by: Frederick Foote ((Header art entitled “Pass Through Generations, 1998 by Lonnie Holley.))
“He has to find his own way out — has to find his own way in the world. I almost regret I will not be around to see his decisions.” A short story that speaks to the knowledge one can, or cannot, pass down to future generations…
I sit on my porch rocking in my grandfather’s chair watching as a car kicks up dirt about a mile down the road. The boy said he was coming out here and he’s as good as his word, this time at least.
A good-looking boy, long and lanky, he unfolds himself out of his SUV. He stands surveying the landscape around him. He has been here before, seen my one-room cabin on my rolling five acres, but it appears as if he’s taking one final look.
He nods to me. I motion him forward and direct him to get us a couple of beers from the fridge. He comes back with a wooden kitchen chair and two cold ones. He sits beside me. He has my daughter’s eyes and the good sense to sit still and be quiet until the dust of his arrival has settled.
“Grandpa, how’re you doing? Don’t you get lonely out here?”
The wind answers, rattling the leaves on a large oak nearby, spinning a dust devil at the foot of the steps and giving us a dry, abrasive scrape across the face.
I could translate the wind’s language and tell him that the wind says, Your Grampa’s old and worn down and I’m all the company he need for his fading days. But, I’m too tired to translate. I hope he picks up on the message.
“I’m leaving for Yale tomorrow. Mom said I need to talk to you before I go.”
I study his face and eyes for a minute or two. “We all proud of you. You get back east and let them know that California got some beat-the-Devil-at-his-own-game lawyers.”
A scrub-jay lands on the porch rail about five feet from us. The bird studies us for a bit and then decides that we’re not all that interesting, instead choosing to fly up onto the roof.
“You talk to your other grandfather? He’s one hell of a lawyer. You should listen carefully to what he has to say.”
The boy smiles at something he doesn’t share. He turns to me, “I spent the weekend down in L.A. with them. He had some sage advice.”
“Good, good. You following in your dad’s footsteps. I’m sure he showed you the ropes and told you the do’s and don’ts for Yale Law.”
The boy flinches a bit. “I’m not like you and him and Grandpa Jones. I’m a legacy admission. I don’t have your brain power. I think Dad’s a little ashamed of me.”
“So, what? You don’t need anyone’s pride or approval to do good or do bad.”
He gets tight around the eyes. “Do you have any advice for me?”
“I was a C-student in Law School. Listen to what Grandpa Jones and your Pa say. That’s my advice.”
The jaybird scolds me from the corner of the roof for not giving more substantial advice. Scolds me for not being more honest.
The boy shifts in his chair and jerks the conversation in a new direction, “Grandpa, you wrote hundreds of stories. You wrote four stories about murderers. Three of them were from the perspective of the murderer. How did you get that inside view? Did you ever actually know or meet any murderers?”
The wind and the jay join forces in a gale of laughter.
I stop rocking. I cast my mind back to when I was twelve. Billy Bowles whispered it to me on the playground. “Your dad shot Jeb Miller dead yesterday. Shot him in the chest three times. My dad was there with four or five others. Man, that’s some cold shit.”
I put a hell of a whooping on Billy Bowles for spreading rumors like that. I beat him even harder because I knew it was true.
I look at my grandson, and I don’t see that vein of anger, madness, fear, and self-loathing that flowed in my father’s veins and trickled down to me. What good would it do to give him that sorry history? He looks at me, waiting, nervous.
The shadows are pantomiming the shooting, acting it out over and over again.
The mere hint of a breeze whispers in my ear, Tell the truth and shame the Devil.
“When I was twelve my father walked up to a man he knew and was once friends with and shot him three times in the chest. Shot him dead in a public park in the morning. My father got back in his car and drove home.”
The boy looks like I just sucker punched him. I guess I did. He stands, loses his balance, almost falls. He looks down at me, “Does Mom know?” Did you tell her?”
“I doubt it very much. I know I never told her.”
I learned to live with a man that could do that. The same man that worked to pay the rent, put food on the table and clothes on our backs. He had a mean temper. I wondered if he would eventually turn that .38 pistol of his on us. Decades after his death I still have nightmares.
I have revealed a darkness in the boy. I can see and smell the stifling heat of this darkness. Not my darkness or my father’s. This is his own unique black hole.
He turns the chair and sits facing me, “Did you ever — I mean, in the war?”
“No.” But, I know I can. I know I can be my father’s son in an instant.
He has a thousand questions, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He’s falling into the darkness. I can’t pull him out. He has to find his own way out — has to find his own way in the world. I almost regret I will not be around to see his decisions.
My father lived to a ripe old age. No one ever turned him in. Things were different back then. But, everybody knew, and that changed everything. I was ashamed of him and ashamed of me for being his son. Wake up, boy. We all have our secret shames.
The wind shakes the leaves on the old Oak tree. The leaves cry crocodile tears. The shadows keep repeating the shadow play of the shooting.
My grandson fetches more beers from the fridge as the sun lingers on the horizon and the shadows reach out to engulf us.
I feel Yale rapidly receding into the distance for the boy as the three gunshots grow louder and louder for him.