Phoenix was edited and elegantly printed by James
Morning Star Farm in Massachusetts, a venerable institution.
My grandfather hated
institutions. From the start, I guess, he'd hated institutions. I know that
early in life he took a job for a while as a bank guard until he decided the
uniform he had to wear was causing him to break out in terrible boils all
over his body. He tried a lot of other jobs, so I was told, but gave up on
them all in time. Finally he became a farmer.
He had no real aptitude
for farming. In fact, he had to learn everything from scratch and he struggled
for many years during which his children were growing up. Eventually, however,
by hard work he prospered, acquired more land and bought a tractor to replace
his team of horses. To hear my grandmother tell it, he didn't do much work
at all. About once a month or so - no schedule, just whenever he felt like
it - he'd refuse to get out of bed in the morning, refuse to get up and do
the chores, plowing, harvesting, whatever the season required, and would just
lie there till noon reading The Last of the Mohicans, the only book
he ever read but which he read at least once daily. "If I don't want
to get up, goddamn it," he'd say to my grandmother, "then goddamn
it I goddamn won't get up. Why do you think I stuck us way out
here on this farm?" But actually, despite these minor rituals of protest,
he was a very hard worker.
We used to visit the
farm frequently when we were kids. My grandfather was the best grandfather
there was - of course you'd expect me to say that - but it's nonetheless true.
Dressed always in raggy overalls, he invariably livened his appearance with
improvised bits of pleasing gaiety; a red kerchief wrapped around his head,
or worn as a sash around his waist; or one of my grandmother's cameo brooches
pinned to his dungaree bib; or a rakish powder-blue plume stuck in his hat.
He enjoyed appearing each morning with some new extravagance to amuse us.
One morning he showed up at breakfast wearing his overalls inside out; and
then all day managed to find ways to carry nails and other necessary odds
and ends without having to pay any notice of his lack of pockets. He always
had time for us kids, though often enough the hours we spent with him were
devoted to cleaning freshly ploughed fields of stones, repairing pasture fences,
or re-shingling a shed roof. We never minded, though. We loved being in his
I guess he figured he
had the system beat. He was almost always gay; congenial, and often exuberant.
The only times he ever turned angry would be just after we'd arrived for a
visit with my father grumbling about the tread-mill of the business world
and the multifarious pressures of that grind. This would set my grandfather
off. For an hour or more his booming voice would rattle the cupboards as he
paced back and forth excoriating regimentation and rehearsing the decisions
that led him to become a farmer. We kids had to listen and had to look attentive
too, because he considered that his failure to get along with the complexities
of modern life was a kind of wisdom, and he figured that, since he was the
patriarch of the clan, it was his duty to reveal this to us.
How my father ever got
into the business world I'll never understand, although my mother seemed to
thrive on the social whirl and on the prospects of my father's orderly advancement
in seniority. My grandfather's tirades must have been particularly trying
for her. She considered him to be an eccentric old frontiersman. But I guess
she figured that listening to the old man's indignation against the regimented
world was a small enough price to pay for our summer vacations in the country.
As he grew older he did
less and less of the heavy work, hiring farmhands to maintain the place. He
remained active, though. But he finally fell ill. It didn't seem significant
at first and he took his first involuntary morning in bed with good grace.
He had a fever, not too bad, and a general weakness throughout his body which
limited him to reading Last of the Mohicans all day. About suppertime,
though, my grandmother began to get worried because his fever was continuing
to rise. So she phoned my father from a neighbor's house - a telephone being
one of the things my grandfather would never tolerate - and asked us to come
on out, cautioning my father to make it appear a spontaneous visit.
We arrived early the
next morning after having driven through most of the night. The younger kids
and my mother went straight to bed, but I hung around outside my grandfather's
bedroom while my father went in to see him. The old man hadn't slept at all,
yet he was nonetheless in a good mood and his voice sounded hearty and cheerful.
But my father - from something he saw or thought he saw in the old man's debilitated
condition - got upset and said to my grandmother that they'd have to call
a doctor. The only doctor, however, was Spearing, and my grandfather despised
Spearing whenever he thought of him as a doctor - when he encountered Spearing
in town or at the county fair as a fellow farmer, they were usually on amiable
terms. But now Spearing would be appearing as a doctor and my grandfather
began raising a prodigious fuss about calling the man in, about calling in
any of the medical profession, actually. I could hear him almost shouting
at my father, he was so agitated. Finally, unable to persuade him, my father
just walked out.
A little later I went
in to sit with him, figuring that what he needed most right then was somebody
to listen to his wisdom. That was when I found out there were two institutions
he hated more than all others. The first was the entire medical profession,
from stethoscope to laser-surgery, though I don't expect he knew much about
the latter. And the other was the unctuous funeral business. Spearing at least
was a fellow farmer as well as being a doctor. But Hawkins, the director of
the only funeral parlor in town, didn't have a farm and on Hawkins he vented
his full scorn. It's curious how his hostility towards technology and the
world of business was objectified by these two men - but don't think he wasn't
fairly knowledgeable about the rest of the world, too. He'd never been inside
Hawkin's funeral home. But his four visits inside a hospital, visiting my
grandmother during one of her illnesses, had caused him to tremble uncontrollably
and break out in terrible boils. And he stormed at great length about the
indignities of sordid public showings of the body, elaborate rituals of burial,
tons of obligatory flowers for unappreciative corpses, and staggering choices
amongst kinds and designs of uniformly expensive caskets, all which humiliations
he traced ultimately to the profit motive run amok amongst human misfortune.
But this came late in his tirade, as a sort of morbid extension of the first
half of his disquisition, which was on the subject of modern medical technology
and hospital impersonality. He actually believed that they designated patients
by attaching data cards to their big toes with wire. He raged against the
general dehumanization involved in falling into medically trained hands and
swore to me that he intended to die with his boots on.
Then Dr. Spearing arrived.
He was a leathery old man with a wrinkled face, about ten years older than
even my grandfather, slight, yet very sprightly. And he had a disconcerting
habit of throwing himself abruptly upon chairs as if he expected them to flee
from being sat on. His first words as he walked into the room were: "So
how's the old sailor today? One foot in the grave, I expect."
My grandfather, infuriated
beyond all measure, just glared balefully at him. Everyone knew he'd always
wanted above all else to be a sailor but got abysmally seasick even on river
barges - and I had no way of knowing which, if not all of the several insulting
elements in Spearing's words and cheerful bedside tone he had found so offensive.
He just glared up with his jaw set hard, staring straight into the doctor's
eyes, and said:
"Get out of here
Spearing! Or dammit, I'll throw you out!"
Spearing pulled a stethoscope
out of his bag and my grandfather rolled off the other side of the bed onto
the floor. Convinced by his weakness, however, that he couldn't fight off
the whole family, he finally submitted to an examination while we waited outside.
Twenty minutes later Spearing emerged to tell my grandmother and my father
that matters were a great deal more serious than they had looked at first
and that my grandfather would have to be hospitalized. My grandmother went
in to break the news to him. After a short pause we heard an enormous roar
from behind the closed door, the door flew open, my grandmother in her long
black skirt cascaded out into my father's arms, the door slammed shut again
and the bolt went clicking home on the other side. My father and the doctor
began trying to reason with him through the solid oak door but the only response
was my grandfather's bellowed:
"No goddamn hospital!"
My grandmother, of course,
knew how adamant he was and so she left for the neighbor's house to telephone
for an ambulance and several strong attendants. When she returned we all sat
down in the hallway to wait. Every once in awhile my father would go to the
locked bedroom door and whine:
He received no response.
Finally three white-coated
men came up the narrow stairs and conferred quietly with the doctor for several
seconds. Then one of them banged on the oak door, but there was no answer.
My father, thinking rather foolishly to outwit the old man, went up to the
door and tapped several times lightly, then called out in a perfectly matter
of fact voice which deceived only himself: "Dad can I see you for a second?
I need your advice on something."
Of course, there was
no response to that either. At last someone fetched an axe and one of the
ambulance attendants commenced sinking shivering blows into the beautiful
old door. When a hole had been made, he reached his hand inside and slid back
the bolt. Then in we rushed.
The bed was empty - the
God only knows how my
grandfather got to the ground without killing himself. There was a shed roof
not too far to the left of the bedroom window and he must have jumped onto
that and then to the ground. Anyway, he was nowhere in sight. One of the attendants
called out from the window:
"Come on back, Mr.
Peck. Nobody's going to hurt you."
No one could see any
sign of him, but I glimpsed a pajama-clad figure crouching down behind a low
stone wall. I said not a word. The state police finally found him early that
evening, about four miles away, sleeping in an isolated meadow of the farm.
The next morning we went
to visit him in the hospital. Never had I seen such a sight. I suppose there
must have been some reason for everything they'd done to him, but one look
into his eyes made all medical reasons inadequate. He was draped in an old
hospital gown - I could imagine what a struggle it must have been getting
that on him - and lying forcibly in an awkward spine-curved bow, his head
thrown back, with clear plastic tubes thrust up to his nose and taped to his
face. On one side of this torture bed was an IV unit, to which he was hooked
up, and on the other side, a vital signs monitor, to which he was also connected.
The machinery looming all around seemed to overwhelm him and he seemed to
be nothing but a connector between the IV system and the monitors. His eyes
were the eyes of a trapped wild creature; if an eagle has expressions in its
eyes, I would say the eyes of a trapped eagle.
Contrary to instructions,
he insisted on speaking. No one could make out what he was saying, because
of the horrible nasal plumbing of course, but at last my mother understood
"Spearing did this
to me, that bastard!"
My father, rather unimaginatively
I thought, immediately began explaining to the old man that Spearing had only
been doing his job and so on, but my grandfather just waved his free arm impatiently.
Then he signaled us all to clear out, including my grandmother - whose hand
however he grasped for a moment before releasing her to the rest of the family.
My uncles and aunts and
cousins all began arriving at the hospital too, for the medical authorities
had decided he hadn't very much longer to live; so we made a pretty large
reunion sprawled all over the hospital lounge. A short while later a nurse
appeared and asked for David - which was me - saying my grandfather had indicated
he wanted to see me. When I re-entered his room I saw he had a small notepad
and a pen on his chest and that he had written:
Now you see what I
"Yes Grandpa, you
sure were right."
Then I tore off the top
sheet in case he wanted to write anything else. He did. He wrote:
All those hrs you
wished I'd stop talking, now you see what I meant, rgt?
now I see what you meant."
He lay back for several
seconds looking at me with haunted wild eyes, and then wrote:
David listen carefully.
After I'm dead -
"Oh Grandpa you'll
be out of here in no time," I interrupted.
You bet yr ass I will.
Deader'n a d'rnail. Now listen - and then waited for me to tear off the
sheet - when I'm dead I want you to blow this hospital up. Finish it for
The idea didn't horrify
me at all. I knew exactly what he meant, but I answered:
"Oh Grandpa, I can't
do that. You know I can't do that."
He lay back and stared
at me again with affection hidden deep in his eyes beneath all his humiliation
and pain. Then he wrote on several successive pages:
Y're rgt boy, you
can't do that. Now, the next note I write, don't read it, just fold it up
and save it. Then, I want you to explain everything to yr g-mother for me.
He looked at me while
I read this.
"Yes," I said,
uncertainly. "But what should I explain?"
He just shook his head
while he scribbled out the next pages, writing for a long time. Then he lay
back with his eyes closed, breathing raspily as I folded up these pages, unread.
I waited several moments silently, then said goodbye to him and slipped out
of the room.
I joined the others in
the lounge again to wait, just as before, for his end. They asked what he'd
summoned me for and I told them he'd just needed someone to sit by him, never
mentioning his notes. (It didn't occur to me until much later how keenly hurt
my grandmother must have been by this white lie of mine.)
I whiled away the time
trying to figure out what it was I was supposed to explain, since I took his
commission to me - probably, I realized, his last commission - very seriously
indeed. A half hour later, however, we were all interrupted from our thoughts
and magazines by a nurse who came running up the hall from grandfather's wing
"Room 148! Room
That was his room. Other
nurses and attendants came running and so did we, myself foremost, and I was
the first of our clan to get there.
The bed was empty - the
There was no mystery
this time as to how a man could have gotten free. All he'd had to do was to
detach all the intricate wiring and tubing with which he'd been tangled in
place, throw open the window, and step over the sill out onto the ground.
Nor was there any mystery about what a man would do next. The window was in
the back of the hospital and there was a dense grove of trees not twenty yards
away from it. The real mystery was not how any man, but how my grandfather,
already written off as practically dead, had gotten out of bed at all. But
that was my grandfather. And they were no more successful this time than last
at rounding him up. We all joined in the search, the whole family and nearly
all of the hospital staff; and later the police too, but not a trace of him
did we find. And by now I began to get glimmerings of what my grandmother
would need explained to her.
in mid-afternoon, somebody remembered that none of us had had any lunch. My
father and my uncles, however, insisted on continuing the search without interruption.
I recall not being able to understand their perseverance, since they'd all
given him up for as good as dead anyway and they couldn't be hoping to save
him from anything. In fact, I still don't quite understand it, though I agree
that searching certainly seemed the logical thing to do. And perhaps that's
why they were carrying on with it; they couldn't think of anything else to
do. Nor could I. In any case, it was decided that my mother and one of my
aunts should drive all us kids back to the farm for something to eat. Most
of my cousins and certainly my own brothers and my sister were too young to
be permitted to join in the search anyway and so were just in the way. They
all were quite a bit younger than I was, and no one wanted them around when
my grandfather was finally found. They were so young and unconcerned, in fact,
that the trip back in the station wagon was like a jubilation all the way
to the farm and I found myself feeling offended by so much laughing and shouting
at what I took to be such a solemn time. I don't think my grandfather would
have minded, though.
When we drove up to the
house and piled out of the car, I was feeling useless. It seemed to me I should
have been out doing something for the old man, yet there I was getting ready
to eat lunch with a gaggle of laughing kids who were racing headlong into
As I walked along after
them I thought I heard a sound. I couldn't tell what it was at first. Then
I realized it was a motor of some sort. I was all alone in the farmyard at
this time and just kept looking and cupping my hands behind my ears until
I thought I detected the general direction of the droning engine. I climbed
up onto the car hood of the station wagon and peered in that direction. There
it was - three fields away - my grandfather's tractor, plowing around and
around in a circle.
I took off towards it,
running as fast as I could. I was halfway there when I saw that someone was
driving it. At a hundred yards off I realized it was my grandfather. At fifty
yards distance I knew he was dead.
The first thing I did
was clamber aboard the tractor and switch off the motor. Then I jumped down
and turned to look up at him. He was slumped back in the tractor seat, almost
upright, except that his head hung limply forward. His hands were still on
the steering wheel and his feet on the pedals. He was dressed in his absurd
hospital gown but wrapped around his neck he wore one of my grandmother's
violet woolen stockings and on his chest was pinned a small note on which
he had scrawled:
I shed no tears as I
stared up at him.
Nor did I later when
my aunts and uncles had regrouped and were trying to console my weeping grandmother
as well as one another. Late that evening I remembered the note he had given
me and I handed it over to my father, who proceeded to read it aloud to the
whole family, and I'll tell you what it said in just a second. There's just
one more thing I want to mention first, and that is that before we finally
left the farm for home I asked my grandmother if I could have his old Last
of the Mohicans and she gave it to me. Here's what was written in his
Being of sound mind,
probably the only one with sound mind left in the whole world, I'm writing
down my last will and testament. My wife Stella is to get everything. After
her, the boys can fight over it. And here's my last wish: when I'm dead I
want a public showing of the body in the most expensive casket that sonofabitch
Hawkins has got and I want a full half-casket display with my body lying there
face down. If it'll go down any easier for Hawkins he can hang up an engraved
card saying, 'Position By Special Request.' If he won't do this there's only
one other way I will tolerate - a half-casket display, feet end showing, no