“That’s where the bullet stopped,” Mr. Black says.
“So it’s still in there?” I ask.
“No, no, of course not. The bullet was removed during the autopsy. The swelling is called a temporary cavity,” Mr. Black replies.
“Why is it there?”
“Because when someone is hit with a bullet, the bullet brings all sorts of debris with it, like germs and dirt, and this causes the wound to get infected.”
I am thirteen years old and I am having a conversation with the undertaker about the bullet wound in my grandfather’s head. My grandfather, Art, looks the same as he did when I saw him for the final time last Thursday—save that his lips are sewn together, his eyelids are glued shut, and that he is lying in a casket. Mr. Black, the undertaker, is telling me all these things when I ask him about the lump in my grandfather’s right temple.
“So that’s why it’s all puffy?”
“Yes, if you look close,” begins Mr. Black as he points to the wound, “can you see that it is sort of purple?”
I put my hands on the edge of my grandfather’s casket and lean in to see the wound. I crinkle my nose as I try to get an extreme close-up of what Mr. Black calls the “temporary cavity.” I don’t see anything purple underneath the gallons of make-up, but I don’t tell Mr. Black that.
“Well, see, your grandfather pulled the trigger at pointblank range and the bullet came in very hard and very fast, ripping all the veins and arteries and nerves, causing the
wound to bruise and swell,” Mr. Black explains. He looks me
in the eye through his large, thick glasses like my teachers do
when they think I understand.
“Oh,” I reply.
“Now your grandmother is a different story,” Mr. Black says.
“What?” I ask, distracted as I examine—almost touch— the side effect of the last thing that went through my grandfather’s brain.
I wonder, what would happen if I touch it?
“Come over here, Tony, I’ll show you,” Mr. Black says as he carefully crosses the room, making his way past the horde of flowers to my grandmother’s casket. I am too frozen by my sudden impulse to touch my grandfather’s wound to hear him. Still leaning over my grandfather’s body, hanging on to the casket with my feet dangling above the floor, the pointer finger on my left hand draws out like a lightning bolt getting ready to strike a weather vane.
Quicker than lightning, I touch it.
The thunder booms in my head.
I look around the room. Mr. Black and I are the only ones in the parlor and he is gently obsessing with my grandmother’s hair. The rest of my family is waiting for my father to arrive out in the foyer. No one saw me. I want to touch it again. . . .
The first couple pages of the book are stale and damaged and contain only a few images, all of which have succumbed to the inevitable decay of time. I delve a little further into the historic find and discover that some pages in the middle have been protected from the onslaught. “1932: Art and Jr.” reads the caption of the first recognizable photo.
Arthur Edgar King Jr. was born in 1928. He is four years old in this photo, and he is grabbing onto the back of his dad’s pant leg as the both of them stand outside in the snow, posing for a picture. This picture is the first image that I have seen of my grandfather since I was thirteen. My cat rubs its cheek against my knee and purrs as I recall my grandfather’s face in the casket and mentally compare it to the photo.
I am twenty-two years old, and I am flipping through a faded photo album that contains pictures of no living persons. I discovered it this afternoon after my cat got stuck in the top of our storage closet and knocked a bunch of old boxes over as she tried to escape. Tiny brown spiders crawl out of the binding as I open its cover and turn its pages; this is probably the first time these little creatures have ever seen light. Who knows how long the album has been hiding in the deep sleep of closet storage?
As I get closer and closer to the middle of the album, the pictures become clearer, the dates more recent. One picture stuns me—there is no caption except for the date “1946,” but it looks like me and an old friend in our navy uniforms lying in a bunk in the belly of a ship. I look happy, even invincible. I have no idea that in 60 years, my grandchild will stumble upon this photo and wonder how the story of such a young and hopeful-looking young man would end with a .22
“1955: Art, Louise, and Becky.” I am getting nearer to the end of the book now and I stop. My grandfather is in good shape and is standing proudly in his bathing suit; it is easy to tell that he worked in a steel mill for thirty years after a stint in the navy. He and my grandmother, also stunning as she stands proudly in her one-piece bathing suit, are smiling, standing on a beach somewhere with their first daughter, Becky (who died before she was twenty-one due to an allergic reaction to penicillin). My Aunt Becky is standing in between my grandparents as they each are holding one of her hands. Without thinking, I gently place my finger on my grandfather’s right temple—no lump.
Mr. Black is done fiddling with my grandmother’s hair and he calls me over to her casket to examine her bullet wound. Grandma Louise looks like she always has, pretty but aged—a hint of sadness in the circles around her eyes. There is no “temporal cavity” this time, as with my grandfather.
“Your grandfather’s bullet came in from point-blank range, as I had said before,” Mr. Black begins, “but with your grandmother, it wasn’t as close, so there is very little swelling around the entrance and exit wounds.”
“Exit wounds?” I ask, trying to remember if I had heard this phrase before in any of my vocabulary lessons.
“Yes, the ballistics of it doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Black begins, with his arms crossed, his left hand cradling his chin, “I don’t understand how the bullet did not pass through your grandfather’s head at such a close range.” He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders in confusion.
I shrug back.
“Your grandmother’s wound was clean, though, and the bullet came out the other side.” Mr. Black takes his hand from his chin and points to the corner of my grandmother’s head, above her right eye.
I lean in over her body, my feet once again dangling off of the floor. Up close, I see what Mr. Black is talking about. In the very centers of each of her temples there are wounds the size of shirt buttons.
“The weapon used was a .22 caliber pistol. This pistol is weak enough that when a bullet passes through a target, there is typically no swelling,” Mr. Black explained. I think this is his way of trying to help me deal with the situation. I pay close attention, aware that if my parents were listening to this conversation, Mr. Black would likely be out of a job.
“Well, Tony, I have some other business to attend to,” he says, probably realizing it too. “If you need anyone, your family is outside waiting for your father to arrive.” My first lesson in “ballistics” appears to be over as Mr. Black quickly leaves the parlor. I don’t reply, as I am too focused on staring at my grandmother’s face, thinking about what Mr. Black meant by “exit and entrance wounds.” I touch my grandmother’s temples. Nothing. No thunder this time. I let go of the side of the casket and drop to the floor.
I am thirteen years old and I just touched a dead person. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about; my friends told me that if I ever touched a dead person that their ghost would
come and haunt me forever. I’m not too scared, though, because I remember my grandfather always telling me that when he died I shouldn’t be frightened, because he would never come haunt me, anyways.
On my way out of the parlor I turn around and view bothof the caskets from the center of the room. They are far apart, each one beside opposite walls. The distance doesn’t make sense to me—my grandparents always wanted to be close to each other. Almost every time that they were together, they were close. They would take me to movie theatres and hold each other’s hands, even as they suffered through all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. But now, on the last day that I will ever see them, they are not together and this frustrates me. I leave the parlor with a huff and go out to the foyer and wait for my father.
I am twenty-two years and I remember the story of my grandparents’ death as I look at one of their old photo albums. The tragedy happened on one of those clichéd July days that are too perfect. It had all the ingredients of such a day: birds chirping, bees buzzing, friendly neighbors shooting me a wave as I pedal past the police cars and fire trucks and an ambulance next door in my grandparents yard. . .what? I recall biking up our driveway to find my father leaning against the wall of the garage, with his head between his legs. I had never seen him do this before.
“Dad, what is it?” I asked.
“They’re dead,” he said.
My father paused, trying to think of the right words to say so he wouldn’t make my grandfather look like a murderer.
emsp; “Your grandmother asked your grandfather to do something. He loved her, so he did it.”
“What did he do?” I asked my father.
“He shot your grandmother, then shot himself,” my father answered. He is a very factual man—kind, but abrupt.
I remember this scene with my father as I flip through the rest of the old photo album. The last few pages are blank, the cheap plastic holding non-existent pictures crackle, grunting like something hungry and desperate for substance to fill the void. I look down at my cat, still sitting in my lap, purring, and looking up at me. I touch her nose and she rubs her face against my finger. She is simple; all she wants from me is to love her, to lend my hand whenever she needs it.
When I get up to put the photo album back into storage, a few old pictures fall out of it. I must have missed these before. As I pick them up, I notice that the pictures are newer, almost artful. The caption underneath one of them says “1960: Ronny and Us.” It was of my dad when he was very little, in almost the same exact photo and pose as the picture I found with my Aunt Becky and my grandparents.
I sit back down with my cat and open up the album to a blank page; placing the newer photos in the old blank spaces. There are more pictures of people who are still living—my dad, a few of my aunts and uncles, and a few older cousins. But there is one image that I keep for myself. It is a plain image, one of just my grandparents standing in front of the house that they used to live in. My grandfather has his arm around my grandmother, and she is tucked into his body, gazing up at him, beaming like a school girl at her first crush. She must have given my grandfather a version of this look right before she asked him for the last time to pull the trigger.
She fell ill in the spring of 2000 and had asked my grandfather several times to lend her his hand. Treatment after treatment failed and in July, my grandmother asked her husband one more time. She wanted to leave, but not without him. He wanted to stay, but not without her. My father found them holding each other’s hands.
The cat playfully bites at my hand as I pull it away from her face. She is young and frisky, pawing at my hand like a toy as I move it back and forth in front of her. When I close the album and set it down, she jumps into my lap and looks up at me with her blue Siamese eyes. As I rub her ears and stroke her back, she flicks her tail to and fro and I notice, for the first time, near the tip, a spot of gray hair about the size of a shirt button.