By John Winn
Splashes of mud decorate the blue Prius as it navigates the curvy rural roads, its driver cursing silently in her head as she grips the steering wheel tightly. Her thin mouth becomes thinner in grim disappointment. But Margaret Hicks is not about to be dissuaded from her weekly rounds. It is the same gloomy appointment she has kept for over a decade, but she has every intention of seeing her father once more--even if she has to drag her son along for the ride.
Her eyes remain fixed as he sits beside her, clearly wishing he were somewhere else. Michael tousles his long auburn hair and glances at the fallow fields and sprinkles of forest that flicker past like a montage in an art house movie. His insolent stare suggests that he could be doodling or applying for work online than going on a trip to visit his grandfather yet again. Not that there is much to do on a Sunday afternoon away. He picks off a piece of cheese from his faded blue jeans as if they've been there the whole time--just another day, like the day before and the day after this.
The car rolls past maple-lined streets and corner shops, streetlight after streetlight festooned with garlands with large red and white bows. The Paradise Christmas Parade is only a week away. The thought conjures up childhood memories of whole families lined up around Washington Street as the procession made its way towards the center of town. Margaret could still remember the faint tastes of licorice on her tongue. But that was before unification, before the mills closed down, before Michael came into being.
At last the blue Prius pulls up to a nondescript ranch house, festooned with tattered red and white ribbons. Mother and son zip up their jackets as they walk up the front steps of 2121 Canon Street, Paul and Iris Hicks' shared home in sickness and health for more than thirty years. Only Paul lives here anymore. His eyes glimmer as he walks toward the front door.
"Hi Margie! Hi Mike!" Her father greets them.
The blast of warm air is a welcome contrast as the door shuts behind them. The blare of a big screen TV could be heard in the background as all three of them sat down at the kitchen table. The wrinkles around his eyes tighten as Paul forms a smile. He'd done his best to keep up appearances since his wife died several months ago. But the unraveling could be seen all around him. Stacks of unwashed dishes in lay piled up in the kitchen sink. Despite his two hundred pounds, the 84 year-old seems almost helpless as he leans over the kitchen table.
His daughter smiles wanly as she stares back at him. An interminable silence seems to pass between them as they search for the right words to say as Michael looks on. Shadows cast themselves on the floor in an ominous pall as they wait. Hitchcock couldn't have planned it better.
"What's been on your agenda today?" Margaret forces the words out.
"Nothing much," Paul glances at the garden he'd planted several years previous. "I washed my clothes, vacuumed, and even tinkered with the car a little bit. I think the plug isn't sparking. Guess I'll have to go to the auto store and get one sometime next week..."
Michael wonders what other things his grandfather isn't saying between the lines. He flashes back to Paul's insulin overdose a few weeks before. The loneliness and suffering has been written on his ashen face after his wife died several months ago. Paul has made statements alluding to his desire to die ever since. But as Michael and every else well knew, it has never been in their pay grade to decide.
"How's your job search going?" Paul glances at Michael.
"Same as usual," His grandson says matter-of-factly. "I keep sending out emails and resumes to every magazine and newspaper in the state. So far no editor's been willing to take me on. I'm about ready to chuck this whole thing in, quite honestly."
It is the same story Michael has told ever since he returned from California three years ago, and his grandfather's answer has never wavered. It is the same one that he gave his daughter after she announced her intention to drop out of college and marry Michael's father thirty years ago. The textile industry had been good to Paul, and Michael respected that. But getting a 'real job' isn't as easy as it was thirty years ago, and his grandfather couldn't see that either.
Michael wanders back towards the back bedroom. The room hasn't changed much in his grandmother's absence. True crime novels line the bookshelf near the wall, and a stack of unpaid bills occupy her nightstand. The stack had grown even higher since he last visited. A pile of clothes lay in the center of the bed, yet except for the mess, the room looks exactly as it did when Michael last visited a year and a half ago.
For reasons Michael can't fathom his grandfather forbade anyone from stepping inside these walls after his beloved's death. He saw it as a denial of loss; a denial of the truth; a denial of everything. Yet just when Michael is ready to leave, a strange object hovers in the corner of his eye.
The taupe colored object lies just beyond the nightstand in the corner of his eye. It appears to be an appointment book of some kind, slender with gold trim around the edges. It is definitely a woman's ledger, circa 1950's. Floral stationary is pressed in between the pages. Yet Michael could not think of any reason why his grandmother would cling to it for so long.
"That's my grandma's handwriting alright," Michael glances at the flowery g's and e's of his grandmother's flowery cursive.
The content of the letters are unremarkable. Details about beach trips, how the kids were doing--the usual small talk any parent might share. They stretch over twenty years, addressed in a sad pleading tone to an individual known only as P.W. Michael glances at the date on one of the letters--1958.
Iris was already married to his grandfather in 1958. Could this have been a friend, or a lover? More importantly, did Paul know about him?
A bellowing scream fills the hallway. Michael quickly shoves the address book and its contents into the waistband of his jeans.
"What are you doing here!" His grandfather is red faced.
"I'm not doing anything," Michael says truthfully.
"You're not stealing my Iris's stuff are you?"
"Why would I be interested in her stuff?" Michael glances at him.
A small tear wells in Paul's eye.
"Thief!" He commands. "Get out of my house!"
The coral sky looms large as the Prius takes the long journey down the road to the Hick's house in suburban Charlotte. The rush of intermittent traffic fills the silence, as both driver and passenger look on. Neither venture to say much to each other as they race home. A cloud of black anger seems to hover over them as they sit quietly in reflection.
"How many times did I tell you not to go back there?"
"I'm sorry. I guess that place means a lot to me..."
His mother smiles wanly.
"You miss your grandmother, don't you?"
Michael nods. Yet all he could think of are the contents of the ledger. He feels it press against his stomach every time the car hit a bump in the road. He feels slightly guilty about lifting it from the room, but what bothers him more are the secrets it holds. Nearly sixty years of secrets that his mom doesn't know about. As they dine together in their suburban Charlotte home, he wonders what other revelations Iris's ledger has to reveal.
"How soon will Dad be back from his business trip?" He asks.
"I spoke to him over the phone the other day," Margaret chews her spaghetti calmly. "I think the real estate convention in Phoenix wraps up Thursday."
Michael exhales deeply. He hasn't seen much of his father these days, and they often clash when he does. He knows how much his father disapproved of his decision to study journalism in California, and the fights have only escalated since returning home. Along with Paul, Michael counts his biological dad as the other obstacle in his life. He wanders what skeletons lay in his father's closet to make him so defensive.
"I'm sure he's enjoying the sun. Mind if I ask a personal question?"
"You know you can ask me anything."
"Did grandma..." Michael parses the words carefully. "Did grandma ever say anything about a P.W. when you were growing up?"
"P.W.?" His mother shakes her head. "What on Earth are you talking about?"
"I came across those initials in some of her letters. I think it's someone she knew when she was young. Did she have a relative or friend with those initials?"
"I really can't say," Margaret shrugs. "I'm afraid my memory isn't quite as good as it used to be. But I think I would've remembered if she told us."
At soon as he is done Michael runs up the stairs towards his bedroom and studies the address book and letter again. He reads the note over and over in his mind. Who could this P.W. have been? Was he a friend or former lover? What was his occupation, and how did he and Iris get to know one another? The questions are endless.
At first he wonders if the notes were intended for his grandfather. He knows that his grandfather had a short stint in the Merchant Marines between 1958 and 1960. But Paul and Iris were spoken for by that point. The anonymous recipient of the letters had to be someone else. The truth is, P.W. could be anyone--or no one at all.
If he is real, there should be a record of him in the Gaston County archives. An Internet search yields several promising candidates, but very few clues. Whoever the mystery man is, he is either dead or in a nursing home. Within an hour of investigating, Michael encounters his first dead end.
He closes his eyes and tries to imagine his grandmother as a young woman. He knows from old photos that she was a devastatingly beautiful woman, with long flowing hair and high cheekbones that any model would envy. She was also one of the smartest women in the county, which helps explain why she worked for so many years as an administrator for the public schools.
He could see the appeal. But an investigation of this magnitude would take weeks if not months. Michael glances casually at his calendar. There's a job interview the following Thursday, and as usual his mornings would be taken up applying for work online. He shoves the address book and its contents into a desk drawer and pushes the matter into the back of his mind.
With each visit he and his mother make to Paul's house each Sunday Michael feels his optimism fade gradually more and more. They zip by dilapidated schools and dilapidated school rusted cars sitting on concrete pilings, and Michael could feel the desperation lined in the faces of the residents of the Kirkwood neighborhood--Paul's home. The thought of a well-known drug den sitting just a few blocks from his grandfather's house makes him uneasy. This is the other side of Paradise that time and tourists forgot.
But as far as Paul could tell, it is Hell.
"There was a break in a few doors down," He pointed. "The burglars took the TV and about $300. Everybody's shaken up."
Margaret nodded sympathetically.
"I heard some gunshots the other night. Damn rifle was so loud I was convinced they were inside, whoever they were. The neighbors and I are trying to start a neighborhood watch. Fat lot that'll do."
The shadows return as they cast themselves throughout the living room as midday moves to late afternoon. A gloomy pall hovers over them as the daylight grows steadily darker. A clock chimes ominously in the background. Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!
Paul exhales heavily.
"The whole world's going to Hell, Margie," He says. "I don't know how longer I can go on. I feel like I'm in my last days."
"That isn't true," His daughter interjected. "There is still a lot to live for. Look at Michael."
Paul glances at his grandson.
"Your grandmother would have been so proud of you."
Rays of salmon colored hues illuminate the sky as the three venture out on the porch. There is an unmistakable mood of finality as they listen to the clinking wind chimes and screams of playful children, as if knowing they are experiencing something they never will again in their lifetimes. They embrace tearfully before parting ways, not quite certain if the three of them will ever meet like this again.
Michael struggles to resume his job search, yet with the events of the past few days on his mind he's unable to settle back in his routine. He can't get the ledger and its secrets out of his mind. On a lark he decides to cross-reference some of the names his mother compiled over the years. There are a lot of Peters and Pauls, even a Patricia or two, and the outcome is always the same when he checks them out. Busy signals, disconnected lines; melancholy relatives informing him this or that person is deceased.
Until he spies the initials P.W. written in small print in the back of the book, next to a phone number he doesn't recognize. To his surprise he reaches a gravelly voiced man in his early seventies who identifies himself as Porter Williams. Surely this cannot be Iris's lover. Has Michael made a mistake?
"Who is this?" The man asks.
"I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself. I am Michael Hicks. Iris Hick's grandson."
The silence builds as Porter gathers himself slowly. Michael could hear his long breaths on the other end of the line. He conjures up a man sitting in the back room of a cigar club, sitting in a smoking jacket as he swishes Cognac in a glass. Michael guesses the truth is not far off the mark.
"What do you want to know?"
Michael listens calmly as Porter tells the story of how his grandmother and he met. His grandmother was a young high school teacher back in 1958, and one day she happened to glimpse the 18 year-old Porter, his jet black hair swept back as he sat in the front row of her class. Porter was beyond handsome back then, and his looks did not go unnoticed by the brunette.
As Porter tells it, the affair lasted a brief nine months, but it did produce a son who was given up for adoption. Both Porter and Iris parted ways as he went on to a prestigious university and she transferred to the administrative department. Yet apparently she still tried to keep up with him though the mail. Many of them were returned unopened.
The revelation is like a jolt of electricity to Michael. He runs down the stairs as soon as his mother comes home, anxious to tell her the news. Her face is grave as plops her purse on the counter and exhales deeply.
"Mom!" He exclaims. "Guess what I found!"
His other does not respond.
"Mom? Are you alright?"
"You grandfather's had a stroke--insulin shock. He's in the ICU right now."
"How bad is it?"
"The doctors don't think he'll last through the night. Your uncle and I are debating whether to take him off life support as we speak."
Michael is crushed.
As the family surrounds Paul's bedside, Michael glimpses at his stricken grandfather, wishing he'd apologized or given the address book back instead. If only he'd been able to be honest with his grandfather. But the window for that passed a long time ago.
"Is something bothering you?" His mother glances at him.
"No," Michael shakes his head. "I'm not bothered at all."
Born in the foothills of the Carolinas in the early 1980s, the itinerant writer and raconteur known as John Winn, has been compiling stories about life, love, and death since he was a zygote. When he isn't typing on his laptop he is probably handling packages for A Company That Shall Not Be Named, exercising at home, or watching TV. He lives near Greensboro, North Carolina.