2016-03-02

Old Bones
—Fiction by Michael Chin

         When little Tom picks up the rabbit’s foot, Grandma Lucy lets him play. It’s important for children to touch, squeeze, get their hands dirty, experiment. As he passes the white fur through his fingers, she thinks of giving to him, this good luck charm that belonged to Grandpa Pete before he had a stroke last winter, shoveling the driveway.
            Grandma Lucy likes knowing more than her grandchildren. Minutes earlier, Tom corrected her, that there are eight planets in the Solar System, not nine, because Pluto doesn’t count anymore. It comes as a relief, then, when Tom asks what the rabbit’s foot is. She tells him. He asks why she keeps it. She tells him it is good luck.
            Tom loses interest and sets it down. He takes the green plastic cup of milk Grandma Lucy poured for him. His sister, Kelly, has already turned her milk brown with Oreo crumbs.
            Grandpa Pete loved the boy. He used to lift Tom the moment he stepped in the house and spin around fast. Tom’s mother would caution him to slow down, but that only made the man and the boy laugh. Children and old people know that a simple fall or a bump to the head won’t kill anyone.
            Grandpa Pete would play catch with Tom in the backyard while Grandma Lucy and Kelly rearranged jigsaw puzzle pieces or rolled pie dough. Now that Grandma Lucy is on her own, the three of them split time indoors and outdoors.
            After Tom finishes his milk, he throws on his fall jacket and runs outside to Grandma Lucy’s yard. The house is stuffy and everything reeks of dust, perfume, and an old woman’s body odor. The yard is big enough to run, throw, and explore. A few weeks earlier, he found an enormous slug, cupped it in his hands and chased Kelly until Grandma Lucy made him drop it and wash his hands. Tom likes playing in that yard. Grandma Lucy is old, and it takes her a while to notice his mischief; longer yet before she intervenes.
            Today’s exploration is focused. Tom’s uncle gave him a metal detector, and advised him he might find hidden treasure anywhere. Tom imagines himself uncovering ancient treasure outside the school or in the supermarket parking lot. His mother overrules his thirst for discovery most of the time, with warnings he’ll lose his new toy if he takes it with him everywhere.
            Grandma Lucy sips tea on the back porch while Tom walks the perimeter of the yard, metal detector stretched in front of him, Kelly a step behind. Grandma Lucy remembers watching her own daughter and son navigate that same yard after Grandpa Pete put off mowing for a few weeks. They wandered the shin high grass and weeds as though the space were a jungle, rather than a quarter-acre of suburban lawn. Sometimes the son would chase one of the cats until he had it cornered, at which point the daughter would rescue the poor creature.
            The way in which Grandma Lucy’s children played seemed as though it would go on forever in a cycle of chases and games, family beach trips, Christmas mornings. Then they were gone. Off to college, off to work, off to sprout their first gray hairs. The cats died. After the last of them passed, Grandma Lucy and Grandpa Pete agreed they were too old to restart that particular cycle.
            Grandchildren held the promise of a new cycle, a last chance to love and to be loved, to teach, to take photographs that would outlast Grandma Lucy, and one day confirm she had been a part of their lives.
            Grandma Lucy remembers how quickly the daughter grew, not just from baby to girl to woman to mother, but starting from nothing at all. Leggy Lucy reclined in the backseat of the Buick while broad, strong Pete bent, curled and pressed atop her. The Buick shook in the lot of a drive-in movie theatre that screened a film Grandma Lucy couldn’t remember now, in a town the two of them left behind so no one would realize they conceived their daughter out of wedlock, in a state that thrived on Rust Belt communities, in a country full of people who thought they could be anything they wanted to be, on a planet without computers, in a Solar System that still had nine planets.
            Grandma Lucy turns from the sky and sees the children crouched. Tom’s shoulders bob in an uneven rhythm. It’s too late when she realizes what he’s up to. He has discovered the cat cemetery at its shallowest point. Upon such a discovery, there is nothing for a boy to do but uncover the remains.
            Grandma Lucy doesn’t mean to expose the children to death. She’s not sure how her daughter explained Grandpa Pete’s disappearance, but imagines she told the children their grandfather went away to visit other family or to go on vacation. Grandma Lucy squeezes the rabbit’s foot and hopes they won’t recognize the pet remains for what they are, or that something else will distract them.
            Tom stands a few seconds later, cradling a cat skull in his palms. The boy holds it up so rays of late afternoon sun peek through holes in the parietal bone and shine through the empty eye sockets down on him. He smiles.

            Only children could look at a cat’s skeletal remains not as a subject of horror or a reminder of death, but as every bit as viable a good luck charm as a rabbit’s foot. Tom tosses the skull to Kelly, who giggles. They both drop back down amidst the grass and dirt to see what they will find next.

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Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the $1,000 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published fiction and poetry in over twenty journals including Bayou Magazine, The Rappahannock Review, and The Pacific Review. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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