Just As I Am

by Morton Russell | Richmond, Kentucky, USA

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

An empty rocking chair
Illustration by Elli Dalton

Dad opens the wooden door and leads my wife and I up the stairs in what used to be my grandparents’ house. His allergies have him snorting the whole time. The doorknob is a carved piece of wood Papaw painted white. It looks like a peeled potato. A narrow stairwell with crooked stairs leads to webs in the face and more webs in the face before we finally see a single room that is brighter than I expected because of the uncovered windows.

When I was a kid, people always said not to go upstairs. I’m twenty-eight and I’ve never been up here. It’s just a kid’s room. Warped beds stand guard in three corners. A door sags off the frame with one hinge still clinging. It leads out to the balcony that doubles as a porch ceiling. All the time my grandparents lived here without Dad and his sisters and it’s still just a kid’s room.

But we came up for that bird. The one wrapped in its own nest on the balcony: one wing free and the other tied to its body. Hannah doesn’t know what to do. I say Dad will get it. He straddles his way across the balcony with his horse-riding walk, but I don’t know the last time he went for a ride. I know the last time I did, and I regret that it has been so long. When Dad goes to be with Papaw, when his house and the farm are empty, I might never get on a good horse.

He grabs the bird, telling it to hold still now. Hold still. It’s not as magic as something Papaw would have done, but it’s some kind of magic. The bird holds still.

Maybe I have a little of that. Dad would say so, but I think animals just like me. Mom and Dad always talk about the time when Dad wanted to move one of the horses to a different field. They had dragged the horse by the reins and lured it with food for hours. Dad wasn’t used to his animals being so stubborn with him. As soon as I got home from school, they asked me to help. I grabbed the horse’s reins and he walked out of the field with me. It’s not magic like Papaw’s, but it’s as real as blood.

Dad unwinds the nest wrapped once around the bird’s body and once more around the base of its wing. Sets it on the balcony railing. It looks around at who knows what. Tilts its head to check above and below. Tests its wings some before it flies a circle around the house and darts up.

Back inside and still upstairs, Hannah and I search around the old bedroom for anything ancestral. Dad starts sneezing while he warns us about the spiders, and we shake everything we touch to remove a potential brown recluse. In the record collection, we find a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Dad recognizes it as his, but he tells us to keep it.

We don’t own a record player. Instead, we’ll use it as a decoration on our bookshelf. It isn’t rare; it’s just Dad’s.

We don’t find anything else we want to take home from upstairs. Despite all the waiting, it’s just a kid’s room. That’s not the story I want to tell though. I want to say we hear movement from the corner on our way out. Turning, we see Mamaw in a rocking chair. She’s begging the baby in her arms. We all know it’s Dad because she’s saying, “You got to breathe. My boy’s got to breathe.” When she talks, both sides of her mouth move. No more sagging. She gets up, and the chair keeps rocking while she crouches and taps on the window’s warbled glass. After she shouts “Walter!” thumps come up the stairs behind us, skipping every other step. Papaw rushes through us. Puts his hand on Mamaw’s forehead. Then on the window. Then on her forehead again. He looks at the baby’s bluish skin. It must feel like I do: like there’s always at least a little moss in my throat that I’ll never get out. Then he curls one of his small hands around his own throat and tilts his head to the right to make room for the baby as she places it on his shoulder. Papaw secures the baby in his elbow while he keeps his hand around his neck. Mamaw reaches to pat the baby’s back, but Papaw turns his back to her. Takes a step and swats behind himself to keep her away. She looks worried and helpless. It’s raining outside and the wind blows with the voice of Dad’s sisters screaming outside. Someone should go check. Papaw uses the hand that had been covering his neck to rub the baby’s back. He pulls the baby from his shoulder and cradles it. With his thumb, he opens the baby’s mouth and blows into its throat. The baby gasps so hard it inhales the whole scene.

It’s just me, Hannah, and Dad. He’s still snorting, and they didn’t see anything. Hannah takes my hand to leave, and I squeeze it back. Because the story I don’t want to tell is that Mamaw and Papaw are just as gone as we will be when the right gasp comes along. There’s no magic for that. ■

Morton Russell is a high school English teacher and Appalachian writer who earned his MFA at the Bluegrass Writers Studio through Eastern Kentucky University. He seeks to create authentic representations of Appalachia to combat the stereotypes and exploitation the region constantly battles. His short fiction has been published in Light and Dark Magazine.