Matthew Salesses is the author of a novella, The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks: Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He edits fiction and writes a column about his new baby for the Good Men Project.
“Matthew Salesses is a writer to embrace. In their beauty, strangeness, and heart, his fictions are a gift.”
“Salesses’ examination of the troubled mind of a Korean War POW returning home is pensive and brooding. A subtly painful psychological journey.”
“A harrowing story rendered in balletic prose, The Last Repatriate draws us inside a war of the body and of the heart—a confirmation of Salesses’ inventive, ambitious, big-hearted brilliance.”
When I arrived in Orlando and turned on my phone, there was a text waiting from my mom. Call me as soon as possible. I had flown to Florida to see my grandfather in hospice, and that text couldn’t be good. But she had inexplicably attached a picture of her tiny, pig-snouted dog with the massive underbite and he was staring at me like he was Gary Coleman in Different Strokes, and I was Willis. Tonally, something was off.
Turns out, my grandfather might only have a few hours to live, and I was still two-and-a-half hours away from Palatka by rental car. The picture was there because my mom had no idea how to use her new phone. In fact, even if I paid her, I don’t think she could send that picture to me again. So as I got onto the toll road, my mom and I laughed. And it was important.
I disregarded every speed limit, even in construction zones, and made a promise into the perfect blue sky that I would drive the speed limit on the way back. The farther I got from Orlando the trees pushed in like eager onlookers, many of them adorned with beards of sagging moss. My driving was robotic, a reflex. I began observing the proceedings as if I weren’t an active participant. Like I was watching a movie. With that thought, Matthew Salesses’s novella The Last Repatriate came to mind. The first line is: Imagine the thick forest of Korea, late autumn, 1950, sunset, the sentimental angle of light through the pines. More like the establishing shot of a film.
I’d been carrying around The Last Repatriate, a slim book about the size of my hand, for about two weeks and had written quite a lot of nice things about it in my notebook. But nothing had any traction. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. In thinking about Salesses’s novella where every word is painstakingly chosen, I managed to write a soup of words that were being sucked into the center of the page with a moist pop. Like quicksand.
Ted is a POW in the Korean War. He spends time in a small hole in the ground as punishment, and never truly emerges. Even when he returns to Virginia a war hero. Even when he sees his ex-girlfriend with his best friend.Even when he marries Kate and attempts to start anew. He learned how to be detached in that hole. He may never feel as wholly, as achingly, as he did in that moment before he was captured -- clutching the note from Beth where she had written that she wasn’t waiting for him to return from Korea, his pistol pressed against his temple. Ted remains an aloof observer of his life throughout the novella. The cinematic tone is perfect.
I had a hard time writing about this small, but dense, book because as much as I loved it, it thrummed on a different wavelength than my own life. So there I was, racing to see my grandfather whom I love immensely, and I couldn’t stop myself from disassociating. I thought about how many times this scenario had played out for countless numbers of people before me. How the other drivers around me had no idea where I was going or why. Or how important it was. I wasn’t special. Had my grandfather slipped away the exact moment I turned on the radio? Or when I passed a minivan in the left lane? Or when I tapped on the brakes because 100 mph was just a little too fast?
But my grandfather was still alive.
I discovered as soon as I entered the room that he was unable to talk. The conversation I had with him on the phone two days previous would be our last.
Me: Grandpa, I’ll be there on Saturday.
Grandpa: You’re going to come all the way to Florida to see this old man?
My grandfather was a pilot for over thirty years. Like many pilots of his generation, he fought tumors and skin cancer on his neck and cheeks and face. And boy did he fight. When I arrived, I realized how much of him had been cut away. His neck had been operated on so many times, his left ear no longer seemed attached; it hovered in the correct spot like a bad 3D film.
Whenever we had talked though, he never once complained. It didn’t matter if he had just gone through hours of chemotherapy or was told another tumor had appeared overnight. Instead, he cracked jokes. He got on the phone with all the grandchildren and offered his support of their endeavors. He cared about what everyone had to say. When the UPS guy said he was interested in flying, my grandfather took him up in his small plane. That guy has his pilots’ license now and visited my grandfather in hospice. The last thing my grandfather said to me in our phone call from his hospice bed was to inquire how my mother-in-law was doing after a kidney transplant.
More than a hundred people came to see him in hospice. It got to the point that the nurses asked if people could stop coming in droves. I talked with family I hadn’t seen in years. We huddled around the bed and shared stories. Sometimes we addressed my grandfather directly. Sometimes we didn’t. If he could hear us, and I think he could, it probably felt like a movie to him, too. He couldn’t talk or add anything to the scene. He could only listen and enjoy.
At the end of the day, my great uncle said to my grandmother that she looked too skinny. This is a woman who got up every day in hospice and took a shower and fixed her hair and wore a snappy outfit. She even flossed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “After this I’m going to get really fat. I won’t have anyone to look good for anymore.”
I want to say I was closer to my grandfather. There was a lot of love there. A mutual respect. But no grandchild can know everything about his or her grandfather. He lived a life and had numerous friends I didn’t know much about. He retired and traveled all over the country with my grandmother in an RV. Seeing Alaska. Visiting his children. Always making friends.
He understood me. I was the first of the grandchildren to go to college, and I know he was proud of me. He didn’t care that it was film school. There wasn’t a time when we talked where he didn’t tell me that he was the president of my fan club. When I told him that I could still see myself there in that magical place I envisioned as a child, the perfect life, he knew what I meant. I was going to keep working. Just like he did. Just like he wanted for all of us. Grandpa had three points on which he was very clear: You can do anything you set your mind to. You can be happy anywhere. Wherever you go, people are the same.
My grandfather is a genius. He made it sound easy. And he made it look easy, too. He made you want to be a better person. If you only listened.
Before the trip to Palatka, I hadn’t seen my grandfather in years. I felt much like Ted in Salesses’s book. When he begins courting Kate, someone he only noticed when he was younger to poke fun at, he tells her that he thought about her in the war. He knew that wasn’t true. She knew that wasn’t true. But in his new life, he wanted it to be true. Just as I wished that I had somehow been more involved in the stories taking place around me. There were a lot of things I heard for the first time, and I was infinitely sad. Ted should have been thinking about Kate. And I should have been around more.
My family loves to talk. Just ask my wife. But no one more than my grandfather. It was surely driving him crazy that he couldn’t chime in as he lay gasping for air between us. My grandmother told us that as a family, we all say goodbye in stages. Grandpa would announce that he was going to bed, and then he’d walk ten steps and start talking again. Then another ten steps. This would go on for hours until my grandmother finally approached him and said: “Say goodnight, George.” At which point my grandfather would say his final goodbye and turn in for the night. Hospice continued to tell us that each day was his last, but he stayed there, his breath hoarse and raspy, because he didn’t want to miss anything that was said.
In The Last Repatriate, one of the most moving images comes toward the end when Ted has been arrested and Kate visits him in jail:
“My daddy don’t want me coming here no more,” she says lightly, as they part. Her eyes leave two wet spots on his shirt, as if she is looking out from his insides.
When it was time for me to go, my grandfather still hadn’t said goodnight yet. I hugged my grandmother and my tears soaked into her sweater. It was exactly as Salesses had said. Each of us that visited, or were carrying him in our thoughts, had those tear marks on our shoulders. It wasn’t just one person he was looking out of. It was all of us.