The Choices We Make
Published in The Society of Misfit Stories, Vol 1 Issue 3
When I returned from a long walk with Pep, the house smelled of Grandma’s too-flowery perfume, Grandpa’s not-at-all-flowery socks, and Sunday afternoon pasta. Happily, the last dominated as I approached the kitchen.
“That smells great.” I lifted the lid on a simmering pot of sauce, glanced at Grandma, then tore a piece from her fresh-baked Italian loaf, dipped it in the sauce and slipped it into my mouth before she turned. Unfortunately, spaghetti sauce simmers fairly hot, and my yelp did not go unnoticed.
If not for my burning mouth, I would have smiled at her tone of reprimand, so effective during my childhood summers, now not so much. I winced as I swallowed.
“Serves you right,” she said. “Dinner’s in half an hour. Go get cleaned up.”
I was about to obey, really I was, but Pep thumped his golden tail on the floor, his eyes pleading. I really had no choice. I tore another piece from the loaf, coated it in sauce and silently replaced the lid. This time I blew on the bread before feeding it to a grateful but impatient golden retriever. His lip-smacking ratted me out.
“John Edward Brock.”
“The third,” I said. “You always forget the third.” I hurried down the hall. “It’s delicious by the way.”
After a quick shower, I cleared my largely neglected study materials from the dining room table.
As always, Grandpa led the conversation. “See anything interesting at the hospital today?”
I finally had an answer tonight. Nothing interesting ever stayed in Eastfield. Those patients went down to Mass General or the fifty-seven other Boston hospitals. “Matthew Earleton came in with a febrile seizure.”
Grandma groaned. “If that woman would give that child Tylenol…”
“It’s none of our concern,” Grandpa said. Conversation over.
They’d been neighbors for generations, but never neighborly. Even before Myrtle Earleton died in the ER while under grandpa’s care. It wasn’t his fault, but the seeds of distrust had been sowed centuries before. I found the residual animosity amusing. For decades Myrtle fought to unseat Grandma as the town’s best baker, and quilter, and church volunteer, and grandmother for that matter. Now Myrtle’s granddaughter-in-law, Lydia Earleton, had taken up the challenge. This month it was the annual Independence Day bread-baking contest. So small-town compared to my life in Boston.
“And your studying?” Grandpa said. “With so little clinical work, you should be making progress.”
“It’s…going.” Not. Based on Harvard’s pre-med study guide, a month into MCAT preparation I was three weeks behind.
“Stop pushing him,” Grandma said. “Dr. Zeke said he’s doing excellent work at the hospital.”
Grandpa scoffed. “As a glorified secretary.”
Not far from the truth. As an ER scribe, I typed in the chart while Dr. Zeke interviewed patients. Mind-numbing work, but it looked good on a med school application.
“Your father aced the MCAT,” Grandpa said. “His study materials are in the basement.”
“Oh John, that was thirty years ago,” Grandma said. Pep groaned as if in agreement.
“Physiology hasn’t changed,” Grandpa said.
True enough, and it would be fitting to study from Dad’s books. I was following in his footsteps after all. Well, his and the nine generations that came before. Oh, and they all graduated from Harvard Med, but no pressure.
“You wouldn’t be so far behind if you majored in a science instead of history,” Grandpa said, as if my major was only slightly more acceptable than underwater basket-weaving.
Grandma intervened again. “Med schools want well-rounded students now.”
Should it bother me she felt compelled to come to my defense?
“But does Harvard Med want history majors?” Grandpa smacked the table, his dish rattled.
No sense telling him getting in was different now—that legacy meant nothing, that the acceptance rate was less than four percent, that I got a B in Organic Chemistry. No sense telling him the illustrious Brock chain will break with me. I’ll get into medical school somewhere, probably, but not Harvard.
Dishes cleared, I descended the narrow wood stairs to the basement in search of Dad’s old books. It beat studying, and having something of Dad’s was a lure I couldn’t resist.
I passed old furniture, including the wood crib I’d always assumed was my father’s. Toward the back of the basement were the boxes, stacked on metal shelving. Those in the front row were neatly arranged and clearly labeled, because Grandpa was a neatly arranged and unlabeled obsessive-compulsive.
I found my dad’s box easily enough and slid it to the floor. Behind it on the deep shelves was another box labeled Medical Books. It contained several textbooks from the early 1900’s. Thanks to my work-study job in Harvard’s medical history library, I recognized the volumes to be both rare and in extraordinary condition.
Over the next several hours I rummaged through numerous boxes, traveling further into the past. I took photos of the covers for Dr. Caton, a retired physician-turned-historian and my mentor. He’d convinced me to apply for the Oxford Fellowship in Medical History. It was a long shot, but the personal essays were remarkably easy to write, compared to those for med school. He considered that telling. I hoped he was wrong.
I had to belly-crawl under the shelving unit to pull out a final crate, wedged tightly in place. I pried open the lid with a screw-driver, releasing the familiar scent of old leather, ink, aged paper. On top lay a deep red leather-bound volume. I lifted it carefully and read the spine, Exercitatio Anatomica by Harvey, London 1737.
“My thoughts exactly.” Grandma’s voice. “You were supposed to get one box, Jack.” She frowned at the scattered cartons.
My hands trembled holding the book. “This is De Motu Cordis.”
“Is that Latin for a big mess?”
“It’s incredibly rare. A 1737 reprint. Harvey was the first to demonstrate circulation of the blood.”
Her face softened. She alone knew how I felt about history. She held up a small stack of bread slices. “I need you to try these and tell me which recipe I should enter in the contest.”
I’m no rye bread expert, so I chose the one with more bites missing, hoping it was a signal from Grandpa.
She thanked me. “I let Pep out. Goodnight, Jack.” Welling guilt was replaced by awe when I looked back at the books.
The final two were untitled—black leather covers, rough-cut brown pages. Inside, in flowing cursive, the first read, “The Medical Records of Jedidiah Brock, 1685-1690.” My stomach did a small backflip.
I sat on the floor and read. Though I struggled with the script at first, I soon learned to distinguish ‘s’ from ‘f.’ Great Grandpa Jed listed patients by name, age, diagnosis and treatment. Common were typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox, yellow fever, in addition to traumas and deliveries. The number of stillbirths and obstetrical deaths was alarming.
The second book began much as the first, “The Medical Records of Jedidiah Brock, 1691-.” I skimmed the first several pages, stopping at one with a drawing of hands and feet contorted in spasm. Treatment included herbs I’d never heard of, except for chives. The patient recovered. Grandpa Jed rocked.
On the following date he treated two sisters with epileptic fits, one of whom died from “breathing of stomach contents.” The next few days filled twenty or more pages, more than the preceding three months combined. The town’s tiny population suffered a premature stillbirth, a suicide, and three patients with hallucinations, including a young woman who nearly fell to her death convinced she could fly. Two neighbors suffered intense burning pain of the extremities, which “turned black akin to gangrene.”
Jed’s notes lengthened, less about individual patients than the unlikely constellation of illnesses. He sought “a poison or draught to link the conditions” and created a table with columns for locations each patient recently visited, personal contacts, food consumed. Several pages described rudimentary experiments involving water from different wells, oil, various chemicals, and fire. Fascinating.
Later, he referred to a scientific letter published in France and wrote, “All may be linked by ergot from the rye.” He listed ten family names, check marks followed all but one—McMurtrie.
The next page held a single entry:
24 June, 1692, I have endeavoured to convince McMurtrie of the great importance of destroying his rye. But in a corruption of ignorance, he refuses, instead implicating witchcraft from Salem. I shall tarry no longer.
The rest of the book was blank.
The final item in the box was not a book, but a small burlap bag, sealed at both ends, and full of grain or something. Maybe a 17th Century dehumidifier?
* * *
Next morning over breakfast I told Grandma and Grandpa about the treasures in their basement, nodding to the crate I’d brought up. After I described the mysterious series of cases—the seizures, the hallucinations, the gangrene, Grandpa said, “Ergotism.”
Fork frozen in mid-air, I said, “How did you know?”
“I diagnosed a case during residency. Saved him with intra-arterial nitroprusside.”
Wow, Grandpa rocked, too.
I offered to clean the breakfast dishes while they took Pep for a walk. An unexpected knock at the back door turned more surprising when it was Lydia Earleton, Matthew’s mother. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but Matthew has another fever and I wonder if I could borrow some Tylenol. I don’t want him to have another seizure.” She looked around, furtively it seemed to me. Seeking help from the enemy. I grinned at the thought as I went to look up the pediatric dose. When I returned to the kitchen, I found my grandparents, and no Lydia.
Grandma said, “I need to start my bread. You boys picked the same recipe.”
Grandpa winked at me.
I offered to buy more rye flour. It gave me the opportunity to purchase pediatric Tylenol and drop it by the Earleton’s, feeling a bit sneaky myself. Lydia appeared much more guilt-ridden than the occasion required.
Back in the basement I catalogued the books as I replaced the boxes, then returned to the kitchen where the crate sat empty. “They’re in the dining room,” Grandma said.
Harvey’s book belonged in a museum, and Grandpa Jed’s books had immeasurable historical value. I’d consult Dr. Caton. Flipping through the second volume, a page slipped out from the back. A letter, hand-written in the same script.
27 June, 1692
My dearest wife,
You can divine without difficulty the grave error I have wrought. My intent to destroy the poison crop caused this unhappy situation for which I deserve to be judged most harshly by God and man. It is done.
Care for our sons, most beloved.
I am, Madam,
your very humble servant,
Did Jed run away? Commit suicide?
The library’s archives might fill in some blanks. Mrs. Kessler, the librarian since stone tablets, knew what I needed almost before I completed the request. Moments later I sat before a 35mm microfilm, “Records of the Town of Eastfield, 1636 to 1705,” scrolling forward to 1692.
A lump formed in my throat at a headline: “Six dead in McMurtrie fire.”
I scrolled back several pages. Though challenged again by the script, I got the gist. At a town council meeting, Grandpa Jed blamed Mr. McMurtrie’s rye crop for a spate of seemingly unrelated illnesses. In a colonial version of show-and-tell, he brought in the suspect cockspur, a purplish flower not present on healthy rye. He also presented a publication from Dr. Thuillier, the French physician who narrowed down the cause of a “Holy Fire” outbreak in rural Paris to the cockspur. Fascinating how public health worked in the 17th Century.
Mr. McMurtrie argued that similar symptoms had occurred in nearby Salem, caused by a confessed witch. He even suggested that Grandpa Jed was trying to protect his wife, implying she might be a witch herself.
Three hundred years later, the accusation heated my face. Images from the Salem witch trials came to mind. Surely it didn’t go that far.
Much like politics today, the council made no decision, refusing to either destroy the crop or to try Mrs. Brock for witchcraft.
The next entry, dated two days later, reported a fire that consumed the property of Mr. McMurtrie, both his rye field and his home. Six people died, including his wife and two of three sons. Authorities sought Jedidiah Brock for questioning, but found him deceased in his basement of apparent poisoning.
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Kessler said.
I hadn’t noticed her approach, nor intended to speak aloud. “Sorry.”
“I’m afraid it’s closing time,” she said.
I glanced at my watch—nearly one. “I’m sorry. You should have kicked me out.”
“It’s okay, son. It’s nice to see young people interested in our history. We open again this evening.”
I printed the last few pages, overpaid the printing fee in apology, then hurried home to apologize again. I could live at the library…any library…with extensive archives.
Over a late lunch, I told the story of Jedidiah Brock’s untimely demise. Grandma said Grandma-like things—“oh my goodness,” “what a shame,” “how sad.” Grandpa said nothing, but listened intently.
When I returned from walking my very forgiving dog, Grandpa stood before the Brock Family Bible in its glass case. Off-limits when I was a child, I remembered sitting on Grandma’s lap while she showed me the long list of hand-written names in the Bible’s front cover, mine at the bottom.
Grandpa said, “I always wondered about that name, Jedidiah, what he did to deserve banishment.”
His must have been the one name scratched through. Up near the top of the list.
“Now I know he was a man of honor and pride for our family.”
I allowed myself some small self-congratulations, I’d solved the mystery for him.
“You are now the successor to an unblemished history of Harvard physicians.”
Buzz kill. I could have argued. Grandpa Jed didn’t attend Harvard Med—it wasn’t founded until 1782—but why bother. My spring semester grades had arrived—another B. Harvard Medical School was all but out of the question. Part of me wasn’t sorry. Part of me wanted a different life.
I lifted the book from its stand. At the table, I opened to the inside cover. Incredible. My ancestors had touched this book, had written in it—births and deaths—all the way back to 1600.
“Jedidiah Brock 1657” had been scratched through in black ink. No other names were deleted, as it were.
Toward the bottom of the page was my grandfather “John Edward Brock, September 24, 1935.” Followed by, “John Edward Brock II, April 23, 1962”—my father. Tears pricked my eyes. I touched the letters written at his birth. Last was me, “John Edward Brock III, February 27, 1997.” Our family tree was more of a log.
Grandpa walked away, shoulders hunched.
Grandma took his place, her eyes achingly sad. She reached into the open drawer of the cabinet and handed me a pen labeled “Archival Ink.” “No parent should write in their child’s death-date.”
Of course not. I added “–July 4, 2016” to my father’s entry, then wrapped my grandmother in a hug.
* * *
Two days later, just after breakfast, the back door banged and Matthew Earleton ran in, face tear-stained. “Niki’s bleeding. You have to help her.”
Grandma put a hand on his shoulder. “His baby-sitter. She’s pregnant.” To Matthew she said, “Grandpa John and Jack will take care of her. You stay here with me and we’ll call your mom.”
“And 911,” Grandpa said as he led the way out the back door.
Screams led us to the Earleton’s kitchen. A very pregnant young woman lay on the floor in a pool of blood, so much blood.
“Check her pulse,” Grandpa said.
I swallowed back bile, knelt beside her and felt her wrist. “It’s fast,” I said.
She writhed on the slick floor.
Grandpa examined her abdomen. “Her uterus is contracting and not releasing. This baby needs to deliver.”
“It’s too early,” she said between clenched teeth.
Sirens intensified, my relief nearly matching Niki’s. I tried to stand, but she wouldn’t release my hand. Her look of pain and desperation overrode my need to get away from the blood. As the EMTs hung IV fluids and moved her to a stretcher, she kept her eyes on mine. Like a staring contest. I tried to look reassuring, not sure I pulled it off.
She insisted I stay with her, the EMTs knew me from the ER and didn’t argue. Grandpa nodded his approval.
At the hospital, controlled chaos ensued. I lost track of the dizzying array of people and roles. I expected to be left at the OR doors, but Dr. Zeke ushered me through. Green walls, bright lights, rapid beeping interrupted by alarms, shouts. Within minutes Niki was under general anesthesia, and Dr. Zeke was resuscitating a tiny baby on a nearby warmer.
I stood by in shock, useless. I couldn’t do this. I could barely watch this.
A tiny cough, then a weak cry that gradually strengthened. Exclamations by the nurses. Dr. Zeke came to the head of the OR table and asked the obstetrician, “How’s it look?”
“Her uterus is like a rock. That little fella’s lucky she got here so fast.”
Dr. Zeke squeezed my shoulder, “Nice job.”
But I could take no credit. They’d saved Niki and her baby while I stood paralyzed. I was eliminating possible specialties at an alarming rate: ER, OB, surgery, and the anesthesiologist was way too calm.
“Dr. Zeke?” A nurse leaned through the OR door holding a mask to her face. “We need you.”
As we strode down the hall after the nurse, Dr. Zeke asked, “Are you okay? That was pretty intense.”
Understatement. “Yeah, thanks. You guys were amazing.”
“You’re getting to see some rare events.”
We followed the nurse into an exam room where two large aides struggled to restrain a young woman on a stretcher. She fought and kicked, screaming to be released. Dr. Zeke administered some medications, the names of which I’d look up later, and soon the patient calmed. I went to the computer.
Dr. Zeke said, “No scribing, you’re not on the clock, just observe.” He scanned her medical record.
I watched uncertainly. Scribing added a comfortable, if invisible, wall between me and the patient, which, come to think of it, said a lot about me.
“This is Corinne Blakely,” Dr. Zeke said. “Mid-twenties, teacher, musician. Single, no kids. Previously healthy. No history of drug abuse.”
“She was found on the bridge about to jump,” the nurse said.
Hands over her face, Corinne said, “Oh my God. I actually thought I could fly.” She sobbed.
“Corinne,” Dr. Zeke said, “I need to know what you took.”
Her hands came down slowly, red swollen eyes opened wide. “Like a drug? I didn’t. I wouldn’t.”
He maintained eye contact, waited, asked whether she’d accepted a drink from anyone, smoked anything, waited again, but she remained steadfast. I believed her, for what that was worth. Dr. Zeke admitted her for observation, and sent a drug screen.
As we left the room, another nurse said, “Mr. Earleton is back. His feet are still burning and neurology told him it’s not peripheral neuropathy.”
Matthew’s father? How many Earletons could there be?
“All right,” Dr. Zeke said, letting out a long, tired breath, and stopped to fill a cup at the water cooler. He handed one to me.
“Is thinking you can fly a common hallucination?” I asked.
Dr. Zeke looked thoughtful. “Not that I know of. Why?”
“I just read about another case, from a long time ago. It ended up being ergotism.”
Dr. Zeke smiled a knowing, maybe even condescending, smile. “The med student curse. Read about a zebra and everything with four legs becomes one.” He shook his head. “Common things are common. On purpose or not, Corinne took something she shouldn’t have.” Tossing his empty cup into the trash, he said, “I’m going to order lower extremity Dopplers for Mr. Earleton, to see if he has a clot. No need for you to stay.”
Guilt tempered my relief at the invitation to leave, but curiosity about Grandpa Jed won out. Did he burn the McMurtrie property? Did that earn his erasure from the family Bible?
I stepped from the hospital, torn. I might find answers at the cemetery, but I would also find my parents’ graves. I’d not been back since the funeral, and with the anniversary tomorrow…
My feet took over and soon I approached the large Brock Family plot. The information I sought would be in the back, the old section, so I kept my eyes there as I passed the newer gravestones. The old markers were remarkably well-maintained, I found Zebulon, but no Jedidiah. Instead of continuing beyond the 1800s, I looked for other old gravestones, from other family plots. Perhaps he was buried elsewhere in the cemetery.
So many stones, lives lost to history. Someone should tell their stories. I should tell their stories. But Grandpa would be heartbroken.
Then I came to McMurtrie. I stood solemnly before the grouping of stones and considered apologizing. Following the McMurtrie family plot toward the exit, I think I expected it before I read the name, Myrtle Earleton. Had the feud begun with Grandpa Jed’s ill-fated arson?
I returned home wondering how much to share with my grandparents. I decided to wait. Tomorrow was the anniversary of my parents’ death—two years. It seemed so much longer. They were my parents, but Dad was their only child.
Over dinner Grandma said, “I have Independence Day picnic stuff all day tomorrow. In the morning the ladies are coming to make sandwiches—“
“They’d better use up that rye or I’ll be eating it till Christmas,” Grandpa said.
“We’ll be using up everyone’s extra loaves,” Grandma said. “Then I’m staffing the booth most of the afternoon.”
“When is the judging?” I asked.
Grandma’s face reddened. “Two o’clock. But I won’t win this year so you don’t need to be there.”
“Nonsense,” Grandpa said. “You always win.”
“Apparently Lydia ground her own grain this year.”
“So what?” Grandpa said.
* * *
The next morning, Grandpa and I played backgammon in the family room while Grandma and her friends made sandwiches. She’d even invited Lydia “in an effort at detent.”
Little Matthew came in carrying a sandwich. He removed the meat and fed it to a delighted Pep. Matthew ate the bread, scampered off, and returned moments later with another sandwich.
“Does your mom know you’re only eating the bread?” I asked.
He stopped midway through feeding Pep, eyes round, and shook his head microscopically.
“We won’t tell,” I said, “but that’s probably enough meat for the dog,”
He smiled around a mouthful of food. “Pep doesn’t think so.”
“Pep never thinks so.”
The back door slammed. Moments later Grandma appeared, motioning me into the kitchen. “Lydia’s husband is in the emergency room. We’ll watch Matthew. You go see what’s happening.” It wasn’t a request.
I ran across the street to the ER where I found Dr. Zeke with a moaning Mr. Earleton. The man’s feet were black, not like dirty black, like dead black, and his fingertips were darkening as well. Dr. Zeke listened to the man’s chest, then said to the nurse, “Give him more morphine, and call North Shore.” To the patient and his wife he explained the need for transfer to a larger hospital for more advanced care.
Dr. Zeke led me out into the hall. “Something is keeping blood from reaching his extremities. I’ve ruled out emboli from his heart, and venous clots, so we’ll try to dilate his arteries, but we need to transfer him to a hospital with an ICU.”
The doors flew open and Grandpa barged in, a seizing Matthew in his arms. An aide took the boy and rushed into an exam room. Dr. Zeke followed, calling for midazolam, a drug I now knew stopped seizures. I was more concerned about my grandfather. He leaned, white-faced, against the wall, his breath coming in loud wheezes. Grandma appeared seconds later and led him away.
“Wait,” I said, “maybe Dr. Zeke should take a look at you, Grandpa.”
He waved me away. “I’m a doctor.” And they left.
I moved to follow, but a nurse grabbed my arm and pulled me in the opposite direction, barely slowing her pace. “Get Mrs. Earleton and take her to her son.”
I looked back over my shoulder, but obeyed.
When I explained to a bewildered Lydia Earleton, she could only say, “But he doesn’t have a fever anymore.”
Of course she was overwhelmed, her husband, son and babysitter all fell ill at the same time, but with different problems. Except they had at least one thing in common: I’d read about them recently. Which gave me an idea. Common things may be common, but zebras exist.
I looked up Corinne Blakely’s room number and found her in street clothes, ready for discharge.
“I know this is a strange question,” I said, “but do you know the Earletons?”
“Matthew is one of my violin students.”
“When did you last see him?”
“A couple of days ago.”
A thrill ran up my spine. “At his home?”
“No, at mine.”
And the thrill receded.
“Why do you ask?”
Unsure how to answer, I dodged. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Your grandparents live next door to them, right?”
I nodded, trying to figure out where my theory went wrong.
“If you get a chance to try Lydia’s homemade rye bread, do. It’s amazing.”
The tingling zipped all the way to my scalp—rye, seizures, preterm deliveries, hallucinations, gangrene. The zebra had all its stripes. I found Dr. Zeke.
“It’s ergotism,” I said with a confidence that surprised even me. I pulled up a web page for him to read and told him about Corinne Blakely’s exposure to rye.
His eyes widened as he read.
“My grandfather treated someone with the gangrenous form.” I called home. Grandpa answered. He sounded normal.
“Ergotism,” I said into the phone, barely containing my excitement, “you treated it with nitro-something.”
“Intra-arterial nitroprusside, yes.”
“Tell Dr. Zeke.” I handed over my phone.
“It’s worth a try,” he said as he returned my phone. He signaled to a nurse, but said over his shoulder, “Nice work, Jack. We’ll make an ER doc out of you yet.”
Not likely. History had played a role here. History mattered. Maybe now Grandpa would understand.
I went back to Mrs. Earleton. “I know this is a difficult time, but I need to know where you got the rye for your bread?”
Her eyebrows came together. “Why?”
“I understand you ground it yourself. Where did you get the grain?”
She said nothing.
“It may have been contaminated with a fungus that is making people sick.”
Her eyes widened. “Matthew? My husband?”
I nodded. “And your babysitter, and Matthew’s violin teacher. Where did you get the grain?”
“From your Grandmother’s kitchen,” she whispered. “In a crate by the back door.”
The burlap bag. It wasn’t to keep the books dry, it was a sample from his experiments.
“I thought it was her secret ingredient.” She stared off.
“I need to know everyone who might have come in contact with that grain.”
Now her eyes widened, her face horror-stricken. “The picnic.”
I ran from the room, right into Dr. Zeke. “It’s in the rye bread at the picnic.”
“I’ll call Sheriff Holland,” he said.
Thank God Grandma answered her cell. Shocked, she promised to destroy the sandwiches, even the ones on other breads, and to contact everyone she remembered selling to. Then she said, “Jack, Grandpa took a couple sandwiches when he dropped me off.”
I sprinted to the house, yelling for him as I threw open the door. Pep barked and led me to the office where Grandpa lay crumpled forward on his desk, half a sandwich on the plate beside him. Ham on rye.
His eyes opened to slits as I moved him to the floor and felt for a pulse. Weak.
“Heart,” he said softly.
“It’s ergotism.” I called 911, slid a cushion under his head and kept a finger on his pulse. “What should I do?” I asked him, suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling so helpless, so hopeless.
“Fix the Bible,” he said. “Jed.”
“I will.” What would Dr. Zeke do? I had no stethoscope, no blood pressure cuff. Grandpa’s pulse seemed slower.
“In my drawer,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“What? Grandpa, hang on.” I could hear sirens, but too far away. Across the street was too far away.
“Be what you’re called to be, Jack. Whatever that is, I’ll be proud.”
His eyes closed, his mouth went slack.
“Grandpa? No, Grandpa, come back.” Tears streamed down my face, making small dark circles on his white shirt.
Grandma dropped beside us, took his head in her hands, and sobbed.
I put an arm around her shoulders, as she had when my parents died. A small island of comfort in an ocean of grief.
* * *
Later, when Grandma was resting and the town had been cleansed of rye, I returned to the office and sat in Grandpa’s chair. The Bible lay open on the blotter, the archival pen nearby. The first few letters of Jed’s name had been darkened with shaky lines. I drew over them and added his death date.
To Grandpa’s name I added “- July 4, 2018.”
I opened the desk drawer. Inside was an envelope addressed to me from the Oxford Historical Society. It had been opened. The first line began, “Congratulations.”