My grandfather had great pockets. He wore denim shirts with mother of pearl snaps, and in the left breast pocket he usually carried a pack of smokes. Sometimes he’d go on a roll your own kick, and that’s when his shirt pockets were the most interesting: a drawstring bag of tobacco in one and cigarette papers in the other.
He carried a shiny silver lighter, too, that he flicked open on his pants leg before cupping his hands around his cancer stick and lighting it up. The lighter needed a wick, a flint, and fluid, none of which he kept in his pockets but were fascinating nonetheless. Watching him maintain his lighter was like watching him clean one of his muzzle loaders.
The lighter lived in the same pocket as his knife, which was a practical thing that he sharpened regularly on an oiled stone. The blade folded into the knife’s pearlescent handle, no springs or locks or jagged things meant to cause extra damage. It was a tool for cutting string and fishing line, sharpening carpenters’ pencils and dislodging splinters.
His other pants pocket held coins and keys and jingled like a sleigh bell. Men carried many keys back when my grandfather was busy killing himself with the things in his shirt pockets: car keys, house keys, office keys, padlock keys, mailbox keys. I’m sure there were keys on those rings that no longer mattered, and probably some that grandsons didn’t need to know about.
In his back pockets he carried a wallet and a handkerchief. Of all the many utilitarian functions that a handkerchief serves, we chose to obsess over the least dignified. But think of all the other things that versatile little cloth can do – dry a tear, wrap a wound, clean a hand, provide an emergency tail for a grandchild’s kite.
As for his wallet, it bulged not with money or plastic but with photographs of his grandchildren, tucked into an accordion-fold plastic sleeve that the old guy liked to flutter open like some kind of trick deck of cards.
My father’s pockets were much the same, but without the smoking paraphernalia and with the addition of a comb and a pocket watch. He worked around industrial machinery and couldn’t wear a wristwatch. I loved playing with his pocket watch, pressing the button on the stem and watching the clamshell pop open to reveal the surprise inside: time tick tick ticking away.
When he arrived home from work my father spilled the contents of his pockets onto a low table near the door. My idea of helping my mother clean was to organize these things – sort and stack the change, fold his handkerchief, align his pocket things in neat rank and file.
I’m a man now, and I have my own pockets. In one is a computer pretending that it’s a telephone, in the other rests two keys. Often I have a music player in with the keys — 33,000 songs in my pants. I still carry a wallet, but it holds no photos. Occasionally a younger friend gives me grief about my old-timey billfold. I don’t mind, though. A wallet is all I have left.
I don’t know why any of this talk about the things we keep in pockets matters, but it does. If I knew why I’d probably cry, and that would be bad. I don’t have a handkerchief.
—Originally published on Mauldin.patch.com