The Blood in Our Veins
Samuel K. Wilkes
His parents had named him D. Being the last of six children, by the time he came screaming into the world they were out of family names. So my great-grandmother gave him a letter. I remembered squirming in a chair next to him, watching the baseball games drip by like molasses. D watched every Atlanta Braves game. I didn’t really care, I watched because he watched. A glass ashtray sat in between us. D would fill it with Camels as the smoke lingered and snaked to the ceiling.
“That’s Dale Murphy. He’ll clean them up,” D would say.
I would nod to my grandfather’s confidence, studying the lines on his face and his white hair combed back with Brylcreem. Atop his Zenith television, bronzed baby shoes served as bookends. They were my father’s, but they never seemed real, more like cheap keepsakes found in a flea market. An old pendulum clock ticked above the tiny shoes. On that same wall hung a black and white picture of D’s wife. I never knew her. Only stories and recipes remained. Flashes of her personality would occasionally shine through in my father—so they’d say—but I couldn’t tell. As a child I would look at her face in the photograph and feel as though I knew her. But I couldn’t picture her today.
“You want to refill us?” D would ask me.
I always jumped at the opportunity, mainly because of the wall-mounted ice crusher. As a naïve child, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would not want to manually crush their own ice. I would balance on a chair and place the large cubes in the wall-mounted cup. My tongue would poke out the side of my mouth as my twig arm would clutch the handle and grind. Difficult at first, the ice would soon give way into a diced slush. One time as I removed the cup from its mount, an excess cluster of shavings splattered on the linoleum floor. I tore off enough paper towels to fill a mattress.
“Don’t be wasteful,” D groaned. “Give them here,”
He spread the damp sheets over the counter and ironed them out with his hand. I studied the wrinkles and veins that meandered down his forearm.
“See? Sometimes if you take the extra step, you can use things again.”
I nodded in agreement, but remained confused. At that time, I didn’t know that D worked the Alabama fields as a teenager during the Great Depression. That he picked cotton and butter beans on his elbows and helped birth cows. That the idea of play and relaxation did not register in his world, but were mere dreams left to float in the leisured mind of some fortunate son. I didn’t know what a dollar meant to D or how disrespectful throwing away a paper towel used on ice would be. Or what it even meant to have ice.
Now, at 22 years-old, I found myself working as a busboy at Applebee’s. I knew I was over-qualified for the job, but I had settled into a comfortable routine. I told those who asked that I was returning to college to finish my major—whatever the hell that was when I quit. Tonight my shift went past eleven, so I didn’t land on the couch until about midnight. I immediately flipped off my hideous safe-for-work shoes and sank into a slouch. My spine curved along the folds of the cushions; a position that encompassed a majority of my days. I typically either watched stolen cable or escaped into my PlayStation. Always loaded.
A replay of the day’s Braves game droned from the television. I took out my wooden box from under the couch and secured an old leather belt to my arm. Before opening the latch of the box, I paused to watch a few pitches. The camera focused on a former player in the stands. Dale Murphy stood and waved to the clapping crowd. I stared at the forgotten idol, but only thought of one man.
As my cell phone vibrated, I released the belt and checked the number. It was Whitney. Most likely looking for a free high—well, not completely free, she reciprocated with sex. Some would call the exchange prostitution, but we didn’t call it anything. Whitney would bring the means and I would have the supply. The rest developed naturally, but remained linked in an unspoken way.
I placed my phone on the wooden box, too distracted to talk to her. As the belt dangled from my arm, I ran my hand across the surface of the solid box. The smooth cedar lines curved and spiraled with aged beauty, drawing my attention away from the rusted hinges and scuffed edges. I picked it up and inhaled the aroma of the old wood. For the first time in years, I recalled its original purpose.
D had loved playing dominoes with me. It was our game. No other family members played with him. Before unlatching the box and emptying the pieces, D would go through the rules again one by one as if it was our first time. We always set up on the kitchen table. I’d sit under the wall-mounted ice crusher with a stack of oatmeal cookies by my side. The domino pieces would be assembled neatly within the four rows of the box. The ticking clock from the den would remain the only sound as we battled wits with the black and white pieces. I couldn’t help it, but I would always smile as I made my move, not sure if it was a good move, or a move at all, looking to my grandfather for some type of reaction to guide my hand.
“Remind me to give you and your dad some tomatoes to take with you when you leave,” D said before making his final move. “I have some real nice ones this year.”
I didn’t love tomatoes as a kid, but I loved D’s garden. I was fascinated that we could eat something that came from the dirt of his backyard, with no need for the bright boring grocery stores. Seemed like magic.
Recently I realized I wanted to be a chef. I had assumed it was because my longtime ex-girlfriend liked it when I cooked for her. Or maybe just another reason to piss off my father. But as I reflected on D’s garden and his red plump tomatoes, I started considering it might be something deeper. I stared at my cell phone next to the wooden box. I couldn’t think of anyone still alive I wanted to call.
I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette on the balcony. I had smoked ten at work and didn’t plan on smoking another until after getting loaded. But plans change and my thoughts needed settling. The Birmingham skyline flickered in the distance. Not a great a view, but spectacular for the rent. I paid the utilities. My father paid the rest. But that was just so I could finish school. I didn’t know what he would say if I told him I dropped out last semester. Or, maybe worse, that I wanted to toss the credits I had earned and start fresh with culinary school. I knew that would certainly cut off the flow of money.
After stubbing out the Camel and returning inside, I changed the Braves game in hopes of clearing my mind of doubts and ghosts. The next channel showed a documentary about the Hiroshima bombing. It didn’t help.
The screen flipped through black and white images of children’s shadows imprinted on walls in the same positions as they stood seconds prior to the atomic blast. I jerked my head from each one and quickly changed it back to the game before pulling the belt tight with my teeth. I wanted the high more than ever, but the black and white images left a stain.
I couldn’t help but think about walking through those ruins, seeing hell in the flesh. D had served in the Navy during World War II. He saw action in New Guinea and Okinawa, then served in the occupation forces in Japan after the bombs fell. He never talked about it with me due to my age. I never knew that the vacant eyes of those children haunted D; that he saw those eyes during his final days—as he had told my dad from his hospital bed—forming within the black screen of the television as the seventh inning stretch switched to commercial. People don’t tell kids these things.
I did, however, know about the bronze Hotei Buddha that D brought back from his Pacific tour. The small statue had always sat on the bookshelf in his study, flanked by photographs with governors and congressmen. Cavendish tobacco from D’s after-dinner pipe would fill the room. The bronze Hotei Buddha would smile down through the lingering smoke. I recalled one night when D noticed my gaze, he took the statue down from the bookshelf.
“Rub his belly,” he said.
I laughed with confusion when I first heard his request.
“They say it will bring you good luck and prosperity.”
“Pros-pair-etee?” I tried sounding it out.
“Success in whatever you desire. So, focus on what you desire and do it.”
I remembered curiously rubbing the smooth bronze belly. I even recalled my wish. Her name was Ashley, a strawberry-blonde girl in my third grade class. I remembered focusing my mind like a laser, hoping the Buddha would bring her my way. I remembered believing that when I returned to school the next week she would be smitten and waiting by my seat in the cafeteria. I thought life could be that easy.
At dusk, after another game of dominos, D would often call me to his front porch. I would come out talking, but immediately hush when I saw the look on his face. I would then know she was out there; the great horned owl that lived in the large oak in the front yard. I would tip-toe into D’s lap and we’d sit for an hour listening to the mysterious deep calls descending from the tree. I never saw her, but I could hear her in my sleep. We would just stare into the darkness and listen as if the old oak itself were speaking to the summer night.
I threw open the sliding door to light another cigarette. The belt remained firmly strapped on my arm, bulging up veins like a network of tributaries.
“What’s my problem?” I said to myself, huffing out smoke.
I hadn’t thought about D in years. And even when I did it was just as my sweet elderly grandfather. I was too young when he passed, never able to ask about the Japanese girl he fell in love with while stationed in the Pacific, or about working his way up from a poor Alabama farm to a law degree from Yale, or about the times as an FBI agent he would smoke a cigarette in the French Quarter and wish for a brief moment that he was off duty. Or the certain poem he would read to my father at night as the Klan terrorized his home during the 50’s for representing black men.
It was different this time. As though the man was still here, not a gentle elderly man in his final innings, but a unique complex individual with desires and fears, staring at my person, waiting for me to fill my veins with excuses. Disgusted at the waste of blood I’d become.
I pulled on the cigarette and decided to call Whitney back. I knew she would take my mind off the past and into the present.
“I was wondering if you were screening my number,” she flirted.
“No, I just got distracted. What are you doing?” I said.
“Waiting for this boring Braves game to end. They're about to show Life with Eddie Murphy. I love that movie.”
“Me too,” I lied, not sure what movie she was talking about. “Want to come over and watch the rest with me?”
“Of course, sweetie, I thought you’d never ask,” she said. “You still have enough to share? I’ve been bored and sober all night.”
I puffed on the cigarette and eyed my thinning reflection in the glass door. A dove called from a thick holly bush that lined the apartment grounds. I knew it was a dove, but I only heard a horned owl.
“Whit,” I said, hesitating like trying to swallow a thick piece of gum, “I’m actually all out. I have some beer and red wine though. We can order a pizza.”
I heard a door shut through the phone and the rustling of clothes.
“Well, actually Harrison, I didn’t realize it was so damn late,” she said, yawning. “I’m going to take a rain check. I have some errands to take care of early tomorrow. Thanks, though. I’ll talk to you later this week, sweetie.”
I said goodbye to Whitney for the last time. As I snubbed out my cigarette I paused, turning my ear up for the owl—or dove—again. No bird made a sound, just a lone breeze blowing off the adjacent hills and gently rustling through the trees. I returned inside and unlatched the belt from my arm. My veins receded, settling beneath my pale flesh. I dumped the contents of the wooden box into a trash bag and threw it in the outside dumpster. I had hidden that same box from myself many times before, but I had only thrown away the contents once—and those were just the dominoes.
The Braves took the lead three to two in the bottom of the eighth. Things were turning around. The camera focused on Dale Murphy again in the stands. This time the old legend remained seated and casually took a sip of his beer, focusing on the game. I centered the wooden box on the coffee table, emptied my pocket change from the night, and placed it all inside.
About the author:
Samuel K. Wilkes is a writer, attorney, and bedroom musician living near in Fairhope, Alabama. He has a love-hate relationship with his state, but consistently draws inspiration from her. His short fiction has been published in WhiskeyPaper, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, On the Premises, Deep South Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and several others.