Dec 10, 2013
The Invisible Man
Posted on May 9, 2012
By Mr. Fish
The only other photograph that I ever saw of my great-uncle, besides the one hanging in the municipal building, was one that had escaped a house fire at the address where my great-grandmother lived for 40 years. It was a picture of Eddie posing with a fish at the edge of a lake in Lenape, Pa., in 1935 when he was 15 years old and as cocksure as a new pear. In the photo he is shirtless and has a cigarette sticking out of his mouth, as does the fish he is holding with his two fingers hooked beneath its gills. His swimming trunks are oversized to the point of being clownish and his eyes, as intense as tiny cinders, are pinched into a fiendish squint by the bright sunlight and a ludicrous grin. His black hair falls jagged over his sweaty forehead as if it were the disembodied hand of a shaggy monster preparing to uncap his skull, and his bare feet are caked with mud. Nothing in his smile registers the agonizing telepathy from those of us in his future warning him against the inevitable.
I was recently asked by one of my 8-year-old twin daughters over breakfast what my grandfather was like and I found myself at a complete loss for words. Every attempt at a description failed. In many ways he was like the sun to me—impossible to look at directly, yet absolutely essential when it came to illuminating the hodgepodgery that was the rest of my family. I started to wonder whether maybe my relationship with him was so impossible to describe, not because it was amorphous or extraneous, but rather because it was never out of my sight and, therefore, completely invisible to me. Trying to reinvent the constant that was my grandfather as an anomaly was like trying to jazz up a glass of water just to make it less boring to somebody who might be uninspired by the fact that the most useful and life-sustaining compound that exists on earth is clear and tasteless.
I was probably 8 years old when my grandmother told me how Eddie’s leg, still wearing the combat boot, was sent back to her mother and buried in her vegetable garden by a local Boy Scout troop, while a 400-pound neighbor named Bunny Tinkle played Yankee Doodle on the rims of wineglasses filled with water and relatives cried and the children of relatives tried to keep a straight face and raccoons, already in face masks, waited for nightfall.
“The thing was eventually yanked out of the ground by some animal,” my grandmother said, “and disappeared. Of course, my mother tried to comfort everybody by insisting that that’s the way Eddie would’ve wanted it. ‘He was always wandering off in the middle of the night,’ she would tell them. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if that leg was walking the boardwalk in Atlantic City or hitchhiking across the country—Eddie always wanted to see the Hoover Dam.’ ” My grandmother would then try to imitate her mother’s excruciatingly forced smile, doing her best to make it look like something wet and clammy that she’d picked up off the ground and laid across her face, while I did my damnedest to figure out how a foot might go about thumbing a ride from a trucker out on the interstate. I would then try to imagine the uncomfortable silence inside the cab once the leg was picked up, the glow from the dashboard lights bathing my great-uncle’s remains and making them appear as ghoulish and vague as an aberration. I imagined the sound of a single fly buzzing around the gaping and ragged sore that capped Eddie’s stump and the tightening of the driver’s jaw as he groped around for conversation that would both fill the excruciating silence and wouldn’t disparage his passenger’s most obvious handicap.
Minus the macabre resolve of a dead soldier’s leg standing alone inside the gentle rain of vaporized meat, the death of my great-uncle was made beautiful to me by relatives who decided, like so many others prone to the questionable practice of ventriloquizing the deceased, that heroism works best when the person chosen to be the hero no longer exists and, therefore, cannot contradict his gallantry by continuing to demonstrate the circumstantial mediocrity and poetic fallibility that comes with being alive.
When my grandfather died in 1995, a fountain featuring a statue of a golfer standing beneath an umbrella with his chin in his hand was erected in his vegetable garden by relatives who didn’t seem to care that he had never picked up a club. After the pleasant ping-pong of jokes and jabs exchanged between brothers and sisters who hadn’t seen one another in a while, his ashes were sprinkled into the soil around his tomato plants and disappeared as soon as they hit the ground.
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