He knew he was of sound mind, even if no one else did. They all acted like he was off his rocker or something. Always patting him on the arm or shoulder, saying stuff like He doesn’t understand things sometimes. Occasionally, he would hear them say Old George is in another world, you know. “Another world is right,” he mumbled out loud.
I’ve seen things and been places they’d never believe. George P. Henson rubbed the stubble on his chin. He thought, I don’t need to tell ‘em nothing. Or even talk to ‘em.
Mattie Sue, his daughter, emerged from the sliding door with a plate of hamburger patties. She walked to his chair on the patio and patted him on the shoulder.
“The burgers will be ready soon, Papa.” Then she bent over and looked him straight in the eye. “You hear?”
He nodded. Still bent over, balancing the plate of patties with one hand, she said loudly, “I’m gonna fix your burger just like you always like ‘em–tomatoes, onions, and such.”
“I ain’t deaf, Mattie Sue,” he said.
“I know, I know. But you’re hard of hearing.”
“Damn Germans!” he answered quickly.
“Yes, Papa. The Germans busted your ear drum, but you don’t have to cuss about it.”
He turned away from her and stared into the woods past the backyard. He thought, I’ll cuss when I want to. Mattie Sue took the patties to Frank, her husband, who was standing by the grill. He saw Frank shaking his head as Mattie Sue talked. George P. Henson turned and watched his grandchildren playing catch with a football down in the pasture.
Then he looked back into the woods. He remembered different woods, a long time ago. Real thick, with snow all over the ground and frozen to tree limbs. He felt a cold shiver go over his body. For a moment he thought he saw movement in the woods. Germans? If he had his rifle he could pick off a couple before they got to him and Junior in their foxhole. He suddenly remembered that Mattie Sue had sold all his guns. Ignorance. “Damn ignorance,” he said aloud. God help ‘em when I’m gone. They won’t know when to get out of the rain. He rubbed his chin and wished he had a chew. His mind wandered for a while, back and forth, from the cold forest in France to his daughter’s backyard. At times, when he lost track of exactly where he was, he would just close his eyes and not think on anything. Lately, that seemed to be the best thing to do.
Mattie Sue’s face suddenly appeared in front of him again. She placed a paper plate in his lap. “Here’s your burger, Papa,” she said loudly. “And here’s some tea,” she added as she put a plastic glass on the arm of his chair. “Now don’t turn it over, you hear?”
He nodded and picked up the burger as she walked away.“And don’t get choked, you hear!”
He acted like he didn’t hear her as he took a bite of the burger. Good God, he thought. She worries more than her mother did. About nothing. Getting choked? So what. Maybe I ought to get good and choked, fall out of my chair and die. Right here on the patio, right in front of them. He took a drink of tea. It’s a miracle I’m here anyway. I Should have died in France, long time ago. But if I had, she would never have been born, and them kids down in the pasture would never have been born and known me as their grandpa.
He grimaced as he bit down on a small something in the burger. Damn Frank! He probably dropped the burger on the ground. He swallowed whatever it was. Could’ve gotten choked right there. It probably won’t be much longer anyway. He had read in the paper last week that over a thousand World War Two veterans were dying every day. Every day! Most all his buddies had already died. Far as he could tell, he was about the last one left in his old company. He used to get cards and letters from some of them—but now he occasionally might get a card from their children or a relative telling him so-and-so had passed on.
He wondered if Junior Boyles was still kicking. He hadn’t heard from him in awhile. They always sent Christmas cards and called each other ever so often. Junior had last visited him three years ago. He had stopped by with his grandkids on the way to Florida. He smiled when he thought of Junior. Boy! What they’d seen and done. He hoped Junior was still bouncing around up in Montana. He took a long drink of tea, then smiled broadly.
Mattie Sue yelled at him, “I see you like the burger, Papa, from the way you’re smiling.”
He nodded to her. He suddenly remembered the steaks he and Junior Boyles had bought off that Frenchman. This burger wouldn’t hold a light to those two steaks. No sir. He and Junior had been living off K-rations for weeks when they talked that French farmer out of the steaks. They had gone out behind the man’s barn and built a little fire and cooked them in an old pan. Then they had sat with their backs against the barn wall and ate them. Slowly, savoring each bite, like it might’ve been their last meal. And it nearly was.
George took the last bite of his burger, chewed slowly and stared into the woods. He glanced up and watched cottony clouds pass over. He suddenly remembered his mother and daddy talking about picking cotton. All day long, for a few cents a pound. He wondered if he’d see them when he died. Then he wondered about his army buddies: Would he see them again? Especially those that got killed during the war, when they were so young. He bent over and placed his empty plate and tea glass on the patio floor. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes.
He was resting, about to doze off when the pain came to him again. It attacked him fast, like it had been doing every day for the past two weeks. His whole left side ached badly. So bad, he almost hollered. He clenched his teeth and balled his fingers into a tight fist. He kept his eyes closed, hoping Mattie Sue wouldn’t notice. It was a good five minutes before the pain left him. He opened his eyes slowly and saw Mattie Sue and Frank eating with the kids at the picnic table. He suddenly felt drained, like he used to feel after marching all day.
Mattie Sue gestured toward him. “You okay, Papa?”
He managed a weak smile and nodded to her. He didn’t want them to find out about the pain. George P. Henson figured it wouldn’t be too long before it killed him. He could still taste that steak as he closed his eyes again.
About the author:
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia. He is a short story award winner from Southeastern Writer’s Association. He has had short stories published, and/or scheduled for publication in: Drunk Monkeys, Fiction On The Web, Short-Stories.me, Floyd County Moonshine Review, Beorh Quarterly, Page and Spine, Belle Reve Literary Review, Work, and Crack the Spine Literary Magazine.