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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Helena, Part Two

Submitted by on July 27, 2006 – 11:34 AMNo Comment

Helena wanted to know first of all what Molly Guidry did — for a living. Mr. Morgan didn't know for sure, although he'd heard she worked for the Forest Service, which sounded about right to him.

Then Helena wanted to know if Molly Guidry had any children. Not that he knew of, Mr. Morgan said, but he didn't know that for sure either.

Lastly, Helena wanted to know if Molly Guidry could teach her to become an axe-fighter.

"No," Pop Pop said, at the same time that Mr. Morgan said, "Probably."

"Ron."

"Well, she could. Should, that's a different thing."

"Can I ask her?"

"No," Pop Pop said, at the same time that Mr. Morgan opened his mouth, looked at Pop Pop, said "hmf," and closed his mouth again.

"Why not?"

Never had "because I said so" tempted Pop Pop as sorely as it did at that moment. But he resisted. After taking a moment to compose his response, he said instead, "I think it would be…insensitive, Bells."

"Insensitive," Helena repeated. "Yeah."

"She suffered a tragedy," Pop Pop said.

"Right," Helena said. Then she asked Mr. Morgan if he thought it would be insensitive. Mr. Morgan took a breath and looked at Pop Pop again and said slowly that he thought she should listen to her grandfather. Helena looked down at the table and quietly said okay.

But Pop Pop could hear the gears grinding, under Helena's messy morning bangs. It would not end here, he knew. She would find a way to put herself in Molly Guidry's path. She would practice with barbells and fireplace pokers. She would learn to become an axe-fighter, Pop Pop knew, and he could try to help, or he could mourn the little foot she would lop off unsupervised. He sighed.

"What was it you said, Ron? It couldn't have been helped?"

"Yes, that's what I said," Mr. Morgan said, raising an eyebrow.

"And that's what you really think."

"It's the facts," Mr. Morgan said.

"Then tell her what else you really think," Pop Pop said.

Mr. Morgan regarded Pop Pop for a moment before looking levelly at Helena. "I still think you should listen to your grandfather," he said then, "but to tell you the truth, I don't think she'd mind. I don't know that she'd agree to it, but I don't think she'd mind you asking."

"But to remind her of what happened –" Pop Pop began.

"You've seen that scar, Joe. It's not like she can forget."

"True enough," Pop Pop said. Seeing it even once, nobody could — the scar, but more than that, the blank silvered eye beneath. The tomb of an ancient civilization.

"So…" Helena said.

"So," Pop Pop said.

"So does that mean I can? Ask her?"

Another look between Pop Pop and Mr. Morgan, and then Mr. Morgan said, "Tell you what, Helena. Why don't I stop next door on my way home today and see about things, and when I pick your Pop Pop up for bridge on Thursday, I'll give you a full report."

Pop Pop shrugged an okay. Helena beamed.

"Run along to the house, Bells, the waffles are up by now," Pop Pop said. Helena shook Mr. Morgan's hand again and thanked him for the story, and hugged Pop Pop with great ceremony, and Pop Pop whispered, "Remember, you're responsible," and she whispered back, delighted, "I know," and ran down the stairs and out into the yard, light as a paper lantern.

The old men just sat for a minute.

"I should apologize," Mr. Morgan said.

Pop Pop waved a hand as he hoisted himself out of his chair. "Please, what for."

Mr. Morgan snorted. "She wants to be an axe-fighter is what for. I should have made it sound less appealing."

Pop Pop, opening cabinets: "Less appealing than losing an eye? …A-ha." He got out a bottle of bourbon.

"You know what I mean."

Pop Pop poured out a capful of bourbon. Mr. Morgan said, "Well, it's sunset someplace," and pushed his coffee cup across the table, and Pop Pop dumped the capful in and measured out another.

"Every year before this, I could have told her no. No, not 'til next year, you have to wait — I could tell her those things and not need a reason. But: not anymore." Pop Pop raised his mug. Mr. Morgan clinked it with his.

"It's dangerous. That's a reason," Mr. Morgan said after a moment of quiet sipping.

"It is and it isn't," Pop Pop said. "The world's a dangerous place."

"I have heard that," Mr. Morgan said.

"And maybe — maybe Helena won't be any good at it."

Mr. Morgan said, "With that handshake?"

"…She'll be great at it."

"It looks that way."

The old men sat some more, Mr. Morgan thinking about Shakespeare, Pop Pop thinking about pharaohs.

***

Breakfast, then lunch. Then two dozen screaming girls in the sprinkler. Then cake, of course. Helena went to bed, loaded up with books and sugar, happily exhausted. Pop Pop paused on the way back to his apartment to look at the fireflies. He tried to memorize the action of their lighting, although the attempt had not helped him in the past. Then a movement next door caught his eye: a second-floor curtain dropping back into line.

Pop Pop stood for a moment, thinking. He looked around him for a little stone or bit of gravel to wing at the window but, not finding one, he went to his apartment then and put the kettle on. A moment later, a soft knock on the door, almost too soft to hear.

Pop Pop opened up to find a very tall, graying man who looked as though the act of standing pained him — Blue Dugan, Molly Guidry's husband. He and Pop Pop had met once before, walking in the street after a big snowstorm. Blue Dugan had had shorts on, and sport sandals.

"Mr. Napoli. Blue Dugan from next door."

"Of course," Pop Pop said, shaking his hand. It felt very hot. "Please, come in."

Blue Dugan slumped into the kitchen and went directly to a chair.

"Are you all right?" Pop Pop asked. "Can I get you anything?"

"Ice water, if it's no trouble," Blue Dugan murmured. Pop Pop fetched down a glass and some ice cubes.

"You know about us, I assume," Blue Dugan said.

Pop Pop filled up the glass with tap water and said carefully that he had heard things.

"That I am impervious to cold," Blue Dugan said.

"That is what I heard," Pop Pop said.

"The heat," Blue Dugan said, and blinked slowly, "it is difficult for me."

"I see," Pop Pop said, although he didn't quite.

Blue Dugan drained the glass in two swallows, put it aside, and leaned forward.

"So I will come to the point, if I may, since I'm not feeling terribly well," he said, and before Pop Pop could tell him to go ahead, he went ahead with, "This thing with your granddaughter," and then took a very long pause.

"You don't like it," Pop Pop supplied, and when the pause continued, Pop Pop said, "I don't like it either."

Blue Dugan dropped his head and smiled.

"Did you…think I would approve? Of a little girl whirling axes around?"

Blue Dugan chuckled, mostly to himself, and said, "But you are permitting it."

Pop Pop said in an acid tone, "Unfortunately, it isn't mine to 'permit.'"

"Nor mine," Blue Dugan said, gazing flatly at Pop Pop.

"I see," Pop Pop said, and this time, he did. "So we have the same problem, you and I," and he got up to refill Blue Dugan's glass.

"Yes," Blue Dugan said, "it seems that we do."

"So your wife will teach Helena."

"Yes."

Pop Pop handed back the glass. "And you couldn't talk her out of it."

"I didn't try."

"It wouldn't have worked."

"No." Again Blue Dugan drained the glass in two swallows.

"On Helena, either," Pop Pop said, and sighed, and asked Blue Dugan, "So why have you come to see me, then? If we're powerless to stop them? Unless they've shut off your water."

Blue Dugan ignored this joke. "You should understand the risk."

Pop Pop, slowly: "You'll forgive my bluntness, of course, but your wife's…the upshot of the…all right, the thing is, Helena…could get her face split open."

"Or worse," Blue Dugan agreed, unfazed.

"Well, yes," Pop Pop said.

"I don't mean the risk to Helena."

Pop Pop frowned and began to snap something about a damage waiver, but Blue Dugan spoke right over him.

"What happened to Molly, she could survive. Losing a foot or a fingertip, she could survive. What happened to Ron, to Daryl, this is what concerns me. What they had to live with, to survive."

Pop Pop nodded and said, "Well, you're very kind to think of me, but an old man like myself has seen –"

"I'm not thinking of you, Mr. Napoli," Blue Dugan said.

Then Pop Pop found himself thinking of another conversation at a kitchen table, many presidents ago, when he was a boy and the adults had forgotten he was there, and he folded his arms and said, "How well do you remember your grandparents?"

Blue Dugan sat up a bit straighter.

"I haven't had occasion to think of it for many years, but your grandfather — he was what you are. There was talk about it, in fact."

Blue Dugan shrugged. "Well. Of course."

"The dips he used to take in Lake Scholer on New Year's Day. But they didn't talk about him so much, said he was an odd one, that was all. It was your grandmother they talked about."

"I remember," Blue Dugan said. "'Why does she put up with it,' they used to say."

"That's right."

"I see your point," Blue Dugan said, and smiled, sadly.

"I'm not sure I even had a point with that story," Pop Pop said. "But, good."

A silence fell. They were remembering Nashua Dugan stomping into Lake Scholer wearing only a felt hat and a pair of green drawers.

"I don't suppose you have a bottle of bourbon to hand," Blue Dugan said.

"Then you know about me," Pop Pop said, taking down the bottle and two jelly jars. "That I am impervious to beer."

"That is what I heard," Blue Dugan said, and lifted his jar. "To…grandfathers."

"Mud in your eye," Pop Pop said, and after a swallow of bourbon, he said, "Now that we are allies in this thing, Mr. Dugan, perhaps I can ask you a question."

"Please, Mr. Napoli."

"Do you know anything about painting?"

July 27, 2006

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