Better than Fiction! (creative non fiction)

Flesh and Blood

by Mary Malleck

 

I hadn’t seen Pops since the leg came off. Aunt Betty, that gentle saint, had put the old man in her bedroom on the main floor. The nasty shepherd had been left behind to guard the railyard.

 

I wasn’t keen to sit with him, but how could I say no? It was June and college classes were done. My shift at Harvey’s didn’t start till five. It’d be two hours, tops, while my aunt saw the eye doctor who’d be fixing her cataracts. She’d never asked me for anything.

 

I was seven when Mom first took us kids to meet her dad. At the CN railyard she’d stepped out of the Ford first, in the way she had of being sure. We kids didn’t budge — wouldn’t have even without her curt “Stay here.” The yard dog, twice as big as our Lad, snarled and barked and got ready to kill her as soon as he could snap his chain. But she didn’t flinch. Seemed she’d been here before, without us.

 

“Pop?” she banged fiercely over the barking mutt. “It’s Mae. Pop?”

 

“OK, girls,” she shouted at us, her gloved hand waving us to join her on the gangplank. “Walk this way and stay away from the dog.”

 

Out we sidled, one tight clump of girl. Skittered over the gravel and around water-filled potholes. Our shiny Easter shoes knocked hollowly on the wooden ramp. The dog went crazy.

 

It was dark and skunky inside the shed. One room, the size of the bedroom we girls shared at home. We saw cotton-candy squished into the walls, the bright pink held in place with dirty plastic. A grimy window barely lit the sink overrun with dog-licked plates. In the back corner was an iron-legged cot, the grey flannel covering swirled like a nest. We three little girls stood in a straight line from the door to Mom, who was stopped in front of the rocker where an old man sat still. The dog was still barking.

 

“Pop, it’s Daisy Mae. How you doing? I brought you a ham and stuff.”

 

She gestured to the open door; the goodies were in the car.

 

“These are Don’s kids: Dawn, Jill, Gayle. We came to say Happy Easter.”

 

Grandpa didn’t speak — didn’t need to because she kept going.

 

“Dawn’s almost ready for high school, and Jill’s a bookworm — smart enough to be an engineer like you Pop. And Gayle’s going to be a vet, loves dogs and not worried about picking up after them.”

 

She was moving past him to pull the curtains away from another window as she talked. Getting more light in so she could check things out.

 

We kids checked him out. He was old alright. His face looked spongy, a huge version of the dried-apple doll I’d seen at the Fall fair. He had a buttoned-up sweater bunched around his waist and pants we’d call flood-pants for the length. His ankles were spotted with blue and yellow bruises. He tapped the floor with a cane and then jabbed it in our direction.

 

She peered into the cluttered sink now. Dawn had taken three steps backward to shove me and Gayle, still holding hands, onto the ramp outside. The door hung open.

 

Then he barked at Mom: “Give that mutt his supper — shut him up. There on the stove.”

 

She picked up a tin pie plate of congealed fat and bloody water. One step to the door and she flung it out over our heads — sent it like a Frisbee all the way to the doghouse. Clattered on the gravel and yep, it did shut him up.

 

“Girls go back to the car. Dawn bring me the box for Grampa. I’ll be out in a minute. Stay away from the dog.”

 

Later, my sisters and I sat in a row on Aunt Betty’s couch as Mom gossiped with her brother in the kitchen. Tiny, their little Boston Terrier, slept quietly in my lap as I pretended to read The Secret of the Old Clock. Dawn and Gayle watched Mighty Mouse on TV.

“His legs are full of sores and pus,” scolded Mom.

Mary Malleck has been writing a business blog for 20 years and her fiction has appeared in Entropy, CommuterLit, and in Literally Stories. Her hero is Jane Goodall and she admires Alice Munro.

Uncle Eddy’s big hand curled around his cigarette. Aunt Betty glanced curtly through the little archway to where we girls sat. Mom didn’t care who was listening, and especially if it was just us kids.

 

“You have to take him to a doctor, Eddy. Those socks he’s wearing are cutting into his legs, they’re turning black and blue. Sorry son-of-a-bitch. It’s like he’s got gangrene in those legs.”

 

“You know we’ve got a room here for Ma,” Uncle Eddy said. It dawned on me that the scary man in the shack was his Dad too. “And she won’t come here if he’s here.”

 

“Mom’s doing fine, it’ll be a long time before she needs to leave her place. If he’s still around then, I’ll take her back to the Falls with me. You’re the oldest boy, Eddy . . . and I can’t have him around all my girls.”

 

Just then Nancy Drew got trapped in a closet by the bad guy and I stopped eavesdropping.

 

By the time the bus got me there, Aunt Betty had her pumps on, and her black purse hung on her arm like the Queen. She handed me the tea tray, pecked my cheek and sent me to the TV room.

 

The old man’s clothes were clean, with one pant leg folded up and pinned neatly. The sparse hair combed across his skull was whitish grey. His face seemed more wrinkled, but thinner than I remembered. I said hello and skirted around aqua eyes filled with water. Shoved aside a notepad to set the tray on the coffee table.

 

Gangrene or diabetes — I’m not sure why Grampa’s right leg had to be amputated. I’d heard that when he was at St. Mary’s the nurses were deadly afraid of him and that they took his cane away because he was smacking people with it.

 

He started to talk as soon as Aunt Betty had backed out of the drive. Tiny Too, the current terrier, had jumped up to curl into the empty spot at the end of his stump. He was petting her absently.

 

“He isn’t even my flesh-and-blood.”

 

“Who isn’t?”

 

“Not even my own. She was already along, you see. There she was walking to church and I could see she was in trouble. Didn’t know who was to blame. But I could see it was trouble.”

 

Pop’s eyes were on the dog. Maybe he didn’t know I was one of Mae’s girls. Maybe he wasn’t even talking to me.

 

“Not even my own. I told her — I’ll marry you.”

 

The tea Aunt Betty had poured was cooling. I took a sip. She’d made my favorite oatmeal cookies.

 

“All those kids — all the rest of them — and he’s not even my own.”

 

Tears were wetting the pouches under his eyes, and one tracked down his clean-shaven cheeks.

 

“But I’m living here. He’s feeding me and she’s even washing my clothes. She shaves me every morning.”

 

“That’s okay, Grampa,” I said.

 

Wheel of Fortune was on, and I pretended to be watching Vanna. Uncle Eddy liked to write down every answer, so I picked up his notepad and pencil.

 

“That’s okay,” I said. “Here, have some tea, Grampa.”

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