Friday, November 25, 2016

Cookie Jar

There was a certain accord between them, right from the beginning. The boy thought the old man looked pretty good for ninety, and the old man thought the boy, whose name was Dale, looked pretty good for thirteen.

The kid started by calling him Great-Grandpa, but Barrett was having none of that. “It makes me feel even older than I am. Call me Rhett. That’s what my father called me. I was a Rhett before there was a Rhett Butler—imagine that.”

Dale asked him who Rhett Butler was.

“Never mind. It was a bad book and only a so-so movie. Tell me again about this project of yours.”

“We’re supposed to talk to our oldest relative, and ask what life was like when he was my age. Then I’m supposed to write a two-page report on how much things have changed. But Mr. Kendall hates generalities, so I’m supposed to concentrate on one or two specifics. That means—”

“I know what specifics are,” Rhett said. “Which specifics have you got in mind?”

Dale considered the question. While he did so, Rhett considered the boy: healthy mop of hair, straight back, clear skin and eyes. There were seventy-seven years between them, and Dale Alderson probably considered that an ocean, but to Rhett it was only a lake. Maybe no more than a pond.

You’ll get across it in no time, kiddo, he thought. The brevity of the swim between your bank and mine will surprise you. It certainly surprised me. He wasn’t sure his great-grandson—the youngest of the lot—even thought of him as an actual human being. More like a talking fossil.

“Speak up, Dale. I’ve got all day, but you probably don’t.”

“Well…you remember before there was TV, right?”

Rhett smiled, even though he felt this was a question to which his great-grandson should already have known the answer. He restrained an urge to say, Don’t they teach you kids anything, because it would have been curmudgeonly and impolite. Not to mention ungrateful. This boy had come to the Good Life Retirement Home for the sole purpose of hearing Barrett Alderson talk about the past, a subject that usually had kids running the other way as fast as they could go. It was only for a school assignment, true, but still. He had come all the way across town on the bus, which made Rhett think of trips he and his brother Jack had made on the interurban line to see their mother.

“Dale, I never even saw a television until I was twenty-one. Radar scopes, yes, but no TVs. I had my first confirmed sighting in an appliance-store window, after I got back from the war. I watched for twenty minutes, almost hypnotized.”

“Which war was that?”

“Two,” he said patiently. “Nazis? Hitler? Japanese in the Pacific? Ring any bells?”

“Sure, yeah, banzai charges and all that. I thought you might mean Korea.”

“When Korea blew up, I was married with a couple of kids.”

“Was my grandpa one of them?”

“Yup, he’d just made his appearance.” And when Vietnam rolled around, I was as old as your father is now. Maybe older.

“So you were stuck with radio, huh?”

“Well, yes, but we didn’t consider ourselves stuck with it.”

Outside his room, from down the hall, came the electronically amplified voice of the retirement home’s recreation director (or one of her minions) calling out bingo numbers. Rhett was happy not to be there, although he supposed he would be tomorrow. He was measuring out the last years of his life—maybe down to months now, considering the blood that had started to show up in the bowl when he took a shit—not in coffee spoons but in coverall games.

“No?” Dale asked.

“Absolutely not. After supper, my dad and my brothers would—”

“Wait, wait, hold that thought.” Dale dug into the pocket of his jeans and brought out an iPhone. He fiddled with it and the screen lit up. He fiddled with it some more and then set it on the bed.

“That thing records, too?” Rhett asked.


“Is there anything it doesn’t do?”

“Honey, it don’t do windows,” the boy said, and Rhett laughed. The kid might be a little foggy on twentieth-century history, but he was quick. And funny.

Dale smiled back at his great-grandfather, glad the old guy had gotten the joke, perhaps seeing him as a human being after all, or beginning to. Rhett could hope; even at ninety, he remained mostly optimistic, although optimism was a little harder to manage at three in the morning, lying awake and feeling the threads holding him to this life loosening.

by Stephen King, VQR |  Read more:
Image: Pat Perry