Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

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THE OLD JACKKNIFE

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Memories sometimes fade.

The events that spawned those memories become vague

as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself

when I found his jackknife at the back of a drawer.

 

My father was a bricklayer.

He was the only one of his crew allowed to raise the corners. As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited.

With line and level he laid out precise right angles as a guide for each course to come, a leads for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortarboard. The other bricklayers took this as their cue to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

“Ragazzi,” he would shout, “Guardi un vero muratore al lavoro.” Hey boys, watch a real bricklayer at work. The exchange of good-natured insults kept coming until he was ready to raise the next corner.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. As a child I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved. His vice like grip was unbreakable. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

Over the years arthritis stiffened his fingers. His health began to fail. His skill followed. Even though he taped his hands, he took to wearing leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick

All the bricklayers he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there.

“Non ne ho piu bisogno,” he said. I don’t need these anymore.

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table, his jackknife in front of him. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“I like to slice them and dip them in wine,” he says. The anticipation brings a smile to his face.

As he tries to pull the blade open, the knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to anger as he stares at the knife as if it too has betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes the knife toward me. “Lo prendi,” he says. You take it.

“It was my father’s knife.” He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years. With the blade fully extended the weight of its steel forged decades ago gives way to a delicate balance.

As I slice the peach cleanly, the knife has never lost its edge.

I still have it. I’ve never used it since that day.

Joe Nanni

Remembering you on Father’s day, Peppino.

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 18, 2017 at 6:00 AM