by Melanie Arpaio
He was old and lonely, sitting at the airport gate and leaning his liver-spotted head on his cane. He looked grumpy and curmudgeonly and maybe a little bitter. I immediately decided I didn’t like him one bit, just from the brief glance across the aisle. First thought was, he looked like my grandfather. And I had no fond memories of that man. When I complained about the things he did to me as a child, I was told, “He’s a dirty old man, just ignore him. But don’t be rude! You owe him your respect because … ”
Because what, I always thought, because he’s my elder? That warrants an exemption or automatic absolution? And the final warning from those I told, first my mother, then my aunt, and finally my daddy was, “Don’t. Tell. Anyone. It would break your grandmother’s heart.”
So I isolated myself. I hid under the sweeping branches of the Norfolk pine in the side yard with my sketch pad, played with my Barbies in the middle of my grandmother’s overflowing bed of daffodils, and sometimes strayed out near the sweeping oak trees in the far reaches of my grandfather’s farm, far enough away that the old man couldn’t see me. I didn’t like him, and I never. Told. Anyone.
This airport man’s eyes had the same detachment, selfishness, righteousness, boredom, entitlement. A man like him was why I only came back to visit Georgia, never again to stay, and was the ultimate reason I’d left home and made a new one from scratch.
Then I realized I was being ridiculous. This old man was not my long-dead grandfather, and I thought maybe I should try to talk to him, get him to smile, see if he was alive in there, and if he wanted someone to keep him company. But I didn’t. Too much grandfather in him for me to approach. I did what I’d learned to do as a child, and that was to steer clear. No eye contact or chatting, because that’s just an invitation to things you can’t tell anyone.
And then, a group of young men came in loudly, happily boisterous and talking of the basketball championship game and of graduation and of deployment and girlfriends. All fist bumps and in search of charging stations and seats and a lifetime of excitement with a side dish of a secure future. The old man looked over, and instead of grouchy disdain, I saw cross his face a look of distant recognition, and realized I was seeing a glimpse of him remembering himself as a young man. A hint of a smile, barely. No, not grandfather. The young men caught the same vibe I had, and toned down their volume. They shared eye rolls and smirks, and they ignored the old man. With that, his scowl returned and he closed his eyes, leaning his cheek against hands folded over the rounded top of his gold-flecked cane.
He was all tan, this old man. Not Florida tan. Not Jersey spray-tan. Tan tan. Khakis, tan weatherproof jacket, tan socks, tan Rockports. Plaid shirt, though, as if to add some bit of spice to the monotony of the outfit. Appropriately Southern, a plaid shirt with a blue pattern and a button-down collar. A tan woven belt to hold up those baggy pants on the ain’t-got-no-butt old man. Then he moved, gradually unfurling a surprisingly tall and upright posture, and ambled unsteadily to check the gate announcement board, which still proclaimed the news that the weather was going to keep us in Atlanta for another two hours, at least. I wondered why he was going north anyway. I thought maybe I’d get up the nerve to talk to him after all, but as he fell heavily into the seat, a youngish woman approached and looked to sit next to him. He threw her his grouchy glance, the one that should have warned of unfriendliness. The one that screamed “Don’t talk to me.”
But blonde and Southern and forty-something and a little round in her capris and knit top, she smiled big and started talking to him. He looked startled and exhausted and stunned that she didn’t understand the body language. Undeterred, she’d quickly said good afternoon and hello and had settled in right next to him — even though there was room for the empty seat between them — and had even offered him a Co-Cola. Waving his own 20 ounce bottle in her direction, the old tan man smiled. “Got m’own.” Then, “I come here to see m’ youngest grandson, livin’ up in New York with his mama and daddy. That’s my baby girl, my Maddie, who’s his mama.”
And with that, a beautiful five-minute relationship began. She told of her fifty-years-married parents and her new Master’s degree and her exciting business trip to the big city. “First time there!” she gushed, and then dove into her own Coke as if somewhat embarrassed at her own enthusiasm. With her pause, he leaned in and he told of his sons, the oldest one dead from “the cancer,” second one living in Florida with his life partner (“some man, and about that I don’t wanna speak another word,” he cautioned), one back home taking care of the dogs, and then of Maddie, the lone daughter, gone to New York when she was too young. Maddie’d gone wild, left home to work up north with them Yanks, married late at thirty-five. He chuckled and confessed, “Her mama, my Mamie — and I do miss that woman ev’ry day — thought Maddie’d die an old maid or turn to likin’ wimmin’, one or t’other.” And finally at forty-two had given birth to one son, and named him William, after his grandfather in Georgia.
“Lawd, a handsome boy, just grajeated college. I’m proud of ‘im, ‘ats fer sure.” The group of young men that had entered seemed to keep his attention all the while, and maybe talking about William made him take note of their presence. They’d be about the same age, I supposed, as his grandson. He kept them in his line of sight the whole time, seeming a little wary but always watchful.
While talking, the old man didn’t look quite as sullen and colorless, and looked more like he had happy years yet to live. He sat straighter, eyes brighter, good strong teeth showing through his broad smile. I could see that he was clearly enjoying this conversation with his new friend, and so grateful to not be overlooked for once. I felt happy for him, with him, and I didn’t dislike him anymore. He was nothing like my pervert of a grandfather, nothing at all.
Then came a scratchy announcement on the PA system, and the young woman got up to better listen. Then she grabbed her tote and hurried to the gate attendant. The man had been mid-sentence and smiling broadly, but his face fell when she left without a word. The scowl returned, but it looked more hurt than bitter. Quickly, though, it was replaced with a defensive, stubborn set to his lips. It was amazing to sit and watch the transformation. The old man had gone back to his curmudgeonly state that quickly. She did come back, the round forty-something, to tell him that her own gate had changed, and that she had to hurry to her new gate. But by then, his posture made it clear that he was done with her.
She looked at me, confused, and I just shrugged. He glanced across at me, a nonverbal warning to keep out of it. She hesitated, waiting for some reply from him, but he never looked her way again. It was as if he’d shared enough and risked enough and regretted that he’d opened up to begin with. She went off, hurried but resigned, and he folded down again, onto his cane, into himself, eyes half closed and still keeping an eye on the cadre of young men. Reliving some lively past? Regret, hope, or just missing his lost youth?
Making a decision, a hard one, I braced myself for the worst, but leaned forward to get his attention. He had his eyes half open but didn’t invite me to conversation. I tried anyway. “Sir?” Nothing. “Sir?!” a little bit louder. Huffing out a breath, he acknowledged me with a raised and bushy gray eyebrow. He didn’t turn his head toward me all the way, still resting on his cane and keeping an eye on the boys. I ventured forth. “Why’d she leave? Your daughter? Why’d she go away and never move back?” He considered the question, and clearly didn’t seem as enthused about starting a conversation with me as he had with little Miss Round-and-Forty, but his eyes grew thoughtful and almost sprouted tears, I think.
Turning to me slightly, he spoke, “It was ma’ daddy. He done wrong by her, and no family took up for Maddie. Hurt’er, mos’ likely, made ‘er hate menfolk. She tole me she was gonna leave soon as she could get out, and she did. Strong gal. I ain’t see her since. Blames me, and rightful she oughta, ‘cuz I dint stand up for her neither.”
Bewildered, and thinking him a little confused and senile, I nodded to the gate and our delayed flight. “But I thought you were going to see her and your grandson. William? Isn’t that your flight?” Then the smile bloomed again on the old tan man, and the tears were for real.
“No ma’am. I ain’t never been on no plane, but I would, I would if Maddie’d welcome me in. No, ain’t my plane, it’s his plane.” With the inflection on “his” he nodded slightly back at the group of young men, all caught up in themselves and their laughter, at the blonde moptop in the middle of the group, clearly the most popular of the friends, the one that everyone else deferred to in that friendly testosterone way that only groups of men can do successfully.
“He writes me, has since he was ‘bout twelve, and sends me pictures of himself printed up on his computer. His daddy, a fine fella, done give William my address. Maddie don’t know. But he ain’t never met me. Don’t wanna defy his mama. He’s a good boy, loves his mama.”
“Well he’s here! Go talk to him, please tell him who you are!” I was desperate to see this old man meet his grandson. I imagined this happy ending where the man would get to reconcile with his Maddie, reaching across the next generation back to her. I needed them to be a family again before he got too old to see it done. My voice raised a little, and the pitch caught the attention of William and the other young men. The old man cautioned me again with his eyes, as if imploring me — commanding me — to keep quiet, to hush. I did, and William-group turned their attention back to themselves.
“Ma’am, this is my business alone. I did wrong by Maddie when she was a young’un by ignoring her. I ain’t gonna do wrong again. It’s her wish that she be outta this family, and I intend to honor that. This is as close as I’ll ever git to my grandson, and it’s fine enough by me.” Still, I sat on the edge of my seat, chomping at the bit and angry at this order to keep quiet. Secrets like Maddie’s had taken me away from my family, and I never went back, not really. I think I saw in William and Maddie and the old tan man a chance to speak up and speak out, to at least let them find redemption and each other.
“Respectfully, ma’am,” the old tan man spoke, “I’d like to talk no more. I wanna sit silent and watch ‘n’ listen. Might be the only time I git to do this, if it’s awright with you.” I nodded. He retreated back into his listening silence, putting on his brooding face once again, and seeming half asleep and utterly exhausted.
I needed to escape the airport, miss my flight, and go see my own dad to tell him how angry I’d been at being silenced by him when I’d really, really needed him the most. But I couldn’t go see him, not really, because I’d also have to tell him how much I’d missed seeing him grow old, how I wished I’d been there to help him when he was sick, how hard I’d cried at his funeral, and how filled with regret I am to this day.
I did walk away, though, and I did miss my flight. I know myself, and I’m a fixer. I’d find William on that flight, if I was on it, and I’d tell him the truth I’d heard from his old, tan grandfather, also named William. And I knew I couldn’t do that, that it wouldn’t be right. So here I was again, forty-five years later, silenced again by the words: “Don’t. Tell. Anyone.”
Melanie Arpaio was born Melanie Jayne Martin to parents who hail from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Apalachicola, Florida. She grew up bouncing between the hometowns of her two sets of grandparents until her family finally settled in the middle, in Marietta, Georgia. She attended University of Georgia, but didn’t complete any degree until she married and moved north to rural New Jersey. She still has her accent, and her feet are still red from Georgia clay.