by Annalise Mabe
Poppy showed us where the safety was. How to hold real still while your finger pulled the trigger. We shot at the wall of slate across the river that rose high, shouldering trees that reached the sky. And then into the muddy bank on our side, tracking the bullets through their tunnels. My sister and I ran to pick up the flattened bullets, mined gold—a Kentucky rush.
Nana told me how they met:
Poppy was Cecil then, at twenty-five. 5’7” in a white polo shirt and khaki pants he had cut off as makeshift shorts, leaning up against the rust-metal chain-link fence outside the local pool. Nana was Sylvia at eighteen with brown-baked freckle arms. In white and red nylon she watched water for days in hot-as-hell Elizabethtown. As the lifeguard on duty, she taught the kids how to swim. Cecil wanted to check her out. This was after their phone call, but before their blind coffee date at the Dairy Queen.
Nana told me how cool she thought he looked. I can hear her eighteen-year-old thoughts seeing him for the first time.
“You looked like a drowned rat” he said later over quarter coffee.
No one tells you what they’re really thinking, or what they really remember. I would tell you that when he died, I thought of the words “hard working,” and “loving.” I would tell you that I remembered the Thanksgiving when he baked the bread rolls on the same cooking sheet that he used to dry jalapenos. That when we bit into them, our mouths were on fire; that we laughed once we figured out why.
I wouldn’t tell you that when he died, I didn’t cry right away. That the first memory my mind could procure was when I begged for a Frosty from the backseat, how he said your tastebuds’ll freeze; what’s the point.
Or that I was instantly small again, looking up at the glass thermometer on the bookshelf with its lovely red inside that he said not to touch because you’ll break it. The one that I touched anyway, and broke, making the glass and mercury glitter on the floor.
When he was twenty-one, Cecil worked the pumps at a gas station that stacked cans of oil into a promotional pyramid. It was 1957. Before Sylvia, before my Dad, before my Uncle, before my sister and me, before any of us.
His cousin, Walter Barnes, came in piss drunk at 6 PM as the sky was just melting into pools of florescent soft-serve. Walter was giving everyone a hard time and stumbled into the oil cans that crashed down and rolled until stopped by some inevitable corner shelf of instant soup. Cecil had a temper and didn’t put up with shit. He took his hot coffee, tossing it on Walter, who, offended, left but only to return, swinging the glass doors open with a 38 caliber pistol.
Their backyard in Florida was a forest for young grandkids.
It was my sister’s turn to seek. I ran, her Mississippis calling out behind me. I saw the evergreen-painted shed with its white trim. I grinned. It was the best hiding spot, so long as she wouldn’t hear the metal door screech open.
There was a ramp to the entrance, so I teetered up. I opened the door to the spider dwelling dark, the smell of gasoline from the lawn mower that enveloped my body. It was just like the smell of their garage where all the wrenches, screws, and hammers hung.
The front of the newspaper read:
“1957. YOUTH SHOT WITH PISTOL IN CRITICAL CONDITION”
Cecil was twenty-one, his cousin Walter Barnes—22. Walter was already on probation on a safe-breaking charge when he thought it wise to blow a bullet through Cecil’s side. Cecil lay on the gas station floor holding his stomach, waiting for the ambulance that threw fits, stuck behind a train on the tracks that blocked its way into town.
Finally, at the hospital, the doctor reported: the bullet missed your vital organs.
The paper concluded: “Barnes is being held as a probation violator. No charge has been placed.”
I had a recurring nightmare as a child. Nana and Poppy’s evergreen shed in the backyard was a growing monster with trim, white teeth. It didn’t move, but it loomed in the corner of my eye, silent and watching. I always have nightmares and I always remember.
In 2008, Poppy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at seventy-four. Meanwhile, at eighteen, migraines led me to a doctor who suggested an MRI. He called Mom and I back to the clinic after the brain scan to go over the results:
“We found something, but we don’t know what it is. It’s a suprasellar lesion, or a mass. We’ll have to do more scans.” Mom didn’t say a word for almost a minute.
“What did you all do for fun when you were dating?” I asked Nana one night.
“Well,” she said, “Cecil liked to hunt for groundhogs and drive us through the rural roads on his motorcycle. He’d take out his rifle and kill them—the farmers wanted them killed! Those groundhogs would eat up the vegetables and dig holes the perfect size for a horse or cow to put its foot into ... anyway, we’d swim in the quarry. I’d collect goldenrods. The summers were beautiful. Just beautiful.”
“And later, when you had Dad and Uncle Gary?”
“Oh, we travelled. Poppy saved so that we could see every state and the provinces in Canada, too. Since he was a math teacher, he made a modest salary but he was frugal. He said to spend your money on experiences. Not things.”
I wondered what it was like, driving around the country every summer.
“He had wanderlust. He wanted to see all these different places.” Nana said. “I was content with my immediate boundaries, but he, here’s this guy who was raised in Podunk Kentucky who was driven to drive everywhere. That was him. That wasn’t me. I was just along for the ride.”
Memorial Day, 2009, the end of my senior year in high school. My mysterious brain lesion remained under watch while I distracted myself with beach days with my best friend.
Driving back with the windows down, my phone vibrated in the cup holder. Dad’s name scrolled across the screen.
“Hello?” I said, rolling the windows up.
“Hey, Anna,” Dad said softly. He couldn’t say it, almost. “Poppy passed.”
“What? How?” I asked. I regretted it, instantly.
“He took his life,” Dad said. Then he was quiet. I saw him standing somewhere, probably at Nana’s, crying quietly, trying not to let me hear.
In college, I started working at a bakery, frosting red velvet cupcakes, our best seller, with cream cheese frosting. We had rows and rows of jarred, dyed sugars for sprinkling and decorating.
One day, I scraped the sides of a mixing bowl with a rubber spatula, slow to let the batter fold over itself, dripping like syrupy paint. I got lost thinking of the quick, spiraling events that had happened just three years ago. Of what he said to Nana the night before, “things he never told anybody.” How Nana told me that one night, he steadied his weak arms on the kitchen counter and said: “I didn’t think it would be like this.” Of the glass thermometer with its mercury inside, like the red on his chair, like the batter I made while I worked and forgot where I was.
I was told the details later. Poppy sent Nana to the store to buy flour, or flowers. I can’t remember.
I imagined, in the empty house, he shuffled his sandaled feet, his chemoed body to the utility closet. I don’t know if that’s where the gun was, but this is what I pictured. I didn’t want to picture it, but I did.
I saw him outside, alone, sitting in a lawn chair on the grass, the evergreen gasoline shed looming in the back. I wondered how many minutes he let pass. I wondered if he was scared or if he couldn’t wait.
Six years later, I will tell you the truth.
I’ll tell you that Poppy was a quiet man. That I don’t remember him being sentimental, or talking much at all. That when he did, it was useful. A teaching moment so that I’d remember the algebra equation and the balance on each side of the equal sign, or how to set a fish hook. That I’m proud of him for taking control of his life, even if that’s a thing I’m not supposed to say.
Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of South Florida where she writes nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Animal, Proximity Magazine, and is forthcoming in Hobart. She reads for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is a poetry editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She also teaches English composition and creative writing at USF.