Billy had already searched her bedroom. Her dresser drawers each had a little sack with dried flowers in it, giving everything an odor of roses. Her stuffy closet was full of ancient clothes, smelling musty and wooden boxes stuffed with old letters and photos. He’d looked at one that started “My darling Edith,” and got pretty mushy. Hard to believe someone had written that to the old bat, but some of the old pictures showed that she had been pretty. There was no money. Irritated, he'd torn up some of the letters and photos. An old, dusty stuffed bunny with a faded blue ribbon around its neck sat on a shelf in the closet and watched disapprovingly with its one remaining eye.
He’d been down on the farm for two boring weeks. Stuck because his parents wanted to be alone on their second honeymoon trip to Paris. They got to go to Paris and he got to go to Kentucky. He was hot and miserable and fed up with cows and sheep and tractors and plows. There wasn't anyone here except his grandmother and Jake Newcomb, the hired man. He was learning how to plow dirt while his buddies back home were lolling around at the beach - meeting girls.
He had told Granma to go screw herself this morning. He grinned at the memory, fingering the money. She’d actually wanted him to get up at dawn and go help Jake plow a field out by the big pond. Like he was going to spend the day sweating out there in the sun with that old black guy, who always smelled like sweat and hay and horse shit. He’d rolled over, putting his back to her. She’d stood there silently for a while and then he heard her leave. When he woke up about 11, she’d been outside working in the vegetable garden.
Billy stood looking down at the money, counting it again, thinking about what he'd do with it. He’d have to borrow Granma’s car, which was about as old as she was. She didn’t let him drive it unless she was in the car. He only had a learner’s permit, like that was important or something. It was over five miles to town. Granma told him he could ride a bike if he wanted. There was one out in the tool shed. Billy snorted. It was a girl’s bike! Used to be his Mom’s. Besides that dink little town wasn’t worth the effort. Nothing to do there anyway. He wished his parents had wanted him to go with them. Paris would have been so cool.
He supposed Granma was okay for an old lady. She did make outstanding cookies and brownies. But the farm was beyond dull and the quiet was totally weird. He was used to city noises around him. The sounds of birds and wind, distant lowing of cattle and the barking of a dog a mile away made him uneasy. As he thought about escape, he could hear Granma singing to herself – an old Beatles song - “Hey, Jude”. He glanced over at the window. She was on her hands and knees, back to him, big sun hat flopping down over her face.
Billy headed for the kitchen where Granma kept the keys to the car. He noticed that she had left a plateful of ham sandwiches on the table for him. Probably for Jake, too. He decided he’d take them with him and head out for Paducah, the closest thing to a city around here. Stuffing the money in his pocket, he stepped into his room to grab his iPhone.
He was grinning to himself as he came back into the kitchen. Snatching the keys off the hook next to the door, he packed the sandwiches in a bag with some cookies and sodas and headed out the door. Granma was on the other side of the house. She wouldn't hear the car start up.
Whistling “Hey, Jude”, he pushed his way through the dusty, cobweb-covered old furniture and leavings of several lives to reach the old Ford in the tractor shed. The car started immediately. Old Jake kept it running well. But as
he put the car in reverse, a large black hand reached in and pushed the lever back to park.
Billy looked at the hand. His gaze traveled up the huge frame of Jake Newcomb to a face made of granite with deep, dark eyes burning under heavy brows.
“Goin' some place, Billy?” Jake's voice was a rumble of thunder.
“Um... I thought I'd just take a ride around. You know... kinda make sure the car's running okay.” Sweat trickled down Billy's neck.
“Turn off the engine.” There was steel in the order.
“Turn off the engine.”
Billy turned the engine off and sat rigid, glaring at the steering wheel, wanting to pound on it.
“I been thinkin' we ought to have a little talk.” said Jake, pushing a stack of old magazines off a dusty chair and sitting down. “Hand me one of them sandwiches and a Coke, why doncha?
“Actually I been thinkin' 'bout takin' you out in the woods and whalin' the tar outa you.” He smiled unpleasantly as he took a bite of sandwich. “And the thought has more impetus since I've discovered that you're a thief.”
Billy looked at him, startled at the change in Jake's language.
“Your Granma never mentioned that I used to be a professor of English at Bowling Green?”
Billy shook his head, mouth open.
“Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself? Or shall we just start whalin'?”
Then his eyes softened. “Wasn't exactly fair for your parents go off to Paris without you, was it?”
Billy's mouth opened farther, but after a moment all that came out was a sob.
Jake just sat and ate his sandwich until Billy got himself back under control. Then he started talking. He talked about growing up in the South when there were bathrooms labeled 'white' and 'colored', when black people had to sit at the back of the bus and went to different schools than whites.
He talked about his mother who made sure he got his homework done
every night and who would have drowned him in the creek if he had dropped out of school. She had worked two jobs all her life to earn enough money to send him to college. After that he had been able to work his way through graduate school to get his PhD.
He got Billy started talking about school and his friends. And his enemies - the guys who picked on him because he was short. Billy told him about the times he'd gotten into fights, rather proudly describing the last fight just before school had ended for the year. He'd actually gotten in a couple of good punches, including the last blow, which had broken the bully's nose. Jake mentioned that he had been a middle weight champ when he was young and maybe they could do some sparring.
Two hours later the two of them came in the house, laughing, Jake's hand on Billy's shoulder. The two of them came to an abrupt halt when they saw Granma sitting at the kitchen table, arms folded across her chest, face totally expressionless.
She just sat still, saying nothing.
Billy looked up at Jake, who stared back at him, waiting.
Glancing briefly at Granma, Billy took a sudden interest in his shoes. “I'm sorry, Granma.” he mumbled.
Billy started to sweat. He shifted his feet and took another quick glance at Granma. She could have been made of stone.
He swallowed. His throat was dry. “I took your money. I was gonna take your car and go to Paducah. I'm sorry. I didn't want to come here, but they dumped me.” It all came out in a rush, words tumbling over one another. Then, to his horror, he started crying again.
He stood shaking with sobs, nose running. Then he was in Granma's arms and she was hugging him and for once he didn't think it was disgusting. He held on tight.
“I'm so sorry, Billy. It's all my fault. They didn't dump you. I begged them to let you stay with me.”
Billy wiped his nose on his sleeve and looked at his grandmother. “You wanted me to come here? Why?”
Granma was smiling although tears were running down her cheeks. “How many times have we seen each other? All together? It doesn't count when you were a baby.”
Billy thought a moment. “We came down for Christmas a couple of times. And we stopped by on that trip out to Texas last summer.”
Granma nodded. “A total of 15 days. That's all I've spent with my grandson. I fell in love with you when you were tiny. I wanted to get to know you now. Your parents were going to take you with them. It's my fault you didn't get to go.”
“Why couldn't you wait until next year?” Billy felt angry, cheated.
“I just couldn't wait that long. It was selfish of me, I know. I'm so sorry.” Granma got up and walked down the hall to her room.
“She hasn't got that much time left.” said Jake, his eyes on the door she had just closed.
Billy almost missed it. Then he turned to Jake, shocked. “What do you mean?”
“She's got a kind of blood cancer. Had it for a couple of years. She went through chemotherapy and was in remission for a while, but it's back now and all they can do now is give her transfusions every so often.”
Jake looked into Billy's eyes. “She won't be here next summer. And you are the most important part of her life right now. That's why she hijacked you.”
Billy stared down the hall and slowly nodded.
Outside he could hear the lowing of cattle and the song of a redwing blackbird and he smiled.