FLASH FICTION CONTEST
by J.S. Kierland
When my mom yelled, “Get over to Grandma’s house!” it meant two things. Take the bus to the Heights, and “don’t tell anyone where you’re going.” On these special trips my grandmother would wait at the front window on the second floor until she saw me get off the bus. Then she’d duck back in and cut me a big chunk of apple pie. I’d run the half block, taking the stairs two at a time, listening for the low murmur of men’s voices in the hall. Then I’d slow down so they wouldn’t notice how anxious I was to get my piece of pie.
The men were always there. The smokers stood in the hall while the rest lined the walls of the apartment, patting my head as I went by. Their gentle brogues greeted me with, “Good to see you, laddy,” or “Lookin’ grand, boyo.” The smell of tobacco and whiskey clung to their clothes like Dublin perfume. Some of them had fingers and arms missing, one was blind, another had no leg, but each one always had a warm greeting for a little boy looking for his piece of pie.
My grandmother would be waiting at the end of the line to lead me past the large wooden crates stacked in the living room. Four feet long, two feet wide, with DANGER, HANDLE WITH CARE and EXTREME CAUTION stamped all over them in bright red ink. Some were wrapped in blankets like children asleep in the corners. An acrid, oily smell seemed to be in the room when they were there, and Granny would rush me by them with a gentle push against the back of my shoulders.
Into the kitchen we’d go where that big piece of pie would be sitting on the table next to the sweating bowl of cold whipped cream. She’d pour the tea and look me straight in the eye. “You know what to do, Jack … where to go … who to see,” she’d say in her lilting brogue. I’d just nod with my mouth full of the warm pie and whipped cream. “It’s the same as last time and the time before that. See only Himself. If he’s not there, you’re to come straight back here.”
“Is it for the six counties again, mum?”
“That it is, boy. Don’t dawdle … and go out through the backyard like last time.” Then she’d stop talking, wait for me to swallow, and say, “You’re to tell him—”
“The crates are in.”
“You’re a smart one, Jack,” she’d say, pinching my cheek. Then she’d slip an envelope out of her apron, with funny looking stamps on it, and shove it into my hand. “And if he’s there, give him this and wait for an answer. If he’s not … bring it straight back here.”
I never did have to go back to Grandma’s house because he was always there in that dark apartment over in Eastchester. He was a giant of a man with a crutch under his arm and a missing foot. A man that never said, please or thank you or much of anything else.
“The crates are in, sir, and I’m to wait for an answer,” I’d say, handing him the letter.
He’d nod at me, shove some loose change into my pocket, and point to a little blue bowl of hard candy on the table. “Take a sucker, son. I won’t be long,” he’d say, and leave me alone in the gloom.
I’d take one of the striped peppermints from the bowl and sit on the bulky couch with its stained green slipcover. It was a dreary place with its worn out linoleum and mismatched furniture. A chipped green vase, with a drooping sprig of pussy willow, stood on a painted table. Under it was a neat row of left-footed shoes.
On that particular day I reached for another sucker and heard a high-pitched sound like the cry of a wounded animal. Growing louder it melted into a low litany that flowed under the door. Someone was crying in the next room. When I mustered the courage to peek in I saw the one-footed man on his knees, his whole body heaving and wrenching with sobs. His crutch leaned against a rumpled bed and the rhythm of his chanting kept repeating, “Mary, Mother of God, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
“Did I do something wrong, sir?” I whispered.
He looked up at me standing in the doorway, then grabbed for his crutch. Rising like a mountain, eyes wet with tears, swaying back and forth like a madman, he said, “My only boy is gone. They’ve killed him.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You better stay away from us from now on. Don’t get wrapped in these troubles, son.”
“We’ll suffer them alone. They’re ours … not yours.”
“Is it about the six counties, sir?” My little voice echoed in the dark room.
“It’s best you run home now,” was all he answered.
“Yes, sir,” I said, backing away and running down the old wooden steps that led out to the street. When I got back on the bus I reached into my shirt pocket for the loose change he’d put there.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood why I’d been bribed with money and whipped cream. In those apple pie days it was easy to make a little boy happy, and even easier to make a one-footed giant cry.
J.S. Kierland’s short stories have been published in Playboy, Bryant Review, Muse & Stone, Oracle, Colere, International Short Story, and Front Range, among others. A graduate of Yale Drama School, he has written two Hollywood films and rewritten several others, but managed to escape before he ever did that again. He now hides out somewhere in the Arizona mountains.