Josh Peterson

 

Elwood

 

My grandfather Elwood Peterson is a miserable sack of bones. His body has degenerated into a Rumplestiltskinesque parody. His liverspotmottled skin is slack and sallow. His hair is like tailor's thread worn loosely about the scalp. The stubble on his chin appears every morning, like the watery froth of a rabid dog. He always wears dirt‑ridden overalls that hang loosely on his desiccated zombieframe. His eyes, however, are almost brand new. They were replaced about a decade ago, when he was in his eighties. They are blue and clear and shine with a discerning light. He uses these eyes to see the world and realize how much he hates it.

Elwood has not switched to daylight savings time. He refuses to. For six months of every year, his clocks are wrong. "I never switched to daylight savings time," he's often told me.

"I'm proud of you," I once told him. Usually, I just say, "Oh."

"What," he stated.

One day he showed me his atomic clock.

"This is an atomic clock. It's accurate to the second. It's controlled by some radio in Colorado. It switched to daylight savings time by itself. I want to take a shotgun and blast it off the wall." He paused. "I guess it's useful for checking TV times. I can look at the TV Guide then look at the clock. The time on the clock matches the time in the guide."

I often take Elwood on fishing trips. He can no longer go alone. We go fishing in the Missouri River in his old bass boat. These outings are difficult to set up.

"So you'll be here at six my time?" he asks.

"No. That's four your time."

"So you're leaving at three?"

"What? No. I'm leaving at four my time. It takes me an hour to get to your house. I'll be there at five my time. That's four your time."

"What?" he asks. 

On one of our fishing trips, I watched Elwood pull a 32-pound catfish from the river. The fish struck, and Elwood stood up. His frame was as bent as his pole. He sucked in deep seething breaths as he fought. "I'm too old to fight this thing," he said. After ten minutes of struggling with the fish, he managed to pull it close to the boat. I dipped the net in the water. The net was so old and rotten that the pole it was attached to bent in half, and the woven mesh ripped away from the metal. I reached into the water and pulled the fish out with what remained of the net. 

The only things my grandfather likes, and the word "like" is used in the loosest way possible, are kittens and fishing. When he's not out shooting kittens to control the population that proliferates in his large barn covered in flaking white paint, he can be found nestling one gently against his timeworn visage. He used to enjoy fishing, before he got too old, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruined the Missouri River, before the wind started blowing, before nine in the morning, before his damn legs went all dead on him, before summer starts, and before the river fills with speed‑boating hooligans on Sunday mornings. He still fishes with help from me. All his friends are dead, and no one else will put up with him, except for Grandma. Elwood and my grandmother Irene bicker constantly. Whenever I eat dinner at their house, they put on a little show for me.

"Would you like some peaches?" Elwood will ask, sitting at the dining‑room table behind an army of orange pill bottles.

"No thanks," I'll say.

"Irene, get the boy some peaches."

"He don't want peaches," Grandma will say.

"Well, why the hell not?" he'll ask.

"Not hungry," I'll say.

"I can get you some peaches, if you want some peaches," Grandma will shout from the kitchen.

"Christ! Irene, the boy said he wasn't hungry. If he wants some peaches, he'll ask for some peaches."

Five minutes will pass. My grandmother, bespectacled and owl‑like, will peek out from the kitchen.

"Did you say you wanted peaches?" she'll ask me.

"Yes, I did," I'll say. 

Elwood is a farmer and has been for most of his life. He has farmed so long in the same spot, that the atoms that make up his body are the same atoms that make up the land. Even in his nineties, he can be found hunched over the controls of an orange Allis‑Chalmers tractor.

Although grumpy, reclusive, spiteful, and tactless, he still retains the slightest shreds of humanity. Often, I'll catch him browbeating my father for using unsafe chains on the tractors that are used for pulling logs. He's worried that the chains might break and injure the rider. He is also a fresh‑produce pimp. He keeps a garden the size of a soccer field. Anyone who visits him will have a box of produce, that only a small militia could consume, forcibly given to them. Elwood has been married to Irene for seventy years. "I got her from the hills. I drove on up there and picked her out," he tells us, pointing his thumb at Grandma. "We've been married seventy years. Who'd want that?" he asks.

"Not me," Grandma says.

After telling me how much he hates driving, traffic, a woman he knows, the man who fixes air conditioners, most of Asia, the sun, old people, and being old, he picks up a kitten, rubs its belly and says, "Mew‑oo, Mew‑oo Mew‑oo."  

One day in the machine shop where the combines are kept, my brother Zach and Elwood had a heart‑to‑heart conversation.

"I've got this doctor friend. I'm mad at him," Elwood said.

"Why's that?" my brother asked. Zach is lean and tall, about six‑foot‑four. He has one of those awkward concavities in his chest, noticeable when he leans back in a tight shirt, and he almost always wears a ball cap.

"He won't give me any pills," said Elwood.

"Why do you want pills?"

"So I can kill myself."

"I guess that guy is a jerk," Zach said. I imagine him removing his hat and punching into the space where his head fits.

"I would just eat rat poison, but it's too painful, and it takes a while to die. Also, it's a woman's way of killing. That doctor friend should just give me some pills. I've taken him fishing in Florida three times." 

One day while fishing on the river, Grandpa offered me an idea for a story.

"You writing anything?" he asked me.

"Yeah." I said.

"What do you write about?" he asked.

"Stuff. People. People and stuff."

"I have an idea for a story. Do you want to hear it? You can use it if you want."

"Okay," I said.

"There is this old man. He's just like me, and he is fishing. He's alone and in Canada. A plane crashes in the lake the old man is fishing in. It's one of those small private planes that can land on water, but this plane crashed. The old man rows over to the crash and dives in the water. He finds two women and a pilot. They are all knocked out. He swims, pulling each person to his boat. Then using up his final strength, he ties himself to his own boat and passes out. When the old man wakes up, he's in the hospital. It turns out that he's saved the wife and daughter of a billionaire. The billionaire thanks him and gives him a million dollars. Then he gives each of his children a million dollars." 

Every time he sees me, he asks if I've written his story yet. He says I never will.

"I may have to change that ending a little," I say.

 

  Josh Peterson

 
 
 

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