Below is an award-winning short story written many years ago. Hope you enjoy!
NOT MY PAPA
The screaming telephone jolted me out of bed. “Hello,” I groaned rubbing my sleep-filled eyes.
“Were you asleep?” My mother’s crude voice whined.
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling, I whimpered, “Not anymore.”
“Your papa is ill. “ He’s lost his mind, cussing like a drunken sailor, and saying the Lord’s name in vain. The doctors say its old timer’s disease…”
“Alzheimer’s,”‘ I corrected my mother, yawning again. I turned on a light. Rising from the bed, I stretched, while my mother chatters away. I could not visualize Papa swearing. Not my Papa … He’s a member of the Church of God and a deacon. He and Gramma never allowed their grandkids to swear. Once, as a rebellious teenager I said the Lord’s name in vain. Papa rushed me to the bathroom of the tiny mill house we lived in, to wash my mouth out with a bar of Ivory soap.
Listening to my mother, I pictured Papa ‑‑ frail and aging into a skeletal frame I no longer recognized.
Strolling into the kitchen, I sighed, as I poured fresh coffee beans into the grinder.
Three days later, I head towards Columbus, Georgia, thinking about Papa.
As a child, Papa amazed me with his stories, and I picture him tall and slim, chewing Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum and smoking long cigars. He wears overalls covered with cotton lint fibers and old raggedy flannel shirts. A baseball cap protects his thinning hair.
Working at the textile mill of Bibb City, Papa speaks to everyone in the village. He tells me stories ‑‑ like how it was to live during the Great Depression; and how, as a young boy, he grew up on a farm picking cotton and cropping tobacco in the fields.
I love listening to Papa. His eyes always twinkle when he speaks of my grandmother, Miss Winnie. At the age of sixteen, he saw a pretty blue-eyed blond sitting in the church pew and when she smiled at him, Papa fell for her. Fifty two years later, he still speaks of her with a passion I envy. I know Papa misses her, and so do I. Now, she sits up high in the Heavens, watching over us; but to Papa, she is still beside him, holding his hand, smiling.
When I was a small child, Papa took me fishing at the boat club. We got up before dawn to watch the sunrise on the dancing waters of the Chattahoochee River. I remember Papa catching catfish, while I caught eels and turtles.
I tugged at Papa’s overalls and ask, “When will I catch a catfish, Papa?”
Papa smiled at me, patting my head. “Shucks, you gotta be an antique to catch a catfish,” he laughed. “Yes Ma’am,” he chuckled, “An antique like me to catch a catfish. He reached inside his overall pockets, handing me a piece of Juicy Fruit Gum.
“What’s an ann-tique?” I asked.
He laughed, baited my hook, and threw out the fishing line. “Don’t you be fretting…? You’ll be one before you can say scat.”
“Scat,” I said, reaching for the cane pole, hoping to catch my first catfish.
Entering Columbus, Georgia, I make a right turn, heading to Bibb City. I parked my car on Walnut Street, noticing a mixture of colors. Black. White. Mexican. So different from the colors of skin I recognized as a child. The Bibb Mill is closed now, no longer the dictator or Godfather of the village. My mother hobbles outside. I open my arms wide, hoping she will hug me. Her arms are crossed. Still, as a grown woman I am hungering for a mother’s embrace. “It’s about time you came home. The hospital just called. They’re moving him to a nursing home,” she cries. “I can’t take care of him. It’s hard enough taking care of me. Daddy’s old now – an antique. He’s at the nursing home where Mama was, when she died…”
Home is where the heart is, I mutter to myself.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said, “We’ll work something out.”
My mother seems concerned now, gentle, and caring, so unlike the mother I knew as a child.
A few hours later, at the nursing home my mother wipes her eyes, biter her lips. “He looks so old and weak. You better prepare yourself.”
“I know,” I whisper, “Papa’s an antique. He hasn’t been the same since Gramma died.”
“None of us have,” my mother speaks, the bitterness returning to her voice. “It’s just not the same.”
“Life is filled with change Mom,” I comfort her, giving her a slight hug. She pulls away.
The scent of medicine and stale air hits me in the face. I smelled the same familiar scent that cold October morning when Gramma died. My mother looks at me, never saying a word, but I can tell how hopeless she feels. It’s written all over her face. My lips struggle a smile. An apple shaped nurse with slump-backed shoulders nods.
“Excuse me,” I interrupt, “we’re here to see Mr. Hunter.”
She turns to me, her arms crossed, her face tight with tension. “Room 318 Medicaid Wing.” She snaps to attention, pointing down the hall.
“Thank you,” I smile, “Have a nice day…”
My mother opens the door to Papa’s room. She looks at me again, and for the first time, I notice salt and pepper gray in her hair, lines of age blending into her face. I touch her shoulder. She pulls away from me. Her body stiff. “Mom, it’s okay.”
When I slip into Papa’s room, I’m not prepared for what I see. An ancient, crippled man is strapped into a wheelchair, facing the window. His face is hollow, skin the color of mustard and blotchy, with brown spots. His hair is slightly gray. His eyes are sunken. No twinkles do I see. His head bops up and down, reminding me of a newborn infant. He drools.
“Papa,” I whisper, choking back a tear.
His head lifts for a moment. I see a vacant stare in his eyes as he watches a swallow fly away. “Mama,” he whispers. “Is it you? I wish I could fly away.” Papa kicks his feet angrily, wishing to be set free. “God-damn it … get me out of here.”
I touch his icy cold fingers, noticing the clamminess of weathered skin. “Papa,” I said. “It’s me … Barbara Jean.”
I laugh to myself, surprised I’ve addressed myself as Barbara Jean. As a child, I refused to answer to the name, “Barbara Jean.” I held big dreams. I remember telling Papa I would become a movie star or a singer and see my name in bright lights, not the name “Barbara Jean.”
I touch Papa’s hand, hoping for a response, but he sits in a daydream, without a mind, only a skeleton in life. Again, I whisper, “Papa, it’s me … B-B Barbara Jean…”
“God-damn it,” he speaks, his voice shouting. I look at him again, realizing this frail, crippled person is not the gentle, and kind Papa I remember. Pulling up a wooden chair, I sit down, reaching inside my clutch, I remove a lace hanky. I wipe the drool from his mouth. Papa’s eyes are a vacant stare.
If Gramma were alive, she would scold him, reminding him the Lord was her keeper, her shepherd, and her best friend. Then, she would hand him a bar of Ivory Soap to eat, to wash the filthy words away.
“God-damn it,” he mutters again.
I look at him, choking back tears. I can’t let Papa see me this way. I walk over to the window. If only Papa would say hello, Barbara Jean.
I walk over to him once more, kissing his head. He smells different, without the scent of 0ld Spice and Juicy Fruit Gum. I touch his bony shoulders. He doesn’t respond.
“God-damn it,” he says again.
“Papa,” I speak aloud. For a moment, he looks at me, squinting his eyes. “It’s me, Barbara Jean. I caught a catfish last year.”
“It’s funny,” I say to my mother. “The only word he knows is a word Gramma hated.”
“He’s got no brain,” she shrieks.
“I know,” I cry, tears rushing down my face. I glance over at Papa, looking at the broken man strapped so tightly within. If only he could see who I am. And then I wonder ‑‑ would he be proud of me…Barbara Jean …the grandchild with starry eyes?
Later, I speak to the doctor, listening to every word. I suggest bringing Papa home so he’ll be around familiar surroundings. The doctor shakes his head. “You don’t understand his condition,” he reports. “Your grandfather needs skilled medical care. He gets violent when he doesn’t get his way.”
“Yes,” I know, the vegetable you have strapped to that wheelchair doesn’t exist. My papa was lots of fun! He took me fishing. He told me funny stories, and he Never took the Lord’s name in vain. Gramma would be furious.”
My mother interrupts. “Don’t you see, “she says. “ Jesse isn’t asking to go home to us. He wants to ‑ go home.” She points her finger towards the sky.
A few days later, my mother and I sit on the porch sipping sweet iced tea with lemon, remembering Papa, my childhood and the struggles of life in a mill town. We reminisce, reaching a new understanding.
It seems my mother was envious of me when I was a young girl. She said I was intense, stubborn as a mule and bull headed too, with a persistent independent streak. I had something she wanted but failed to find. Funny, I never knew she saw the real me.
In my eyes, I was a child, starving for attention. Now as we sit, looking at old family albums, it’s easier to dig into the shells of our souls, discovering who we are, and most of all, what we are. Still, I wish to bring back those times to repair the damage. My mother shakes her head no. She doesn’t want to go back. She bites her lip. If only she knew how difficult my life as an artist has been! I touch her hand.
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m grown now.”
“I don’t want to remember how cruel I was. Can you forgive me?”
Nodding my head, I whisper, “Already done.” I wish to hug her, but I hold back knowing she will not return the affection.
The phone rings. “Hello,” I say.
My mother stares at me, listening to a one‑sided conversation.
“It’s Papa. We have to hurry.”
Not a word is spoken as we drive in rush hour traffic, frightened we won’t make it. My mother tightens her seat belt, taps her foot on the floor mat. “Hurry,” she says.
The door to room 318 is closed. I knock while pushing the door. I see an empty wheelchair. The bed is covered with a white sheet. I look at my mother, tears spilling onto her cheeks. “We’re too late,” she cries.
The door to Papa’s room opens again. The apple shaped nurse enters. “He’s gone,” she states coldly. “Mr. Hunter died twenty minutes ago.”
I slump into the wheelchair, screaming from the pain of my grandfather’s death.
“He died peacefully,” the nurse comforts. “He was singing a religious song, mumbling and talking about catfish, and asking for Barbara Jean.”
“Barbara Jean,” I whisper.
The nurse looks my way, “He called me Winnie. He said he was waiting for Barbara Jean. A few minutes later, he started singing about coming home again.”
My mother and I nod, knowing Papa has found peace. We don’t say a word, as tears stream down our faces. Then, she opens her arms to comfort me.
In Memory of My Papa, Jesse V. Hunter