by C.B. Adams
Originally published in River Styx literary journal
My grandfather had beautiful hair. Everyone said so. Even other men. Still, when he turned fifty, my grandfather stopped going to the barber. He was like that. He could go along for years and then, for no apparent reason do something like stop going to the barber. My grandfather let his hair grow long, until it fell in lazy waves past the back pockets of his overalls. Sometimes he kept his hair in place with a sterling silver napkin ring. Usually, he braided it. When I was eight years old my grandfather's braid scared me because it reminded me of a second spine growing from his head.
Because my grandfather's hair grew slowly — no more than a couple inches per year — the color of the braid told the story of the past twenty years of his life. At its end, where the braid hung by his wallet, the hair was thick, coarse, and dark brown as a buckeye. It sprouted from the end of the braid like a feather duster. These were the years when my grandfather still worked as an engineer for the Cotton Belt Railroad. At its midpoint, the color faded abruptly to gray. This marked the death of his wife, my Grandma Marvel. I dreamed once that the tears, which everyone said he withheld after her passing, had flowed instead through the thin straws of his hair, bleaching the color of each strand. The newest hair growing from his head was almost translucent — the color of Scorch tape still on the roll. These were his retirement years.
My grandfather taught me the game of Mumbly Peg one evening when I was twelve. My parents and I had driven south from St. Louis, where we lived, to Illmo, Missouri, my parents' hometown. My grandfather had invited us to a small family reunion at his house, where he lived alone. My great-aunts, Josephine and Ruthann, had spent the afternoon cooking in his kitchen. We had fried chicken with skin the color of mahogany, scalloped potatoes smothered in Velveeta cheese sauce, fresh sliced tomatoes, green beans simmered with smoked hamhocks, and long green onions served from Mason jars filled with ice water.
When dinner was over, my father, grandfather, and two great-uncles left the table to sir outside and talk. My mother called this unnecessary activity tuneweaving. 1 remained and fiddled with my food as my mother and great-aunts cleared the dishes and discussed family news. I didn't want to leave. I loved listening to the women talk. My mother pointed me toward the back of the house.
Outside, I stood on the screen porch. My great-uncles, Lyle and Bertram, sat holding hands on the porch swing. They were my grandfather's younger identical twin brothers, though they looked older. It was difficult to understand my great-uncles when they were together because they communicated in a mishmash language which only they understood. They offered me something that sounded like "Ma-Hallow" as I looked around.
Through the screen door 1 saw my father leaning against a black walnut tree with a cigarette in his hand. A bourbon glass was propped in the crook of the tree. My father neither smoked nor drank hard liquor at home.
My grandfather sat on the stone steps leading to the porch. He was wearing the sterling silver napkin ring, part of a set he and my grandmother received as a wedding present. A fancy letter "B," for Benson, our family name, was engraved on its surface.
The sun was setting. The cicada chorus had warmed up and was joined by a chirring section of crickets. I opened the screen door and let it slam behind me, hoping to startle my grandfather. 1 knew better. My grandfather had the disposition of a mountain. I should have remembered Thanksgiving the year before when I spiked his iced tea with salt instead of sugar. With the round blue container tipped over his glass, I became the Morton Salt girl on the label, pouring and pouring, until the bottom was thick with a saline sediment. Throughout the meal, I asked my grandfather how his tea tasted. Each time, he would pick up his glass, take a long drink, and then smack his lips.
"Best iced tea 1 ever had," he said, showing not one whit of displeasure.
I should have also remembered the time I grabbed his braid and tried to climb it like a rope. My grandfather stood stock still with his arms crossed. 1 lifted my feet off the ground and swung from the braid, imagining his face drawn taut as a drum, his eyes pulled back like a Chinaman’s.
"Say uncle," I yelled. "Say uncle."
My grandfather did nor make me stop. He did not say uncle. He waited until my arms gave out and I fell to the ground, then he walked away.
The screen door banged twice before settling into its frame. My grandfather scared into the deepening woods behind his house. I reached out and turned the napkin ring as though it were a motorcycle throttle.
"Vrooin 'room," I said, twisting the ring.
"Hey, boy," my grandfather said.
My grandfather never called me by my name, which was the same as his and my father's. We are all named George Washington Benson. My name is George Washington Benson V, an unavoidably pretentious name, so everyone has called me Wash. My father went by George, my grandfather by GW.
I sat next to my grandfather and watched as he reached behind his head and adjusted the napkin ring. Then he repositioned his hair by twisting it around his wrist. I had seen girls at school do the same thing. He wore a blue chambray workshirt, buttoned to the top, with a bolo tie made from a perfectly fluted Clovis Point arrowhead. When 1 was younger, my grandfather would tell me how he had stolen the arrowhead from the skull of an Indian skeleton at a secret burial mound which only he knew about. He said the arrowhead had special powers that protected him from being scalped.
My grandfather leaned away, reached into his pocket, and opened his hand just below my chin. "You ever see one of these' he asked.
"Its a knife," I replied.
"Not just any knife," he said. "A Case."
He held out a three-Waded pocket knife. It's blackened bone sides were smooth and shiny from the years it had sloshed inside the pocket of his striped Pole Cat overalls, the brand favored by railroad men of the Cotton Belt. At one end of the knife was an oval nameplate with the word "Case" barely visible.
"It's got four X's on the blade. It'll hold an edge forever," he said, opening the knife's blades and pointing out the X's at the base of the longest. "They don't make 'cm like this anymore."
My great-uncles murmured and nodded in agreement from the darkening screen porch. To demonstrate the knife's sharpness, my grandfather rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. The skin on his forearm was covered with thick white hairs that curled like hoarfrost. He neatly shaved two hairs from his forearm. He blew them from his arm, and they floated down and landed on the dark stone pathway.
"This was Poppy's favorite knife," my grandfather continued. "You look a little like him, boy. You think you look like Poppy?"
I shrugged. Poppy had died when I was nine. He had always seemed like an old man to me, someone who called me Tallywhacker or Scallywag. He spent most of his time sitting in a brown leather chair with a seat cushion indented like the head of a scoop shovel.
"I miss that old man," my grandfather said. He turned his attention to the knife in his hand. "Yessir, Poppy gave me this knife the night you were born. He told me, 'Take good care of this knife and pass it on when the time comes."'
My father was still leaning against the tree. "I didn't know that," my father said, kicking one of the walnuts on the ground. It was green and black, like a moldy ping pong ball. "You never told me that story•."
"Well, it wasn't your damned pocket knife, now was it?" my grandfather replied. What he really meant was, "That's what you get for marrying Sandra and moving to St. Louis."
"You never change, do you, Dad?”
My great-uncles let out a phlegmatic, manly cackle. Then my grandfather held out the knife to me and asked, "Want it?"
I nodded and extended my hand. He placed the knife across my palm. It was warm from lying near his body and felt heavier than I had imagined.
"I'll play you for it," he said, taking the knife back. "You ever play Mumbly Peg?"
I shook my head. In St. Louis we played games like Little League, Kick the Can, and GI Joe.
"The game of Mumbly Peg is an ancient Indian game," my grandfather said, looking up at my father with disdain, as if he were a parenting failure for not showing me how to play it. "It's a game of concentration, skill, and knife throwing, in that order."
My father began to protest, "Dad, I don't—"
"Now, listen up," my grandfather continued. "The game of Mumbly Peg is played sitting down." He opened one blade on each end of the pocket knife. "You begin at the top of your body." He set the point of the knife just above his forehead and held it in place with his finger on the top blade. "Then you flip it." The knife spun from my grandfather's head and landed point first between his feet. "If it sticks in the dirt, it's a good throw. If it doesn't, it's the next fella's turn."
"What's a Mumbly Pee I asked.
"I'm getting to that," my grandfather replied. "Go over to that sycamore and cut me a piece of branch thick as a pencil and about so long." My grandfather indicated the length by showing me the distance between his extended thumb and forefinger. He pulled the Case knife from the dirt, closed the shortest blade, then handed it to me.
When I came back with the stick, my grandfather took it from me and stripped off its bark with the knife. In the dusk it was white as an old chicken bone. Then he whittled a sharp point on one end and held it up.
"This is the Mumbly Peg," he said. "Push it into the ground as far as you can."
I put my palm over the end of the Mumbh., Peg and sec my weight on it.
"That's good enough," my grandfather said. "Let's practice a few times before we start."
We sat cross-legged, facing each other about three feet apart. The dust was soft and brown, like Hershey's cocoa powder.
"You start," my grandfather said, handing me the knife.
I balanced the knife on my head and felt the blades prick my scalp and forefinger. I flipped the knife. It cut my head and landed on its side.
My grandfather leaned over and rubbed his thumb over my wound. "Put some spit on it and be careful next time," he said. "Try again."
This time, I was aware of the knife, its points, and its heft. I was careful to hold it in place. Instead of flipping it, I gently guided it off myhead, the way good divers arch and fall from the high platform to the water below. The point stuck.
"My turn," my grandfather said. The knife flew easily off his head and into the ground.
"That's not so hard," I said.
"We're just getting started. This time, you start with the head. If you make that, you move to your right shoulder, then your left, then the elbows, knees, and finally both feet. After that, you can pick any other part of your body."
He said, too, that whenever I missed a throw, it was his turn. If he surpassed the throw I missed, I had to pull the stick out of the ground with my teeth while saying the words Mumbly Peg, and then we'd start over again. Each time one of us got the peg, it would be rapped deeper into the ground. The loser was the one who couldn't pull the peg out.
Aunt Roo came outside and asked, "Who wants what for dessert?" She took our orders and went back inside.
From far away, rising through the orchestra of cicadas, crickets, and locusts, came a diesel locomotive's blare, half trumpet, half French horn. My grandfather looked toward the west end of town, where the train station and roundhouse were located.
"The Mo-Pac. Right on time," he said.
"How can you tell the difference?" my father asked.
"Just do," my grandfather replied.
My great-uncles agreed with voices that moaned in the high voice of truck tires on hot, black pavement.
"They all sound alike to me," my father said.
"That'd be right," my grandfather replied after a long pause.
My father reached down and picked up a walnut. Then he threw it at the tin roof of the shed in the back of the yard. We listened as it hanged on the roof, rolled down to the gutter, traveled the length of the shed, and exited at the downspout.
"Good thing it rolled out," my grandfather said. "Otherwise you'd he up there cleaning my gutters."
My mother and great-aunts arrived with our desserts. My mother brought gooseberry pie to me, my Father and grandfather. Up on the screen porch, Aunt Joe looked at my great-uncles and said, "Well, look at the love birds. Get up, Berrie, and let me sit next to my husband. You go on over there and sit with Roo."
My great-uncle Bertram turned and kazooed a message to his brother. When they started laughing, Aunt Joe said, "For Pete's sake, get over there where you belong."
Slowly, my great-uncle Bertram stood and walked over to sit next to his wife. Aunt Roo gave him his piece of pie, hut he and my great-uncle Lyle looked longingly at each other across the porch.
"Lawzee, you two certainly pine for one another, don't you," Aunt Joe said to no one in particular. "How'd you ever put up with these Siamese Twins growing up, GW?"
My grandfather, sitting on the concrete steps outside the screen porch, spat into the dust and waved off Aunt Joe's question.
"You can't understand these two," Aunt Joe said, pointing to my great-uncles. "And you," she said, indicating my grandfather, "you don't hardly talk at all anymore."
My grandfather reached into his back pocket and pulled out a Zane Grey novel.
"Don't you ignore me, GW," she said as he thumbed to the page with a turned-down corner, "or I'll cut off that pony tail and heat you with it."
My grandfather didn't care. He loved Zane Grey books. I remembered standing before the bookcase in his woodworking shop, staring at his dog-eared paperbacks. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Zane Grey books. Many times he had shown me the covers with hard-faced cowboys. He would always say, "I've read 'em all. Many more than once." Sometimes, when he would show me one of his favorites, his eyes would get a faraway look and he stopped talking. On the cover would he a cowboy staring off into the barren desert. My grandfather would forget I was there as his finger traced the lines on a cowboy's face, as if the cover offered a secret Braille message to all those who were lonely cowboys at heart.
My grandfather put down his book. He looked me in the eye and made a show of eating his slice of gooseberry pie. "Nothing better than a slice of eyeball pie," he said.
I looked down at my slice and saw it staring hack at me, unblinking.
"Eat up, boy," my grandfather said. "It doesn't get any better than this."
We finished dessert. The light in the darkening sky made everything look deep, old, and mellow. My mother walked over to my father beneath the black walnut tree. We all watched her, even my grandfather, who had returned the Zane Grey novel to his back pocket. My mother took the cigarette from my father's hand and put it to her lips. I had never seen my mother smoke before. She elegantly and deeply drew in the smoke. Then she exhaled, and the smoke hung in the air like laughter. My great-aunts crossed their arms and stared at her. My great-uncles winked at one another. Then my mother picked up my father's glass in the crook of the tree and drank the remaining whiskey. With this, even my great-uncles began ro pay closer attention. My mother leaned against my father on her tiptoes and kissed him long and fully. I held my breath until I became light-headed. That's how long the kiss lasted. The big band of cicadas, crickets, locusts, grasshoppers, mosquitos, June bugs, and all of the insects in the night rose around us as my parents began to dance.
I finally took a breath. They didn't really dance, but they could have. That's how powerful and potent their kiss was. They could have dipped and twirled to the dusky
song rising in the falling light. They could have mamboed, waltzed, tangoed, cha-chaed, and mash potatoed to the rhythmic syncopation of a million insects in a jitterbug jam session. Within that kiss was the life my parents had made for themselves away from their hometown. Unwinding from that kiss like a familiar movie came the essence of my parents played our in overlapping, quick-cut scenes: the first time my mother watched my father in his baggy basketball jersey glide into the air and make a lay-up, the moment she asked my father our on their first date, that first electric kiss, followed by high school homecoming dances, graduation, an athletic scholarship for my father, and admission at the state college for them both. Then more homecoming dances, late nights warmed by strong black coffee and long conversations about the meaning of life. And, too, lavalieres, roses, and basement fraternity parties with warm kegs of beer from the land of clear blue waters. Then "Pomp and Circumstance," the "Wedding March," a secret honeymoon, and singing "Moon River," long nights of making loud love, their defiant decision to move away, that first night's rest in St. Louis followed by first jobs and a first mortgage and a brand-new '59 Chevrolet Bel-Air. A little later, the birth of a son with the preposterous name of George Washington Benson V (at least I hoped I was in that kiss), homemaking, and making a home, love handles and Sara Lee Pound Cake, a miscarriage and a dozen and a half alumni weekends, Thanksgivings, Christmases, New Year's Eves, and Roman candles by the score on the Fourth of July.
It was all there in that kiss.
When it was over, my mother said, "I love you, George," then she turned to enter the house.
"I love you, too," my father replied.
My mother turned to me and asked, "Want to come inside and help me pack up?"
My grandfather replied, "We're playing Mumbly Peg."
"Yeah," I said, "I'm gonna get Poppy's knife."
My grandfather slid the napkin ring from his hair and let it fall around his shoulders. Then he began to braid his hair with the dexterity of an old beautician.
He said, "Boy's got to win it first."
This caught me by surprise. My father always let me win at games. My mother and great-aunts went inside to pack a basket of left-overs for the night trip home.
"We really do need to start back,” my father said. “It’s a two-hour drive”.
"I know how far St. Louis is," my grandfather replied.
The mercury vapor lights on the shed droned to life. My grandfather motioned to his twin brothers. Lyle stood and turned on the light over the steps. It was a yellow hug light that made our faces look red. My father stared at his watch. "Shouldn't take long," my grandfather said, sitting down in the dust and indicating for me to do the same.
The game of Mumbly Peg, as my grandfather had said, was a game of concentration, skill, and knife-throwing, in that order. I was master of none of these, though my inexperience was offset by my grandfather's age, arthritis, and the several finger's worth of Kentucky Gentleman he had consumed. Feeling the knife push into my skin heightened my awareness and made me think of Indians playing this game by the flickering light of campfires. My father shifted from foot to foot and jangled the change in his pocket. My great-uncles, reunited on the porch swing, cooed like mourning doves.
As the game progressed, my grandfather and 1 both missed an equal number of shots. Each time, the Mumbly Peg was driven deeper into the ground. The end of the sycamore stick, which naturally tasted bitter, began to exude the taste of each other's spit, gooseberry pie, tobacco, the sharp rang of bourbon, the soapy-mint taste of Sen-Sen, and something I assumed was simply the flavor of old age. Each time I had to bite the Mumbly Peg, I took longer to lower my head over the stick, and I pulled harder to shorten the time it was in my mouth.
"C'mon, Dad," my father said. "This could go on all night."
"In the old days, games were played for days, if the players were good," my grandfather replied. With his long hair roped down his back, my grandfather could have been Sitting Bull, Roaring Thunder, or even Sacagawea.
"Not this game," my father said. "I've got to go to work tomorrow."
"Let's make it interesting," my grandfather said. He pounded the Mumbly Peg until only a half an inch was visible.
"Neither of you will be able to pull that up," my father said.
"Depends on how much the boy wants the knife," my grandfather said. From the porch, now dark, my great-uncles mooed like humpback whales.
"Go ahead, Wash," my father said, throwing up his arms. "Play."
1 rushed into my throw. The knife fell flat in the dust. My grandfather picked it up and prepared to throw. He made both knee shots. It was my turn. 1 looked down at the Mumbly Peg.
"Tell you what," my grandfather said. "I can't pull up that stick, not with my dentures. So, if you pull it out, you win."
He was going to let me win after all. I lowered myself on all fours and set my face over the peg. As 1 neared it, my lips touched the ground and dust went up my nose.
My grandfather said to no one in particular, "I ever tell you about the time we bet Chigger Phelps a dollar he couldn't eat dog shit without throwing up?"
My father said, "God, Dad!"
My uncles switched from whale sounds to the chirps, squeaks, and clicks of porpoises at play.
I set my teeth into the wood. All the strange tastes were now concentrated and growing on the end of that stick. There was a new one, too. I was sure I could now taste dog shit.
My grandfather said, "Yessir, he took us up on that bet. So we went and found a hot pile of dog shit right on the curb." I hit the stick and pulled as hard as I could. My teeth snapped together as they slid from the end. I put my mouth back on the stick and tried again.
My grandfather said, "Chigger did pretty good, too, until he got down to that last bite."
My great-uncles apparently liked the sea life, so they began making the high-pitched calls of a thousand sea gulls gathered around a garbage scow.
I pulled and pulled on that stick. 1 knew someone in China had a hold of the sharp end of the Mumbly Peg and wasn't letting go. The dust turned into dog shit, all warm and mushy. I said "Mumbly Peg, Mumbly Peg" to keep from listening to my grandfather's story.
"Dad, stop it," my father said. "Wash, let's go."
I stayed and pulled harder on the Mumbly Peg.
My grandfather said, "Course, Chigger puked that dog shit back up. Every bit of it."
I jumped to my feet, cupped both hands over my mouth, and ran toward the screen porch. My grandfather laughed.
My father said, "Cut it out, Dad."
My great-uncles brayed in the dialect of hyenas.
My grandfather said, "Chigger could've kept that dog shit down if it hadn't been for that last bite. Said he couldn't stand the thought of a hair in his mouth."
I ran inside the house to the bathroom, where I hung my head over the toilet, fighting, waiting, hoping, afraid to throw up. I gulped huge mouthfuls of air until 1 got my grandfather's story out of my head and could taste only mud in my mouth. My teeth hurt from pulling on the Mumbly Peg. I checked in the mirror to make sure I hadn't become buck-toothed. My eyes were bloodshot. I wetted a hand towel and dabbed my face and neck. My mother came in and wanted to know if I was all right. I nodded yes, slowly.
"What was going on out there?" she asked.
My father stood at the door. "You okay, Wash?"
"I want to go home," I said.
We said our good-byes together. Out on the screen porch, my
great-uncles waved and offered — in unison — something that sounded like "So long." In the kitchen, Aunt Roo and Aunt Joe patted me on the head and told me they had packed an angel food cake into our going-home basket.
My parents and I got in the car and waited as my grandfather walked slowly from around the back yard. He told my father to drive safely, then motioned for me to roll down the window. He reached into his pocket and brought out Poppy's pocketknife. He opened the blade and held it up. I waited to receive the knife, but instead my grandfather reached behind his head and cut off his braid with one stroke. Then he laid it in my still outstretched hand. He closed the knife and returned it to his pocket, and we left.
Later, as I slouched in the back scat of my parent's old '59 Chevrolet Bel Air, I watched as my mother sat close to my father. She tuned the radio to a crackling station that played songs from their dating days. My father unfolded his arm across the back of the seat as my mother kissed his neck and laid her head on his open shoulder. I stroked the braid, heavy and warm, lying across my lap. Outside, a train ran parallel to the highway. I wished for the Case pocketknife, wanting to feel its metal in my soft pocket. My father turned and looked at the train in the darkness. The hum of the engine raised an octave as he increased speed, and the train slowly fell behind.
Note: When Poet and River Styx Editor Richard Newman named me the "Best Unheralded Writer" in St. Louis in 1998 in The Riverfront Times, he wrote, "My only complaint, from a purely selfish perspective, is that I wish he wrote, published and promoted himself more: I would relish a collection of these squirrelly stories any insomnia-ridden night."
Mumbly Peg was my last published story. I wrote another I am equally proud of, but it has been rejected by many literary journals (including River Styx), and never for the same reason. This trail of rejection (comes with the territory), and my general ambivalence about whether I still have stories worth telling, converged in more than a decade-long fictional nuclear winter. I am fictionally flummoxed, which is far worse than having writer's block.
In preparing this and selected other stories for inclusion on my website, I have been re-reading my old work. It feels like someone else wrote those stories. I am reminded of something Fernando Pessoa wrote: "Recalling who I was, I see somebody else."
Maybe I will write fiction again. I always imagined that I could be like Norman Maclean of A River Runs Through It fame. He was writing a new book when he died, but really, he was a one-book author. But what a book. To write just one book that good would be enough for me.
I am haunted by his words: “One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful even if it is only a floating ash.”