Chris Phipps

All about books: Reading, Writing, Editing

Short Stories

ME AND GRANDPA

(This story was published in Saturday Evening Post’s 2016 Anthology of Short Stories)

Everything got better after my father went to prison. At least, it did for me. I don’t know about my mother. I just know she didn’t cry when the judge sentenced him to five years in Chino State Prison for armed robbery.

When the judge uttered those words, I clamped my lips shut and shoved my fist against my mouth. Aunt Martha, blubbering and bawling beside me, probably thought I did it to keep from crying out. If she had known the truth–that I almost laughed–she would never have spoken to me again. And if I’d realized that soon enough, I would have shoved both hands in my back pockets and sat on them.

I don’t know why that term–armed robbery–didn’t wipe the solemn expressions off both their faces. I was only fourteen, but even now, almost seventeen, I laugh every time I think about that weekend.

Dad had just come home from another cross-country long-haul with a two-week paycheck–money Mom needed to pay the bills. But on his way home from the bank, he stopped at Jake’s Tavern, his favorite watering hole, for a quick drink. Dad never had just one drink, and by the time he got home for dinner, he had nothing left but a bottle of Four Roses whiskey and a drunk-mean disposition.

I headed for my room, closed the door, and didn’t come out until the fight ended.

Mom had thrown him out again–for about the tenth time. I could hear her outside, yelling, “You don’t need to come back until you have enough money to buy some groceries!”

Dad didn’t look back. His big frame swayed a little as he shambled toward our old station wagon, the bottle of whiskey clutched in one hand.

“And you stay away from that car,” Mom yelled. “I’ll call one of your no-good brothers to come and get you.”

Uncle Charley and Uncle Jimmy, both older than Dad, had, years earlier, traded their families in for cheap booze. They worked at odd jobs around town–just enough to pay for a room, a little food, and a steady supply of liquor.

They shared a room at the Shady Palms Motor Court, commonly called “the Sady Palms” because the “h” in “Shady” had faded into the sun-bleached orange-brown paint. The one-story building fronted Highway 99, just outside Lodi, but the highway brought few customers. The tired cars in the parking spaces, including Uncle Jimmy’s dented old Ford pickup, stayed there for weeks–sometimes months.

The pickup, emitting clouds of blue-black smoke, lurched to a stop in front of the house, and Dad climbed in, cradling the bottle of whiskey.

I don’t know how many more bottles they had at the motel, but they passed them around a few too many times that night. By the time they polished off the last one and realized they didn’t have enough money to buy another, they had already drowned whatever working brain cells they had left. They decided to take Uncle Jimmy’s .22 pistol and rob a liquor store.

I didn’t know anything about it until Mom told me a couple of days later. She said she wanted me to know before it came out in the paper.

“They planned a robbery?” In a small town like Lodi, this would make headlines.

“I don’t think they did much planning,” Mom said. “They blacked their faces with lamp soot . . . ”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Why did they do any of it? I suppose it was some kind of disguise. Anyway, they drove to Sacramento, to the liquor store. Uncle Charley and your dad were going to rob the store while Uncle Jimmy kept the car running, ready to go.”

“Uncle Jimmy? He was their getaway driver?” Uncle Jimmy never drove more than 55 miles an hour in his life, and then only in an emergency. “In that old pickup?”

Mom shook her head. She didn’t smile.

“Your dad and Uncle Charley started into the store. A man came out, carrying a sack with a bottle in it. Your dad decided he might as well take it, too. He grabbed it, but the guy wouldn’t let go, and they . . . well, they got into a tussle over it.”

She shifted in her chair, opened her mouth, then closed it again. I waited.

“Uncle Charley had his gun. He shot it.”

I half rose, then settled back into my chair.

“He didn’t hit anybody,” Mom said. “Well, at least he didn’t hit anybody else. He did accidentally shoot his own leg. And he blew out a headlight in the pickup.”

“The one Uncle Jimmy–the getaway driver–was sitting in?” I felt spasms of laughter starting deep in my throat, and choked. This really wasn’t funny.

Mom sighed. “Yes. So Uncle Jimmy . . . I guess he was worried about the police tracing the gun. Anyway, he jumped out and got it and took off.”

“He just left them there, with Uncle Charley shot in the leg?”

Mom nodded. “Your dad left, too, but his head was bleeding. The guy he was fighting with–the one with the bottle–hit him over the head with it. It cut his head, and I guess there was a lot of blood, because an off-duty cop picked him up. Uncle Jimmy got away, but he stopped to bury the gun. He had it wrapped in oilcloth. But the cops had his license number and they got to the motel before he did.”

“Yeah, they would have, the way he drives. What did the cops do?”

“He had to take them back to where he buried the gun. It took a long time for him to find it. The ground was so wet from all the rain, he couldn’t tell where he’d dug the hole.”

“What . . .what are they going to do to them?” I could already see the newspaper headlines. Everybody in town would know my dad tried to rob a liquor store. I thought about the kids at school.

“I don’t know. Your grandfather and Aunt Martha are coming tomorrow. They’re going to try to bail them out and see how much it costs to get a lawyer.”

“Oh, yay.”

I think Grandpa had given up on his sons years ago. Not Aunt Martha. The oldest of the four children and the only girl, she’d helped raise the boys.

“They’re good at heart,” she said. “They just have an addiction. It’s a mental illness, you know. If their families had been a little more understanding, given a little more support . . .”

Easy for her to say, I thought. She doesn’t have to live with them.

“It’s hard for her,” Mom told me. “They weren’t always like that. She ’s remembering when they were the best-looking young men around, and the most fun-loving. They were considered quite a catch.” Mom’s voice softened. “Especially your dad. He was the best of them.” She shook her head. “This is about going to kill your grandpa.”

I hadn’t thought about that. Much as I disliked Aunt Martha, I loved Grandpa and didn’t want to see him hurt.

Back when I was little, when Mom and dad still got along, she sometimes went with him on his long-hauls. Grandpa took care of me then, for two or three weeks–sometimes longer.

Aunt Martha didn’t like that. “You shouldn’t have to take care of the little bastard.”

“Don’t call her that.”

“Well, you know she is. Elmer can’t have kids. Not with that missing testicle.”

I didn’t know what the words meant. Not then. I just knew Aunt Martha didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. But I liked Grandpa and he liked me. I think he missed his other grandchildren, the ones that Uncle Charley’s and Uncle Jimmy’s wives had taken away.

Aunt Martha rarely visited, though, so Grandpa and I had long summer days alone at his silver trailer. It was small, but we spent little time inside. Grandpa liked to sit in the yard, in the shade of his only tree, a small live oak. He had a couple of old webbed lawn chairs there, and a rusty metal table.

He liked crafts–liked working with his hands–and he especially liked whittling. I watched him while I wound colorful skeins of yarn into balls, or crocheted the yarn into long chains, trying to get the stitches smooth, so Mom would show me how to do the next stitch.

He leaned forward in his chair, his pocket knife slicing paper-thin curls of wood from a long board. Shavings floated to the ground, to cluster around his feet, and I could smell the new-cut wood. When he finished, he’d have a chain of wooden links, or maybe little wooden cages holding tiny wooden balls. He’d use them to decorate a what-not shelf. Sometimes he’d whittle out letters, so he could personalize the shelf with somebody’s name. He’d made one for my mom and one for Aunt Martha, and I thought he might make one for me.

I was probably about ten or eleven when I found out what the word “bastard” meant. In the years after that, I heard it again, several times. Not directly. Aunt Martha never called me a bastard. But she didn’t bother to lower her voice when she talked to her husband or Grandpa about me.

Dad was her favorite brother, so I couldn’t figure out why she hated me so much. And I wondered what she thought when Dad claimed he’d planned the robbery; that Uncle Charley and Uncle Jimmy hadn’t known anything about it.

“Charley just shot the gun when he saw the guy attacking me,” he told the cops. “And he didn’t shoot it at anybody. He just wanted to scare the guy, to make him stop hitting me over the head with the bottle. And Jimmy didn’t know a thing. He just got scared when he saw my head all bloody, and Charley down with a shot leg. He jumped out to get the gun and help us, but then he got scared and left. That’s why he buried the gun. He was scared the cops would blame us for the trouble.”

With no proof and no confessions, the cops had little choice but to cut Uncle Charley and Uncle Jimmy loose. Dad went to prison, and Mom moved us back to Albuquerque, closer to her own folks.

Just after my 16th birthday, Grandpa died. I cried when I heard about it, remembering the little silver trailer and the way Grandpa held his pocket knife when he whittled. I wondered if he’d ever made a what-not shelf for me, and when Aunt Martha called, I thought maybe she’d found one in the trailer.

“Marcie, I just wanted to call and tell you . . . I’m sorry, really sorry for what I used to say about you. I saw the picture of you in your grandpa’s trailer. You look just like your dad. Can you ever forgive me?”

I told her I could, stumbling a little over the lie. I waited for her to tell me about a what-not shelf with my name on it, but she didn’t.

“Marcie, did you . . .” She hesitated, then started again. “Do you know what Grandpa did with his money? I know he had a lot and I know he didn’t trust banks. He never did. But I’ve searched that trailer, from one end to the other, and I can’t find it. So I thought maybe you . . .”

My hand tightened around the phone. “Did you find a what-not shelf? Did he ever make one for me?”

“What? You mean those tacky old wooden things he did? I threw all that stuff out.”

“What did you do with the yarn?”

“The yarn? Why, that yarn wasn’t good for anything. Just mismatched balls. I took all that junk off to Goodwill weeks ago.”

I smiled. “Well, Aunt Martha, you gave them the money. That’s where he kept it–in the balls of yarn. He had his own system. He could always find whatever amount of money he needed, just by looking at the size and color of the ball of yarn.”

 

A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

I listened to French language tapes on my way to and from work, and studied my phrase book at night.

“Why don’t you learn some German?” I asked my husband. “Then we’ll have both countries covered.”

“Me?” Tom laughed. “I don’t do languages. I think I got a C- in English. Besides, we don’t really need German. We’ll have Renate with us, once we get to Hamburg.”

I couldn’t argue with his logic: a week on our own in Normandy, with my rudimentary French; then two weeks in France with the English-speaking tour group, followed by a train from Paris to Hamburg, where we’d connect with our old friend, Renate, who would show us her Germany.

But I couldn’t help worrying about making our connection in Cologne, despite the reassurance of one of the couples we met on our tour. He loved train travel, and often entertained us with stories of their adventures by rail.

“Trains are clean, roomy, easier than planes, and you can set your watch by the European train schedule,” he told us. “If  your train doesn’t leave on time, you’d better check your ticket; you’re probably on the wrong train.”

“I’m a little concerned about a thirteen-minute change in Cologne” I interjected.  “Not being familiar with the stations, and knowing no German–”

“They’re just like airports, with big arrival and departure boards. Look for your departure time. It’ll list your train number and the gate. Your ticket will tell you the car and seat number.”

“But thirteen minutes doesn’t give us much time.”

“Often the gates are right next to each other. You’ll be fine.”

The Paris station was just as our friend had described it, and we had no problem finding our train, platform and gate. But, needing reassurance, I found the ticket office.

“Will thirteen minutes be long enough to change trains?”

The ticket agent, a dark-haired, mustached man, pressed computer keys, glanced at the screen, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders, and proclaimed  “Is not a problem.”  His tone of voice and expression might have conveyed pity. Or disgust. Or boredom. Or maybe a combination of all three.

He was wrong; we had a problem. We couldn’t find our departing gate in Cologne. Then we realized we had to take an elevator down to the main level and find another that would take us back up to Gate 3. But, by then, the packed elevator was already on its way down. We’d lost too much time. The train left without us.

I found my way to the ticket office, where I told the short, plump woman my sad tale.  In the pity-disgust-bored tone, she informed me that trains left for Hamburg about once an hour from Gate 3.  We could take the next one, at 15:59.

We rushed back to the elevator and got to Gate 3 just as the train arrived.

“Which car?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know. We don’t have assigned seats now. But those we originally booked were on car 12, and there’s a car 12.” I pointed. “And it’s a different color. I’ll bet that’s the first class car. Trains running every hour must be commuter trains, and I don’t think they sell many first class tickets, so we’ve probably got a better chance of getting an unoccupied seat on car 12.”

Tom pulled the last bag up the steps just as the doors closed. We moved along the aisle until we found an empty compartment. Three seats occupied each side, facing each other. Tom loaded our luggage onto the rack above the seats we chose.

The conductor came through and checked our tickets.

“How far is it to Hamburg?” I asked.

“No English,” she responded.

“One of us should have learned a little German,” I muttered.

A few stops later, an older lady boarded, with a brown, short-haired dog. She hesitated, stared at us, stepped backward and checked the compartment number, then entered, speaking in German.

I shrugged and pleaded in English, “I can’t speak German.”

Tom avoided my glance and said nothing.

The woman studied us, then used body and hand motions to convey that Tom was occupying her seat. Hastily, we moved to the other side of the compartment, along with our luggage. The woman settled into Tom’s just-vacated seat, then waved and blew kisses at a young woman outside the train.

We sat, the three of us and the dog, in uncomfortable silence, as the train pulled away from the station.

Animals gravitate to Tom like bees to pollen, and eventually, the dog managed to squirm close enough to lay his head on Tom’s shoe.  The woman tried to pull the dog back, but Tom shook his head, and slowly moved his hand to the dog and scratched under his chin. The dog inched closer, and the woman smiled, but eventually pulled the dog back, closer to her. This pattern repeated itself over and over, with the dog edging toward Tom, and the woman pulling him back. Finally, she pulled the dog to her, where it sat, facing Tom. She tapped the dog behind his left knee, and the dog raised his leg for Tom to shake. We laughed, and she smiled.

Later, the woman pointed to the window, where a rainbow arced across the sky. Tom  smiled and nodded, then pointed out it was a double rainbow.

The conductor burst into the compartment, made a loud announcement in rapid German, slammed the door and left.  I looked at the woman, startled, and she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, indicating it was nothing to be concerned about.

When we neared Hamburg, we focused on the signs. At one station, the sign read Hamburg/Harburg. Tom thought we should get off. I didn’t think so; I was sure that this was the Harburg station, a suburb of Hamburg. When the woman realized our confusion, she pulled open a schedule, showed us the current stop and the next few stops, and pointed to her watch, reminding us that German trains run on time, and we should go by our arrival time to determine the station.

We stayed in our seats until the train pulled into the Hamburg station, precisely on time. Our new-found friend smiled and motioned for us to go. I said danke–several times–while Tom pulled down our luggage. He gave the dog one last pat, the woman waved, and we hurried toward the exit and onto the Hamburg platform.

“Next time, you’re going to study a language, too,” I told Tom.

He grinned. “We got here okay, didn’t we?”

“Only because of the dog.”

“Yeah. That dog understood me. And I’ll bet he doesn’t know English any better than I know German.”

I had to laugh, realizing that, as long as people own pets, Tom will have no trouble communicating with anybody in the world, no matter what the language.

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