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Fiction Middle School Coming of Age

In my youth, we seldom saw my father’s side of the family. When I was old enough, I would ask about them: where they lived, what they did, if there were any pictures of them. His response was they were farmers and had a small plot far out in the country. He was an architect, which seemed somewhat at odds with the history he presented, but it sated my curiosity and as I grew older, I began to envision acres of corn and a yard full of tractors and seeders and plows. Chickens and cows and livestock in abundance and feral cats that had assumed the rule of the land, mean but friendly to the right child. Everyone living there was benevolent and happy to be out in the sunshine with large platefuls of food laid out on the table for lunches and breakfasts with stemming pies on the window sill and rocking chairs in abundance with which to idle the time away.  

When I was twelve, I remember a phone call my father had. He took it in the den, and as he listened on the phone, he slumped over his knees, responding only in subtle grunts and an occasional ‘okay’. The next night, after dinner, we had a ‘family’ meeting with mom and dad, myself, my ten-year-old sister and five-year-old brother. 

It was here that my father announced that we were going to visit his mom and dad on Sat. It was a two hour drive out of the city and into the distant country, and with his sullen demeanor, it was clearly something he wasn’t looking forward to. There was to be no argument, this was just informative, and we were to be there for just the day. Probably coming back late, but definitely coming home. 

When the day arrived, I couldn’t restrain my excitement. As we traveled I  constantly stared out the window and asked the required question of all children; ‘How much longer.’ As the buildings in the city faded away over the horizon like the shore disappearing on an early explorer, we entered the land of silos and fencing for the first time. It was overwhelming to see huge stretches of crops extending to the horizon and shocking to see large pole barns lined up like airplanes, full of either cattle or hogs. It matched my imagination as we passed large homesteads with wrap-around porches, and kids along the road halting their bicycles to stare at these strangers, yet waving a tentative ‘hello.’

When we drove past one last majestic house, my father slowed down as he approached a white gravel driveway. On either side it was overgrown with tall grass, and as he turned down the lane, the tassels whipped against the side of the car with a whispering sound, as if trying to grab it to stop it from proceeding. Suddenly, my father drove into a small clearing and there before him was a small, square house. “We’re here.” He said softly, my mother reaching over and grabbing his wrist, giving it a soft squeeze in support. We exited the car, and I looked out over the scene. The house was at one time blue with white trim, the paint having peeled to such an extreme that just slamming the front door would cause all of it to fall in a powdery mist. The roof was somewhat patched, and the front porch was small and narrow, with plywood nailed on the railing and the roof to create what seemed to be rooms. Every window was cracked to some extent, with one window on the side completely boarded up. As I stood there, I looked around the rest of the yard, seeing un-mowed grass, and field corn planted almost up to the side of the house. Off to the right there was a rutted road that led to a small tool shed in the back, its wood gray and failing as gravity slowly won its war with the walls. 

My first sight was seeing a young man walking up the path wearing coveralls with no shirt and a straw hat, my attention was suddenly drawn to the front of the house, where an elderly couple was walking out through the front door, grinning broadly and walking as fast as they could. The woman approached first. She was round in both her face and her figure and wore a pleasant flowered dress and seemed to be generally grateful to see them. Her gray streaked hair was in a tight bun and she reached out with open arms, grabbing my younger brother first. “I am so glad to see you!! It has been so long!!” She then dispatched the youngest, moving to my sister with just as much eagerness, then hugged me with arms that were sincere and kind. The old man just grinned, standing in the back for a few minutes, then approaching my father first, awkwardly extending his hand. 

“Glad you could make it, son.” He said, almost tearful. 

“No problem dad.” My dad answered. “Just to let you know we can’t stay long…..” at which point my mom leaned her elbow into his side. 

“I understand,” my grandfather said acceptingly. “I have the papers already for you to sign. Your brother has already done his task, just need you to do yours.”

My dad nodded, then they turned to walk back into the house. The man that had walked down the path had stopped some distance from them and just watched. 

“Who’s that?” my younger brother asked. 

Suddenly revealed, the man tucked his hands away in his overalls and shuffled uncomfortably. 

“That’s your uncle Mo,” my grandmother answered. She leaned in a little closer to the boy and whispered. “His real name is Maurice, only you don’t call him that ‘cause he gets real mad and gets into trouble.”

Recalling my uncle from that first meeting I remember the long hair down to his shoulders and a face scarred and disheveled from too many fights. His eyes were dark, but sharp and his arms and shoulders were thin, then a deep brown from days out in the sun. 

As his father walked in towards the house, I watched as my father turned to his brother and gave him a slow smile and a nod. “Staying out of trouble?” he asked slyly.

Mo just grinned and gave him a quick nod back. “So far, but it’s early.” he answered. He then gave our family one more look then turned and went back to the shed. 

“Look what I found!” my sister said as she approached from beside the porch. Cupped in her hands was a small tuft of fur with its large ears pulled over its back. It’s eyes wide with fear. “It’s a bunny, I found it in the grass over by the porch!” She looked up at her grandmother with pleading eyes. “Can we keep him! Please!” 

The complexion of my grandmother's face hardened. Suddenly there was a severity to her, and she looked down at the small bundle. “You have to know something,'' my grandmother began. “You can’t keep a wild thing. They’ll die rather than be tamed.” My grandmother then stood up and crossed her arms. 

Disappointed, my sister walked away, the small animal hunched down in the warmth of her palms. Once she had returned the small animal to the place where she had found it. She stood over it for a few minutes, then turned away, distracted by something else. 

As promised, we only stayed the day, returning early in the evening. My sister had gone back to where she had left the rabbit, only to find that it had made its 

escape. 

We didn’t go again until a few years later. This time my grandfather had passed away and keeping to what he had promised us from years before, my father had us there for just the day. It was the day of the funeral, and we were all dressed in suits and fine dresses. This time, instead of being relegated to the yard, we were able to actually enter the house. I followed my father up the porch stairs and I was able to see around the plywood partitions that had been constructed around the railing. On my left was a kitchen stove, the electrical line running through a hole in the plywood and  connected to a small generator located on the other side of the wood. On my right was a series of doll rods holding up bundles of clothes. Suits, dresses, overalls, tshirts, all of them tightly sequestered for storage. 

Walking into the house, we were at first greeted by a small living room with an old sofa and a rocking chair. A wonderful yellow area rug was in the center, worn, but clean. Next to the rocking chair there were stacks of books of fiction and poetry along with biographies and a crossword book opened to a half finished puzzle. My grandmother was in the kitchen across the room and when she saw my dad her face melted. She walked over and grabbed him holding him tight, lacing her fingers behind his back as the tears flowed. Behind her, my uncle Mo was dressed in a plain black suit, his hair was trimmed and when my grandmother released my father, the brothers gave each other a short hug. That’s when I noticed he was missing two fingers, a fresh bandage on the open stubs. When they parted, Uncle Mo gave a short smile, then hugged each of us. When he embraced me, I could smell the strong smell of whisky. I knew what it was because my mom and dad went to a xmas party and when they returned late at night to tuck me in, I noticed it on his breath. I asked my mother the next morning and she explained what it was and made let me know that when I was older you’ll be more familiar with it. 

When we were leaving the house to go to the church, my brother came running up to us holding a wild orange-colored kitten by the scruff of its neck. “Look what I caught!” he exclaimed as the cat spit and hissed, its legs fully stretched out and its claws fully extended as it struggled to get free. Once again, my Grandma said, “That’s a wild cat sweetheart. You can’t keep a wild thing. They die rather than be tamed.” 

“Oh, I see.” he said somewhat perplexed but obedient.

This time my father interjected. “Just leave it alone.” he told my brother.” Just set it down on the porch and it will find its way.”

With the cat struggling, my brother placed the kitten out on the porch as told, then quickly took away his hand as the kitten bolted down the steps and under the porch, its paws scarcely touching the floor. My grandmother smiled slightly at the kindness. “Don’t worry, he will find his way.”

Suddenly my uncle spoke in a deep raspy voice. “There are tons of them around here. They always find their place.” as if validating what his mom had said. He smiled and I noticed teeth missing on the left side of his jaw. Looking closer, I also noticed a scar over his right eye and the bridge of his nose was flattened from being broken so many times. 

At this point, we all were able to get in the car, except for Uncle Mo, who drove his own truck. Once at the church, we took our place at the front pew and helped grandma through the service. As promised, we also left that afternoon, leaving Uncle Mo with grandma. I heard him promise my dad no more whiskey and he was going to be home every night to care for her. But there was a dark sincerity to his voice and my dad left the house with a stern look on his face. The drive home was quiet and when we pulled into the driveway, my dad sat in the car with my mom as we gathered all of our ‘travel’ gear out of the car and headed into the house. “We should talk.” I heard him say to her, always the clue for us to leave. I saw her face grow stern and she reached out for his hand which he opened to accept hers. 

The last time we went to the country house was eighteen months later. This time it was for Uncle Mo. Luckily my suit still fit, and as we walked up to the porch of grandma’s house, she was sitting on the porch step waiting for us. She was again wearing the same flowered dress as she wore for grandpa’s funeral, only this time she wasn't crying. Her look was drawn, the lines in her face deep and her eyes set back. As we walked over to pick her up, she hugged my father again only not with the deep grasp of someone who had lost a dear one, but with a formality. Like strangers passing. We didn’t go into the house, instead we all fit into the car as before and went to the same little church. 

Unlike my grandfather’s funeral which filled the pews with at least a hundred people, this time there were only a handful of mourners with a sheriff's deputy sitting in the back. My uncle did not have an open casket like grandpa, and after the eulogy, we all stepped up as a family and stood before the casket. Grandma just reached out and touched the brown pine of the casket, rubbing her fingers across its finish. But she didn’t have any tears, there was just the feeling of a deep sorrow. I heard Grandma say softly, “You can’t keep a wild thing. They die rather than be tamed.”

After the service I saw my father talking to the deputy. I got close enough to listen, but couldn’t hear everything. I just picked out the words, knife fight, multiple stab wounds and suspect in custody. Having heard all I wanted to hear, I helped get grandma out of the church and we took her back home. We stayed with her a little longer than usual, but we still made it back within the day. Leaving her slowly rocking in the living room chair as my father hugged her once more. Whispering something in her ear, she reached for his hand, and placed it close to her chest. 

Shortly thereafter, grandma moved in with us and although she never was the same, I know she missed that old house. But what struck me the most was remembering those words that she said. They weren’t so much a kindness to wild animals, but a description of her way of life. This was how she lived and viewed those around her and although I don't know how my dad made it through his childhood, I keep those words close and as I developed new relationships and new friends and work associates, and school mates, I thought of that phase and to be careful of the wild things because they cannot be tamed.  

June 24, 2022 15:36

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2 comments

Gregory Wright
19:20 Jun 30, 2022

It was a bit of a 'winding journey'. I probably could have thinned the narrative a little bit more in the first half. Thank you for the input, I'm still trying to improve and these comments really help.

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Betty Gilgoff
00:33 Jun 30, 2022

I enjoyed reading your story though found it a bit meandering. A pleasant enough journey mind you, setting the scene and slowly introducing and developing the characters as you wound the way to a resolution. Thanks for sharing it.

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