This is a short story I wrote in 2016, put in a box, and finally returned to complete.
Puffs of Smoke on the Porch
We drive over to Grandpa’s house in the morning to be with Grandma. Ma makes me wear the collared blue shirt and a belt. We come in the red-pickup that Pa says is useful for the work that he only gets every now and then. His black hair is stringy from sweat — summer is hot in our town. I look out the window the whole ride over, wondering if Jimmy’ll be there too — my cousin. Ma just looks at her lap, crossing and uncrossing her legs under the red skirt. I wonder if she’s sad.
Jimmy’s my best buddy in Lawrenceville. He doesn’t have a left eye. Lost it to a wild dog when he was five. The dog wasn’t so lucky — Pa shot the bastard dead the next day. Pa took his shotgun and a few shells, went out into the fields that the dog was roaming, and blew the damn thing’s head clean off. I was six then, so when I saw Jimmy’s black eyepatch, I knew he had to be my best buddy, because I wanted to be best buddies with a pirate. Last year for my eighth birthday, we had a pirate party, and Jimmy played Blackbeard.
When we get to the house, Grandma’s standing on the porch with her hand on Grandpa’s rocking-chair. She’s mean these days, because Grandpa’s sick and because Ma says that Grandma has dementia, like the bad guys from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is the only Harry Potter we have on VHS. Jimmy and I like to watch it and get scared. We don’t like to get scared by Grandma though.
I try to avoid Grandma’s eyes. Every time I come here, she yells at me. Grandma doesn’t change the usual. “You! There. Yes, you. You were supposed to clean the garden yesterday. Don’t make me find Old Man Wallace. He’ll whup you up and down the street.”
Grandma calls Grandpa Old Man Wallace now. That started about a year ago, and Ma says to pretend she means Grandpa.
I try to walk past her. She’s still too fast for me and grabs me by my ear. I look at Ma for help. Grandma notices and snorts. “No, I don’t care what your mother says. She’s my daughter, and that makes you my grandchild.”
I’m upset, and I sound angrier than Pa says is okay. “You’re a mean grandma.” Then I twist away and run to Pa.
“Grandmas ain’t all kindly, young man. Some of us have dignity. Your friends’ grandparents are soft. Very soft. They just want a kid to adore them in their old age.” Grandma calls into the house. “Don’t you agree, Wally?” He’s not there, because he’s in the hospital, but Grandma forgot. She’s confused when no one calls back. Ma goes over and hugs Grandma, but the old woman just shrugs her away.
Pa pats me on the shoulder. “Run along now, Tom.”
I run along into the house as fast as I can, because I hear Grandma getting angry and Ma trying to calm her down. That makes me feel bad.
The house is full of knick-knacks. Knitted stockings on the fireplace in June. Grandpa’s cuckoo-clock that Grandma hates but keeps because she wants Grandpa to come home. There are three very old armchairs that Grandma keeps clear plastic on but never lets anyone sit in. It’s all the same as last time, so I run upstairs to Jimmy’s room. He doesn’t have a Ma or Pa, because they died in a car crash right after Jimmy lost his eye, so he lives with Grandma and Grandpa. At the top of the stairs, I hang a left. Then I look at my hands, make an L, and realize that I went right. So I turn around and walk down the scrunchy lime-green carpeting to Jimmy’s door. I knock. He doesn’t answer, so I open the door.
Jimmy’s room is small, a closet really, with Ironman posters that have a previous owner; rickety, half-nailed furniture; and stuffed animals with stitches. Only one of them gets to sit on his bed: a dirty yellow knock-off Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s missing an eye, not from wear and tear, but from a scissor-cut. On the bedside table, there’s an eyepatch the same size as Jimmy’s — I think it’s for the bear.
I reach out to touch the eye socket of the bear. It’s soft and fuzzy, and I wonder if Jimmy’s eye socket feels the same.
“Tom.” My cousin’s deep belly growl frightens me because it sounds like one a real bear would rumble in the forest that Lawrenceville doesn’t have. “Don’t touch Teddy.”
I turn to face Jimmy. He’s standing in the doorway. I say, “I wasn’t.”
“You were.” Jimmy touches his eyepatch. “You touched him here. That hurts.”
I look at my shoes. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I was just curious.”
Jimmy’s face is serious. “Being curious is why I don’t have one eye.”
“Boys are supposed to be curious.”
“Not too curious.” Jimmy notices that I’m feeling bad, so he grabs two beat-up action figures from his shelf. “Let’s go play.”
We play Dynamic Duo outside for an hour before Pa calls me inside and asks if I want to see Grandpa. He keeps his voice down so that Grandma doesn’t get excited. I say yes. We get back in the pick-up and we go to the hospital. Ma comes too. When we get there, we go down a long white hallway and up white stairs. I ask Pa if this is what the Stairway to Heaven looks like. He laughs and says no, before he goes to the smoking-area. Then Ma opens the door to Grandpa’s room.
The clock on the wall tick-tocks along with the steady rhythm of Grandpa’s breathing mask. Ma holds me back from the bed — she says the nurses will come take me away if I touch any of the machine buttons, even if they are shining in bright reds, blues, and greens. Instead, she says to hold Grandpa’s hand. I reach out for Grandpa’s thin, wrinkly hand and I squeeze. Grandpa doesn’t squeeze back like he used to.
A knock on the door makes me jump. I whip my head around like a cowboy in a shootout, but it’s just Pa. He smells like cigarettes. Ma doesn’t want him smoking, but since Grandpa came to the hospital, she stopped yelling at Pa about it. I crinkle my nose at the sharp tar-and-tobacco-and-plastic stink. I prefer the smell of Grandpa in his house — soft, hazy clouds of sweet pipe tobacco. Grandpa hates cigarettes, calls them death-sticks, and can yammer on about the tar in them for hours while puffing on a pipe — kids at school call that old-school.
Pa places his hand on Ma’s back and strokes it. “He’s costing us a fortune.”
Ma pushes Pa’s arm away. “He’s my pa. I love him.”
Pa throws up his hands. “He’s gonna die. Face it, Leah, he’s almost dead already. The longer this goes on, the less we’ll have for the funeral and so on.” I don’t like it when Pa called her Leah. It means serious talk and a fight. “Leah, he’s in a damn bad place. This can’t go on, for any of our sakes — including his.”
One of the lights starts blinking. I reach over, press the bright red, and suddenly the machine stops breathing. I want them to stop and I want to talk to Grandpa — he can’t talk back with the mask over his face.
A dozen noisy bells ring, lights flash, and the doors opens for a nurse, who looks like Ma but has dyed blonde hair. Pa doesn’t do anything, he just stands there, twiddling his thumbs. I get scared and run to Ma. She looks at the nurse. “I’m so sorry, Tom, he didn’t know, he…”
The nurse ignores Ma and presses a button on the machine. The breathing mask turns back on. Then she talks to Ma and Pa. “It’s alright. I have a boy myself. The doctor needs to speak with you two.” The nurse looks at me. “Come along young man, your parents need to talk with the doctor.”
I don’t want to go with her. “I’m sorry ma’m, please don’t take me away.”
Ma nods at me. “Go on. We’ll be right out.”
Pa pats me on the head. “It’ll be alright, son. Only a couple minutes.”
After I look at Ma and Pa for their It’s Okay look, I go with the nurse. I wait outside for ten minutes, which I know because I’m counting. They come out and Pa says he’ll take me for ice-cream. Ma looks at him with that Lovey-Dovey look. Usually, I would want to have the chocolate fudge-top brownie Oreo swirl, but I don’t feel well. So we go back to our house.
That night, I lie in bed, looking at the ceiling and imagining sheep until I decide that’s a stupid trick Grandma uses. As I try to come up with another way to fall asleep, I smell Grandpa’s sweet pipe tobacco coming in from outside the window which opens to the dark porch.
I sit up straight and tiptoe to the window, looking over the edge. There’s Pa, puffing on Grandpa’s tobacco in Grandpa’s rocking chair. I feel an icky-lump in my throat that sinks to my belly, churns and churns, before coming back up as a bitter taste in my mouth. I clamber over the window sill.
Pa snaps his head to me standing on the prickly, unfinished wooden boards. “Tom, go back to bed.”
I point at the pipe. “That’s not yours. Put it back.”
Pa raises his voice. “Don’t be rude, boy.”
“That’s grandpa’s. You’re stealing.”
Pa presses his eyebrows together and then he relaxes. “Come over here, Tom.” Pa pats his lap. I careful-walk over to Pa. “That’s my boy. Up we go.” Pa lifts me onto his legs. I feel bigger than I used to.
Pa uses his serious voice. “I reckon I know why your upset. You miss your grandpa, and I’m using his things.”
I nod up and down. “Yes.”
Pa puts his hand on my shoulder. “Grandpa’s going to die in the next few weeks.”
I feel bad, and a tear starts to fill up my eye, but I don’t check my hands to see if it is my left or right. Then I say, “I know.”
Pa blinks and nods. “He has cancer.”
“Like Davey at school’s Pa had.”
Pa nods. “That’s right.” He puffs on the pipe. “This pipe is a way we can remember Grandpa. Every time we take a puff, we’ll think of him.” That makes sense to me, so I look at the pipe with respect. Pa passes it to me. “Take a puff, son.”
I take a puff. The smoke tastes bad, and I cough, but then I smile because it’s Grandpa’s and I want to show Pa that I’m a big kid. I wish Grandpa was here to see me. I count the smoke puffs until I fall asleep in Pa’s arms.