Far From Known
BY GRANT MCCLURE
Wofford College, ’19
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
Coming down the third story stairs from my sister Eliza’s room, I find my grandfather pissing inside my toy chest for the third time, dousing my plastic GI Joes with his urine. He was staying at our house between treatments at MUSC for brain cancer. During the day he drank our milk out of the gallon jug, standing in his underwear, fridge door wide open. He smoked cigarettes on the front porch, sometimes falling asleep in the rocking chair. He stole out my father’s liquor cabinet. At night he cried out for his side by side 12-gauge shotgun.
One time he let me shoot the gun, its barrel as long as I was tall, a carving of two flushed pheasants decorating the wooden forestock. I am told he won the gun in a poker match or a backroads drag race. I pulled both triggers at the same time and fell on my ass, a purple welt forming between my cheek and collarbone. My grandfather, whom my family called Oppa, picked me up by my armpits and brushed the red clay off my denim overalls. It seems there was some lesson he meant to teach me that day, though I’m not certain what––perhaps something about masculinity or trust. I am certain, however, of the way he squinted his eyes into the sun during the truck ride home, the plowed cotton fields and longleaf pines of Hampton County, South Carolina blurring past his peripheral.
My mother auctioned away her father’s shotgun to some non-profit that helps feral kittens find homes. The truck remains a constant: the 2001 Silverado with its extended bed and hand-crank windows, the cigarette burns in its carpeted interior, the blue Christmas tree shaped air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror. I learned to drive in that truck while my mother screamed at me to brake, accelerate. On my sixteenth birthday I parked the truck by the old Whale Branch rail-road trestle and made out with a pigeon-toed girl in the bench seat.
Today the truck sits idle in my aunt’s driveway, and I drive my mother’s 2006 Volvo Wagon, a vinyl stick-person family slapped on the back glass. When I get a flat tire on the way down a mountain after trout fishing, I put on the flashers and roll lopsided towards the nearest pull off. My rim warps and later I struggle to mount the jack, struggle with the physicality of it all: the black grease on my fingertips, the awkward weight of the socket wrench, the lug nuts rolling around the asphalt. When the jack starts to give and creak, I find a stump in the woods, slide it under the car for extra support. After about an hour of struggle an older woman carrying newspapers up the mountain stops to help. We secure the jack, slip on the donut, tighten all the bolts. Weaving through the mountains on the dark ride home, grasshoppers splatter against the windshield, and I wonder what Oppa would think. Would he be embarrassed? His only grandson unable to perform the simple task of changing a tire without the help of a seventy-five-year-old woman wearing socks and sandals? Surely he’d be disappointed.
On the back porch my father tells a story about how he awoke one night to Oppa’s 6’6” silhouette looming over him. “He was just standing there over the top of me for about a minute, and then he says he needs to check the hen house to make sure there’s no chicken snakes.” My dad sips on his craft beer and crosses his legs. “So I say okay, and I follow him around the house. When we get to the laundry room he points and asks who lives there. I say, ‘No one lives there Oppa, that’s the laundry room.’” An anole lizard scales the porch’s screen. It’s a humid summer night and my mother’s althea is in full bloom. “And so we go room to room like that till probably four or five in the morning—my father in-law and I just wandering around in the dark. That was about two weeks before he passed away.”
I’ve always found that story beautiful. I admire my father’s patience, and I’m fascinated by Oppa’s distorted perception of reality––how his cancerous brain transformed our home into somewhere foreign and unfamiliar. When my father tells this story, I find myself sympathizing with the man who frequently cheated on my grandmother, who called the cashier at Piggly Wiggly the n-word, who gave me a shovel for my fifth birthday.
I’m not sure where this sympathy stems from, only that it’s there and I feel a kind of responsibility to him. I sat dry eyed through his funeral, and yet I find myself constantly seeking his post-mortem approval: while trying to change a tire, while trying to dig a hole to bury the family’s cocker spaniel, trying to shoot wood ducks in the cyprus swamp, trying to fillet a flathead catfish, to split firewood with a heavy maul. Perhaps it’s enough that he’s family––that no matter how hard I fault him for his vices, his roughneck pine tree farmer blood is running through my veins. Perhaps it’s enough that he worked hard, that he was good with his hands, that he knew what it took to survive seventy odd years in an ever changing world. I fear that if I forget his ways—that if I’m unable to perform labor intensive, pseudo-masculine tasks, I might lose a small part of myself.