(PERSONAL NOTE: This one took me a long time to finish because it’s personal and I wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible. Many big thanks are owed to Bryan Foland for his help in editing, encouragement, feedback, and hours spent reading and rereading this story as both an editor, a friend, and as my cousin. Thank you, Bryan, for helping me stick the landing on this.)
Everything I know about the city of Baltimore can be summed up by mentioning Edgar Allan Poe, the HBO series The Wire, and the most profane baseball card of all time. To my grandfather, a city with claims to fame such as these may as well have been a city on Mars, so in January of 2015, when we got word that he was in Baltimore, it was surprising, to say the least. It wasn’t a planned stop for him and he had places to be, so a side trip to Maryland at that point in time was very out of character for him. Then again, death does odd things to one’s travel itinerary.
Two days earlier, my grandpa had collapsed in a hotel lobby in Corpus Christie, Texas where he and my grandmother were staying for the winter. He never woke up. Several states away from their home and family in Illinois, my aunts flew down to retrieve my grandma and make arrangements for Grandpa’s body to be flown back for his funeral. He’d always loved being at the head of every family gathering, he would have hated to miss this one.
Grandpa never liked to fly when he was alive, and judging by the way he was tossed on the wrong plane like a piece of flea market luggage, his posthumous feelings on it were likely no different. This mistake seemed to justify his distaste for air travel seemed and felt like his final “I told you so” moment, one that he will relish for all of eternity.
“We’ll laugh about this someday,” was the sentiment throughout my family, who was already overwhelmed with funeral plans and travel arrangements for out-of-towners like me.
“I’m gonna laugh at this today,” was the sentiment in my mind. The man who hated seafood needed to be retrieved from a city known for lobster dinners and crab legs in order to be on time to his own funeral. What is not funny about that? Besides, you know, the funeral part.
Eventually he did make it to the church in Illinois where his services went off without a hitch. As with everything in his life, it was a production getting him there, but once it went smoothly, it was like none of the mishaps had ever happened. We could almost hear him saying, “I told you not to worry and that everything would be fine”, a parting shot from someone whose travel mishaps during and after his life drove us all to the brink of the asylum.
The day following my Grandpa’s funeral was a typical January day in Northern Illinois, that is to say it was sunny, but cold with a bite that I was no longer accustomed to. Despite knowing this was the norm, I’d not brought many winter-appropriate clothes with me from Florida and so I ended up searching the basement, attic, and coat closets of my parents’ house until I found an old winter coat that came close to fitting, a forgotten pair of my combat boots, and a hat. It was my Grandpa’s winter hat.
Grandpa Rood’s hat was a thing of legend in our family and when I was growing up its appearance signaled the true arrival of winter. It was black pleather with earflaps (one of which always stuck out to the side at an odd angle) and was lined with fake sheepskin. I placed the hat on my head, looked in a mirror and embraced the fact that I looked every bit as goofy as Grandpa had when he wore it, but nowhere near as endearing.
I headed out for a stroll around town. It wasn’t quite an epic journey, as a town that barely shows up on a state map and holds less than a thousand people doesn’t take long to see. Still, it was January cold, so it wasn’t long before my toes were numb and the wind, unbroken by the open and empty cornfields surrounding the town, cut through me like a straight razor. I saw the town’s café directly ahead of me and shuffled toward it as quickly as I could without shattering my toes, which I was convinced were nothing more than ice cubes at the end of the feet I could not feel.
I walked into the café and felt the warmth of the air around me. I let it crawl over my skin and break through the cold that had chilled me to the bone. I walked to the counter, placed Grandpa’s hat on the surface and ordered a cup of coffee.
“I’ll have the same,” said a gravelly voice to my left.
I looked to my side and my Grandpa was sitting on the stool next to me. I had no idea when he got there or how, but there he was, in all his gruff, leathery glory. The restaurant was slow, with us being the only two patrons plus a few bored employees who paid us little mind. Two coffees were set in front of us as Grandpa picked up his hat off the counter.
“I’m so glad you brought this,” he said as he reached into it and pulled a piece of the lining aside. He withdrew a crushed, flattened, and weathered pack of cigarettes from the hat then looked at me with a sly half-smile. My grandpa rarely broke into a full-fledged smile, so to see just a corner of his mouth turn upward as a glimmer of light danced across his eye was the rough equivalent of seeing a four year old gain access to a full cookie jar with no adults around to stop them. He lit a cigarette with a match from a gas station book and immediately fired jets of thick blue-gray smoke from his prominent nostrils. It mesmerized me when I was a kid and I imagined Grandpa to be some kind of dragon in bib overalls, and I found it no less hypnotic as an adult.
We made small talk over coffee. I asked him how Baltimore was and he told me it was hell on earth and should be avoided at all costs. I nodded and told him that sounded like solid advice, even though I knew he never left the airport. He asked me how Florida was and then he told me a story about the time he picked oranges there and used them to bribe state troopers at the truck scales on his way back to Illinois. I listened and pretended it was the first time I’d heard it, as is my generation’s version of respecting our elders. I told him I miss him and he awkwardly nodded and drank his coffee, as is his generation’s version of showing their emotions.
Twenty minutes later, our coffee mugs drained, I stood and reached for my wallet but he stopped me and insisted on paying, I allowed him under the condition that I got to leave the tip. I did so not because I wanted to divvy up the spending, but because I know that Grandpa’s idea of what constituted a good tip stopped evolving in 1967 and I suspected that even the afterlife wouldn’t have brought enough enlightenment to him to change that.
Grandpa placed his iconic hat on his head, earflap forever hanging at an angle off the side of his head, and dropped a few dollars on the counter. I looked in my wallet for the tip as Grandpa crushed out his cigarette. In my periphery, I noticed that as the last wisps of cigarette smoke disappeared into the air, so did he. I looked around the restaurant, but he was nowhere, gone as suddenly as he had arrived. I looked at the counter to see the pair of empty coffee cups, a few ragged looking dollar bills, and a crushed out cigarette in an ashtray. I threw a couple more dollars on the counter, simultaneously feeling curious as to how a ghost was able to carry cash and feeling flattered at the fact that he spent it on me. I walked out into the cold, feeling warm despite my lack of a hat.