Genre: YA Contemporary Literary Fiction
Release Date: November 24, 2015
When Jack Snyder was forced at age ten to deal with the tragic and explosive death of his moonshine-making grandaddy, he didn’t. Instead, he became a self-made pariah, keeping only his monstrous temper for company.
Now plagued by shame and a desperate desire to escape his small town, Jack lashes out at everyone. Everyone, that is, but his high school English teacher, his mama, and the adorable Kelly Green. Through a combination of academic success and the support of these three women, Jack pushes aside his emotional volatility and—much to Kelly’s chagrin—finds a way to escape: college.
That is, until his daddy gets sick. Jack is forced to surrender his dreams of escape and rely on the most unlikely of helpers, the only other person in town with a reputation as bad as his: his grandaddy’s common-law wife. With the town now truly rejecting him, he’s left with one choice: confront his hatred of home and the self-loathing that led to it, or spend the rest of his sorry life alone.
View all posts about THE OLD CREEK BRIDGE or read on for a peek at Chapter One.
By the time my grandaddy’s truck blew up, I could barely remember what he looked like ‘cept for when I looked at the photo on the mantle. Huge bushy sideburns with nothing on the chin to cover that big old burn scar that nobody ever talked about, and a baseball cap tugged hard over his head, shading his eyes. He was to the side in the photo, wearing a faded red flannel half-tucked into a shabby pair of khakis. My daddy, his sister, and my grandmother were centered, all dressed up, but he was just there in the background, looking at something off-camera.
Ma and Daddy had never talked about him except in hushed tones late at night when they thought we were sleeping. Ma worried; Daddy said he could fend for hisself. I didn’t know what that meant, since far as I could tell, all Grandaddy did was make hooch and sit around in his cabin drinking it and smoking and shooting at crows, and that didn’t seem like nothing to worry about. Lots of old men did that, I thought. I might want to myself someday.
One night a year or so before the explosion, between supper and my bath, I’d tried to ask about him, about why we never got to see him the way other kids got to see their grandaddies, the way we got to see Ma’s daddy, our pappy, ‘til he died of cancer when I was six. We’d been standing in the kitchen, Ma, Daddy, and me, and Mary’d been in the other room, singing to herself. ‘I Will Survive’, I still remember—she didn’t know half the words, so she mumbled them or made her own up, which Ma thought was real funny and Daddy shouted at her for.
“Where’s Grandaddy at?” I asked. “I mean, why’s he never see us?”
Ma looked at her hands, clenching a raggedy dish towel. Daddy’s face got all red like when he came in from a job in the summer and Ma told him he was burnt to a crisp, and wouldn’t it be silly to die from skin cancer of all things.
“Go to bed,” he said.
“But I ain’t had my bath.” My voice sounded far away, tiny.
“Go to bed.”
“John,” Ma said, real quiet, and put her hand on his arm.
He brushed it off. I started trembling.
“Git yourself up and into your bed.” No louder than before, but more scary. Deep and grumbly, coming out of his chest instead of his throat.
I took myself straight up to my room and got into bed fully clothed and still shaking. Laid on my back, staring at the ceiling, holding my breath and wondering what I’d done to make Daddy so mad. Tugged my blanket up over my head and then pulled it off again when I started sweating, turned upside down in the bed, tried to list every person in my class. I was waiting.
And then it happened. Daddy came in and sat on the edge of the bed. I stayed still for a while, squeezed my eyes shut, hoped he’d go away. I heard him breathing, sad, heavy sighs.
“Look,” he said. Still the grumbly voice, but quieter. “I don’t much like to talk about your grandaddy.”
I started sobbing, choking on my own throat. Didn’t know why I was doing it, but I would explode if I didn’t.
“But everybody else gets to see theirs,” I said, face buried in my pillow. Dunno how he understood me, I was talking through so many layers of snot and feathers.
He’d been silent for forever when I looked back up at him, and then he gave me a smack so hard across the cheek it was bruised for a week, and he told me to tell my teachers I fell playing with my sister. Only time he ever laid a hand on me, but it was ages before I stopped flinching when he came close to me.
Next week, they’d brought me a puppy, a doughy yellow lab with paws as big as his head and no brains to speak of.
I’d never asked again.
Kept mostly to myself at school. Most of the kids at St. Jude’s High had gone to private school from the first grade and had been friends with the same people ever since, so it woulda been hard for me to break into any of the cliques when I’d started there. If I’d had any interest in hanging out with them, that was.
I hadn’t, though. Found I didn’t get in nearly as much trouble when I didn’t talk to nobody.
“Your report card’s here,” Ma called from the front hall. I was sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over my Algebra II homework. “Can I open it, or do you want to?”
“Don’t matter,” I called back.
She stood in the doorway, a big wad of mail in her hands. The school crest stood out in bold on the top envelope.
“Why don’t you?” she asked. Her face was strange, pinched around the mouth and eyes.
I took the envelope and used the tip of my pencil to rip it open.
I tossed it at her.
“Oh kiddo,” she said, “congratulations. But . . . ”
“But what?” I asked, not really interested.
“Your teachers say you could’ve done better if you’d participated in class. And that you don’t seem to be socializing much with your classmates. Mrs. Kartwell is concerned about—”
“About what?” It came out harder than I meant it, with a bite. Mrs. Kartwell was my English teacher, a real nice lady. But she nagged a lot, and I didn’t much care for that. Made me feel as though nobody thought I could take care of myself.
Ma looked at me, the corners of her mouth twitching. “She’s worried about you never talking to anyone. Why’s that?”
“Why’s what?” I asked, all innocent-like.
“Why won’t you talk to anyone at school?”
“Don’t much feel like it.”
“Are they mean to you?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes without thinking none about it. “No, Ma, I just don’t wanna talk to ‘em.”
“Ma . . . ”
The front door slammed, Mary home from field hockey. Me and Ma listened, staring at each other, as Mary kicked her shoes off and threw her backpack onto the table in the hallway. Ma always teased her for making so much noise, like somebody twice her size, stomping and shuffling and tossing things around. She was on her way to the kitchen, from the sound of her footsteps.
“Ma?” Mary yelled as her head poked through the kitchen door. “Oh, sorry.”
“Naw, it’s fine,” I said, grateful for the interruption.
“How was school?” Ma asked.
Mary poured herself a glass of orange juice and sat down.
“Fine,” she said. “Practice too. What’re y’all talking about?”
“Got his report card today,” Ma said.
“Oh,” Mary said. “Me too. All As except math.”
I made myself smile, trying to act normal.
“Great job, Mar,” I said. “Think math mighta been my only A.”
“No,” Ma said. “Got one in English too.”
I was surprised. Hadn’t looked at the thing, of course, but Mrs. Kartwell was always on me about speaking up in class, so I wasn’t expecting nothing amazing from her.
“Would’ve been all As if he’d actually participated.”
“Thanks, Ma.” Tried to make it sound like a joke, but instead I sounded angry.
“Who’s coming for Thanksgiving, Ma?”
Didn’t know if Mary was trying to head something off or had just bumbled her way into busting up the argument that was brewing, but I could see from the way Ma’s shoulders dropped that she was as relieved as me.
“Gale, Carl, and Matthew, Sissy, June, Peter . . . ”
I stopped listening while Ma ticked them off one finger at a time. The thought of all those people squished into our tiny little dining room made my belly clench up.
Used to be that Thanksgiving was the best holiday of the year, better than Christmas or Easter, because the whole family came and all the kids played football in the yard while Ma and all the aunts fluttered around in the kitchen and Daddy and the uncles watched the Cowboys play whoever they was playing that year. Around four, we’d troop into the house, tired and sweaty, and be split up by age, sitting in the kitchen if we were under twelve or at the grown-up table if we were over.
Didn’t sound near as fun this year as it used to.
The day of the accident, the sheriff had gone after Grandaddy, or maybe he hadn’t, nobody had really known. They’d talked about it the way small town folks do; everybody has their own opinion, everybody has it on good authority, everybody ain’t gonna change their mind ‘til somebody can prove ‘em wrong. The boys at my old school were more interested in the explosion than in who was involved. That made me feel a bit better, ‘til they started in on whether he’d been vaporized or if they’d had to clean his body parts up off the side of the road. They talked about it as if it was a comic book or a movie, not like it had really happened. And everybody else hushed up and started chatting about the weather.
I hoped Grandaddy was being chased, hoped in some strange way that he deserved the outlaw reputation he’d gotten, hoped a little of that tough guy was in me too. But I also hoped they was wrong, that it was an accident, that my grandaddy wouldn’t have been dumb enough to do that kinda thing. I knew these things were what you called a paradox, but I hoped anyway. Think I needed to think he was some kind of hero and not the idiot that time and experience taught me he probably was. Nobody wants to think that about their own grandaddy.
Anyway, whether he was after him or not, the sheriff was driving right behind him, and Grandaddy was driving too fast, and he drove straight into the wall of the old Creek Bridge, and the truck blew up, and the covered bridge with it, and the sky was filled with smoke and the stink of booze, and my grandaddy died, and the sheriff said the whole damn mess was Grandaddy’s fault. Nobody could say whether he was right or wrong, ‘cause nobody else was there, though folks had their suspicions one way or the other and hadn’t been none too shy about letting everybody know about them so long as the sheriff himself wasn’t in earshot.
We’d all heard, even if we hadn’t seen.
I still remember the rumbling. Sounded like a bad thunderstorm, the kind that comes with tornadoes and cows dying and all that, a low roar deep in my gut, and the whole town had stood still and listened. We were at recess, all out on the playground on a rare sunny winter day, and everybody stopped doing whatever they was doing. Like a horror film, an odd calm that gave me a creepy feeling in my belly, that one I always got right before the zombies turned up.
None of us knew what it was. Then the sound ended, and it was as if somebody pressed the play button: everything picked up where it’d left off. Far as everyone was concerned, nothing had happened.
During my second-to-last class, US History—we were learning about Prohibition, always stuck with me—the principal came in, real serious, and asked for me. Said that I was excused, that my Ma was waiting for me in the office.
Thanksgiving morning, Ma shook me out of bed to help Daddy bring last-minute groceries in from the truck, crates of beans and potatoes and canned pumpkin.
“Why doesn’t she ever do this before today?” I asked. “Not as though it all goes off right away.”
Daddy shrugged, shifting his stack of crates to one hip so he could open the screen door.
“Dunno,” he said. “Always been this way.”
“Stupid. If it were me, I’da bought it three days ago. Had to have been a million people in the store this morning.”
“Don’t be ungrateful,” he said. “It’s Thanksgiving.”
Hard to keep my mouth from running away on me, but I managed. Daddy was in a strangely good mood, and I wasn’t about to ruin it before the guests arrived. I shuffled through the door and down the hallway behind him, very nearly taking the coat rack with me as I went.
Ma and Mary were in the kitchen already. Mary looked the way I felt: exhausted, her eyes puffy, hair all shoved up on one side, pillow creases red across her cheek. She was still in her pjs; Ma had at least put on her bathrobe.
“Morning,” Ma said as we came in, real chipper. Far too awake for Mary or me.
“Morning,” I said, plunking my box of vegetables down on the table. I scrubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, sweaty already despite it being eight o’clock on a November morning. Mary set to unpacking things, stacking potatoes to be peeled and chopped. Ma supervised as Daddy and I walked in and out, in and out with all the stuff from the truck.
“Jeez Louise, Doll,” Daddy said. “You’d think you was feedin’ an army with all this stuff.”
Ma laughed and punched him lightly in the chest. “You all eat enough for an army. And we’ll be having the leftovers for a week.”
Mary yawned into her elbow, making all sorts of noise.
“Can you put on another pot of coffee, kiddo?” Ma asked me. “Looks as though we’re going to need it.”
People started showing up around noon, near a full hour earlier than Ma had told them. Auntie Gale, Uncle Carl, and my cousin Matthew were first.
Auntie shoved her way past me when I opened the door. Carl thrust a hand out and shook mine real hard so’s my whole arm felt like Jell-O, something he’d taking to doing since I’d started high school. Matthew stared at his shoes and followed his dad in.
I went into the kitchen after Auntie Gale, but I could still hear Daddy roaring greetings at Uncle Carl in the front room. Ma swore it was like the two of ‘em were the related ones instead of Daddy and Gale, on account of them being such good friends. Carl was about the only person I ever saw get that kinda rise out of Daddy.
“What’re you doing in here?” Auntie asked soon as she realized I was there. “Only ladies in the kitchen, you know that.”
“That’s sexist,” Mary said, loud and to nobody in particular. She was holding a potato and a peeler, although from the look of her thumbs, she was peeling her skin more than she was spuds.
Ma gave her a soft slap across the back of the head, laughing. Auntie Gale didn’t look half so amused.
“Why don’t you get out there with the boys?” A firm suggestion, not a question.
“Don’t want to,” I said, fury rumbling in my chest. “Football’s stupid.”
“It’s not about the football,” Auntie said. “It’s tradition.”
Didn’t know why I was so angry. Could see Ma holding her breath, counting the way she always did when she was real mad but wanted to keep from going off on me.
“That’s not any way to talk to your mother, young man.”
“I’ll handle this, Gale,” Ma said. Her voice was hard. She didn’t much care for other people trying to parent us, and Auntie’d done a lot of that in the years since Grandaddy’d died. “Go up to your room. I’ll be there in a minute.”
I rolled my eyes at her, not bothering to hide my irritation, and made a lot of noise as I went up the stairs. Not quite stomping—I was too old for that—but pretty darn near it. Wanted to hit something, or kick it.
A growl rose up in my throat, catching like it wanted to be a shout, so loud the whole town would hear it. My hands were shaking, they was clenched up so hard. Slammed the door because I wanted to, though I knew Ma would be mad.
She knocked a few minutes later. Didn’t wait for me to answer before she came in, face smooth but eyes angry. Used to be I would get real nervous when I knew I was in trouble, but right then, I didn’t care, not one bit. Coulda grounded me for the rest of my life, and I’d have been fine with it, so long as I could throw a few things at the wall and maybe slam the door again.
Ma sat down on my bed and looked at me that way she did, like she was examining me, trying to see inside my brain.
“What’s going on, kiddo?” she asked after ages.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Why’re you acting like this, then?”
“Just feel like it.”
She sighed and smoothed out her skirt.
“Well, we don’t have time for you to ‘feel like it’ today, Jack.”
“So what you want me to do about it?”
“Watch your tone, for one thing,” she said. “And go take a long walk. Don’t come back ‘til you can be civil. We’ll talk again tonight.”
The smooth face disappeared for a second, anger and something like sadness sliding across before it was gone again as fast as it had come.
“Go,” she said, voice real quiet. “Please go now.”
I got up and walked out. Didn’t slam the door or nothing, just let her watch me as I went.
Ma hadn’t said nothing the whole car ride home the day of Grandaddy’s accident. I’d been worried I was in trouble for something I didn’t remember doing, or something I should’ve done but didn’t.
“Sorry,” I mouthed at the back of her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Hadn’t known why, but it felt right.
“We’re here,” she said as she pulled into the driveway, as if I couldn’t see for myself. Daddy’s truck was there, and my auntie’s silly little green bug, and a big white pickup with the county sheriff logo on the side, and the pastor’s black town car.
Last time all these people had been in our driveway was for Pappy’s wake. My hands started sweating.
Mary met us at the door, her eyes looking like they was trying to take over her face. Her braids were messy, falling out of the red ribbons they’d been tied in that morning.
Any other day, Ma woulda given her a talking to about letting herself look like an urchin, and what would everybody else think, but that day, she was quiet. She hugged Mary and me awkwardly, one arm each, and shoved us real gently into the house.
I tried to look at Mary from under the arm wrapped around me, but her face was buried in Ma’s armpit. If the sheriff was here, somebody musta been in trouble, and I didn’t think he bothered with little kids. Daddy? I hadn’t seen him yet, but I couldn’t imagine my daddy doing anything illegal. A law-abiding citizen, he called hisself, especially when he was grumbling about the Jenkins’ farm, which he suspected of some under-the-table dealings with the butchers in town. Didn’t know what it meant except that he wasn’t much of one for getting into trouble.
They were all sitting in the front room. Daddy clutched his #1 Dad mug, but he wasn’t drinking nothing from it, just looking at it. The pastor whispered with my Auntie Gale, their faces all dark and serious, their words too soft for me to hear. Leaning in the doorway to the kitchen was the sheriff, flipping through his notepad over and over, so quick he mustn’t have been able to see none of it.
“Siddown,” Daddy said without picking up his head.
Mary and I scurried to the couch opposite him, squishing between the arm at one end and Auntie Gale at the other.
“Kids.” The pastor’s voice was always higher than I expected, no matter how many times I heard it. Shriller. Some strange boy voice coming out of a tubby older man. Made going to church not just boring but also kinda scary.
Ma sat down on the arm next to me, and I budged over a bit, pushing Mary into Auntie’s side so Ma could come down on the seat with us, but she shook her head.
“Kids,” the pastor said again after making a show of clearing his throat. “We’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid.”
Mary fidgeted with the hem of her dress, unraveling a place where Ma had stitched it up after Mary’d ripped it running after me through some pricker bushes. Auntie Gale took her hand—whether to calm her or stop her wrecking her clothes, I dunno.
Ma rifled my hair. Ordinarily I’d slap her hand away, embarrassed, but right then, it was kinda comforting. Almost wished she’d keep doing it, settle the churning that had started up in my belly when the rumbling happened and that hadn’t gone away since.
“It’s your grandfather. He’s had an accident.”
For a minute, I was confused. Lots of people had accidents. Why was this one important? Ma coulda told us when we’d got home from school and then taken us to visit him in the hospital the way she had when Matthew fell out of a tree and broke his leg in two places.
“‘Fraid he didn’t make it, kids.”
There was a weird, nervous bubble rising in my throat. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react. Mary started bawling and buried her face in Auntie’s lap, though I didn’t think she’d recognize Grandaddy if he was standing right in front of her. Part of me wanted to do the same, but the other part was . . . well, numb.
Ma’s hand landed back on my head, heavy, like it could sink through my skull. She started sniffling a little, a more grown-up kind of crying than Mary was doing but crying all the same.
“You okay, sport?” she asked. I felt her looking at my face, felt my skin growing hot, felt the tears welling up, but I swallowed hard. If Daddy wasn’t crying, I wouldn’t either.
“Yeah,” I said. Croaked, really, like the bullfrog Mary and I had captured and kept in a covered bucket under my bed ‘til he died and started stinking and Ma found him. And then I started crying.
Wasn’t sure if it was for Grandaddy or the bullfrog.
Day of Grandaddy’s funeral, the whole town had turned out. It had been strange, seeing all those people together for something other than a carnival or Fourth of July fireworks. Especially strange since, far as I knew, nobody in Ajax had liked my grandaddy. Seemed to me they’d done an awful lot of whispering about that old coot up the mountain but not much talking nice.
We got there early because we was family. It was hot already, the air thick and low like when a big summer thunderstorm’s coming and you can practically feel how heavy the sky is. Mary and me sat in the second row, flipping through the hymnals without looking and wishing we was anywhere but here, which we did every Sunday, only this time it was worse.
I was wearing new pants, real khaki trousers that were too big around the waist—they had to be, else they wasn’t long enough—so Daddy’d cut an extra notch in one of his belts for me and said we’d have to get me one of my own. Next to me, Mary wriggled around trying to scratch her back, itchy in the stiff wool dress she got stuffed into on special occasions and holidays, the only one she owned that didn’t need to be darned every time she wore it.
Ma and Daddy stood in front with Auntie Gale and the pastor, talking quietly. After a couple minutes, another lady came up, older, with wild, wiry hair knotted in a loose bun. She wore a light blue old-fashioned dress that looked funny next to Ma and Auntie’s nice black pant suits, and a big blue hat with a wide brim and lots of white feathers and a stuffed blue jay on top. Everything blue, so much blue it kinda made her gray hair look blue. All except for the heels she was wearing, which were worn, old, and black.
Couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her voice, and she sounded real mad. Stormed right up to Daddy and the minister and starting waving her hands every which way and talking angry, too low for us to make out the words. Ma looked at Daddy, twisting her mouth funny, then came and sat down next to me. She put her arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze, but her eyes never left Daddy’s face.
“Who’s that lady, Ma?” Mary asked, swinging her legs back and forth. They weren’t long enough to reach the floor even if she scooched all the way forward, so she was sitting on the edge of the pew.
“Not now, Mar,” Ma said, trying to hush her up as the lady turned away from Daddy with a huff and then sat right in front of us. Her giant hat blocked the whole front of the church from my view, and I squirmed back and forth trying to see around it. I switched seats with Ma, who glared hard at the back of the lady’s head.
“Why’s she got that on her head?” Mary asked, too loud for inside a church. The lady didn’t turn around or nothing, but her head tilted a little, so I knew she’d heard.
“You’re being rude,” Ma said, and that was that.
Mary folded her hands real neat in her lap and stopped talking, but she kept swinging her legs. Back and forth and back and forth, higher and higher, ‘til the scratched-up toes of her Mary Janes were brushing against the back of the lady’s pew.
More people started to file into the church, to fill in the seats around us. They came up and said how sorry they were, gave us their condolences, whatever that meant, and said they was praying for us. Some of them put flowers up around the coffin at the front, which struck me as funny, since I couldn’t picture my grandaddy ever liking flowers when he was living.
The service started. There were readings from the Bible that I didn’t listen to, and my Auntie Gale got up and talked about Grandaddy being in the war and honor and a whole bunch of other stuff. Maybe I would’ve been interested if I’d known him, but I hadn’t, so I stopped listening to that too. Mary started making up names for the bird on the lady’s hat, and we whispered about whether it had been alive once or it was a fake bird, and all that was a lot more interesting than people sniffling about some old man they didn’t like.
Then the lady got up, and everybody started mumbling real loud. I heard the word ‘tramp’ from somewhere behind me and nearly turned around to look, but Daddy was staring into his lap, grinding his teeth, and Ma was holding his hand and crushing it between hers, and I didn’t want to cause no more trouble.
The lady was wearing funny clothes, sure, but she didn’t look like no tramp. I thought she was gonna talk, but she went up to the podium and started crying louder and louder and louder ‘til the pastor went over to her and put his arm around her, whispering in her ear. He brought her back to her seat without her saying nothing at all.
She sat there and sniffled and made loads of noise crumpling her little plastic packet of Kleenex. The whole church was quiet, that real terrible kinda quiet that starts your heart beating faster and faster ‘til somebody coughs and then poof, it’s all over.
By now, Mary was swinging her legs so hard she kicked the pew in front of us every time she brought her legs up. After a few minutes of that, the hat lady turned around and looked at us, both Mary and me, even though I wasn’t doing nothing. Just looked, weird and spacy like there was a fog over her eyes she was trying to see through but couldn’t. Didn’t look mad and didn’t say a word.
She did it so long I started getting nervous, and my hands started sweating, and I had to wipe them all over my pants, and they made long damp stains up my thighs. What was she looking at us for? Why didn’t she turn around and pay good attention? Who was she?
And then she glanced away when everybody stood, and I near to fell over in Ma’s lap.
The service for Grandaddy had finally ended with everybody singing ‘Amazing Grace’ all noisy and off-key, and the lady’d gotten up and left real quick. We’d all watched her go, shuffling down the main aisle while the choir warbled its way through the last verse. She had to have known we was all staring, every person in there, like she was some kind of animal in a zoo. The kind that nobody knows much about.
When we got to the grave site, some boy from the high school played ‘Taps’ while they lowered Grandaddy’s casket into the ground. Mary must’ve forgotten about the lady already, ‘cause she was babbling on about the limousine we got to ride in and how come people rode in a limo at funerals, not that she was complaining, and why couldn’t they do it more often, and why didn’t they use limos instead of school buses, since they were much more comfortable. Ma held both our hands and whispered to Mary to hush up, not mean or anything, just gently told her that if she wanted to talk about the limousine, they could do it later, ‘cause it was inappropriate right to do it while they put Grandaddy in the ground.
The lady didn’t come to see Grandaddy go.
It was strange, thinking about him down there in that box, especially once Daddy started shoveling dirt down on top of him. I’d spent more time in the same room as him this past week, when he was dead, than I ever had when he was alive. He wasn’t never going to grumble and muss up my hair and call me Kid again, or promise to take me up to his cabin for a weekend and go fishing. Not that he ever actually did that, but the promising was nice.
After Ma told me to leave, I got all the way to the end of our road before I realized I didn’t know where I was going. It being Thanksgiving and all, everybody’s houses were packed, driveways full to the brim with out-of-towners and locals alike. Saw one license plate from Massachusetts. Couldn’t imagine what anybody from all the way up there would be doing in Ajax.
Nothing would be open in town because everybody was at home with their houses full of people, so there wasn’t any point in going in. Also didn’t want to look like I was loitering, since the sheriff seemed to think teenage boys couldn’t be trusted to stand around. I was likely to get cited for something or other if he saw me hanging out there at the end of the road.
So I went walking all the way to the edge of town, then out of town, then down to the creek and the bridge Grandaddy wrecked. Even after all those years, the wood they’d used patch it up looked funny, too bright and new to blend in with the few remaining bits of the old. The rebuilt covering was a little narrower than the bridge itself, so there were strips of pavement about a foot wide that stuck out on either side, funny little ledges that made the whole thing look even more ridiculous.
I climbed over the guardrail at the end of the bridge and edged out onto one of those ledges. Wasn’t much to grip onto along the walls, so I moved real slow, inch by inch, ‘til I was about six feet out, then turned myself around all careful-like so I was facing the creek.
For all we called it a creek, it really wasn’t one. More like a small river, narrow but deep, and with a rough, rocky bottom. Not the kind of thing you’d want to fall into from fifteen feet above. I wasn’t scared, though. Not at all.
I sat down and hung my legs over the side, swinging back and forth like I was a little kid in a big chair. Heart was beating a bit hard but not near as much as I woulda expected. This was dangerous. This was stupid. Ma’d box my ears if she knew what I was up to.
Did it anyway.
I could feel myself teetering a bit, my backside rocking half an inch forward with each pump of my legs. Blood pounded in my ears, raced through my chest. Felt amazing, like an engine revving, like I could take off if I just got a little more jacked-up. Got to the point where more of my butt was off the ledge than on, and I wanted to jump, needed to jump, as though somebody was urging me to. Ignored the quiet voice in the back of my head telling me I was being an idiot, asking did I want to kill myself, ‘cause I would die if I fell.
Didn’t know if that was true, but I knew some people had. High school senior had killed himself here when I was about seven, and a little girl had fallen a couple of years later playing with her friends. And my grandaddy had died here, of course, though I didn’t know if it was the explosion or fall that had killed him. Never asked. Didn’t think nobody would tell me if I did.
“Christ, kid, what the hell are ya doin’ out there?”
Startled me so bad I nearly fell off the ledge whipping my head around to look. The heart pounding didn’t feel so nice no more, churning up my stomach so’s I thought I might vomit. I found myself panting like I’d just run a mile full speed, clenching the edge of the pavement ‘til I was sure the palms of my hands would be bleeding when I let go.
“What the hell are you about, scarin’ me like that?” I asked, determined not to let my fear show. Voice didn’t shake none, but it came out high and strained, more like I was a little boy than a fifteen year old.
“Come back here,” she said.
When my heart stopped trying to climb out through my mouth, I stood up, clinging to the wall, and edged back in. Hadn’t got a real good look at her before then.
It was the lady from my grandaddy’s funeral. Even after all these years, I hadn’t forgotten her face. Or her hair, which was standing out from her head in a coarse cloud.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, standing in front of her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Demanded.
“Didn’t look like nothing to me.”
“What do you care?”
“Were you tryin’ to kill yourself?”
“No,” I said real quick. Maybe too quick, from the look on her face, all arched eyebrows and pursed lips. But I hadn’t been. Trying to kill myself, that was.
“What were you doing, then?”
“Real stupid place to mess around,” she said. “You’re Johnny Snyder’s boy, ain’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Jack. Who are you?”
“Louise.” The way she said it let me know that was that, she wasn’t going to tell me no more. “It’s Thanksgiving. Why aren’t you home with your folks?”
“Don’t wanna be.”
“Too many people?” she asked.
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“Why aren’t you at home?” I asked.
“Ain’t got nobody but the squirrels in the attic to be there with,” she said. “Like to go for a walk instead of sitting around alone. Kinda silly to cook a whole turkey for one person.”
We were quiet for a minute.
“Who are you?” I asked again. “I saw you. At my grandaddy’s funeral.”
She laughed, real soft. “Of course you’d remember that.”
“You ain’t answered the question.”
“Just somebody who loved your grandaddy, kid.”
I kicked at the ground in front of me, stuck my finger through the hole in my back pocket. That’s what Grandaddy had always called me. Kid.
“Why don’t I walk you home?” she asked. “Don’t have to talk or nothing.”
“Because I don’t know I won’t find you back up here in an hour if I don’t.”
“Why do you care?”
“Just do,” she said. “Come on.”
The lady in the funny hat hadn’t come for the funeral reception.
Ma had let me and Mary eat all the mashed potatoes and pie we wanted, even though Daddy had kept saying we’d make ourselves sick. I’d known he was probably right, but I hadn’t cared. At least if I’d been queasy, I’d have known why. Didn’t understand the reason for nothing else I was feeling sitting there with Mary and Ma at a table in the corner of the church hall, back to the wall so I could see everybody.
Loads of people milled about the place, balancing plates of cheese and lasagna and chips and chatting with each other. School teachers, store owners, neighbors, some people I knew only by face and nickname—Boozy McBoozeBrains, the resident alcoholic, and the Poodle Lady—people I thought either barely knew my grandaddy or knew him only by reputation. The sheriff was there, eating a big old plate of turkey with his wife and the McBrides, who owned the only clothes shop in town. A whole bunch of kids from school were there too, including Kelly Green, who shuffled up to me and stood in silence for a minute before she said anything.
“Sorry about your grandaddy,” she said to her toes instead of me.
“Well,” she said, “see you ‘round.”
“Yeah. See you ‘round, Kelly.”
Ma laughed all quiet-like as Kelly walked back to her parents, dragging her feet a bit.
“What?” I asked. “What you laughin’ about?”
“Nothing, kiddo,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Ma, come on,” I said. Could hear the whine in my voice, but I couldn’t stop it.
Or maybe I didn’t want to. Didn’t like being laughed at. Had enough of it from the kids at school. Didn’t need it from my own ma.
“Stop it.” She was serious now, that little bit of edge that only showed itself when we was close to getting in big trouble coming out. “I mean it.”
“So do I.”
Didn’t know why I said it. Just happened, like there was some tiny monster inside my head egging me on.
Mary was watching us, her brown eyes huge circles in her face. I could tell from that look that I was pushing my luck. Couldn’t stop, though. Just couldn’t. Wasn’t in control of my mouth no more, the monster was, and he was shouting, so angry inside me.
“Why are you laughing at me? What for? Why does everybody laugh at me? What’s so damn funny?”
The room went silent. They were all staring, every one, and I could feel the shame start rushing in, filling me up ‘til it started spilling over out my ears, and my head got hot and tingly, and my face felt wet, and then I was on the floor.
Didn’t know what happened: one minute I was standing up, and the next I was laying on the tile, looking up at Ma and Mary and the pastor, and Ma didn’t look mad no more, and the monster was gone back into his cave in my belly or wherever it was he went. Just gone.
Daddy’s face was there too, hovering in the weird, multi-colored flicker of my vision. Everything looked like when you stare at the sun too long, but he did especially, because I didn’t know where he’d come from, how he’d gotten here so fast. Last I’d seen him was outside smoking cigars with a bunch of fellas he worked construction with. I blinked a couple times to make sure he was really there.
“How’d you get down there, sport?” he asked. His voice was gruff, but his eyes were worried.
“Dunno, Daddy,” I said. I felt a little sick. Wondered if it was from eating too much. Tried to sit up, but the pastor’s wife pushed my shoulders back down gently. I hadn’t even known she was there.
“He fainted, John,” Ma said, her forehead all wrinkled up.
“Why?” Daddy asked. “Didn’t he eat enough?”
“Too much upset,” the pastor’s wife said. “Been a long, hard week. He’s got to be exhausted.”
Daddy nodded. His lips were a tight line cut clear across his face.
“Sorry, Daddy,” I said.
“What’s that, son?” the pastor asked.
Everybody looked at me, waiting.
“Never mind,” I said, louder. “I’m fine. Can I get up now?”
All the adults looked at each other.
“You feel better now?” the pastor’s wife asked.
Daddy gave me his hand, twice the size of my own, to pull myself up with. His face looked strange, creased around the eyes even more than his normal sun-squint. He was a big man, well over six foot, and he clamped that giant hand down on top of my head once I was standing. Gave me a real hard rub that made my hair stand on end, and grunted. “Let us know if you’re gonna do that again, okay?”
Before I had time to answer, he was reaching in his pocket for the cigar he hadn’t finished and gesturing to his construction buddies. Ma hugged me to her chest and kissed me right where he’d had his hand. I pushed her away, embarrassed.
“You know he loves you, kiddo,” she said right next to my ear, quiet so nobody else could hear.
Later the night of the funeral, Ma had come in and sat on the side of my bed. I’d been reading The Catcher in the Rye, which Daddy’d said was too old for me. It was one of his favorites, though, and I was determined to finish it. Holden was angry, like me, but why he had to call everybody phonies all the time, I didn’t know. Seemed like a big phony himself sometimes.
“Hey, kiddo,” Ma said. “How are you doing?”
“Yeah? Feeling all better?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” she said, giving me a hug, the awkward half kind you only get when you’re sitting.
“Ma, how come there was so many people there?”
“Lots of people come out for funerals.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I know that. But why’d so many people go to Grandaddy’s funeral if they didn’t know him? Or like him?”
“Jack,” she said. She sounded kind of far away, like we was talking through a telephone instead of sitting right next to each other. “Your grandaddy had a whole life you weren’t around for. And it was different before your grandmother died. Some of those people knew him from back then.”
“Did you know him back then?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine Grandaddy any way but the way I remembered him, after Grandma passed.
“Yes. You did too.”
“What?” Grandaddy was a fuzzy figure in my head, gruff and near silent when he was down in town. He’d swing by our house, pick Mary and me up, take us with him to the store for his supplies, buy us a sundae, all the while saying almost nothing. Gave us stiff pats on the head and grunted goodbye, and that was it.
“You remember your grandma?”
“Yeah.” Barely. She’d died when I was four. Nothing more than warm hands and the soft scent of baking now.
“Suppose you were too little to remember, but your grandaddy wasn’t the same man when she was around. Came down to town for church every weekend, had friends here. A whole other life, it feels like.”
Made sense but still seemed strange. I supposed Ma and Daddy musta been different once too, before Mary and me were born.
“Whatcha thinking about, kiddo?” Ma asked, brushing my hair back from my forehead.
“Nothing,” I said. “Only, what happened to Grandaddy? Why’d he get like he did, all holed up in the woods up there?”
“Hard to say.” A sigh. “Your grandma’s passing did a number on him, I suppose.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes. I fidgeted with the fringe on my blanket, braiding and unbraiding it, while Ma brushed lint off her skirt.
“Goodnight,” she finally said, standing up and leaning over to kiss the top of my head. “I love you, Jack. So does your daddy.”
“I know, Ma,” I said. I squeezed her hand, then let go. “I love you too.”
Ma was real mad when I walked into the dining room not two minutes after Daddy’d carved the Thanksgiving turkey, but she didn’t say nothing. Louise’d stopped at the end of the street, watching to make sure I went into the house and didn’t keep walking, and I could still feel her eyes on my back while Ma was staring at me from the front. They was gonna burn right through me, all them eyes.
Made it through dinner all right, stiff and silent while everybody around me talked, answered stilted questions about school and friends and the kind of bargains you might find if you was willing to drive all the way up to North Carolina to shop for ‘em. I mostly stared at my plate, shoving around piles of peas and wishing everybody would leave so Ma could get her shouting done and over with instead of having all this time to build it up.
But things didn’t go nothing like I was expecting after they were all gone.