11 Months, 17 Days
“I have a story about your grandfather,” Tom Jackson said to me, then caught himself. He shook his finger out through the doorway, toward the little spread on the dining room table. “Not this one, the other one, your dad’s dad.”
He had cornered me in the den of my maternal grandparents’ house, where I had gone to drink in peace. I could smell the rum on his breath, sweeter than the Canadian Club on mine. Tom was an old friend of my dad’s, a kind, funny conflict of a man, a devout Catholic who unapologetically frequented strip clubs, who was rumored to get the local parish priests drunk on house wine, then sober them up enough to get through Mass the next morning.
“It was 1965? ’60-something . . .” he faded for a moment, pulled himself back. “Anyway, I was 16. ’66! That’s what it was. I was 16, and I was madly in love with Wendy Monroe.” He over-enunciated the surname, giving it an old, stodgy taste. He leaned in. “She had a stick up her ass but, my God, what an ass to get stuck up.” He chuckled, something childlike, something tickled.
“She had jilted me, shot me down, whatever . . .” his voice trailed off as he tried to remember how a teenager half a century ago had wronged him, had meant so much at the time. “I think she wanted to be friends, or led me on or both, or whatever.” Another drink. “So I was moping out around the yard, maybe doing work for my old man or something, pushing one of those bitch mowers like a medieval torture device . . . and Mr. Derrickson, your grandfather. . .”
He nodded. “Your Grandpa Joe, he was sitting in his old undershirt on the front stoop of his house, all those kids flapping around like birds all outside and inside . . . and he was in the middle, on the stoop, left alone with his bottle and his cigarette. He called me over.” Tom made a waving motion toward himself, impatient, stiff. “So I trudged over there like a sad-sack, all hunched over, hands in my pockets, bangs hanging down over my eyes.” He shook his head, smiling.
“’What the hell is the matter with you, boy?’ the old man grunted, and I mumbled something or other back. ‘Speak up!’ he yelled. And I told him it was a girl.”
“‘A girl? What’s this girl’s name?’”
“‘Wendy Monroe,’ I says.”
“‘Monroe? Her dad own the hardware store?’”
“I nodded and he sat back on his little metal stool. He stroked his chin for a second, and took a long drag from his cigarette. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘There was a fella in the war, fought right beside me in Italy for three or four months. Guy named Shanny. Bert Shanahan.’
"Shanny had this girl back home waiting for him, you see? He had a few pictures, got letters as regular as anybody could in that place. She was a pretty one, if I remember. You following?’ I was. I nodded.
“’Well, one day he’s reading the latest letter and he goes white, whiter than that half-Mick already was to begin with. The girl wrote to tell him that she was getting married to another guy. She said something like how she would always remember him fondly—which was worse than telling him to go fuck himself.’ I snickered and looked up at him, but he wasn’t smiling. I can’t even say he was exactly looking at me.
“‘Shanny was all broken up. All broken up. Shock of it, you see. He had talked about the family that he was going to start with her, the house, the kids. He walked around like a slug, mopey like you, white as a sheet, wouldn’t stop talking about it, but was saying nothing at all. At least for an hour,’ your grandpa said, and took a long drink from the glass next to his bottle. ‘Then the German long-range artillery came screaming in, surprise attack. Shanny was ten feet in front of me when a big piece of shrapnel cut his head clean off. I mean, clean off! There was his neck and then nothing.’ He made a chopping motion just in case I didn’t get the point.
“He drank the rest of the glass before him, and then refilled it from the bottle. ‘Remember that the next time you want to cry over some titmouse like Wendy Monroe. Now get the fuck off my stoop.’”
Tom was looking out a window of the den, idly fingering its sheer curtain. “That was your grandfather,” he said, and nodded.
Two drinks later and it was my turn to corner someone, to pay it forward. A second cousin, some kid who I played touch football with at birthday parties when we were little, before everybody started to move out and move on, nursed a beer while I leaned back against a stereo shelf older than I was, exhibiting all the practiced nonchalance a nice buzz has to offer. The kid, Shane, maybe five years younger than me, had an oblong head and a unibrow that was almost wispy enough to play off, to pretend wasn’t there. He regarded me with the bemusement of someone who had accepted that he would never be as cool as I thought I was, fortified by cheap whiskey.
“So, check this out . . .” I cleared my throat in an attempt to clear my head. “I read this article the other day about how scientists at Emory have discovered that DNA can be— is— manipulated by experiences. Literally changed. In a documentable fashion.” I made an explosion noise, flared my fingers from my head, little rays of radiation or brain matter, mind blown.
Shane nodded, sipped beer from the rim of his bottle.
“I mean, it’s a game changer. They did an experiment where they electroshocked mice every time they went for cinnamon. You know, until they feared and loathed cinnamon. I mean fucking hated it.”
Something jumped in the corner of my eye at the sound of my curse; I turned to catch a little girl, some other cousin once or twice removed, staring up at me. I winced, made a shush motion with my finger to my lips.
I turned back to Shane and his unfortunate, meandering brow. “Anyway, the mice became afraid of cinnamon. And then the scientists made the mice have some bump-and-grind, you know, however they do that in a lab, and then they had baby mice and then those mice had mice . . . anyway, the original mice, the electroshocked ones, their kids and grandkids—never shocked, never anything— they were afraid of cinnamon. The fear, the pain, all of it . . . it was passed down in the genetic code.”
“No shit—wow!” I was on a roll. I could feel it like a surge that ran up from the base of my back, through my middle, and up and out of the chest. I could feel eyes on me, and I didn’t care. I’m sure Mom was back there, frowning. Grandmother, too, sucking on a peppermint. “I mean, the possibilities are endless. This changes everything we know or thought we knew about psychology, sociology . . . basic fucking humanity. Spirituality—reincarnation makes sense now, both more and less true than we once imagined. Déjà vu. Irrational phobias that haunt us may not be irrational, just, like . . . lost in time. Everything’s on the table. Everything’s changed.”
I took another drink. The ice clinked and I scratched my head. I leaned toward Shane. “Science just proved that we quite literally suffer from the sins of our fathers,” I said, a little too on the nose, but still well within the parameters of a healthy buzz.
On the second try, the cigarette lit. I took the delicious poison in, pulled it as far down my lungs as I could, held it, exhaled, tasted the earthy burn against my rough tongue on its way out. I collapsed on the landing on the side of the old Cape Cod, off the kitchen. I was alone. I watched the empty street and thought of a conversation I had once had with my other grandmother, the one not now trying to pretend I wasn’t there, wasn’t drunk and acting foolish, the one that died peacefully in her sleep five years past, a small kindness in a life pockmarked by war and loss and the seductive chaos of men that never were allowed to be more than heroes, more than boys.
We were in her living room, the one with the rust-colored shag carpet, somehow appropriate in a way I could never quite put my finger on. My aunt and uncle were in other rooms, packing things into boxes, and my Grandma Betsy seemed a little overwhelmed by it all, so they had me sit with her. She fell into an easy chair with a long sigh, breath ambivalently escaping the prison of her painted lips, her whitened teeth. I didn’t know what to say; I could feel the silence with each echo of my pulse.
The old woman broke it abruptly, perfectly. “When your Grandpa Joe passed away, I was lying next to him. I leaned over and looked right into his face. And I asked him if he was faking it again. I asked him if he was really dead.” She was staring at an old picture of my father that she kept on an end table, next to her little reading lamp. She wouldn’t let anyone pack it up with the other pictures.
She chuckled something deep and low, a small roll of thunder that threatened to turn itself into a cough, but didn’t. “He had to do that, you know? When he was in Italy. The Germans had ambushed his unit and it was . . . well, bad. Very bad. I can’t even imagine. You grandfather got stuck behind the German line. Everybody was dead or gone. Or almost everybody. The Germans walked around with their heads down and their Lugers out, shooting anything that moved.” She made a shooting gesture with her index finger and thumb outstretched. “Joe dropped to the ground and smeared some other boy’s blood all over himself. He laid there, not moving, playing possum for hours . . . hours . . . until nightfall . . . with all those dead bodies . . .” Her voice dropped with “bodies,” her lip turning into a small sneer at the word, something distasteful. “He didn’t talk about the war much, but I remember that one. He was drunk when he told me. ‘Got one over on those blind asshole Krauts,’” she bellowed, mocking his barrel voice, and daintily touched her hand, shaking just a little, to her pursed lips.
She let out another sigh. “He was such a stupid, silly man,” she said. “He was German himself, two generations off the boat.” She snapped to attention, sat up all manners-school proper. She gently smoothed out the front of her pantsuit. “I imagine he had to be, though.”
I nodded, not sure what I was agreeing to. She was staring at the picture of my father, taken in his own dress uniform sometime in ’68 or ’69. “I wish you had gotten to meet him,” she said, and she could have been talking about either one of them.
She turned to me. “It’s a strange thing to think about, isn’t it? If your grandfather hadn’t played dead in a field in Italy one day fifty years ago, or some Nazi had seen him even breathe once, you wouldn’t be here to have missed him.”
She started to maneuver herself out of the chair. “He fought for eleven months and seventeen days. Not a minute more or less.”
I wiped my hand across the corner of my eye, then wiped the hand across the thigh of my dress pants. I’m not sure for how long the cigarette had been out before I flicked it into the lawn and went back in to join the other mourners.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” I didn’t know who said it. It could have been anyone.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” I spit back to the room at large. I was rifling through dusty albums buried in the guts of the old stereo console, looking for something specific, but vague on exactly what that was. I would know it when I saw it. I was frustrated, but also strangely gleeful about the whole little adventure.
A voice from the peanut gallery barking an order, or what I perceived to be an order taking the disguise of a question, was just the spark I needed. Nobody puts Baby in the corner, I thought, making myself laugh. Then I said it out loud, something like a growl, but nobody else laughed with me. Then I started tossing records over my shoulder and into the party.
Wax thudded against the wall, the intricate woodwork of the railing leading upstairs. Those behind me made hitched, strangled little cries as they bobbed and weaved, trying to avoid the incoming records. I heard someone yell, but it was distant—another room in another house, perhaps. In my head, the glee was overpowering the frustration as I enjoyed the sweet release inherent in making a giant mess of things.
“Joseph!” Mom’s voice.
“What is wrong with him?” Grandmother’s voice was small. It didn’t sound like a rhetorical question.
I could feel a body step closer to me, could feel the shadow stretch over me. I glanced past my shoulder. It was Tom Jackson. “Hey, buddy,” he said, is if I were a barking, inconsolable dog.
My fingers stopped at Graceland. “Yes!” I hissed. “I love this.” I turned to Tom. “This is a great fucking album,” I confided.
He nodded, though his eyes never blinked, steady on me crouching over the record like some sort of ape. “Yeah, it’s good. Listen . . .,” he swallowed a little air. “Why don’t we go have a cigarette?”
“In a minute. I want to play a song first.” I pulled the record from its sleeve, flipped it to Side 2, carefully laid it on the turntable, which I quickly switched on. “I’ve got to find it, though,” I said. “It’s the last one.” Feedback squelched and squalled as I tried to position the needle on the spinning disk. The room’s occupants made another hitching sound. “Sorry,” I muttered, too quiet for anyone to hear.
“Maybe this isn’t the right time,” Tom said.
“It’s exactly the right time.”
Grandmother thumped her cane against the carpet. It made a heavy, hollow sound. “Excuse me, but my husband just died!” She sat erect at the table with what was left of the lunch meats, the celery stalks, the slowly turning mayonnaise.
“Joseph!” Mom’s face was a white sheet. Her hands fluttered about her neck and shoulders as if they had broken rank from the rest of her, become doves.
“What?” I spun around, glaring. “Your husband died, too. What makes her so goddamn special?” Nobody dared move, not even to breathe.
My mother’s chin dropped to her throat. “That’s different,” she said quietly.
I turned to Tom. “‘It was the myth of fingerprints. I've seen them all and, man, they're all the same.’ Genius. I’ve got to play this.” I set the needle true and the music started. Soon, Paul Simon began to sing, to repeat my words.
Grandmother’s voice rose above the music. “How dare you! Your grandfather was a decent, hardworking, churchgoing man, and this is how you choose to honor him? You are a drunken disgrace!” The words shook from her lips, a tired old earthquake, a shifting of plates across time and space.
I turned the music up, grabbed my now lukewarm drink from the console and sat with legs crossed on the floor. I pulled a cigarette from my shirt pocket and lit it on the first try.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Mom said.
“Then you are gravely misunderstanding the definition of the word ‘can’t,’” I slurred, and took a long, hard drag, sucking all the fog I could muster down into the deepest forests of my chest.
About the author:
Ryan Burruss is a writer and editor who lives with his wife and son in the sweet spot between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. His fiction has been published in a variety of literary magazines and journals, including Prairie Schooner, Ellipsis, and Soundings East, among others. He is currently working on his first novel.