By Jesse Kemmerer
Bootsie had been washing dishes in the kitchen when he first saw it – a white piece of something tied to a tree in the woods behind the house. It had been an unseasonably long winter for Blacktop, West Virginia standards, and though they were now venturing further into spring, the trees were still bleak and dead-looking, standing stiffly in a sea of brown leaves. Except for the white something flapping in the wind, sticking out like snow in summertime, nothing in that barren expanse of wood moved.
“Hey Momma!” he called, scrubbing the last bit of muck off a frying pan.
“Huh? What’d ya say?” she called back. She was in the living room, not twenty feet away.
Bootsie sighed and turned off the water. He leaned his elbows on the countertop and buried his face in his hands. “Momma!” he yelled, the word coming out muffled but loud all the same.
She’d heard him this time. Her cane clicked against the linoleum as she hobbled into the kitchen, signifying her arrival. Bootsie wiped the exasperation from his face.
“What? What are ya yellin for?” she asked. She was a small woman, and hard. She looked to be all bone underneath her sweater. Her short black hair stuck to her scalp as if it were a hair net.
“I think the trees is givin up,” Bootsie said, pointing out the window.
She didn’t say anything, only stood there looking at her son with a wild expression.
Bootsie took her by one bony hand, guiding her to the sink. She seemed to shrink into herself at his touch. He pointed at the white something flapping through the tree line. “See?” he said. “It’s the trees – they’s given up.” He squeezed his momma’s shoulders and smiled at her.
For a moment, she didn’t say anything. It was if her son were some foreigner on the other end of the telephone line when you called about your credit card or hospital bill – she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. “What are ya flappin your gums about?” she asked.
Bootsie felt his cheeks get hot. “They’s flyin the white flag,” he said, by way of explanation. He again pointed at the white something flapping in the wind, as if that would clear everything up.
She was awe-struck. Her mouth hung open, the shade of her lipstick making a perfectly red O like a bullet-hole where her mouth should be. “Are you dumb or something?” she asked. She shook her head as if she already knew the answer. Before her son could respond, she reached up and slapped a fragile hand across his face. It landed like a ghost from beatings’ past – all the shame but none of the sting. She shouldered him away and hobbled back into the living room, muttering under her breath about stupid sons and their stupid notions, her cane clacking along the linoleum, punctuating each word.
Bootsie watched her go, feeling his cheeks redden as if he were ten years old again. He turned the water back on and finished washing and drying the dishes, looking up at the white something blowing in the trees every so often just to make sure it was still there.
Though he was 46 at the time, Bootsie didn’t have much say when the decision was made for him to move back in with his momma, who was edging into her mid-seventies and required in-home care. He was the most likely candidate to look after her.
She’d chased the last three day-nurses out of her house with a broom, if Mrs. Kinneson, the nosy neighbor from next door, was to be believed. Stowing her away in a nursing home was out of the question. Big Jim, the eldest brother of the family and the only one moderately well-off, certainly wasn’t going to foot the bill, not when the rest of his family – his younger brother Kurt, who fixed transmissions at Dale’s Auto when he wasn’t fixing himself with moonshine the night before; his younger sister Irene, who was living off food stamps with her deadbeat boyfriend; and baby of the family, Bootsie, who’d lived on couches and futons for the better part of his life – weren’t able to chip in. “Besides,” Big Jim said the night they were all gathered around his dinner table, discussing what to do with their momma when she was released – or thrown out – from the hospital, “Momma wouldn’t last two weeks in a home. She’d sneak whiskey in somehow and get on one of her mean streaks, bitin other patients – er, residents, I guess – and smackin nurses’ ankles with her cane. She’d get the boot and then we’d all be right back where we are now, only a couple thousand bucks lighter.”
Bootsie smirked. Not at the thought of all 97 frail pounds of his Momma stone-drunk, terrorizing a nursing home with her oak cane; he smirked because he knew Big Jim was about to make a decision for the family. That’s the only time his accent ever came out.
“So I was thinkin, Boot,” Big Jim said, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knee as if he were about to give one of his employees some bad news – Sorry, bub, but I’m gonna need you to come in at 6AM every weekend for the rest of your life. “Why don’t you move back in, take up your old room? You’ll have a hell of a lot more space, and you can keep an eye on Momma, help her up the stairs, make sure she’s takin all her pills and washing them down with more than just licker.”
Bootsie wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but at the time, he couldn’t think of a reason to say no. He was living in Irene’s attic on a futon that was roughly half the size of his body. He wouldn’t mind being able to spread out in a real bed at night. And besides, someone had to look after Momma, who was currently in the hospital after having her second fall in three weeks. Luckily, her nosy neighbor, Mrs. Kinneson, had dropped by and found her lying motionless on the floor. If she hadn’t been there to call 9-1-1, Momma might never have woken up. Bootsie didn’t know if that was necessarily a bad thing – he had no warm and fuzzy feelings for his momma, who was collectively despised throughout the family – but he thought she deserved a better end than seizing and foaming at the mouth on her living room floor. “I s’pose I could,” he said finally. “For a while, at least.”
Their father had died ten years earlier of renal cancer, and Momma had been living on her own ever since, save the three failed experiments of hiring day nurses to look after her. The house never seemed to have left the mourning stage after his death – the blinds were perpetually closed, every room shrouded in a heavy darkness that was further punctuated by brown carpeting, wood-paneled walls and plastic-covered furniture. Momma, on the other hand, seemed to thrive in the role of bereaved widow; she was seen in bars and thrift stores around town for years after wearing all black, telling anyone who’d listen what a fine man her husband had been. “He went out with his boots on,” she’d say, wiping an imaginary tear from the corner of her eye. That was a lie, of course – her husband had gone out on his back in a hospital bed, his skin so yellow and jaundiced that he looked more like a rotten zucchini than a human being – but it racked up enough sympathy points to get her an extra five or ten bucks as she hawked his baseball card collection or commendation medals from the Navy.
Everyone in the family expected her to put the house on the market after the funeral, though they didn’t expect to see one red cent of the profits (they’d been told as much before their father even passed). It was an old house, built sometime in the early fifties. It sat on a considerable chunk of land – there was grass to be mowed and trees to be trimmed and other general maintenance needed done to keep up the property. It was clearly no home for a widow in the last years of her life, and the family told her as much. Big Jim even offered to pay the deposit on a small, one-story apartment for her, figuring it would be cheaper than paying a landscaping crew to come out once a week for the next however many years until she finally croaked, but Momma held on to the house like a miser. “I’ll die here ‘fore I sell one square inch,” she said when her son broached the subject, pointing a bony finger at him. “And don’t you forget it.”
The family kept up with their visits and the yard work for a while, but as the seasons rolled by, they found it easier and easier to come up with excuses. Big Jim had to work. Kurt was too sick (in Kurt-parlance, that meant hungover). Irene once made the mistake of having her new boyfriend of the month, Trayvon, a six-foot-five black man with hands that could probably palm a fully inflated beach ball, drop her off one Saturday morning. Momma had been on the porch, rocking in her chair with her morning coffee, which she took black with two dashes of Jack. When she saw the Cadillac pull up and saw that Nubian Adonis kiss her one and only daughter on the lips, she threw her mug at the windshield. It landed in the grass well short of its target, but then she grabbed the shotgun from the house, aimed at the car with two shaky arms, and fired. The gun didn’t go off – she’d never thought to check if it was loaded when she’d grabbed it from her late-husband’s bureau – but the intended effect was achieved; the Cadillac sped down the road, and Irene never came back.
Bootsie stopped by the least, and by the time he moved in, he hadn’t seen the house or his momma in nearly two years. He found that both had grown markedly older and more decrepit; his momma wobbled more heavily on her cane, shaking it as if it were a magic eight ball every time she put it down (Bootsie secretly hoped for the time it showed up BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME), and the grass and weeds had grown lush and jungle-like around the house, swallowing it up. Every window was closed, curtained, and possibly even boarded up, or so it had looked to Bootsie as he stood in the driveway with his bags in his hands. The house showed no sign of life; not even a memory of one.
The new living arrangement took some adjusting to, but Bootsie and his momma got along about as well as they could throughout the years. It was a fairly large house – three bedrooms, two baths, with an attic and dirt floor basement – and they used the space well, avoiding one another as a snake avoids a mongoose. They were rarely in the same room together, dinner being the one exception, which Momma always had on the table at 5PM sharp. If there was any redeeming quality about her, it was that she made a mean supper, always home-cooked and greasy and filling.
Bootsie helped her up the stairs, into the shower, even off the commode, on a handful of mutually embarrassing occasions. He set her pills out for her every morning, noon and night. There was no speaking between them during these times, and afterwards, there was no acknowledgement that any help had been either given or received; it was a simple nurse-patient relationship.
He tried to keep up with things around the house by himself, but eventually figured them a lost cause. He found that no matter how many weeds he rooted, more grew back within the week. They’d been allowed to fester too long, he decided one day, and gave up altogether.
As for money, the social security checks Momma received were enough to get by on. Bootsie worked odd jobs a few times a week as he’d done his whole adult life – a little carpentry here, some auto work there. He would splurge sometimes on nice cuts of steak or chicken from the butcher. Momma always fried them up special, and they would both enjoy the meal silently.
Life rolled by that way for a long time – silently.
Now, five years later, a week after Bootsie saw the white something flapping in the wind, he stood in front of the sink, washing and drying dishes. The window was open, a hint of spring whispering its way into the small kitchen.
He was fifty-one years old, now. The top of his head was bald, the sides lined with stubborn clumps of thin, graying hair. He wore the same pair of overalls he’d been wearing for thirty years, with a t-shirt underneath that held three days’ worth of stank and stench. He’d inherited his daddy’s potbelly in his old age, and he couldn’t remember the last time he saw his prick. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time it had been touched by more than his hand. Still, that hint of spring – of life – permeated through the kitchen for the first time in years, it seemed, and Bootsie thought it was a damn fine night to be alive.
He looked out at the trees in the woods, searching for the white something he’d seen flapping in the wind a week ago. It was hard to tell if it was there or not – so many of the trees already had white blossoms of their own. He didn’t think it was.
“Hey Momma!” he called.
He wanted to tell her about the trees, how they’d decided not to give up after all. Then he remembered that she wouldn’t be able to hear him upstairs in her bedroom.
And besides, she was dead.
Bootsie’s nephew, Jimmy, stood at the top of the attic steps with his hands shoved deep in his pockets. His shoulders were slumped, his head lowered in a posture of utter defeat, partly because the cross-beams at the top of the attic stairs were less than an inch above his head but mostly due to the sheer volume of junk that surrounded him on all sides. “We’re never gonna finish,” he told his uncle.
Bootsie sighed and sat on one of the many boxes lining the walls. It sank under his considerable weight. “Aw, hell. We’ll make a dent, won’t we?”
Jimmy kicked around some dust. “Not a big one,” he said, looking more downtrodden than ever. He hoped his uncle would just agree with him. The attic looked to be a makeshift dump – there was no way they’d be able to clean it all up in one day.
His uncle said, “Put your mask on, son.” A gust of wind blew and the house groaned, taking the sentiment right out of Jimmy’s mouth.
After an hour, they hadn’t made much progress. Boxes and decorations and newspapers and furniture – all the junk that seems to live exclusively in rickety attics across America – littered the small space, everything old and musty, coated in a thin layer of dust, grimy to the touch. For a while, Jimmy lugged trash bag after trash bag down the steps and out to the curb, trudging back up to the attic a few minutes later red in the face and huffing through the dust mask around his nose and mouth, clumps of sweaty hair sticking to his forehead. Then, Bootsie had an idea. He opened the window at the far end of the attic and punched the screen out. “Hand me a bag,” he said, then tossed it straight out the window. It landed on the lawn with a crash. They waited, silent as the bats that were still hiding undisturbed in whatever corners of the attic they had not yet reached, then Bootsie said with a sly smile, “Hand me another one.”
Subsequent trash vacated the attic much quicker. Boosie saw his nephew’s face light up every time he threw something two stories down and watched it crash and break apart on the lawn. After another hour and two-dozen more tosses out the window, they went outside to arrange the trash pile for pickup.
Bootsie watched from the porch sipping from a mug of sweat tea while his nephew dutifully swept the trash from the lawn and piled it onto a growing heap by the curb. It was a beautiful spring day – the first warm one of the season – and it had come in like a lion; yesterday morning, you could feel winter in your bones, but today was spring, by-God, and you could feel it in your heart. Birds were chirping in trees already starting to bloom, a noon-day sun provided warmth and light to everything beneath it, and the smell of life was in the air, fragrant the way it can only be in those first days of spring, before your nose becomes accustomed to its scent, forgets its even there. As Bootsie sat on the porch sipping his tea, watching his nephew muscle trash bags and boxes into piles that kept toppling over, he thought that it was a damn fine day to be alive.
“You got it, son,” he said when the last of the trash was squared away on the curb. “Come take a rest.”
Jimmy walked up to the porch wiping the sweat from his forehead. His white t shirt was dirt- and muck-stained, clinging to his body in wet patches of sweat. He sat heavily in a rocking chair beside his uncle.
“You done good today,” Bootsie said.
“Thanks Uncle Bootsie,” Jimmy replied. He cheery now, happy that the day’s work was done before lunchtime.
“Are you hungry?” Bootsie asked.
“No,” Jimmy lied. His stomach grumbled and they both had a laugh.
Bootsie knew why his nephew didn’t want to have lunch, and frankly, he didn’t blame him. As if reading his thoughts, Jimmy asked, “Why is she so mean?”
It took courage for him to ask something like that, Bootsie knew. He watched his nephew’s face redden, saw his eyes drop in embarrassment. “That’s just the way she is,” he said.
“But why? What did anyone ever do to her?”
Bootsie clapped him on the back. “No tellin,” he said, and that was the end of it.
Jimmy’s father pulled into the driveway a few minutes later. He’d recently bought a new truck – a ford F-150 with chrome rims and a slick blue paint job. He climbed out of the cab in his suit and tie, traced his fingers across the hood, pausing for a second to lick his thumb and wipe away a smudge or stain that was most certainly not there.
“Hiya Big Jim,” Bootsie said when he walked up the porch steps.
“Hey Boot,” Big Jim said absently, then turned to his son. “Get some work done today?”
“Yessir,” Jimmy replied.
Big Jim eyed his younger brother sitting in his rocking chair. He asked him the same question.
“Aw, we did all right. Another pass or two and we’ll have it licked,” Bootsie said.
Big Jim seemed to consider this, perhaps thinking if history were any indication, that second or third pass would never come. “Let’s go say ‘bye’ to Grandma,” he said to his son.
“She’s takin a nap,” Bootsie said. He made a drinking gesture, holding his thumb out and tilting it towards his lips. Then he reached into his back pocket for his bill fold.
“That’s not necessary,” Big Jim said, but Bootsie plucked a twenty out anyway and handed it to his nephew. “Good work today,” he said.
Big Jim gave him a look. “Really, Boot, we don’t need your money.”
“Aint no we about it,” Bootsie said, ruffling his nephew’s hair. “You got yourself a good worker here.”
Big Jim nodded.
“What do you say, son? Same time next week?” Bootsie asked.
Jimmy’s eyes flicked over to his father, who was looking perhaps more intently at Bootsie than he should have been. Aint no son a yours, those eyes said, in the same accent Big Jim had had for twenty years or more, before he moved to the city and got a job slinging papers instead of asphalt. He nodded, and Jimmy nodded, too, sticking his hand out to his uncle. When Bootsie shook it, he pretended his hand was being crushed by his nephew’s grip, yelping and slapping his knee, begging him to lighten up. Jimmy giggled, then gave him a hug.
Big Jim took his son by the shoulder and they got in the truck and drove away. Bootsie watched the dust billow out from behind the truck’s big back tires, hoping at least a little bit of it managed to stick to the paintjob.
A week later, Big Jim dropped his son off at the house. Bootsie met his nephew at the door.
“Hey Uncle Bootsie,” Jimmy said, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Yard looks good. What’s with all the open wi – “ He scrunched his face into a ball and dry heaved, his tongue sticking out and his eyes bugging from their sockets.
Bootsie placed a dust mask around his nose and mouth, the same kind he was currently wearing. “Sewer line busted,” he said, explaining why every window in the house was open. That was a lie, of course; the source of the stench was his momma’s decomposing body.
“Gramma’s probably havin a cow,” Jimmy said.
Bootsie laughed. “I’m sure she is,” he said, and led his nephew up to the attic.
Jimmy couldn’t believe his eyes – or his luck. The attic had already been cleaned, for the most part; all the trash and various odds and ends had been put into trash bags, anything heavy had been lugged downstairs, and even the floorboards were free of dust, the yellow-ish brown of the wood shining in the morning sunlight coming through the window.
Bootsie saw the smile on his nephew’s face. “We got ‘er licked, now,” he said.
It didn’t take long for them to finish up. Bootsie had already done most of the legwork, and by the time the last of the trash was thrown out the attic window, it was only 10 o’ clock. Jimmy sat indian-style in the empty room, looking around in awe. A week ago, the space had been nothing more than a trash heap, and today all that was left was a cumbersome vanity mirror and a bag of his Gramma’s old hats. “We did good, Uncle Bootsie,” he said. His uncle sat down beside him. “Yessir, we did,” he said.
They were silent for a time, both of them sitting cross-legged on the bare attic floor. Jimmy started scratching one of the floorboards with his fingernail. “About last week, what I said about Gramma,” he started. Bootsie let him find the words himself, looking at him blankly. “I didn’t mean to call her mean,” Jimmy continued. “I know that’s not a nice thing to say, specially about your elders.”
“She scares you a little, don’t she?” Bootsie asked.
Jimmy looked at his uncle wide-eyed, shaking his head. “One time, I was standing a little too close to the fan, so she – “
Bootsie put his hand up and his nephew sputtered off, red in the face. They both knew the story and they both knew there were countless more to tell.
“I just don’t get it,” Jimmy blurted out. “Why don’t we just let her… I mean, why does anyone even come around to help anymore? Why do you have to live with her?”
Bootsie considered this for a while. Then he said, “Do you remember your Grandpappy?”
“Not really. I know he got sick.”
“Uh huh, he did,” Bootsie said. “But before he was sick – before you were even thought of, youngin – he bought this house for your gramma. He was twenty-five or so then, and he’d squirreled away enough take-home pay from the Navy and from workin odd jobs when he got back stateside to put half down on it, cash. He paid the rest off over a ten-year span, not a single nickel coming from nobody else.”
Bootsie could tell the weight of what he’d just said was lost on his nephew, who was all of eleven years old, but he went on regardless: “This was their – your gramma and grandpappy’s – home, and it was mine, too, same as your Daddy and your Ant ‘Rene and your Uncle Kurt.”
Jimmy eyes darted around the room, unsure what to settle on.
“Now, your daddy might wonder why your Gramma decided to hold on to in her old age – you mighta heard him sayin as much to your momma around the dinner table. He mighta thought she’d take the money and move into a home or an apartment, but he’s not seein things from her point of view. Our daddy bought this house for us, not nobody else, and your Gramma wasn’t about to spit on that. She wasn’t about to let go of it til she was dead in the ground beside him.”
Jimmy nodded his head dutifully, and Bootsie nodded back.
“Point I’m tryin to make,” Bootsie said, “Is ain’t nobody all-good or all-bad, ain’t nobody all-right or all-wrong. You ask why your Gramma is so mean all the time – and she is mean, I know it as well as anybody – but you forget she’s lived seven lifetimes more than you. You forget she’s old and cranky and alone.” He sighed. “We didn’t have much love for her as kids, your daddy least of all, and we don’t have much love for her now. But I think we all have a little. She raised us, after all, she’s our Momma. And just ‘cause you don’t like someone, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do right by em.”
“Uncle Bootsie, you’re, uh…,” Jimmy stuttered. He looked plainly uncomfortable, still chewing away at the floorboard with his fingernail, avoiding eye-contact with his uncle altogether. “Do you want me to get you a tissue or something?”
Bootsie reached up and found wetness in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away. “Come on,” he said, “there’s some work yet to be done outside.”
When Big Jim pulled his truck into the driveway a few hours later, Bootsie and Jimmy were raking up freshly mown grass, piling it into big contractor bags and dumping them into the woods behind the house. Big Jim lent a hand.
“How’d he do today?” he asked his brother.
“Hard worker, that son a yours,” Bootsie said, beaming at his nephew. “Fine young man you got there.”
“I’ll tell you, Boot,” Big Jim said just as the last of the grass was being picked up, “Place looks good. Damn good. I didn’t know you’d planned on cleanin up, else I woulda stayed and helped. Hell, it looks like it did when we was kids.”
“Like I said,” Boosie replied, ruffling his nephew’s hair. “You raised yourself a hard worker.”
Big Jim nodded. “I got some papers for Momma to sign,” he said, going to his truck. He handled all her finances, big city man that he was.
“She’s nappin,” Bootsie said weakly, but Big Jim was already making his way inside. Bootsie shoved his hands in his overall pockets and followed, telling his nephew to stay outside and keep an eye on his daddy’s truck.
Big Jim almost ran right back out the front door, but Bootsie was there blocking it. “What the hell is that smell?” he asked, coughing. Bootsie pointed upstairs. “In her bedroom,” he said, pulling a dust mask from his pocket. “You’re gonna wanna wear this.” He handed it over.
The look on Big Jim’s face was a mixture of confusion, horror and revulsion. By the time he opened the door to his momma’s bedroom, it had leveled out into cold understanding. “Christ, Boot,” he said, closing the door just as quickly as he’d opened it. “How long’s she been in there?”
“Week or so,” Bootsie said. He’d hung a dozen car air fresheners – the evergreen scented ones – around the room trying to mask the smell. He’d pulled the covers over her face.
“And you didn’t think to call nobody?” Big Jim asked.
Bootsie shrugged his shoulders. “Weren’t ready yet,” he said, unsure if he was talking about himself, his momma, or the house.
Big Jim pulled out his cell phone and dialed the only numbers he could think to dial: 9-1-1.
Bootsie hadn’t killed his momma, of course, but he was charged with Failure to Report her death, which carried a $500 fine. He had to borrow the money from Big Jim.
Death had taken Momma peacefully in her sleep, he later learned from the coroner’s report. Respiratory failure. She’d simply stopped breathing at some point in the night, and never started back up again. Bootsie accepted that fact, though he didn’t much believe it; he couldn’t imagine his momma being taken peacefully by anything.
He stood on the other side of the street with Mrs. Kinneson, the nosy neighbor, as they rolled her body out. He thought he’d done about the best he could. The paint was still chipped in places – it needed a fresh coat about ten years ago – and the bones of the old house still sagged onto its foundation, but the lawn was cut and the weeds plucked and the windows open, letting light shine through. Standing there looking at it, Bootsie thought the house might even harbor some life between the floorboards.
Or at the very least, a memory of it.
About the Author:
Jesse Kemmerer lives in West-by-God, where he runs a website design company. He plays drums in a blues band and shoots pool on Wednesday nights. This is his first published short story, and he thanks you for reading it.