O Captain! My Captain!

by Margaret (Maggie) Harrington

The sounds of clinking wine glasses and tipsy laughter ceased as he stepped into the doorway. He stood there for a minute letting in the stinging wind, looking for any excuse to dart back outside. The motto of Ebenezer Scrooge was stitched across the chest of his sweater: Bah, Humbug. His face, like a bulldog’s,, was wide, flat, deeply wrinkled, and intimidating. I ran up and hugged him around his Santa-belly.

“Maggie-with-two-g’s” came his gruff bark, “Merry Christmas.” Suddenly, noise rushed back into the room as if the house itself was exhaling after holding its breath. My mom, glowing like Rudolph’s nose with her red hair, walked over while sloshing a glass of red wine, her reddened face lit with an eye-crinkling smile. “Jim! I can’t believe you came! Come in!”

He shuffled in and surveyed the room, which was bursting with neighbors at various levels of cheerful intoxication. People were draped over every chair, couch, and armrest, giggling over some story or another. Nutcrackers lined the mantle like little soldiers fighting off the dark, blustery loneliness that lay outside. When Mom pulled on Grandpa’s arm, he had no choice but to follow. Everyone loves my mother. She could make any soul in the world feel welcome at a Christmas party. She tucked me under her arm and led me around as she nudged Grandpa to join a group in conversation.

“Hello,” said my grandfather. The company glanced up and tried to hide their surprise at hearing Jim Lane speak to them. The neighbors never got more than a nod and a grunt of acknowledgement from the man who had lived with his wife, Mimi, in the little red house across the street for fifty years. As the night went on and the Jack Daniels my mom slipped him kicked in, he started to look more like the pleasant and solid Grandpa I knew, not the nervous man from the doorway. The neighbors just hadn’t understood that he wasn’t unfriendly. In fact, he respected them all a great deal, but he wasn’t going to speak just to fill the silence. And he wasn’t going to come in unless someone invited him.

***

I looked out the kitchen window and saw him hovering over my new sandbox with a pile of wood, nails, and a hammer at his feet. My mom glanced up, shook her head affectionately, and muttered, “What is he doing now?” She wiped off her hands and strode out the door, letting the screen slam behind her. “Jim, what on earth are you doing this time?”

He turned around. “You make this?” he asked, gesturing towards the small, contained beach.

“Yes, I did,” said my mom, who was by far the handiest in the family.

Grandpa nodded his approval. “It needs seats,” he replied, “so they don’t get covered in sand while they’re playing in it.”

Mom looked down at the sandbox, shrugged, and warmly called back over her shoulder, “Go for it,” as she walked inside.

I looked out the window as he rubbed his grey stubbly chin and set to work putting the first little triangular seat in a corner of the box.

 ***

We were settled in silence. It had been minutes since his last labored attempt at small talk, but I didn’t mind. The rest of the world was too loud anyway. At home, my sister bounced around our yellow bedroom and only stopped talking to begin singing. My friends insisted on playing football while screaming and tackling each other. They moved fast, lived fast, and sure as hell weren’t slowing down if I fell behind. When I’m out with my friends and at a loss for words, I feel intense pressure to invent something to say, lest anyone think I am boring or strange. Here, the quiet was a promise that we could each retreat to our comfort zones in peace.  

Mimi’s foot on  the creaky top step signaled her return from the basement kitchen. She placed three mugs on the coffee table and turned to me, smiling and pressing her thin hands together. “Now, tell me how school is going, dear.”

 ***

Grandpa was a lifelong sailor who had turned into an anchor when he settled down in the red house. Every time I crossed the street I found him sitting in the corner in his faded Nantucket-red armchair, which must once have been stiff but was now lumpy and worn in. He had a cigar permanently resting in his mouth, chewing them out of habit long after the doctor forbade him from smoking. I could have sworn his house was a ship, rocking in the middle of the ocean. The floor’s soft, dull wood had lightened in patches from criss-crossing patterns of feet. Mimi tried to cover it with a patchwork of mismatched rugs. Every surface of the house was covered in ships and waves. Tiny ships rested in the harbors of glass bottles, waiting for their next adventure while the painted boat on the wall fought its way through a gray, tempestuous ocean. Even as storms raged outside, the timeworn house perpetually held onto that warm and comforting sensation indoors

******

A towering yellow machine and its stout, aggressive companion stormed in one day to rip the red house to pieces. They tugged the shingled roof until it came clear off, leaving its insides exposed. They flattened the red painted siding and pulled out the fence with the black sign that said “Lane.” Splintered wooden floorboards and walls that had kept the water at bay for fifty years were strewn across the muddy yard in a tragic shipwreck. I tried not to blink so that the tears wouldn’t fall. Mimi and Grandpa had known the shipwreck was coming. They had jumped into a lifeboat days before, moving to their summerhouse on Conomo Point. I was stuck ashore, watching from my bedroom window as my second home was destroyed.

***

“Are you excited for college?” Mimi asked from the couch by the window that looked out over Conomo beach.

“Yeah, definitely,” I replied. “Mom and I went dorm shopping yesterday.”

“Oh, isn’t that lovely.” Whenever Mimi said this her whole face always changed to convey how truly she believed that what you had said was the pinnacle of greatness. I wondered what Grandpa would say. He’d probably think it was frivolous. Mimi had only ever bought one new piece of furniture in her life—the couch she was sitting on—and he insisted for months that it was a complete waste of money and that anything you could buy now had been made sturdier and cheaper years ago.

His lumpy armchair sat in the corner as proof of this sentiment, faded to more of a salmon color than I remembered. Mimi had just told us that she had to move him into a nursing home. His dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t take care of him alone anymore. She never would have put him there if she didn’t have to because she knew the nurses wouldn’t let him have his wine or cigars.

Jim Lane let me sit on his couch as he calmly took on the rough sea from an armchair. Whatever changes went on outside, the red house remained the same inside.