[This #1667 Words entry is by S. Arthur Yates.]
Me and Sue Ellen are growed now, her with a daughter of her own, a niece I’m hardly knowin’. But, all them years don’t count none as we’re sittin’ on our grandpa’s dock, swingin’ our legs over the side.
The river’s ridin’ low this year – Daddy says the cities takin’ so much for drinkin’ and lawns and such there’s not enough for the farms and fish. I have to stretch just to get a toe in. Sue Ellen can’t even touch.
She stares at my arms and chest, obviously lookin’ at my ink. “Four new ones,” she says. “Can’t say I’m a fan.”
“When you’re down state, you gotta pick a side if you wanta survive. They help keep you safe. It’s a small price.”
She turns away and puts both arms behind her, and leans back on ‘em. She sits there a while, watchin’ wind ripples on the water. “You done with jail this time?”
There it is. Knew it were comin’. “Yeah. I’m puttin’ Jessie behind me. I figure everything I done stupid, I done for her. She come to visit once when I were in County. Never saw her again. She’s like a deer tick, an’ I just gotta dig her out an’ move on. One more nail and I’m a three-timer. That’s real time; at least a dime.”
“How ‘bout you,” I ask. “Daddy says you threw Billy out again. He ain’t beatin’ you is he?”
“Not if he don’t wanna meet the backside of my skillet. He was just sittin’ round, doin’ nothin’. I still had to pay May Belle to watch Beth, ‘cause I couldn’t trust him to watch his own damn daughter while I was at work. Him and his buddies drinkin’ beer and stuff. It was all bad, with only ten minutes of good. An’ not that good.”
I don’t say nothin’. She’s workin’ it out just fine without me. She knows I’ll be there if she’s needin’ me. I don’t gotta be sayin’ it.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Sue Ellen said. “Grandpa’s failin’ fast, and Daddy can’t run the farm by himself. You are stayin’, right?”
“If they’ll let me. They both got reason to be sayin’ ‘no’. Pa specially. But it’s Grandpa I feel more. Pa an’ me always fought. But Grandpa were nothing but nice. I had no call to be takin’ my theivin’ out on him. I tell ya, Sue Ellen, that look on his face as I stood there on the stoop, my hands cuffed in front of me, as Officer Mike handed him back Grandma’s stuff. Daddy were yellin’ and screemin’, but he just stood there – never said a word. I could see in his face I hurt him to the quick.
“Late at night, layin’ on my bunk in prison – the sounds of men snorin’ an the smell of sweat all around – I’d see him standin’ there, all quiet. Then I’d see Ma in her Sunday best, you and me hangin’ behind her, talkin’ to Reverend Turner. I’d think ‘bout ‘lil Beth an that I never even saw her. Ya, who I were back then ain’t who I wanna be. I’m gonna make it work this time. I gotta make it work this time.
“Just keep your head an’ don’t grab the hook if Daddy says somethin’.”
I figured that didn’t need no reply, so I laid back on the dock, my head resting on twenty-eight years of weathered memories. Sue Ellen sits a bit more, then lays down too, shading her eyes from the sun by puttin’ her arm over ‘em.
I musta dozed off ‘cause the next thing I know the dock is swayin’ as Sue Ellen gets to her feet. “Where ya goin’?” I ask.
“Beth should be wakin’ up from her nap and I gotta be getting supper ready.” She wipes her hands on her denim shorts an’ looks up to the house. “Who knows….”
I looked to the house, and even from here, I could see Daddy where getting’ behind on the farm. The corn needed to be in by now, but he were just startin’. An it looked like he were plannin’ to leave the north twenty-five and the east patch fallow. Grandpa never left more ‘en just one set at a time.
< * >
Grandpa’s too sickly to keep up with his personal garden this year so, the few turnips Sue Ellen found among the weeds were small and hard. But with the chicken and hush puppies it’s a good meal. Best I’ve had in a long time seein’ it’s my first home cooked in three years, four months, an’ sixteen days. Home cookin’ is like one of them spices: it makes fixin’s taste better, the way they ‘sposed to.
Beth brought a small blue plastic bowl to the table with the three turnips she dug up ‘en set ‘tween to Grandpa an me. She says they’re the best ‘cause she dug ‘em out herself. And, damn if she ain’t right. Gotta admit, I’m real please she set it ‘tween Grandpa and me rather ‘en Grandpa en’ Daddy. I think she were warmin’ to havin’ an Uncle and I know I were lovin’ hearin’ laugh and giggle. Sue Ellen’s doing a fine job.
Beth’s doin’ most of the talkin’ as four generations of Payne sit at the kitchen table with its worn black and white checkered tablecloth. I look across the table at Daddy an’ try sayin’ I were sorry. I barely get a word out when he set his fork down real hard and sits up straight, but Grandpa reaches out to each of us with his boney, spotted hands an’ just smils at me that it were okay. Daddy relaxs a little an’ smiles at his Pa. I’m guessin’ they’re thinkin’ like me, that this would be one of the last times we’d be doin’ this with us all here. That special ring a spoon makes gettin’ the last out of a servin’ bowl echoed in my heart.
Sue Ellen asks if anyone were gonna’ eat the last piece of chicken. Grandpa looked at her an’ said, in a voice that were barely a whisper, “Just like your Grandma’s.” When everyone said “no”, she helps Beth down, stacks the plates, gave the blue bowl to Beth, then headed to the sink. She wiped her cheek with her arm an’ said, “Come on honey, you can help your momma with the dishes. The men are going outside to smoke.”
Daddy gets up and helps Grandpa to his feet. I move the chair outta the way an’ wait at the screen door for ‘em, holdin’ it open as they shuffled through. Daddy gives me a slight nod as he helps Grandpa to his rocker, ‘en set down next to him as I set in the glider.
Grandpa looks small and frail, not at all the man I knowed growin’ up. The muscles are gone and his skin, like his clothes, just hang on him. His face and arms are covered with liver spots and his hair, thin and gray, is blowin’ all over his head in the breeze.
I’m the only one who still smokes, so I tapped out a Cowboy, fired up the Bic and take a deep breath. I try to blow a ring, but the wind rips it up soon as it left my mouth. A chill’s comin’, an’ rain’s in the air.
I mostly sit; let Daddy do the talkin’. We all know he’s sayin’ his goodbyes, without sayin’ ‘em.
After a bit the girls come out with a jacket for Grandpa. Sue Ellen helps him lean forward, wraps it over his shoulders then sits next to me. She lets Beth run free, keepin’ an eye on her and givin’ us as much attention as she dared.
Daddy an’ me start talking. Talk about fishin’. Talk about farmin’. Talk a bit ‘bout Ma and Grandma an’ how much we miss ‘em. Mostly just talk so’s Grandpa could hear. It’s nice to just talk to Pa. It had been too many years. Sue Ellen, she didn’t say nothin’, just set there real quiet.
The sun’s ridin’ low, the bugs bouncin’ off the kitchen screen, tryin’ to get in, when Grandpa slumps to his side an’ let out a whoosh.
We all set quiet, sayin’ our final goodbyes. Askin’ God to watch over him until we meet up again.
Sue Ellen wips her eyes with the back of her hand, gets up, walks into the yard and takes little Beth’s hand. “Come say goodbye to your Great Grandpa.” I get up and straightened him in the rocker. Daddy just sits with his head down, his lips silently moving. Sue Ellen leads Beth up on the porch, picks her up, ‘en holds her to his cheek. “Kiss him goodbye, honey.”
I watch it all through a curtain of mixed thoughts. I’m glad I got outta jail in time. Glad I got one more meal with Grandpa — glad he held on for me to make my peace. Glad he got ta go this way. If it gotta’ be, it can’t be any better.
[S. Arthur Yates is “Born, still living.” You can try to find out more about him at his website. Good luck!]
Don’t forget to tell S. Arthur Yates how much you like his story by rating it with the stars below!
You can find out more about the 1,667 Words Story Contest here.