“Mad Arias on a Summer Night”

Fiction by Edward Hannibal

   On sunny days they’d mostly work outside, tending the vegetables and flowers planted in the Victory garden that climbed up the backyard all the way to the old barn. Inside the barn a Model A Ford sat on blocks under a canvas tarpaulin. It was waiting for Uncle Charles to come home from the war. The blue star on the small white flag in the front parlor window was for him. Gramp said if a serviceman got killed, a gold star flag replaced the blue.
    He also said the tarp was no match for the sea salt in the air. “Want to see how airtight the barn isn’t, look at them sunbeams.”
    Bud did, and saw the shafts of yellow sunlight perforating the barn’s roof and sides as a hundred golden ladders. “I love the damn car,” Gramp said, “except it reminds me of the years she was mine, and I’d drive her up across Maine into New Brunswick and Canada, selling for the Mohawk Tire & Rubber Company. That was back in our salad days.”
    “What are salad days?”
    “That’s when you’re young and green and the roads are paved with money. For years there we even had our own sailboat! The Katherine. Broke my heart to sell her, but it let us buy the house.”
    Sometimes Bud would go out to the barn by himself, shinny up under the tarp, squeeze inside the car and drive off to faraway places like Maine and Canada, yanking the wheel around hairpin turns, racing the engine with his throat, pausing mid-vrooom to shift gears.
    One cloudy afternoon a sudden squall sent them running up into the barn for shelter. Gramp stood in the doorway a long while, just smoking and watching the rain fall, outdoors and in. More to himself than to Bud, he said, “Now you know how useless the old flivver must feel. High and dry and up on blocks, going nowhere.” That was the day he reached up beneath the tarp near the rear bumper and brought out a bottle of Four Roses whiskey. He took two swallows and said, “Your gram gets upset when I do this, but hooch is the only thing that helps the pain from the plate in my noggin.” He took a third slug and stashed the bottle back up under the car. “Mum’s the word, okay?”
    “Means the same thing as ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships.’ ”
    Bud drew a zipper across his mouth.
    “Thatta boy.”
    On days when it rained but stayed warm, they’d sit out on the side porch, playing checkers or cards, and watching the occasional car or truck splash past with its windshield wipers going. If it got too cool, or the rain turned against them, they’d move inside. On these wet days Gramp constantly rubbed his bad right arm. If they went upstairs to his den, he’d practice his left-hand penmanship at his desk, and Bud would flip through their photo albums and scrapbooks.
    One day he came across a yellowed newspaper clipping, dated April 19, 1913, that reported a young Manchester couple had eloped to Kittery, Maine. It said that Charles and Katherine sent their parents telegrams announcing their wedding, so Bud didn’t have to ask what elope meant. When they tired of cards or checkers or Monopoly, they’d move to the small alcove off the dining room, where Gramp would read or doze and Bud would work on the immense jigsaw puzzle spread across a game table; a three-masted clipper ship under full sail.
    On one of these long, slow, wet afternoons, Bud suddenly broke out of the puzzle’s spell and saw Gramp was gone. He called his name. When he wasn’t anywhere in the house he ran and tried the barn. Finally he went back inside and opened the kitchen door to the cellar. Unlike his basement back in the city, this cellar was not an actual space with a floor. It was a chilly dungeon of slit trenches pickaxed out of the granite the old house sat on. Bud dreaded the place but was more scared by Gramp’s absence and went down into the dark, dank-smelling mine. From the stairs, he saw Gramp, standing about halfway along the main gully that snaked into darkness on the other side of the house. A single dim lightbulb swung overhead, throwing his head in and out of moving shadows. He was guzzling straight from a bottle. Seeing Bud frozen on the bottom step, Gramp winked at him. Then he returned the bottle to its hidey-hole and walked back along the trench to the staircase. “If you ever have to find hooch for me, Bud, look down here first.”
    “Okay, ” Bud said, but wondered, why would he ever have to find hooch for him?
    “Let’s go up, skid, I want to show you something.”
    In the den, Gramp opened a scrapbook and showed him clippings from old Salem, Beverly, and Gloucester newspapers and a Manchester Cricket all describing his snowplow accident. He put his finger on a paragraph. “Look there.” Bud read: severe injuries, internal bleeding, broken right arm and shoulder, fractured collarbone, three broken ribs, multiple lacerations, 100 stitches, compound fracture of the skull. “That’s why they had to put the metal plate in. Touch under my hair. Feel the ridge? That’s the bugger that bothers me most. Especially at night and in damp weather. The docs give me pills for it but they make me sick. Hooch is the only thing that does the trick. Trouble is, Gram doesn’t like anyone to drink.”
    “But why?”
    “Well, her father was Irish and a sporting man and I guess he wreaked some real havoc in his time. I hate the nipping on the sly, but I don’t want to worry her if I can help it. You know how women worry.”
    “Yeah,” Bud said, because he did, and saying so he felt something between him and his grandfather sink in even deeper.
    A week before Bud returned to the city for school, Gramp went off somewhere one morning by himself. “To see a man about a horse.” He didn’t come home for supper. At bedtime, Grandma Kate shut up the downstairs except for a light in the kitchen, hustled Bud up into the den with her, and locked the door behind them. She turned down the daybed for him, then they sat together at one end of it and took up watch at the open window. The bell in the steeple of the church on the town common struck 10, 11, midnight. Gramp still wasn’t home. Bud tried to stay alert but kept drifting off. He came half-awake when Kate quickened and leaned closer to the window screen.
    He said, “Is that — ?”
    This late, the smallest voice or footstep echoed through the sleeping town. Bud lay there listening hard to pick Gramp’s sounds out of the crickets chirping, the gull squawks, dog barks, cat squeals, and long, sad foghorn bleats from Baker Island. Kate whispered, “I thought he might be in Al’s, but that’s him coming out of the Harborside.” Al’s was a beer joint just a short walk down Bridge Street from them. The Harborside was way down by the depot. What had she heard? “Pray he comes up through town,” she said. “If he’s fool enough to take the tracks we’ll have to pray him across the drawbridge.” After another intense wait, a fragment of a man’s voice floated up from the harbor. They couldn’t make it out but knew it was him. Thank God, he’d taken the street and not the tracks. “He’s just past the library,” Kate sighed.
    Bridge Street was lined mostly with well-kept New England-style houses like theirs, white with black roofs. But just east of Ashland Avenue sat a pink stucco villa. Even though it had seen grander days, Gramp thought it still belonged out on Smith’s Point with the other estates. Each summer a Madame De-Something came from Europe and took up residence in it. They’d thought the war might keep the house empty this year, but she’d arrived as usual and with a very elderly woman in her entourage. Some said she was Madame D’s mother or aunt. All agreed she was balmy. Not a night passed without the old lady baying out her attic window at the moon, in French. Her mad arias woke the neighborhood, but mercifully she was too fragile to keep them up. This night, she had just begun her operatic howling when Gramp came zigzagging up the sidewalk.
    Bud sat up. Beneath the old woman’s howling, the drum taps of Gramp’s shoes grew louder but then, abruptly, stopped. Kate said, “Uh-oh.” The tall pine in the next yard blocked his view but he knew Gramp was standing in front of the pink villa and looking up at the light in the open attic window. Then he started hollering: “Quiet down up there! . . . Parlez vous? . . . I am a town selectman, ordering you to knock off that racket!”
    She went up an octave.
    “Quiet! Americans are trying to sleep!”
     Bud laughed out loud. Kate laughed too, which surprised him. The old Frenchwoman in Madame D’s attic kept crowing, oblivious to Gramp’s objections. By now the selectman was singing, “Oh, they don’t wear pants, in the southern part of France, but they do wear grass. . . . ” As if on cue, they both fell silent. Bud heard and then saw Gramp crossing the street toward the house. He reached the steps to the side porch, then the door to the kitchen, then he was inside. Bud exhaled. Kate shifted to the edge of the daybed, but kept an arm around his shoulders. He could feel her tenseness. Gramp climbed the 13 narrow, wooden, sole-scraping steps to the landing outside the den door. When the doorknob rattled Bud went to call out, “We’re in here!” but Kate pressed her open hand tight across his mouth. He struggled to break free but was no match for her. He had to stop himself from biting her hand.
    “Open up!” Gramp hammered the solid old door with his hand. “I know you’re in there! . . . Buddy?”
    Bud saw scarlet. If she loosened her hold an inch he’d yell his lungs out, way worse than the crazy lady in the attic. “Hush now, stop,” Kate whispered, “He’ll quit and go on to bed.”
    Even though it still felt like betrayal, Bud went limp. Soon the door pounding stopped and he heard Gramp step up into the adjacent bedroom. The springs squawked when he fell onto the bed. Utter silence followed. Even the crickets stopped. When the town clock struck 2, Bud felt her get up, tuck him into the daybed, and kiss his forehead.
    The sun woke him. He was alone. The den door was unlocked. Gramp was asleep in his bed, under the covers, his shoes set neatly on the floor, his clothes put away. Kate’s bed was empty and unmade; she must have slept in it. Bud tiptoed through the middle room, used the bathroom, and took the front staircase down. She was in the kitchen making breakfast. “How you feeling, sonny?”
    “Fine.” It felt like a lie but what else could he say? He ate his Rice Krispies. She told him fresh clothes were in the dining room, get dressed, she was taking him to work with her this morning.
    He said, “I want to stay here.”
    “No, he’ll be better by himself.”
    “He’s going to be mad at me.”
    “No, he won’t remember any of it.”
    Maybe, Bud thought, but I will, starting with his duet with the madwoman in the attic, which made him laugh out loud again.

    Ed Hannibal is a novelist who lives in Springs and belongs to the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. He will resume teaching a course, “The ABC’s of Fiction,” offered through the East Hampton School District’s Continuing Education program, on April 17.