My mother’s father worked in a factory, as many men did after war time when they lived in North Philadelphia with only a high school diploma. Cholly had not gone to war, he had a bum leg. This was just as well, my other pop had his mind stolen from him in a field in France, not the famous one either, and came home somebody else entirely.
But that is not this story.
This is the story of Cholly and Gale, who lived in a house in Wissinoming with five children. They were happy enough, for the times, I suppose.
One day, when the children were small, Cholly went to work and didn’t come home for a long time. This was not entirely unusual, drinks around the corner with the boys were a regular event, expected. Daily, even. Cholly was often around the corner. He often came home, surly.
Gale was a waitress, and kept odd hours herself, and wasn’t worried until she woke at 4AM and he wasn’t snoring next to her.
She checked the children’s rooms, the bathroom, the kitchen.
“Must’ve been a long one” she thought, slipping back into bed, considering a run through the rosary. She settled for staring at a painting of the Madonna and child in oils on her bureau.
Cholly didn’t come home until 7PM the next night.
“Where were you?” Gale’s voice was quiet and she blocked his path from the sun porch door to the dinner table, where all five children watched in silence, not even pretending to push food around on their plates, but knowing better than to make a sound. There was menace here, they had seen it before.
“Give it a rest, Gale” he croaked, sounding parched and tired.
Gale saw that then that his clothes were covered in rusty colored stains, all up and down his left side. His pants and work shirt, were crusty with dried blood.
“Charles...Christ, what...what happened?”
Cholly sighed, the change in Gale’s tone from anger to concern brought a whimper from the girl who would become my mother. But the children still knew better than to rise.
Cholly slid his pant leg up and where there should have been flesh was a metal bar, with a bolted joint at the knee. A metal foot filled his loafer.
“Accident” he said, “Thing fell. Crushed my side, they put me back together.”
“But...but… why didn’t they call me? Why didn’t they send you to hospital? Why are you just coming home like this just now?”
“They wanted to make sure I could stand on the line” he said, and he pushed past her, clanking and thumping, limping towards the table. “That a roast?”
And that was the last word.
Little changed. They had to reinforce the bed.
Once he put his metal leg through the bathroom floor, stomping on a cockroach.
“Choll! Jesusmaryandjoseph” that phrase was always one word when Gale said it. “What now?”
“Shut up, Gale”
He stepped on my mom’s little cat Sam once. She sobbed as the cat wailed and Cholly sat her on his knee, cold metal poking through brown cotton slacks. “He’ll be fine without a tail”, he grumbled. “Teach the cat to get in our way, won’t it?”
My uncle tells a story that, one time, Cholly encountered a hippie kissing one of his daughters, and kicked him so hard that he broke the boy’s tailbone. This was much to the amusement of the other neighborhood men. “Get a haircut!” they shouted, among other things, as the hippie crawled away, down the concrete.
“Stupid kids, we were in the shit at their age,” belched a man who Cholly often met around the corner.
Cholly did not respond to this, and the others grew quiet.
There are other stories, worse than that one. As the decades crawled by, the old families moved further north, and faces that were different began to fill the houses of Wissinoming. Cholly’s metal foot got practice in a changing neighborhood.
Cholly eventually retired from the factory, and became a manager around the corner, home even less than before. One night, after some years, when their children were gone with children of their own, he stumbled through the door, cigarette in mouth, left leg dragging behind.
“Gale,” he croaked through smoke, “I’m rusting.”
There’s a picture of him holding me, less than a year old, wide eyed as he lounges next to Gram. He was rarely standing then, and only photographed from the waist up.
Gale and the kids and the doctors all tried to make him stop drinking and smoking, and to oil is leg regularly, but he didn’t trust them, especially not the doctors. He went on as he always had.
Eventually the rest of him grew too weak to carry the weight of his factory parts.
If I try very hard, I can remember his voice, in a frail echo, the last time I spoke to him on the phone.
“Love you, Kev,” he wheezed, and whirred, sounding like his chest was full of failing gears.
His funeral was the first I attended. I wore an itchy, ill-fitting black suit. I did not cry, and I felt bad about it.
The funeral home was filled with old people. I had never seen so many. At a glance they were wrinkly, small, wheezing, and somber. But looking closely, I could see the scars, and the artificial parts that joined with flesh, steel arms ending in hands made of screwdrivers, guts that ran on pistons, with a stove pipe poking out from under shirt tails to let out the steam, broom heads for feet, and house gloves stitched permanently to hands.
One old, old man was little more than a head and torso stitched to four long metal appendages. He lurched on all fours, a giraffe in reverse. All of them passed by my grandfather’s coffin in slow effigy, clanking and creaking, sweeping and sighing and weeping. As they marched past, they began to bang their parts together in tribute and in grief.
It was then that I saw my grandmother break for the first time, the sobs were of one whose heart has been smashed to pieces. I know now, that there are no parts to repair such a wound, not really.
Before the adults shuffled me out, a door closing slowly on my face and my memory, I see Gram throw herself across Pop’s coffin. Her small form scrambled up the pine side, and she kissed his face, one last time.
For a moment I could see her legs beneath her black dress, kicking as she crawled across the body of her husband. They were covered in scars, the burns of fifty years of fighting and coffee spills and spitting grease.
“I’ll never forget you Charles. Never, never, never.”
Kevin Travers is a dilettante and armchair folklore enthusiast. He lives in Philadelphia with a small blue bird, surrounded by books. He scribbles fictions, occasionally. If you would like to talk about ghost stories, he would be very pleased to meet you.