I saw him carrying an armful of packages. They were giftwrapped, stacked like a miniature pyramid.
He was trying to open the door with his foot.
“Hold on,” I said. “Let me get the door for you.”
He stepped backward and thanked me.
Then he slipped on wet tile. Thankfully, he did not fall. He caught himself by using me for balance, but dropped all his packages in the process. The gifts survived without sustaining any major injuries. And so did he.
That’s when I realized I knew this man.
We used to go to church together. We sang in the Baptist choir, once upon a time. He was a tenor. I sang bass.
Tenors and basses are vicious enemies from birth. The two groups have a longstanding feud. This dates back to the Revolutionary War, when American Colonies fought for independence against Great Britain, and also against Britain’s bloodthirsty allies, the Three Tenors.
Our choir was god-awful. During our choir practices, we basses would blame the elderly tenor section for our less than optimal sound. Things often got ugly.
“Hey!” one of the basses would yell. “Adjust your hearing aids, old farts! You’re on the wrong page!”
“Why don’t you kiss my big, hairy treble clef!” a tenor would holler.
“You first, Grandpa Walton!”
“Aw, your mother’s Episcopalian!”
And a brawl would break out. The altos would be forced to break up the fight with fire hoses and horsewhips.
Being a Baptist can be fun.
Anyway, I helped him carry his gifts to his car, even though we are sworn enemies.
I learned a little about him, too. He is seventy-four. He’s in very good shape, he still sings in the choir. These gifts are for his granddaughter.
The girl is twelve. Her parents got divorced last year. She’s been caught in the horrible crossfire that accompanies such things.
Anxiety has taken its toll on her. She developed an autoimmune disease, and diabetes, and—this is a big “and”— her nine-year-old dog just died.
“She’s a mess,” he said. “And her parents are so hellbent on hating each other, I’m afraid they’re losing her.”
She’s been sick most of this year. She has been depressed, too. And it’s Granddaddy to the rescue.
“I just wanna make her life happy,” he went on. “That’s my job, you know. She’s all I care about.”
This man is no stranger to hard living. He’s been a bachelor for a few years ever since his wife died.
I remember when this happened. She was a devout soprano who smiled a lot.
She was sweet like buckwheat honey, a superb cook, and she always gave good hugs. She smoked cigarettes in secret, everyone in the choir could smell them on her. This, among other things, made her endearing.
I’ve never seen a memorial so big. People lined up out the door to remember her. And I’ll never forget how sad he looked that day.
I shook his hand in the visitation line. He looked like he’d cried himself into severe dehydration.
Even so, he didn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’s too strong for that. He stays busy piddling in his shed, he uses his riding mower twice per week, he fixes broken chairs, he cleans his own house, he sings in the choir with all his evil little tenor toadies.
Last week, he built a wood fence. For a dog.
“I bought her a new Labrador, and he needs a place where he can just run, you know?”
The fence took him a long time. He worked on it every day. He showed me pictures of the project on his phone. Then, he showed me pictures of the new dog. And photos of his granddaughter.
“I’ve still got work to do in this life,” he says. “Besides, I’m sick of eating dinner alone. I don’t know who’s more excited about her coming, me or her.”
So this weekend, his favorite grandchild will be arriving. She will move into the old spare bedroom. They will enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company. He will make her his princess.
And on Christmas morning, it will be just the two of them, and one dog. And this is why he bought so many gifts today.
In the boxes are gadgets, gizmos, a new phone, a new laptop, and new everything.
“My grandbaby needs me,” he said. “I’m gonna make it the best Christmas she ever had.”
There’s no doubt about it.
“But the truth is,” he went on, “I need that little girl more than she could ever need an old man like me.”
Well, I don’t know about all that.
But then, you can’t trust a word this man says. After all, he is a tenor.