By James A. Jordan
The pocketknife, a Case, had a rich, dark brown Crandall Cabernet Bone handle filled with ridges. The blades were blackened from years of being carried in my grandfather’s front pocket and very likely had been dull my entire life. Not a single hair came off when I dragged the blade across the back of my hand, something I’d seen done in movies. The blades proved difficult to pry open; the spring squeaked when the blades did give. For all intents and purposes, the knife’s best days were long past. My father’s father — Pop to his grandkids — no longer carried it, and the knife lay in a porcelain change plate inside the guest bedroom dresser, ready to be forgotten.
I wanted that pocketknife. I liked the way it felt in my hand, how it slid across a twig and created fine, curled shavings. With that knife, I thought, I could do all kinds of things: open tape-covered packages, cut initials into a tree, whittle a stick, cut fishing line (though I did not fish), skin an animal (nor hunt), and, in a pinch, cut rope. These were things a man needed to do, especially a handyman, as I’d heard Pop often called. He built barns and a guest house, tended a small garden of corn, tomatoes, and peanuts, and knew how to use power tools. My father respected him. Whenever he made me spend a Saturday working around the house, he recounted lessons from Pop. That a half-assed job wasn’t worth doing. That the shovelful of gravel I took off the top was a lazy man’s load. The most important, though, seemed to be the ever-constant need for a good pocketknife, something Pop was never without.
“You ask Pop does he have a pocketknife,” my father would say. “And he’ll say, ‘Am I wearing pants?’”
If I carried such a knife, what was to stop me from becoming handy? What prevented me from becoming a man capable of having stories told about?
That mid-April weekend, my father and I had driven the three hours east from our home just north of Nashville to Hixon, Tennessee, to help out around my grandparents’ place. Or, I should say, my father came to help out around the place while I ate my grandmother’s cooking and watched my father chainsaw branches through the guest bedroom window. I was 14, but still felt much like a child. I could not operate anything with a motor besides a sitting lawnmower, and I still needed permission to use that. My only responsibility that weekend, I had been told on the ride over, was to be available to help haul away brush once my father finished cutting. Until then, I should stay away from the work area to avoid possibly getting cut in half or crushed by a felled limb.
I watched TV and played with the knife. Occasionally, I sawed a loose string from the sofa.
During lunch break I told my father about the knife.
“Can I have it?” I said, holding it out to him.
He took it and examined the knife with the same care and precision he gave to law documents at his office. After weighing the knife in his hand, he returned it to me.
“Not mine to give,” he said. “Ought to talk to Pop about that.”
“Could you ask him for me?” I said, trying my best to sound helpless.
“Son,” my father said, exhaling the way he did whenever I said something that frustrated him. “You’ve got to learn if you want something, you’re the one’s got to see to it. No one else is going to do that for you. You ask him.”
I only recently had learned Pop’s real name. People called him by so many — Lucky, Tom, Dad, Pop — none of which was his actual name. His relatives in Florida were the only ones who called him Frank, and my great-aunt Joyce, his only full sister, called him Francis. None of what I knew of his life came from him. My father told me he’d been born in Florida, raised there, and then somehow ended up becoming a traveling worker during the Depression, helping on Works Progress Administration projects, like building bridges and the Pentagon. My grandmother told me that they’d met when he was in East Tennessee for some project. As soon as he saw her, Pop told the man with him — who, incidentally had given Pop the nickname Lucky — that Pop would marry her someday. Someday came fast. Within a year they’d married and moved to Virginia, where he’d been drafted to serve during World War II, though the war ended before he was deployed. Then he and my grandmother moved to Hixon, where he worked at the DuPont plant until taking early retirement.
Pop’s voice was gruff, raspy, and difficult to understand. He’d lost all his original teeth, and sometimes, when I passed him on the sidewalk, he popped his dentures out at me.
“You ain’t worth a wharfman’s britches,” he told me once.
“You ain’t worth a tinker’s dam,” he said another time.
Neither, he explained, were worth much in the first place.
These statements, my grandmother assured me, were intended to be jokes, but he never laughed after telling them.
He was a short man — I’d been taller and larger than him for a couple of years by then — with giant square glasses and wavy white hair. But he was still strong. I’d felt his grip when he gave hugs. It was reassuring but also served a reminder that, even at 87, he was more than capable of squeezing the life out of me. I avoided him as much as possible.
I say this to underscore the discomfort I felt as I tried to figure out how best to ask about the pocketknife. Talking with him alone terrified me, but I loved the way the knife fit into the palm of my hand, loved rubbing my thumb over the ridges, loved the effort it took to open the dull blades.
For most of the afternoon I slunk around the house and front yard, cutting dandelions at their base and small sticks strewn over the ground. If I was in eyesight of Pop, I made certain to palm the knife. Part of me thought if he came upon me using the knife he might be so proud I’d taken an interest in something he’d once used he’d let me keep it, no questions asked. Another part, however, feared a reprimand for taking a tool, regardless of whether it was in use or not, without first asking permission.
When my time to help came, I tried to show vigor and interest for a chore I usually complained through. There was much at stake. If I showed myself capable of working hard, maybe Pop would be a little more willing to part with his knife. But besides the occasional “don’t put that there” or “drag it the other way, you’re leaving leaves all over the ground,” Pop did not notice my presence.
I managed most of the branches on my own, dragging them to the outskirts of the woods that surrounded the house and leaving them in what remained of an old brush pile. Some of those branches still had curled leaves on them, but the older ones were covered in lichen or rotted through. I imagined limbs stretching back through the 45 years my grandparents had lived at the house. After an hour or so of dragging the branches, we went inside for Popsicles and room-temperature root beer.
Before supper, I sat on the mattress in the guest bedroom, opening and closing the knife. Pop walked in. He eyed the knife in my palm. I stood and faced him.
“Found it over there,” I said, pointing at the dresser. “In the change dish.”
“Mhmm,” Pop said.
“Is it yours?” I said.
“Give it here,” Pop said.
I gave Pop the knife. He examined it the same way my father had and handed it back to me. Then he dug in his pocket and produced an identical knife.
“Carried it before this one,” he said. He flipped one of the blades open with his thumb. The steel reflected the evening sunlight coming through the window.
“I really like it,” I said. “The knife.”
“Man ought to always have a good knife,” he said, folding his knife back up and slipping it into his pocket in one fluid motion.
“I was wondering,” I said, my heartbeat accelerating. “Could I have this one then? Since you’re not using it anymore.”
Pop paused, straightened himself. He’d developed the slightest hunch in his figure over the last year or so.
“Can’t give it to you,” he said. “Bad luck to give a knife away.”
“Well,” I said, and patted my pockets for money I knew wasn’t there. “I could buy it from you.”
“No,” he said, “that won’t do. Can’t sell it to you either.”
“Oh,” I said. Those visions of using the knife dimmed. “All right.”
“I’ll trade it to you,” he said. “That’s the only way to avoid the bad luck.”
In my suitcase I had a few changes of clothes, a partially used tube of Colgate toothpaste, and a bar of Mitchum gel deodorant.
“What would you want?” I said.
“We’ll figure that out later,” he said, and pointed to the knife. “You keep that for now.”
The rest of the weekend I waited to find out what the trade would be, dreading the possibilities, but when my father and I packed to leave a couple of days later, Pop had asked for nothing. I felt relieved he’d seemed to forget about the trade, and on the way home, the pocketknife remained in my front pocket. From time to time, I’d press my hand against the side of my pants to feel its outline.
That weekend was the last I would set foot in my grandparents’ house while people still lived there. In July, Pop suffered one of his “spells,” a medical occurrence no doctor could ever diagnose, and ended up in the hospital for a few weeks. His health had declined sharply since April, my father told me, and the spell had exacerbated his dementia. I had never heard the term dementia before.
When Pop was released from the hospital, it was clear he could no longer live without help. He relied entirely on a walker, had developed a shuffling manner of walking, and was considered a fall risk. Within three weeks my father, his older sister, and older brother moved my grandparents to an assisted living facility 10 minutes from our house. Though the move was talked about as temporary, everyone seemed to know that this was just to soften the sense of finality.
The day my grandparents arrived at the facility, my father removed Pop’s license and credit cards from his wallet, took the car key off his keyring, and deposited them into a small manila envelope.
“For safe keeping,” my father said.
Pop said nothing.
I’d kept the pocketknife on my bedside table since returning from that April trip. That night though, after we’d finished moving, I picked it up, turning it over in my hand. Later, I would tell myself Pop’s decline had been a long time coming, that the reason my father and I were there to begin with was because Pop was no longer as strong and sturdy as he had been. I’d tell myself that the previous winter, when Pop in one of our few moments alone together had likened himself to a rusty, old garden tool, he’d been trying to talk through what he saw coming in the near future. What had come true.
But not that night.
That night I pressed the pocketknife into my hand hard, until my knuckles went white. I wanted to make sure I never forgot the precise weight of what I’d traded Pop for.