By Debra Lee -
My grandfather added a rear upstairs room to his house when he was in his forties. When he came home from work, he didn’t want to listen to his wife and her friends gossip about everybody that passed on the avenue. They liked sitting in the wrought iron porch chairs he’d purchased for the aesthetic quality it added to the front of their home.
At first, the camelback was just an after dinner project. He liked to eat a lot and his belt was getting a little tight on his uniform pants. He thought building the room might offer a little exercise. It took half a year to complete. He didn’t want any help.
As he worked on the shell of the room during spring, he spent most of his time looking out above the neighborhood at the beauty of it all. He paid attention to the flora for the first time. The flowers on the trees bloomed before the vibrant light green leaves appeared.
Anticipating a really hot summer, he hauled up a large fan, an ice chest, and books that he’d been collecting for years but never had time to read. Unfinished, the room already claimed him. All the way home on the bus, he imagined ways to make the room cozier. He shuffled from the bus stop in his usual gait, stopping to answer neighbor’s questions about the addition to his house.
While Myrna waited for him on the porch, he stooped to pick weeds and collect cigarette butts that passersby flicked onto the two patches of green flanking his entrance walkway. They talked as he did this, then she went in to set the table and he walked around the side of the shotgun house to visit his banana tree.
After dinner, he went upstairs. For a time, he would hear Myrna rattling dishes, pots, and pans. There would be a few minutes of quiet, then he could hear the cackling women on the porch and the voices of children playing on the sidewalk. He wondered what the other husbands did after dinner, but was never curious enough to amble around the neighborhood and find out.
When the leaves started turning orange, he carried up a fancy door that he’d found at a wrecking company, but he didn’t install it because the world had taken on a new look. He enjoyed windy days and gold and red leaves. When the chill finally arrived, he set the door in it’s hinges. He didn’t want to, but he had to remove the panel that covered the indoor steps that would allow his wife access to his private domain.
She, of course, brought her girlfriends to look at it.
“What’s he going to do up here?” they asked. “Why does he need a desk? Where did he find such a small refrigerator? Are y’all splitting up?”
She answered. “He says every man needs either a cave or drinking buddies. He could start to drink he said, like Bubba.”
Bubba was the neighborhood wino.
As time passed, my grandmother stated sadly, “We might as well have split up. He spent more time in the camelback than he did with me. We would have had better conversations if he’d taken to drinking and brought home a few friends. He really was a loner.”
Then one day she stated sadly, “I was a fool. It was time we could have spent together. Those women were boring.”
Maisy sat in the rocking chair that her grandfather added when he retired. She looked at the futon they sat on when he told her stories about his life and the many people he met on his job. In the later years, she read Russian classics to him.
All her life she’d wondered about the contents of the steamer trunks that her grandfather kept strapped in a closet like room he added to the camelback in later years.
Maisy was now the inheritor. A tear slid down her face as she approached the first one. She’d already looked through everything else upstairs - all four drawers in his desk. Well, she always wanted to know. Now was the time.
Instead, Maisy looked in the fridge. She wasn’t usually a procrastinator. What was she so afraid to find? Wrong ethnic group to find Klan robes and paraphernalia like her co-worker Whitney found when she went through her grandfather’s things. She’d expected to find hidden treasure so brought a lot of people with her as witnesses. She never did come back to work. Last they’d heard, she moved to the West Coast.
So, Maisy decided to do this without her best friend being present. This would be the first secret between them since first grade. Maisy laughed when she saw what was in the fridge. Two bottles of Canada Dry. “Drink Canada dry,” she said out loud, remembering the first real conversation she and her grandfather had.
“Why do we want to drink Canada dry?” she’d asked.
“Cause it tastes so good.”
“But what are the Canadians going to drink?”
He looked puzzled at first then he laughed that hearty laugh of his, howling up at the ceiling, then sitting down looking at her. He began to say something, then laughed some more until he cried. It was the only time she’d ever seen her grandmother come upstairs. She was trailed by Maisy’s parents who also wanted to know what was going on.
After telling them, her father rolled his finger around his ear as if to say that his dad was crazy. “It’s a commercial,” he said, “and it’s not that funny.” He rolled his eyes as the three of them went back downstairs.
Two double chocolate bars, their favorites, were in the little freezer slot. There were pairs of all the snacks in the small refrigerator. All selected with Maisy in mind. Feeling more confident, she turned toward the trunks. Whatever was in them, Maisy thought, she could have brought not only Felicia, but the entire church congregation. There would be no unpleasant surprises.
Kneeling in front of the trunk closest to the door, she thought of her grandfather. He was the most special person in her life. Living without him was going to be rough. “I’m glad that he and grandmother went together.”
At first, Maisy thought the heavy plastic was covering gold bullion. Grandfather did work at the post office. Working at the VA Hospital, she’d heard stories about the strange things that Vietnam era veterans shipped from overseas via the postal service.
The top layer of plastic was covering decorative paper with paintings of gold bullion. Under the paper was a large thick envelope with her name on it. Centered on the envelope was written $1,000,000.
The inside of the trunk, Maisy could see, was fireproof. The Wells Fargo logo was imprinted on it. Baffled, Maisy opened the envelope. It took a few minutes to figure out what she was looking at. Comic books. The list was chronological dating back to 1949. “Comic books,” she said out loud.
Her grandmother had once told her how even though he was a good provider, she should have known that he was boring when she saw how much care he took of his comic books and baseball cards. She was glad that they had all been destroyed in the flood.
Shaking, Maisy clutched the certified comic book appraisal, and crawled toward the second chest. Unstrapping and opening it, she thought that the paper was silver, but silver didn’t come in bars, she remembered her grandfather telling her.
The dollar amount on this envelope was $6,000,000. Platinum. There were several lumps in the bottom of the envelope. Gum wrappers. The one folded like a sheet probably came with a baseball card. The other, smaller and more colorful held a comic strip. Squinting, she read the copyright date as 1955.
Maisy scrolled through the chronological list. Even the comic strips were worth money. There was an asterisk at the bottom with a personal note from Ben Jammin Beets, Esq. That can’t possibly be somebody’s real name. Your grandfather chewed a lot of gum!
Then what could possibly be in the third trunk?
The decorative paper was a hand painted illustration of the four seasons. The thick envelope said priceless. And underneath was written, the seasons of Maisy’s life.
Inside, there was a very legal looking letter that said how I could gain access to the safety deposit boxes which housed the keys. The accompanying pages were copies of Walter Marine Hodges’ phone bills beginning the year that Maisy was born. “Phone bills?” she asked aloud.
“Phone bills!” Maisy stood up to stretch her legs. She laughed when she finally found a note written next to a phone number. She got a drink from the icebox, her grandmother would call it, and sat on the window seat that her grandfather added to his private space on her third birthday.
Country code 230. Maisy Mauritius Hodges came a little early.
There were country codes and telephone numbers from when her parents worked abroad. Age two, Maisy screeched a song that she heard in day care. Don’t know what she said, but her voice is like an angel’s.
After age two, there were months and years of country codes and city codes from vacations, school trips, church trips. Her grandfather wrote a note next to every one in which he’d spoken to Maisy.
As the light began to fade, she turned on her grandfather’s lamp. She’d gone through hundreds of phone bills as Maisy re-lived her life. Just one more, she thought, but the note opened a whole new chapter. September of her senior year at college. Maisy struck out to Atlanta on her own. Called from Scottsdale, car broke down. October, called from Decatur, car on fire. In smaller print. I wish that I could get her a new one but I promised her dad that I wouldn’t. She’ll make it. She’s Maisy.
It was after midnight when Maisy finished reading all the notes. She tucked the phone bills back in their envelopes, turned off the light, and descended the stairs.
Maisy had to admit that she loved her grandfather so much more than her grandmother. Grandma was cakes, food, and clothes. Grandfather was time. Her mind went to a conversation that she’d overheard once.
“He claims to love her so much. He didn’t take out a life insurance policy so she could benefit from all that love. I took out a policy worth just enough to bury us. She took him from me her whole life. She doesn’t need anything else.”
No, Maisy thought. I don’t need anything else. I guess Grandma knows that now.
Debra Lee is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana and is currently enjoying retirement in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a member of the Rockin’ Red Sugar Mamas/Red Hat Society. Ms. Lee has been published in The Scarlet Leaf Review and in the July 2021 issue of HELD Magazine Generations. You can find her at writerdebralee.com and on Instagram @writerdebralee.