American Zombie Beauty
By Philip Baruth
I’m dragging the slats I busted off the picnic table into the mud room, so I can nail them to the inside of the front door, when Grampa wanders out of his bedroom. He’s got on the frayed green terrycloth robe he’s been wearing most every day since I was in high school, winter or summer. The feet look like dinosaur feet sticking out from under the terrycloth hem, ancient velociraptor feet, just bone and yellow nails and liver spots.
Before she died, my Gramma used to call the robe his “smoking jacket.” Which was funny and true enough: Grampa saw some things that scared him bad over in Germany during the Big War, and he’s chain-smoked ever since—chain-smoked like he thought if his butt went out, the Germans would take advantage of the dark and hit the beach. Ninety-seven years old and shaky hands, all right, but the old man never drops that butt.
In fact, he pokes it at me when I hoist the first board up to the door and commence whaling on it with the mallet. “Fuck you doing, boy?” he asks curiously, which is polite enough in Grampa-speak. “Fuck you hammering the door shut for?”
I wipe the sweat and grit off my forehead. I don’t have a lot of minutes. “Because we might have some unwanted guests later, and if we let them in they’ll eat us out of house and home.”
I know he can’t register sarcasm anymore. To him a straight face is just a face. But I’ve always been a wise-ass, even under serious pressure like this. “See what I’m saying, Gramps?” I mime a mouth with my hand. “Eat us out of house and home.”
He watches the hand and nods automatically, and then—just like he was seventy or even eighty again—he grabs the end of the board I’m pulling on and sort of helps me wrestle it into place a little. I whale at it with the mallet, get it good and firm, and Grampa exhales like he’s done a good morning’s work.
“Now who’s these guests,” he asks then, with an air of getting to the bottom of things. I can see that he truly has no idea, none at all. He’s forgotten everything we’ve told him over the last few months. His mind is just as empty of all of this as an open field after a fall of snow.
So I take one of the minutes I don’t have and I tell him again. I put my hand on his shoulder, real tight, get up close to his face so he can see this is as serious as it’s ever going to get. “It’s the Jerrys, Grampa. Remember Susan and I told you about the Jerrys. Some reason they’re moving south again, and they were in Waterbury around noon. Casper called from the store there. Killed his son Lucas before Casper could get the militia together. Killed him dead, Grampa. I don’t think they’ll come up the Mountain Road, but maybe they want to learn to ski. So we’re not taking any chances.”
I expect the mention of the Jerrys to make him recoil, the way a man in his right mind recoils from things that split your flesh and crack your spinal cord into nunchuks, things that want nothing more than to bust open your skull and lap daintily at your brains.
But Grampa hasn’t been in his right mind for a long, long time. Instead, he gives a crafty little smile and taps his index finger to his temple. “Not so dumb after all, your old Grandad. I told your Grandmother the Jerries would hit this country before they were through. Told her. They’re still smarting from the times we whipped their fascist heiney over there. And now they’re bringing their beef over here. Damned if I wasn’t right as rain, boy.”
I turn away and haul up another long board. “Not those kind of Jerries, Gramps. Not your WWII Jerries. These are a different model altogether, believe me.”
Grampa cinches his belt up tight on the robe, jams his cigarette between tight lips, and shakes his head grimly. “Different, my bony-white ass,” he spits, and then marches stiffly to the bay window to take up the watch. “A Jerry is a Jerry is a goddamned Jerry,” he says with some dignity, then ashes his cigarette carefully on the windowsill.
It’s the only thing he does that’s ever made my wife Susan want to put him in a home.
“Now tell me what I’m looking for here, son,” he calls over between blows of the hammer, and I can tell that in his mind we’re suddenly sharing a foxhole somewhere near the Rhine, instead of a ski bum’s cabin in Vermont, way up the Mountain Road nearly to Stowe Resort, where the rich folk ski and then apres-ski. “Bastards changed their uniforms much since my day?”
Not much, I think, as I drive the last nail and test the door with my shoulder. If your Jerries were wearing tie-dye, too.