Nick Patterson sat in the wingback opposite me, a pensive look on his face. I had one on mine, too. Our conversation had taken an unexpectedly heavy turn, and it had been well over a minute since either of us had spoken.
Something suddenly caught Nick’s eye, and he snapped out of his reverie. “What is that?” he asked, indicating something propped against one of the bookcases.
“Oh, that?” I asked, retrieving a thin, gnarled stick about three feet long with a five-inch handle. “I brought it to the club to show it to someone the other day. I must have left it here.”
I handed it to Nick. He took it in both hands and inspected it closely. Many’s the time I’ve done the same thing, simply sit and let the stick talk to me.
Time was, a stick was as much a part of formal dress as a black evening suit and opera hat. Those shiny black sticks with the silver tips and handles – like the one Peter Lorre held in The Maltese Falcon as he sat in Sam Spade‘s office and negotiated with Bogart about finding the black statue that was the stuff dreams are made of. I had the chance to buy one like it in a shop in England a few years ago, and I’ve always regretted passing it up.
The one held at that moment by Nick isn’t by any means so elegant. It’s dull brown and well-worn. It belonged to Callie Green Sizemore, my grandmother’s grandmother, a woman I never knew. She died about 60 years ago, while my father and his parents were living in Chicago. The cane passed to Jesse Sizemore, my great-grandfather. By then, Pop had five children of his own. My Grandmother Lucille was the eldest, and Dad was her only child. They’re all gone now.
Which is why I love that stick. It’s about all that’s left. Pop died in 1988 while I was a senior in high school, and the cane ended up in my possession sometime after. I don’t know any of the yarns it could spin about the days before it came to me, but I gave it one of my own when I was in 10th grade.
Pop let me borrow it for a bit part in a one-act play, The Apollo of Bellac. Jean Giraudoux’s comedy, a sharply clever period piece written during the 1940s, depicts how a young woman named Agnes sought a job at the International Bureau of Inventions – which marketed such fantastic innovations as the adjustable martini and the book that reads itself — and ended up getting engaged to its chairman of the board with the help of a mysterious little man from the Limousin region of France.
My character was Mr. Lepedura, one of the company’s directors. I was onstage for maybe 30 seconds and thought it would be neat to use the cane as part of my costume. Mr. Lepedura, upon being pronounced handsome by Agnes, transforms from a cranky, worried old geezer into a rather cheery chap, and I had the brilliant idea that I’d twirl the stick around like a baton in an act of rejuvenated youth.
Poor character choice. I spent weeks practicing my twirling routine. And the more I practiced, the worse I got. But I saved the absolute worst for the performance itself, when, in full view of the audience, I came within an inch of clocking Agnes with my venerable family heirloom. Even if I had knocked her silly, I don’t know that I’d have been more embarrassed.
Now it was my turn to snap out of a reverie. I didn’t realize I’d told the story out loud. I seriously doubt it’s one of the better tales Great-great-grandmother Callie’s stick knows, but, as silly as it probably sounds, I’m still glad to have added something to its history.
Sure, it’s just and old piece of wood. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.