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"My Great Grandfather's Ankle," short story excerpt

Wednesday 8/10/22

Remember how in school you’d have to write these essays about the person you most admired? You probably should have had to write just the one, but the task would be renewed each year, as if a new ranking were in order, or to test your faith regarding how well your earlier selection had held up, and perhaps to amend the folly of that initial choice and get it right on a fresh pass.


I wrote about my great grandfather the time it counted the most—the first time, before I tried to mix it up—whom I never came close to knowing. We missed each other by the majority of a century. His own wife barely knew him after a fashion, because they were only married for a couple months before he went off to war. He blew up a German tank with two grenades, which he managed to drop into the opening in the top, and was buried—that was the word that got used—back home in a grave that contained no actual parts of his body given that he died in the same explosion.


It was one of those missions that someone had to undertake which also meant the end of their life, so that others could fight on, despite what were long odds grinding up against the impossible. A different type of bone on bone. He fought for a prolonging, a stalling of what seemed the inevitable outcome. For a chance. A miracle. For what might happen in the margins, or what remained of one of them, when the center of the page has already been filled.


Most of the other members of his company were killed that day, but there was someone who survived to relay what happened. We have much need of these people, otherwise the story dies, too, or it never gets to become a story, which is perhaps the most tragic thing that can happen to something that deserves to be. I’ve always wondered if those people know their own importance, or everything to them is just part of the job of being alive.


Eventually some of my great grandfather’s bones—parts of an ankle, discovered on that faraway field during the construction, ironically, of an amusement park—were identified with DNA testing, and the hole in the ground in which he was not buried was opened up for a ceremony so that his ankle could go be laid there properly, officially sealed in earth.


I didn’t want to write about him every year, though, and allow overkill to creep into my work, so there was a panoply of baseball players, and once I featured my brother, who’d gotten arrested on a DUI his sophomore year of high school and then started a Students Against Drunk Driving chapter and honestly has never had a drink since because he has a moral code few men do and to which I aspire, knowing I’ll never get there. But that’s the thing about the leaders, isn’t it? They don’t assure that you’ll reach the end goal, just that you should try.


I’d write a different theme on “who you most admire” for this summer now as an adult, because I’ve kept up the practice, in my head anyway, imagining a return to school as soon as there’s a single flickering finger of cooler weather in the air. When you’re a kid, an essay is like 200 words. That’s it, but it strikes you as a gargantuan undertaking that will suck your strength from you and qualify as a form of ordeal. But then again, length doesn’t mean a lot when it comes to anything important. You never measure it that way when you look back after. “We had forty-seven years of marriage.” No. You’d say, “I loved her with everything I was, and now that she is gone, what I am has changed.”


We were at the beach, my wife and my two girls. I’m not a beach guy. You roast. Or I should say I’m not a beach in summer guy. I’m a beach guy for those autumn days that dip in temperature below other typical autumn days, their contemporaries, if you will, with their mid-60s balm. A beach guy for fifty-three degree days in early October, when you pick up the carcass of a horseshoe crab and give thanks for what horseshoe crabs do for us medically, if that was something you’ve read up on. Or you otherwise admire how these dinosaurs of the surf have persisted as you wonder how well you do in anything you do or should be doing.


I like to play with the kids, though. Our focus feels admirable. We don’t just set out to build sandcastles but sandcastles that a fiddler crab who’d long saved up his money would take a serious look at, make some inquiries about the mortgage as if this could be the home for him and his wife and the kids they’ll eventually have.


“Maybe, maybe,” that fiddler crab says, nodding at the missus, shutting a tap on and off, asking about the real estate taxes. It could work for them. Just might do the trick.

Those are the kinds of castles we build.


My wife likes to show off her body. She has no awareness of what she reveals to people, or that is what I am supposed to think, but I also know what she’s doing when she’s on all fours with her ass facing the guy on the blanket next to us, pretending like she wants to help me and the girls dig a moat for the castle, but even the girls try to dissuade her because she tends to fuck things up. It just doesn’t mean the same to her. It’s a diversion. If that. Whereas, we’re trying to get something right. That aim, the dedicated care we invest, is going to pass, and before long we won’t build castles at all, let alone castles of fastidious purpose. But right now we do, so our castles matter insofar as that goes.


A chunk of my wife’s self-esteem is racking up the looks from guys. The lingering looks. The looks that if they were bowls of ice cream would melt into a chocolate-y puddle and drown a few flies who didn’t know when to say when. But it’s more or less harmless. After we fight, if I say her ass looks good a couple hours later, she’ll like that and we’re golden for a while. We all have ways we manage our relationships, and it doesn’t matter if they’re highly evolved ways, just that they work. I’m sure she has plenty with me. I run with her some days now on vacations like these, though I am certain this will screw up my knees at some point and my ankles already feel like hell, but she gives me compliments later about how well I did and one evening with our wine I bandied about the term “half-marathon,” and I liked how I was able to think about myself with neither artifice nor evasion—but not necessarily with truth—for a couple minutes.


We were talking about our run from that morning as I made a castle at the beach with the girls, when the guy on the blanket a few feet over walks up to my wife. You can’t overstate how sloppy this guy was. He had the big titties. Were he to point one of them at the sky and squeeze—or do them both at once, for dramatic effect—I would have expected a stream of milk to come out and rain down on the hot sand below. Instantly he starts volunteering information that had to have been lies.


“No, I hear you,” he says, like he begins all of his conversations by pretending he’s smack dab in the middle of them. “I haven’t missed a day of working out for six months.”


My wife starts talking to him as it’s this summit meeting between leading fitness gurus who are going to help get the world in shape.


I kept taking glances over my shoulder as I worked with the girls, having rapidly departed this conversation, and sure enough, the titty king is staring hard at my wife’s breasts, but she’s laughing it up and saying things like, “You make a good point.”


There was nothing pointed about this guy. All roundedness. But you know what? His confidence was outstanding. To him, in his mind—and this was the consistency of his vision—he could have made off with my wife right then and there, deterring my remonstrance with a mere raising of his hand. She’d love him first for his looks, but would appreciate his brilliance in time. Two for two. The order doesn’t matter.


My oldest girl made a funny face at me as I repaired where my wife had caved in one of the sides of the moat. Same face she made the first time she saw calamari on her plate.


“What?” I asked.


“You’re silly,” she said.


“I’m not doing anything.”


I turned to her sister, because sometimes it’s useful to appeal to the younger one given that a full-tilt sarcastic attitude has yet to set in with her.


“Am I silly?”


She just laughed.


The castle was a masterstroke of sand-based architecture and engineering. It’s a shame you can’t take them home beyond a photo. Photos don’t do a castle like that justice, though, any more than trying to recall the feeling of your first kiss later on that night in bed the same day that you’ve just had it. The guy left—there was an ice cream truck, so he trotted away—and my wife lay down on her front, undoing her bikini top the way she does, which produces a strange sort of hope for people who watch her.