Mom told me the heel marks on the dining room table had been made by her two younger sisters and herself. Her little brother probably added a few as well. I knelt down and studied the scars in the century-old wood—ran my fingers over them, tried to feel the sounds above the table in the 1920s. Just chatter, I suppose.
“May we take a ride in the Cadillac today, daddy?” my little-girl mom is saying to her dad.
“Can we drive down to the swings in the park and play?” my Aunt Jane is asking my grandfather.
“Yes to both questions, girls. First you must clean your plates.”
The Cadillac had sixteen cylinders, enough horses to power the engine of a small steamship. It was black and shiny and had a big white-walled spare tire that rested in a round boot just above the front right wheel. It also had a horn on the driver’s side, and my mom said her dad would let her squeeze it to show off to the neighbors.
Grandpa knew everything about birds and trees and walnuts and cigars and fine wine and the stock market. He was an expert at his building supply business, and by the late twenties, he was a millionaire. I wish I could have known my grandfather. He sounded like a peach of a guy.
I wondered what the conversation had been like in late October, 1929, after the stock market crashed and Grandpa lost everything, including the black Cadillac with its sixteen-cylinder power.
My grandfather was a jovial fellow. You can tell this from all the black-and-white photographs in which he was always laughing and smiling. You would know it as well if you talked to my mom.
“I remember the pistol range Papa had in the basement,” she told me once. “It was great fun to go down there and watch my father shoot the center out of the targets. He was a great shot.”
She doesn’t mention something I learned from my Aunt Jane shortly after my thirteenth birthday. My grandfather was very sad after the market crash—sad to see his money go, sad to release the servants and the butler and the chauffeur, sad to have to put the house up for sale, and sad to sell it for one-third of what he thought it was worth. My grandfather was sad about all of this—so sad that on December 20th, three days before his birthday and five days before Christmas, he went downstairs to his pistol range, picked up his favorite .45 caliber revolver, and fired a shot right through the center of his right temple.
There’s no accounting for a loss like that. One minute you have a wonderful jovial man who knows everything about nature and business and how to live the good life. The next minute he’s lying in a pool of blood on the gray basement floor across from old copies of the New York Times stacked up in the corner, Christmas decorations festooning the grandfather clock and the mantle in the living room above his corpse, his young children and his wife wondering if the noise was different from the sounds that usually floated up from the pistol range, not yet knowing that this time the target shot in the middle was my grandfather’s head.
I feel as though I know my grandpa even though he died a quarter-century before I was born. What confidence he must have had in 1927 and 1928, placing three new cigars in his left breast pocket each morning as he walked from the house to where the chauffeur waited in the cool morning light for his master to climb into the back of the 16-cylinder Cadillac.
“How are you today, Mr. Giles?” everyone must have said as he walked into his office every weekday morning. And they would have really wondered how he was, because he was their employer and his success was important to theirs. How lucky they were to have such a jolly fellow as their boss, who gave them hundred-dollar bonuses at Christmastime like happy Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, who kidded the secretaries and kissed them on the cheek as a way of showing them how much he loved everybody who worked for him.
His death must have left them all bereft. As if Santa Claus himself had suddenly been shot and killed and there would never be a Christmas again.
I have a keepsake of my grandfather’s which was passed down to me through my mother. It’s one of the pistols from his shooting range—not the one he used to kill himself, of course, but a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson made in 1926. I used to carry it around secretly when I was first in law practice. As a criminal lawyer, I was defending some pretty tough fellows in the sixties and seventies. In addition, I liked the idea of having my grandfather’s pistol with me—not as a weapon, but as a relic of his life—something of my grandfather’s that I could carry in a hidden pocket in my leather briefcase and know that a part of him was close to me.
I had a very successful law practice up through 1997. Grandpa would have been proud. I made a lot of money and was able to afford good cigars and fine wine and Ivy League educations for my two children. I also made an effort to learn about birds and trees and the qualities of a good walnut and an excellent single malt scotch. I didn’t become an ornithologist or an arborist, but I knew enough to distinguish a house finch from a sparrow and could recognize the different varieties of oak trees.
Fine living—that’s what I think my grandfather understood—the joy of puffing on a Cuban cigar and drinking a little brandy and putting your arm around your wife or any other pretty woman or good fellow who happened to be nearby. I sure wish I had known the old guy. I’ll bet he told really terrific jokes as he sat around the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Northwestern with his feet up on his desk and his thumbs hooked in his vest.
Not everything has gone well for me. My wife left me yesterday. We were married for thirty-five years and I thought we’d entered safe ground—that we would last forever—that she would look after me as I began to fade away—that the only question would be who died first, not who would walk out the door first, leaving the other one as bereft as my grandfather’s employees after he shot himself. Now I’m sixty-three, too old to marry again and not interested in doing that anyway.
I slip an anti-depressant capsule into my mouth and swallow it with a Seabreeze cocktail. If it weren’t for this pill, I probably would have shot myself already. My life is basically over. Maybe I lived too long. If I’d killed myself shortly after our thirty-fourth anniversary, I would have been honored and esteemed as a fine husband, loving father, and sweet grandfather. I’ve already lived much longer than my grandfather, who was fifty-one when he blew his brains out.
It’s early summer and the sun is setting nice and late. There are a few more minutes of daylight before night sets in and the mockingbirds are the only ones left singing. The petunias are blooming beautifully. Their pungent purple horns cradle hope and their faces track the sun as reliably as the moon. I love petunias.
I’m going to have dinner alone tonight. I’m going to sit at my grandfather’s dining room table and run my hands over the scars left by my mother’s and aunt’s leather heels. I’m going to listen to their laughter as day fades and the darkness and the smoke from my cigar floods in around me.