Claire Guyton and Rachel Morton

Rachel Morton
Inspiration piece

Welcome Home
By Claire Guyton

I think of my grandfather and see first that expression he used to get on his face when he was thinking back, we just knew he was, to those lost years. That expression could drain a room of all its air. He’d look at you but it was obvious those flat eyes weren’t seeing your face. He was seeing the flash of the machete in the moonlight, a man’s cracked leather boots splattered with blood, the tilting, spinning shadows of the night as he ran. Where? That’s the silent question that slipped through those lips, peeling back from the pain. Where can I go not to see these things?

Here, we would say, come here. Don’t look inside your head. Look at us.

He liked to sum it all up for himself, just out of the blue, when we were playing chess or making a salami sandwich or walking to the post office. I’ve had a good life, he would say. Yes, I had some bad luck, there, way back. That was some very bad luck. But then I came here, and I met your Grandma, and she made a man out of me. I had three beautiful children. And I have you, little Mickety-Mack. When I was a teenager he still called me that, once in front of a couple of friends. What’s wrong, Mickety-Mack? You look funny. In college, home for Thanksgiving, I walked into the den, where half of him hid under an old quilt, the other half behind the newspaper. Welcome home, Mickety-Mack. Know anything useful?

I wish I did.

The big holidays, that’s when he was at his best. Surrounded by family, color, noise, too much food. Only in the rare lulls did we catch him falling away, his face sliding into that expression. He was seeing the boots. Or his pretty auntie in the refugee camp, on her knees for a bag of rice, the man’s long white fingers clutching the back of her bobbing head. And he saw himself, after, grabbing more than his share from the bowl. Don’t. Please don’t. Look at us.

In those last couple of years, as he got thinner and slower, he would joke that when his time came he wanted to die like a cat. He would steal away to a quiet spot in the woods, lie next to a fallen tree. With any luck the worms and beetles would have chewed him down to the bone by the time he was discovered. Maybe, he said once, I’ll drive to the coast and buy a kayak or a canoe and just paddle until my arms give out. You’ve never been in a kayak in your life, Grandma said, you’ll just go around in circles until somebody notices and pulls you out of the water. He said, Oh, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble. I know how to tell if the tide’s coming in or the tide’s going out.

I don’t know how a cat senses its time has come but as it turned out, Grandpa didn’t get the word. When we found him, Grandma and me, he was leaning against the barn door, looking like he’d just decided to plop down in the snow to take a rest. He’d been chopping kindling, an easy enough job the doctor had approved. Aneurysm. They said it would have happened just the same if he’d been napping under that old quilt in the den, stretched out in his recliner, Barney Miller reruns rolling on the big-screen TV his children had given him for Christmas a few weeks before.

Probably he did decide to drop to the frozen earth, rest against the graying wood of the barn he’d built himself, try to wait out whatever was happening to him. He had a nice view of the snow-heavy evergreens in the woods behind the house but I don’t think he noticed that, in his final moments. You could see in his face what he’d been looking at. Those blood-spattered boots.

The boots were still as the man scanned the room for the little boy, the fast one that slipped away. The man watched and waited, breathed quiet and even, listened for another’s breath. Ignored the rolled carpet at his feet. The boy held his breath and studied those boots, framed in the oval of rough fabric, so close he could see the exact shape of each ragged drop of red. Each one, he imagined, came from a different person. This small one with the cleaner edges, that is my sister. That rough smear is my brother. Here, the fat soaking one, that is my mother. And this one, with all the jagged lines, yes, that is my father.

Oh shit, I said, with Grandma right there. Oh shit Oh shit Oh shit. Nobody was with him. Nobody was there to make him stop remembering.

Grandma knelt before him. Reached out to stroke his face. Nobody ever did that, she said, never, not for one minute.

Oh shit. Oh shit.

Don’t you see it? she said. She was still looking at him, still caressing his hair and face. It’s a good thing, Mick. It’s a good thing that’s what he was thinking. Because it means finally he beat it. He shut it down. She leaned into him, kissed his parted lips. He said enough, she whispered. Enough.

No, I don’t see it. I’ll never see it. In my grandfather’s final moments his mind was full of fear, horror, despair. That can’t be a good thing. But Grandma, she’s the one who made a man out of him. She’s the one who saved his life. I guess that’s how she did it, twisting good out of bad.

Welcome home, Mickety-Mack. Know anything useful?

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