Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Joy of Number 5 (Fiction)

Originally posted July 5.

The Will
by Paul Nichols

More short fiction from my forth-coming book, We Found the Vacuum Cleaner.

I was there to drive Gramps to the hospital and was surprised to see him at his front gate waiting.

“Something I want to say first: I want you and Marilyn to split up my stuff,” he told me. “I’ve done up my will to say so.” Gramps wheezed at the end of every sentence.

“That’s real nice, Gramps,” I told him. “But you don’t have to. I’m in good shape. Marilyn’s old man is a millionaire a few times over. He runs those hospitals, you know.”

He held up a hand to shush me. “Sell the house”—he paused for a bigger breath—“and get a little pocket money. I got that little piece of land over in Arkansas. I’m giving it to you. I wouldn’t sell that, if I was you." Another painful breath. "Look it over real good first.”

“Well, Gramps, you’re kind. If you ever want to change it, it’ll be okay by me.”

He wasn’t really my grandfather. We’re not related to Gramps at all. He and my parents were close friends. Everyone called him Gramps, like it was his name. His real name was George Herman, after Babe Ruth. He never liked that, so he named himself Gramps when he joined the Army Air Corps, and “Gramps” it was for the rest of his life.

I have the first post card he ever signed “Gramps.” I kept it in the basement with some other old family things.

“Folks. I have made a mistake. I don’t like this army life. But I signed up for the fight, so fight I’m gonna. Everybody says we’re going to Germ. but I’m not for sure. The food is not bad. I am well and will write you again. Regards to our friends. Gramps”

That post card was tucked into my mother’s Guest Book from the time I was a child. After my folks’ accident, Marilyn and I divided up their belongings and that’s how I have the post card. Why my parent’s had it, I don’t know. It was a normal part of our house, like a faded old saucer or something.

Our older sister Rose Ann died in 1950 when she was just eight years old. She had polio. I remember the frenzy of it all then and it seems like Gramps was in the thick of it. At least I remember seeing him at the house a lot then. I remember Rose Ann, but anymore I can’t see her in my memory. Marilyn can’t remember her at all.

“There won’t be no changing of the will,” Gramps told me. “It’s a done deal. Now, let’s go in the house and have a beer before we go.” Slowly, slowly, his old worn-out body shuffled me toward the porch. We stopped twice for him to inhale. He looked proud to open his screen door for me. “You smoke yet? We can have a little cigar, too, if you want. Come in. Come in.”

His house still carried a familiar smell from my childhood. The smell of worn-out tobacco smoke and a faithful wood cook stove. I could smell greasy pans from the other room. Curtains that I remembered as white, were the color of ancient nicotine now. Gramps’ ceramic crucifix—heavy with dust—still hung above the front door. That wall was still rust colored as it was years and years ago when my dad helped paint it.

“I bought a brand new ice box about seven, eight years ago," he told me. "Keeps the beer real cold. Go get us one, would ya?” The kitchen was dark, but familiar. Smelly. I found the beer in his unusually clean refrigerator and brought them back. Gramps’ bony, delicate hands carefully took the beer bottle. The rest of his skin was thin and leathery, beat up by eighty years of the outdoors and tobacco. “Now then—have a seat!—tell me what’s been going on. You married yet? You want a cigar?”

He didn’t offer me a chair—they were piled high with magazines—so I sat on a short stack of plastic milk cartons. “I’m too old to get married again,” I told him. I sipped his good beer, but declined the smoke. He lit up—shaking—and I recognized the same smoke aroma from years ago.

He cussed. He cussed up a firestorm sometimes, but never in the presence of women. He drank and he smoked small, narrow cigars. Yet I often heard him tell Mom and Dad, “Well, I’ll say some Hail Marys for you.” And he was reliable about his word. He once carried Marilyn three blocks through a rain and lightning storm because she was so terrified. He gave me a whipping one time for climbing on his fence.

“I told you not to do that, didn’t I?” I was too stunned to cry. “I only done that cuz I know your daddy would, too. You can tell him if you want. I ain’t gonna, though.” I never told.

In awhile Gramps gave me the key to his house. It was time to leave. “Now look,” he said, “just between the two of us, there’s a whole box of them little cigars on my dresser. Bring me one or two tomorrow, will ya?”

I promised I would. “I got one in my sock right now. Don’t say nothin’.”

Outside by the curb, he looked back at his old house and yard. "I gave my dogs to the manager down at the John Deere place. He's got a place where they can run." He turned to let me help him into the car. I could tell Gramps was nervous, but he quietly hummed, “Let the sun shine in, Face it with a grin…,” a children’s song I hadn’t heard for quite a few years. I wished my kids knew this rough, kind and gentle man. I wish I had known him better. How much more would I have known about him?

An orderly greeted us at the hospital, helped Gramps into a wheel chair and pushed him to the admittance office.

And that’s where Gramps died. His gruff and kind old heart stopped and before he slumped over he was already in heaven. There were no relatives to grieve and no friends to cry. Even I was out parking my car. No one tried to revive him. I think it would be nice to go so quick and so quiet.

After probate, Gramps’ lawyer finally gave me the deeds to the old house and to ten acres of property in Arkansas. His liquid assets—“…which are quite substantial…" the lawyer pointed out—were distributed among several parochial schools around the state. And to his own parish church, of course.

There was nothing of value in his house. I kept a few mementos: a pocket knife, his out-of-date passport; one little cigar, the dusty crucifix. Marilyn and I quickly sold the property, then drove to Arkansas.

“You the folks that’s supposed to come out and take a look?” a young man asked.

“I am. This is my sister and brother-in-law,” I said.

“They said you was coming,” the young man said. “Ol’ Gramps was a good ‘ol boy, wasn’t he?” We all agreed while we shook hands. “Last time I seen him was when I hired on here. He always give my kids something for Christmas. Gimme a bonus ever' year, too.”

“Well, there ain’t much to this little place,” the man said, “but it all works real good. I’d like to stay on if I can. Been working it eight years now.”

The ten acres were bare except for tall grass and a working oil well.

Marilyn and I did a title search and saw our life map unfold before our eyes. Our folks bought that plot of land before Dad went to the war. Apparently, Mom was to sell it if Dad didn’t come home. But he did come home. But then came Rose Ann’s polio, all her medical bills and finally her funeral. Then Dad tearfully sold the little piece of land to Gramps for enough money to pay the expenses. Then our parents died in that accident. Then came the oil. Rose Ann, Mom, and Dad always had attractive, well-kept grave sites. Then came Gramps’ will.

When I got home again, I framed Gramps’ old post card and hung it next to his cleaned up crucifix.

© 2007 Paul Nichols

Way back when I was in college, our first day's assignment was to write one fictional sentence. Several classes later, after we forgot about it, the professor returned the sentences to us and said, "Write a short story." So, using his technique, early this year I wrote the first sentence above. On the 4tha July, I came back to it and wrote this story. I was pleased when I finished; a little surprised how it turned out. Thank you for enjoying it. (On Tuesday, I'm going to replay "Grandpa's Story," too. Stay tuned.)

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