by Charles Gramlich
I recognized the ring tone as I answered my cell — Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes. I’d assigned it to my grandmother because it was her favorite song, and Elvis her favorite singer.
“Hi, Granny,” I said into the phone.
Silence lingered on the line. At first I figured we had a bad connection. Then: “I shot your grandfather,” she said. “I thought you should know.”
For a moment I felt like I’d screamed the word. I was on the sidewalk in front of Del’s Hardware, getting ready to go in and buy the materials I needed to wrap our pipes for the winter. People flowed around me on their own errands. A few looked at me oddly but I must not have been as loud as I thought. Besides, everyone was in a hurry. They had places to be, lives to lead. And it was cold this October morning; they didn’t want to linger long.
I stepped off the sidewalk, went around to the driver’s door of the pickup truck I’d just parked. “Shot?” I said again into the phone, keeping my voice low. “What? I mean — ”
“I shot him,” Granny Lea’s voice repeated, sounding a little impatient now. “He’s dead.”
My face felt hot. I tried to collect my thoughts. One question surfaced. “Did you call the police?”
“No, Jay. I called you first.”
I’m leaving Deerhaven now. I’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Don’t do anything until I get there.”
“Did you hear? Don’t do anything until I get there!”
“All right.” The words sounded noncommittal but I knew it was the best I’d get.
“OK. I’m on the way. Hang on.”
I punched the off button on my cell, jerked open the truck door and scrambled in. My hands shook as I tried to get the key into the ignition.
* * *
Granny Lea and Grandpa Burl lived well outside of Deerhaven. But Deerhaven wasn’t very big. In three minutes I was on the back roads leading to my grandparent’s farm. I drove fast. In ten more I turned across the cattle grate marking the entrance into the property and jounced up the half mile dirt road to the house.
Everything looked normal. A cow lowed in the field behind the house. An autumn wind soughed through the oaks that shaded the two-story, wood-frame structure. The place needed paint; I’d get to that next summer.
Old King lay on the porch, beating his stubby tail slowly on the planks in welcome as I got out of the truck and started for the front door. I remembered a time only a few years back when he’d come bouncing down the steps to greet me. He was too old now. How had he gotten so old?
How had Granny and Grandpa gotten so old? I shied away from the thought that Grandpa wasn’t going to get any older. I went up the steps, bent to pet King for a moment. I wanted the delay —needed it.
King lifted his head, licked my hand. I straightened. The door was just in front of me but I didn’t want to go in. I forced myself to open the screen, then the door. The heater hummed softly inside. The house was warm, a little stuffy. My work boots thumped on the pine-wood floor as I stepped over the threshold. That sound seemed very loud.
In Arkansas a lot of people grow up hunting. I had. First with Grandpa, back when he was able. Later by myself. I’d smelled blood before and expected that odor to greet me now. It didn’t. I smelled lavender, and other herbal scents I couldn’t name — a flower garden out of an aerosol can. Granny had bought the spray because at first it helped Grandpa with his memory after it started to go. I guess she’d used it now to cover what she’d done.
A short hallway ran straight away in front of me, the dining room on the left, living room on the right. I could walk the place in pitch blackness; I’d lived here with my grandparents for as long as I could remember. I turned into the living room because that’s where Grandpa habitually sat. He was there now, in his favored easy chair. I could see only the top of his head.
The chair had once faced an outside window where Grandpa Burl could look out through the glass at the hummingbird feeders I’d hung under the eaves. The frenetic dance of the little creatures around the sugar water feeders had made him smile. And when there were no birds, the ever changing landscape of sun and shadow kept him in touch with the outdoor life he’d led for eight decades.
A year ago, as Grandpa became more and more restless, we’d turned the chair toward the TV. The colorful moving images on the screen had worked for a while. In the last few months nothing had worked. By then, even the restlessness was gone. And Grandpa sat without moving.
I walked up beside the chair. I could smell blood now. I’d heard people say that dead folks usually look like they’re sleeping. Not Grandpa. His head hung forward so that his chin rested on his chest. Blood had run out of his half-opened mouth to scrawl a large, almost purplish stain on the work shirt he wore. He had half a dozen such shirts. All blue. Granny dressed him in a fresh one each morning, though it had been over four years since he’d been able to work.
The gray hair at the back of Grandpa’s head was singed and blackened. The bullet hole there seemed tiny but the skull was subtly distorted. The forehead bulged on the right side. I couldn’t see an exit wound. It was clear enough that his killer had stood over him and placed the gun barrel almost flush against his head from behind.
I turned away from the chair, gnawed at my lower lip. I’d been afraid I’d vomit. But nothing here was quite real to me.
“Granny!” I called.
I closed my eyes, then opened them again and walked toward the kitchen. Granny was sitting at the worn Formica table there when I came in. Her head was down. Her large hands, scarred, with the knuckles swollen from hard work and arthritis, clasped a coffee cup from which no steam arose. The only object on the table besides the cup was the nickel plated .38 Granny had owned for years.
Again, no answer came.
I sat down across from her, reached for the gun.
“No!” Granny snapped. “Don’t touch it. Don’t want your fingerprints on it.”
I jerked my hand back.
Granny looked up. Her eyes were as faded as blue jeans washed a thousand times. Her features were large and irregular. When I was a kid I’d heard Tony Moore call her “horse-faced” one time. I’d punched him and gotten my ass handed to me in return.
“Jay,” she said.
A ghost smile flitted across her features and she started to get up from the table. Long years of habit drew the next words out of her. “Are you hungry? I’ll fix you something to eat.”
“Granny, no. I’m not hungry.”
She paused, then sank back down into her chair. She put her hands back around the coffee cup but did not drink. She looked down again, into the cup as if she were studying its depths for some message.
“Granny.” I reached around the gun, put my hands over hers on the cup. “Granny. Why?”
“You know why,” she said after a bit. “He wasn’t … Wasn’t my Burl anymore. He wasn’t your grandfather. He wasn’t … anything.”
“But you just can’t — ” I started to say, then stopped. It didn’t matter whether she could or not. She had.
“I don’t know what to do now,” I said.
“We’ll call the police,” she replied.
“If you do they’ll … I’m sure they’ll have to … take you in. They couldn’t just do nothing. Even if they … understood. Maybe we should call a lawyer first. They’d know what was best to do. I’m sure they could … plead extenuating circumstances. Or something.”
The fingers of Granny’s right hand scratched at the knuckles on her left. “Don’t call a lawyer. Too expensive. There’ll be a public defendant. I’m sure they’ll do their best.”
“But … ”
Granny looked up at me again. I wanted to read something in her eyes. Sadness maybe. Or peace. But I couldn’t tell if anything was hidden there. Her eyes weren’t red. Or wet. She hadn’t been crying.
“Jay,” she said, “we don’t have money for a lawyer. The house is already mortgaged to pay your grandfather’s medical bills. We’d have to sell the land to raise any more money and that’s the last thing Burl and I have to leave you.”
A splash of something hot fell on my cheek and I realized that I was crying. My face steamed with heat and I wished I was outside in the October chill again.
“I don’t care!” I said.
“But you won’t … be able to stand going to jail. Even if it’s only for a little while. You’ve never spent a day without getting outside, getting your hands dirty. You won’t know what to do with yourself.”
“A small price,” she said. “Burl couldn’t hurt anymore.”
“He didn’t know. His mind. He didn’t know what was happening to him.”
Granny Lea shook her head. “He knew.”
“I won’t be able to stand seeing you there. In jail.”
“I’m seventy-six, Jay. And I haven’t … told you. My own health isn’t any too good. I saw the doctor on Wednesday. He said it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t care for your grandfather anyway.” She turned her hands out from the cup she’d been holding and clasped my wrists. Her skin was sandpaper rough, and callused. “Nor take care of you,” she added.
“What did he say? The doctor. What’s wrong?”
She let go of my hands. Her chair scraped on the linoleum as she pushed back from the table and started to rise. I heard her give a little grunt of effort, heard the way her bones creaked as she climbed to her feet. In the past year I’d seen her strength slipping away, too — just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it.
“If you won’t eat,” she said, “I’ll at least make you some coffee. We can talk a few more minutes before we call the police. There are some papers I need you to know about. The bank books.”
She was looking at me. I knew now that she needed to see something in my eyes. I puffed out a breath, wiped my face with one hand. I nodded.
“It’ll be OK,” she said. She turned toward the stove.
“I know,” I said quietly. And picked up the pistol.
Although he’s lived in Louisiana since 1986 — currently in Abita Springs — Charles Gramlich’s story is set in Arkansas, where he grew up. Some of his stories have been published in The Xavier Review, where he currently teaches, and in such magazines as Warrior Poets and the Chapbook of the Deep South Writing Conference. Most of his published stories and books have been in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.