My grandfather hated all cats as far as I knew, but he especially hated Granny Sakowska’s tabby. It hadn’t killed varmint or vermin in years. And he didn’t approve of handouts even to elderly felines.
I supposed he hated me and tee-ball as much as cats, repeatedly asking, “Why don’t you play with a ball of yarn?” after one particularly bad loss in a tee-ball game, he caught me laughing with the winners. He told me, “There is dignity in hate. Perspective, boy.”
My mother had to tell me, “He means The War.”
For years, I asked about The War, so I could gain perspective. He dismissed me from deep in his throat, “Ckuhph.” I kept asking. I even stopped paying attention to WWII history at school, in favor of my grandpappy’s forthcoming primary source material, though my parents didn’t care for that reasoning.
Every Memorial Day weekend, my grandpappy charred red meats black instead of parading to the graves of the fallen. “Those guys in their uniforms that don’t fit—we should have a day for forgetting,” he’d say.
On one of the last Memorial Days before he croaked, Pappy—who demanded everyone use Pappy to address him because using Grandfather was too fancy and, in fact, ‘The Rich Man’s way of owning time”—took me out behind the woodshed. Thankfully, that wasn’t code for a whooping—grandsons never suffer the same fate as sons.
The five-foot woodshed leaned left and rocked in any moderate breeze. Shanty was a better word for it, maybe shitty was the best word. This shed’s only true purpose was to be the sanctuary where Pappy snuck cigars or nipped bourbon from his rusty flask while filling and refilling the gas mower free from Granny Sakowska’s scowl. On this day, he was joined in the blue shade of overgrown poplars and thorn bushes by the tabby cat who lay stretched flat its own feces.
“War is like this,” Pappy said.
Before I could ask questions, he opened a shiny pocket knife with a mother of pearl handle. The blade must’ve been five inches (minimum) and I was already worried because he’d also brought the garden shovel, with which he continuously seemed to be cleaning his rather sharp, if not sharpened fingernails. His only son’s only son, I was the heir to all this opulence, but maybe that wasn’t a compelling argument for letting me see the other side of puberty.
His light-gray Sunday slacks didn’t stop him from kneeling in the damp. He dragged the mud-flecked tabby to him. The cat’s eyes squinted and in a calm motion, arthritic hands slid the knife through a patchy fur throat. Breath escaped from the cat and blood began pooling near our feet like an oil leak. We listened to the slow drizzle falling to earth. There was not a lot of blood though; this animal was running on fumes. “Hold her until,” he said. He shoved the dead animal into my right side. I immediately dropped it into its own brown blood. The fur was cold when I picked it up by its scruff with both hands, careful not to drip on my own Sunday pants. Squatting like a catcher, I held the dirty furball as far from my body as possible. It was shrinking.
Pappy stood and wiped his knife on a handkerchief, then pocketed both. His knees were shot and the knees of his pants were too. He began breaking earth with the shovel, turning over the first few inches of rocky, moist soil and dropping it. In my teeth, I could feel the metal hitting stone. “Blind moles were mocking him,” he said. We swapped pelt for shovel like traders in olden times. Slow blood beaded a thick trail down his polyester pant leg.
After rummaging in the shed, he emerged with one of Granny Sakowska’s burnt cookie sheets. He dropped the sloppy corpse on it. “I’m not going to make the joke,” Pappy said. He did attempt to sing the official “Oriental riff,” but he was tone deaf and missing a racist gong for punctuation. Sometimes he made Granny play the riff on their upright racist piano, just to make him laugh during commercials of Hee Haw.
My stomach flatlined and my throat got sticky. He’d left me digging for about twenty minutes, while creating an intricately believable story for my Granny and Mother like, “Leave us alone,” or “What do you care? Ckuhph,” or possibly, if no one was buying, “Ckuhph, boy’s digging a shady garden area appropriate for beets wherein they will thrive.” However, Pappy and I agreed on one thing. Those blood turnips were a ridiculous vegetable that all American-born patriots hated. They must be stopped. Every planting season we didn’t. We did fake it. Harvest time, we’d lie and say, Your beets didn’t make it. But Granny always wondered, Why no beets? In Poland beets everyplace.
The old man returned in new slacks with an empty and topless box of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom. He said, “That hole should be big enough for this.” I hadn’t thought of a coffin, but Pappy was steps ahead. I stopped working and he said, “No. It isn’t yet. I said, ‘It should be big enough.’ Keep going.”
Perhaps sensing his daughter-in-law’s dangerous curiosity to protect her only child, he stepped out in front of the woodshed to protect our mission to bury the dead. A split-second later, my mother’s voice bounded with a song from the back porch, “Could you all use some lemonade?”
I thought, I could use some lemonade.
Pappy said, “Boy’s fine.”
She countered more melodically, “How about you?”
He finished the volley, “Diabetes.”
The screen door struck the jamb like a universe beginning and ending.
My arms were bubblegum when he dropped the cardboard box into the hole. “Close enough.” He squatted again—his time careful not to ruin his navy golf slacks. The box fit better once his knobby hands crushed it down like garbage. A layer of Sunday’s funnies and Memorial Day sales circulars provided a barrier from the further ruin of his Sunday slacks with the blood-stained cuffs. One by one, he unloaded ten, fifteen Kentucky bourbon bottles. Every bottle bone dry. “Reinforce the walls of this, uh….”
“Was that what you did in foxholes and trenches?”
“This will do. Because it’s peacetime. And we weren’t in goddamn foxholes. Wrong war.”
From his flask, he emptied an eyedropper’s worth near the hole. “For the fallen,” he said. “Throw all the catshit in too.”
I wouldn’t rest a shovel over my shoulder again. From somewhere, possibly behind a large, hairy ear, he produced a wooden paint stir then smashed it on the edge of a stump. With two fingers, he plucked an old nail from the roof of the shanty, which wobbled the normal amount, confirming that the nail’s removal was structurally insignificant. With minimal splintering, he impaled the two pieces of softwood paint stir on the nail, thus creating a cross in the yellow paint of Granny’s kitchen. “Need a marker,” he said. He tapped at his breast pocket with a palm and then patted down his other pockets. He looked in the box, then at me. “We know who she was,” he said. He speared the small cross into the ground at the head of the grave. “Stupid name.” He spat and walked away.
I never liked the name Jingles either. It had been years since the tabby moved fast enough to ring its bell, but Granny insisted that we call the neighborhood cat by this name. Other families probably called our ratty cat something less literal, unless they called it Ratty. I tilted the cookie sheet and its body slid into its fortress of spirits, pushing the chocolate blood like a rag mop. Its bell scraped along the metal pan. When the body hit the bottles with a wet thud, it settled into the nest of newspaper and space-age textiles. There was no final jingle. The clapper must’ve been gummed up.
The house spigot squealed and the sprinkler oscillated. Somehow Pappy looked dry when he’d returned, though more sauced. A new, unlit cigar slashed the air toward the dirt pile. “Throw your pants in too,” he said. My pants were covered in organic hell. “And that t-shirt, or your mother’ll brain you.”
He said, “We got some of your father’s old… She never throws away nothing. What the depression did for us: made us packrats.” He said this once a visit. Shoveling in my Fruits of the Loom, I hoped he could prove it.
He lit his cigar and coughed, “Little girl.” Self-conscious about twelve years of barely bouncing manhood exposed to a decorated war hero, I was thankful his glower had gone to an upward gaze through the web of branches and into a single spot of sky. Pappy drank and smoked a cigar in silence until he said, “Ckuhph,” and then silence, and then, “Foxholes,” and then “Ckuhph” and more silence.
And then, “A supposed French officer is pulling this girl by her long, black hair. Pulls her right out her shoes. She’s got one left. We see them go in a café or bar with no tables outside. We follow. This is just after the occupation ends, I think. Couldn’t have been more than thirteen, this girl. We’re not supposed to get involved, but we’re not supposed to be looking for drinks neither. Inside there’s nothing but crates and an old woman holding a lantern. She’s shining it at the back corner. The girl’s hair is still in this schmuck’s fist and they’re both bent over like tired fighters, shoulders pressed against the wall. And we say, ‘Hey!’ ‘Stoppierre!’ or something French. It’s me and this guy from Wilmington on the Ocean, Carolina. Scarpetti. Eugene, I think was his name. Eugene, tries, ‘Cesser!’ which means cease in French. Still nothing. It’s dim, but you can see there’s blood on her lips like she bit her tongue or someone else did. Whichever it was, it made her lips really red. She was beautiful and silent. Her legs like you poured milk out a pitcher and her eyes were blue as that sky there but even better. Blue before pollution eyes. Another guy was with us too. He didn’t want to get involved—I think he stayed outside. Jenkins. So Scarpetti and me grab this guy by the shoulders, swing him around. Naturally, he pulls a knife. The girl and I duck and I punch him right in his French nuts. He goes down like he’s got no bones, only clothes. I smack his wrist against a crate while this drunk squirms. We unwind her hair and she’s all blue eyes and breath on my neck. Scarpetti drags him outside. But not before he sliced me. This. From this knife. The hair won’t grow here.”
He folded down his left ear and with his cigar pointed to a colorless, faded scar. It was sunk in his skin like a raw shrimp.
“After, the old woman sets the lantern on our corner crate and disappears into the dark. The girl has my blood on her now, my uniform is shot, and I don’t understand anything she’s whispering, but it all sounds like heaven. Her fingers are digging into my boot laces and she’s trying to pull them out. Grunting tiny grunts like a song. The old woman comes back with a green monk bottle of cognac and a bandage that’s already blood-stained. There isn’t enough material to wrap around my big head. She’s wadding it up and the bootlace is for tying it tight. Scarpetti gets back with his bloody knuckles. Jenkins too, I think Jenkins makes the knot when the old woman says so.
“Enough glasses appeared, as long as you shared with someone. We shared. The old woman poured. We drank. We danced. The only music was the humming of the old woman who also hummed through her own blue eyes. She danced with Jenkins and Scarpetti, who took turns drinking alone. Another half bottle appeared. We danced some more. It didn’t matter that one boot was loose. I was ready to marry this woman and learn French.”
“Didn’t you say—”
“Don’t tell your Grandmother nothing.”
“—she was thirteen?”
“How old are you?”
“About that old.”
“You would have been impressed. Her beauty. Literally stopped time. The clock broke.”
“All women are beautiful,” he said. “And an inch to the left and that’s goodnight mister Irene. Women bandaged me up pretty good. Oh here’s—She was so happy when Scarpetti found her shoe. Maybe Jenkins. Wouldn’t you know, she kisses him. She probably only had one pair. In the doorway, before I leave, she slaps that mother of pearl handle into my palm. Three fingers from her other hand press into my heart, whispering Françoise.”
For a half-second Pappy’s eyes are fully in France.
“Boy, you ought to grow a mustache.”
He stubbed out his cigar, popped it back in his mouth, and rose up quick. I watched him stagger off, right through the sprinkler to the house, completely soaking his crotch. He was probably headed for the basement. Down there was a pegboard workshop and he pretended hard to tinker in it from his fold-out cot.
“Clothes?” I half-hollered to his back. If I lost him to the basement, I’d be skipping through the sprinkler in my skivvies for eternity. He stood like the crooked woodshed facing the crooked woodshed but his neck was following the sprinkler’s arc. I repeated. “What about— ”
“Here. By the door here!” He yelled his whispers. He picked up and dropped a plastic bag at the foot of the steps by the porch. “See it?” My new ancient clothes were exactly where every summer the ants gather like it’s Woodstock.
“No. See this? It’s Françoise!” He raised up the tabby slaying blade. “Never tell!” His arm was stabbing so many angels.
My rubber arms had to finish the job. With each shovelful, the vibration in the earth shifted the grave marker. The horizontal part of the cross worked its way vertical, until there were two parallel sticks connected by a nail. It needed duct tape. “Dignity,” I said to the dirt.
I couldn’t find any ants crawling on me, but I’m sure they were. When Granny asked about my strange dusty clothes, I said I thought flared jeans and wet, striped tank tops were fashionable. When she said they looked like my father’s, I said nothing but oh. And when she asked, Did I seen our tabby Jingles or our Pappy, I said they probably went to live with that rich family up on the hill. And with all that good central air, Pappy got rich too and the cat has become an indoor cat and will live a few hundred more years now and maybe I told her a hundred thousand other lies. Granny knew Pappy was ‘tinkering’ downstairs. When I asked Granny if I could borrow some tape and a magic marker, she said we have Elmer’s and crayons. When I asked where my parents were, she said, “Pappy said, ‘Feed the boy.’ So he pay twenty bucks to feed you, boy. Hungry? Mother and Father bring egg rolls.” I could hear the “Oriental” piano riff in my ears, but sorting out the hierarchy of bigotry would take longer than mastering chopsticks. Was the song “Chopsticks” vaguely racist too? Blatantly? I was sure that everyone would die before I understood anything. When she asked me to turn off the sprinkler, I understood she’d seen me in my underwear.
“No one should overwater the beets,” she said. “Your Pappy always kills them somehow.”