By Christopher Battle
I have old man’s hands.
At forty-one, I have my grandfather’s hands. Hands I remember during those last years before he died. More than anything I remember those hands needling fishing wire through the end of a pole on the Savannah marshes, the invigorating stench of salt and mud in the air. Or spiking still-fresh shrimp to the end of an old hook. I remember the time the small barb caught his thumb and how he cursed. He cursed with relish but always in a toned down language. Dabnamit, he’d say. Maybe hells bells when he was really mad. I remember crabbing at the end of a long wooden deck, holding twine between my finger and thumb, slowly pulling it up, watching these brainless creatures slicing and shredding uncooked chicken meat hooked on the string, slowly rolling it up until the outline of the crab, maybe two or three, cutting, slicing, eating, emerged in the translucent top of the water, and then netting them. How they must have been surprised despite the obvious. Dumping the crab onto the splintered deck, shaking them reluctantly from the net. How one scrambled sideways and he reached down carelessly and grabbed it near its legs, but too much forward, and that same weathered thumb getting crushed in the pincer of that small creature, the water evaporating from its shell in the heat of the sun. He brushed away the crab, careless in the way of someone who has been stuck, pinched, nicked and scraped hundreds of times over the years.
When I say I have my grandfather’s hands I do not mean the hands of his youth. Even in old age, his hands were vice-like. Your bones felt it when you shook hands with him. If he wanted to hold on to you, whether by the scruff of your neck or the cuff of your wrist, he could do so for as along as he wanted. They were hands shaped by years of sports – baseball, basketball, boxing – all through high school and college and then thirty-odd years as an electrical engineer at a paper plant.
My hands are not vice-like. They are thin. The veins throb on the back of them. They are ill. They are my grandfather’s hands. They are wizened and lined. Chaulky in color, as if I had rolled my hands in flower. The redness of my palms show through, but these shrunken tributaries and recessed lines cross my palms and the backs of my hands mercilessly, aging me on the spot. Grayed flakes of skin drop floorward. The metacarpals rise blustery, as if they want to break free of this sagging skin, but they are secured, tied down, by blue veins rising across them. You look closer, under the bones and the veins and there they, these lines crisscrossing my skin with the parched ferocity of a desert.
I have old man’s hands.