Otis
A Short Story by Alice Clark
Written using the suggestion "Secession"
Originally featured on 10-24-2008
As part of our series "The Bigger They Are, The Harder Empires Fall (The Ions Behind the Scenes of Every Regime Change)"

Otis looked at me with his eyes and asked me to be a better lady. Say “no” more often. It was a gift. He always had an accent, for no reason, and I had to concentrate to hear his words, as they were quiet.

Grandpa Otis quit the motor plant on a Tuesday. Pork steak dinner day. He said he was done with those machines. It was his very first “no”. It was a formal retirement and they had cake. It was decided upon. Then Grandpa started talking about Johnny and how they wouldn’t have time for beers anymore. Who would go home with Johnny on the late train? He wondered when that train would be done. When it would stop moving other people, and not just have abandoned him. When would other people join him in being done? The foreman tried to explain it to him, but he couldn’t hear it. What about the union, he said. Grandpa came home upset. He had his red hankie out, not crying, just set in his hand. It had oil on it, but I didn’t know why. We tried to explain it to him, but he just sat down and asked for a second cup of coffee. To get him going.

Ask him, my mother said. He needs to feel useful. I have to work anyway. Freshman move in day. Grandpa helps pack. It hurts him to carry the boxes. But it’s proud. Pushing forward. Useful. This is alive. I have too many hot pink plastic bins. I bring a full size ironing board. It brushes his beard as he walks with it. Grandpa loads the elevator, but doesn’t know how to make it go up. He is shorter than me and stops to breathe outside of the dorm room and then walks in with a “Hi ladies”. A nod, and an, “I’m Otis,” as if it is a gift.

We walk down the steps and I knew I was supposed to go eat beef vegetable soup with him. Because it’s easy on teeth and friendly like another decade. Familiar, not a stretch to be pulled through. We were going to his minivan, which was parked as near to the curb as possible. Not even close to in a space. I was dragging the dolly behind me. He kicked his leg up on it, to push it into the back of my heels, as a joke, but his foot caught. I didn’t know and kept walking. I pulled his ligament right out. He leaned forward in pain and made a noise like a rabbit, but he did not fall. He turned white and leaned on me and it was a strange thing. His hand on my shoulder. It made me nauseous. His letting go. So white. I called my mother and she drove him home. They left me there, with the young. But it was ok, because I couldn’t watch him anymore.

That night my roommates and I watched a horror film. We make ourselves watch. the new art and make ourselves sleep. Get used to this because now this exists, the horrors in the film, and they may come from the floor. In the night. All our Ikea furniture has legs, as if avoiding a constant shallow flood. It holds us up. Ungrounded. I lie in bed and am old enough to fake sleep effectively. I relax my eyelids. Maybe the old know. They sing in vibrato to deny the atomic bombs and economic depressions. Their teacups are powerful. They talk about rice pudding because other words are worse. Those could drive them to being awake in the night. To twitch.

Otis’s leg was just a tear, ligaments. Bones. Something painful, unobvious. No dramatic wound to reference. Something embarrassing for him. It didn’t heal. He was too old. It stayed sinew. No muscle. Just bones and string. With a two foot bruise from the thigh through the knee. Something that only shows up on the old. Grandma took pictures of it and showed them to me. When I saw it, I could smell it.

He spends the summer planting tomatoes. But not on the ground anymore with his knees. Higher now with a mail order gardening stool. It’s like that death is contagious. His children could smell it. It hovered with Otis and Grandma.

The children came through with gifts only. Bearing seasonal hams and doilies with bright red and green embroidery. Mother’s day flowers. Birthday presents for great-grandchildren, to be delivered by the old people to parties they themselves did not want to attend. The back door, through which they came, was down two flights of stairs. Steep stairs made out of stick-on- tiles and the railing was loose. We used to do ballet with it as our beam. She always let us and didn’t worry if we fell. She’d just yell out to check on us, and not get up. She never cleaned the dirt off those steps and neither did we. They were better muted. Too loud and out with bleach and white. They were slippery. They lead directly into a giant freezer on the floor, the kind people use to store popsicles and whole deer. It blocked the bottom of the steps and it required younger legs to scoot across the top of it, if you wanted to get past. Otis said it was easier to get to that way. Closer. Sometimes they’d just leave a lot of meat on their counters for days and just hope for the best. It was easier than going down the steps again. Their children came up those steps and found the old people in their chairs. Reached down to hug them and breathe their Old Spice and baby powder. The old people gave them their tomatoes, which they were proud of, this new life they had somehow conjured. Their children took them home, where they sat rotting in their kitchens. Only one son tried to clean the old people’s house. He saw the urine on the bathroom floor and the piles of pill bottles on the shelves. He brought them fresh clothes instead of talking about laundry and reminding them how the washer worked. He didn’t mind sitting on the cat hair sofa.

Otis noticed. He decided they needed to clean it up around here, make it a little more friendly. He cleans the rooms and she watches. She isn’t sure if she can walk anymore or not, and prefers not to. He takes a bucket outside the back door, fills it with water. He wants to get rid of some financial papers, to soak them away. The process is more passive than shredding. It’s not a decision; it’s letting them fall in. They drop in quicker than they should. Some of his fingers don’t work. He accidentally drops some photos in the water and he comes in frantic from outside the back door. The grandchildren’s faces are smearing in the photos. He shows the photos to Grandma and there are tears in their blue cataracts. They would never say it.

Otis talked about the union sometimes. And about Johnny, his “negro friend”. The plant never called. Neither did Johnny. It was strange how that was the only name he remembered from all that time. Grandpa was confused. One day he said “thirty years” eight times in a row. Grandma just said, “mmhmm” and kept on feeding their dog, which had ringworm again.

My mother called Otis and asked him to go buy milk for the baby. Our extra baby. The baby that came late. The refreshing one that came after we forgot about skin that pushes out. Old people like babies with their newness. He said he couldn’t go get the milk today. Just not today. The next day he did not answer the phone when she called. One of my uncles told my mother that they were resting, because they were old.

Grandma started filling the house. Making a cocoon for them. The front porch was enclosed, but had a bench on it in front of a window; it was an opening. Someone had tried to get them to look out the windows, long ago, and she had gradually covered the bench with TV’s and raccoon pictures, so no one could sit on it to look out. The cat’s box went in front of the door. Fishing poles and Christmas lights were strewn between five foot stacks of cardboard boxes. A mockery of an obstacle course. She needed to shut the doors and block them, so they’d stay. Nothing else to come in. It calmed her..

Otis and Grandma turned on the TV and never turned it off. They tried to borrow the inertia. Otis thought aerobics would be good for Grandma, but he forgot that she could no longer feel her feet. Grandma gave Grandpa Westerns, to try to remind him of paths, of stories. He couldn’t hear them though. The hearing aids sat beside him on the davenport. Otis tried to say no, but he just fell through. He was held by the things that were left. Otis and Grandma settled on infomercials. Just a background with promises of healing fixes.

Otis and Grandma could no longer reach the floor, so when they dropped food, they let it sit there. The floor gradually rose. Newspapers and lottery tickets. Greeting them where they were. Holding them still by their shins and feet.

Read More By Alice Clark

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