Tom‘s grandpa called him from outside his grandparent’s house. “Tom, come on out here. I want to show you something.”
Tom reluctantly tore his eyes off of the roller derby he’d been watching and stood up. It must be something interesting, Grandpa wouldn’t have called him otherwise. “Okay.” Tom shouted back. He switched the television off and glanced guiltily at his Grandma. She was sleeping setting up on the couch, but she had not even blinked when he’d shouted.
Grabbing his straw cowboy hat, Tom ran out the closer front door and crossed the porch with its covering of yellow grains of fly poison and dead flies. He knew that later Grandpa would sweep all the bodies and poison up and throw it in the ditch; he’d then spread new poison and remind Tom needlessly about not touching it.
Even though Tom was 12, he knew that Grandpa wasn’t treating him like a baby, he was just being careful. Something that Grandpa was very good at. Years before when Tom was about 5 or 6 Grandpa had worked at a lumber mill two towns away. He worked the big band saw that made planks out of trees.
“I was just standing there feeding the tree through the saw. It was stupid what happened. That damned old place was noisy as hell,” Grandpa paused and looked around cautiously for Grandma, she did not like it when he swore, she went to church every Sunday and would get really cross when he used foul language as she put it. “I heard a horn honk outside the factory on the main road. I glanced out the window and when I looked back, four of my fingers were laying in the sawdust on the floor. I don’t remember anything after that because I passed out.”
He stopped and pulled a machine-made cigarette out of his shirt pocket; put one end in his mouth and struck a match on the seat of his jeans. “They said it was damned lucky that I fell backwards when I passed out. If I’d fallen forward, I would have lost a lot more than my fingers.”
He always chuckled when he got to that bit while his eyes kept looking for Grandma. He never tired of telling that story, Tom knew because he’d asked him a least a hundred times how he’d lost his fingers. Grandpa always used to say that he learned all about being careful after his accident.
When Tom rounded the corner of his grandparents stone house, he saw his Grandpa standing in between the garden plot and the two rows of grapes in front of the barn. He held his .410/.22 over and under shotgun in his left hand. His right hand with a thumb, one half of a middle finger and all of his little finger rubbed his mouth; he alternated this gesture with licking his lips.
Tom found out years after his Grandpa had died that he had a drinking problem and that the rubbing and licking was a dead give-a-way that he wanted a drink. He went around the back of the house, skirting the ivy that grew on the corner of the house because it had a tendency to sway in the breeze and sometimes it would tap you as you walked near it. He glanced quickly at the stuff that was full of big black spiders and the odd tarantula; just looking at it made goose bumps dart up and down his back.
Grandpa was wearing his old grey work trousers and a snappy blue striped long sleeve shirt that he’d rolled the sleeves up to his elbows to ease off the explosive heat of the day. He also wore his grey hat, its brim was round and the crown had been fixed into a flat Arizona style that was pinched in the front from him taking it off and putting it on. He never used the brim to remove the hat, because as he put it, “It would make the brim droop so I couldn’t see very well.”
Grandpa smiled that perfect false teeth smile that Tom had grown up seeing, the one that made years drop off his face and had the curious effect of making him seem both kind and contrary. Thinking about it, that pretty much explained grandpa’s personality in a nutshell, kind enough and good-humoured, but, he did bite if you got him riled.
Tom had no idea how old his grandfather really was. His age changed from year to year. His birth records and the family Bible had been destroyed in a fire and he claimed to have no real idea when his birthday was. Mom said she thought he knew perfectly well how old he was but that it was his idea of a joke to keep changing it each year. Tom had to admit, he found it pretty funny. Grandma never said one way or the other how she felt about it.
“Come on up with me to the barn Tom,” Grandpa said. “There’s something I need you to check on for me.” He turned and started walking up to the gate that led to the barn. The chickens, which were fenced in by the barn along with their henhouse, started clucking and chasing each other around at the sound of the gate being opened.
Tom liked looking at the ground when the weather was this hot and dry; each time your foot touched the ground a puff of pale dust would drift lazily up, just like in a western where the horse’s hooves would make little dust geysers when they trotted across the ground. Tom wished he had spurs on his boots so they make that ca-ching noise while he walked through across the dusty ground. That would have been so cool.
“Stupid damn things think they’re going to get fed,” Grandpa said. He chuckled and closed the gate behind Tom. As they approached the barn the air seemed to get very still and a lot hotter. Grandpa took off his hat and pulled a bandanna out of his pocket to wipe his forehead. “The top of that barn is blasting out heat like a furnace, ain’t it?” Tom nodded and the old man finished wiping his brow and put his hat back on while the damp bandanna wound up back in his pants pocket.
“I need you to go up into the loft of the barn for me. You don’t need to stay up there it’s too damned hot to spend too long up there.”
“What do you want me to do, Grandpa?”
“I need you to tell me if you see a possum’s nest up there. Something has been stealing eggs and I’m pretty damn sure it’s not a weasel. A weasel would kill the chickens or at least worry the hell out of them. They’d be all bloodied up and spooked.”
They both arrived at the ladder leading to the barn’s loft at the same time. Grandpa was right, Tom thought. It was like a furnace in the barn and not just in the loft either. The heat made shimmery waves in the air as you looked up at the barn roof. Tom hoped grandpa had meant what he said about not being up there too long.
“Climb on up there boy and look for that nest. Tell me if you see anything.” Grandpa sat on a stump and pulled out one of his cigarettes and lit it. “Like I said, don’t take too long. It’s too hot.”
Tom went slowly up the ladder. He didn’t like heights and had a fear of falling. He gritted his teeth and went up; he wasn’t going to chicken out in front of his grandpa. He’d just concentrate on the barn wall in front of him and not look down.
As he went up he could hear the cicadas buzzing, the noise sounded angry and loud. The first time Tom had heard the sound he was scared. He’d never heard anything like it before. His dad had just laughed and said, “Don’t be scared of that. It’s just a jar-fly.” Dad had looked on the ground and found a dead one to show him. “It’s their wings that make that noise, I reckon. They’re pretty big so that must be why they’re so loud.”
Tom got to the top of the ladder and took a cautious step or two into the barn’s stifling loft. The buzzing seemed to be louder in here and sweat ran down his face and body. The hay in the loft made his skin sticky and itchy in seconds and you could see hay motes swirling in the air, despite the lack of breeze in the barn.
Suddenly Tom caught the whiff of something rotten. It smelt like the sulphur water at his friend Hank’s house only worse. Putting his hand over his nose and mouth he headed towards the smell. Looking down at the floor he saw a lot of eggs scattered around one corner of the loft. He picked one up with the idea that he would show it to grandpa, he then noticed that the smell seemed to be coming from the eggs.
He dropped the one he had been holding and it exploded on the floor by his feet. Instantly the smell got ten times worse and he started to gag. He whirled around and headed toward the ladder to get down. His eyes were watering so badly he couldn’t see properly and he almost walked right off the edge of the loft. He waved his arms for balance and then backed blindly down the ladder.
He was in such a hurry to get away from the smell that he actually fell off the ladder just before the bottom and he landed in a huge puff of dust.
Grandpa stood up with his mouth gapped open for a minute and then started laughing. “What the hell was that all about? Are you okay?” He stepped forward and stretched out his almost fingerless hand for Tom to pull himself up.
Getting to his feet, Tom used his hat to dust himself off. “There’s lot of rotten eggs up there Grandpa; all in one corner of the loft.”
“Did you catch any sign of that damned possum?”
“No, sir just lots of rotten eggs.”
“That’s where he’s taken em alright. I’ll have to come back tonight after dark and grease his skids.”
“What does that mean, Grandpa?”
The old man shook the gun gently, “I’m gonna turn him into a possum angel, boy.”
Grandpa walked off toward the house chuckling to himself and Tom followed after him. When they got near the ivy corner of the house, he suddenly veered off to the right and went behind his work shop.
There was another small fence behind the shop that didn’t have a gate, it was too low. Up against the back wall of the building were a bunch of strawberry plants; the smaller fence was meant to keep rabbits away.
Grandpa stood just outside the fence staring hard at the plants. He stepped carefully over the small fence and moved slowly towards the plants. Tom started to say something, but the old man held his hand up and he shut his mouth. It was almost like grandpa had eyes in the back of his head.
He put the gun up to his shoulder and clicked the safety off. Leaning forward he put the barrel of the shotgun down into the strawberry plants. Tom leaned forward and saw that at the end of the gun barrel was a possum. It was playing dead.
Grandpa shot it and a fountain of blood shot up in the air. He leaned down and grabbed it by the tail and slung it over the fence by the garage’s back door. He broke the gun open ejecting the spent .410 shell and quickly put another one in. With a quick flicking motion the he closed the gun back up and it was ready to fire again.
He stepped over the fence and poked the possum with the gun barrel. The animal whipped its head around and bit the barrel. The second the possum’s mouth closed down on the barrel, grandpa pulled the trigger again.
There was an explosion of blood, teeth and brain matter that flew over everything and everyone. To Tom the whole thing seemed to be in slow motion and the shotgun sounded ten times louder than when grandpa had initially shot the possum.
The old man stood with his chest heaving as he panted and reloaded the shotgun again. This time when he nudged the now headless animal it did not move. He leaned down and grabbed the tail again, this time slinging it into the field behind his workshop. He took out his bandanna and wiped the bloody mess off of Tom’s face and then his own.
“No more free eggs for that little bastard.”
Both Tom and grandpa jumped like they’d been shot. It was grandma and she was furious. “What have I told you about shooting so close to the house?” She was wiping her hands on her ubiquitous apron and moving quickly towards the two of them.
Grandpa just gestured to the spray of gore that was spread across the once white door of his workshop. “Varmint.” He broke the gun open and handed it to Tom. “Boy put that in the house while I go get the hose to wash this mess off.”
Grandma didn’t say another word and went back into the house shaking her head. Grandpa disappeared into the workshop and was moving things around looking for the hose. Tom stood staring at the mess and then he turned to look and see if he could see the animal’s dead body from where he was standing.
Nope, it was completely out of sight.
Grandpa came back with the hose and hooked it up to the faucet at the back of the house. He began spraying down the door with the water. The water ran red along the side of the shop and Tom could see the animal’s teeth moving along with the stream.
Years later when he’d killed his first man and the man’s teeth had exploded out of his mouth like shrapnel, Tom thought of his grandpa and the possum teeth that had floated down the rushing water like white and red rafts floating out to sea.
Shoving the gun back in his coat pocket he murmured, “There you go you little bastard, no more free eggs for you.”
Michael E. Smith copyright 28/01/2013