After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states before moving south to the Charlotte NC area. His fiction and poems have appeared in The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories, Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Five2One, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine, Poydras Review, Anthology: River Tales by Zimbell House Publishing, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Midway Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Temptation Press Anthology - Private Lessons with another story forthcoming in Poydras Review.
Willard lay sprawled over the back porch steps, head cocked at an unnatural angle against the bottom stair. Glazed, milky eyes aimed at the railing and his boots were propped on the top stair. There was little doubt he was dead.
The afternoon brought a high ceiling of blue, spotted with clusters of nimbostratus clouds sailing lazily on a warm breeze. It was a drastic difference from the morning which had been a winter coffin of gloom. The freezing mist that had lightly coated everything from the ground to the trees turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.
Willard kissed Ellen on her cheek, as was his habit, and set out on his two-block jaunt to town where he owned the only hardware store in town. Brad Bentley, a foreman at The Tool Works, spoke to him on his way back home that morning. Willard didn’t mention his reason for returning.
The back porch was wooden and often slick when it was cold and damp and it wasn’t like him to have forgotten to salt it on such an unpleasant morning. Ellen might have to go out. The salt was kept in a wood box by the back door. As it turned out, he needn’t have bothered to take the trek back home. In addition to the weather quickly getting warm Ellen had parked the car in the driveway the night before after shopping because she had dawdled at the store. Anyone who knew Willard, and everyone in town did, knew his distaste for dawdling, so it was especially ironic that she did so on the day before his death.
Ellen didn’t cry. Johnny, their son, didn’t cry. They hovered over him like a pair of guard dogs glancing about as if waiting for commands.
Ten years old, blond and lanky, Johnny had been taught to keep his emotions buried. “Crying is a way for women to release their pent-up emotions. Of course, after years of my direction and training, your mother has overcome the urge to cry. We Randolph’s don’t succumb to our emotions. Such surrender is a weakness.”
Ellen called George first. Willard would have called the police. That fact she called her father- in-law would have disappointed Willard.
“George? It’s Ellen.” Her tone was calm and steady, giving no clue about the tragedy.
But the fact he was receiving a call was a hint, because his standing invitation to dinner was every two months and he’d just eaten with them two weeks before. That invitation was the only time he was ever contacted and it always came one week in advance of the dinner date.
“There has been an accident.”
“Johnny?” he blurted fearfully. Visions of his grandson being hit by an auto on the way to school immediately flashed past. He would never have thought of Willard, who was far too calculating and plodding to ever be involved in an accident.
Silence lingered until she stated, “No.”
He expected to be corrected. He always called him Johnny.
“Father, I named my son John. It’s a good, wholesome name, one of which he can always be proud. Johnny connotes a rakish individual so I will not stand for it. You may not call him that.”
“Willard. And he looks dead.”
Cramps grabbed his stomach and his head spun.
“I haven’t touched him and don’t claim to be an expert but he looks exactly like Wilhelmina did in the funeral home.”
Tears brimmed when he shoved his cell back into his pocket. They weren’t for Willard the man, but for Willard the boy, the baby he carried in his arms, the toddler with whom he walked hand in hand across fields behind their house to the swing set in the park where he swung him high into the air. Images of Willard as a boy merged with visions of Johnny. As vehemently as he disagreed with Willard on almost every aspect of life, no young boy should be fatherless.
When the call came, he was walking across the baseball field in the park behind Willard’s house on his way to town accompanied by a group of six boys on their way to school. Their march halted at the ring of the phone and gathered around George in a protective circle.
Winter Reeves, the ringleader was closest to him and was able to overhear the conversation. “Sorry to hear about your son, Mr. Randolph.”
The rest nodded mechanically, glancing numbly at each other, unsure of how to act.
Winter blurted nervously, “Was he as good a ballplayer as you were?” Baseball was his bond with the boys.
Another boy cried, “My father says you were as fast as Ryan. Doubt your son was that good.”
He shook his head. “He never developed an appetite for the game.” In truth, baseball was a major wedge in their relationship. His wife hated the game and did all she could to cultivate the same loathing in their son.
Parting with the boys, he turned toward Willard’s house and saw Ellen and Johnny hovering over Willard. They took turns squatting and standing up to peer expectantly across the field at him. Even from a distance Willard’s figure was obviously dead.
Upon his approach, they stepped back and lined up stiffly against the wall – arms folded, exchanging glances as if trying to figure out who would speak first.
Half open eyelids revealed chalky egg white eyeballs over cheeks pooled with blood. He had already stiffened like a board, his size fifteen work boots – heel to heel – angled in a large V. His hands were ivory white.
Johnny stared at those monstrous feet. Either he was shocked at the size or was waiting for them to flop over.
He had Ellen’s features - soft blue eyes and fair skin under closely cropped sandy hair. He possessed a full mouth that rarely smiled.
His glance at his grandfather was quick and self-conscious before he dropped it back to the gigantic feet. George wasn’t one with whom he was allowed to speak, or laugh. He was simply a figurehead to observe across the dining room table because Willard felt it important the boy have a grandfather. He had revered his grandfather on his mother’s side, but George was Johnny’s only surviving grandfather and as far as Willard was concerned, nowhere near the type of person his grandfather was; so George was turned into a fictional figurehead. His true personality was masked. Willard created a character who was a religious leader, a leading member of the community. George played along so he could attend the family dinners, which was the only contact he had with his grandson.
He found it curious and comical that this upstanding character would choose to be mute around his family and if he was so honorable why wouldn’t Willard ask him questions to impart his wisdom to Johnny? Somehow he figured Johnny was sharper than given credit for and might have figured out the ruse.
George found it easier to approach the situation analytically, choosing to avoid the emotion each time he thought about it. Not only had he lost a son, albeit in name only, they had lost a husband and a father respectively. Yet all three of them ignored the emotion of the moment. Had they all decided to approach it the same way?
“When did you call the police?”
Ellen blinked slowly. “You were called at 7:27. We spoke for a minute. It was 7:30 when I reached them. Certainly no later than 7:31.” She reached up and patted the thick bun of blonde hair balancing sturdily atop her head. She never wore it any other way. Pale lips, straight, firm and full – she never wore makeup of any kind – and her cheeks were wide and high, as though a smile might be the most natural expression. Though, like Johnny, she rarely did.
“It’s almost eight. What’s taking them?”
She shrugged, her round shoulders rising and dropping like a marionette’s. “I told them there was no hurry. After all, he is dead.”
Johnny nodded stiffly, daring to meet George’s gaze again, a rarity when Willard was alive. “He won’t catch my personality by looking into my eyes,” he told Willard, but as usual his son wouldn’t hear of it. Deeply seeded was a fear that George would be able to win over Johnny – which for the most part, George doubted due to the fact he could never win over his own son. How could he hope to win over his grandson?
The bell at the school drifted across the field as a police cruiser and an ambulance pulled into the driveway. With the sun rising higher, Willard’s swollen cheeks reflected a deep purple, forming a gruesome mask.
Officer Wooley trotted up the back sidewalk and knelt on the step by his head. A light placement of his fingers on the neck brought an empathetic clicking of his tongue and a slow shake of the head. With an awkward grimace he announced, “I’m sorry, he’s dead.” Then, as though it was news, “For quite awhile.”
“We assumed,” Ellen said.
“What do you think he was doing back here?” he asked, having produced a notebook from his pocket, poised to write – eyes scanning the length of the porch.
“His normal exit for work,” she shrugged, throwing a quick glance at Johnny.
“He was seen in town this morning. Did he call you to let you know he was coming back home?”
He scaled the stairs and stooped at those feet then stared down at his face between them. “Strange position.”
George glanced at her empty expression, a numb as a trout glare.
Shrugging, the officer rolled his eyes and called for the ambulance crew to retrieve the gurney. Both attendants were large men, but they struggled to lift him off the steps.
“Big man,” one huffed sheepishly.
“Always was,” George agreed.
“George. John,” Ellen barked, after watching Willard being loaded into the ambulance and hauled away. “Bring the groceries inside please.”
His surprise was obvious. “You were shopping this morning already?”
“No George. I was late last night from the store and couldn’t get them inside and put away before Willard got home. I had to get supper ready for Willard, who must eat as soon as he gets home. I figured no harm would come to them sitting out all night in this cold. No different than a refrigerator.”
Johnny leaped off the porch over all the steps, barely touching the sidewalk as he bounded toward the car. His quickness and agility was surprising considering his father’s general slothfulness. By the time George reached the car he’d already carried two bags inside and was back for more. His grandfather’s presence seemed to be uplifting, though his expression remained stone-like as he continued avoiding eye contact most of the time. Maybe it was an effort to impress him, though knowing how his father felt - George doubted it and tried not to be overly optimistic.
Each kitchen cupboard door was open, not just one or two, but each and every one hanging like panting dog’s tongues hungry for food. They stacked the bags on the table for Ellen to empty and distribute with machine-like precision as she bounced lithely from table to cupboard. Each item had an exact location and she knew it without hesitation.
Johnny took one plate and a set of silverware to the dining room table. Three places were already set as they were each night, without fail, immediately after the dinner dishes were cleared, so the task was out of the way for the next night. Quickly he gathered Willard’s place setting, stacking them to the side and placed George’s setting at Willard’s chair.
George watched him curiously, confused about the placement of his setting, even more confused at the lack of sadness in the house. Ready to admit his lack of feeling for Willard, he had always thought Ellen and Johnny revered him.
Johnny brought Willard’s dishes and silverware back to the kitchen where Ellen scooped them up and put them into the general stack of dishes in the cupboard.
Ellen walked over and stared up at him with no expression. “Yes George, I know it’s only been two weeks, but I think you’ll agree that these are extenuating circumstances.”
He nodded. “Why don’t you give me the key to the store? I’ll go over and handle the business the rest the day, at least.” He had worked it in the off season before Willard was born, when Wilhelmina tolerated his ball playing because he wasn’t yet a father – expecting it to end as soon as fatherhood arrived.
She marched to the door on the right side of the sink and pulled out the key attached to a square block of wood. “Could never lose this key,” she commented with a sigh - another of Willard’s ideas. “Thank you. Johnny and I do have to get to Finch’s to set up funeral arrangements.”
“You okay?” He figured she had to be experiencing shock. She had referred to her son as Johnny. He felt he was moving in slow motion. It had to be shock. Maybe they were all experiencing shock.
Whenever he ate dinner with the family George witnessed the same routine. Willard filling his chair at the head of the table after struggling to squeeze into it. Johnny quietly approaching, standing behind him and gripping the back of the chair tightly, enough to whiten his knuckles, while bowing his head. His lips silently mouthed a prayer while Ellen stood in the kitchen doorway waiting her turn then replaced him and repeated the act. Willard sat with his eyes closed, a smirk on his thick lips, basking in the reverence.
Johnny slid Ellen’s chair out from the table so she could sit before taking his own. George sat in Willard’s chair and waited for the food to be passed. Willard’s always recited grace, which he’d heard enough to recite, but figured they were too shocked to do it themselves, and figured it would be sanctimonious because he wasn’t religious.
Willard’s ritual, after the food was distributed, was to announce the day’s total receipts from the hardware store. At seven o’clock sharp, Ellen checked her watch. Dinner was his stage, his chance to drum his philosophy into his captive audience. George closed his eyes, recalling the booming voice. “Four hundred twenty seven dollars, thirty four cents. Our fifty third best day ever.” Then, waving his fork as if a conductor’s wand, he would bark, “Boy, your future is intact.” Shrugging his massive shoulders, he then clarified, “Not handed to you, mind you. At least, not if I can help it, but certainly to be nurtured, mined like gold, if you will. The store is bigger than when I inherited it from your grandmother and when you inherit it from me you will make sure it grows even more.” Then, as if part of the script, Ellen would give an approving nod as soon as Johnny glanced at her. The scraping of utensils against plates was the only sound after Willard’s pontification.
That night at the table George stated the obvious, “Terrible tragedy,” grabbing a bowl of green beans from Johnny. “But keeping up with tradition, the receipts today, albeit a short day, was $512.54. I don’t know where that ranks.” He glanced from Ellen to Johnny. Ellen’s hair rested on her shoulders. It shined brilliantly. He caught himself staring and quickly dropped his gaze when she caught him. He’d never seen it down. “We were deluged by town folks paying their respects. And while they were in the store, many just picked up some odds and ends.” Sitting in for his son felt more natural than he thought it would. From the looks on Ellen and Johnny’s faces, it seemed to settle them. Maybe it was the right thing to do.
“Terrible things happen.” She cut her roast beef. Her locks swung gently across her face. “Without terrible there’d be no good. Willard believed in the hereafter and right at this moment he is standing patiently in line awaiting entry into the kingdom.” Her tone was noncommittal – just passing along the message – not particularly agreeing with it – which was a new slant.
Johnny glanced at George as if waiting to see if he agreed with Willard.
“His mother wouldn’t have been able to handle this,” George commented.
“Willard believed death is but another step in our existence. Missing the deceased is part of life on this earth,” she recited in monotone, as if reading cue cards.
Johnny nodded as if he had taken her place as the family’s verifier. Maybe that meant George was to step in and take his place as the pupil. And the circle continued. Ellen went on. “At Wilhelmina’s funeral Willard told me she was sure to be the first in line for entry into the great hereafter, at least if cleanliness and goodness were used to determine priority. And her entry was to pave the way for his arrival as his is to pave the way for Johnny’s and mine of course.” She paused to chew a piece of meat. Minutes passed as she chewed and chewed. Proper digestion of food was important to Willard and he made sure they all chewed their food a minimum of fifteen times before swallowing. “The family is forever rejoined. Johnny, when your time comes there will be relatives there to greet you with love, warmth and celebration. Your father once explained to me that each family owns its own subdivision.”
George choked. “Couple of cars per family, huh?”
“Of course not! According to Willard, we will have wings, George. Angels.” A small curl of her lip followed.
He bit his tongue and kept his mouth shut after a “Jesus!” slipped out, but caught her smirk. He just shook his head. The fact Willard felt his mother was an example of goodness was humorous. “Broken wings.”
“George!” she sighed, glancing at Johnny but he wasn’t sure her expression meant this is what your father meant – you have a heathen grandfather – or she was agreeing that Willard beliefs were ludicrous. Willard was a fundamentalist in all manners of life – simple, straightforward paths from start to finish with little or no time to step to the side and enjoy. Work and faith – success in those categories mean the wings for the extended family will be awarded. Any veering from those two virtues was a waste and would derail the person – as it had George, according to Wilhelmina and Willard.
Ellen was an orphan. Willard began dating her after she came to work at the store. It was her first and only job – short lived as it turned out to be. They were the same age, though Ellen appeared much younger. When he brought her home she mumbled “How do you do?” to the family, then spent the remainder of the evening rail-straight, hands folded in her lap, uttering nothing, not even emitting a sigh. Once again, George was invited as a ruse. He hadn’t lived at the house for years, but Wilhelmina insisted he attend because a broken marriage may scare Ellen off.
At first, George liked her because it was a replica of his routine whenever he was with them. But, as the night progressed, and Willard and Wilhelmina droned on about their mundane interests, giving no one a chance to interrupt, he noticed that she hung hungrily on each of their words, nodding and smiling stiffly between glances at him. He soon excused himself, as was his habit. There was only so much he could take.
After helping to clean the table the third night, she turned to George and said, “You are free to go home, George, but I’d like you to work the store for me again tomorrow. Funeral will be at Grace Church of course. Reverend Fine will do the service. Flowers will be ordered tomorrow and Willard already has a casket. A birthday present to himself two years after Wilhelmina died.”
“Why do suppose he wanted a casket?”
“To be buried in, of course.” She purred with an amused tone.
“But he was so young.”
She smirked, a thin line caressing her lip. “Turned out to be a prudent decision, if you ask me.”
Shrugging and nodding while studying her expression which seemed to focus past the present, aiming on upcoming events.
His voice brought her back to the present, reeling her in from that place, wherever that place was. “Yes George.”
“I’m confused and, I must admit, a bit surprised.”
“At what George?”
“My inclusion in all of this. I somehow doubt Willard would approve.”
She smirked again, a slight curl of her upper lip and a brief lift of her eyebrow, and said, “Don’t you worry, George. We all must adjust to tragedy when it occurs. I know exactly what I’m doing. You’ll see.”
Willard ran away from the only baseball game he ever attended. He was almost four. It was his only game because Wilhelmina thought it incorrigible for a married man to play a boy’s sport and refused to let Willard accompany him.
On the way out of the hospital, baby Willard, named in honor of her father, wrapped in a blue blanket in her lap, she looked up from her wheelchair with a wide smile. “I’m assuming you let the team know you’re playing days are over.” This was a statement, not a question.
“There is the issue of a contract.”
“And I told you not to sign that contract. Her cheeks became flushed and her nostrils flared, each huff growing louder. “I will not be able to handle the store alone now that Willard is with us. And as I’ve continually preached I will not have my son raised by a scoundrel on the ball field.”
She felt baseball was a front to a life of ill repute – constantly quoting newspaper articles that appeared in the local newspaper about the wild, rambunctious ball players who spent more time carousing in bars with sordid women than playing ball.
The only reason Willard was allowed to attend was because one of Wilhelmina’s best friends became sick and she felt obligated to visit. She refused to subject the boy to the germs that obviously lingered at the friend’s house.
“I’m not at all pleased with this,” she growled. “If you were a normal upstanding father, you would stay home and watch your son, but I know you won’t because you’re not that type of father. And believe me, I have called everyone I trust in town to watch my son, and none are available, so you are my only alternative. I have checked and the Rosenfeld Orphanage will be behind the dugout, so at least Willard will be surrounded by children.”
Mute on the drive to the park, Willard fidgeted, gazing about anxiously for his mother. Sitting him down on the bench in the dugout, baseball hat perched awkwardly on his blonde head, cotton candy in his hands, George entrusted him to the batboy and went off to warm up.
George pitched a career gem, his one and only perfect game for the Ferris Tigers, the local Class A minor league team. It was his fourth year playing pro ball and even before the game rumors were flying – the organization was planning to call him up to Class AA in Reading. The press coverage was heavier than usual because of the rumor. His adrenaline level was drug-like helping his ball soar across the plate as if it had wings.
As the hitless innings progressed, his focus grew stronger and after each inning he sat alone at the end of the bench, away from everyone while his teammates kept up the tradition of staying quiet and ignoring him. Unbeknownst to anyone, Willard snuck off after the 5th inning.
“So George,” began a reporter after the game, “how do you think the parent club is going to react to this? Looks like Reading will be the next step.” George had taken the ball from his catcher and was writing the day’s date on it.
The word parent popped the euphoric bubble and he glanced past the flashing bulbs into an empty dugout. The stands above the dugout were clearing out. Mid-question he sprinted to the nearest exit, flipping the ball into the stands as he exited the tunnel and crossed the street into the adjacent neighborhood where he searched frantically.
Desperately walking each block back and forth, and asking each person he met, “Have you seen a little blonde boy in a baseball cap?”
He finally slumped onto the curb in front of the ballpark. Visions of every heinous possibility surged. The crowd was gone. Willard was gone. He was alone.
Then, suddenly, inching slowly around the corner was Wilhelmina’s red vehicle – shining, large white letters across the side spelling “Willard’s Hardware.” Leaping to his feet he caught a glimpse of the top of Willard’s head over the dash in the passenger seat and he began running toward them. Filled with relief, clapping and hopping on his approach he failed to spot Wilhelmina’s rage – her face as red as her car. She slowed to allow him to open the passenger side door.
“Wow! You don’t know how scared I was,” he cried.
And she stomped on the gas before he could climb inside. Panicked, he held on to keep from falling under the screeching tires and felt the shooting pain in his pitching shoulder as it popped out of its socket and ripped every tendon by the time she slowed down enough to send him smashing into the door.
All bones around his shoulder, the humeral head, the clavicle, the acrominion, and even the scapula were shattered and each ligament was ripped or twisted beyond repair – leaving his golden arm useless to ever pitch again.
Alimony in the divorce was a room in the back of the store.
He accepted a coaching job for the team. After the ballgames he lived the scoundrel’s life that was the fodder of newspaper articles.
She and Willard ignored George the best they could. Growing large at an early age he began helping his mother run the hardware store by the time he was seven.
Wilhelmina dropped dead of a heart attack while lifting a box. She rarely asked for help in the store. Willard had been busy waiting on a customer. After entering the stock room and discovering her on the floor pinned beneath the box, he easily lifted it off her, and carried her like a bag of sand over his shoulder down Main Street to the coroner’s.
George discovered Johnny playing ball with Winter Reeves and his friends soon after Willard’s funeral but didn’t dare let on for fear of frightening him away. Confused by his appearance, he couldn’t help but wonder if it was some rebellious reaction to his father’s death, but was shocked to learn from Winter that not only had Johnny been playing before Willard’s death, but Ellen often watched him from the back porch when Willard had been at work.
“John, you better get going,” she sighed as she watched him get ready for school. Each step, sticking his sandwich in the brown bag, his books into his school bag, was calculated, but done with the swiftness and fine tuning of an athlete. “You can use the front door, because those back steps will be treacherous for sure.”
“Won’t Dad be mad? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“No, way too icy back there, I’m sure. And don’t you worry about your father.”
“But what will Dad say if he finds out?”
She paused taking a deep breath. “It will be our secret.”
John dropped his school bag at the sound of an odd scratching at the back door. “What is that?”
The raucous scraping was persistent as if someone or something was trying to get through the door and Ellen’s eyes met her son’s with a glint of terror. “
“Leave it be,” he warned as she walked toward the back door.
She had always wanted a window placed in the back door, which she figured should be easy since her husband did own the hardware store, but Willard refused on the basis of privacy. “One window in the kitchen is enough.” That one window was above the sink and didn’t look over the back porch.
And that was what was going through her mind as she opened the door with a scream. It was a high-pitched, siren-like scream she felt sure would do the trick and scare whatever scoundrel was lurking on the other side of her door.
The commotion that followed was noisy but ponderous, as an unwary Willard, startled by the piercing screech, tripped on the shovel, which he was carrying to retrieve salt from the salt box, after failing to scrape the ice off the porch with just the shovel. His gigantic work boots, slipping on the sheer ice, rose high in the air, whisking just inches from Ellen’s startled face, as his head went down, arms waving like wings as he cascaded clumsily over the edge of the porch and crashed with a sickening thud followed by a sharp crack as his neck snapped on the bottom stair, killing him instantly.
Stunned, grasping fruitlessly at the cold morning air, his awkward flight replaying over and over until Johnny, who witnessed the tragedy from behind her, slipped by her, grabbed the shovel and propped it against the wall. He inched carefully over the ice to the edge of the porch and paused a moment to stare silently down at his father before ushering Ellen back inside. He dialed George’s number and handed the phone to her.
Opportunity presents itself at odd times and horizons sometimes open where they never existed. It had when Ellen was offered a job at the hardware store. It had when she was invited to eat dinner with Willard’s parents. It had when Willard proposed to her, allowing her to give birth to Johnny. Johnny was what she always called him to herself – never out loud in front of Willard. And sometimes opportunities are created.
George received the call from Winter Reeves. It was a sunny, warm day in May.
“Like you to come to the field today.”
“We’re here now.”
A crowd of boys were huddled around the pitcher’s mound; their backs to George as he approached. The boys stopped talking on cue and turned to him, the group opening into a half-circle, revealing Ellen and Johnny standing directly on the mound. All of them flashed devious smiles.
Ellen reached over and picked a ball out of Johnny’s mitt and with a quick flick of her wrist, flipped it to George. He snared it out of the air and held it up. It was the very ball he had been writing on the day of his perfect game that he flipped into the stands on his way to look for Willard. A small blonde girl from the orphanage snagged it in mid-air.
“Do ya think you might sign that for your grandson,” Ellen asked as she wrapped her arm around Johnny’s shoulders.
A half dozen boys thrust their pens toward him and he signed it slowly and handed it back to Johnny, who held it out for all of them to see.