down from mine, so I go by it often enough
that I need not think, each time I pass,
of all I saw there, or heard about. Through childhood
I was a regular guest in the dining room,
at the dark table with the umbrella-belled
Tiffany lamp looming just above it,
the dumb waiter in the corner, a danger
and a mystery, the dark-finished sideboard opposite
double doors through which, from the hall, I could see
Granddaddy sitting at the head of the table,
his eyes often closed, and when open, not steady,
for it had been many years since he had seen
the last thing he saw, whatever that was.
He said once that in the course of his last operation,
during which, for some good reason, he was conscious,
he became aware of a bad moment—a sound, maybe,
of breath sharply indrawn toward the shape of a swear-word,
or only a sag in the room’s energy—when
everyone there came to know he would not see again.
Still, he kept at most of what he had mastered.
You can read for yourself in a life of Sam Rayburn
how before he was Speaker he persuaded Roosevelt
to appoint Dr. Splawn to the Interstate Commerce Commission.
He knew his freight lines, by God. I used to read to him,
long incomprehensible pages of economics,
or a draft of his own history of the University of Texas,
of which he had briefly been president.
He would pay me a little something per hour,
for I had come early to the ability to enunciate
what I did not understand. It is a skill that still helps me get by.
In that somewhat under-illuminated room we gathered
several times a year for Sunday dinner, or an annual holiday,
when cooking and serving became the responsibility
of Joe Trammel, a black man with a deficient leg.
He had had polio. He got along by making sure
the bad leg’s knee locked straight before he touched down.
He swung it forward from the hip, and his lower leg,
striking the end of its arc from the knee, gave
a small extra hitch to his uneven but durable stride.
I do not remember not knowing him.
One afternoon in the garden, when I was about three,
I squatted down in the path of his hoeing,
and the blade made its eager way toward me,
lifting the soil and slicing off weeds,
and I screamed, and he laughed.
Years later, as a crew of us ate lunch
and told stories, he said that ghosts won’t hurt you,
but they sure-God make you hurt yourself.
When he worked the dinners at Springdale
there would come, sometimes, moments I can almost re-enter
of suspenseful silence so heavy I knew how it would feel
to crawl out from under it. I never could learn
what, dimly foreseen—by me only?—filled the room
with overwhelming expectation, as Joe Trammel
circled the table and extended a dish-bearing hand
into the space above each place setting.
As most of us do once in a while, Granddaddy
would pull away from the room around him
into brief reverie. Being blind, he had gotten
out of the habit of pretending to alert presence;
he might tilt his head, close his eyes, and snap
his jaw, and you knew that something not in the room
was going vigorously on in that capable head.
He rarely took as much as half a minute, then came back,
having missed, apparently, nothing at all.
One night a few years before I was born,
there assembled in that dining room several men,
mostly Texan, like Granddaddy, and mostly,
like him, occupied with matters in Washington.
Mr. Rayburn was there, maybe young Johnson,
and Vice President Garner—old Cactus Jack,
who lived almost to the end of his ninety-ninth year,
and got into a few books of quotations by doubting
that the office he held was worth a bucket of warm spit.
But there and then, a fine evening, fraught
with laughter and good talk, winding down
after dessert and liqueurs, two or three old boys
still trading wisecracks, and Granddaddy withdrew,
then emerged, and said, “I believe it’s time
for my warm milk, Joe.” Then thought of his guests.
“I beg your pardon. I take a glass of warm milk
at the end of the evening. Would anyone else care for one?”
Silence of unusual heft. “Mr. Garner?” “Hell, no!”
The dry Texas hills crackled in the voice and rang
like sand against the delicate stemware on the white cloth.
“It’ll make me sick to watch you drink it!”
Reporting this to my father, Joe Trammel
reminded him that you ain’t supposed to let on,
when you’re serving, that you hear what gets said
to others than you. “Couldn’t keep a straight face
to save my soul, Mr. Tom. I had to set down
that tray and come on away from there.”
My grandfather had that place for thirty years,
maybe a little longer. It had been a girls’ school,
and a makeshift Civil War hospital. Such
are the glories that decline, in these
enfeebled times, toward bed and breakfast.
John Nance Garner, at the end of his second term,
retired to his home in Uvalde, Texas,
and the rest of his long life stayed out of Washington.