Mama told me a long time ago Colton would get the trailer and the property. I’m fine with it. He was good to me, even though I wasn’t his, and he paid most of the mortgage, and I don’t need or want a doublewide twenty miles outside Batavia, New York, with sketchy plumbing and a few scraggly apple trees out back. I’m here to get great-granddaddy’s sword.
The second I step out of my car, I catch a whiff of septic gas, and it takes me right back to my childhood. Septic gas smells different than most folks think. It’s sweet and salty, like shit-covered hot dogs dipped in syrup. Every winter, frost heaves shifted our trailer, wreaking havoc on the pipes beneath it. Every March, when the last of the ice melted, the trailer filled with that salty-sweet shit smell.
Dad left when I was twelve, so fixing the pipes became my job. I’d fashion a half-assed biohazard suit out of Hefty bags and duct tape, smear Vicks VapoRub under my nose, and belly crawl under the trailer to push the pipes back into place and seal the cracks and joints with silicone caulk and duct tape. As soon as I got out from under there, the trash bags and duct tape went into the burn barrel followed by old newspapers, junk mail, motor oil, and matches. When the smoke turned from black to gray, the plastic was burnt off, and I’d heave in scrap lumber and fallen branches from the apple trees and roast marshmallows.
Colton’ll let me have the sword. His car isn’t here, so I let myself in and open a couple windows. The place looks like it always did, except the grease stain on the ceiling over the stove is a little darker. It smells different with Mama gone. I’m not really dealing with that yet, so I focus on the smell. I’d say Colton’s eating Stouffer’s turkey and mashed potatoes and burning Vanilla Chai candles to cover the septic smell. It’s not really working. Denial usually doesn’t. Still, there ain’t no way I’m suiting up and crawling under this trailer. I only drag myself through shit puddles for blood relatives.
The carpet in the living room is a little more worn, but the floor still creaks in the same places, and the fake-walnut paneling is as tacky as ever. Buddy’s scratching post is covered in dust, so it looks like he died or left.
In the movies, family heirlooms are mounted over massive stone fireplaces fit for roasting wild hogs. Here, in my life, Great Grandaddy’s sword hangs on hardware-store hooks screwed into the wall over the gas heater. That heater doesn’t look like much, but it kept us warm enough if we wore thick sweaters and two pairs of socks.
Can’t tell you why I want the sword other than Mama was proud of her Granddaddy. I guess I am too, but what else do I have to be proud of? Mama didn’t do much, and I haven’t either. Still, they gave Great Granddaddy this sword when he graduated from West Point, and our family doesn’t graduate much. If I can keep my shit together another semester and a half, I’ll be the second one. Maybe they’ll let me wear the sword to the ceremony under my gown. That’s a nice thought, but I know I’ll be working instead of celebrating. I’d rather eat than walk across a stage and shake the hand of some dean I’ve never met.
When I was little, I imagined Grandaddy’s sword sharp enough to split a hair, like on Looney Toons. One day, when I was seven, I climbed on a chair and slid it out of its scabbard, and tested the blade with my thumb, the way Daddy did after sharpening his pocket knife. It wasn’t sharp at all. I asked Mama why, and she told me it was ceremonial. I had to ask her what that meant.
This time, I don’t even have to stretch, let alone get up on a chair. I just lift the sword out of the hooks. Then I sort of stand there, holding it in both hands. It’s pretty, don’t get me wrong. Decorated like we just don’t do today. But as a moment, well, my life is exactly the same, only now I own a sword that would barely slice a rotten apple. This isn’t Excalibur I’m holding, and I’m not King Arthur.
If the government gave Great Grandaddy a real sword before they sent him out West, it didn’t do him much good. The Lakota killed him at Little Big Horn along with Custer and the rest. Not that I blame them. What do you expect people to do when you’re trying to kill them and take their land?
I say that, but I wouldn’t fight for this place. The apples never were any good to eat, but that wasn’t the point. They were for making cider, and Dad did that. Then he left. Colton never bothered with the cider, and neither did I. My freshman year at Syracuse, the only time I came home was Thanksgiving. I found Buddy weaving back and forth in the kitchen with his tongue hanging out, drunk from eating fermented windfall apples. I tried to carry him to his bed, but he scratched the crap out of me. Turns out Buddy was a mean drunk just like Dad.
I write Colton a note telling him I took the sword. Not that he’ll care, but still. I leave my house key on top of the note. When I close the door behind me, I’m hoping to leave the shit smell behind forever and I’m hoping I’m worth more than a drunk cat and a dull sword.
This piece evolved from an assignment to write a story in which a character is uncomfortable in a setting and wants to leave. I think this guy ended up more disappointed than uncomfortable, but I’m not going to quibble.
If you liked this, you might also like Pigs, Possums, and Hot Dogs.
This story was prompted by Mary V. Leave me a prompt (a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location) and I will write a story and tag you when it’s published.