Call it Chapter 2B

It was mid-December and dark when he got there. His mother was at the stove. The people of the town had dropped off, with their condolences, casseroles and baked goods, at least two dozen of each, but she was boiling potatoes.

They – his mother, father, and Uncle Bob – filled plates with squares from the glass dishes and ate. They talked about Grampa Kelley, about the time he whooped Gary, Saul’s father, because he accidentally shot the shed; about the time he bailed Bob out after Bob and Larry Temple took Troy Hill’s Charger for a joy ride; how he could explain how to do anything under a sentence.

And when Bob was full, he stood, put his hands on his stomach and said, “Well dammit all. Only thing could make that any better would be a little bit of cancer.”

He grabbed his can of Keystone, the pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his flannel shirt, and put one in his mouth.

“Why don’t you come with me, Saul,” he said as he walked outside. “There’s something in the truck I wanna show you.”

Saul followed.

It was cold and when the wind picked up, it was heavy. Bob cupped his hands, lit his cigarette and put his back against the house out of the wind. Bob handed him one and Saul lit it.

They had done this since Saul was 12. Other than sometimes when he drank, it was the only time he smoked.

“How long you sticking round for?” Bob asked.

“Haven’t decided yet. Got class and I’m supposed to work Monday.”

“Call off tonight?”

“Nah.”

“Didn’t have to work?”

“No, just didn’t figure they’d miss me.”

“Atta boy.”

Saul always hoped to hear that. There was an instant pang of pride but then an echo of guilt. He should have called. They’ll be shorthanded. There just hadn’t been enough time. He snapped his cigarette to get the ash off.

“I’m just not sure how much I should miss there and how much I should miss here,” Saul said. “You know?”

“Have you seen people cry before?”

“Yeah.”

“Ever seen your granddad before?”

“Yeah.”

“Ever seen a dead body?”

“Well yeah, but it’s Grampa. And family and everything.”

“Even though I’m an old mill hunkie who thinks all you do down there is drink beer and do algebra, I’d push ya towards heading back. Don’t wanna miss any of that important stuff.”

Saul laughed. “As far as the beer drinking, I’m not going to catch up to you, so I’m not worried about that. And, I keep up the rest.”

“Yeah. Least you understand your limitations,” Bob said. He drank from his can, his eyes went up, and when he pulled it away from his mouth, his face was different. He wiped his sleeve over his lip and said, “Can I ask you something, Saul? And do me a favor and don’t act the wrong way bout this.” Bob held his cigarette out and tapped on it. He watched the ash fall, looked at Saul and said, “But, you think you’re special don’t ya?”

Saul opened his mouth but there wasn’t anything there. Nothing that could come out. Because it was something he’d always known Bob was thinking, he wanted to say, Why? Because I’ve held down a job longer than my 45-year-old uncle? Because I can read above an eighth grade level?

But this is how Bob baited. Saul knew because it was working.

Bob pulled on his cigarette. He looked at Saul. He was waiting. Saul crossed his arms, shook his head, and said, “No. Of course not.”

“No, no. I see the way you act round people. More going on in your head than you say. Between your fancy school and all them tests that say you’re smarter than everybody – your mom tells me all about it — you think you got something in you that nobody else got. Is that right?”

It was true. They were all things Saul thought but never said. Why work so hard otherwise?

But he didn’t say anything, just sucked on his cigarette. Because even though by then he had a list ready for Bob, any of it would just push him. Wouldn’t make anything better.

“I know I’m sounding like an asshole right now, and that’s not exactly what I’m going for. Want you to know that. You got a lot, and you’re smarter than me or your dad or your granddad. That much is certain. And we’re all real proud of you.” He forced a smile for Saul. “But what you don’t know is that we all got a handicap.” He drew a breath slowly through his cigarette, pulled it from his mouth, and let the smoke creep out just as slow. “Born in ya; a defect in your bloodline, tangled up deep in. Just to make sure you know you ain’t better than nobody.”

Saul’s eyebrows were bent. He chewed on the inside of his mouth.

He hoped Bob would be done soon.

“You’re not gonna understand this at first. I still don’t know what it means. But we got some dark history in us.”

“What’s that?”

“Your great-granddad killed a man.”

Saul pulled his arms tighter around himself. “What? What’s that mean?”

“Means he ended a man’s life. Least one. I’ve heard tell of different tales but they all come down to him killing. My granddad, your great-granddad.”

The wind had found its way in through Saul’s coat and into him.

“Did he go to jail?” It was so hard not to believe at first.

“What kind of first question is that? No. I don’t think so. He wasn’t a convict. I guess things were different then.”

“How’d he do it?” And the questions just kept coming.

“That makes more sense. With bare hands. Even the stories I heard that said he killed two, three, 15 men.” He looked at Saul. “First time I heard it was from my uncle. He was drunk, too. Guess this is the tradition.” He laughed. “I used to hang out with the older ones cause they’d sneak me sips. But, they all told me he did it with his hands. All of them.”

“Did he strangle them? Punch them? Stab them?”

“I dunno, and they’re all dead now. They just talked about his hands. Why he do it? I dunno.” Bob dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. “I figure you probably feel like I did, like you can’t believe a story like this coming from an old drunk. But there’s gotta be least a bit of truth in us, ain’t there?”

There always was a little bit of truth. But the rest wasn’t.

That’s why Bob had a reputation. People knew him as a bullshitter. When he was a kid, after anything Bob would tell him, Saul’s mother would sit him down and sift the Bob from the truth. He was thrown out of school, but he was never stabbed. He was in a wreck and a coma, but he’s never been farther than Ohio. He had been married, but she’s not in jail.

That’s why you listened, though, because they were the truth with better stuff added in; they were all more interesting than anything you’d ever done. But that’s all that came out. All stories. All lies. And they all smelled like stale beer and tar. It’s how he got attention. He wanted Saul to listen to him. He wanted Saul to be his friend.

That’s fine, he thought, but Bob’s dad just died. Couldn’t he, just one time, say something real. Something that actually happened. Something about Grampa. Something that’s probably lost now that Grampa’s gone.

“See, now you don’t believe me.” Bob coughed and tried to drink, but it was empty and he threw it beside the house.

“It’s not that, I just would’ve figured I would have heard something like that before.”

“Well, it’s not the type a story a family likes to bring up. By now it’s more like a folk tale. It’s like he was John Henry.”

“Doesn’t sound like a folk tale. John Henry didn’t kill anyone.”

“You don’t know that. You don’t know the story,” Bob said. He stomped on the can.

“Do you?”

“You know what? I may never know. Think the only one that did was my dad, and it’s safe to say he ain’t gonna be helping us.” He was looking at his feet. He looked up, and stretched his mouth toward a smile as his lungs filled. “But, I been thinking, you’re going to school to write, right? You wanna go work at a newspaper, chase down all kinds of facts and solve the case, maybe write another War and Peace or whatever. Tell me a better story than this. Tell me one that will mean more to you.”

“I can’t do that, Bob. I don’t have time. I gotta be in class on Monday.”

Bob laughed. His smile was falling. Its trestles and trusses were rusting through. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying. You got Christmas break. Big, long summer break. You know, somewhere along the way, check it out. You’re young. Can’t tell me you don’t got time.”

Because he hadn’t said, yeah Bob, I buy all the bullshit, let’s go figure this out, let’s be friends, it had stopped being about any story. Saul didn’t hunt anymore. He didn’t drive a truck. Couldn’t change his own oil. Writing was as good as sewing to Bob. As far as Bob was concerned Saul wanted to do macramé professionally. He’s saying, you’re not here to chop the family’s winter wood; you weren’t there when everyone helped reshingle my house. Why don’t you do one goddamn thing to help your own family for a change?

He was daring Saul. To prove he was a Kelley. To earn it.

Saul could say he was cold and go back in; he could do it at any time, but he didn’t.

“Where would I start? Who am I gonna call first, Bob? What do I say, ‘hey, has my great-granddad murdered you or anyone you know? My uncle wants to know because he’s trying to figure out who he is.’”

“Hey man, you don’t got to do nothing.” Bob was leaning toward him. His hand was out and chopping air. “You don’t got to do a goddamn thing. But you’re even further than me away from figuring things out and I thought maybe this could help you. I’m sorry. But think about this. You don’t think this is in you? What my grampa did. You don’t think it was in Dad and your dad and got passed down to you? Maybe you don’t got a goddamn idea who the fuck you are.”

— We are an Old Town

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