This is a short story, in 1190 words.
It was prompted by the above photo. sent to me by Elizabeth Slaughter.
They always told me it was awful hot that summer. I was too young to remember, but then summers always stay in my memory as being hot during my childhood. Grandma would show me the photo when I was old enough, her eyes watery. Whether from her age, or if they were tears, I never liked to ask. I said that Grandpa didn’t look hot, smart as he was in his suit and tie. She would wipe her eyes with a little embroidered handkerchief and shake her head. “Oh, you can bet he was hot enough. Folks didn’t show it in those days. He might have taken off his hat to fan his face on occasion, but otherwise, nobody mentioned being uncomfortable. Just wasn’t done. But I washed his shirts, and I can tell you now, they were as damp as a bath sponge when he took them off”.
I once asked my Mom if she remembered that day. “Were you there in the garden, Mom?” She answered without smiling. “Yes, me and your Dad were both there. Aunt Belle couldn’t make it that weekend though. You sure loved my Dad. Grandma took the photo, on her old Kodak Brownie. She got me a copy made, and posted it later”.
When I got older, I asked Mom what had happened to Grandpa. “Grandma always says it was his last summer. I don’t remember him at all, except from photos”. She thought for a moment. “Well, he was old, and got sick. Some said the heat was too much that year, but the doctor said it was just his heart. By the time Christmas came, he was very frail, and he didn’t last much longer into the new year”. I sat taking that in. “So why didn’t we go see him that Christmas? You know, seeing as he was sick and all. Seems to me like the sort of thing we would have done”.
I got the feeling she didn’t want to carry on with the conversation. “Well we could hardly go all that way, could we? We had moved here by that time, and it would have been hard to travel across four states in December weather. Grandma understood”.
Over the years, we visited Grandma less and less. Sometimes, she would come to stay with us, but by then I was more interested in pop songs, and boys. And Grandma always looked sad now, as if she was happier in her memories. Dad worked away a lot, and he was usually off on a trip when Grandma came. Mom would always get that old photo, and put it in pride of place on the small dresser. The rest of the time, it was on a high shelf in the parlour.
For my nineteenth birthday, Mom planned a family party. I was upset, as I had wanted my college friends to come. I thought we could play music, mess around, and have some fun in the yard on a warm day. I argued with Mom. “It’s not as if we have any family to speak of, and Dad will be working. So, just you, Grandma, and Aunt Belle. What sort of fun will I have with you three?” Mom set her face, and I knew there was no point me carrying on.
Mom picked Grandma up from the bus station in Frankfort, and Aunt Belle drove down from her home in Indianapolis. She was an old-fashioned lady, always immaculate. Though she was older than Mom, she had never married, and we only tended to get visits from her when Grandma was already at our place. Mom had made a big cake, and Grandma gave me a hundred dollar bill. Aunt Belle’s gift was some fine stockings, and an electric hair dryer, all wrapped in a swell gift box. She patted my knee as I thanked her. “Reckon you are old enough to call me Belle now, honey. Hearing Aunt makes me feel older than I know I am”.
That night, I was sleeping on a folding cot in my room, as Belle had my bed. Grandma had gone to sleep early, tired by the long bus journey. After smoking a cigarette on the porch, Belle came up and started to get undressed. I lay on the cot and smiled at her strange underwear. She must have felt so hot in all that stuff. I was feeling pretty grown up that day, so asked her a question.
“Belle, what happened to Grandpa that summer? How come we never went to see him when he was sick? And we didn’t get to go to the funeral either”. She pulled a nightdress over her head, then turned round to answer. “He was just old, honey. You had moved down here, and it was a long journey. Doctor said his heart couldn’t stand the heat”. She turned off the light, and got into the bed. Emboldened by the dark, I lowered my voice and asked something else. “That’s what Mom says, and Dad too. Grandma never talks about him now, and I don’t really recall anything about that summer. But I don’t get why everyone is so cagey about it”.
The light went back on, and I saw Belle propped on one elbow, a serious look on her face.
“Like I said, you’re old enough now, and I don’t suppose your Mom is going to thank me for it, but here’s the truth. After that afternoon in the yard, your Mom was giving you a bath. Then your Dad comes in and says he didn’t like the way Grandpa was touching you”. My face flushed, and I suddenly felt too hot as Belle carried on. “He made them leave early, as soon as your Mom had taken you inside. My Dad was confused and upset, and asked to see you and your Mom, to talk it out. But your Dad would have none of that. He told my parents that your Grandpa would never see you again. After that he changed jobs, so he could move you all down here to get away from them”.
I was sitting up in bed by now, my mouth wide open, and tears in the corners of my eyes.
“But Belle, he wouldn’t have done anything bad. I’m sure Grandpa was just cuddling me and such”. Belle got out of bed, and sat on the edge looking across at me. “I don’t think they genuinely did believe anything bad, but your Dad said he was not going to take a chance that it might be what he thought. Your Grandpa was heartbroken, and hardly spoke after that. He was dead less than six months later, just wasted away”. I cried myself to sleep that night, after promising Belle not to say anything to Mom or Grandma.
These days, that old photo is in the best place it can be. Right next to my bed, with Grandpa smiling down on me forever.