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Excerpt for Moon Shine by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Moon Shine

and other stories I swore an oath not to tell

L Lee Devocelle


Moon Shine

a Future World Book©

Copyright © 2018 by L. Lee Devocelle

Smashwords Edition

Visit the Author at:

www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Explorers21

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places or events used in this book are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or deceased, events or locales is completely coincidental.

If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase a copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.

Book design by Maureen Cutajar

www.gopublished.com

Graphics – MS Clipart


Dedicated to all the Grandparents of the world with secrets to share and tales to tell . . .

May you never stop!


Acknowledgements

This is the point in the book where one says “Thank You.” To those who knew you when the quill of inspiration was but mere aspiration and who believed in you until you came to believe in yourself.

This author’s journey has been decades’ long, the path circuitous. Yet, at each fork in the road the stories called me back and my dogged cheering squad resurrected anew to urge me on. And so we come to the day when the book you have in your hands finally made it to the public stage—each author’s greatest wish and silent terror.

And so I say, to my four children: Michael, Jeremy, Aaron and Amy, to Barb, Celeste, Eileen, Nancy and James, and to all the others who knew “I could” and believed “I would,” thank you!

To Smashwords and Maureen Cutajar a special word of gratitude. The former, for providing both the platform and pathway to publish, and the latter, for lending her skill and enthusiasm to bring a long-cherished dream to life.


Contents

“Grandpa” Obie

Moon Shine

War without Peace

God Bless the Heathen

The Totos

Getting’ Ready

Checkin’ out and Checkin’ in


Grandpa” Obie

Great Grandpa Obie, who prefers to be called just plain, “Grandpa”, lives in a fine old house at the corner of Fix and Break streets. Or at least that’s what he‘s decided to name them.

“You fix the gate, and somebody breaks it. You plant a flower, and somebody steps on it. I’m constantly fixin’ and somebody’s constantly breakin’.”

Besides the “fixin’ and the “breakin’,” which is part of Grandpa’s daily routine, he also reminds me regularly that he’s going to die.

“Sooner than later,” he adds, with all the seriousness of a man who knows his destiny. “So,” he continues solemnly, “listen to what I’ve got to tell you because nobody knows what I know!”

Most people in our family, and our neighborhood as well, think Grandpa Obie’s off his mind. In other words, not quite there most of the time. Folks tolerate him and then roll their eyes behind his back and laugh, sometimes too loud and he hears them. But he pretends not to.

“Since Grandma died,” mom tries to explain as kindly as possible, “Grandpa just hasn’t been himself. Be nice to him and don’t pay too much attention to what he says.”

My dad, on the other hand, is more forthright. “He’s loony as a three dollar bill, but harmless,” he adds quickly, as if ashamed of his too sharp judgment.

I listen to my parents and to the neighbors and try to keep an open mind. Of course, after considering all the facts, I think that everybody’s a little bit right, at least as right as they can be not knowing Grandpa the way I do.

Why, the things I could tell you. The Secrets I know and am sworn to keep under pain of “losin’ all my hair and teeth and comin’ to a wicked end!”

So, before you go forth and read what you’re about to read, I pass this curse on to you, the reader, and ask that you, too, to take a solemn oath. If you break your oath, we both will come to no good. No good at all!

Your oath thus spoke, you are now one of the few with whom I will share what I know—with Grandpa Obie’s blessing of course—because no story is so well told than that which comes out of the mouth and over the lips of the best storyteller I know.


Moon Shine

White to Black

And Black to White

On a Starry, Starry Moonlit Night”

In the center of town is a park so big that people often get lost just walking around it, mostly visitors who aren’t familiar with its twists and turns, and, as Grandpa regularly points out, “Them fools at Wally’s bar who drink too many jello shots.”

In the middle of the park is a gigantic lake. When you stand at one end, you can barely see the other. Why the people look like little ants they’re so far away.

“I helped dig that lake out,” Grandpa Obie begins every time we visit. A wad of soggy “chewin’ tabacca”—as he calls it—tucked neatly inside his puffy jowl. Before he continues, he turns and spits into a nearby bush. A perfect mouth squirt. Straight and narrow and rusty brown. “Good for the plants,” he says, wiping a bit of dribble from his chin.

I am forever wondering what “chewin’ tabacca” tastes like and have asked on more than one occasion if I could try it out. But Grandpa just hands me a stick of chewin’ gum instead and tells me “tabacca’s a bad habit,” but that he’s “too old to quit.”

“Besides,” he adds, “I’m goin’ to die soon anyway.”

My own tabacca chewin’ days may never come, I’ve decided. In the meantime, I’m kept in good supply of Wrigley’s gum, but only sugar free.

“Too many sweets rot your teeth,” he reminds me. His own tobacco-stained dentures clinking like tap shoes inside his mouth. When I ask him what happened to his real teeth, he just says—“too much sugar.”

Anyway, back to the story. When you’re with Grandpa Obie, you tend to get distracted a lot. Seems that Grandpa did help dig the pit that became the lake in the park.

“In them times, he begins, “we didn’t have the money to buy any fancy scoopin’ machines. No big bulldozers, no siree! Just shovels and sweat! Lots and lots of sweat!”

I try hard to picture Grandpa as a young man with sweat dripping off his mostly hairless eyebrows. It takes a lot of imagination. Most times I just look at him as he is and think that somewhere deep inside is that young man of long ago keepin’ Grandpa’s memories safe and at the ready for him.

“It took two hundred men two years to dig this out.” He swings his arm in front of him from left to right like a big accordion fan. “Not the same two hundred. No siree,” he adds for emphasis.

“No siree” is a favorite expression of Grandpa’s. He uses it for most every occasion that he considers important.

“A lot of laggards quit.” Grandpa punctuates that particular memory with an especially artful spit. It hits a ladybug square in the middle. If she weren’t protected by her shell, I think she’d surely drown.

“The boss kept havin’ to hire newbie's. Teach ‘em how to pitch a shovel just so in the dirt.” Grandpa takes an artful pose, as if he still had that shovel in his hands. Right hand high, left hand low and at just the right angle.

“And the rocks,” he goes on, his hands now loose at his sides. “Dern things were cemented to the earth. Had to get the picks out then.”

Grandpa closes his eyes for a moment. I can tell he’s gone wandering deep in memory. Sometimes he’ll go quiet for a whole ten minutes or more. So I just sit there next to him and chew my gum and practice spittin’, imagining a chaw of tabacca pressed against the inside of my mouth, a dribble of sweet brown juice rollin’ down my chin—for I’m thinking that tobacco has to be as sweet as sugar cane, else why would anyone want to chew it.

“We used dynamite sometimes. Them rocks were huge and surely stuck in the Devil’s hell itself,” he abruptly continues, forcing me away from my own daydream and back into his.

“I had muscles like watermelons back then and a tan darker than a miner’s smile. Me and my friend Pepper Jones lasted the longest. We never gave up.”

Pepper Jones was Grandpa’s best buddy. They met in grammar school over tuna sandwiches and squiggly worms.

“Did I ever tell you about Pepper?”

Grandpa has moved on. Done with the lake and the rocks and the men who didn’t hold out long enough to see it to its end.

“Yes,” I answer, “many . . . .” But before I can finish my thought, he’s traveling a hundred miles an hour in the opposite direction to Elias Elementary to sit in the school yard munchin’ homegrown carrots and drinking ice cold milk with Pepper Jones.

“He was a Negro, you know. First one I ever saw. Dark as brown molasses. Handsome boy. More handsome than me. Big brown eyes. Clear and honest. We hit if off right away.”

Grandpa pauses long enough to toss his old wad of tabacca into a nearby waste can and replace it with a new one.

“The other kids teased me at first. Couldn’t understand what I was doin’ with a ‘darkie.’ Told me I’d get all kinds of diseases if I ate from his plate or shared his soda pop.”

Grandpa stares out over the lake. “Pepper never whimpered or complained, just kept those big brown eyes straight ahead. If he was afraid, he never said. I’m sure he thought I’d duck and run, but I didn’t. I couldn’t of cared less what those whinnies thought. My Pa, God bless him, believed life was hard enough without spendin’ time hatin’ another human being. Besides, Pepper and I knew more than all the rest of them combined.

“And then there was Moon Shine.”

My ears perk up now. “Moon shine?” I mimic.

“Yes siree, Moon Shine.”

Grandpa holds out his right hand. “What do you see there, boy?”

I look as close as I can, trying to figure out what he wants me to see. The hand is rough and wrinkled. It’s hard to tell one old mark from the other.

“There!” He points excitedly. “There!”

In the middle of his hand, in between the folds and permanent calluses, is what looks an awful lot like the letter “P”.

“Is that a P?” I ask hesitantly.

“A ‘P’ it is!” He smiles triumphantly and slaps me soundly on the back making my teeth clatter.

“But what’s that got to do with Moon Shine?” I ask, scooting a safe distance away just in case a second thump is coming.

“You can’t tell a livin’ soul.”

“I won’t, I promise.”

“Tattletales come to no good.”

I shake my head up and down.

“Well, be patient then, ‘cause I gotta work up to it.”

I nod, and settle in, thinking this could take five minutes or five hours. You never knew once Grandpa got started.

“Pepper played football for Mission High and I was always there to cheer him on. Football wasn’t my sport. I was more a baseball man. Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah. We were in high school by now and a few of Pepper’s cousins were in our class. I could tell Pepper was glad to have family around. It’s hard bein’ the only one of your kind in a big group.

“Mission High was what they called a ‘progressive’ school back then because they let the Negroes in. But the high schoolers there weren’t any more civilized than the kids in grammar school. In fact, they were meaner.

“You see, Pepper saved up to buy this thirty-two Chevy. Proud as a new peacock he was. Yes siree!”

Grandpa fades out for a moment. I’m guessing he and Pepper are cruisin’ through town in that “thirty-two” Chevy. I can’t think of any friend I’ve ever had that would equal Pepper Jones and Grandpa.

“A few of them fools broke the headlights and slit all the tires. Everybody knew who did it, but nobody cared. Not the teachers and not the police. Even in our so-called ‘progressive’ school, people just turned a blind eye. Down South Negroes were gettin’ hung by the dozens. Strung up by people wearin’ white hoods and callin’ themselves the Clan.”

I knew about the “Clan” from history books and TV. They were frowned upon these days. Though Grandpa was quick to remind me that “out of sight was not always out of mind.”

“Pepper had family in the South. An uncle and some other cousins. He was always sayin’ he was goin’ to visit them. See for himself what was goin’ on. I told him he was crazy. Here all they did was smash up your car; down there they were killin’ folk.”

Grandpa got up and walked to the edge of the lake.

“I got a picture somewhere of Pepper and me the day they dedicated the lake. We were standin’ over there.” Grandpa points to a bronze statue of a man holding a shovel in one hand and a bucket full of dirt in the other.

“They gave us punch and cookies and shook our hands.”

Grandpa looks down at his right hand and flexes the fingers. “Snacks and a handshake, that’s all we got.”

Grandpa has wandered again. But I know everything’s connected, at least in his mind. Though I’m wondering if we’ll ever find our way back to Moon Shine.

A few moments later we’re walking beside the lake. The sun is noon high and warm. The sky clear. The leaves just beginning to fall. Red, yellow and orange dot the walkways and fan out as far as the eye can see.

“We graduated in thirty-seven, Pepper and I. They were lookin’ for young fellas to dig the lake. The money was fair, so we signed up. We worked six days a week. Sundays off. Did it until the job was done. Real proud we were when they filled that hole. All that water glistening in the sun and we the ones that made it so.” Grandpa smiles his widest smile. “Never come here that I don’t think of that time.”

His eyes now drift away from the water and down the worn asphalt path. “After that Pop wanted me to help him run the garage. I liked cars well enough and I was good with my hands. Pop told me that one day the business’d be mine. I never did pine for some fancy job. Pepper, on the other hand, didn’t know what he wanted to do, except go south. He had money in his pocket for spendin’ and said he wasn’t ready to settle down. He could’ve worked for Pop, but that darn boy just had to go find out for himself what life was like in the Clan’s land.”

“Moon Shine,” Grandpa whispers, then rubs the scar on his left hand and looks up and directly into my eyes.

I shiver, but don’t know why.

“‘Moon Shine’s an old slave’s chant Pepper taught me the night before he left town.

“White to black and black to white on a starry, starry moonlit night,” Grandpa repeats over and over.

I listen silently, afraid to interrupt. And even though the sun is hot against my head, I can feel that cool black night creeping in, surrounding us, closing out everything until there’s nothing left but me and Grandpa and Pepper Jones.

“He and I became brothers that night. Brothers. True and forever. Took a pen knife and cut our first initials into the palms of our hands. Blood to blood. ‘White to black and black to white.’”

Grandpa sniffles and turns away. This time, he’s gone to a place I can’t go. To a place I can’t know. Gone to visit a friend of long ago.

* * *

Pepper Jones went to Mississippi the summer of thirty-nine to visit his kin. No one knows exactly what happened after he left, except that ten days later, Pepper and his cousin Joshua were found hanged in a forest outside Biloxi. Some say he talked back to a white police officer; others, that he looked at a white girl. According to Grandpa, “Grinnin’ and laughin’ could get you hung in those awful days.”

All that Grandpa knew was that Pepper wouldn’t be coming home. They’d been “brothers” less than two weeks. The “P” was still healing on Grandpa’s hand.

“Ain’t never had a friend like Pepper since.” “Never,” he’d repeat, to remind himself. To remind Pepper, wherever he was.

We walked home in silence that afternoon. Each of us with our own thoughts. I, thinking of a man I didn’t know and a time I hardly understood. And Grandpa leafing through old memories, looking for things lost and things found and worrying little in which order they came.


War without Peace

Sometimes I thought Grandpa Obie used me to cleanse his conscience. Like running his life through a ringer over and over again until every last drop of doubt and regret was rung clean away.

Grandpa served in World War II. So did most everyone else of his generation.

“As soon as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I threw my Dad’s wrenches in the tool bin and marched downtown and signed up.”

Three months later he was in Europe, “fightin’ Hitler and his madmen.”

War wasn’t something Grandpa talked much about. He’d talk about warts and B-O and constipation, but the war was different. When it did come up, he’d mostly talk in riddles or you’d get the feeling he was leaving a lot out.

“You young'uns think World War Two was in black in white,” he’d chime in whenever dad or his friends talked about it. In response to which they’d just stare at him for a moment, nod their heads in a, “there he goes again” motion, and continue with what they were doing in the first place.

“Yes siree, black and white,” he’d repeat later when we were alone. “No reds, or grays, or muddy browns”, he’d continue solemnly. “Black and white memories are easier for the young folks to sleep with.”

Grandpa often spoke in riddles. I found it best not to ask too many questions.

Soon after these one-sided chats, Grandpa would take over dad’s recliner for his afternoon “snooze”, leaving me to ponder the great unknowns that made their home in Grandpa’s non-stop memory.

The only time Grandpa ever acknowledged he’d worn the uniform was on Memorial Day. Then he’d hang the American flag outside his front door and visit the park with the lake, which also had a grand memorial to those who served in foreign wars.

“I’m going to die soon,” he began the last time we visited. Since I had no new response, I just patted him on the shoulder and we sat down on a bench next to the stone monument in memory of soldiers who had fallen in battle during World War II.

“I signed up because I wanted to die.” He blurts out suddenly.

I look straight ahead afraid to move, not sure where this is going or if I want to go. Grandpa turns and looks at me oddly.

“Sometimes life’s too much, boy! Too much! That awful war was a blessing in disguise!

“That fool Pepper went and got himself killed and I didn’t care if I lived or died!” He goes on, like a fast moving train coming to a cliff.

“I’m sorry, Grandpa,” I fumble clumsily, looking for words I don’t yet know. “About Pepper, I mean.”

Grandpa’s outburst ends as suddenly as it begins. He pats my hand softly and we read the inscription on the gray marble stone, but tears blur my eyes and all I can make out clearly are the words “sacrifice and honor.”

“War’s a special kind of trial.” He continues after a while. “I swore I’d never make friends with anyone again. Swore on Pepper’s memory. But I lied.” He finishes quietly.

For a long while we walk among the other memorials. The American Civil War. The Spanish American War. World War One, Korea, Vietnam.

“They all died. Every last one of them. We killed some of them ourselves,” he throws in out of the blue.

I just keep walking because I don’t know what else to do.

“Mel was two years younger than me. Bright red hair and shy as a mouse. The guys used to tease him about it and it used to make me mad as hell.”

Grandpa rarely curses. Something about not wanting to offend the ears of his grandchildren. But on occasion it just falls out of his mouth.

“Kind of like Pepper?” I ask, ignoring mom’s voice in my head telling me that nice people don’t cuss.

“Kind of,” he answers. “Except Mel was as white as a new baby’s bottom and always peelin’ from one sunburn too many. I just sort of took him under my wing. I didn’t know any more about what we were gettin’ into than he did, but I guess I just wanted somebody to look up to me the way I’d looked up to Pepper.”

Grandpa is now sitting on a long, concrete bench fanning himself. “Too hot for this time of year,” he’s comments, flicking a fly off the cuff of his Sunday-best shirt sleeve.

“We were part of the second wave to hit the beaches on D-Day. Bullets were flying everywhere. Bodies were floatin’ face up and face down. Some of them . . .” he pauses a second or two. “. . . some of them didn’t even have faces, or arms or legs. Body parts rolllin’ back and forth with the tide. After a while you just moved around them and then checked to make sure they weren’t yours.”

I’m pretty sure if Grandpa had been in his right mind he’d not have been telling all the gory parts of the story to his grandson; but this sunny, spring afternoon I was merely a bystander in the vicinity of a terrible memory that needed to be heard by at least one person, even if that person was me.

“Mel was at my back, I made sure of that. ‘Stay behind me, fool!’ I shouted every few seconds.”

“I’m no fool he’d shout in return!”

“The whole thing was so stupid. I think I even laughed a couple of times. We were trapped between comin’ and goin’. Ain’t no feeling’ worse.”

Grandpa pulls a handkerchief from his pants pocket and wipes the sweat off his forehead. “Too dern hot,” he says again.

I stare off into the distance. Dozens of people mill around us. Veterans and their families come to pay their respects. Everybody trying to make sense of it all. Just like Grandpa.

“He didn’t do what I told him.”

I hear Grandpa’s voice starting strong and then fading so low I can barely hear him.

“Mel never went first. He always followed. I still don’t know how he got so far ahead of me.”

I don’t need to hear the rest of the story to know what’s coming. But I wait anyway. Grandpa doesn’t have to tell me to keep this secret for him. I would, even if he didn’t ask.

“I knew as soon as I fired my rifle I’d killed him. He just stood there for a moment and then dropped to his knees. Shot went straight through the heart, just like I’d taken aim and done it on purpose.”

Grandpa wipes his forehead again and then moves the handkerchief to the corners of his eyes.

“They gave us all a medal for D-Day. Those who made it and those who didn’t. They gave me a medal even after I killed Mel. Nobody blamed me. There was no court martial; nothing on my record. Lots of guys died the same way that day. Things were crazy; we were all crazy for a while.”

“War’s a special kind of hell,” he adds sadly, his eyes cloudy and locked straight ahead. “I finished the war without a scratch. Mel didn’t even make it off the beach.”

“Grandpa’s loony,” Dad says.

If he only knew.

If they all only knew.


God bless the Heathen

“I’m a Heathen,” Grandpa told me one cold winter day as we watched a crib and manger being put together in front of the local Catholic Church. “Best not mention it to the ‘believers’ (meaning Mom and Dad),” he added. “They don’t understand perversions.”

“No you’re not!” I replied adamantly, knowing Grandpa went to St. Luke’s with us every Sunday. Never missed as far as I could remember. I wasn’t sure about the “perversions,” so I skipped that part.

“A Heathen,” he repeated for good measure.

“But you go to church every Sunday!” I supplied, just in case he’d recently forgotten.

“Church doesn’t cure you of your heathenness.”

I was pretty sure there was no such word as “heathenness,” but Grandpa Obie seemed unfazed by all my certainty.

“I went to church ‘cause your Grandma made me go. And after she died I kept goin’ because I got into the habit of doin’ it, that’s all.”

I think my jaw dropped a few inches at that point, or at least I must have had a strange look on my face, because Grandpa got up and stood over me until his nose almost touched mine. I don’t know which one of us moved first, but eventually we were sitting side-by-side again.

“When I die, I don't want any fancy Mass said over me.”

“Shouldn't you be telling this to Uncle Jim or Mom, or someone else?” I plead in vain.

“I’m tellin’ you. So pay attention.”

“But . . .”

“Just be quiet, boy, and listen.

“I don’t believe in nobody whose hand I can’t shake. Now I ain’t sayin’ there isn’t someone out there taken care of business. But I’ve seen too much in my life to believe he’s doin’ a whole lot of interferin’ here.”

“You mean you don’t believe in God?” I asked, my heart thumping faster by the minute. I guess I always supposed Grandpa was a good Catholic like mom and dad, and most certainly Grandma, who went to church more than anyone I knew and said the rosary every day, even if visitors had to wait at the door or dinner got cold on the stove.

I looked at Grandpa and he looked at me.

“I’m goin’ to die soon,” he stated, just so I’d get the point that he had to clear his conscience and I was his ever ready “ringer”.

“But everybody believes in God!” I stated emphatically.

“Nonsense.” He replied without catching a breath in between my statement and his reply. “I got free will, boy. Free will. I can choose to believe in God or not. Even God, if he does exist, understands that.”

Most people believe in God,” I corrected myself. “And if you don’t believe in God, you can’t go to Heaven.”

“Nonsense,” he offered once more. “We’re all goin’ to the same place, boy. All of us. The sinners and the saints.”

The longer this conversation went on, the more confused I became. What happened to hell? The hell Grandpa thought the rocks from the lake were buried in. What about people like Hitler? They surely wouldn’t be in heaven.

“I don’t believe you,” I said firmly.

“Don’t matter. I’ve had lots more time to think about this than you and I’ve come to the conclusion that we all go to the same place when we die. Maybe it’s called Heaven and maybe it’s called something else. But someday we’re all goin’ to pass over, and when we do we’ll meet up with old friends and family and all the others gone before. We’ll forgive each other and make amends for any leftover sorrows. Start with a clean slate so to speak.

“Why, I expect to see Pepper, and Mel, and your Grandma, Martha, and all my relatives. I might even run into my dog, Fetch. I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

“That’s not what Grandma said,” I argued. More frustrated by the moment.

“She knows better by now I suspect.”

“But the Church says . . .” I interrupted.

“What if they’re wrong?”

“What if they’re right?” I countered.

This conversation wasn’t unraveling in its usual pattern. Mostly, I just listened and Grandpa talked. When the talk was over, I’d go home and write down what I remembered and then lock it all away in a secret hiding place in my closet. For the first time since Grandpa started sharing his secrets, I was seriously thinking of telling Mom at least.

“Please, Grandpa!” I pleaded. “I don’t want you to go to Hell!” Which was, of course, the thing that bothered me most. That’s where all unbelievers went. What if, when I died, I went to Heaven and he wasn’t there?

“Boy, this right here is the hard stuff. The next life is our reward. You’ll see. One day you’ll be old like me and you’ll die; and when you pass over to the other side, I’ll be there and we’ll catch up on all the things you did after I was gone.”

I think for only a moment longer. It’s an argument I can’t win. Maybe don’t want to win. In an instant my arms are wrapped around his neck. I hold on tight. As his arms come up around me, I decide that it doesn’t really matter if Grandpa believes in God or not. Mom says that God is kind and good and that he loves everyone the same.

I’m certain that a man as wonderful as Grandpa Obie will be welcome in his home, wherever that home might be. And I know that a kind God will be more than happy to shake Grandpa’s hand the moment he steps across the threshold to Heaven. A place I ‘m certain must exist for people just like him.


The Totos

Grandpa Obie is a man of few possessions. “What I don’t need, I give away,” is his standing motto.

A couple of days ago we were cleaning out his garage.

“What’s this?” I ask, holding a photo of a group of children high over my head so that Grandpa, who is buried in a sea of boxes, can see it.

“The ‘Totos,’” he replies before disappearing once again.

I turn the picture around and look into the faces of six children, girls and boys, and all of them African.

“They’re my adopted family,” he continues in a mumble across a mountain of other odds and ends.

“But Joan and Jim (that’s Grandpa’s son and daughter) are your family. Why do you need an adopted one?”

“A man can have more than one family. And I’ve got two. Your Uncle Jim has three families—or is it four?”

“That’s because he’s been married more than once. You were only married to Grandma.”

“A man can have as many families as he wants,” he repeats.

I give up momentarily and return to the photo. “Who are the Totos?” I ask again.

“My family in Africa,” he answers, emerging with a dirty smudge on his cheek and a small, white box in his hand.

Sitting on a rickety old chair, he lays the box on his lap and works the top open with a small pocket knife. Inside are more pictures of the same girls and boys, what look like the stubs from a couple of old plane tickets, and a few odd coins and pieces of paper money.

“After the war I didn’t want no fancy parades and dinners, so I went to Africa. Pepper was still on my mind, sittin’ there in the background like a faded old photo. I didn’t have a plan. “Plans are overrated, boy. Remember that.”

Completely speechless, I nod my head.

“On the plane ride over I decided to see if I could find Pepper’s relatives while I was there. His great-great grandmother and grandfather were slaves somewhere down south, but they were born in Africa and I was hoping to find some connection to them there.”

“Did you?”

“Not a one. I spent a whole year crisscrossin’ the most beautiful country I’d ever seen, askin’ questions, lookin’ at all the records I could dig up. Every face I saw, every pair of brown eyes I looked into, I thought of Pepper. Thought of what he might’ve done if he’d had the chance to go there.

“One day I was in the middle of nowhere and my jeep broke down. There’s nothin’ worse in Africa than bein’ far from home in a car that won’t run. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by six pairs of staring eyes.”

Grandpa picks up a picture of a small child with cropped hair and wearing nothing but a colorful beaded necklace.

“This is Anu Toto,” he says, a smile creasing his lips.

“Her mother died in childbirth and her father was killed in the war. She and her brothers were starving’. I remember lookin’ at my jeep and then into their bony faces and thinkin’ I had to do something.

“Two hours later I had the jeep runnin’ and overflowin’ with six kids. I didn’t have any idea what I was goin’ to do with them, but I promised Pepper that I’d see to it that they had food to eat and a place to live before I left Africa. He would have done the same. Even shy old Mel wouldn’t have abandoned them, and neither could I.

“It took a bit a doin’, but I finally got them settled in a convent with some good nuns.”

“Did you see them again? After you left Africa, I mean.”

“Sure did. I made one more trip right before I married your Grandma. Once pop retired from the auto shop and I was in charge, I changed some things and made more money than a sane man could use in two lifetimes. I sent the extra to Africa.”

Grandpa lays the photos out on his workbench. There must be three or four dozen in all, a still slide show of his adopted family growing up before my very eyes.

“They’re all married now with children and grandchildren of their own, except for Anu.” Grandpa brushes a piece of dirt from her photo. “She passed on a few years back. AIDS.”

He runs his finger over the photo, as if trying to reach into that long ago time. “Such a waste,” he says. “We’re still watchin’ the negroes die.

“Such a waste,” he repeats.

“Did Grandma know?”

Grandpa stacks the photos neatly back inside the box and closes the lid. “If she did, she never said. I guess she wondered what I did with my extra cash. I think she thought I had another woman. I didn’t tell her different.”

Grandpa grins sheepishly. “Grandma was a fine woman; she’d have understood eventually, but she never knew Pepper and she never knew Africa. Poverty to her meant not bein’ able to buy the extras. It was a part of my life I kept separate from all the rest.

“There’s so much pain in the world, we got to do what we can when we can. Never apologize for doin’ good, boy. Even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else.”

Grandpa got up and took the box with him out the garage door and into the house. I followed the two with my eyes, but kept my feet planted firmly in place.

When Grandpa and Grandma meet in that other place “where everyone goes,” I’m guessing she’ll already know about the Totos and the kind heart that loved them enough to hold them there for as long as their need was greater than they alone could bear.


Gettin’ Ready

Grandpa Obie calls at 6AM. Wakes everybody up out of a dead sleep.

“Put the boy on the phone,” he orders the sleepy voice at the other end of the receiver.

“Gramps, it’s six o’clock in the morning! He’s sleeping!”

“I got to talk to him. He can go back to sleep when I’m done.”

Mom’s no fool, not when it comes to her Gran Pops. She can argue. Voices will be raised, blood pressures challenged. This morning she’s just too tired to muster that much energy. Instead, she shakes me awake and puts the phone to my ear.

“It’s you know who,” she says with a sigh.

I roll over on my back, cough the sleep out of my lungs, and muster a hoarse hello.

“Hi, Grandpa,” I croak.

“We’re goin’ shoppin’.”

“Now?” I wonder. “It’s six AM.”

“Not now, silly. Ten O’clock. We’ll take the bus. It’ll be fun.”

“Shopping for what?”

“Never you mind. It’ll be fun,” he repeats for good measure.

“Can I go back to sleep now?” I yawn.

“Be ready at ten sharp!” And the phone goes dead.

I drop the receiver on the floor and roll back on my stomach. In the flash of an eye I’m sound asleep. The next thing I know mom is shaking me and telling me to get up.

“Grandpa’s at the door. He says the two of you are going shopping. You’re supposed to be ready. Never even asked if it was okay,” she mumbles, going through my dresser drawers looking for underwear and socks. “The man’s going to be the death of me. Don’t know how my Grandmother ever put up with him all those years.”

I listen from the bathroom where I’m brushing my teeth. Through the scrubbing and the gurgling I can hardly hear her anymore. Which is okay. I know the speech by heart. It makes her feel better to say it. She always lets out a deep breath when she’s done. Grandpa doesn't have a clue all the hassle he causes this family.

Permission given, with a lecture on the side to “ask first, don’t just assume in the future,” Grandpa and I get to the bus stop with just two minutes to spare.

“Next time, do what I tell ya,” he says, nudging me ahead of him and up the steps to the coin drop. We pick a seat in the middle of Downtown Num. 2.

“I like to sit between the wheels. Less bumpy,” he remarks as we settle in behind a mother and her toddler. Grandpa waves to the little girl who has taken to playing hide and seek over the back of the seat.

Beyond a “hi” here and a “smirk” there, we arrive downtown without any undo comment or argument. You see, Grandpa has a mind of his own; and he never has a problem expressing it anywhere or anytime. I’m a little surprised, but relieved.

“This is our stop,” he says, standing up and smoothing a new crease in his everyday slacks.

“Think they could make clothes that don’t wrinkle,” he adds rather loudly. “They got computer chips that hold billions of words, but they can’t make pants that don’t wrinkle.”

I work my way past him to the door, keeping my head down to avoid the stares of the other passengers. We almost made it, I think. With Grandpa, almost is usually as good as it gets.

Because I missed breakfast, Grandpa stops at a sidewalk vendor and buys me a pretzel with mustard. Mind you, I love pretzels with mustard, hot spicy mustard is best. But what would mom say?

“Don’t worry about your Mom, boy,” he spouts, reading my mind. “Foods about eatin’. Sometimes I have eggs for supper and steak for breakfast. Whatever my stomach asks for, I give it. Ain’t never done me wrong yet.”

Grandpa gets a donut. “Pretzels make my teeth loose,” he offers by way of explanation. “Don’t need teeth any looser than they already are.”

I enjoy my pretzel and lick the salt off the wax paper when I’m done. Mom would tell me it’s bad manners to lick the paper, or chew all the meat off the chicken bone, or eat with dirty hands. Grandpa pays no mind. “Life’s too short to mess with the little things,” he’d say, if he ever stopped long enough to notice.

By 10:45 AM we’re standing in front of Millers Department Store. Grandpa pushes the revolving door and steps inside. I slip into the next slot.

Miller's is a men’s store with shiny marble floors and long winding staircases. Just beyond the entrance is “Men’s Toiletries”, and next to it, rows and rows of ties, belts, handkerchiefs, hats, gloves, and just about anything else you could think of.

“We’re goin’ to the second floor,” he motions toward the lift.

I read the panel on the inside wall of the elevator. “Second Floor, Men’s Suits”. And in smaller print: “Fitted to Wear”. It would seem that Grandpa’s buying a new suit. Can’t imagine what for, he only dresses up for Christmas and Easter Mass and only because Grandma always insisted.

“A man ought to have one good suit,” he says as we exit the elevator.

A man in a fine suit of his own approaches us.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” he says politely, sizing Grandpa up while Grandpa’s sizing him down.

“What you got in suits?” Grandpa blurts forth with little ado. I can tell he’s on a mission. A no-nonsense mission.

“Well, sir. Did you have something particular in mind?”

Grandpa walks a few paces forward and scans the dozen or so racks neatly ordered before him.

“I’d prefer somethin’ handmade,” he says with all seriousness. And I’m thinking this may be serious. A man who owns only one faded suit to my knowledge wants one that’s handmade?

“Certainly, sir. And would you be wanting it for a special occasion?” The clerk eyes me closely. “Maybe your grandson’s confirmation?”

“Somethin’ in dark gray, I think,” Grandpa continues, ignoring the salesman completely.

“Fabric?”

Grandpa scratches his head. “Fabric?” he mumbles. “Hadn’t thought of fabric.” Then he chuckles.

Since neither I nor the clerk understand what’s so funny, we smile politely and proceed to the back of the store and the fitting room.

During what seems like forever later, Grandpa is measured and fitted for a dark gray suit.

“A fine worsted fabric. Excellent for year round wear and lasts practically forever,” swears the tailor as he holds up a swatch for Grandpa’s inspection.

“Perfect,” says Grandpa. “Just what I want, somethin’ that’s gonna last forever.” The “forever” is followed by chuckle number two.

By now I am bored senseless and have lost all curiosity about Grandpa’s handmade suit.

Eventually we walk the two blocks to Smity’s, an old fashioned diner that Grandpa and Grandma ate at when they were “courtin’.

“Smity’s is one hundred years old,” Grandpa comments as he hands me a menu. “That’s ten years more than me.”

I try to imagine being alive that many years and it’s just seems too much life to reach into. I only celebrated my twelfth birthday a few months ago.

“Ninety’s old,” says Grandpa, reading my mind like he always does when I go quiet. “Old,” he repeats, sticking our menus back between the salt and pepper shakers that hug the wall at the end of our booth.

I order a hamburger and French fries and Grandpa orders chicken noodle soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. We top it all off with chocolate ice cream sundaes and pay our bill.

While Grandpa’s waiting for the waitress to bring his change, he leans back in his chair and pats his belly. “Used to be flat and hard like a washboard,” he says, staring down at the little pouch that now looks more like a soft foot pillow.

“Everything goes south eventually,” he adds, putting a tip on the table and the rest of the cash in his wallet.

“I’m goin’ to be buried in that suit,” he says clear out of nowhere. “Grandma liked me in gray. I want to look good when I see her again.”

Now it all makes sense. A suit that will “last forever.” No wonder he was laughing. No matter what we did, eventually we came back to the dying. Trouble was, I wasn’t ready for Grandpa to die and I said so.

“You’re going to be here for a long time. I don't know why you keep saying you’re not. You can wear the suit lots of times before then.”

“Nope.” he states emphatically. “I’m goin’ to be laid out in that suit and it’s going to be brand new. If I wear it before then, I’ll surely dribble gravy on it, or some of your mom’s rhubarb pie will fall smack dab in the middle of my tie. And what if I light up my Pipe? (Grandpa smokes a pipe on special occasions; and he’s forever burning holes in his shirt sleeves and pants). I could start the whole thing on fire. When Grandma sees me, I’m goin’ to look fine and dandy.”

“You could live to be a hundred years old,” I continue, ready to battle this one to the bitter end.

“Could, but I won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“A man knows when his time’s about up.”

“How?”

“He just knows.”

“I don’t believe you!” I reply stubbornly. “How can you know when you’re going to die?”

Grandpa pushes away from the table and stands up. “Let’s get back to the bus stop. Number Two should be pullin’ up in a few minutes. Don’t want to get you home too late.”

I squirm out of my chair and follow obediently behind. But I’m not done fighting yet.

“How do you know?” I repeat as we sit under cover of the bus shelter.

“You can’t hear the birds sing anymore,” he says. “And you wear warmer underwear. And you know you’ve done all you want to do and that it’s time.”

What Grandpa says makes no sense to me. None whatsoever.

“We’re Buds, you and I,” he continues. “Buds forever.”

I think of Pepper Jones.

“I talk to Grandma all the time,” he goes on, for my benefit more that his, I’m sure. “You’ll still be able to talk to me, too; you just won’t be able to see me like you do now. It’ll be our special secret,” he adds, his eyes straight ahead, his voice going low and soft.

I know that Grandpa’s ready to “pass over” as he calls it. I know it. I just don’t want to know it.

“I say I’m going to die, but really, I’m just checkin’ out of this hotel and into another,” he continues, trying his best to make me understand.

The bus ride home seems longer than usual. Mostly because we don’t talk much. Grandpa comments on the “urban smog,” a term he got from listening to too much Public Radio. I just nod and agree.

I think about death and it catches in my throat. Not my own death, but Grandpa’s. I know I can’t keep it from happening. I know I can’t plan for the day when it will happen. All I can do is collect as many secrets as I can and write them all down so that when he does pass over I’ll know everything he knows.

“Best Buds,” he said. “Best Buds forever!” Me and Grandpa Obie and Pepper Jones.


Checkin’ out and checkin’ in . . .

As promised, Grandpa wore his new suit only once and for the occasion he planned. When his time came to “check out of this hotel and into another,” he did so in his sleep.

As he told me a few days before he “passed over: “I been thinkin’.”

“I been thinkin’” could lead to anywhere, so I wasn’t too excited one way or the other.

“When my time comes, I’ve decided to go out quietly. Not make a fuss.”

Because I was so used to hearing Grandpa and dying in the same sentence, I sort of tuned him out that day. On the morning of the funeral, however, as I stood beside a plain wooden casket (Grandpa believed fancy caskets were a big waste of good money), I wished I’d paid more attention. I kept thinking that he’d died all alone in that big empty house with nobody to say goodbye to him, nobody to know if it hurt to die in your sleep or if you awoke the moment before you passed over and wondered where everybody was.

Later that day, after everybody had gone and left a houseful of food we couldn’t eat, I fell asleep on the red and blue quilt Grandma had made for my first birthday. It smelled like old socks washed too much, and lemon-scented fabric softener, and lots of years being drug from floor, to porch, to yard, and to the classroom door my first day in kindergarten.

I dreamed that night like I’d never dreamed before. I dreamed of soldiers in boats, and the Devil in Hell, and of Anu Toto, and Moon Shine, and then, when I thought for sure I’d gone loony, just like everyone said Grandpa Obie was, he up and appears, right there before me.

“Listen up, boy, I got lots to do here and your Grandma’s antsy to catch up on all she’s missed since she passed over. And Pepper, well, Pepper’s keepin’ her company. I’m thinkin’ they might be good friends if given enough time.

“Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye. I really wanted to, but I just sorta drifted out of my body before I knew it. Never checked out of a hotel so easy in my whole life.

“I wanted you to know that I love ya, boy. And I’ll miss our little chats. But I had to go. Some things can’t be changed. They just got to happen. Don’t forget your oath, boy. Tattletales come to no good.”

I think I laughed out loud at that point. Just like Grandpa to haunt me from the other side.

“And don’t worry about me goin’ to that ‘hot place. I got it on the best authority that it’s all a bunch of hooey. The Great Spirit and I met personally soon as I checked into my new digs. Shook my hand and everything.

“I’m a Heathen, I said proudly.”

“I’m the Caretaker,” was the reply.

“I know you’re wondering if the Great Spirit is a man or a woman, but I’m not of a mind to say. Don’t matter to the caretaker and don’t matter to me.”

Grandpa kind of faded out after that, like he was want to do in real life, mumbling that Grandma was sayin’ her beads, or makin’ her beads, I couldn’t tell which, and that he and Pepper were goin’ to sneak away and “make up for lost time.”


On cold winter nights and warm summer days,

Thru soft spring morns and fall’s silver haze,

Among the birds and the trees and the lake in the park,

Grandpa and I still walk and talk;

And nobody knows the things we say,

Nobody knows,

And we like it that way.


“I love ya, Grandpa, wherever you are! Put in a good word with the Great Spirit, will ya?”


The End

(Or, in Grandpa Obie’s case, it’s only the beginning!)


Future World Books ©

The reservoir of inspiration in our world is deep. I dare say, bottomless. Future World Books urge you to reach beyond the outlines of history to design a truly equitable planet.

Our greatest adversary is inaction. May these books energize the creative human spirit—guided always by the maxim: Do no harm. Do not judge.

—L Lee Devocelle

2017


a FUTURE WORLD BOOK©



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