Friday, November 11, 2016

Prettiest Girl in School

I wanted to share a short story I wrote recently.

He was hunched on the ground by the gravestone when I walked up.
He raised his head, and the sorrow on his face punched me in the stomach.
Grandpa straightened his shoulders. “Your mom must’ve sent you.”
I hesitated, then sat on the ground near him. “She had to go to work. She … she said you’d probably be here.”
Next to the gravestone Grandpa sat by sat a clay jar, permanently attached for receiving flowers. Inside he’d stuffed two dozen red roses.
“It’s our fiftieth anniversary. Your mom tell you that?”
“Yeah.” I’d caught that, somewhere between arguing with Jason on the phone and trying to convince Mom to send somebody else.
Grandpa brushed a leaf off the gravestone. “We got married the day after we graduated from high school. When she was twenty-three, she died giving birth to our third baby.” He looked directly at me. “That baby was your mom. She never knew the woman who carried her in her body for nine months. Who prayed for her every day until she was born.”
I lowered my gaze and picked a blade of grass.
“Lizzie, look at me.”
I raised my head.
Grandpa smiled, even as tears came to his eyes. “You ever take a good look at that wedding picture of us your mom’s got on her piano?”
“Sure … I … sure, I’ve looked at it.”
“You look just like her. Whenever I look at you, I see her just like I remember her.” He swallowed. “How old are you now?”
“Mmm hmmm.” He leaned back and braced  himself with his hands on the ground. “You gonna marry that boy? Jason?”
“Maybe.” I flicked my eyes away from his. “I don’t know. We were just arguing. He just graduated, but I’ve still got a year of school.” I pulled a blade of grass and ripped it in two. “He wants to take a job in Arizona. That’s a long way from here.”
Grandpa leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. “Twenty-three. With three little ones.” He shook his head. “I was a busy papa. Family helped a lot, but it was tough. I had to work, and feed them. Help them with homework, take care of them when they were sick.”
He raised his shoulders. “Then Lucy wanted to take piano lessons, and the boys got into basketball. Back and forth to lessons and practice, games and recitals. Teachers’ meetings and …” He grinned. “And meetings with the principal.”
The phone in my pocket buzzed. Probably Jason. I clenched my jaw.
“She was the best looking girl in high school.” Grandpa took in a long breath. “That’s how I remember her. And the classy young lady chasing around after two little boys.”
He smiled, then reached over and tugged my shoelace. “Is that young man good to you?”
“He …” I cleared my throat. “Yes. He’s good to me.”
“Do you love him?”
The phone vibrated again.
I shifted my position, drew up my knees, and wrapped my arms around my legs.
“I love him, Grandpa, but … but I’ve never lived anywhere else. I even picked the college right here in town. Maybe that makes me a wimp, I don’t know. I’m scared to move so far.”
“Does he love you?”
“Oh …” Jason’s face appeared in my mind, and my face ached from the tears that wanted to come. “Yes.”
Grandpa turned his head to gaze into the woods. “I always missed her, you know? When Ronnie broke both his ankles. When Brad graduated from medical school. When your mom and dad got married. When our first grandchild was born …” He choked.
I scooted closer and touched his shoulder.
Grandpa rubbed his face. “The doctor says I need to retire. Take better care of my heart.” He patted my knee. “I’m only sixty-eight. Doc says the surgery went well. I could live a lot of years yet.” He turned to face me, his eyes dark with fear. “I’ve always missed her, but never like … What am I going to do now?”
A spasm jerked his whole body.
I laid my hand on his back. Dear God, help us
His voice rasped. “After the kids were out of the house, I kept busy with work, with the church. But now … retired … Who’s going to sit on the porch with me? Who’ll have coffee with me and read the paper? Go on road trips to visit the boys. Help me do volunteer work.”
He covered his face with his hands. “She’s been gone forty-five years. Of course, I don’t grieve anymore like I used to. But … oh Lizzy, I’m so scared.”
We sat together, quiet—I don’t know how long. A woodpecker chattered somewhere close by. A butterfly flitted in front of us.
Grandpa lifted his head and looked at me. “Arizona, huh?”
I nodded.
“That sure is a long way from home.” He straightened up. “But just think about all the modern technology. Email, Skype, quick trips coming from either direction on a plane.” He managed a soft laugh. “And, of course, cell phones. Like the one that keeps rattling your pocket.”
My mouth opened, then closed. I smiled and squeezed his hand.
He reached to the flower vase and pulled out a rose, laying it on top of the stone. “Come on.” He stood up. “Let’s get out of here. We don’t need to linger here any longer.”
I looked up at him.
Grandpa grinned. “Besides, you’ve got a phone call to make.” He held out his hand for mine.
I took his hand, but before standing, I leaned and read the engraving on the stone. “Elizabeth Manning, beloved wife and mother, prettiest girl in school.”

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