ghosts

I hear my grandpa’s voice. I lie in bed unable to sleep, writing stories in my head, and out of nowhere: “Aggie.” He calls my grandmother, and I see his mustached mouth form words, and I see the wrinkles of smile surround his eyes. I haven’t seen him in forty years, maybe longer. I’d visited him only three or four times as a child and didn’t know him. He died when I was in grade school.

My dad left home early, and didn’t often go back to his Western Pennsylvania home town. Families in that region struggled with unemployment, alcoholism, illiteracy, poverty. When we did visit, I remember we drove from New Jersey across Pennsylvania. We stopped at a diner halfway, where the short order cook served up my scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet. Then, under the railway bridge and up to the ramshackle shotgun house on the hill.

I see my grandmother now, too, in this waking dream. A tiny, aproned woman, her shoulders and neck bent forward in a dowager’s hump — she holds a tray with cups of coffee and milk. She looks at us with a timid smile. I hear her soft voice. When she died, I was a young adult in my first job. I took off three days because the company offered them.

I learned later that she worked in the china factory to support her family. She carried on against the odds. The apron and the timid smile belied the woman beneath, strong as the steel forged in nearby mills, I think now.

My father chose differently from others in his town. He drank rarely, and with moderation. He earned a master’s degree, bought a house in the Jersey suburbs and vacationed in Scotland.

After my grandparents moved from the shotgun house to a small apartment in town, after both had died, my dad went home to sell their things. He opened the door to their flat and let neighbors in. He took a couple of dollars in payment, here and there, but mostly passed on the worn furnishings, television, kitchen goods, to those who had as little as his parents in that dying ghost of a town.

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