By Kurt Rice*
My grandfather often looked after me on weekends. I remember waking up on the couch in the living room of his small apartment, sometimes deep into the night, and peering at him from across the room.. He leaned forward from the edge of his battered wing-back chair, rocking slowly in the city-dark, the kind of dark always lit by sodium-vapor streetlights or headlights sweeping past. His elbows stabbed his knees; his palms rolled his eye sockets: up and back, around and down. Thick tobacco smoke curled and shifted, his cigarette tip glowed: in-breathe bright, out-breathe dim. He lit the next cigarette with the dying butt of the last, and the new cherry glowed, the slow ash ticking off each breath.
One night I remember wondering what he was thinking; he never seemed to notice my quiet wakefulness. I watched him through narrow eyes and through the smoke with its sting I never noticed then, but remember now. I watched him through the yellow, smoky light and through a childish filter I cannot define, a filter that made me wonder, and love, and fear.
He would let me get away with anything. I stole change from his scratched-blue Bugler tobacco can to buy candy and little useless toys. I ran off, played by the train tracks, and never let him know where I was going. I lit matches and burned paper out behind the apartment building. Once I threw a stone through the only unbroken window of the broken-down house next door. He got angry with that, but I was never punished.
I know he didn’t treat his own kids so leniently. He kept a loaded shotgun on the stairs to teach my mother and uncle to obey. He figured if they discharged the thing and one of them got killed the survivor would get the message. I heard stories of his running with different women and singing and playing the piano at rural bars. My mother began parenting my uncle when she was three and he was one; she knew about shotgun discipline even then.
That was during the Great Depression, when my grandfather worked at whatever he could get. He worked deep in coal mines, ran the big saws at lumber mills, turned out at farms for the harvest, and dug postholes and bent and lifted and strung wire and smoked. He always smoked.
I saw an old newspaper clipping once. My mother pulled it from a scrapbook, carefully folded, yellow with age, the ancient cellophane tape long since turned brittle, sickly, jaundiced. She said very little when she showed me the clipping; she just asked me to read it and remember what it said. When I was done reading, she put it away silently, carefully.
The article was taken from an Ohio newspaper. It was printed in 1934. One side of the article was the main column, beside which was printed the photograph of a pretty, young woman. Across the page was a photograph of an antique gas stove. I suppose it wasn’t antique back then.
According to the article, the young woman had reached across the stove to get some soup for her husband and two young children. The sleeve of her robe had brushed across a burner and the flames eagerly caught the thin fabric. The fire quickly climbed, and the young woman panicked. Her husband fell on her, trying to extinguish the flames as she screamed and writhed on the kitchen floor. Her children, aged three and one, watched, uncertain, confused and frightened as their mother’s printed robe crackled and smoked and burned the little rose patterns into her skin.
In those days there wasn’t much anyone could do for bad burns, especially in the hills of rural Ohio, and the young woman died within a few days. My mother slipped the article back in the scrapbook.
My grandfather stopped rolling his face in his hands and looked up. He looked through the smoke, caught by the dull city light that ran through its billows like soft flame. What was he looking for? What was he looking at?
“Grandpa,” I said, certain that now he could see I was awake: Grandpas know many things.
“Hmmm?” His cigarette dimmed and dropped as his elbows slipped back and his forearms balanced across his knees.
“Are you okay, Grandpa?”
“I stayed up for the fight,” he said, “you know, on the radio. I’m just resting now.”
He suffocated the cigarette, slowly and deliberately, in the heavy amber ashtray next to his chair. He eased up and bent across the room towards me. “Go to sleep son,” he said, quiet and kind. “Here, scoot over and let me sit.”
I squeezed the pillow and shut my eyes. My grandpa slowly began to hum. His hand stroked my hair and soothed my back. His low, soft voice ran out songs from distant Appalachian hills: half-remembered voices cradled me and urged me to sleep.
I never knew why my grandfather sat up those long nights or why he never took a belt to me for all my wrongs. He died slowly, his lungs filled with a dirty tide, with fluid and ash, until the huffing plastic respirator couldn’t pull it out fast enough.
Maybe he stayed up those long nights to fight: to challenge the smoke and beat back the flame. Maybe he just wanted to hear his grandson breathing softly and quietly in that darkness that is never dark.
*Kurt Rice is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. Before retiring at the rank of Chief Master Sergeant, he wrote and edited classified material for the United States Air Force. He now writes reviews, commentary, and short fiction. He is married with two grown daughters.
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