A Jackal in the Woods
My grandfather died and everything went to shit. He drowned on lung fluid in a Spartanburg County hospice house that overlooked a field dotted with black cows. The sunrise wasn’t anything special over there, just a smudge of yellow clouds, and the roads were full of bread and ice cream trucks running deliveries to the little failing grocery stores. Sometimes dogs chased the sweet smells of Bunny Bread and push-pops, then ended up run-over and whimpering on the shoulder, wet eyes shining from a distance until life faded and they didn’t shine anymore. Vultures picked what they wanted. So did insects, coyotes. An act as simple as a young boy cutting the grass would make the world smell fresh and new again, but before that, a stink would ride the wind for days, a stink attracting the most cunning and ugly creatures of the land. My grandfather loved ice cream.
His body was driven to Greenville, a thirty-minute ride, where it was incinerated and poured into a small brass canister. At the funeral service, I sweated through my bra, underwear, and black dress in that hundred-year-old Episcopal church, which creaked and moaned in the July heat. It seemed indecent for anyone to see my bra straps, so I wore a thin sweater that only furthered my discomfort. Beads formed at my hairline. All of the tissues allotted for tears were used on sweating foreheads. Nobody cried. One of my aunts was present, while another refused attendance due to “grievances,” and the third was long dead from a childhood boating accident. We flipped through brittle hymnals and sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” a quiet and unenthusiastic crowd at best. The priest spoke of my grandfather’s rocky personal relationships, his quarreling children, and a banking career that had garnered many enemies. “Nicholas,” the priest said, “lived a full and complicated life. He will answer to God.”
My dad tensed.
At the wake, I organized food over the counters and kitchen table. Spiced rum cake, cubed ham, deviled eggs, sugar cookies, ambrosia salad, fried chicken. I sliced lemons for the sweet tea and found an extra reserve of napkins in the pantry. Nobody directly acknowledged the horrible service, especially not to a family member, but when I passed my father’s study with a vodka tonic in hand, I saw two old ladies slumped like rag dolls in the oversized leather chairs, gossiping with hushed voices and wide eyes. The bookshelves were full of binders that organized the entirety of my dad’s construction company. The building codes were endless: fire code, plumbing code, mechanical code, electrical code, energy conservation code, and so on. I wished a couple of those binders would fall on top of the ladies’ heads. They had picked junk mail from a pile of letters on the desk, flyers pinched between bony thumb and forefinger, and were leisurely fanning themselves. The smell of rosewater perfume drifted into the hallway.
The fatter of the two said, “What an embarrassment.”
The waif leaned in, as if to expose a dark secret, and added, “The priest might as well have mentioned the infidelities.”
“Don’t forget the bankruptcy.”
“The way he harped on Nick…”
“Harped, he did.”
“He was living in squalor, you know.”
“Outside the city limits.”
“With the rednecks.”
I polished off my drink and shook the ice cubes, unsure if I was subduing my anger or encouraging it. I stepped into the doorway and with a prize-winning smile, said, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” which shut them up.
Of course, later that evening, when guests finally left and the heat subsided and a single bat looped through the backyard, there was plenty of bad-mouthing. My dad and his sister, only two years apart, sat on the patio with a dish of salted peanuts and a jar of whiskey that my dad bought from a drywall man for ten dollars. They sipped and coughed and told stories with their tongues covered in shredded nut meat, as was my grandfather’s habit. He was dead but he was everywhere.
In 1965, he started a bank that flourished, then fizzled. In 1972, he purchased an entire city block in downtown Greenville that became a vacuum repair store, insurance office, and ice cream parlor, all of which burned in an electrical fire. In 1980, he traveled abroad and began collecting European girlfriends. In 1981, he pursued a young beauty in Cypress and was stabbed by a competing suitor. In 1990, he began teaching economics at Clemson University. In 2005, he took gold in every track and field event at the Senior Sports Classic, and when he couldn’t breathe anymore, he gave up jogging and played competitive ping pong at the YMCA. He coughed into a handkerchief. He lost muscle, then color. He put his portable oxygen tank in the basket of an electric scooter at the grocery store, piled fruit and pastries and cheeses in a pyramid over the cylinder, and charged everything to a credit card that he never intended to pay off. Asleep one night, the oxygen tube fell out of his nose. He turned blue. He lay unconscious next to fields of black cows. Maybe he dreamed of milk and sugar, mind melting like ice cream under a bright star. In 2012, he died.
Most of those stories were new to me. I didn’t know that he lived in Cypress and was stabbed by a fisherman in a dark courtyard and would have died if a stray dog didn’t keep him awake with yipping and licking until morning, when someone finally found him thirsty and soaked with blood. Nothing so exciting had ever happened to me and even though it wasn’t fair to compare one life against another, I felt like the most boring person alive.
My aunt recounted a family beach trip in which my grandfather snuck away every night to pick up women. “To that grimy bar that sold crab legs in buckets,” she said, drunk and misty. “That was the summer Betsy died at Lake Hartwell.”
I looked away.
She said, “I’m tired of talking about Nicholas the Ridiculous.”
My dad nodded.
She made a gun with her hand and pretended to shoot herself. Then, sighing, she asked, “What are you doing these days, Rebecca?”
“Living here,” my dad answered for me, “and assessing her next step. There’s nothing wrong with that. The job market isn’t kind to young people these days. A college degree doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
I slapped a mosquito on my leg, both surprised and embarrassed that the conversation had turned to me. I wasn’t prepared to talk about my joblessness. It was one thing to fill out applications and prepare for interviews and face rejections, and it was another thing to sleep and read and look out the window for hours without seeing out the window.
“And your mother?”
“What about her?”
My aunt reached for the jar and sipped, even though it was empty. “I don’t know. She’s a bitch is all I want to say, not even sending a condolence card.” She smacked my father’s arm and shouted, “God, you were married for ten years. I go to all the family funerals for both of my ex-husbands. They didn’t show up, either, but at least the bastards called.”
She yawned and stumbled inside. Through the window, I watched her drink an entire glass of water then head to the guest bedroom, resting and drooling and probably wetting the linens with tears through the night. In the morning, she would drive back to Richmond and drop off her funeral dress at the cleaners and wipe her hands clean of all this. She wasn’t the executor of the estate and didn’t want to waste time culling through photographs and furniture and silver, and she certainly didn’t want to untangle the complicated web of finances, which included $80,000 worth of debt, a huge investment portfolio, and properties that were tied up in a family trust.
My dad and I swatted bugs in the dark.
“How did Betsy die?” I asked. I knew I’d heard the story before, when I was younger, but the details had gone fuzzy over the years.
“She was learning to waterski and Nick, your grandfather, was driving the boat. I don’t remember it very well but he made a wide turn, and when Betsy fell she hit her head on a tree underwater.” He snapped. “Knocked out. Just like that.”
A few houses down, neighbors lit fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July and they exploded in groups of three. I counted aloud and said, “It’s like a waltz.”
My dad had withdrawn into his own mind. “There’s a lot to do,” he said. “I’m going to need your help.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I smiled a little and began to collect glasses and plates from the patio and bring them inside. Being home meant that I was available to help, but it also meant that I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I changed into my pajamas and got in bed, switching off the lamp and listening to my aunt snore in the next room.
Vicky cried when my dad gave her the eviction notice. She lived in the garage apartment beside my grandfather’s house and hadn’t paid rent for five months. She didn’t have a job or a car. It was hard to get your life together, she said, when you’re on parole. We stood at the bottom of weathered wooden steps that rose to meet the apartment door. Stone figurines of frogs and snails scattered the ground. Rain gauges held murky water. My grandfather’s old BMW sat in the garage with a mound of dog towels in the passenger seat from a springer spaniel that had died years earlier. Washington Taylor was his name.
Vicky’s long trembling fingers reached for my dad’s shirtsleeve.
He stepped away.
She wore high-rise blue jeans and a ribbed tank top. She let out a silent sob, shoulders heaving, and saliva strung between her dry wrinkled lips. There was a wide empty space where her two front teeth should’ve been. She handed me her glasses, tiny oval-shaped frames that a librarian might wear, and wiped her dark eyes.
She said, “My specs,” and I returned the glasses.
“I don’t wanna stay here anymore,” she said, arms crossed over her small chest. “Don’t get me wrong, but I feel bad about everything that went down. Nicholas did a lot for me. He forgave me when nobody else did and I can’t repay what I owe. I don’t have enough time left for that,” she said. “I’m only fifty-seven but it was the partying that made me look so dang old.” She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, then dug a soft pack of Camels from her pocket and lit one. “Feel bad that I couldn’t get to the funeral. I would’ve asked a neighbor for a ride except they’re not the kind of people I wanna mix with, not anymore. I’m on the straight and narrow.”
My dad asked, “Do you have anywhere to go?”
I figured anywhere would be better than that garage apartment. The surrounding woods were humid in the summer and desolate in the winter. Trees were full of silky white caterpillar nests in spring and autumn brought sheets of falling acorns and chestnuts. Owls hooted all year long. Wild turkeys and woodpeckers galore. The property sat on a floodplain and rainstorms flushed the little creek with stinking orange water that left behind dead fish and plastic bottles and mounds of displaced clay. There was a quarter-mile driveway that hit a country road full of reckless drivers. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would live there, except it was cheap and out of the way. It wasn’t quiet, though, not between frogs in the woods and engines revving on the road.
Vicky said she had a parole hearing in a week and if all went well, she’d be free and clear, and could move in with her sister in Helen, Georgia. “It looks like a German town with the buildings and everything,” she said. “Kind of like gingerbread houses.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“It’d be like living in Europe,” she said. “That’s a big step up from prison.”
My dad said, “I expect everything will work out then, if it’s true that you’re staying out of trouble.”
She said, “Oh yessir, I been a good girl.” Smoke drifted through the gap in her teeth when she smiled. “It’s better this way, leaving soon. People around here are nothing but trouble. There’s one guy, he’s driving a stolen car from Utah that belonged to somebody who died in an avalanche.”
Vicky dropped the cigarette and ground it with the heel of her hiking boot. She said, “Anyway, I guess it’s time for me to start packing.”
My dad and I spent the rest of the day clearing out closets from the main house. I piled seersucker and corduroy and tweed suits in garbage bags for Goodwill, along with tasseled loafers and penny loafers and cracked leather loafers and bedtime loafers lined with sheepskin. There were suitcases and hat boxes and toiletry bags. One shoebox contained a handful of disintegrated condoms. I found a jar of dark green lubricant that said “Grande Hombre” on the label and the directions claimed product users could make love up to five times per night. The place smelled like moth balls and mildew and chimney smoke.
“This is crazy,” I yelled to my dad, who worked in the next room. My hands were gray with dust and grime. Wiping them on my jeans, I said, “You better not leave me with a mess like this.”
He said, “Don’t worry, I won’t.”
My dad and I developed a routine. We drove to my grandfather’s house every morning, bringing a thermos of black coffee, and worked until our stomachs growled and we saw stars. Then we’d head down the road to an old hardware store that sold chili dogs for a dollar fifty each, near-frozen cans of Coke for seventy-five cents, and barrel pickles for fifty cents. That place creeped me out a little because the chili dog line was full of tradesmen with greasy hands, crooked mouths, and empty eyes. I worried about those eyes, if working long and hard shifts made them empty, or if they were empty because the heart was dumped roadside like a sack of unwanted kittens. We found a pack of face masks in there, which made me feel better about being around asbestos and rat shit.
After lunch, Vicky would come to the main house and work with us for a while. She scrubbed the kitchen, cleaned out the laundry room, and boxed mismatched pieces of china. She rode to the dump a few times, perched on a garbage bag in the back of the truck, while my dad and I sat comfortably in the cab. She waved at passing cars and babies in kiddie pools and lapdogs barking through trailer windows. Once, Vicky sat in a chair with a busted woven back, bouncing along as we drove to the dump, and when we backed up to the trash pit, which smelled like superheated metal, skunk spray, and blood, I saw that she’d taken an old crushed top hat out of a trash bag and put it on her little dome. She wiped her glasses, saying, “Gotta clean off this bug gunk,” and in my mind she became Queen of the Junkyard.
Our budding camaraderie disappeared when she found me reading letters that she’d written my grandfather from prison. My dad was cleaning out bathrooms, collecting dozens of empty Barbasol cans and aphrodisiac creams and soap slivers hardened into daggers, while I organized office papers into IMPORTANT and DISCARD. It was slow going until I found a stack of letters from the Goodman Correctional Institute. At first, I was drawn to Vicky’s tiny penciled handwriting and wondered if my grandfather could even read the letter without a magnifying glass. I propped my feet on the desk, relishing in this new discovery, and squinted my way through the letters one by one. She begged for his forgiveness and hoped she could move back into the garage apartment after her release. She talked about her six-month drug addiction program and that she would never disappoint him again. She expressed gratitude for his patience and understanding.
I couldn’t believe that my grandfather, wrinkled and white-haired and faux-affluent, had carried on a friendship with such a woman. They did have a similar look, though. Both were tall, thin, and bespectacled. They looked hungry but strong. I suspected that they depended on each other mentally and maybe physically. Vicky wrote “I love you” more than once and said, “Before lights out, I brush my teeth and kiss my hand goodnight. I pretend it’s you.”
There were footsteps in the hall. I turned, holding the letter, and started to say, “Dad, you won’t believe this.”
But it wasn’t my dad. Vicky held a wad of paper towels in one hand and window cleaner in the other. She threw the bottle into my stomach, snatched the letter from me, and scanned the lines of tiny script. She hollered, “Don’t you know to keep your eyes off private letters?” and grabbed the entire stack. She clutched them to her sunken chest. Then she slapped me clear across the face, my left cheek instantly set afire. My eyes watered. Vicky stomped downstairs and the screen door slapped shut and I heard her waning voice, “Nicholas, Nicholas,” rolling his name over like a black bear rolls a stone.
After I told my dad what happened, he went down to the garage apartment, walked up those battered stairs, and knocked on the door. He called her name.
“I ain’t helping no more,” she shouted. “If I don’t get any respect, I ain’t helping. You won’t see me anymore. I’ll be cleared out of here in a few days after my hearing.”
My dad said, “Do you really think that was an appropriate response?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do.”
“Go away, dickhead.”
He knocked again, saying, “Maybe you two should apologize.”
“I’ve got pepper spray.”
“Fine,” my dad said. “I’ll go.”
We didn’t see Vicky again and a few days later, when we pulled into the driveway with our thermos of black coffee in the muggy morning, we found a note taped to the front door of my grandfather’s house. The same tiny writing.
My parole hearing was good. Now I’m free as a bird. My nephew’s giving me a ride to Georgia tomorrow, so this is goodbye forever. I thank Nicholas in heaven for helping me change my life for the better.
The day after Vicky moved out, my dad sent me to work alone. He hadn’t been in the office for a while and, in his words, needed to make an appearance and put out a few fires. He finished his coffee, placed the mug in the sink, and adjusted his necktie. I hadn’t seen him in office clothes for over a week and was reminded that his titles extended far beyond father, son, and executor. In a freshly dry-cleaned blue suit, with faint smells grapefruit and roasted coffee beans and newspaper ink, he was the boss. While my mother had sequestered herself every Halloween in my childhood, drinking hot tea and flipping through a stack of catalogues, my dad accompanied me on the trick-or-treating route in his slim tuxedo and dress shoes. When someone asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” he would reply, “Bond. James Bond.”
I sat at the kitchen table, bleary-eyed.
He said, “I’d like you to pack up all the books today.” He picked through his wallet and dropped twenty dollars on the table. “You can buy some cardboard boxes from the hardware store, and I’ll leave the keys to the truck.”
He picked up a stack of folders and headed for the door. “One last thing,” he said. “Make sure Vicky locked the apartment. I don’t want anybody else going in there, any of her crazy friends.”
“She cooked meth in there.”
I took the money and the truck, heading outside the city limits, and as the big downtown buildings shrank in the rearview mirror, low blue mountains appeared before me. I rolled down the windows to smell air thick with the scent of flowering weeds and the cut grass of mountain churches and mushrooms peeking out of soft earth. Radio signals disappeared in old wells. The way to my grandfather’s was claustrophobic and winding, with nothing on either side but rotten barns and NO TRESPASSING signs nailed to trees.