It was quiet in the old boarding house, no where near morning. Silent, dark houses clustered hard by the road. Nearby the usually raucous but now silent, beer joint, the Dew Drop Inn beamed the only glow onto the street through a single, dirt-smudged window.
In a room on the second floor of Mary’s Boarding House, steady snoring sparred with snurkking snorts. Moonlight beamed into the darkened room, but did not illuminate the sleeping couple. A warm night for May, the heat probably caused the woman to throw one leg outside the covers. The man beside her wore no shirt, only his underwear. Despite the warmth, the two spooned tightly. They did not stir when the screen door on the first floor creaked as it was eased open. They slept on as a man tried the front door knob and delighted in his mind that the door slipped open. The man, hat brim pulled tightly down on his head, stepped softly through the parlor and up the stairs, hesitating when a creak seemed louder than a bull horn. He froze in place for a moment. His old black suit jacket scratched the bare skin of his back and arms under his overalls. He felt the weight of the gun in his right jacket pocket.
Going straight into the hallway at the top of the stairs, he slowed his steps and approached a bedroom door on the right. Gently twisting the white ceramic knob, he cracked the door, just enough to allow a peek into the dark room. The full moon’s glow through a window illuminated the large bulk of a man, snoring like a buzz saw. He was flopped onto his back, his huge belly rising and falling with his breaths. Seeing only one form, the man in the hat closed the door, knocking one of his boots with it. He froze again. Listened. No noise came from the room except snoring. After a few seconds, he pondered the closed door across from where he stood. He found this room, too, was unlocked, so he eased the door open.
In this room, the moon light shone strongly against the dresser wall, making the remainder of the room darker, so he waited until his eyes adjusted. He finally discerned lumps in the bed, but he could not be sure the lumps in the bed were who he sought. Widening the door, he stepped in, barely letting the weight of his boot rest on the floor boards. Not tiptoeing but slowly lifting first one foot then the other, he stepped closer to the bed. Two figures, two snores. A board creaked when he shifted his weight slightly, and the louder of the two snores stopped. No one in the bed moved. Again, the man waited. He listened for their even breathing. The one with the light snore never interrupted her noise, but the heavy one’s breathing returned to an even and deep rhythm. The man crept forward. A man and a woman, he thought. This is them.
Now his eyes were more adjusted to the dark. He could see that the heavier form nearest him and facing him was the man he was seeking. He thought he could see the woman’s brown hair fanned on the white pillow as she cuddled up to the other man. The man in the hat felt his stomach acids roil as he noticed how tightly she was spooned against the man next to her. His right hand moved ever so slowly toward his jacket pocket. He felt the cold metal of the gun, located the handle and wrapped his hand around it. Carefully, his thumb eased the safety off, his index finger locating the trigger. Now standing fully beside the bed, he watched the couple sleep.
Looking to the left, the man in the hat noticed a fedora on the bedpost. Beside that, spread over the footboard, was a dress he knew well, the blue one with small white Queen Anne’s lace blossoms. Along the wall opposite the bed, the moonlight partly illuminated the dresser. A purse sat there, reflected dimly in the dresser mirror. A silver clasp glowed.
He looked back to the man sleeping and slowly pulled the gun from his pocket. His hand did not shake; he clenched his teeth; he resisted a long sigh. A roaring noise sounded in his ears and he briefly considered the hate in his heart. His mind fevered with thoughts and images—images he had only imagined till now. Now the truth was before him. He couldn’t help it, but his breath shortened and came quicker. He felt a prickling sensation under his arms and on his upper lip. Was the room turning just a bit white? It was enough. He leveled the gun at the man’s head. He hesitated long enough to look at the woman, whose face he could see well now against the white pillow. Damn …
Suddenly, the man in the bed raised, lunging toward the man in the hat and grabbed at him. Startled, the man in the hat stumbled backward. His right arm went up, still clutching the gun. The metal of the barrel, momentarily illuminated by the moon’s shine, reflected off the mirror and onto the wall behind him, high up. For just a flash of a second, a tiny spot like that of a wristwatch’s glow, bounced wildly on the wall above the bed. As the man in the hat teetered backward, that was all the time the man in the bed needed. He lunged, tangled in the covers, but his forward motion brought his bulk against the man with the gun. Both fell to the floor with a loud whump! The woman woke and sat up quickly, stunned and not to herself. What? She turned toward the scuffling noises and began screaming, still not sure what was happening.
When the gun fired, everything in the room stopped: movement, thinking, breathing.
The woman, holding her breath, now rushed her breath out with a woosh! and whimpered, more awake, more horrified, and began shaking with fear; there was no movement or sound coming from the floor, the pile of two men. She pulled the covers to her chin, and called out her lover’s name. After what seemed a long time, the uninjured man staggered to stand. He whirled before slumping on the bed. The man on the floor did not move. Only the blood from the wound in his side flowed, inching its way to the baseboard on the slanting floor boards of the old house. A gurgling noise, softly sounded as blood rose to the downed man’s throat. A long sigh escaped his mouth, bubbling the blood as a child would blow bubbles from his high chair.
Moving to the side of the bed near her lover, the woman struggled to see who was on the floor. She gasped loudly. “Oh my god! It’s my husband, Harry!”
Her lover still did not move as he looked at the pistol in his hand. How the hell was he going to explain this? He turned to look at Louise, who was staring down into the dark floor, her eyes adjusting more and more so that she could now see the flow of blood moving slowly along the wall. She moved back to her side of the bed, grabbed and clutched a pillow to her chest.
How long they were frozen in position, neither could have said, but it seemed almost immediately that Mary, the boarding house owner, came rushing in, fumbled for the wall switch, which made a loud click as the ceiling bulb lit up the room. Quickly taking in the scene, she stared at the man and woman, still frozen in place then whirled and ran back into the hall to the telephone and called the sheriff.
She woke him up, screaming that there was a man in one of her bedrooms, shot, probably dead, on the floor and to get there right now! The sheriff, wondering how many nights now he’d been called to a shooting in his town just in the last month, shrugged on clothes and raced to the boarding house. He ran up the stairs two at a time. Mary, clutching her chenille robe, ran toward the sheriff. “A man’s in there, dead!” He pushed her aside, but asked her who had the gun. Mary said she’d seen it on the bed, wasn’t anyone holding it, last time she’d looked.
Slowly, he peeked into the room and glanced around. He saw a heavy set man in green work pants, a white t-shirt, with no shoes standing near the headboard. A young woman was standing on the other side of the bed in a thin robe. A gun rested on the bed. A man, with blood all around him, was on the floor. Mary, behind the sheriff, pointed around him at the woman standing. “Earl! Get those people out! I’ll not have this in my house.” The sheriff ignored her, stepping to the side of the bed where the man laid sprawled. Reaching for the gun, the sheriff asked the man, who was smoking a cigarette, if he had any weapons. The man pulled the cigarette from his mouth, shaking his head no. “It was self defense,” he said.
The sheriff, keeping an eye on the man standing, grunted as he straddled the dead man on the floor, noting the wound entrance was at the lower left rib. He rolled him over and noted the bullet had no exit wound. As he moved him, he kicked the man’s hat aside. He glanced at the gun in his hand.
“Twenty-two,” he commented to no one in particular.
“Yeah. Appears to be,” the man answered, taking a deep drag from his cigarette.
“Rattled around inside, I suspect,” the sheriff seemed to say to himself as he straightened up from examining the body. He looked at the other man and then the woman, who he now recognized as a local and the wife of the man on the floor. “Wanna tell me what happened?”
Louise’s corroborated the self-defense story, and my grandfather was not charged with any crime. The sheriff wrote up a report, had the witnesses write their account of what happened, and thought how glad he’d be when the out-of-town gas company finished their pipe laying and left town. With strangers coming in, the crime rate had gone up. He’d told Mary time and again to get locks on her doors, but the old tightwad wouldn’t. He realized he was getting careless. He could have been shot, going into that room alone. But he was too tired to think about it. The sun was rising as he went home and back to bed.
Later that day, my grandfather was on his way out of Kentucky and back home to West Virginia. The sheriff told him to get out of his town, and preferably his state. My grandfather found his foreman on the job and told him what happened and that he was returning home a day early. The gas company foreman shook his head and told him his pay would be short. Then he turned back to watch one of his men weld a gas pipe in place.
A day later, my grandmother stood up straight from a bending position. She ran her free hand through her black, curly hair and adjusted her eyeglasses. She considered the Four o’clock blossoms she held in her hand. They were white and shocking pink and purple-blue. Slowly, as if old, she climbed two steps, opened the screen door and stepped into the kitchen. At the end of the table, where he always seemed to light, was my grandfather. Shaking salt into his glass of beer, he didn’t glance at my grandmother coming in. She stepped over to the table, a chair away from him and laid scissors down by a dirty plate. She picked up the plate and put it in the sink. Reaching for an amber carnival glass vase on top of the refrigerator, she took it to the sink to fill it with water. She plunked the four o’clock blossoms in the vase and turned to set them on the kitchen table. Sitting in a side chair, she fussed with the delicate flowers.
“Where you been, Pet?” My grandfather slurred, dragging on his cigarette.
“Just out back.”
“Picking flowers?” His swollen hand closed around the beer glass. She didn’t answer.
After the flowers were arranged to her satisfaction, she asked, “You want some dinner?” She glanced at the stove.
“Yeah. Later,” he said.
The kitchen was quiet, with only the gas flame under the refrigerator whooshing on. My grandmother stood, supporting herself on the back of a chair and watched my grandfather gulp his beer. He thudded the glass down and burped loudly.
She stood, hand on back of chair, staring at the wall behind the table. She sighed heavily.
“What was her name?” She asked.
“The woman, over there in Kentucky.”
He belched again and shoved the empty beer bottle toward my grandmother. “Get me another beer, Pet.”
My grandmother went to the refrigerator and got a beer, and brought it to the table. My grandfather popped off the cap with a bottle opener and poured another glass. He was downing that when my grandmother finally let go the back of the chair and moved toward the kitchen door that led into the living room.
“Louise,” she heard him say, as she kept moving through the house.
When I was twenty-one, a few months before my grandfather died, I came to see him. Over the years, my visits became less frequent. I explained I was busy working or going to school. But for the last two years, I’d heard my grandfather’s mind was going. “It’s the first thing to go when someone drinks like him,” I’d hear people say. Now, his body was failing rapidly. He had retired from the gas company many years before, a move strongly suggested by his foreman.
When I arrived, it was a warm day, late in June, just before locusts start buzzing to signal the beginning of dog days. Vines grew profusely over my grandparents’ porch on the front of the house, affording privacy and shade to those sitting in big, green metal lawn chairs or on the wooden porch swing. My grandfather was on the swing, feet up, swaying softly back and forth. He was smoking a cigarette and coughing with each puff. I’d been warned that he looked pretty bad, but I wasn’t prepared for the raw, running sores on his big, beefy hands and puffy arms: the bloated body.
His head turned at the sound of my step, and his cloudy blue eyes stared unfocused in my direction.
“Hi, Poppaw.” I slipped into a metal lawn chair close to the swing. He turned to look at me and leaned forward.
“He’s trying to see who you are.” My grandmother said as she came through the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. “He don’t recognize many these days. And he don’t remember voices either.” She was dressed in red shorts, her legs still lovely and smooth, her hair freshly permed and doused in a blue rinse.
I turned back to look at my grandfather. This was the man who’d drank so much that now he couldn’t recognize the voice of his favorite granddaughter. He began to cough, harrumphing and spitting phlegm over the banister.
“The sores on there won’t heal. I called the doctor, and he said his sugar’s probably out of control.” My grandmother sat down across from me in another metal lawn chair.
My grandfather suddenly jerked his body upright. “What’re you doing here?” He turned toward me, and his huge, puffy hands curled to fists. I leaned away, startled, and looked at my grandmother. Before she could answer, he yelled again. “What are you doing here?”
He shook his fist at me. “I told you it was self-defense. God-dammit-to-hell! You get off my porch!” The strain of yelling brought him to another coughing fit. When he could breathe normally again, he drew on his cigarette, staring out through the vines at the road in front of the house. I realized I was still frozen in a half-sitting, half-standing position, ready to run.
My grandmother calmly lit a cigarette and shook her head. “He’s been doing that all week. He rushed the telephone man yesterday. All he wanted was to ask about some line trouble we were having. Like to have scared that man to death. He chased the mailman away from the mail box. Screaming at him. Calling him Louise. He thinks everybody is that woman whose husband he killed years ago. He thinks they’ve come to kill him now.” My grandmother snorted. I sank back into my chair.
I watched her as she turned her head to look at my grandfather, now calmly swinging again. I watched as the years marched across her face, as she stayed, with nowhere to go. I looked at her hands, still soft on top, I knew, hands that took care of everything, from bills, scraping money together, asking the bank to wait on a payment, to cleaning and canning and cooking, to driving him while he was drunk so he wouldn’t kill someone. I remember her hair tumbling over the rag tied tightly around her head to ease a migraine. Her body, rumpled, yet sturdy from years of being home, staying, waiting. Maybe for this moment.
My grandfather idly scratched at a bleeding sore on top of his hand. She puffed on her cigarette and blew the smoke slowly through her nose, as if it were the most exotic and free thing she had ever done. She blew it directly at my grandfather.
He swatted at her smoke as if flies buzzed his head.
Cat Pleska is a 7th generation West Virginian, author, editor, educator, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and a former book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, published in 2012 by Woodland Press. She has published in many magazines, anthologies, and newspapers throughout the region. Her first book, Riding on Comets: a Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015. Cat was awarded the Governor of Arts Award, 2016, for her support of the literary arts.