Grandpa never remarried, told people he didn’t need to. His kids would frequently visit in the immediate years after their mother’s death but they’d swing by less and less until Grandpa was lucky to see them once or twice a month. Some of the grandkids left town, Billy joined the Navy, another granddaughter turning hard and cruel. The two-story wood shingled house, the center of the family for fifty odd years, sits a few blocks away from the IGA. It had fallen into disrepair after Grandpa went to live in the nursing home, the place where the townspeople would eventually move. It was around the time Billy was best man at his nephew’s wedding that Billy spent two extra weeks in St. Elmo, fixing up the house, nudging it back to its form. Billy was too modest to tell me that Grandpa had told him he was his favorite grandson but I coaxed it out of him. He blushed when he said it.
Billy came back to Los Angeles with a plan: Why don’t we move to St. Elmo and live in Grandpa’s house? I sneered at the notion -- me living in a town that small. What the hell would I do there? Work at the IGA? The subject was dropped as quickly as Billy’s enthusiasm but he’d bring it up every so often, when things got bad there in Los Angeles, the hardness of the big city enveloping him in bad influences. One time he almost begged me. St. Elmo was his escape hatch, the place where a small town boy could go when times got too tough as a city man. “Yeah, that’s it Billy. I’m going to give up a career that I’ve spent years building to move there.” I just shook my head and changed the subject.
I first met Grandpa when Billy and I were driving across the country. He was a bear of a man, even in the convalescent surroundings. He gave me a mighty handshake, didn’t try to figure out how I factored into Billy’s life, and the three of us talked for a good country hour. I went to visit him again last year at Thanksgiving, the handshake weaker but his eyes still had the mischief of his grandson’s gleam. I’d heard from the family that Grandpa was getting sicker with the cancer over the past year. I selfishly hoped I’d get to see him one last time before he left. He was in pain, though, the morphine drip barely masking it. He wanted to go home to see his Winona.
Last year while roaming the streets of St. Elmo, I heard Billy’s plea like a distant train moving through. I looked up at the name of the town painted proudly across it’s egg-shaped water tower, wondering how life would have been like if I’d taken Billy up on his offer. I know it would have been better, if for no other reason than Billy would still be here. We would have gone to Grandpa’s funeral together, some tongues tsking at our relationship, and we’d have laughed it off. All that city junk would have been far, far away, too distant to do its damage.
When I heard the news of Grandpa passing away on Monday morning, the message left on my voicemail, I called Bub asking what I could do. “Nothing you can do,” he said. I called the nearest big city, Effingham, found a florist, ordered a wreath with the banner Grandpa across it.
“What do you want on the card?” the woman asked.
“Have it read ‘Your grandson, Billy, loves you very, very much.’” That surely was no lie.