Fiction · 07/06/2011

A Thousand Distant Radios

On the day my granddad died, I went down to the basement to be with his body. It was quaint down there, dusty cinder blocks and high windows, like a bedroom on a concrete yacht. There were empty wine bottles and books with broken spines and cast-off paintings, all of it chalked in long-ago smoke, layered with the dust of lung-collapsing drags. In the floor lay the body of the smoker — he was the drinker and reader and painter, too — who’d tumbled over that morning and left me to tidy it all up.

+

There were cartons of cigarettes stacked waist-high around the room, leaning towers of factory tobacco, a supply big enough to back up three hospitals with bodies. They’d been delivered on a forklift driven by R.J. Reynolds himself, one night after he and my granddad shot pistols at the moon.

I picked up a carton and took a long, contemplative look at it, the way I reckoned you were supposed to look at dead people’s stuff. I peeled the plastic off the carton and lifted it to my nose, the smell faint as wintertime nostalgia. Then I pulled a pack out and tucked it into the chest pocket of my t-shirt.

My granddad said the first drag was the sweetest, so he smoked them one long drag a piece and stubbed them out. He’d toss the dead cigarettes in the hollowed out noggin of a stuffed buffalo. It had been gutshot by a drunken Annie Oakley. The beast had dragged a bullet-punched rope of intestines halfway across the plains, blood matting its wooly hide as it weaved through miles of wheat. It had finally buckled over at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Annie’s last kill. When I’d ask my granddad more about Annie and about how he ended up with her last buffalo, he’d tell me that if this country was the body of a man, the Rocky Mountains would be his liver, gnarled up and hardened by the rest of the nation’s troubles.

+

I stripped my granddad down before I did anything else. I took off his old army waistcoat and I took off his plaid shirt and I took off his Dockers.

I took off his hat. It was a burgundy trilby, a relic of relics, its felt skull worn, passed down from his father the Baptist pastor. It was the only thing he’d inherited from his father, my granddad said.

I took off his moccasins. He’d won them in a poker game with the son of Red Cloud, the old warrior who’d fought for Montana and fought for Wyoming before he fought for his reservation, unsatisfied by the slivers of land his people had been rationed by the U.S. government, that old warrior for democracy. I tugged at the socks to get them off his feet, their stiff wool clinging to bony shins.

+

I had my dead granddad naked, save for his Hanes, his body stark white against the rippling crimson of the rug he brought back from World War II. It was a prize rug, a Persian rug, the spoils of a boxing match with General Patton.

I lifted his body onto a table and rolled it to the center of the room — it was an old operating table he’d used during his time as a Hollywood acupuncturist. He used to tell me he’d pricked blood out of more starlets than Bogart himself. I’d ask, but what about Rhett Butler? Did you prick more than him too, Granddad? And he’d just smile, his teeth sharp like sanded pearls.

+

Next to his body, his clothes seemed excessive, looked like more than he could have ever worn, like just standing up in them could’ve knocked him to the floor. Lying on that table, his skin embered in the light of a naked bulb, he could have been any dead thing. He could’ve been a trout, still stream cold with striated pigments, waiting for the blade of a filet knife. He could have been a storebought Christmas turkey, clenched up skin and legs splayed out, ready for the oven’s heat. But he wasn’t those things and he wasn’t any other thing except for my dead granddad.

+

I found the rusty can in the corner and carried it over to him. When I tipped the can, a splash of gasoline gurgled out. It slicked the grizzled white of his chest hair. I rubbed the gas into his skin with my hands, varnished his flesh with a glassy purple, my hands streaking through the clumped hair of his chest. I poured a second splash of gasoline and kept rubbing. I massaged his naked body until he glistened like a Florida housewife. My hands were chapped, red and raw from the fuel’s bitter chemicals. I rubbed until the gas made me woozy, its tang wafting up, numbing my nostrils, before the burn seeped into my lungs. I rubbed until I couldn’t tell who the rubbing was for, my dead granddad or me.

+

Even drenched in gasoline, my dead granddad looked thirsty, so I grabbed him by his hair and lifted his head forward. I pulled his mouth open with the hook of my finger, my knuckle on hard tongue, and I snaked the spout of the gas can into his mouth. His teeth chomped around the nozzle as I tipped the gas can toward him, poured slowly, listening to the gasoline gargle in the back of his throat.

It funneled into him. I didn’t know where it was going, didn’t care whether it was headed for his lungs or his stomach. I just poured until he was full, until his body swelled with fluid, until the gas pooled up inside his mouth and spilled out onto his chest, its froth bubbling down his abdomen.

I set the gas can down and gripped him by his shoulders, shook him back and forth until I could hear the gasoline sloshing. Then I bent over his body, pressed my ear onto his bloated belly, and listened to the gasoline slurp and fizz inside of him. It sounded like the static of a thousand distant radios, like stories and sounds refusing to take shape.

+

I demolished the rest of the basement. I knocked over his bookcase. Glass shattered and spines broke and loose pages floated through the air like October leaves. I kicked over the stacked cartons of cigarettes, and they fell around the room like discarded dominoes. I tore through his paintings, mixed masterpieces with unfinished duds, made a mosaic of his whole painting career. I ripped down shelves of liquor, shelves of wine, sent bottles crashing to the floor. Dime store merlots fell with untouched single malts, their shards spraying across the room in an alcoholic mist.

+

When I was twelve years old, my dead granddad, still living then, had lowered me into the cellar with a stack of two-by-fours, a hammer, and a bag of nails. He’d told me that if I wanted to get out, I’d build a set of stairs.

+

I went upstairs and searched through the house, catalogued everything he ever owned. Then I took it, all of it, down there to be with his body. I carried down the photographs that perched on his dresser, a picture of him and my dead grandmother standing on the deck of a Mississippi riverboat. I carried down easels and palettes and squeezed-out tubes of oil paints, carried down the paintings the Guggenheim had shipped back to him after a show. I carried down the pots my great uncle, his brother, had made for him, our family name engraved in the clay of their bases. I carried down his bed, his mattress, his recliner. I broke down his car, a ’53 Studebaker, part by part, and I carried it down, too. I had everything, his whole life, buried in that cellar, that coffin of a room.

+

I bathed it all in gasoline. I walked around the room with the gas can tilted, tiptoed through unwound strips of film, squeezed by a transmission, sidestepped through a maze of sunlight-scalded girly magazines, doused it all in holy industrial blood: unleaded. I filled up that bowl of a buffalo noggin and I drenched his mattress and I soaked his piled up clothes. I stopped pouring when the can ran dry, the drops getting smaller till they turned to specks, till they turned to fumes.

+

Halfway up the stairs, I stopped, grabbed the pack of cigarettes. I opened it up, pulled out an unfiltered Camel, and pressed it to my lips. I lit the cigarette and took a long drag, its fragile old smoke sinking into my lungs. I exhaled. My breaths wisped up, out, until they disappeared. Then I flicked the cigarette down. I watched fire skitter across the concrete, curl up, around, my dead granddad’s stuff. I listened to flames tick and spit, heave and pop, as they grew.

+

On the day my granddad died, he had so much history it killed him, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful, it might swallow me up too — I climbed out of his basement with nineteen cigarettes left to burn.

+++

Woody Skinner grew up in Batesville, Arkansas, before embarking on a college tour of the Deep South. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, where he’s been selected as the 2011-2012 Fellow in Fiction.