The boy was still asleep at seven. The grandfather went downstairs, buttered some toast, ate, then puttered off into the field to check on the corn. It was just past his knees now, the leaves a keen, rich green. He squatted there among the rows, poking his fingers deep into the soil, cupping some of it in his palm, taking in the pleasant corruptness of the dirt.
He came inside, started a pot of coffee, and saw the feed store calendar with a red X marking the date. It was the boy’s birthday. The grandfather stared at the X solemnly, went upstairs, got dressed, opened the boy’s bedroom door and saw him snoring facedown on the pillow, then decided to let him sleep.
But then there was the problem of a present for the boy. It was his birthday and he ought to have a present. Jim glanced around the kitchen, hoping there might be something he could give him, but there was only Deirdre’s unemptied ashtray, a stack of bills, and a catalog from Farm & Fleet. He pondered these circumstances before striding upstairs, taking a seat on the corner of the boy’s bed, studying his lumpish shape. After a moment or two, Jim gave the boy a rough shake. Quentin groaned a little, pulling the blanket over his head.
“You planning on sleeping all day?” Jim asked.
“What time is it?”
“Half past ten.”
The boy rubbed his face and put on his glasses, ballooning his eyes. “Why’d you let me sleep in?”
Jim did not respond. He itched the side of his nose and stared at the dust-covered drapes.
“Is my mom home?”
Jim shook his head.
The boy looked confused for a moment and then said, “Oh. She must have forgot.”
The boy looked away, an expression of painful embarrassment crossing his wide, gray face. “Today’s my birthday.”
Jim smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “She didn’t forget.”
“No. She’ll be back.”
Jim nodded, feeling every inch the liar.
They went about the rest of their chores, Jim doing his best to be patient, allowing the boy to drift from his work, ignoring him as he played and cooed with the chicks. He studied the boy’s happy face, though there was nothing in it that gave him any relief.
The boy searched the house for his present, going through his mother’s room, the downstairs closets, even the supply shed. In the refrigerator, he was surprised to find there was no soda, no frozen pizza, no cake.
At dinner, the grandfather piled microwave mashed potatoes onto the boy’s plate. He inspected the way his grandson ate, watching the boy shovel forkfuls of potatoes into his oblong mouth. The boy noticed him watching and asked: “You’re sure my mom’s gonna be back?”
“She’ll be back.”
“She would have left me a present if she was going to be gone all day.”
“She’ll give it to you when she gets home.”
The boy nodded slowly, unconvinced.
The grandfather saw his doubt and asked, “What kind of present were you hoping for?”
“I don’t know,” he said, chewing. “An Indian cobra.”
“An Indian cobra?”
“I told her I wanted an Indian cobra.”
“An Indian cobra? A live cobra? What are you going to do with an Indian cobra?”
“I dunno. Try to breed it.”
Jim did not respond.
The boy continued to chew loudly, alternating with giant gulps of milk. “Did she leave me a cake?”
Jim shook his head. Instinctively, he piled another helping of mashed potatoes—the boy’s favorite—onto Quentin’s half-full plate.
“Thanks,” the boy said a little sullenly.
“A cobra?” Jim asked, though it was not even a question now.
The boy nodded, looking down at his food. “It was a stupid idea.”
Jim felt a surprising pang of guilt and so heaped on another
helping of potatoes. He waited a moment and then said, “Come on.
I want to show you something.”
From a shelf in his closet, Jim retrieved a dull black metal box, placing it in the center of the linoleum kitchen table. Remembering the digits—his wife’s birthday—he tumbled the numerical keys and unlocked it. The boy stared wide-eyed as Jim lifted the hinged lid. It was a pistol, a black, glossy-handled, military police corps–issued Colt .45 M1911, its harrowing sleekness dark and visible. Jim quickly fieldstripped the weapon, then reassembled it and slid ten rounds into place.
“What are we going to do?” the boy asked, but the grandfather did not answer.
Outside the two of them took turns shooting at soda pop cans in the dusk. Jim was a fair shot though the boy held the gun too loose and squinted so much it was no surprise he couldn’t hit anything. They blew off three or four dozen rounds, their ears ringing, and when it got dark, they went back inside. As the grandfather slid the Colt back into its case, he looked up at the boy, who had a finger in his ear, and said, “Now you know.”
“Now I know what?”
“Now you’re sixteen. Now you’re a man. Now you know where it’s kept.” He gave the boy a hardy stare but Quentin did not seem to know or understand. The boy only shrugged his shoulders and went back to fussing with his ear.
When the phone rang around ten o’clock that night, the grandfather woke with a start. He strode into the kitchen, pulling the phone from its cradle in a half-daze. It was the boy’s mother, Deirdre, his oft-absent daughter; he could tell right it was her from the irregular patter of her breath.
He sighed without meaning to, and grasped the plastic phone hard in his hand. “Deirdre. Where are you?”
“I called to tell you I’m not coming back. I’m done with you. I’m through. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Deirdre.” It was not a name, not even a word, just an utterance.
“I’m not coming back. You can tell him whatever you want, but I’m not coming back. I can’t live in your fucked-up house with your fucked-up rules.”
Jim bristled at her anger more than her language. He placed his forehead against the cool of the faded wallpaper and asked, “How much do you need?”
But she only laughed and said, “No, Daddy. This is it. These are the last words you’re ever gonna hear from me.”
“You told me the same thing a year ago. And the year before that.”
“This time I fucking mean it. This is it.”
“This is it. Goodbye, Daddy.”
Then there was the sound of the line going dead.
He stood there with his forehead against the wallpaper for some time, waiting for a sound, a voice, an apology that did not, would never come. After a few moments, the phone gave off a dull, irritating buzz and Jim placed it back in its cradle.
Later he did not know why he walked straight to the field and stood there, the rows of corn spread out against his legs, brushing against his fingertips. The left corner of his lips began to twitch and then his legs gave way, and suddenly he found himself kneeling among the rows, unable to breathe. He managed to crawl a little ways and get to his feet, staggering the thirty-odd yards to the back porch steps. There he sat, holding his rigid left arm in the dark, out of breath. It was the third time something like this had happened—two months before there was another spell, then six or seven months before that. He made a little prayer then, unsure of what he was praying for or to whom. “Please,” he said. “Please. Don’t let me go. Don’t let him find me like this.” Finally his breath became regular and he was able to climb inside. He called out the boy’s given name and Quentin came trotting down the stairs, alarmed; then the boy helped his grandfather to the parlor sofa. The look of worry on the boy’s face, his childish expression, was frightening.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Sir?”
Jim nodded, unsure if he could answer. They sat side by side on the sofa for some time, the mayflies jostling the windows, his heartbeat slowing down, his breath coming hard.
Twenty minutes later, the boy broke the silence. He looked over at his grandfather, who had his hands before him, folded as if in prayer, and asked, “When is she coming back?”
The grandfather put a hand on the boy’s knee and slowly shook his head.
The boy nodded and sniffed, then hurried from the room.
A half hour later, when the grandfather fell into bed, it felt like death.
JOE MENO is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and a finalist for the Story Prize. His new novel Marvel and A Wonder and the anthology he edited, Chicago Noir: The Classics, were both released on September 1. Meno is the author of two short story collections and multiple novels, including the best sellers Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and Office Girl . He is a professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Adapted from Marvel and a Wonder, by Joe Meno, Copyright © 2015 by Joe Meno. With the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books.
Photo credit: Joe Wigdahl