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The Death of John Gardiner

That Christmas Eve was wet, and just cold enough that ice was a threat.

“Your mother fixed a good dinner,” John Gardiner said as Will Adams drove.

“She did. She usually does.”

Gardiner was silent except for his watery breathing. “I hope she knows how much her mother and I appreciate her,” he eventually said. He needed half a minute to say this, and he coughed when he was finished. When he finished coughing he took a puff on the cigar that he had snuck past his wife.

“I think she does,” Will said. “I know she’s happy to do it. She’s happy to be able to do it.”

John Gardiner nodded. He stared out the window, watching the thin woods and hemmed fields pass by, watching how the brown high grass of the Catawba valley had shrunk in this weather. Will wanted to think he was remembering the abundant woods and fields that filled the valley when he was a boy, and remembering how much he missed that abundance. Will wanted to think he was reflecting on how the woods and fields had receded since then, and reflecting on the part he had played in that. As a boy John Gardiner had helped his father bring trees down, haul them with hooks and chains out of the woods, and saw them into lumber. In his retirement he invested in development, in housing tracts, condos, and shopping centers. From Hickory to the west side of Charlotte he had helped remake the valley. Will wanted to think he was remembering deer hunts and turkey shoots.

Will parked the van under the clinic’s carport. He took his grandfather’s wheelchair from the back and unfolded it next to the passenger door.

“You want to finish that cigar before we go in?” Will asked. Gardiner shook his head. He set it gently on the edge of the ashtray. Will had been told not to help him out of the car or into the wheelchair. He held the chair still while his grandfather raised himself from his seat and lowered himself into the wheelchair, and before Will started to push John Gardiner was shuffling the chair forward with his slippered feet.

Gardiner looked back at the van. “Hand me that there,” he told Will, flipping a shaky hand at the dashboard. Will fetched the cigar. Gardiner shuffled toward the canister outside the front door, with Will pushing gently behind. He did not put out the cigar. He tapped off the ash and shuffled on toward the door.

“Pappy,” Will said, eyeing the No Smoking and Oxygen In Use signs, “they’re not going to let you in there with that.”

Gardiner blew a plume of smoke into the air. “I’ll hide it,” he said, with what sounded to Will almost like a snarl.

On gurneys and in wheelchairs those who lived in the clinic clustered just inside the sliding doors. They watched Gardiner and his grandson with no expression that Will could read, but then he could not look them in the eyes for very long. Nurses and candy stripers bustled around and behind the central desk. Gardiner shuffled forward.

“Damned if I’m going to be the dork here,” Will thought. The doors slid open. John Gardiner and his grandson, a slight column of smoke trailing behind them, passed through the lobby without notice or comment. Down the length of the hall. Will couldn’t wait to tell his mother about this.

They were met at the room by the candy striper who had signed Gardiner out that morning. She fluttered in, walking quickly on short legs, and took the handles of the wheelchair from Will.

“I bet y’all ain’t changed him since he’s been at the house, have you?” she said.

“No, I’m pretty sure we haven’t.”

“Well I’ll go ’head and change him while you sign him back in. Come on, Mr. Gardiner, let’s wheel you right into the bathroom and—good Lord, Mr. Gardiner, you can’t have that in here.”

John Gardiner didn’t argue with her, and he certainly didn’t plead. He just said, “I’ll finish it in the bathroom,” and shuffled through the bathroom door while the candy striper flurried, her reflex sending her off for an ashtray.

“No, no, Mr. Gardiner, I can’t let you smoke that thing in here, we’d both get in trouble.” She took the cigar from his fingers and dropped it into the toilet bowl. He at least managed to arch an eyebrow.

“You go on and sign him in now,” she said to Will. “I don’t know what you were thinking, anyway, letting him in here with that.”

Will was still thinking that he couldn’t wait to tell his family about this. He was thinking how much he’d like a cigar himself. Will Adams was thinking, in some channel of his mind, of mythology, of all he’d ever heard from or about John Gardiner, of how his grandfather was now left with only the force assembled in the stories about him, of how the knowledge of those stories made this wheelchair-bound husk of John Gardiner more powerful than either this woman or Will himself. He was thinking of which story he could or should tell her to give her an idea, to bring a part of the power of personal legend to bear:

When he was in California (where he’d hitchhiked, by the way, to work on airplanes, the day after high school ended, because the Washington Senators hadn’t signed him, as he thought they might), Joe Louis made a morale-boosting tour of the factory floor. Being a teenage backwoods hick from North Carolina, my grandfather refused to shake the champ’s hand. Years later he was on one of his many trips to Las Vegas (where often he won enough at cards to pay for the entire trip) and Joe Louis, in his sad decline, was working as a casino greeter. John Gardiner walked up to him, shook his hand, and told him about his ignorance two decades and two wars before. Joe Louis smiled at him and said, “That’s really bothered you all these years, hasn’t it?” My grandfather said, “Yes—yes it has.” Joe Louis leaned in close to him and said, “Hasn’t bothered me a bit.”

In the war he was a turret gunner on an A-20 attack bomber, sitting alone in a Plexiglas bubble on top of the plane, he and his .88 millimeter the only thing between him and his crew and the Zeroes. On one mission they had to blow up a dam in the Philippines, a dam built deep in a gorge between two peaks. The Japanese had built anti-aircraft batteries into the cliffs, and as the bomber dove the guns followed, shooting down on them from above. John Gardiner fired back, and since he was there to tell and I was there to listen, he must have aimed well. He and I sat in his den, with a baseball game on TV, back when he lived with my grandmother in their own house. I had to beg him to tell me this story. He told it, and then he said, “I didn’t know until then what those big .88 slugs did to a human body,” and then I watched my grandfather cry.

“I was thinking that the man wanted his cigar,” Will told the candy striper. He left the room and walked to the nurses’ station.

Stories had been told, existed and were out there, about John Gardiner’s toughness, his shrewdness, his audacity. Images were still around, like the photograph of him on the deck of a cruise ship, looking lean and expert with a shotgun in his hands, shooting skeet off the stern. Finally prosperous, his back to the camera, in the photo he represented to Will an entire population on the move, off of the farms and out of the woods and into the commerce of postwar America, wily and rugged and tempered, claiming their part of the nation that their wildness and violence had saved and rebuilt. No war has been won without backcountry boys who are comfortable with blood, who can shoot like they can point.

Will had a favorite story. His grandfather liked to tell of his time in London, when the Air Force called up the reserves during the Korean War. Gardiner and his squadron got no further east than England.

“This was in 1951,” Gardiner liked to say, “and I was in a club having a drink with this old Brit who liked to talk politics with me. I told him that by 1955 Dwight Eisenhower would be president of the United States and Winston Churchill would be prime minister again. And do you know that that old man laughed at me?” Then John Gardiner liked to laugh himself.

Will was almost thirty, and had lived in London himself, before he asked his grandfather: “What were you doing in one of those clubs in the first place? I mean, they don’t hand out memberships to those on the Tube. I lived in London for half a year and don’t even know where one is.”

Gardiner lived in his own house then, the house that he had retired to on a Lincoln County cove of Lake Norman. The water was sparkling; the wind was blowing across the face of the water. Will had come up from Charlotte to spend a few hours. Gardiner took several deep breaths, collecting his thoughts.

“I had a friend who was a member. He arranged for me to have a temporary membership for the duration I was stationed over there.”

“How’d you meet him? And how’d you become such good friends that he’d do that?”

“Several of us were in a hotel bar one night. I was the only one that was married. And there was this Australian who kept getting louder and louder the more he drank. Some of the guys I was with started mouthing off to him, and he started mouthing back, and—these were just boys, now. I stepped in and he and I jawed for a while, and I was fixing to knock his teeth down his throat. But this waitress that knew us both got between us and told us we didn’t want to do that, and she was right. Turned out he had been a commando during the war, part of a team that went into the jungles on these islands in the South Pacific to rescue downed fliers. So no doubt he had saved some of my buddies at one time or another. So I bought him a round and he bought me a round.

“Well, before I left I thanked that waitress and she and I got to talking a little bit, and she said she’d always been fond of me since we started coming in there because I looked just like her husband that had been killed in the war. She lived with her brother in this little flat, and she said I ought to come have dinner with them sometime.

“I did. And I tell you, Will—when I saw the picture of her husband—the resemblance was uncanny.” Gardiner shook his head. “They still had the wartime rationing going on then. Her brother and I hit it off. He was a writer for the Times of London. He was the one who got me into his club.”

The wind moved across the water. Will had more questions than before, but John Gardiner seemed tired.

Will drove home and called his mother to see if she had ever heard this story. “He was real good friends with a brother and sister over there,” she said. “They stayed in touch for years, until they died. They went to see them every time they went to England. He does that—usually he can’t be bothered to hold a two-minute conversation, but every now and then he’ll get to talking to somebody and they’re devoted to him for life. I never heard the rest of that, though. You never know with him.”

Will sat that night staring at a blank sheet of paper, conjuring up a London that his grandfather might have known. Accurate scholarship could re-create what had been bombed out, what had been rebuilt, what had been replaced, what was still rubble in 1951. He could get his hands on a Pevsner’s guide and figure out what stood while his grandfather was stationed there. From his own life in London he could imagine the rudiments of landscape: the white Regency line along St. James; the slow, straight rise from Westminster to Trafalgar Square; the rush and confusion of the Imperial capital. John Gardiner hadn’t said where the flat was, or which hotel the sister worked in, and Will wondered if he remembered. Will wondered if he’d made that part up. John Gardiner could bluff without blinking. Will had once asked him what a particular movie was about, and Gardiner had rattled off the voiceover prologue as if the words were his own eloquent insights. Will knew only two other people who could not just remember but steal like that, and Will himself was one of them.

If John Gardiner knew by then what Will did, that his personal force was reduced to his bank account and his history, then why would he not do all he could to make his history as strong as possible? If that history was not to be trusted, what was left of his power? If little was left of his power, what was left of the only inheritance that mattered to Will?

When Will returned from signing him in, John Gardiner was in bed, looking exhausted.

“Can I get you anything?” Will asked. He had other questions.

Gardiner shook his head and tried to clear his throat. He raised one knee so that his pants leg draped over his wasted, bony thigh. Will noticed that his grandfather’s wrists and ankles were the size of a child’s.

The candy striper brought a large plastic cup that she had filled with water. “Now you just press that button if you need anything,” she called out as she left. Will watched her leave. He knew he would not get to ask his questions.

“I better head on back,” he said. “You best get some rest.”

Gardiner nodded. His words came in long intervals. “You take care. You take care of those kids.” He nodded again. “You’re doing good, Will.”

Will put his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder, and squeezed with restraint. “I’ll see you again soon.” Gardiner looked up at him. Will slowly bent over and kissed his grandfather’s cheek.

Through the open doors along the hall, Will could see pictures of men in uniforms, young conquerors looking mighty and glad to be alive. Those same men lay in beds and watched old movies on TV, surrounded by children and grandchildren who sat tentatively bedside, sharing time. Through the open doors Will could hear the children gossip—Mr. Henderson from the church, he fell and broke his hip; no one likes the new preacher; Mizzus Abernathy at the store, she finally retired. Will saw a son-in-law change the channels, saw a granddaughter hold Christmas cards up and heard her read them aloud, saw a daughter hold her mother upright while she coughed up phlegm and blood, while her body shuddered and shook. Will saw women growing old, holding the hands of their mothers and fathers, exchanging what they could while they still had time.

Back at the duplex, Will thought as he drove from the clinic, my children will be spread out on the floor with their uncle, loudly playing a new game. His wife, my wife, our sister, our mother and father, our grandmother, will be seated around them, smiling and sleepy. Christmas music will be playing or a ballgame will be on TV. The room will be warm.

As he drove the rain began to fall again. Will thought of a brief prayer, asking that the wet roads from here to home not freeze. After the prayer he thought of a briefer thanksgiving, that ice was the most imminent danger he had to fear. He thought of a longer thanksgiving for all he was allowed, and for all that the generations had done that he would be allowed to avoid.

Before they drove home they would drive down the valley, following his brother Luke to another Catawba mill town, where his brother would preach the Christmas sermon to the town’s stagnant middle class. Luke had talked over his sermon with Will, had tested out his themes and parables, that morning before they ate dinner. Luke wanted to preach on Hauerwas’s critique of Neibuhr, on Augustine’s cities and idea of just wars, on the problems of the Constantinian shift and the fallacy of the so-called Christian nation. He and Will parried, honing thoughts, providing examples and counter-examples from philosophy and from Scripture, quoting, dragging in Kierkegaard and Chesterton, showing off their luxurious educations. In the midst of this Will looked up to see his grandfather in his big chair across the room, listening to them, looking amused and happy, looking grateful and justified.

Drowning and infected, John Gardiner stopped breathing that March. In the funeral home the next day, his widow and his daughter asked Will Adams to write the obituary. The week before, Will had begun a new poem, trying to build some kind of frame or explanation, and he had that typescript in the breast pocket of his jacket. He took out that paper and his pen and went with his mother into the hallway. She shook her hands relentlessly. She gave him bare facts: positions, titles, years, memberships; and Will realized that she gave them to him in the unasked hope that he could turn them, concisely, into something like what they had known of John Gardiner.