Below is a short story I wrote a little while ago. I was thinking about it, went back and re-read it, did a little nip/tuck, and decided it should get out in the world. It’s about time I posted something again, anyway. Please enjoy.
By Robert Burke Warren
Chris Shepard’s father Lee, drunk on cheap wine, plowed his car into a ravine on the outskirts of Atlanta, leaving his estranged wife a modest life insurance policy. Chris’s mother CeCe embraces this sad windfall, purchasing a new house, a VW Super Beetle, a dresser drawer of bellbottoms and a closet full of peasant blouses. On the day she says goodbye to her job in advertising and enrolls in law school, she starts calling herself a hippie.
CeCe encourages Chris, ten, and his older brother Eddie, eleven, to grow their hair. The black kids at school take notice and call them both “cream head.” On Saturdays and Sundays CeCe takes them to arts festivals, Vietnam War protests and communes, often bringing her law books.
On a midsummer evening in 1972, two years after Lee’s death, CeCe piles Chris and Eddie into the Super Beetle and sets off for Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to visit Lee’s parents at 2978 Shenandoah Drive, AKA Shenandoah House. Grandmother Flossie and Granddaddy Buck haven’t seen their daughter-in-law and two grandchildren since Lee’s funeral. Phone calls, cards, and money, but no visits. Before the death of their only child, Flossie and Buck had seen a lot more of the Shepards.
After an eight-hour drive, they arrive in the cool of the wee small hours. The Kapstone Paper Mill stink wafts over the Super Beetle, awakening the boys in their backset cave of blankets, pillows, Sesame Street puppets and stuffed animals they’ve outgrown. The fart jokes fly.
“It’s the smell of money, kids,” Chris says in a gravelly voice, imitating Granddaddy Buck, who worked at Kapstone for forty years. Eddie makes fart sounds in his armpit. The whole family laughs, punch drunk.
They slip in to the three-bedroom bungalow and hug Grandma Flossie in the dreamy darkness. She can’t believe how twenty-four months have made the boys into “little men.” She gasps at Chris and Eddie’s shoulder-length hair, and laughs as she tucks them in like toddlers. They fall asleep to the sound of Granddaddy Buck’s snores in the next room.
Around 10 the next morning, Chris and Eddie toss a Nerf ball in the piney shade of the neighborhood park. Two barefoot crew-cut boys amble up.
“Hey Travis,” the smaller one says, “think these hippie boys know what a poontang looks like?”
“No, D-Ray,” Travis drawls, stroking the feeble beginnings of a blond moustache, “these two look like faggets to me. Just kiddin’.”
“Yeah,” D-Ray says, “we just kiddin’. Where ya’ll from?”
“We’re from Atlanta,” Eddie says.
“Big city boys,” D-Ray says, nodding. He grins at his big brother, exposing two rows of brown teeth.
“Yeah,” Travis says, picking at a scab on his chin. “Big city boys.”
D-Ray tells his new friends he’s ten, but he looks younger, partially due to a disproportionately large head. His tennis ball scalp sports a wishbone-shaped forceps scar on either side. Faint brows bisected with scars twitch above two hyper-alert, bright blue eyes.
Travis towers over D-Ray, with a significantly smaller head, broader shoulders and slaty, droopy eyes. Burst pimples accentuate his sharp cheekbones.
“Ya’ll can hang around with us,” D-Ray says. “If you want.”
“Stay away from those Thrasher boys,” Flossie says the next morning in the breakfast nook. She scrapes scrambled cheese eggs onto Chris’s plate. Chris raises a cool little glass of orange juice and clinks it with his brother’s.
CeCe sleeps on in the room in which her former husband grew up. Pictures of Lee Shepard adorn the walls around the nook, faded portraits in dusty frames; sailor suits, prom tuxes, dress blues.
“Flossie,” Eddie says through a mouthful of margarine-soaked toast, “what’s the problem with Travis and D-Ray?” He pushes tangled, curly hair from his forehead and reaches for the funnies.
Flossie’s fleshy arms wobble over the table. “Those boys’ve got it hard,” she says. She takes her skillet to the sink.
“They’re trash, white trash,” Granddaddy Buck says as he shuffles past her. “They got ringworm, I bet. God knows what else.” He goes to a shelf beside the open back door and reaches into a large tin of walnuts, pulling out several fistfuls. He drops them into a small, crumpled paper bag.
Flossie acknowledges her husband with a frown. She lumbers back to the table with a pitcher of Minute Maid, which Chris tips to refill his glass.
Granddaddy Buck stands at the screen door and peers through Coke-bottle-thick glasses at the ripening day; leaves and grass shine with dew. The bushes buzz and hum. A rooster crows in the distance.
Flossie sits beside Chris in the nook, exhales the tension from her shoulders and pulls a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s from the pocket of her pink floral housecoat. Her talcum and old lady scent envelops Chris. She pulls a ceramic ashtray shaped like Florida and a matchbook from the lazy susan.
“The Thrasher boys are like something from TV,” Chris says. “We should call ‘em Jethro and Gomer!”
“Oh stop it,” Flossie grins. The tip of her smoke crackles as she inhales deep. She places it in the ashtray, exhales a plume over the table and wraps her arms around Chris’s shoulders, shaking him.
“So glad to see you!” she says with a broad smile. “Love. You. So. Much!”
Water rushes through the pipes below the linoleum as a toilet flushes in the house.
“Mom’s up,” Eddie says behind the newspaper.
Thumping footfalls in the dim hallway announce the arrival of CeCe, long dishwater hair askew, brown eyes at half-mast, knee-length tie-dyed T-shirt serving as a nightgown. Indentations of the chenille bedspread line one side of her face. An unlit Virginia Slims hangs from her dry lips.
“There she is!” Flossie jumps up and throws her arms around CeCe. CeCe crumples into the embrace, taps Flossie’s shoulder and heads for the kettle. She pulls back her hair and lights her smoke on the stovetop’s orange spiral.
“Mornin’, mornin’, mornin’ everybody,” CeCe says, spooning Nescafe into a mug. As the water comes to a boil she glances at Buck. “Time to feed your squirrels, Buck?”
Buck says nothing as he stares into the backyard.
Flossie sits back down in the nook and sighs. She looks over to her husband. “CeCe asked if – “
Buck grunts in the affirmative.
Chris watches his mother stir her coffee. “Come sit with us,” he says.
CeCe smiles from the stove but remains in the kitchen, dragging on her smoke.
Flossie looks to her daughter-in-law and back to the photos on the wall. Her eyes rest on her younger grandson.
“You’re starting to favor your daddy, Chris,” she says softly. “So handsome.”
Eddie lowers the paper. “What about me?”
“You’re the spittin’ image of Buck’s people, black Irish all over you. You’re gonna be a heartbreaker. Ain’t that right, Buck?”
Buck stares into the backyard. Flossie clucks her tongue and looks back to her grandsons. “All those years in the mill, he is deaf as a post.”
CeCe approaches the nook and stands in the doorway sipping her coffee. She closes her eyes. It will take three more cups of Nescafe before she feels “ready to rejoin the human race.” She drags deep on her smoke and turns to Buck.
“I bet the boys would like to feed the squirrels with you, Buck,” she says, loudly.
After a pause, Buck says, “No. They’d be afraid.”
Eddie calls to his grandfather. “I’m not afraid.”
“Me neither,” Chris says.
Buck shakes his head. “The squirrels. Not you.” He gives a little snort.
CeCe and Flossie roll their eyes at each other. CeCe reaches over and ruffles Chris’s wild mane, sticking out her lower lip in a mock pout. “We’ll get some of our own nuts and do it ourselves later,” she whispers.
That will never happen, Chris thinks.
Eddie sighs and goes back to the funnies as CeCe heads toward her room.
“I was up late with my books,” she says, yawning. “I’m gonna go lie down.”
“You’re doin’ a fine job with these boys, CeCe,” Flossie calls down the hall.
“Thank you, Flossie,” CeCe says from the shadows.
The screen door slams behind Granddaddy Buck as he proceeds to his bench beneath the old oak. Startled mourning doves flutter from the withering azaleas. Chris leans up to the stilled window fan and peers through the greasy, linty blades as the squirrels descend the oak and gather around the cracked patio where the mighty roots have buckled the concrete. The marble bench lists to one side on the uneven surface. Granddaddy Buck lowers his thin frame with a graceless plop, reaches in the bag and, as soon as the nut appears, a squirrel grabs it from his skeletal fingers and scurries away. Chris watches his grandfather’s wispy-haired head nod to each little rodent.
D-Ray jumps out from behind a sap-encrusted pine in the park. It’s the hottest part of the day and Chris and Eddie half-heartedly spin on a creaky merry-go-round. Cicadas chirr in the squat bushes, calling from one side of the park to the other.
D-Ray’s T-shirt dangles from his pocket, his skin-and-bones torso slick with sweat.
“Ya’ll wanna join our club?” he asks. Travis emerges from behind another pine, nodding, also shirtless but thinly muscled, with long cords of veins traversing his shoulders.
“Yeah,” Travis says. “Want to?”
“It’s the PBPH Club,” D-Ray whispers, making a big show of looking around.
“What’s PBPH stand for?” Chris asks.
“Playboy and Penthouse,” Travis says. His eyes skitter to his brother.
D-Ray says, “We found a buncha poon mags in the dumpster!”
“Yeah,” Travis nods slowly.
“So we started a club. C’mon.”
D-Ray takes off running through the pine needles, Travis at his heels. Chris and Eddie stand rooted by the rusty slide for a few seconds. D-Ray stops at the edge of the park and turns back.
“Come on! Ya’ll faggets!”
“This is a bad idea,” Chris says.
“Let’s just do it,” Eddie says. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”
The Shepard boys follow the Thrashers to a tiny, oak-sheltered street lined with broken-down bungalows and trailers. Carcasses of cars litter the curbs and yards. The further the boys walk, the more barks fill the air.
D-Ray turns onto the gravel driveway of a dilapidated brick bungalow in which a wheel-less brown Trans Am sits on blocks. Chris stiffens as a particularly savage bark gets closer. A blaze of fur turns out to be some kind of junkyard cur barreling toward them, teeth bared. Chris and Eddie run, slowing down when the barking shifts to a shriek of pain, followed by Travis and D-Ray laughing wildly.
Chris and his brother stop and turn to see the dog tethered to a taut chain wrapped around the corner of the house. The dog, covered in mud and bald patches, lunges against it, growling and whining as the metal tightens around its raw neck.
“Lady!” Travis yells as he stalks up to the dog. “No, girl, no!”
His bare foot connects with her rump, and Lady flinches and retreats to the backyard. Travis pursues her around the corner of the house, shouting.
D-Ray looks back at Eddie and Chris in the street and smirks.
“She’s in heat is all,” D-Ray says. “It’s just her way of makin’ friends!”
“Keep that goddamn dog away from me and my brother!” Eddie shouts.
“She ain’t gonna hurt you, hippie boy. She likes hippies!”
Travis reappears, wiping black smears onto his jeans. “She’s in ‘er house,” he says. He grins at Chris and Eddie. “It’s OK, hippies.”
D-Ray nods and raises his eyebrows to the Shepards. “Come on then. Ya’ll ain’t scared.”
“She’s in ‘er house, I said!” Travis yells, pleading. “I promise, swear to god, hope to die.”
“Lotta poon up there, waitin’ for you.” D-Ray thrusts his hips.
Eddie heads back up the driveway. Chris waits a few moments, then follows his older brother around the back of the house. The smell of shitty mud baking in the sun is overwhelming.
Lady’s nose pokes through a small hole in a plywood box below the bowed back porch. A chain leash dangles from a clothesline beside two pit-stained brassieres.
A dented above-ground pool dominates the backyard. On the porch, a washing machine agitates while Lady whines and scratches. The back door opens into a dim kitchen visible through a ripped screen. Gnats and mosquitoes swarm over the churned-up yard and slimy, algae-clotted pool water. Travis and D-Ray make no attempt to swat away the pests.
The Shepards follow the Thrashers around the pool, dodging piles of dogshit and mangled, mud-encrusted chew toys until they reach a crumbling board-and-batten tool shed partially consumed by kudzu and forsythia.
“This our clubhouse,” D-Ray says as he pries open the door.
Mold smell rises from the shadows within, burning Chris’s nostrils. He sneezes.
“Bless ya,” Travis says as he and his brother step into the shed.
Sunlight seeps through a vine-curtained window onto a sheet of plywood strewn with soggy sleeping bags, a Coleman cooler, Slim Jim wrappers, two plastic milk crates, and a stack of wet magazines.
D-Ray and Travis hunker down in the halflight while Chris and Eddie stand in the doorway. Chris’s eyes adjust slowly and more details come in focus. About ten centerfolds decorate the walls.
“Welcome to the PBPH Club!” D-Ray sits on a crate, smug and regal. “This meeting is comin’ to order.”
Prior to this, Chris and Eddie had only seen Playboy magazines from the sixties, bound by twine in the attic of their Atlanta grandfather. Round bottoms, the occasional nipple, coquettish looks, bunny ears. The centerfolds of the PBPH club feature much more detail, copious pubic hair and an oily sheen on the pink and red textures. The carnivorous expressions of the women elicit a deeper urge than the old-school, black-and-white, coy postures from granddaddy’s stash.
Eddie enters the clubhouse. “Whoa,” he says, squinting at a spread-eagled blonde. He laughs nervously.
Chris steps in, breathing through his mouth. The centerfolds exert a strong pull; he leans in to a slick photo of a black-haired woman stretched like a cat sharpening its claws, ass raised.
“Close the door, fag,” Travis says. “Just kiddin’.”
Chris reaches for a piece of frayed rope attached to the door. The rusted hinges creak like a thin scream. Then Chris realizes it’s an actual scream from inside the house.
Both the Thrasher boys bolt up from their crates. Lady howls in the distance.
“Mama,” Travis says. He shoves Chris and pushes open the door. “Mama…?” His voice recedes as he crosses the yard. “Mama…?”
Chris and Eddie look to D-Ray. The boy moves to the glassless shed window and peers through the tangle.
“Who’s that screaming?” Eddie asks wildly, the whites of his eyes shining. “Is that your mom?” He moves next to D-Ray and watches the house through the shed window. Chris edges to the door.
“It’s OK,” D-Ray’s face barely moves. “She’s OK.”
Another scream pierces the air. Lady’s barking has re-ignited the canine chorus in the neighborhood.
“We gotta go,” Eddie says. “Sorry.”
Chris takes the cue and exits the shed into a thicket of honeysuckle. Eddie follows, blinking in the afternoon.
“Hey! Hey!” Travis yells from the porch, waving to the Shepards. “Ya’ll know first aid?” D-Ray’s face remains in the shed window, expressionless. Travis sees his brother. “Mama cut herself. She’s bleedin’, D-Ray.”
“Did you call an ambulance?” Eddie calls across the yard. “Call an ambulance.”
“Yeah!” Chris says.
“Hell no don’t do that,” D-Ray says from the window. “Don’t do that, Travis! Don’t!”
Another scream rises from the darkness. Travis runs back inside.
Eddie looks at Chris. “You remember that Boy Scout first aid stuff?”
“I think so,” Chris says. “But we should go. We should call an ambulance.”
“I’ll use their phone.” Eddie heads for the house.
Lady snarls inside her wooden box, shaking it and pushing her entire snout through the hole in the door as Eddie and Chris mount the steps.
Soon the brothers cross a worn threshold into a dark kitchen thick with grease. Plastic wrappers crumple beneath their feet. The theme to The Price Is Right trickles in from another room. An oscillating fan turns on a crusty counter, blowing their hair, now wet against their foreheads. Brown shopping bags folded and stacked in columns reach to a half caved-in ceiling. Flies cluster in the dish-crammed sink. Blotched ceiling tiles hang like scabs from rafters drooping tatters of pink insulation. Schlitz cans tower against the side of an old smudged Frigidaire covered with colored plastic magnet letters that spell nothing. A telephone with a smashed receiver occupies the wall beside the refrigerator. Eddie frowns at it.
“Shit,” he says.
A moan draws them past a blackened stove into a close, darkened room that would have served as a dining area were it not packed ceiling-high with columns of magazines and boxes. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air with the thrift store scent of rotted fabric.
“Hello?” Eddie says into the piles as he flicks the uselesslight switch on the wall.
“Hello?” Eddie repeats. For a moment the unseen television seems to answer him with distorted applause and the thin, cheery voice of The Price Is Right host Bill Cullen. Flickering light seeps from a far corner.
Eddie squeezes through a tiny pathway, his movements creating small avalanches of junk. Boxes cascade to one side, revealing a woman sitting on the edge of a duct-taped La-Z-Boy in front of a window fan. Sweat-soaked tendrils of dirty blond hair blow around her face. A TV occupies the wall opposite, piled high with clothes and a broken-down wicker laundry basket filled with magazines. The Price Is Right casts dancing colored light across a path of carpet between the woman and the screen. Cigarette butts, charred circles and overflowing ashtrays crowd this strip of space. A shiny hunting knife gleams on the floor beside several Schlitz cans.
The wiry woman wears a flimsy waist-length nightie and black underpants. The halogen light of the TV dances over dark splotches on the leathery skin of her knobby knees and thighs. She rocks back and forth in a kind of trance, her left forearm slick with blood dripping from a purple gash on her wrist, tap, tap, tap onto a sodden newspaper on the rug. With her right hand she grasps the crook of her elbow. She gnaws a cigarette, breath coming in short gasps, sending puffs of smoke from her nose into the hazy air. Her tightly closed eyes flutter.
Travis’s head pops up from a doorway on the far side of the room. Towers of clothes and newspapers obscure his body. He holds up the terrycloth belt from a bathrobe.
“Mama how’s this?” he asks. “This a good bandage?”
The woman opens her eyes and scans the room frantically, seeking out her son’s voice. She squints at the Shepards, scans until she finds Travis. Her left breast tumbles from her nightie, the brown nipple like a third eye.
“Ya’ll brought ya’ll’s girlfriends over?” she says to her son. Ash falls from her cigarette onto her collarbone.
“They’s from Atlanta, Mama,” Travis says. “They’s boys.”
“I can make a tourniquet with that,” Chris says, reaching over a pile of Hot Wheels boxes and taking the belt. “I need a stick or a screwdriver or something.”
Travis’s footsteps boom on the floorboards as he runs through the house and rummages in the kitchen.
“I cut myself,” the woman says. “I’se trying to cut some twine so I can bind up some a my cardboard and I cut my wrist. That’s what happened.”
Chris kicks paper cups and soup cans away from the carpet next to the chair and kneels beside the woman.
“Yer a pretty thing,” she says, a yeasty whiff wafting.
A Phillips-head screwdriver enters Chris’s field of vision. He grabs it from Travis, wraps the belt around the woman’s forearm, knots it, inserts the tool into the knot and twists until the bleeding slows. As he binds the tourniquet, Mama Thrasher removes her right hand and pulls her cigarette out.
“Where’s D-Ray?” she asks Travis, blowing smoke into Chris’s eyes.
Travis says nothing for a few moments. He stares at Chris’s handiwork.
“Goddammit, Travis, where’s my D-Ray? You deaf, shit-for-brains?”
Travis snaps to attention. “He’s in the clubhouse, Mama.”
“I want my D-Ray!”
Travis hustles out of the room. The screen door bangs.
“You should get to a doctor,” Eddie says. “Is there another phone in the house?”
“Ha,” the woman says, leaning back. “No sir, no. No doctor. I’ll be just fine now. No doctor. Them doctors don’t know shit, tryin’ to run my life. No.”
Chris remembers his scoutmaster telling him that a tourniquet left on too long can result in amputation. Ruined flesh. He looks to Eddie with silent desperation. Eddie nods.
“OK, Ma’am, we’re gonna go now,” Eddie says and wends his way through the trash, each step bringing a rain of objects.
Chris takes a long look at the woman. Her eyes watch the TV but her mind, clearly, is elsewhere. She bites down on a pack of Marlboros, pulling a fresh smoke from the pack with her teeth. The purple wound at her wrist glistens in the TV light.
“Tell my D-Ray get his ass in here and get me a Band-Aid,” she says through the side of her mouth, her eyes never leaving The Price Is Right.
“Yes ma’am,” Chris says, then turns and follows his brother.
D-Ray gazes into the fetid pool, his forearms draped over the edge. Travis stands beside him, hunched over, frowning. He looks confused.
Chris and Eddie approach the Thrashers.
“Uh… D-Ray?” Chris says. The boy does not look up. “Your mom says she needs a Band-Aid…”
Eddie pulls at Chris’s shirt. “Come on, we gotta get going.”
This rouses D-Ray. “I knew ya’ll was faggets. Don’t wanna see no more poon, huh?”
“We’ll be back,” Eddie says over his shoulder while he and Chris walk toward the driveway. When they reach the street, Chris looks back to see D-Ray and Travis standing in the gravel by the Trans Am, watching them go. Dogs bark everywhere, jumping against chain link fences, straining against leashes. The faint paper mill smell laces into the thick summer air.
“Look at your hands,” Eddie says, speeding up his pace as they get further from the Thrashers.
Mama Thrasher’s blood stains Chris’s palms. He wipes them on his jeans and feels his breakfast starting to rise in his throat. He swallows hard against his dry insides and the nausea passes.
When they reach the playground they run, kicking up pine needles. Their bare feet slap the hot, fractured sidewalk when Shenandoah House appears in the distance.
The VW rumbles out front, a puff of smoke rising from the tailpipe. When they reach the car, they find their mother inside, her face streaked with tears, her hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. She sees them, wipes her eyes and nose with her fingers and forces a fake smile.
“Hey boys,” she says, sniffing. “Get in the car.”
“We gotta tell you something, Mommy,” Eddie says, gasping for breath.
“Yeah,” Chris says, “there’s this redneck lady…”
“Get in the car, boys. We’re going home.”
Chris sees their suitcases and pillows loaded into the backseat.
“What? Why?” Chris asks. “It’s not time to go.”
Flossie waddles down the steps, her face pinched.
“CeCe, please,” she says. “Please stay.”
Granddaddy Buck stands at the door, shielded by the screen, bag of walnuts in hand. His mouth quivers in a hard line.
“Ya’ll are too big!” he yells. “We ain’t got the room no more!”
Flossie turns back to him. “Goddamn you, Buck. You are hateful! It’s nobody’s fault what happened! Nobody’s fault!”
“She oughtta be ashamed!” he yells back.
CeCe revs the VW engine. “Get in the fucking car, boys! Now!”
Flossie turns and hobbles back up the porch steps. She steps up to the screen and raises her fist. Buck disappears into the house. She turns back to the rumbling Volkswagen.
“Wait!” she calls. “Wait!”
“That man’s a sonofabith, Flossie!” CeCe says through angry sobs. “Just like his son! I’m sorry! Get in the car, boys!”
Chris and Eddie go to the passenger door, fling it open and crawl into the tiny cave of pillows and blankets.
Flossie stands crying at the driver’s side window while CeCe sobs against the steering wheel. Flossie reaches in and touches her daughter-in-law’s tanned shoulder, bare in a black sundress. CeCe flinches and Flossie withdraws her hand and lowers her head. Tears fall onto her housecoat.
After a few moments Eddie leans in to the front seat.
“There’s a hurt lady in Redneck Town.” His voice shakes.
Flossie’s head jerks back like she’s waking from a catnap. “What honey?”
“The Thrasher boys’ mom cut her arm real bad,” Chris says, squeezing his favorite pillow with sweaty palms.
For a moment the Super Beetle fills with everyone’s labored breathing.
CeCe turns around to look into the backseat, her face puffy, eyes a mess of spidery veins.
“How bad?” she says.
“Yes,” Flossie leans into the window. “How bad? What happened? Are you two OK?”
“We’re OK,” Eddie says.
“It’s bad,” Chris says. “I made a tourniquet.”
“What?” CeCe snaps, annoyed. “Where is she?”
“I know where they live,” Flossie says. “Their daddy died around the same time Lee did. Worked at the mill. Cancer.”
“What happened?” CeCe asks her sons.
“She cut herself with a knife cutting twine,” Eddie says. “It’s real bad.”
“That woman’s always in some kind of trouble,” Flossie says, clucking her tongue. “Those boys’ll be taken away from her soon.”
CeCe laughs drily. “God. What next?”
“I’m gonna make the call,” Flossie heads to the house. “Please wait. Buck’s just in a mood. He’ll get better.”
“No, Flossie,” CeCe calls after her mother-in-law. “We’re gonna go…”
Chris can’t find his Bert and Ernie puppets.
“Mommy, where are my puppets?” he asks.
“Goddammit,” CeCe says, lighting a cigarette, “they’re not back there?”
Chris and Eddie look in the many layers of their hutch. No puppets.
“I’ll go get ‘em,” Chris says. “I think I know where they are.”
“OK,” CeCe sighs. “Better you than me. If I see that jackass again I’ll scream.”
Chris pushes the passenger seat up, exits the rumbling car and heads up the walk and into the dark, cool house.
Flossie speaks on the phone, reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose, telling the ambulance where to go. She licks her index finger and thumbs through the white pages.
“Q… R… S… T… T-e… T-h…here it is. Thrasher. 166 Hawthorne. I know the house. It’s a brick bungalow. Yes. My name is Flossie Shepard… I’ll spell it for you…”
Chris hurries to the breakfast nook, where he’d done a puppet show for his grandmother earlier in the day; sure enough, Ernie and Bert lay on the chair. He reaches down to grab them and sees Granddaddy Buck through the whirring window fan, sitting on the bench, his back to the house. Squirrels surround the old man, little gray bodies tense, beady eyes alert, tails twitching as they wait. Buck pays them no attention. His bowed head rests on his chest and his shoulders shudder in the dappled light of the hundred-year-old oak.
The many faces of Chris’s dead father look down on him from the picture frames scattered along the yellowed wallpaper of the nook. For the first time he realizes all are from Lee Keane’s childhood, when the man was a boy grinning into the future, clear-eyed and confident. There are none from adulthood, when marriage, parenthood and alcohol bore down on him.
Chris leans in to a smaller photo that bears a particularly eerie resemblance to him; a school photo from the fifties. His breath clouds the smeary glass as he squints. My eyes are different, he thinks. My eyes are different.
Flossie touches Chris’s shoulder. He jumps, turns and sinks into her smoky sea smell as she wraps him in an embrace. The VW car horn bleats. Flossie releases him, steps away and meets his gaze. For a moment she seems angry, her teary, dark blue eyes darting from the photos to the window and back to her grandson. She draws a rattling breath and pastes on a smile.
“Mommy forgot to pack my puppets,” Chris says, holding up Ernie and Bert.
“You want to take that picture with you?” Flossie asks, reaching her trembling fingers to the edge of the cheap frame. “If your mama cut your hair, this really could be a picture of you, you know.”
The VW horn beeps again, twice.
“I think my eyes are different,” Chris edges toward the hallway.
Flossie nods and retracts her hand, leaving the photo on the wall. “Yes, you have your mama’s eyes,” she says, sighing. She gathers him in her arms once more, kisses the tangles atop his head and lets him go. He runs to the bright rectangle of light and back into the hot summer day.