The Mason Jar Incident
Ronald was unceremoniously dispatched to his grandmother’s house.
He found himself sitting alone in her parlor, a tiny room cramped with too much overstuffed furniture, shipped in from the old country (a.k.a. Sweden), and fermented in freighter bilge during a trans-Atlantic voyage.
The circumstances for his visit he’d long since forgotten. He may have been prevented from attending a distant relative’s funeral, for fear that he’d become too curious about the corpse. It was a risk, he’d later admit. There was a phase in his life when he tried to “re-animate” anything inanimate—a dead squirrel or mouse, a half-eaten finch left on the driveway by the neighborhood stray. In the case of sparrows, he’d spread their wings, sort of spread eagle, and fling them toward the nearest maple tree, where they’d continue living out their lives singing, flying, nesting, and such. But no such luck.
He may have been sent to Grandmother’s house as punishment for his habitual apple stealing, a strictly a seasonal weakness on his part.
At the edge of an overstuffed chair Ronald perched, his left knee twitching. On the table in front of him stood a bowl overflowing with mints, soft little cubes that, if left out too long, would eventually turn into little jaw breakers. They looked tempting. Then again, his knee was twitching. Clearly, hard decisions lay ahead.
While Grandmother fiddled in the kitchen, Ronald quietly took a single mint and waited. No repercussions. No sudden snap of a horsewhip. He returned to the bowl and took small handfuls, which eventually turned into large handfuls, which eventually turned into an empty candy bowl and one very hyped up five year old. His knee was now twitching uncontrollably--lack of self-restraint clearly an issue.
Grandmother entered the parlor noiselessly and stood in front of Ronald, her bourbon barrel body blotting out the kitchen light, eclipsing his hope for anything short of Armageddon. Smiling at first, she wiped her dish hands on a cloth stuffed into her apron. Then she looked at the candy bowl. Then she took out a Kleenex stashed in her sleeve and blotted her brow. (In fact, Ronald eventually learned that in order to qualify as a grandmother elderly women were required to have at least one Kleenex, preferably used, stashed in their sleeves. If they wore perfume reminiscent of an old tuna can left opened on the back step for the summer months, they automatically received a lifetime membership in the Grandmother’s Club.) Then she scrutinized Ronald. He was hoping she couldn’t read the guilty thoughts of a five-year-old, but something told him she could. Her eyes grew smaller by the second. Back and forth, to the candy bowl and to Ronald, over and over again. For about ninety minutes was his best guess. He braced for a hurricane of verbal abuse and insult.
Instead, in a conspiratorial tone, she whispered, “My dear little Ronald, would you do me a favor?” Her dentured breath poured over him like a thousand ancient casseroles, not all entirely successful.
Who was he to refuse? Ronald figured he had already committed a crime against humanity.
“I need some mason jars,” she continued. “Would you be a little dear and get them from the cellar?”
She led Ronald to the cellar door. It opened with an agonized creak and released the stale air of the souls of a thousand rotten little kids, he had imagined. She gave Ronald a little shove—at least to his mind it felt like a shove--and down the steep and narrow steps he crept to a little room surrounded by dusty shelves of mason jars, cobwebs, shadows, unknown evils, and the occasional creaking sound, as if the entire cellar were on the precipice of caving in, entombing Ronald forever. He considered for several long moments the unfairness of being entombed in a dark and dank pickle cellar at the tender age of five just because his grandmother had ordered it so. “I’ll need three,” she said from the top of the stairs.
As Ronald reached for the jars, the door slammed shut. “A monster! Another monster!” Her voice howled, animated, unworldly. “Watch out for the monster! Ronald! Save yourself!” Never before that moment had Ronald any reason to believe adults were capable of guile. The mason jars leapt from his hands and crashed on the concrete floor. He scrambled up the steps. The door latch locked. Ronald’s mind raced: Was it locked or was an unmovable object—an enormous, flower-print sack of grandmotherly spite--blocking it from opening? He still wouldn’t recall to this day—having blocked most of the trauma from his memory. Then the 40-watt bulb in the cellar died. “Monsters! So many monsters!” echoed from just inches away through the old plank door.
Ronald pounded and cried, “Grandma, Grandma, help! The door is locked! Let me out!” He could feel the monsters tugging at his sneakers. Soon he’d be pulled down into the darkness and eaten alive, his bones broken into pieces and stored in the remaining mason jars. What’s worse, he was no longer confident of maintaining control of his bodily functions.
“Oh . . . I should have warned you about the monsters,” Grandmother confessed, letting the door fall open. “They always go after the nibbly parts first. I hopethat didn’t happen to you.”
Ronald blushed. He didn’t exactly know what “nibbly parts” meant. But he had a feeling. Deep down inside, he had a feeling.
Grandmother held out a huge straw broom and a tin dustpan.
Later that afternoon, Ronald’s grandmother hoisted the second volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, cleared the phlegm from her throat, pulled Ronald closer so he could see the illustrations, and began reading—relying on her seasoned theatricality—well into the afternoon. In no time, the blood in Ronald’s cheeks had hailed a cab and raced out of town.
Grandmother scratched his scalp affectionately, as if checking for lice.
Ronald hadn’t noticed when it happened, but a fresh supply of candy awaited him in the candy bowl—like bait below a deer stand.
After slamming the book shut with a dramatic flair, Grandmother again cleared her throat, which was never a good sign. “I’m going to need another favor,” she began. “There’s something in the attic,” her breath warm and fragrant like sour dough biscuits.
Ronald glanced up at Grandmother, her eyes gazing through sparkly glasses, both of his knees now jiggling uncontrollably. “It won’t take but a minute,” she assured him.
As Ronald examined her rouge and powder and networks of veins and crevices, her face betrayed the faintest wisp of a smile, an indecipherable smile, a smile beyond the intellectual machinations of a somewhat naughty five-year-old.
After much pushing and shoving, Ronald ascended the ladder leading up to the attic. “Don’t worry,” said Grandmother. “I just changed the bulb.”
Ronald crawled toward a large chest and opened the lid. His knees would have been twitching if not for the pain the joists were delivering to each one. Inside the chest a mason jar lay on its side, nestled among old blankets and WW I uniforms. “Is this what you want?” he called out to his grandmother.
“Yes, bring it down,” she answered, her voice distant and fading, as though already from the cellar.
Scooping up the mason jar, Ronald reversed course down the ladder. On his way, he noticed his hip started to hurt, he felt heavy and slow and clumsy, and he had an almost phobic fear of falling, which was not characteristic of the five-year-old Ronald, the treehouse builder, rope climber, and wheelie-popping bikester. The mason jar also seemed to shrink in his growing, freckled hands.
Ronald plunked himself into the rocking chair and felt for a pair of bifocals that he didn’t know he owned. He squinted as he adjusted to them, and then examined the mason jar. It sealed a single envelope, along with some mints.
After a moment to collect himself and catch his breath, Ronald removed the envelope from the mason jar and found a six-page letter, neatly folded yet yellowed and fragile, addressed to him. He started to read, his heart fluttering and his hands growing a layer of sweat:
My dear little Ronald,
It seems like only five minutes ago we were cuddled together reading your favorite stories. My, how time flies, even during our visits. And I always looked fondly toward the next funeral because it meant a visit from you. By the way, there’s a monster creeping up behind you! BaWaHaHaHaHaHa!!!!! Oh, that was fun.
Ronald adjusted his glasses and looked about the room before continuing.
The letter went in several different directions, punctuated with colorful language, from petty grievances and complaints to personal confessions and requests for vengeance. Little caricatures filled the margins.
For the first four pages of the letter, Grandmother complained about the relatives, about their conversational/intellectual deficits; she complained they visited too rarely and stayed too long. She unleashed a torrent against Aunt Allister especially, who could use a swift kick to the backside, though she used less polite language. (A small doodle illustrated her point.) Grandmother repeated the word conventional for every relative mentioned. NOT ONE HAS AN UNCONVENTIONAL BONE IN HIS BODY! Her words exploded.
From the relatives, she saved space for grievances toward most of her friends, but held out her darkest bile for her best friend Beatrice Wilson because (a) her husband was still kicking, (b) he was too cheap to buy her a new cake pan, and (c) that was no excuse for Beatrice’s hanging on to the pan for going on decades now.Maybe you could sue her no-good kids or grandkids for the return of the pan, her shaky handwriting suggested. Then apply the funds to my back taxes.
Ronald scratched his whiskers and frowned.
Oh, and before I forget, if you ever run into Mr. Grebb, and he says ‘hello, Sonny,’ don’t take him too literally. Let’s just keep this between us.
Then she went on in some detail about the grocery clerk who wouldn’t accept an expired coupon, the paperboy who never got her paper within spitting distance of the front door, and her fuss budget neighbor whose cat scared birds away from her feeder.
The handwriting of her complaints became increasingly erratic and illegible. Smeared and faded garnet stains decorated the margins. Possibly merlot.
Ronald’s stomach tightened and gurgled as her letter turned its attention to him.
. . . Did you ever get over your jiggly knee problem? I hope so for your sake. Otherwise, a boss will think you’re on drugs (then you’ll lose your job and be homeless), your friends will tease you for having a teensy-weensy bladder (and who needs that?), and girls will think you’re a serial killer (which will lower your chances for a happy marriage) . . .
Ronald steadied his knees by crossing his legs; something in his cartilage let out a little crunchy sound.
. . . Did I ever tell you about Chuckie, my neighbor from across the alley? He drove a big Harley-Davidson, and one day I said, ‘Chuckie, my young man, how about a ride?’ And he looked at me, with his tattoos and greasy hands and holey jeans, and said, ‘Can’t. That’d be uncool.’ So I said, ‘Afraid I’ll squeeze your love handles too tight?’ Well, that made him blush . . .
For a moment, Ronald felt empathy for the Harley rider.
So, my dear Ronald, I’m almost out of paper. Don’t tell anyone this, but you were always my favorite—horse feathers to the rest! Now listen to your old Grandmother when I tell you this: Get off your backside, shake your bones loose, steal some of the fuss-budget’s daisies, and come visit me. I can’t promise I’ll hold up my end of the conversation. But we’ll make do. We always do.
Ronald carefully folded the letter and set it on the lamp table next to a photo of his grandkids. Grandmother would like that, he thought, as he plucked his pruning shears from the junk drawer and, letting the screen door slam on his way out, disappeared into the day.