I’ve been working on my novel for several years, a task which involves writing the same paragraph seventeen times, scrapping it and then crying. I suppose there are other methods, but I like to suffer. Clearly.
As you can imagine, it’s not so fun. It’s work. Self-imposed work with no deadline or guarantee anything will come of it. Soul-feeding and soul-draining work.
Free writing, however, is as fun as I remembered. Letting a story flow, without edit and overthinking, is creative play and makes me feel giddy.
Here is my second free write with Reece Writing. Be sure to read her chilling take on the same prompt.
Grandmother’s left side of her body is smaller than her right, giving her a lopsided gait and a frailty which compels strangers to want to open doors for her or offer her assistance. She refuses, giving the well-intentioned person a scolding look. This is followed by her story, unpacked in a measured tone, each word well-rehearsed and precise, trapping the would-be good-doer with her piercing black eyes.
We are at Save Mart picking up a cake for her 90th birthday party, a task she did not trust me to complete alone. A tired mother with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest in a colorful sling, and an excited toddler bellowing his ABCs while stacking groceries into towers inside the cart, makes the mistake of smiling at Grandmother and asking her if she needs anything.
Grandmother sits down on the cracked leather seat of her walker, taking a small box of tissues out of the flower print bag hanging from the metal bars, and sets it on her lap. She holds up her left hand, it looks like bones covered in blueish veins held together with greying tissue paper.
“I had Polio at five months old,” she begins.
Her voice is loud for someone so small and I see the woman’s look, the one they all give as she begins her story. Sympathy at first, perhaps even interest, but as she continues, it transforms into embarrassment and then a desperate desire to flee.
“My mother wept for the first five years of my life. She was heartbroken at the imperfection of her only child, this weak and disfigured girl who didn’t smile or speak. My father says my Polio is what killed my mother, but I know it was something more. I felt the truth the moment I was born, and I carry it still.”
If she can keep her audience, the story continues with her two marriages, one good and one bad, her ten children, eight surviving to adulthood, and the three-bedroom house she has lived in all her life. Few people stay for the entire story. If they do, it’s older women wearing long skirts or flowering dresses and they want to hug her after. Grandmother does not permit any kind of touching but will give them a tissue from the box. If they don’t leave, she will begin again.
The young mother doesn’t make it past the story of the first marriage. The toddler screeches and throws crackers at Grandmother as the newborn baby begins to wail and snuffle at her covered breasts. The poor woman apologizes and backs away. She appears shaken and I offer to help, but she’s moving fast away from us, headed toward the opposite side of the store.
“Here’s your cake.”
The woman behind the counter, a 20-something with bright blue eyes and a blond pony-tail high on the back of her head, smiles at us with the box open for our inspection. Grandmother stands and peers inside. It’s a vanilla cake in the shape of a house, frosted green with yellow shutters, and the number 90 written in gold icing on the front door.
“Perfect,” I say.
Grandmother turns to me and scowls, making a growling sound in the back of her throat, and walks toward the glass front doors of the store.
“Nothing’s perfect,” she calls. “Hurry up.”
I thank the woman and pay, balancing the cake in my arms to find Grandmother sitting behind the wheel of her pale blue 1970s Cadillac. The windows are rolled down and her walker sits on the curb next to the car. I set the cake on the back seat, fold up her walker and place it into the cavernous trunk.
“You move like a sloth,” she calls. “You better hold the cake on your lap.”
I retrieve the cake and take my seat, expecting her to slam on the gas, but instead, she’s frozen. Her hands are gripping the steering wheel, making the knuckle bones look as if they will pop through her papery skin. She is staring at a middle-aged man, plain and a bit pudgy, getting out of the white Ford sedan next to us. He returns her stare, glaring with deep-set grey eyes. I recognize the look, but don’t want to.
“No,” I whisper.
“No choice,” she says.
“It’s your birthday Grandmother, and everyone is waiting at the house for us. We could ignore it.”
“Get my walker.”
She stares at me, her black eyes burning and I blush from shame.
I return the cake to the backseat and get her walker. The man is standing at the cake counter by the time we get inside, unaware of what is to come. I wish I was. He is talking to the same girl we got our cake from and she is blushing and giggling in excess. She likes him.
He is wearing faded denim jeans, a button-up grey shirt, and plain brown shoes. His sandy blonde hair is balding in the back, and he has a small trimmed mustache. Grandmother walks over to him and touches him on the arm with her left hand. He flinches and glares at her. I see it flash across his face so transparent I wonder why he’s never been caught.
“Can I help you?”
He is trying to recover, his voice sugary and sweet, but the fear is making him tremble and his temples are wet with sweat. He smirks at Grandmother, the telling grin of a confident hunter, and my stomach burns with acid. Patience, I tell myself.
“I’m wondering if you can help me,” Grandmother says.
He is staring at the blond girl, her name tag says Angela, and I wonder if she’ll ever know how close she came to death.
“I’ll be right back,” he says.
He touches Angela’s forearm with a finger, a tickling swipe to mark her, and she blushes. How long has he been planning today? How many cakes has he bought in preparation? She giggles at some joke he whispers, and I feel nauseous and sleepy. Grandmother’s voice wakes me.
“I need help getting something out of my trunk,” she says. “It’s too big for my granddaughter and me to handle, but you look strong.”
Her syrupy voice, the one she uses for this purpose, awakens the calling inside me and I find the stillness. My training takes over. I beam at him, making myself smaller and more attractive. I sway my hips as I step into place next to him, placing my arm onto his, steadying him. I stare into those dim eyes, past the monster, to the prey. He blinks and wipes the sweat from his forehead.
“Oh, I can’t thank you enough for helping us,” I say.
“It’s no trouble,” he says.
I lead him to the car. He stumbles a few times, mumbling in a voice low and wobbly. He is confused, his instincts trying to wake him. I’m stronger. Grandmother is waiting at the open trunk. He stares at her and tries to speak, but words are lost to him. He climbs into the trunk and lays down, his arms at his sides.
“That’s a good boy,” Grandmother says.
He unsnaps a hunting knife from a leather strap around his calf and hands it to me. It’s warm and smells musky. I wrap it in a rag and put it into the glove box. Grandmother closes the trunk, stores her walker behind her seat and brings the V-8 engine rattling to life.
“Don’t forget the cake. You should hold it on your lap.”
I do as she says, the weight of the cake box comforting. I resist the urge to open it and dip my finger into the sweet icing. My body feels weak and hungry.
“We will take care of him after the party,” she says. “I don’t want to keep everyone waiting.”
“You did well, child. You may be ready to do this without me.”
“Thank you, Grandmother.”
She begins to sing a song from her childhood, the words as familiar to me as my own breath. I join in and our rising voices become one.
“When the shadows of the evening creep across the sky,
And your mommy comes upstairs to sing a lullaby,
Tell her that the Bogeyman no longer frightens you,
Grandmother very kindly taught you what to do!”
*Adapted from “Hush Hush Hush Here Comes the Bogey Man” by Henry Hall