New York |

Man Is Born to Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward

by Terese Svoboda

Three motorcyclists ripped through the gravel that Granny had spread not the week before, spraying stones in a half moon along the house side. One of the cyclists was not hers, the farm girl from Ohio. Ohio the other two called her, a type of cigarette-smoking farm girl you didn’t have too many of then.

Granny flicked her apron-tail catlike at their noisy arrival. She stood inside the screen porch while they stood their bikes like horses, sleeking their silvery haunches with the backs of their shirtsleeves. At least Kermin did, the one so fastidious about cleaning chickens and who spent overmuch time in the washhouse. His brother hung around Ohio to make sure her straps were solid around her saddlebag where she kept dainties like wrenches, judging from the bulges. Granny heard him say Granny was an old rosary fart. The sun kept the screen dark so unless she moved, she could hear more.

She won’t want to go in on it?

I’ll make sure, said Kermin and he produced a smile that even in the hanging dust any woman could appreciate, a smile that signaled to Granny he’d put down some drink.

Granny took the three steps into the kitchen backwards so as not to disturb her shadow. She had pots going and a general mess of living that preyed upon her, she took what old rosary she had inside.

Instead of making sure about whatever it was she might want to go in on, Kermin crawled under the house. Even at the sink, she could hear him at the old bottles. The other two were hesitating at the door, probably hot for each other, then they let it slam on the spring, Ohio calling out Granny! at the threshold as if she belonged there.

Granny let her pat her hand so friendly. You have lungs after all that riding!

We shortcutted from the backdoor of the movie house, across those fields that haven’t been plowed, said the boy.

Errol Flynn does it that way, said Ohio.

You find out all sorts of baloney at a double feature, said Granny, going for a spoon hung on a nail across the room. What else would they say before they said what they wanted?

It is 1924, began the girl. She nodded to Granny as if she would contradict her. And March 12 in only three weeks.

That will make you twenty, said Kermin, coming in with all Granny’s old bottles jangling in a box. The girl gets a party. He smacked the box down next to the sink.

His brother took a long swig at the faucet and slicked back his hair with the water before it quit. We are only wanting a real nice party, he says to Granny.

Not my dandelion wine! said Granny.

She’s a criminal, your own granny, said the girl, lighting a cigarette. A wine-maker. That’s what all these old bottles are for—evidence.

When they’re full, it’s really for the goats, said Kermin. The goats get sick and only two teacups’ worth of dandelion wine will cure them. He rattled the empty bottles like Granny’s not listening hard enough.

I am always glad to see you, said Granny, not smiling. What about gravy on bread? I’ve got beans.

The girl smoked. The boys mouthed something back and forth to each other as if they weren’t going to say anything at all. We wouldn’t visit much, was what Kermin said out loud at last.

That was a good thing, the way they put it. Granny held little patience for their schemes, she said: What do you really want?

The brother unsnaked rubber tubing from his back pocket.

When you were a boy, said Granny, you stole one of those from the washhouse and flooded the place fooling with it. She turned her spoon bowl up and tapped her palm. I guess I forgot to burn it.

So what I’m saying is, said Kermin after the girl gave him a What now? look, is that we want to set up a still for the party and make something for ourselves to boot. There is where we want to do it. He pointed at the bathroom.

I spoiled you, buying those motor bicycles with the wheat money, said Granny. She stated this like truth be known. I should have paid my taxes instead.

The brother who was two years younger but bigger took a step closer to Granny as if to persuade her with his size but she quick hit him in his eye with the spoon.

The boy screamed.

Ohio and Kermin didn’t help him get over it, they backed away, Kermin saying, For pity sake.

The boy felt his way into the bathroom, bumping into the hamper on his way, cursing and blubbering. The girl picked up the hose he had dropped and laid it beside the kitchen sink, then she and Kermin started washing up the bottles beside it.

You won’t need those for a quite a bit, said Granny. Why not wash the bathtub?

Ohio laughed. She’s probably got a recipe in there too, she said.

While they were in the bathroom setting up the still, arguing about where to put the worm box who's getting the hog feed for the mash, and which of them knew best how to hook up the heat, Granny swung at the bottles with the hammer she kept under the sink. The bottles were thick and old, she was saving them forever so it took a good lot of whacking, two or three hits, before she got to where some of them fell apart.

Kermin wrenched the hammer away from her, but he had had too much to drink and the wrenching made him fall backwards and hit his hand on the table.

You cut yourself, Granny said.

He sucked his knuckles and glowered. You keep out of it.

Granny laughed too loud.

His brother picked the few good bottles out of the bad and brought them along into the bathroom while they went about finishing their business. When they left, they took its key. You’ve got Mr. Jim, they said, pointing to the outhouse.

The bottle shards lie in their patterns on the floor for weeks after, which disturbed Kermin more than his brother when they next visited, bursting into the kitchen the way they liked to. Ohio came in last. She was wearing a short skirt this time, all the way up to her knees, which made her getting off the motorcycle its own show. Now they had only the two bikes, Kermin breaking a spark plug roaring over the rutted fields. He needed to collect some profit for its repair, birthday or no birthday.

While he looked around for a broom to sweep away the shards, his brother picked his way through them. Granny? They hadn’t been around to check up on her. She didn’t answer back. He unlocked the bathroom anyway.

Not too much stirring, said Kermin, drawn past the broom closet to the bathroom.

You don’t want scum, said Ohio, and she went ahead and stirred and then swallowed several sips that sent her throat into spasms.

Sure you’re not born this very day? asked the brother, who was trying to fill the bottles while taking two sips to her one.

Soon Ohio was touching the silverware, the little knickknacks, the towel for drying, and the brother’s elbow. What if she’s dead? she said without a trace of concern.

Kermin had his share even quicker and was now beating his chest like the ape in the movie last week, and howling. That should wake the dead.

But Granny didn’t come running.

I’m hungry, said his brother, stepping around the unswept shards to Granny’s ice box. Nothing in here, he said, drawing two fingers through the soft butter. Just this, and some old milk. He flicked the latch to the food safe beside it, a screened-in cupboard for cake and sundries, and pulled out a piece of actual cake, or something cake-like in weight and shape. He gnawed half of it down before Kermin could scrounge up a knife.

The girl overturned her glass on her chin and tried to balance it there, her eyes crossing. Kermin touched the glass with the knife, and it fell. You might go blind doing a thing like that, laughed Kermin, and stirred its shards in with the others.

Then I wouldn’t have to see you, she flirted back.

A neighbor had given Granny a lift and he backed out of the driveway fast, seeing the motorcycles. Granny wasn’t carrying much, just some papers she’d signed at the courthouse, but it wasn’t the lack of a burden that kept her from galloping up the steps as if she were excited to see them. She put down her purse in the weeds and waited.

Even the crickets went quiet.

She could walk the two miles back to her neighbor’s but it was very hot. She waited longer. She read over the signed papers to make sure who got what, and who didn’t.

Kermin came out and vomited beside the front door. Hello, Granny, he said, getting up off his haunches.

I am sorry I raised you, she said. I wasn’t fit for it. I spoiled you because I was too old or else you were rotten to start with.

Kermin smoothed a curl of saliva into his pant crease. By the look of his face, he was still distressed about his stomach. Did you put rat poison in the cake?

I did, said Granny. There were rats, there was a hole in the safe.

We don’t want to call the sheriff about it, said Kermin, and he let her in.

His brother was laid out on the glass shards. Granny started talking, talking, talking about what to do. The pigs ate the fermented apples only once, she said. They never touched them again. Why can’t you boys be more like pigs?

Shut up, said Ohio who did not have any of the cake, who instead had drunk a whole glass of hootch on her empty stomach for full effect, who was loose in the legs now and skittish and unconcerned.

Granny said: Pepto-Bismo’s under the bathroom sink.

Kermin unlocked the bathroom a second time. Or else salt, shouted Granny. Lots in a glass. Put it down him. Or else the milk.

No milk. Kermin had drunk it all with his piece of the cake, neatened where his brother had left teeth marks. He was swallowing a glassful of salt water himself in the only container Granny hadn’t filthied, a gravy boat, so she got ahold of one of their almost full bottles and emptied it into the sink for another. Kermin choked and bellowed and Ohio lunged at her, but missed. She poured the salt into the bottle with water, and put it to the boy’s cold lips where it dribbled out and then in, where he coughed and spit.

Kermin was gargling more saltwater by then, the girl patting his ankle, the girl being on the floor and about to pass out.

Granny cleared the boy’s mouth and doused him again. Did you like the cake? she shouted.

She’s a monster, said Ohio who rallied and staggered to the door for her motorcycle. Happy birthday to me, she said outside on the porch, about to straddle the seat, her skirt to her waist.

Granny was still standing on the porch when the ambulance and the sheriff arrived, spraying their own gravel. The boy had passed out again before Kermin took off with the girl driving. But they only got as far as the cherry tree before a low branch knocked them both clean off. She didn’t bother to turn them over, seeing the flutter of somebody’s limbs. They would be all right. The toppled motorcycle chugged until the gas ran out.

Haven’t seen you in a long while, said the sheriff, poking hard at the boy in the kitchen. What’s all this glass from?

Another accident, she told him quick, and he nodded. She didn’t want anyone there long enough to want the bathroom.