By: Angelo J. Sylvester
When Henry found it that morning, he realized he never knew his grandfather. He dug it out of the attic from a dust-covered pile of what had recently become his grandfather’s artifacts. At that point in time, what Henry didn’t realize, although he eventually would– when the black lacquer box with velvet plush insides came from Boston, its return postage paid in full– was how often these things turn up, as the hands of time move over the face of history, slowly revealing the skeletons in our loved ones’ collective closets.
Up there, in the attic of a place he once called home, Henry decided he would hide it from his mother. At the age of 93, her father, Henry’s namesake, passed away quietly while in a coma on the 7th floor of Rhode Island Hospital. She had just lost him, and Henry, seeing the way she quietly held her head in the hospital’s waiting room, after the doctors told her he died while she waited for visiting hours to start, would not let her lose him all over again. Grandpa Hank left the property and everything on it, to her, his only daughter. She would decide the fate of his legacy, how the family moved out from under the shadow of it; but this important piece had made itself Henry’s, whether he wanted it or not, and he would decide what to do with it.
Now it was dark, and as he walked to John’s garage in the humid August air he could feel it knocking against his lower back. He snuck it out to show the boys that night, wrapping it in a plain white undershirt so it wouldn’t clank against the bottles of beer he had also hidden in the drawstring backpack. He hadn’t lived at home since he finished high school five years earlier and no one seemed to notice he had grown-up. It’s not that he wouldn’t be allowed to have the beer, it was the ceaseless questions and cautions that would come with knowing he had them that frustrated Henry. He passed his mother and Glenn at the dining room table on his way out, carrying the backpack low, on his far side. They were up late again, going over paperwork for the estate. Any other night they would have asked about the backpack if they saw it, asked him what he was doing, where he was going– reminded him to wear his mask, not to drink too much or to share– to be home by midnight, that the wake was tomorrow. But that night, his mother just picked her head up and looked at him kindly. She smiled, and all she said was, “Be safe.”
Henry hadn’t seen ‘the boys’ in a long time– around two years by then, though the hiatus was with purpose. Nearly three years into his collegiate career, Henry woke up one morning and took account of his life. He looked around, saw the trash piled high like termite mounds in his room and an unnamed goon sleeping fully clothed on his suite’s couch. He saw the number of credits he collected so far and the inbox filled with professors asking where he had been for this midterm or that presentation, finally coming to the conclusion that he, ‘didn’t want to live and die on Long Island.’ He messaged John and a few others in a group text, saying something along the lines of, ‘friendships never end they just change…’ and dropped off the grid. Two years later, a graduate, the only one of his friends, Henry reached out to John again. It was lite conversation over text at first, explanations and apologies, a few phone calls to make the sheer amount of information involved in catching up, on Henry’s side of things at least, much easier to convey. John didn’t seem to mind at all. He said he understood, that he was glad Henry did what he had to. John was the most agreeable person he had ever met.
Henry had been back home since May, avoiding all the invitations John extended to him up until that night. Why did he decide to go then, so deep into the dogged days of summer? Why did he take it with him when he did? Why that night, of all nights? Henry couldn’t say. In fact, when he felt those questions bubble up in his head on his walk he repressed them. He would understand, later of course, that life had been much too raw then, that he was chasing a comfort in nostalgia he thought existed there, that we all think exists there, and that maybe the thing was a peace offering, or just something interesting to bring to the table.
He kept walking. It wasn’t a far walk, about a mile in a nearly straight line. He could have easily skate-boarded or just driven the distance, but he felt he had to walk. He wanted to; to sweat the day off, to walk back into the past as an act of penance.
When he got to John’s house the windows were dark like they had always been, his adopted parents away on business or asleep. They never bothered the boys in the garage, no matter how much noise they made or how much their numbers swelled with the heat in summer, spilling out into the driveway, then the backyard and finally into the street. Henry walked up the driveway and saw the lower half of the scene in the garage cut off by the door, pulled two-thirds of the way down. He felt in free-fall when he counted 12 pairs of feet in the semi-circle around the speaker system, and, for a second, in the quiet, voyeuristic position out on the dark of the driveway, he thought about turning back. He could tell John he fell asleep or that he wasn’t feeling well,‘it was always easy to flake on flakes.’ He thought. But stopping short of the door, the backpack swayed and he felt the delicate weight of it inside nudge him in the direction of the garage. He bent down and lifted the door.
Everyone in the garageturned their attention to the shifting door as it rolled its way up the rusted tracks. There was a moment of recognition as Henry smiled, dumbly and at no one in particular, then a collective cheer arose, Yoooos and Ayes, like Henry was a long-awaited army coming to liberate Long Island. He recognized most of the guys there, getting up to give him awkward daps, smiling and clutching his hand, forcibly drawing him into them, chest to chest. They were all dressed pretty much the same, in the classic goon attire; ripped jeans, some black, some acid-washed, with a set of keys dangling from a belt loop, old loosely fitted t-shirts– something ironic from a thrift store or torn with road-rash, dirty sneakers for skating, even if they didn’t skate, all worn with a strain of apathy you could call swagger. Although he always thought of himself as a loner, a feeling he could never shake from growing up alone, these were friends Henry spent a lot of time with in his teenage years. They were the first people to make him feel he was part of anything. He grasped for affection, some sort of thread that still connected them all together as he was met by face after smiling face, but a year to a kid is still a lifetime, and he felt more than ever the gulf that two had opened up between his past and his present.
John got up, the same hulking figure Henry remembered, not muscular in any way, just large and smiling. There were added features of time that he noticed, a little more yellowing of the teeth, a few more inches of waist, some scruff– but still, John. They embraced.
“It’s good to see you, buddy.” John said.
“Yeah man, it’s great to see you too.”
With one flanneled arm around Henry’s shoulders, the other one presented him with his seat in a grand gesture, like the unveiling of the at stake prize on a gameshow. It was the most pristine lawn chair in the garage, an honor amongst dirtbags. Henry thanked him and sat down. He was right in the middle of the semi-circle, between John and a girl everyone seemed to know who was sitting on another old acquaintance’s lap. Henry recognized him but couldn’t dig the name out of his head.
Someone handed Henry a beer and someone else popped it open for him with the edge of a lighter. They asked him how he was and he lied. They asked if he wanted a cigarette, he said sure, and someone flicked one at him, which he bobbled before he clamped it down against his chest. John passed him a lighter. Henry lit the cigarette and let it burn, flicking the ashes from time to time.
“Yo Hen,” said the kid with the girl on his lap, leaning forward, his eyes half shut, “Congrats man.”
Before he could give a hesitant, “Thank you?” he heard John say, “Oh shit, that’s right,” smiling and raising his beer above his head, “congrats, guy.”
He was confused. His grandfather was the first person close to him to ever die, and at least John knew that, but he could have sworn you didn’t congratulate people for mourning. Then he remembered his own graduation. He laughed nervously to himself, “Thanks, guys,” and clanked his beer into theirs before taking a drink.
Henry felt torn in two, unstuck in time. He finished his first beer quickly and reached for one of his own, feeling the backpack under his chair. Tomorrow, he would have to look down on his grandfather’s body– with its unfamiliar youthfulness, laid in his best gray suit and burgundy tie, no medals or pins or insignia on its lapels, just a look of peace on his face– and wonder how morticians altered facial expressions and what one of guilt would look like etched in forever. He would have to listen to the priest when he got up and said the things that priests say:
…If they experienced punishment as men see it,
their hope was rich with immortality;
slight was their affliction, great will their blessing be.
God has put them to the test
and proved them to be worthy with him;
he has tested them like gold in a furnace,
and accepted them as a holocaust.
And afterwards, at the macabre frat party his mother would host in the old house, where the themes were formal wear and respectful tones for the dead, he would sneak off to his old bedroom and find it bare, just the crusty and matted carpet from years of painting and the weight of old, dense hand-me-down furniture– the black, waist-high marks in the corner where his bed had been from countless nights of restless sleep. He would remember all the hours that he passed playing alone on the floor of that room, how it always seemed like things were getting away from him there. Legopieces gone missing, Hot-Wheels, somehow, rolling away on the thickly bristled carpet; how he scraped and reddened his skinny, pale forearms reaching under his high dresser for what had disappeared– some things within his reach, while others were not– until his grandfather finally came to tilt it back, Henry marvelling at the muscles bulging from under his thin white undershirt during the feat of herculean strength, revealing, sometimes, the things he was looking for and other times, nothing at all.
“Congratulations, Henry.” He heard, in a shy, soft voice from his left. Snapping back, he turned to see it was the girl on the lap next to him.
“Hen,” his faded friend in black denim said from underneath her, “this is my girlfriend, Asuka. Asuka, this is Hen.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said, in perfectly learned english, a stark contrast to whatever language Henry reverted to here, “you’re the last of Josh’s friends I still had to meet.”
Henry smiled and told her the same, that it was nice to finally meet, but the truth was Henry hadn’t heard a thing about this girl, and he had no idea where and how this kid could have met her. He hadn’t even taken the chance to really notice her since he came in, overwhelmed by his reception and the shock a materialization of the past can jolt through us, but when he finally did meet her eyes, finally heard her voice, her kindness moved him. It cut right through the night, existing in an entirely different reality then everything else happening around him. Even the way she was dressed comforted him, like the girls they used to try and talk to at concerts or parties that on lucky nights would talk back. She had a Hello Kittymask dangling from one ear and a fluorescent shirt tucked into short jean cut-offs, so short that Henry caught a glimpse of her underwear’s hem at their crotch. He quickly looked away, down to the floor, to her woven ankle bracelets and scuffed Vans, nudging the backpack a little farther underneath his chair.
“How long have you two been together?” He asked.
The couple looked at each other with a mutual recognition that neither had been keeping very good track of time. “About four months,” was their answer. Henry nodded and took a long drink of beer.
In this way– Asuka, a question, a knod, a drink of beer– Henry grounded himself. Blunts and bowls were passed through him and time started drifting by in smoke, getting shorter and hazier, and impossible to grasp only because it made Henry forget how impossible it was to grasp anyway, making him believe the fault was the tingle in his fingers. Drink after drink, his troubles fell off of him like tender meat off a bone, and as he cooked his mind the smell of marijuana and the pinch of hops down his throat brought him back to a time where he used to laugh, often and loudly. And he did that night, feeling that he had walked himself back to where home existed, back before the changes that made him take everything oh so seriously.
As the night wore on the crowd thinned out. Henry got a hug or a dap or a ‘good to see you bro’, with every exit, until, finally, just the four of them remained: John, Henry, Asuka, who occupied her own chair now, and her boyfriend Josh. They pulled into a tight square and the boys folded Asuka into their life of getting into trouble together.
“No, no, let me tell it, let me tell it. So,” John began to Asuka sitting across from him, “late one night, this idiot,” he said laughing and gesturing to Henry, who was grinning, hand in chin, his legs crossed, “was driving home, I forget from where, and, I don’t know if you’ve ever been downtown, but there’s a park, with like, you know, monuments and shit, to whatever, right next to the train station.”
“So he’s driving home passing the park and something possesses him to take his car and try to cut across the grass, I guess so he didn’t have to wait at the stop lights if he went around.”
Asuka raised her eyebrows and gave Henry a sideways look.
“Listen,” he said, taking a drink and leaning towards her, every once in a while glancing at her boyfriend so he didn’t get any funny ideas, as if he could, at this point in the night, get any ideas at all, “I was driving an artifact back then, an Oldsmobile, from before they made cars like soda cans. You feel pretty invincible driving something that weighs 1000 pounds more than it should, you know?”
“A tank.” John added.
“A damn battering ram.” Henry confirmed, taking another drink.
“So, he jumps the curb, and there’s like gazebos and shit out there, he doesn’t care, he’s gotta get home before his mom kills him. And he’s about to make it across, and then, BAM,” John says, punching his palm, while Henry covers his face laughing, and Asuka leans forward with a slack-jawed smile, “he hits a statue, and not just any statue, it’s a pedestal with the bust of our great town’s founder on it.”
“Oh my gosh.” She said, sincerely but giggling.
“To be fair,” Henry added, “I saw it coming, but brakes don’t work well on grass. Important lesson.”
“It’s a clean break, so this kid stops, gets out of the car– mind you, this is downtown, and nobody sees him–”
“Imagine?” She said, grabbing his forearm, “You’re so lucky.”
Henry opened his eyes wide and shook his head vigorously up and down.
“He gets out and he takes it. It’s like a 50 pound hunk of marble, and he puts it in his trunk and drives away! So now, the next few days, there’s like a hunt for this fucking bust, right? Dude, it’s in the paper, everyone at school is talking about it–”
“Did you ever get caught?”
“Nope, never. Just a secret between me and old man Calhoun,” Henry said with a prideful glow, “I told my parents I hit a parking ballard.”
“What did you do with it?”
“He kept it in his trunk,” John said, “brought it out at parties here and stuff. It was a big hit. Every time he would bring it out it would have like a new piece of clothing on it or something goofy like a propeller hat. I remember we colored its eyes in with sharpie–”
“What happened to it? Do you still have it?”
“Nah, we had to get rid of it,” Henry said, “I couldn’t take it to school with me, too heavy. We left it in a state park a few towns over. We set it up like a shrine, with everything we dressed it in laid around it. Saying it out loud actually makes it sound super creepy and I guess it was, but it felt pretty fitting at the time.”
Henry threw his head back and finished his beer. He reached down between his legs to get another one out of his backpack but it had been his last. All that was left was its hard roundness through the cheap vinyl. He drew his hand away and felt his drunkenness crest.
“That’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard,” Asuka said, amused, “if I tried that and my parents ever found out, they’d send me away!”
“Yeah…it would have been the end of me.” Henry said, rising back up, somewhere else now entirely. Maybe at the wake again, or in his old bedroom, feeling the hard white crust on the carpet along the wall. But he was probably back in the attic again, right above where he laid his head as a child, lifting the past out of the rafters.
“What made you do that, Henry?”
“I don’t know, really.”
“Grandpa Hank’s Oxys probably had something to do with it,” John said laughing and nudging Henry in the shoulder. Henry didn’t say anything, he just swayed with John’s push and turned to look at him.
Silence settled over the garage like a sheet over a corpse.
“I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather, Henry.” Asuka said, “John told us earlier. I heard you were close.”
“Yeah,” Henry said half-smiling at her, “It’s alright, thank you.”
He sat there for a moment under the silence, John looking anywhere but at Henry. Even Josh in his vegetable state sensed the awkwardness of the situation, sitting up and adjusting himself in his chair. Asuka sat leaning forward looking at Henry with her hands clasped between her knees.
He reached down slowly and took the drawstring backpack out from under his seat.
“This morning we started going through his house and I found this, and I’m sorry, but…I think I just really need to show it to someone.”
“Sure man, what is it?”
Henry didn’t say anything, his drunkenness crested now, rolling down the other side into depression.
“You can show us, Henry.”
“Yeah man, don’t worry.”
Henry took off the thin backpack and t-shirt and let them fall to the floor next to him. He held it in both hands like he was cupping the face of a loved one.
“Whoa…” said someone in a whisper.
With others there looking, Henry felt wrong for holding it– for having his hands on it at all. He let it sit on his knees facing him and instead gripped the seat of his chair.
The skull was yellow with a dull sheen. There was no jaw or teeth. From what they could see, under the bug stained fluorescent lights, there were chips in it, raking marks, and wordscarved into its forehead, colored in black. They read, “Guadalcanal 1943.”
Later that night, and on occasion for years after, whenever he felt his own past caught in the gears of history, Henry would type that word and that year into his web browser. He would see black and white pictures of gaunt young men, kids really, that reminded him of the candid senior shots in his highschool yearbook, in long lines, marching through rows of palm trees and jungle. He would see figures, blurry in motion, sprinting out of boats through the sea and onto beaches. Boys, kneeling and aiming rifles at something off frame. Sometimes he saw other gaunt kids, Japanese ones, sitting behind barbed wire, guarded by yet more kids with guns who looked like they were dressed in their father’s soldier uniforms. And bodies. Bodies along a shore, along a road, bodies in the hands of other bodies that just happened to be standing up with the same look in their eyes as the dead.
He looked for first hand accounts. Most of the diaries were written by boys younger than him, but there he learned things you couldn’t see in pictures or on maps. Things that would make him tired but never sleepy. The fact that, sometimes, jungle could be so dense that it strangled itself and rotted, the stench becoming unbearable. He read that the Japanese army charged in the dead of night, when the stars were silent and you felt the weight of months in a foxhole and two meals a day out of a can and dysentery all in your eyelids. “Too many, too close, and too long.” was all somebody had written. He would learn that neither side took many prisoners.
Eventually he would see it, but he only clicked on it that night, just once.
A picture of four GIs squating and smiling around a skull in a helmet, a cigarette hanging from its mouth in jest. It linked him to the article he was looking for, but had not the heart to type the words.
There would be dozens of pictures. A pretty young woman writing a letter to her boyfriend in the war, looking longingly at the skull he had sent her for inspiration. They were mounted on tanks and jeeps, on sign posts reminding troops to take their malaria treatments, or what happened to Americans that surrendered on Bataan and Wake Island. There were descriptions of the process. Pictures of men, crouched, boiling things in the jungle. Henry will have seen enough by then. He would wipe his browser history and try, in vain, to sleep, the dull blue of dawn showing through his blinds.
Everything was sucked out of the garage through the black of its hollowed eyes. Henry felt them boring into his psyche. He reached over and grabbed the white t-shirt and wrapped it back up so time could find its legs again. He held the white bundle in his lap.
“He fought in World War Two, but I never heard him talk about it. My mom had to tell me.” He said, “I had to look up where Guadalcanalwas. It’s an island in Guam and I guess there was a battle there. He would have only been 16.”
The others were silent.
Asuka looked at the ground and squeezed her eyes shut. Lingering there with her hands on the arms of her chair as if she was about to push herself up, she let out a deep breath. She waved a hand behind her as she got up and almost ran out of the garage, flinging the door up as she left. The opening framed her away into the night. It had started to rain some time ago.
Josh followed her with his head to the maximum angle his neck would allow.
“Suka’!” He managed to blurt out before he tried to go after her, but the light aluminium chair slipped out from under him when he shifted his weight.
After Josh scrambled out of the garage, John and Henry stared at each other, alone. Then John looked down to the white bundle. A deep shame welled up in Henry, the kind he knew, thereafter, would never leave him. He picked up his backpack and without a word put the bundle inside and walked out into the rain.
The next day, after the wake, after he had slipped away from the consolations of relatives he had never met and didn’t care to, Henry quietly pulled down the attic stairs. He crouched back to the corner where he found it, and resumed his search from the day before, kneeling on two parallel ceiling beams. Digging deeper he found other artifacts. Postcards from Australia and Tokyo, dog-tags, a single, unopened letter from, who he assumed to be, his great-grandparents. Under that layer he found a rusted black box filled with pictures. Most had been crinkled to the point of linen, but a few remained intact enough to make out their images. They were snapshots of landscapes, deeply focused pictures of wheat or corn fields and plains and mountains; they had smeared inscriptions at the bottom like, Arkansas 1947, or Montana 1948. One picture was of a group of big white tents in what looked like the middle of nowhere. Another, showed a woman standing next to a car on the side of a dirt road. She was lifting up her skirt to reveal a tattoo on her thigh. Henry remembered his grandfather’s own faded tattoos, which he only caught a glimpse of on occasion. The last picture in the pile was the most pristine, a gaunt, young man, squatting in the sand holding a rifle. He was smiling. The year 1945 was written on the back in light, slighted letters.
He jumped, almost putting his knee through the ceiling. He saw his mother’s head hovering shoulder height above the floor. He felt himself heat-up.
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“You scared me, I thought you left.”
“Why would that have scared you?” He said, looking back at what he found.
His mother climbed the last few steps and followed what floor boards there were to get as close to him as she could. She found a 5-gallon bucket and flipped it over, dusting off the bottom. She sat down.
“You look tired today.”
“I was out late last night, at John’s.” Henry said, trying to subtly square his body to obstruct his mother’s view of what he was doing.
“How is John?”
“The same, you know? All those guys are.”
His mother looked at him as he stared off at the patchwork attic floor.
“He would have been proud of you, you know.”
“What are you doing up here?” She asked, after a moment, craning her neck.
“Just looking through a bunch of grandpa’s old stuff.” He turned around and grabbed the dog tags and gave them to her, then the picture he had in his hand.
“Wow,” she said, with a laugh, “I’ve actually never seen these before. Look at him.” She held up the picture of his grandfather in the sand.
“He looks just like you, Henry.”
His mother lowered the picture to see her son cast in a gray light coming through the attic’s small, circular window. She reached forward and gave him his grandfather’s things and kissed her fingers sticking them on his forehead.
“We’ll be downstairs.” She said, getting up.
“Hey, mom…” he said, stopping her “…was he, a good guy? Grandpa, I mean.”
She thought for a moment, “Yes, I think so. He wasn’t perfect, but he always did what he thought was right, even when he didn’t want to.”
“Was he a good dad?”
“As a parent, no, not the best.” She exhaled, “But he really had to change directions once I was born, and he had to do it alone. That’s not easy. I know men who wouldn’t.”
Henry nodded. He contemplated asking about her mother, he didn’t know much more than that she died right after his mother was born. He wanted to show her what else he had found, the picture of the woman or the picture of the tents, maybe the letter from her grandparents, forever unopened. But she would find all these things on her own, he thought, it was all hers now anyway. Then he thought, or maybe he was always thinking about what she would never find, what he would send away, off on its final journey.
“You know what though?” His mother asked. “I think he really hit his stride as a grandfather. By the time we moved back in with him, he really…put the pieces together. Finally knew how to teach right from wrong and set a decent example.” She said, and smiled.
He looked at her and smiled back, “I’ll be down in a second.”