I arrive at the house on a dark mission. Every house on this street — boxy and small — is exactly the same, aside from minor modifications made by the owners to make it their own. These were the company-owned homes of the coal miners when there was still a mine here. My grandparents, they’ve hardly changed a thing. My grandfather, who I am here for, worked at the mine. As did my deceased father and all my uncles, except my Uncle Johnny. Maybe coal mines build good character.
The kerosene heater is lit and glowing in the kitchen and it isn’t hard to imagine a trio of witches in there tending to a cauldron and set upon the brewing of an evil potion. Which is arguably what I have in my coat pocket. It’s steamy in here, but the heater is a clunky utility that my grandmother insists has to be fired up day and night to stave off the cold from taking her husband.
It’s funny how perspective changes. Any other night in the cooler months, coming over here and seeing this glow would be a thing of comfort. Coziness and all that.
But tonight, it seems as though even the flame senses a different chilliness, a different darkness to slice through. The flames flicker orange, red, blue. The flame too high, the glass chamber smoldering. It’ll be a bitch to clean tomorrow.
I grip the bottle of morphine when I see my Uncle Johnny sitting in what has always been the old man’s chair. I know that beneath my uncle’s messy head of greasy hair, there’s a faded spot in the shape of a halo on the faux leather of the recliner. Apparently, this is an effect of the chemotherapy meds leeching out. He’s wearing reading glasses and the flame of the heater reflects in his lenses.
My Uncle Johnny, he just wants me to leave. He points at the hospice bed two feet away and the lumpy shape of my grandfather lying flat on his back. Like he’s rehearsing for his coffin. His ears, nose, and lips look old man large upon the sunken nature of his face. My uncle stands and mumbles, “Ma’s in bed. He’s been asleep for a while. He ain’t ate. Again.”
Uncle Johnny stops at the doorway to his bedroom that sits off the front room, just like all the other front rooms on the street. It’s a vast improvement over his former housing. Prison. He turns to me and says, “You got the stuff?”
I shrug out of my coat and wipe the sweat from my neck. “I do,” I whisper. “We’re good. Goodnight.”
“He’s got the stuff. He’s got the stuff.” Uncle Johnny says this in a warped sing-song, like a record that’s been stored in a hot attic for too long. I can still hear him singing how I got the stuff, even with the bedroom door shut.
“You’ve been otterized to pick up your grandpa’s meds,” my grandma had said earlier that day as she hung up the phone in the kitchen, an old phone, still attached to the wall with a cord and a rotary dial. Her eyes, normally reduced to marble size in her thick glasses showed large with a sudden intensity. “Shoot! You were s’posed to talk to her, that nurse. Here.” She’d torn off a sticky note with a phone number scrawled in her arthritic script. “Call her on that little phone of yourns.”
On the way out, I’d stopped by my grandfather’s bed to tell him goodbye. His cracked lips moved without sound, moving too much to suggest a simple goodbye. I placed my ear closer to his mouth. His breath smelled stale. The sound of November leaves whisking across a street as he spoke. “Me.” That was all I heard. Then he furrowed his brow, weakly cleared his throat, and clarified, “Me. I want you kill me.”
I played stupid and left after patting his shoulder and telling him goodbye.
To avoid thinking about what I’d just heard, I called the nurse. I’d wanted to get the straight story from her, so I’d asked my grandmother to let me speak to her. It’s hard getting accurate medical details from an eighty-year-old in denial.
“He’s got a day, two at the most.” Her voice was tiny, but tiny with an edge. “I gotta tell you, I’ve never seen someone hang in so tough, so long. Despite the pain I know he’s in, he’s hanging on for your grandma. The morphine, if you give it, and I know your grandmother doesn’t really want him to have it, not really, will relax him. Relax him enough until he finally lets himself slip away.”
Slipping away made me think of him holding onto a cliff and plummeting to a screaming death, not at all what the nurse’s intended vision probably was.
That edginess in her little voice shifted to a scolding. “And we can’t keep doing this.” To my confused silence, she continued, “The morphine. We can’t get it filled again so soon. Drops under the tongue as prescribed on the bottle. I trust you’re good for this.”
“Do this again? What happened?”
“I’m not supposed to say this, but, your uncle’s a junkie. He’s stealing it. I tried explaining to your grandmother that something smells sour, but she chalked it up to being misplaced. Twice. I asked her if there was someone else that could maybe help her. Stay organized, you know.”
Uncle Johnny had been in prison for drugs multiple times, wouldn’t step foot back in Georgia for unknown reasons, and had an ex-wife and kids that wouldn’t speak to him. Of course, he was pocketing it.
I’ve just given the 1 a.m. dose underneath his tongue and finished dabbing his lips with a damp sponge when my Uncle Johnny scares the shit out of me by appearing there in the darkness beside me. He pats me on the shoulder and shuffles off to the kitchen. The glass bottle of morphine is sitting on the table so I quicken to the red glow of the kitchen and stand in the doorway.
“It’s freezing in here,” says my uncle.
And I’m just thinking, optimistically, that the heater should be about out of kerosene here soon.
My uncle, like a cartoon character pulling an anvil out of his ass to smash the nemesis, produces a jar of kerosene from somewhere and proceeds to fill the heater. While it’s still lit. I want to call him an idiot, but I’m afraid it’ll make his hand jerk when he pulls back. So, I say nothing until the pour is finished.
“A funnel and turning the heater off would probably be a better idea.” I chin toward the heater and take a seat at the table. “And it’s burning up in here.”
He sits across from me. “Thanks for the tip, junior.”
I slide the bottle of morphine closer to me, staring at him as it shushes across the tabletop.
“You look tired,” he says. “Take a nap. I can’t sleep, so I’ll dose him. Better yet, go home. I got pops taken care of.”
“I got this, go back to bed.” I say this knowing absolutely that it’s a wasted suggestion.
“I’m not tired,” he says as he rises up, his shadow stretching wickedly across the kitchen. He drops a pod into a coffee maker and slaps it shut. The machine growls as the coffee brews.
Gripping the bottle of morphine, I glance behind me. It takes a second or two to realize it, but my grandfather’s chest rises and falls undisturbed. The old man’s shallow breath is inside me. I breathe in, release it.
Breathe in. And I’m glad he’s still with me.
Breathe out. I still have a task to do.
I’m suffocating in this damned place.
“Drinking coffee isn’t going to help you get sleepy.” I try to say this like we’re buddies. But, and maybe it’s because I’m exhausted, my sarcasm smacks him upside the back of his head.
He turns to me and yawns out, “You think?”
As the coffee brews, he hums a song, a tune I’d heard somewhere. And then I realize it’s the tune he’d been sing-songing earlier. He’s got the stuff, he’s got the stuff.
“Hit the showers, champ. Go home. For serial.” He nose-laughs and sits back down. The coffee remains on the countertop, steaming with the odor of wakefulness and morning routine.
“I’m good. I made a promise.”
“Sure. Because you’re a good kid. You know,” he yawns again. “You know, I was thinking about that time when me, you, and the old man went quailing. Remember that?”
I do, but I’m not having a conversation with him, so he stares at the heater as if maybe it’ll answer him back. The fire dances in the lenses. “You’re afraid I’ll take that brown bottle and make it my own. I know what that nurse is saying. Well, she’s a liar. Good kid.” He slides his shaking, open palm across the table top and flexes his fingers, once, twice. “Go home. He’s my dad. I love him. Please. Believe me. Sure. I’ve made mistakes in my past.”
“Most people, I don’t believe them when they say that. But anyone can tell by looking at you that, yes. You’ve made a shit ton of mistakes. I’m staying.”
“Okay. Good. I’m glad you believe me. Mistakes have definitely, definitely been made. Let me be alone with my pops.” He opens and closes his hand.
Eventually, he goes back to bed. The coffee is untouched so I drink it even though it’s lukewarm. I turn the damned flame down.
At the 3 a.m. dose, minutes seem to pass between my grandfather’s breaths. I realize I need to breathe and I ask him if he’s okay. Of course, he doesn’t answer back. This is it.
The next two hours pass with my staring at the slow rising and falling of his chest. I want to kick down my uncle’s door and throat punch him when I hear him singing about how I’ve got the stuff.
I’m not going to go and get him to see these final moments.
Instead, I provide a last rite of sorts. “Remember that day when me, you, and Uncle Johnny went hunting?” I tell the day to the best of my memory. I keep talking because the silence makes me want to scream. I rub my shaved head as I relay memories. My first bicycle he bought me. My hunting dog he traded for that couldn’t hunt. I keep rubbing my head because it’s what he’s done these last few months when I’d visit him. I still do this. I’m doing it now.
That hunt, it had made for a good day. I get ridiculous with the detail, jumping back and forth in my narrative as my brain locks in the details.
We’d ate the best cheeseburger in the world at a little diner afterwards.
The dogs had been pissing you off and it was the first time I’d heard you cuss.
There was a thick frost.
Uncle Johnny smarted off to you, but it was so funny that I accidentally laughed.
I tried Skoal and threw up.
At 4:30 a.m. a pop awakens me from a dozing off. My hands clench idiotically around the bottle, but I realize that it’s just the kerosene heater, finally run out of fuel. I go into the kitchen to crack a window to let the fumes out. And when I return, my grandfather is dead.
The next day, the entire family brings food and memories. We’re a family that doesn’t show emotion all that much — except anger. But then my aunts start to cry. And my uncle is there, spaced out from the morphine I’d forgotten on my grandfather’s halo chair. He says something completely incoherent to me and I have to get the Hell out of there.
I take the kerosene heater out to my grandfather’s workshop. Best to keep busy. I inhale the rich odor of his past workings: old grass from mower blades, WD-40, drained oil, and leather. It dawns on me that I may never smell this exact formula of a man again. I won’t be coming back in here.
I take a seat on a little red stool next to an overturned lawnmower deck. As I sit there beside the grass-stained underside of the mower, I wonder if the old man had been parked on this stool when he got the news.
What will I be doing someday when I receive my fate? What will be left unfinished?
I slide the heater across the garage pavement and lift the cabinet, fumble the glass cylinder out, and curse Uncle Johnny for causing this. I think of how my grandmother didn’t want to lose her husband. And I took him away from her. Took him away from everyone bawling inside. I caused this.
I use a Brillo brush to scrape the blackness off the globe until I can see through the glass like it’s not even there. My forearms ache, but I can now see through the glass like it isn’t even there. With more cursing, I piece the heater back together.
As I’m admiring my work, the last job that’ll ever be done in here, I realize that I’ve forgotten to clean the little viewing window, a look-through for viewing the flame as the wick is being lighted with the red-hot coil. It’d be easy enough to clean, but I decide to leave it sooty and impossible to see through.
I leave the heater sitting there next to the unfinished mower and walk to my car.
Gary Smothers is from Central Illinois. Born and raised in a coal mining town that died out when he was in high school, he left to work in the Illinois prison system for 13 years. He currently works for the State of Illinois as a manager. He is addicted to the following: traveling with his wife, working out, and writing. He is currently working on his second novel when his Chihuahua allows it.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/John Campbell
Intriguing short story. I read through it twice for all the details to sink in and come together.
“What will I be doing someday when I receive my fate? What will be left unfinished?” – Those two sentences really leave you thinking….
Very descriptive I felt like I was in the corner an unseen observer. My grandmother also had a kerosene heater as described in this vignette taking me back to the memories I have of that time with her.
Thank you for this gripping, candid reflection. Strikes close to heart home.
I’ve read this twice now. I don’t do that often, but this story really puts you in a thoughtful mood. It’s worth a read.
Fantastic story! Couldn’t take my eyes off the page. Well done!
I loved this. The description is perfect- I could smell the kerosene, feel the heat of the room and sense the despair this young man had for being in a position where his soul will forever be darkened, no matter what decision he made.
I’m very impressed and hope to read more from this author.
I’m intrigued. I’d like to see/read/envision where this story goes…
Emotional read, you can really feel the relationship and tension between all the characters. Love the visual descriptions.