The Long Road Home

by Carol Johnson

In the dirt of the scraggly front yard, a small boy ran a metal dump truck up a small mound of dirt and back down again. “Ud-n, ud-n,” he murmured. Lightning bugs flickered yellow against the growing blackness, and tree frogs chirped from hidden perches.

Suddenly a girl’s voice split the summer air. “Josh, I told you a million times, there’s ticks out here, and if you don’t get up off that ground you’ll have tick fever.”

“I wasn’t,” protested the child. “I wasn’t on the ground, only my knees was—”

“Well,” Shirley said from the squeaking swing, “it don’t matter what part of you’s on the ground. Last I heard, ticks wasn’t picky.” She hid a smile. Josh was a Connelly, all right. He could think up a better argument at five than she could at seventeen.

She turned to the elderly man on the swing beside her. “You tired, Grandpa?”

“Guess if I was, I’d go to bed, wouldn’t I? I ain’t stupid, just old.”

“I just asked.”

“Well, I’m not, all right?”

She sighed and slowed the swing, stopped it, and stood. Stretching, she spoke to the old man without looking at him. “Will you keep an eye on Josh for a little while? I’m gonna go see what happened to Lena and them.” She waited a few seconds, and then took his silence for a yes. It was as close to an answer as she was likely to get.

She picked her way across the darkened porch and down the crumbling concrete steps, then around to the back of the house. Her brothers and sister stood in a knot in the backyard. When she cleared her throat, Don looked up and smiled, teeth bright in the moonlit night. Dennis and Lena turned too, and Dennis motioned her over with a lit cigarette.

“We were just talking about Grandpa,” Don said when Shirley had come within speaking distance. “He needs a whole lot of letting alone if you ask me. Bitch, bitch, bitch. He’d gripe if he was hung with a new rope.”

“Man, I don’t see how you stand it, being out here all the time, Shirl. I mean, you ought to be going to proms and stuff instead of stuck out here with that old coot.”

“She’s the one said she wanted to do it,” Lena said, avoiding Shirley’s eyes.

Not that it mattered, but Shirley knew why Lena wouldn’t look at her. It was because if Shirley didn’t stay out here, Lena might have to.

“You’re right,” Shirley said. “I did make the choice.” She hesitated. She had promised her grandfather she wouldn’t tell. Still. “He’s dying. That’s how I stand it.” A slight feeling of satisfaction came over her as she watched the varying degrees of discomfort on the faces of the other three.

Finally, Dennis cleared his throat as if to say something, but did not. Lena stared at the ground like there was some big secret being revealed there and wound a golden lock of hair around her forefinger.

Don found his voice first. “Well,” he said slowly. “Grandpa’s old, you know, and sometimes death’s a bless—”

“Donald Ray Connelly, don’t you say it, don’t you dare say it!” Shirley said. “He’s not too old to loan you money when you get your butt in a sling at that casino, is he?” When Don didn’t answer, she turned her gaze on Dennis. “He’s not too old to drive all the way to Joplin to bail you out of jail when you got that last DUI, is he? Paid the lawyer, too.”

Lena held up a perfectly manicured hand. “All right, all right. You don’t have to tell me what all he’s done for me. But Don’s right. Not that we want Grandpa to die, but he’s almost 84, Not like he’s going to live forever.” She looked at her brothers for backup, but it was their turn to study the ground.

Shirley looked at her older siblings. “Ya’ll make me sick, you know it? You just don’t want to be bothered with him.” She glanced behind her to make sure Grandpa hadn’t come out to see where they’d gone. “He raised us. Raised us. And now you want to treat him like this.”

Don toed the ground with a shiny boot and Dennis shuffled his feet in the sparse grass, while Lena wound her hair, and looked from Dennis to Don and back to Dennis.

Dennis cleared his throat. “Look, Shirley. There’s a lot of things you don’t understand yet—”

Shirley sighed. Seemed like all she ever did when they were out here was sigh. “You guys make me sick,” she repeated, then fell silent. She took a deep breath and held it, and let it out slowly. “You’ve got to stay. He’s not got long, and having us all together means everything to him.” Looking at them was like looking into the faces of strangers. Desperation rolled over her and her voice became raspy. “We’re all he’s got, all he’s had, ever since Mama and Daddy got killed. Please stay. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Just please stay. Please.”

She waited for a response, but none came. She touched Lena’s arm. “Don’t you want Josh to know his great-grandpa? To have happy memories of him, like we do?”

“Oh, Honey,” Lena said, pulling Shirley close. “It’s just not that easy. We’ve got jobs, homes to take care of. You’ll see when you’re grown.”

Shirley stared at her sister. “I think I’m more grown than any of you will ever be.”

Lena backed toward the house. “I better get Josh in bed.”

As Lena headed toward the back steps, Josh tore around the house, nearly knocking his mother down.

“Look, Mama!” he cried, holding a Mason jar in his chubby hands. “I got a whole bunch of lightning bugs. It’s a flashlight. Now when I have to go pee at night I won’t stub my toe on the stove no more.”

“Say ‘anymore,’ honey. Not ‘no more.’” Lena bent and hugged him. “Mama loves you, you know that?”

“Quit!” His voice was muffled against her chest. “You’re huggin’ my guts out!”

Lena laughed as she released him. “Well, I surely wouldn’t want to do that! Come on, let’s get some of this good red dirt off you and get you into bed.”

Shirley watched them go, then looked at Dennis and Don. I will not cry. I am seventeen years old and I will not cry. “You guys think about it, ok? If you stay, Lena will, too.” Her brothers exchanged an uneasy look before looking in opposite directions, heads cocked, like bird dogs hearing a duck call. They didn’t look like twins, but they were—to the core.

She sighed and went back to the front porch where the old man still sat. “Grandpa, you about ready for bed?”

“I ain’t tired yet.” He spat a stream of tobacco juice over the side of the porch then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Well, I am. I’ll see you in the morning.” And she was tired, and not just in body. She was tired of always being the one doing the asking, never getting the satisfaction of getting what she wanted, even needed. And there wasn’t a blessed thing she could do about it. Even knowing that, she laid on her back in her tiny room off the kitchen, searching the cracked ceiling for something that would convince the others to stay, just for a while. Stroud wasn’t that far from Oklahoma City. They could drive back and forth if they just would.

After a half hour, she tossed off the sticky sheets and went to the window. Leaning on the sill, chin propped on the palm of one hand, she looked out at the moon hanging over the pasture, full and pale.

Why couldn’t they understand, Don and Dennis and Lena? Her grandfather had taken them in when nobody else would, kept them together these last fifteen years.

Kept us together all this time, and that’s all he wants now. Us together. And they wouldn’t even give him that.

She padded back to the bed and flopped down, pulling the sheet up over her, letting one leg stay uncovered. It always seemed that she was cooler that way, even though Grandpa said it was all in her head. And maybe it was. There was a lot in her head anymore.

“Growing up sure stinks sometimes,” she said aloud. It did. She was too old to throw a fit because she wasn’t getting her way and too young to make anybody really listen to her. It wasn’t fair. She turned on her side. She guessed getting old wasn’t any better. “I sure hope I can get us all through it.”

By six the next morning she was in the kitchen, cooking a huge breakfast of sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy, and fried potatoes. Don came in just as she was putting the meal on the table, and Dennis and Lena soon followed.

“Where’s Josh?” Lena asked, stretching, arms over her head.

“He was up before me,” Shirley said, draining the bacon grease from the cast iron skillet into a tin can. “Him and Grandpa are on the porch.”

“Uh, Shirl?” Don said.

When she turned to face him, his face went all blotchy like it did and a muscle in his jaw tightened, released, tightened again.

“Let me guess, Don,” she said, gesturing at him with a greasy spatula. “You’re sorry, but you all just can’t see your way clear to stay, and you’ll have to go back to Oklahoma City and I can call if I need you.” She turned her head to include Lena and Dennis. Both looked uncomfortable, but no less defiant for that.

“Oh, come on, Sissy,” Lena said. “We’ll come back real soon, honest we will. We love Grandpa, too, you know. It’s just that we all have lives of our own. We’ll call every single day. We will . . . really.” Lena’s voice trailed off, and she looked away.

“You guys are the most selfish, self-centered—” She groped for words. “Dumb asses,” she finished. “And do me a favor. Don’t call me Sissy.”

“Now, just a minute, young lady,” Don said. “You’re not but seventeen years old. You’re not going to talk to us like—”

“You don’t tell me how to talk. I’m old enough to stay out here and ease your conscience, right?” He didn’t answer. “And pull in your lower lip before you step on it,” she said. Her heart pounded with sickening thuds. She gave them all the most withering look she could muster, but she was close to crying. “Just go. All of you. That’s what you do best.”

She ran from the room, outside to the hackberry near the barn. Sliding down the trunk, she welcomed the scraping of the bark against her back. It didn’t hurt nearly like thinking about Grandpa and the selfishness of her brothers and sisters and the awful unfairness of it all. She drew up her knees and rested her head on her crossed arms. She didn’t want to cry, she didn’t, but here she sat, blubbering like a baby.

Finally, she stopped, wiped her eyes and nose on her T-shirt, trying to calm the hitching breaths that followed the outburst.

“Aunt Shirley! Aunt Shirley!” Josh’s voice came closer and Shirley knew she’d have to get up and go face everybody. She stood and dusted off the rear of her shorts, then scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Back here,” she called, and went to meet her nephew.

In the front, Dennis and Don were loading the car to go home. Lena sat on the porch with Josh and Grandpa while Shirley sat on a step, pulling the petals off a Shasta daisy from the bed nearby.

When the car was loaded, Don and Dennis returned to the porch.

“I guess we’ll see you next time, Grandpa. It’s been nice visiting with you. Right, Dennis?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure has. Maybe we could get back next weekend—fish ought to be biting then, don’t you think, Grandpa?”

Grandpa nodded. “Most likely.”

Lena jumped off the porch and picked up Josh, her hands under his arms, and swung him to the ground. “Maybe I can’t get off work and come, too.” She looked at Josh. “Tell Great-Grandpa ‘bye.”

“I forgot something,” Josh said. He raced off around the side of the house.

“Josh!” Lena yelled. “For Pete’s sake.”

Josh was back before his mother could say much more. He carried a mason jar in both hands, the lid of the jar punctured with holes.

He ran up to Grandpa and shoved the jar at him. “It’s my lightning bugs,” he said. “You can keep my keep ‘em till I come back.”

“I’ll take good care of them for you,” Grandpa said, and accepted a hug from the little boy.

The four climbed into the loaded car, and Don backed out of the driveway. Shirley watched her grandfather as his gaze follow the car for as long as it was in sight. He settled back on the swing and sighed. “I sure hate to see them go,” he said, “but I’m glad you didn’t tell them about me. They’d just have a fit to stay out here and run me crazy in what little time I got left.” He cast a wistful look up the road, where the dust had now settled. ”I hope they come back before too long, though.”

Shirley turned her face and tried hard to speak over the hard lump in her chest.

“Me, too, Grandpa. Me, too.”