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Handwritten is a place and space for pen and paper. We showcase things in handwriting, but also on handwriting. And so, you'll see dated letters and distant postcards alongside recent studies and typed stories. 

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The Great Burn

Brett Rawson

BY BRETT RAWSON

A month after my grandma passed away, my grandpa, Gramps, went through the items Nana left behind. In her dresser, he found a box he'd never seen before. On the edge of their bed, he opened it. Inside, he found forty-seven years' worth of letters: my grandma had kept every single letter he had ever sent her. In all that time they lived, and moved, together, he'd never come across her, or his, letters. He re-read every single one. And then he burned them all.  

He told me this at a bar one night. I'd flown down to visit him for two days. I had taken a similar trip the year before when Nana was still around.

I can't express the closeness that came with visiting my grandparents alone. We lived states away, and so our time together was always a reunion, a two-dimensional sort of experience. By the time we'd get caught up, reunions would always just end, and so we never did talk about the future, or dreams. But on these solo visits, it was the opposite. Instantly diving into the immediate, we hardly worried about anything behind us. When I received news that my grandma passed, I sent Gramps a note. It'd be good to see him face-to-face in the near future, I wrote. He replied: It would be good if you came down here. And so I did.

*

I had no idea what to say. I felt his words rippling across my skin. And then I burned them all. For some amount of time, we sat, sipped, and stared into faraway corners of the bar, or a time-lapse of memories. At some point, I asked him why, and at some point, he replied:

"Some things are meant to remain between two people." 

*

One of the afternoons, he took me on a tour. 

"Get in," he said. I hopped in his golf cart. "Wear this," he said. I put on a large straw hat. 

We whizzed alongside traffic until we reached the golf course. I'd been there plenty of times before, but it was always to play golf. This time, it was to eat a hot dog and bag of chips. It was their routine: Gramps and Nana hadn't played golf for a few years, but they still went to the course together for lunch. He slid the plastic plate toward me.

"Eat up," he said. I did.

On the way back to his unit, he stopped in the golf cart in the middle of the road.

"See there," he said, pointing to a Hampton Inn. "That is the only hotel chain your grandmother and I have ever stayed at. For forty-seven years," he added. He slapped the accelerator down and we sped home. 

Inside, we retreated to the two recliner chairs in his study. Gramps turned on the television, switched to football, and pressed mute. Ten minutes later, he was fast asleep. Weirdly, I never did mind it when he snored. It meant he was somewhere safe.

*

The final morning, we went out for breakfast. It was the same restaurant they always went to. We sat at the table they always sat at. He pointed at two items on the menu.

"Every Saturday," he said, "your grandmother and I always come here. She sits there," he said pointing at me, "and I sit here. I always order the eggs, hash browns, and sausage. Your grandmother," he said, "always ordered it with bacon."

When the server came, he ordered for both of us.

"I'll have the eggs, hash browns, and sausage. He'll have it with bacon." 

*

Gramps hadn't been to a bar in forty-seven years. I didn't know that. I did know alcohol had bruised him in his earlier lives, but I was never allowed entrance into that past, though I have an active imagination.

After he told me about the great burn, I didn't know what to say. I recalled a story my parents had told me over and over again. Never break their spirits. That's what Gramps had told my parents when my brother and I were born. It was his only piece of advice. They followed it to a T. Though I'd heard it hundreds of times, here at the bar, it was finally beginning to make sense.

I reminded him of his words. His stare remained fixed off into the distance. Only briefly did he return:

"All I remember are the things I've done wrong." 

He ordered a second beer for me and a schooner for himself. When they arrived, he spun his around. "There are some things I would like to tell you about," he said. 

*

The final morning, I arrived ten minutes early. According to Gramps, this was on-time. 

The door was wide open when I arrived. I walked in and called his name. No response. I went into the living room. There was a crossword puzzle and pencil on the table. Every morning, this is what Gramps would do: complete a crossword puzzle. I called his name again. No answer. I looked at the crossword puzzle. He had only filled in six answers: two rows, and three columns. I had never seen his crossword puzzles incomplete. He walked out and saw me looking at the crossword.

"I didn't need that schooner," he said. He threw a book on the table.  "I have some things to do," he said. "Read this. Coffee is in the pot."

It was a book one of his former students had written and sent to him, Escape from Hat. I poured myself a cup of coffee and at eight in the morning, I sat down, creased the cover, and finished the book around ten-thirty. Gramps was still writing letters. This time, they weren't to my grandma, but about her. Each day after her passing, he'd sit down to reply to the letters he had been receiving from friends and family.  

That day at the airport, we hugged goodbye. It would be the last time I'd hug him.

*

I never told anyone about the letters. Part of me doubted it happened. Or maybe I didn't want to believe it at first. It became such a fictional moment that I'd have to revisit my journal to prove that it happened: after the bar that night, I went back to my hotel room with a fresh six pack, and put down three or five while writing everything I could remember from that night. It's there, in that brown, kraft journal. 

It wasn't until Gramp's celebration and ceremony that I brought this up to one of my uncles. I asked if he knew about the letters. He didn't. He asked the other brothers, and things began to spiral. What had I done? No one had heard about these letters. Eyebrows turned, smiles straightened.  

They were upset, and I understood it. In the days and months to follow, I had moments of regret. Should I have said anything? The letters were gone, and all that was left was a void. Their history was hard enough. But now, the possibility of knowing more loomed in the air. And in the wake of their absences, we now felt the loss more completely. But maybe there is a different way to look at this. That knowing those two little facts about them - that Nana kept all of his letters, and that Gramps re-read them all prior to lighting a last match - tells us just as much about who they were and who they were together.