My great uncle Paul, after whom I’m named, burned his hands badly a few years before I was born. He drove a propane truck, delivering the volatile gas to old tanks around the countryside, shiny vessels we used to pretend were spacecraft. Climbing on one, you could hear the gas hissing within, and once, when he was clamping the hoses from truck to tank, a stray spark struck and set his hands aflame.
The elder men of my life never spoke of pain, so I imagine him quietly beating out the fire, flailing his hands against his chest, his shirt smoldering, the skin sloughing off, until the fire was finally out. He had several surgeries after the accident, skin grafted from his legs onto his hands, the red fingers turning pink, then finally fading to flesh. The surgeries left him with scars, and the grafts formed webs between each finger.
Something else that happened long before I was born was that he used to get drunk every Saturday night downtown and shoot pool and chase women and finally get carted home by the police. I never knew that part of him, except for how it would swim through me. The man I knew was quiet, with big red hands, a man who mowed paths through the trees and high weeds between our houses so that I might come visit, although I rarely did. As I grew older, I went to see him less and less. Instead, I spent my nights in town, shooting pool and chasing women, drinking too much and occasionally running afoul of the police.
Thirty years after he burned his hands, after the webs formed, when I brought my infant daughter to see him, he could not spread his fingers far enough to play peek-a-boo with her, though he tried. He had grown very old and could hardly hear, but his lined face lit up like fire every time I brought her, and his big hands stretched out to hold her.
The night his breath blew out for the last time I drank too much at my computer trying to write him back to life. The next morning I woke in pain, the sun coming too strong through the window. I put my hands over my eyes, and saw through the sunlight the thin web of veins in my fingers, the blood running toward my heart.
Paul Crenshaw’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others.