Mumbly Peg from Issue 53
My grandfather had beautiful hair. Everyone said so. Even other men. Still, when he turned fifty, my grandfather stopped going to the barber. He was like that. He could go along for years and then, for no apparent reason, do something like stop going to the barber. My grandfather let his hair grow long, until it fell in lazy waves past the pack pockets of his overalls. Sometimes he kept his hair in place with a sterling silver napkin ring. Usually, he braided it. When I was eight years old my grandfather’s braid scared me because it reminded me of a second spine growing from his head.
Because my grandfather’s hair grew slowly ㅡ no more than a couple inches per year ㅡ the color of the braid told the story of the past twenty years of his life. At the end, where the braid hung by his wallet, the hair was thick, coarse, and dark brown as a buckeye. It sprouted from the end of the braid like a feather duster. There were the years when my grandfather still worked as an engineer for the Cotton Belt Railroad. At its midpoint, the color faded abruptly tp gray. This marked the death of his wife, my Grandma Marvel. I dreamed once that the tears, which everyone said he withheld after her passing, had flowed instead through the thin stars of his hair, bleaching the color of each strand. The newest hair growing from his head was almost translucent ㅡ the color of Scotch tape still on the roll. These were his retirement years.
My grandfather taught me the game of Mumbly Peg one evening when I was twelve. My parents and I had driven south from St. Louis, where we lived, to Illmo, Missouri, my parents’ hometown. My grandfather had invited us to a small family reunion at his house, where he lived alone. My great-aunts, Josephine and Ruthann, had spent the afternoon cooking in his kitchen. We had fried chicken with skin the color of mahogany, scalloped potatoes smothered in Velveeta cheese sauce, fresh sliced tomatoes, green beans simmered with smoked ham hocks and long green onions from Mason jars filled with ice water.
When dinner was over, my father, grandfather, and two great uncles left the table to sit outside and talk. My mother called the unnecessary activity tuneweaving. I remained and fiddled with my food as my mother and great-aunts cleared the dishes and discussed family news. I didn’t want to leave. I loved listening to the women talk. My mother pointed me toward the back of the house.
Outside, i stood on the screen porch. My great-uncles, Lyle and Bertram, sat holding hands on the porch swing. They were my grandfather’s younger identical twin brothers, though they looked older. It was difficult to understand my great-uncles when they were together because they communicated in a mishmash language which only they understood. They offered me something that sounded like “Ma-Hallow” as I looked around.
Through the screen door I saw my father leaning against a black walnut tree with a cigarette in his hand. A bourbon glass was propped in the crook of the tree. My father neither smoked nor drank hard liquor at home.
My grandfather sat on the stone steps leading to the porch. He wearing the sterling silver napkin ring, part of a set he and my grandmother received as a wedding present. A fancy letter “B,” for Benson, our family name, was engraved on its surface.
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