22747We all knew the old man was dying. I say “we,” but I was too young, five or six years old, to grasp fully what dying meant. Grandpa would go and not come back — I knew that much. My pet rabbit had died, and so had Scuttle, my dog. But I knew my grandfather was dying because I heard the grownups say so again and again. They were gathered in a deathwatch there at the house in Clearwater on Highway 1 (which was always called “Grandma’s house,” never “Grandpa’s house”) and from time to time would say, nodding gravely, that the end was near. Hours, some said. A matter of days, said others. Some of them cried; all of them looked stricken.

But I doubt that they knew, not then at least, that the old man also knew that he was dying. Mary Grace told me so. “He will die at five o’clock,” she said, whispering in my ear.

I looked at her and glanced at the clock on the mantle. I had been telling time for more than a year. It was two-thirty. I looked at Mary Grace again, a questioning look, and she nodded. She knew. “Daddy told me so,” she said, putting a finger to her lips to seal mine.

But I wasn’t about to tell. We had lots of secrets, and I never told. It never occurred to me to doubt her, either. The old man was always telling her things that he didn’t tell his nine other children. They resented it, but Mary Grace let them go right on resenting it; among his eight daughters, she was his pick to inherit his magical powers, and that, he told her, gave her certain rights over the other children.

I was too young to understand all that, but I did understand this: the old man had always known things, was feared and revered up and down the valley for knowing things. If I’d heard it once, I’d heard it a hundred times:  “If John Justice looks into your future and predicts that something’s going to happen, you’d best get ready; it’s coming as sure as night follows day.” Story after story of his uncanny foresight was told and re-told throughout Horse Creek Valley.

He once told a neighbor, the widow Harkins, that she would marry again, to a stranger, and leave the valley forever. She snorted and scoffed, but eight months later she left for Oregon as the new bride of a traveling salesman who had been promoted to a job in the company’s home office in Portland. Machine tools, I seem to recall.

He told another neighbor, Ella Morgan, who feared that she was barren, to align her bed north to south and sleep with her head to the north, and she would conceive. One year later, Ella and her husband Ed became the proud parents of fraternal twins.

And when Earl Spivey, the town barber, refused one August to repay Mr. Justice some money he owed him, Grandpa said, “It’s all to the good, Earl, for your widow will need it; you’ll be dead by Christmas.” The Spivey household went into mourning on the next Dec. 23, when Earl was shot through the heart in a hunting accident.

Of his own end, Grandpa had often said to me and Mary Grace as though joking, “I will spring into my eightieth year, but I will not spring out of it.” He had turned 80 in November and now it was spring. Mary Grace whispered: “Spring. Understand?”

I didn’t, not right away. Children tend to be literal, and word-play was new to me. But when I did get it, I looked out one of the windows of the back bedroom where he lay. Just outside, bobbing gracefully in a soft April breeze, a branch of dogwood rubbed against the screen as if signaling for our attention. Beyond, across an alley, red and white azaleas nodded to each other as if in solemn agreement on a serious matter. I wondered if they knew what was going on inside.

Suddenly a weak, raspy voice pierced the quiet of the room. “Janie,” the old man called. The voice, though weak, was authoritative.

My grandmother went to his side and he beckoned her feebly to bend down. A moment later, she asked the other grownups to leave the room. “And close the door,” she said.

She bent to him again, her ear cocked to his lips, and then stood up. Hands on her hips, she said, “I know what you’re about to do, but I think you should pass it on to John Jr., not Mary Grace. She’s too young. She’s barely 15.”

I saw Mary Grace stiffen, but she didn’t say anything. We both knew that John Jr. was my grandmother’s favorite child. Mary Grace wasn’t even her favorite daughter. That was Jo-Anne, but Jo-Anne was my age. (Yes, I have an aunt who is younger than me by three months.)

The orange quilt under which Grandpa lay lifted with labored breathing. “It has to be a female,” he said in a small, weary voice. “I’ve told you that.”

“Eddie Lee, then. She’s the oldest.”

He struggled to speak. “She’s your oldest.”

Actually, Hattie was the oldest girl, their oldest child, but Hattie and Clara were his children, not hers.

“Tell me, then. I’m a female and I’m your wife.”

The way she said it made me think that that was what she had wanted all along. She was like that, angling, cunning, but even a child like me could see through it.

“Mary Grace is the one,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Send her to me.”

Grandma gave Mary Grace a withering look. “She’s right here.”

“Now leave,” he said.

I was afraid Grandma would make me leave, too, but she stalked out of the room without me. I had already learned that grownups sometimes lived in a world in which small children were invisible.

“Stay here,” Mary Grace said as she walked to the other side of the bed.

She perched on the bed beside him and leaned down so he could whisper, her caramel-colored hair falling like a curtain to shield his lips. The whispering buzzed in the room for a long time while I stood at the window and watched bees move among the blossoms outside. I wondered if the bees were telling secrets, too.

Grandpa died later that day. I never knew the exact time and I long ago shed any belief in magic. But I do know that Mary Grace grew up to be a most unusual woman, known all over Augusta for feats that defied rational explanation. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Grandpa died on the stroke of five on a rare spring day of his 80th year. Selah.

(Author’s note: This is excerpted from a work in progress, a memoir titled All Things Considered.)

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Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.