"Bequests"

Reviewed by Jesse Pearson

I’ve been going through some old files, cleaning out some old laptops and hard drives, unearthing things both joyful and regrettable. One folder I was glad to find contained a few blog entries I wrote when I started a personal website (which is currently offline) back in 2011. I was freshly off eight years as the editor-in-chief of Vice magazine—a place where I wrote much of each issue under various pseudonyms—and I was thinking of blogging as a way to keep the writerly muscles strong. Soon after this and a few other blog pieces were written, paid freelance work started coming in more frequently and I dropped the blog. But it’s surprisingly non-painful to go back and read these things now, ten years later.
The piece below is about my father, but I came at it sideways. That’s sort of the same way he came at me when he was alive. More specifically, the piece is about going to Arkansas after my father died and picking through his belongings to choose some things to take as self-designated inheritances. He didn’t have anything of monetary value, but that didn’t matter. I was looking for benefits that were more totemic than economic. I ended up with a lot of belt buckles. His own father, my grandfather, was also a buckle man. I think these things have gone a bit out of style but for men of their generations deciding which buckle to attach to your belt each day was akin to choosing your socks or your shirt. Maybe these were also more popular with southern and western men—I suspect that. My grandfather was from Alabama; my father was born in Kentucky. Many of their buckles, including some of the ones below, feel southern. Lots of country music stuff, lots of gun stuff. And even though these things are in my ancestral blood, I feel like a phony when I try wearing them. Maybe as I get older it will get easier.
Since this is technically a review, I feel the need to critique the piece somehow. I’m not mad at it, as the saying goes. It’s straightforward and concise in its language, but I can still feel feelings when I read it. That’s good. And that’s about all I have to say about it as a work of nonfiction. Review over.
As for the longer thing I was writing about my father that I mention below… I’m still working on it a decade later. It morphed into a novel, then a memoir, then back into a novel, which I think is where it will stay. Who knows if it will ever see the light of day? Not me.

Bequests

SEPTEMBER 12TH, 2011

(If you just want to see pictures of some belt buckles, scroll down.)

My father died just before Labor Day two years ago, so I suppose that now I’ll always equate the end of summer with the end of his life. That sounds dramatic, but it doesn’t feel that way. His death, as an event and a fact, was not a source of emotional turmoil for me. After the chaotic unevenness of his life, his dying was sort of a dry transaction. He was addicted to the whole cornucopia of opiates from when he was 16 until his terminal age, which was 56, and he committed many crimes and spent much time in jail. His final weeks were spent reeling, and then not reeling but rendered very still, from a brutal one-two punch of advanced cirrhosis and advanced hepatitis C.

So, yes, I wasn’t torn up by his death. The phone call telling me that he was going to go, which was followed soon after by the call telling me that he had gone, was something I’d been expecting to receive at any moment since I was a kid and first became cognizant of who he was. I was prepped. The only truly hard part, and I mean hard in the traditional sense of animal pain as it relates to losing a blood relative, was when a nurse held the phone up to his ear at the hospice in Arkansas and I had to say goodbye. Choosing those words and getting them out was hard.

I’m working on a long piece of writing about his life. I don’t know what will come of it. For years, I was resistant to even trying to write about him. But certain trusted friends—and my own subconscious—kept telling me to do so.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking lately about what was left behind for me when he died and then, ambling further back down the family line, thinking about what was left behind for me when my grandfather died. I didn’t receive any money from either of them. We aren’t a family that has money. Nor did I receive any tangibility of any sort that either man, before their deaths, laid aside or designated for me. After my grandfather died of cancer in 1996, my grandmother boxed up a few of his random possessions and shipped them to me. The standouts were:

• His union watch, which he received upon retiring. It’s gold-plated and has the seal of the International Union of Operating Engineers on the face. The back is engraved with his shop number (Local 542), his years of service (35), and his name (Carol A. Cook).

• A couple of old yo-yos (he liked them) and an envelope of spare yo-yo string. He hand-labeled the envelope, spelling “string” phonetically the way he would have pronounced it in his thick Alabama accent: “Yo-Yo Straing.”

• Two small wooden boxes that he made in his workshop. After his retirement, he spent most of his time making boxes of various sizes and finishes. His woodwork is simple and strong.

• A few belt buckles, which extol the virtues of country music, the South, and industry.

After my father died, I drove to Arkansas to excavate his bedroom. He’d been living with my grandmother. For years, he’d been promising me that he was leaving me:

• A veritable arsenal (handguns, shotguns, hunting rifles).

• A few acres of land in the Ozarks.

Those are things that I would have wanted, but they did not materialize. The land? Christ knows if it ever existed. The guns? Maybe he was gradually selling them off. When I got there, two were left: a rifle and a revolver. My uncle took the rifle, which is fine since I live in Manhattan and the gun laws here make owning such a thing very difficult. Since there was no will, I just spent a few days digging around. People don’t label things with handwritten notes that say, “This is a powerful totem for me,” but it was easy to tell which objects might have been meaningful. Out of his meager possessions, I put together my own inheritance. Here’s the lion’s share of it:

• The revolver. (Taurus brand. Brazilian make, nice ’80s model, was in bad repair but my uncle assisted in getting it tuned up.)

• A guitar. (Fender acoustic, nothing special, the action is currently too high.)

• Various turtles, ceramic and bronze (he had a thing for turtles, the symbolism of which I’ll not touch for now).

• His Bible.

• A small statue of a Hindu god. Worn, hard to identify which one it is.

• A camping spade from his Boy Scouts days.

• A stash of his writing, including a thriller he was composing on lined yellow paper and assorted notes about addiction, recovery, and God.

• A set of drumsticks. He played the drums. I took the pair that was still set out on top of his snare, which it can be reasonably assumed are the last ones he used.

I left behind the mountain of OxyContin and methadone that was piled up on the kitchen table. For a recovered opiate addict, that was akin to lifting 500 pounds over my head with one pinkie, standing on one leg, while moving swiftly downhill on ball bearings. I also left behind all of his t-shirts because I couldn’t find one that wasn’t marked with multiple cigarette burns—the reverse-Braille that happens when a person on dope nods out while smoking.

Now this is two times longer than I intended it to be. What I have been getting to all along here is simple: Belt buckles. I also took his belt buckles and I added them to the pile of buckles that I already had gotten from my grandfather’s collection after his death. Here are some of the highlights.

This one belonged to my grandfather. He was a native of Birmingham, Alabama.

Also a grandfather buckle. He knew how to work every tool and piece of machinery made by mankind in the years up to and including most of the 20th century.

I’m not sure if this one was my father’s or my grandfather’s. Both of them would have liked it.

Grandfather’s. He and my grandmother had a velvet painting of 70s-era Dolly Parton hanging in their living room when I was a kid. Wish I had that today.

Somewhere along the line, my father learned how to be an electrician. He rarely used those skills in the service of a paying job.

This was my grandfather’s union buckle. It’s the same face as the watch I ended up with.

My father liked to claim that our ancestry included General George S. Custer (untrue) two lesser American presidents (untrue), two brothers who fought for the Confederacy as members of the Alabama Infantry (true, verified by war records) and a full-blooded Cherokee (true, she was my great-great grandmother).

This belonged to my father.

Grandfather’s. Opryland was an amusement park in Nashville that operated from 1972 until 1997. My grandparents made many trips there and also to Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park, still operating) and Dogpatch USA, a small theme park in Arkansas that was based on the Lil’ Abner comics. They retired close to the latter, which was closed in 1993. Its ruins are still there and are ripe for exploration, which I highly recommend.

My father liked to shoot snakes in his backyard. Asshole.

This is not from one that he shot.

Carol Aiken Cook
April 14, 1928 – December 28, 1996

Craig Eugene Cook
July 3, 1953 – September 1, 2009