May 8, 2017
The Picture Window
by Conor Hultman
by Conor Hultman
A grandson visits grandma at her perch from which she combats her pesky neighbors with a BB gun and decries the scalawags in her own backyard.
I come up the wood crumble stairs and past the walls of faded daguerreotypes to find again, and of course again, Grandma leaning out the window with her gun, rifle stock to wrinkly armpit.
I bring her food. Since Poppa died, she's "forgotten" how to use the oven. I think she doesn't care anymore. Making his turnip greens was the only thing to tether her to the kitchen. Freed of that obligation, she can devote all her time to maintaining her picture window. I run my finger over the kitchen counter and it comes up grime-black. Grandma lives of Fig Newtons when I don't come, I suspect, so I come more often.
She's hunched over the gun in her chair. The chair, finished wood and doilied cushion, used to be in the dining room. The dining room is now an abandoned shell. Grandma claims General Lee sent the chairs to her grandfather, and that Yankee looters stole the others in the set and hacked them to matchwood, all but this one. The gun is a BB gun fitted with a heavy rifle stock and antique glass rope. Uncle Merv made it for her, long time ago.
"Only honest queer I ever knew," is the sole opinion she's offered to me about Merv. All I can remember of Uncle Merv is from the Thanksgivings of my childhood; thin, wilted magnolia of a man holding a plate of stuffing and preserves. He knitted the Confederate flag throw blanket that's draped around Grandma. He died alone.
A sharp report sounds and I flinch. Grandma pulls the level and reloads. Walking up behind her, I see her gently swing the barrel to the left and fire again. She is shooting leaves off the tree in the yard. This is what she calls her "pitcher winder." Her view encompasses a grand old oak tree, a swatch of piss-yellow grass, and the broadside of the Dixons' house. Grandma does this all day. I've asked her what she's doing, and all I've gotten is "curating my pitcher winder." She snipes off acorns and barkchips to some unfathomable secret specifications.
Grandma is the scourge of small game. Squirrel and opossum corpses litter the window-view at the end of the day like a battlefield. She is at temporary cease-fire with stray cats, because they spirit away the bodies. Fire ants, with a wisdom uncharacteristic of arthropods, refuse to build ant hills near the oak tree. Once, Grandma blinded a lolling black labrador that belong to some neighbors because it wandered into her line of sight. They complained. She threatened to finish the hit. They moved.
I bend closer, try to get her attention.
"It's me, your grandson."
She blinks, eye still to scope, and adjusts her aim.
"I brought you some taquitos. Would you like some taquitos?"
"Don't care much for wetback fixins."
"Grandma, please, you can't say--"
"Like hell I cain't say."
The racism is not the reason her other relatives won't visit. In fact, Grandma could be considered a progressive development on the family tree. It's because Poppa had a lot of money and land and stock and whatnot, and he left it all to Grandma, and she told everyone at the funeral that they would not see a red cent of it.
"What's more, I'll live to see the dirt in all yer faces," she howled as the casket was being lowered into the cool earth. That didn't stop them from trying. Each nuclear unit made a pilgrimage at some point to Grandma's house to appeal her reason. She blew out a cousin's tires with a revolver. They eventually gave up. To get back at her, they had her gun license revoked for senility and feebleness. That's when she dug the BB gun out of the attic chest. She claims it was a supply chest used during the Manassas Campaign to transport hardtack and corn liquor.
I'm not sure why I come here. Grandma rarely talks to me. When she does, it's mostly about the Civil War (or, the "War of Northern Aggression"). She says she's directly related to General Nathan Bedford Forrest. One time, she told me in a haunted tone, "I guess I can trust you ain't a scalawag," and then she took the package of Fig Newtons I was proffering. She boils the water she gets from the bathroom tap burner in her room. She told me it was because the Yankees could defecate in the water supply and send it down the pipes to cultivate cholera. "But Grandma," I said, "the Civil War is over." She narrowed her eyes to slits. "That war ain't never over."
She pulls out a handkerchief and polishes the gun as silence seals in like compression.
"So, um, how's the picture window today?"
"Fine. Killed a weasel. Killed the buzzard that came fer it. Glaring of cats carried them away. Killing a vole."
I look toward the Dixons' house and spy a small circular hole in their window.
"Grandma, did you shoot at the neighbors' house?"
"Yehum. That lil peckerwood boy they got was makin obscene gestures at me through their winder. So I shot through their winder. Then he got out with his slingshot and shot at me. Bout liable to put my eye out. So I shot his slingshot in a twain."
I spot the shattered slingshot near the Dixons' perforated window.
"Hopin a cat will take interest in it," she murmurs.
Just then, the doorbell rings. I'd forgotten this house had a doorbell.
"Who could that be, Grandma?"
"Prolly that pickaninny from up the street with some beebees fer me."
"Grandma, you can't say--"
"Like hell I cain't--"
The doorbell rings again and I hustle back past the Confederate soldier portraits and down the ruined staircase to open the door. A small black child is on the porch.
"How can I help you?"
"Here's the lady's beebees." He hands me two hefty plastic cartons. "That'll be twenty dollars."
I look back to the staircase, then pull out my wallet.
"They still let kids buy pellets?"
"My daddy runs the store."
There is an awkward beat while I count out the money.
"Hey, is she your grandma?"
"You know what she said to me? She leaned out her window and said, 'Hey! Come here, little n----- boy.' And I went up to her window and she said, 'Little n----- boy, go get me two cartons of beebees and I'll give you some licorice.'" The child looks up at me. "That's a bad word, ain't it?"
I gave him a hundred dollars and told him to never come back.
I bring the beebees up to Grandma and put them beside her dining chair. She's pulling the rebel flag blanket around her shoulders and shivering.
"Hey, when you leave, turn that space heater on over yonder."
I take the hint and depart. It is because no one else will check on her that I come. It is also because I don't have much else going on.
It is with an odd trembling sense of fear that I return the next day. I hear popping noises coming from the other side of the house, as well as shouting. I let myself in, bound up the stairs, under sad yellowing Southern eyes, and throw open the door. Grandma is leaning out the picture window, cantilevered on the sill, howling. The oak tree is consumed in dark flames. The broken slingshot is gone. Animals are gathered in a ring around the flaming tree, as if in vigil. Grandma has her BB gun in one fist and a pocketknife in the other, and she is howling, "Scalawags! Goddam scalawags! I'm kin to General Nathan Bedford Forrest! I'll live to see dirt in all yer faces!" and I run to catch her as she tilts and falls leg-up downward.