Lessons from a Porch by Neal Suit

 I’ve fought and struggled to cobble together other images, no matter how small, insignificant, or fragmented.  But this is the last memory I have of my grandparents.

We were on the porch, a cool breeze landing on our faces. I was in a white, wicker rocking chair.  I felt the peeling paint scratch against my arms. My grandmother had just finished her disappearing act.  She’d hold up a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, displaying it for the sake of authenticity, and with a flick of her wrists and the whirl of her soft hands, the gum vanished.  To a six-year-old it was magic. Real, indisputable magic.

My grandfather approached, his garden behind him.  Potatoes and carrots growing in the ground. Pea husks emerging from the brown dirt. In the summers I’d shuck the peas, ending the day with a bowl of empty hulls.  My grandmother would watch and hum a song, her hand steady, confident, and unwavering.  Her bowl of discarded hulls growing at least twice as fast as mine.

“Wanna’ try this?” my grandfather said.  My grandmother gave a disapproving look.

He handed me a circular metal can that was both hard and forgiving.  I held the package and read the words. Copenhagen Chewing Tobacco. This was forbidden fruit.  I was being handed a key to adulthood and immorality.  It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given a six-year-old.

I twisted the lid. “He’ll be fine,” I heard my grandfather reassuring my grandmother. “It’ll be a good lesson.”

I ignored their discussion.  I grabbed the dark, foreboding contents.  It felt damp and jagged.  I let the leaves slide between my fingers, sliding to my palm where I formed a small, crumpled ball.

I placed a pinch in my mouth.  I closed my mouth, feeling the rich, syrupy juice coat my tongue.  My grandmother shook her head, turning back to shucking pea shells and humming.

I felt the impact immediately.  A surge of energy filled me, as if my veins were casting sparks. Then a creeping dizziness. The world tilted and churned. I leaned back in the rocking chair and my grandfather giggled.

“How ya’ doing, son?” he asked.

I looked up at the ceiling, steadying myself.  The ceiling exchanged places with the wooden planks of the porch floor.

I tried to hold on as the world rushed by with increasing velocity. I needed to lie down. I got on all fours and rolled on to my back.

“Need some help?” my grandfather asked, chuckling to himself.

My grandmother ignored me, still rocking and husking.

I spit out the tobacco on the floor. I let out an involuntary groan. The world remained unsteady, now hurtling by with such speed that all I could see was an indecipherable, hazy blur. 

My grandfather took my place in the rocking chair.  “You’ll be ok,” he said. “Just give it a few minutes.”

I closed my eyes and felt the cool breeze slide against my cheek and hair. When I opened my eyes, the world was refocusing. The merry-go-round was slowing enough that I could exit soon. 

I looked around me.  I saw small dust tornados arising from the breeze striking the dirt and gravel road.  My grandparents were rocking in unison. 

I tried to sit up, but the effort was futile as my stomach revolted. I breathed deeply, fighting against the blanket of nausea that enveloped me.  I closed my eyes again.

My mother would be furious.  Probably at both my grandfather and me.  But I was six.  I did not understand the dynamics between parent and child. I could not realize that my grandfather would merely say a few words and stroke his hand against my mother’s face.  All would be forgiven. The story would be cataloged in family lore, passed along to remember innocence and those we would lose to time and inevitability.

I do not remember opening my eyes again.  I do not recall ever standing up or brushing myself off after lying on my back on those cool, scratchy wooden planks. My furious search has not yielded another memory of that day. But I know that I never again tried chewing tobacco.

The cool winds return.  I am six.  Grateful for the gift of tobacco.  Happy to let the dizziness and sickness drive me to the ground. I hear the creaking of the handmade rocking chairs rolling against the porch. Hoping when I open my eyes my grandparents will look over and smile, interminably waiting for the evening to descend.

Neal Suit is a recovering lawyer. He is a writer of fiction and is completing his first novel. He has short stories appearing this summer in ‘Boston Literary Magazine’ and ‘Fiction Kitchen Berlin.’ He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife, two daughters, one cat, one dog, and periodic writer’s block.

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