean the search and rescue? It didn’t make the TV news and that’s a very good thing. I’ve only seen him once since. He was in the elevator and he was with his dad and they were carrying fishing poles. He introduced me and held up the tackle box to tell me … his new happiness.”
Vincent nodded. “Things have improved then between him and his father.”
“He spent some time with you, didn’t he? More time than with everyone else.”
“Perhaps he heard … something … useful.”
“Perhaps … indeed. How did you come to be so humble … and so smart?”
Admiration, praise, the deepest longings affection bears … these skipped the path of her words … home … to his heart.
“The workshop is this way.” He rose, offered his hand and felt the chafe of fear that she might … ever … hesitate ...
Of course she did not.
And he didn’t let go along the way.
Geoffrey leaned over the bench, watching the cuts fit together so well he breathed a wow! that Severino pretended not to hear.
“Got to make the joints comfortable. That makes the piece solid. Resilient.”
“I don’t know what ‘resilient’ means.”
“Oh. Maybe it’s the wrong word. I’m thinking tough, durable. Lastin’ … even if it doesn’t get the most gentle treatment. And even if it stops lookin’ good it still serves its purpose. Get it?”
“Yeah. Oh, hi, Vincent! Uh … Ms. Chandler.”
“It’s okay to call me Catherine,” she reminded him with a smile.
“Uh, thanks … I … I gotta get back now. I’ll come around tomorrow, if it’s, uh …”
“I could use your help, Geoffrey. I’ll wait for you and we’ll finish this then.”
The youngster grinned at the carpenter, blushed when he looked at Catherine, waved a little wave to Vincent and fled.
“Nice kid, that Geoffrey.”
“He’s helping you?” Vincent ran a finger over the joint. “You’re teaching him a wonderful skill. Even if he leaves us one day.”
“Yeah, well, he’s good to have around, you know. Pleasant. Wants to learn. Bends to the lowest shelves a lot easier than I do.”
They laughed at his image of old age.
“I wanted to thank you for helping me with Brian. Your words impressed him.”
“You done the right thing with him. I heard what Mary told him, William, too, and I can pretty much guess some of what you said, Vincent. Human nature is a caring animal. He understood. Good. For him. For us. I don’t want nothing bad happening to this place.”
He lifted the half-construction onto a table that needed sanding.
“Life’s real good … down here.”
Catherine and Vincent shared a glance.
“It’s like standin’ at the shore …with the waves runnin’ over your feet … nice … but pretty soon you can’t just stand there no more because you’re ankle-deep in sand and you’re gonna lose your balance and fall over.”
“So I gotta decide … or …”
Severino layered the varnish with long strokes. “No ‘or’, Geoffrey. Think it over. Write it all down. The good and the bad. When you see it that way it’s easier. Clear. Like this. The grain in the wood shows the way it wants to take the finish. See? Then you make your choice and act on it.”
The boy nodded, watching the old man’s face. “Thanks. Okay. I will. Write it down. Two columns. He goes on one side but what she said to me sorta balances out … him. So what if he calls her Ms Chandler. So what if she likes him. She likes me too. And maybe she didn’t ever say it was okay for him to … Yeah. Thanks.”
The brushstrokes slowed. “Now go on. Do it. And you can let me know how it goes … when you … decide.”
“I will … uh, can I ask you something? I mean something else? One more thing?”
“What might that be, son?”
“I was wonderin’ … uh, could I … would it be okay if I called you … Uncle Severino … or … or maybe … Grandpa?”
He balanced the brush across the edge of the open can, wiped the handle. “Now how come you need to think long and hard to call Catherine by her name but you can just come right out with it and say you want to call me … Grandpa?” It was tricky to talk through such a wide grin. “How’s it so easy for you to ask that? Huh? Not that I’m complainin’ or finding fault, young man. You gotta know I’d be … honored … to be … your … Grandpa. Couldn’t ask for a better kid … Grandson. Yeah, you can call me Grandpa … you sure can, Geoffrey.”
“He said I could, Vincent. Do you think it’s okay?”
“Geoffrey, that’s between you and Severino. I think it’s a fine compliment and that he was … well, he was feeling just what Catherine will feel when you ask her again.”
“He told me, Grandpa told me, to write all that stuff down … the good and the bad … and I couldn’t think of any real bad things about it. She said it was okay. You heard her. She said it.”
“Catherine will be here this weekend. Why don’t you ask her one more time to be sure and then it will be … done. I can talk to her for you before that if …”
“No, Vincent. I, uh, want to do this myself. Okay?”
“Of course, Geoffrey.”
“Vincent, I didn’t hear you coming down the tunnel. Guess I’m making a commotion with my cuttin’.”
“Do your saws need sharpening? Mouse has a …”
“They’re good. They’re good. I learned about carin’ for my tools early on … This here set was my father’s. My mother gave them to me. Come with tooth covers and saw files to keep the teeth pitched right. I wipe them down with that oily rag before and after I use them. Works fine. Just fine.”
“Your father would be proud of their condition. They look new.”
“I like workin’ with them … keepin’ them … it’s important … how you … care … for somethin’.”
“You’re very wise, Severino.”
Through an abbreviated laugh he disagreed, “Never did have much schoolin’.”
“You do fine repairs and everyone is grateful. And as for the new pieces … the desks you’re building for the children will be a wonderful surprise and they’ll encourage good study habits.”
“Nothing like a shiny new desk and chair, a few sharp pencils and some blank sheets of paper to inspire a kid … for about an hour!”
“Your wisdom is showing again.”
He brushed off the compliment with a happy look. “Mighta inspired young Geoffrey … That kid asked could he call me Grandpa. Imagine …”
He traced letters in the sawdust … letters that read GRANDPA.
“When Geoffrey first came to us he was shy. So quiet. Polite. I thought I could see the … wanting … in him. For someone … someone to love.”
“Yeah. It’s there. A lot of love he wants to give. He’s got a crush on your Catherine, you know. Real serious. But he knows his place. I don’t think you need to worry … much. Of course that Brian fellow had better look out.”
Vincent smiled. “I think Catherine has more than enough love for all of us.”
“And I’m thinkin’ you … and our Geoffrey … got it real bad for her.”
The slight dip, a turn of his head and Vincent’s face disappeared behind honey gold hair.
“Sit. You got time? I’m not keepin’ you, am I?”
Vincent pulled a chair forward for Severino and aligned one for himself.
“I get to wonderin’ sometimes when I’m workin’ … about how my life mighta gone if not for all of you. I was about on the street when I came here. Down to next to nothin’ in the bank, almost nothin’ in my pocket. Couldn’t’ve paid the rent another month. Hadn’t been eatin’ so good for a while. Oh, eviction takes its time, I know, but it was comin’. I went from almost livin’ miserable on the street to livin’ happy under it. Good deal, I’d say.”
“And for us.”
“Thanks. You know, I started out an orphan myself. Like Geoffrey. Only my folks didn’t die … they gave me up.” He shifted on the worn seat … angled away … as though he needed room to think … perhaps ... space to feel.
“They gave you away?” He hadn’t known … another …
“Yeah, in those days it was hard for a woman … alone … pregnant … My real father died of pneumonia ‘fore I was born. Harry, he told my mother he’d marry her but he wasn’t keepin’ no other man’s kid so … she cried when she told me … she let him …”
“But you found her … later.”
“In the army, my captain noticed I never showed up for mail-call. Asked me about it. Told him I had no one to write to me. About bein’ raised in the New York State orphan system. He was interested. Wanted to know if I’d mind him lookin’ into it. I didn’t mind. Told him he could.”
A smile spoke the next words. “Wouldn’ta believed it but he come up with my birth certificate, my mother’s name and my father’s, and he made some calls and next thing I know I got a 15-day pass to go visit … my … family … in Brooklyn.”
There was remembered pleasure in his eyes … a few moments … then it dimmed.
“They were nice to me. Even Harry. I had a half-brother, sister. Neither of them knew about me. Guess I never got … mentioned. But they were fine with it … me appearin’ from out of the blue. My mother … she cried and Harry held his arm around her. Not sure for comfort or to let me know how things stood. Never knew. I had a room … a woman in the neighborhood took in boarders. I visited in the daytime mostly when no one else was there . That’s when she told me … how it’d been … how sorry she was … how she’d always prayed for me … for me to forgive her.”
He closed his eyes against the memories, or to hold them … Vincent didn’t know. How would it be to have his mother appear … explain … perhaps she prayed for him even now … for his forgiveness …
“After my discharge I went back, found a place nearby, visited now and then but not too much, you know ... Got invited to my sister’s wedding and to my brother’s. Introduced as ‘my brother, Severino’ and nobody asked any questions. Maybe they did when I wasn’t around. Maybe they knew. It was all okay with me. When Harry had the heart attack everyone seemed to think I should be the one to move in and help my mother with him … no wife or kids … my brother had a wife and my sister had a baby. I didn’t like giving up my apartment but … you do what’s right. What you gotta do. I went to live with them, worked days and helped in the evenings, on weekends. Gave my mother time to get out, shop. It was about a year when he had another one that took him. Now she was alone but she said she could manage, that I was to go and live my life, find a good woman, get married, have kids.”
“And did you?”
The old man chuckled. “Nah. I worked. Went to Sunday dinner at the house. Danced on a Friday night. Sometimes Saturday, too, if I wasn’t workin’ late. Used to be 10 cents for guys to get in the dances, and they gave you a ticket for a beer and one for a soda. Girls got in free. Those were good times, Vincent. That music … it was some kind’a music …”
“Glenn Miller’s band, Artie Shaw …”
“Yeah, all those guys. Frank Sinatra breakin’ out. Tony Bennet. Vic Damone. Dancin’ to the records. Walkin’ your girl home at midnight. Safer on the streets back then but still … you walked your date home.”
Or you walked with her … to a basement threshold …
“When my mother took sick I moved back. The room I’d used when we were lookin’ after Harry. Hard thing … takin’ care of your mother … not a job for a son … but I did it. It was the right thing. I kept her out of the hospital for as long as I could. She was grateful. She loved me. And I loved her. Not sure she believed it … that I’d forgiven her … but I did. The way I figure, people get mighty fearful sometimes. They can’t think straight, they’re so scared. A way out comes along and they grab onto it. Without thinkin’ things through they go where it takes them. Fear does that if you let it. Like my mother did. No sense layin’ blame … judgin’ is for the Almighty. He sees the big picture.
“She left me the house. My brother and sister were okay with it. They got some cash, jewelry. I sold the place. Bought me a car. A Caddy, Vincent. Ever see one of them? Boat of a thing. On a summer Saturday when I wasn’t workin’ I’d drive a bunch of friends to Orchard Beach up in the Bronx. Couple of guys from the service, couple from the block, the girls sittin’ on their fella’s lap. Mary squeezed in next to me. Sandwiches and sodas getting’ hot in the trunk. We’d swim all day and meet up at Roseland to dance all night. Mighta ended with me and Mary gettin’ married … she … I loved that girl … and could she dance … an angel floatin’ round the floor in my arms. But it wasn’t to be. The war ended. Lotsa guys came home. I never said nothin’ to her. She was too good for the likes of me, I knew. Married some other fella. Hope he made her happy. She was something special … my … Mary.”
Vincent watched him get up, a slow and careful rising, settling the joints, situating them, as Father sometimes did after sitting too long. Or was it his heart … aching still … ‘never said…’ A unique and solitary regret in a life that might have overflowed with them.
“Hey, I’m sorry to be goin’ on and on. You didn’t come here for this. What … what did bring you down this way?”
Vincent did not stand. “I’d like to hear the rest, Severino.” Your most remarkable … story …a life … untouched by resentment, outrage …
Vincent nodded.
“Well, it went on, you know. Years … they came and went. Good years. Some not so good. My brother moved in with his daughter somewhere in Texas, passed on years ago. My sister died in ‘84. I kept workin’, kept getting’ old, but the jobs … they were comin’ fewer and farther between. People … they look at you funny … think ‘what kind’a job could this old codger do’ and truth is they don’t want you around remindin’ them time’s passin’ and all that … so they say they got no work. The Caddy … she was still runnin’ good. I’m handy under the hood too … and I painted her myself … with a roller. Would’ya believe! Dark green. Didn’t look all that bad. She’d been sittin’ at the curb a long time … gas was too expensive to do more’n turn over the motor now and then. Ended up givin’ her to some kid lived around the corner right before I came here. He was makin’ her a good life. Said his folks had an empty garage. Said she was a beauty and he’d keep her forever.”
Vincent sensed … comfort … in the thought that his car, so long prized, would likely out-live him. There was that need in everyone … not to … end … to leave something of oneself … something that continued us past our death … someone …
“I’d been doin’ odd jobs for my landlord. It was a four story walk-up always needin’ repairs. He was a lawyer … grateful … never raised my rent. But came time to sell the building and the new owners … businessmen … they were out for the dollar. Can’t blame them, I guess, and the rent went up, took everythin’ I was gettin’ … the Army pension … Social Security … what I could make at any odd jobs … not enough left for food let alone medicine or doctors. I was lucky and never needed much in the way of medicine or doctors but a man’s gotta eat, you know? Hank saw I wasn’t makin’ it … we got to be friends from me doin’ plumbin’ work in his apartment … and he and Alice would have me over for dinner on a Sunday. I appreciated that. One good meal a week anyway. Then he told me about this place … how he was a Helper and could get me in. He was so sure. I … well … no offense but I wasn’t … it sounded … until he talked me into coming down to see. That Father is a good man. Offered me a trial period. Said stay a week to see if I liked it … as if there was a penthouse waiting if I didn’t. I told him right then and there I’d stay if he’d have me and I’d earn my keep, too. He just patted my shoulder and asked me did I want to see where I would sleep. I tell you, Vincent, it was a good decision. I’m real happy here.
“I’m not saying I had a terrible life before. No. I have me some special memories …” A hearty chuckle paused his telling. “Martello the Marshmallow’s one of them. Mrs. Martello was the matron in my junior dormitory. That woman had the sweetest ways about her, the softest heart. And the most comfortable bosom to cuddle you when frights and hurts needed easin’.”
He was seeing her, alive again, perhaps wishing her alive, loving lonely little boys.
“We had clean clothes and clean beds and the food was okay. I liked school though in those days they figured book learnin’ wasn’t so important once you could read and do your arithmetic. I didn’t go much past 5th grade. We had cake with candles and everyone sang to you when it was your birthday. I remember Santa always came for Christmas with little gifts. I got to be his elf one time … I wore those slippers with the curled-up-toes and a funny hat with a jingle bell hangin’ off the point. Helped hand out presents to the younger kids. We all went to church. Guess it didn’t matter none what religion you were. Guess no one knew. Easter Bunny’d come every spring and hide paper cut-out eggs in the rec room. We got turns searchin’ for them. Some had a penny underneath. Even the ones without the penny were good for tradin’ in for candy. There were hot dogs in summer. Summer … the one when I was 10 and playin’ softball … we had this coach … Mr. Charlie. His son played on our team. Only one not an orphan. Eddie was some hitter but at practice I could out-pitch even him most of the time. Mr. Charlie … what a good man … knew how to … care. You could say he ‘inspired’ us, Vincent. I’d’a liked playin’ ball for real one day but life doesn’t always give you what you think you want, does it?
“We learned wood workin’ and how to fix shoes. Took me a turn with engine repair and got taught some ‘bout heatin’ and refrigeration. Spent a year takin’ care of layin’ chickens on a farm upstate. One time the heater in the hen house caught the straw on fire and I got everyone of them 100 chicks out safe. ‘Cept I stepped on one getting’ out myself. Funny how I remember that …
“Enlisted at 18. The army was good … buddies with stories of where they’d been and where they’d be going when they got out.” He stopped and looked down at the sawdust, the word GRANDPA.
“You have wonderful memories.”
“Yeah, it was good, a good life. But it was gonna have a bad end if not for this place. You folks. Here I’m appreciated. Me. For who I am. Old. Sure. But still … And it doesn’t matter that I can’t do much. I’m safe. I feel safe. For the time’s left to me. You’ve given me … belongin’ … down here.”
“A child has chosen you to be his grandfather.”
Severino chuckled, grew serious. “I mean to do right by that boy. Oh, I know he has you and the rest, but maybe he needs … an old codger … like me … a grandpa … and I’m good for that job.”
“You are, Severino. You most certainly are.”


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