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I was sent to live to with my grandfather the summer my mother tried to kill me. She was a career manic-depressive, ping-ponged between normalcy and insanity her whole life. I understand she was quite the beauty when she was younger, but by the time I arrived on the scene her looks were muted, tragic. It was something about the eyes. They looked burnt out, like old Christmas tree lights. It didn’t help that she drank.
Her drink of choice was beer, and her favorite beer was Budweiser. She drank so much she had a bottle opener tethered to her wrist with a leather lanyard. A brewski was never far from reach. She challenged anyone—neighbors, the mailman, me, the lamp—to drinking contests. We always lost—not that we ever actually competed.
There are different kinds of drunks, and my mother was the meanest-bitch-on-wheels kind. Whenever she got worked into a tizzy, she hurled bottles on shattering trajectories with walls and heads. She concussed me more than once. Jigsaw pieces of shattered glass covered the floor and worked their way between the sofa cushions. They stabbed my ass every now and then when I wasn’t careful.
Some ladies signed up with the League of Women Voters or volunteered at the library or joined the Order of the Eastern Star. My mother’s civic activity entailed shooting squirrels with a BB gun.
On weekends she sat outside our house in an Adirondack chair still dressed in her seam-stretched nightgown. She cradled a Daisy model 1894 in her lap. She looked like a bonnetless pioneer woman in a Conestoga wagon keeping an eye out for Indians. She’d wait like that for hours. Eventually the little critters capered out of their nests to dig up a nut, and that’s when she opened fire. The nonexistent kick of the BB gun was almost enough to knock her out of the chair.
One time I was scavenging worms from the muddy corner of our backyard to use with my jerry-rigged fishing pole when I heard a pop. Not unusual. Then I heard two more. It was my mother, shooting squirrels. She was missing whatever she was aiming at, but that wasn’t a surprise. She drank a six-pack of Bud for breakfast that morning. Also not unusual.
The firecracker chain of pops continued. I walked around the side of the house and looked up. A bushy-tailed, bucktoothed target leapt from limb to limb in the magnolia outside our house. BBs and bark danced around him while pulp rained down. Her right hand was a blur as it operated the lever-action. Teeth bared, face a glob of wrinkles, my mother was determined.
I curled into the smallest form I could to avoid ricochets. The squirrel meanwhile lived for a second more on a crooked branch above us, had a thought or two, then a BB lodged itself in his eye socket. The half-dead squirrel scurried along the branch that lead out over the street before slumping off the side and landing on the windshield of a pickup truck.
The driver clamped his foot on the brake pedal. The wheels smoked and screeched. A station wagon had been tailing the truck at the time and rear-ended the truck when it stopped short. The driver of the station wagon hadn’t worn his seatbelt and was ejected from his car. He broke through his windshield, rammed the truck’s tailgate, vaulted over it, and rolled end-over-end like a bowling ball until he was stopped by the truck’s cab.
When the police asked my mother if she saw what happened—she’d showered and hidden the air rifle by then—she said, “Why no, officer.”
Things went on that way for years. My mother was always in flux. Sometimes she could be a regular person, but other times she’d sit buck naked in front of the TV, cursing this and decrying that, carrying on like the host of her own talk show.
To call her crazy doesn’t do her—or the word—justice. It’s like calling a cloud white. It doesn’t capture the nuances, the variations. She binged then dieted, dyed her hair then let it grow out gray, brought men home then cursed the whole damn sex, got a job, liked it, then lost it and signed up for Welfare. Her mind was a tangle of confusions and obligations.
It all came to a head one night when my mother failed to monitor the humidifier she deployed in her room to combat her congested sinuses. The water tank ran dry. The heating element overheated and sparked. Some bed linens caught fire. Soon the whole hose was going like a horror out of Dante.
I woke to flames. Autumn colors rippled here and there. I smelled smoke. Blood coursed through me like lava. I could hear my banshee mother ranting and frothing like a Pentecostal preacher. I threw off my sheets and blundered through the house teary-eyed, blinded by the smoke. I ran my hands along the walls then felt the cool night air on my blistered face. As I cleared the building, I luckily didn’t need to stop, drop, or roll.
Some well-intentioned adults tried to get me to look away, but I stared at the fire. Heat pressed against my face. The blackened shell of our house was kith and kin to those in Blitz London and nuked Nagasaki. I hadn’t had time to save anything, but I realized there was nothing I wanted to keep from that place.
The fire simmered down, my mother did not. She punched and kicked and bit any lawman that came near her. They asked her kindly to keep calm, but she refused with her fists. Faces were bruised, lips busted. So they cuffed her and put in her in the back of a cruiser.
When all was said and done, they took her away to an institution. I can only guess she forgot about me, befriended the dust motes and the padded walls. She died there. I never visited. I had enough bad memories.
I would’ve gone to live with my father had Social Services been able to find him. Knowing my mother, she henpecked the hell out of him and scared him off. Then again he was always described as a wild-oats type. In either case, I don’t blame him.
I don’t know much about my father, but in a way I do. Whenever I made a mess of things or sassed my mother, she said, “You’re just like your father.” I didn’t have any evidence to refute her claims, so I took her word for it.
As for my mother’s side of the family, they were all dead or might as well have been. That left only one person.
When my grandfather swung by the police station in his rust bucket, he didn’t even come in to collect me. He stayed in his idling hunk-of-junk and honked the horn. Turns out he brought Murray, his golden retriever, with him and didn’t want to leave him unattended.
The last time we saw each other I was dressed in a christening gown, and he was a lean, middle-aged man. I was somewhat bigger now, and he was fat and old, his forehead lined like a music staff. He kept his boots laced loosely to allow circulation to reach his toes, his wolf gray hair high-and-tight. He had five o’clock shadow so heavy it could grate parmesan cheese. The smoldering bowl of a corncob pipe hung from his mouth.
I stood outside the wood-and-glass doors of the police precinct. I was still dressed in my pajamas. I got that sink-or-swim feeling in my gut. It knew what my head refused to believe. I was going to live with this stranger whether I liked it or not.
My grandfather must’ve thought I was afraid of Murray because he said, “Get in. He won’t bite.” So I walked down the steps and climbed in the cab.
I was greeted by cherry-scented smoke. Murray sat between us on the bench seat. My grandfather reached a sunburned arm around his fleecy, panting friend. His handshake was firm.
“Any luggage?” he asked, letting go.
“Fire,” I said and closed the door.
We didn’t say anything as we drove out past any landmarks I recognized. He didn’t ask me anything about his crazy daughter-in-law, wasn’t curious about me. This was in keeping with how he’d acted toward us for the previous twelve years. He was as tight-lipped as a coin purse.
The rocker panels shook like maracas, and warm air blew in through the open windows. The fertile reek of manure slapped my nose. I bit my nails and ran my fingertips along my lips, unsure what to say or do. My grandfather looked straight ahead at the road, and Murray gave me an encouraging lick on my cheek with his sandpaper tongue.
We drove through miles of woods and pastures. Cows and horses swished their tails in the shade, some standing, some sitting. We crested a bend in the road that counted as a hill in those flat parts. Below us was my grandfather’s sorry-looking farm.
The two-story clapboard box was penned by a white picket fence. It rose out of the grass like the backbone of a dinosaur. Zigzagging triple-rail fences compartmentalized the grounds. There was a lean-to, a chicken coop, a barn, but there were no animals or machines. In the distance trees bore down on the place like a handsaw.
We straddled the rutted and sinkhole-dotted driveway. We rolled to a stop. My grandfather cut the engine and did his best to exit the truck in a timely fashion. The sun was still out. Volcanic clouds moved across it. Shadows whipped the ground. Murray heeled.
My grandfather rubbed his whiskered face, cracked his neck, and said, “Let’s get you settled in.”
There wasn’t much to get settled seeing as I hadn’t brought anything but myself. My grandfather put me up in what was my father’s old room. It was small, boxy, and low-ceilinged like the rest of the house. It had a smothering quality. No wonder my father abandoned that place, too.
My grandparents had kept the room the way he left it. Aside from the usual furnishings—a bed, a dresser, a desk and chair—there were a few comic books, a beat-to-hell Louisville Slugger, and an unstrung acoustic guitar. What struck me was his clothes were still there, shirts on hangers in the closet, pants folded in drawers, socks rolled like hay coils. They kept everything he left behind, as if they expected him to come back and magically be a boy when he did.
The house hadn’t been cleaned since my grandmother died. Ash smudges, crumbs, and stains of all stripes covered the unfinished floors. Encased in wood, the TV set was more furniture than high-tech appliance. It was good for static and little else. The drapes and occasional rug were moth- and mouse-eaten, the upholstery split at the seams and elsewhere. My grandfather had fashioned himself a cinderblock-and-plank bookshelf in the living room to hold his numerous issues of Field & Stream. There were no photographs, and the telephone never rang.
Living with my grandfather was never comfortable, but it was interesting. We did our best to get along which meant staying out of each other’s way. My grandfather spent a lot of time engaged in manly rituals. He tamed his shaggy lawn with a push mower then collected the trimmings with a toothless rake. He tinkered with his starter solenoid, topped the truck off with oil.
I, on the other hand, did nothing. The immobilizing heat was uniform throughout the house, and my father’s clothes sweat-stuck to my skin. It was a bit cooler at night, but even then, when I closed my eyes, it was hard to tell where my body stopped and the air began. I often laid on the floor and thought of icebergs and snowflakes, a delta of sweat pooling at the base of my spine.
My grandfather didn’t seem to mind the inferno temperatures. He stayed hydrated with coffee, chugged it like it was iced tea. It was the instant, freeze-dried crap all the cream and sugar in the world couldn’t improve, and sweat pearled on his face with each swig.
When I tired of doing nothing, I spent long afternoons looking through my grandfather’s vintage postcard collection and boxes of 78s and the Remington 870 he kept above the fireplace in the upturned hooves of a deer.
Murray kept tabs on me, shadowed my every move. He wasn’t very stealthy. I heard him come and go, his nails gently scratching the floor. He sometimes sat with me, his tail swishing like a feather duster when I petted him. He poked my free hand with his wet nose, barked, and turned up his head whenever I ignored him.
One day my grandfather said he was going into town to run some errands and wanted to know if I’d come with him. I said yes, and we loaded into the truck.
At each stop, the dust catching up with us, he said he’d only be a sec. He was usually longer than that. He apologized about the wait, said the guys who ran the stores had saved up a bunch of good jokes or what have you. We hit the bank, the tobacco emporium, the hardware store, the grocer, and sometimes when he came out, brown paper bag in hand, someone tagged along beside him.
“That him?” they asked.
“He’s gonna be living with me for awhile,” my grandfather said.
Then they introduced themselves. I shook their hands, and hearing that, hearing my grandfather say I was going to be around for awhile, made me smile.
My only real complaint was my grandfather’s cooking skills, or the lack thereof. Mostly we ate sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly. Bologna and cheese and mustard. It was bachelor food, the kind you eat alone in your underpants in the kitchen late at night. One evening my grandfather spiced things up with a dinner of beans and Shake ’n Bake chops, and it was during that dinner my grandfather asked if I’d ever been hunting.
“No,” I said, looking to Murray for guidance. He sat on his haunches by the stove, sniffing the molasses-heavy air. He licked the barbs of his teeth and was no help at all.
My grandfather wiped his hands on his grass-stained overalls and puffed his pipe. He thought a minute then moved the shank and bit to the corner of his mouth and said, “We’ll go tomorrow.” It sounded like his mouth was full of cotton balls.
He tapped the embers out of his pipe into an ashtray, planted his elbows on the table, and started eating again.
My grandfather never slept in, and the morning of the hunt was no exception. At 5:00 a.m. he shook me from dreams I don’t remember. Outside, a distant tractor sputtered. Backfires cleared away the last of my sleepiness, and I changed into a denim shirt, olive pants, and boots.
I slunk down the staircase, my hand on the scummy banister. My grandfather and Murray were waiting at the door, shrouded in wisps of smoke. Murray trotted back and forth, but my grandfather stood there as if chiseled from granite.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
He wore a bright orange shooter’s vest with quilted shoulders. Epaulets lined the front and were filled with 12 gauge #8 birdshot shells. He held the Remington in one hand and a leash in the other. I stopped beside them and stroked Murray’s head.
“Here,” he said and handed me Murray’s leash.
I fastened the brass clip to the D-ring on his collar and looped the leash over my wrist. We headed out. The screen door mousetrapped behind us.
There were no clouds that morning. Weeds bloomed waist-high. A bath of pollen coated everything. As we walked, my grandfather fed four shells into the magazine and pumped one into the chamber. It was dark, but I could see, and we headed out past the rundown corncrib, all the way to the tree line.
The trees were as round as cathedral pillars, and they closed in behind us as we moved deeper into the mix of dead and living things. It was quiet. Neither one of us made a peep. Even the crickets didn’t play their strange music.
Murray pulled against his leash, practically strangled himself. His nose twitched, overpowered by a million different smells. The way my grandfather held the shotgun, the barrel dangled just above the dead-leaf floor.
Footpaths crisscrossed the forest like worn-out shoelaces, and we studied the undergrowth. The smell of decay was stronger here. Heavy dew soaked the cuffs of our pants and Murray’s fur. My toes grew cold. Sunlight sliced through the leaves and cooked the moisture into mist.
Then my grandfather’s two-ton footsteps fell silent, and he touched my shoulder. I stopped, too. He shouldered the Remington.
Up from the grass came a common pheasant in a flash of dappled feathers. White, brown, orange, green. Its dorsal feathers flailed behind it like quill pens. It beat its wings and fixed us with one of its blood splatter-ringed eyes.
My grandfather pulled the trigger. I don’t know what kind of sound I was expecting, but the blast split wide the silence and perhaps something inside my ears. I was struggling to reign back Murray, so I wasn’t able to plug them. They rang for quite some time.
As it happened, my grandfather missed, and the crows of the pheasant echoed into nothingness. Gunpowder stunk up the air, tasted like metallic pepper. He stared at his shotgun with disappointment.
“You wanna go at the next one?” he asked.
We traded off. I got the Remington, and he got Murray. He showed me how to stand, like a boxer, my weak side toward the target, my right leg straight but not stiff, my left leg bent, a buttress to lean forward on. He showed me how to sight along the ridge of the blue steel barrel, my cheek flush with the stock. Then, when I was ready, he told me to squeeze the trigger, just squeeze. And that was it.
My hands trembled, but I cycled the weapon and picked up the now cool cartridge. I handed it to my grandfather for safekeeping. Murray whinnied, and my grandfather grunted.
Second by second some awful feeling entered my body. It pulsed with something I had no word for then and couldn’t name now. I felt dread and wonder and power. I felt changed. If my mother or father had been there, spying, I’m not sure they would’ve recognized me.
The forest asked its question, and the three of us gave our answer. Together we wove through the ironclad trees, moving deeper into the quiet.