Argh, I love this story. I hope you do, too.
They Burned Down the Home of Old Spooky Jones
by Betsy Phillips
When I was ten, I broke my back. There was this big rusty metal dome out on the playground. We weren’t supposed to climb on it, but we all did. No teacher stopped us. I fell from the top. It knocked the wind out of me, but I didn’t even know I was hurt until I tried to get up and couldn’t. Then I was scared.
My grandpa heard it on the scanner when they called it in. Beat the ambulance to the school. And I remember seeing him lumbering across the playground, his big hunting knife in one hand, a squirrel in the other.
“Louise!” He shouted. “God damn it. Don’t you move.”
No problem, Grandpa. No problem.
Everyone in town hated him. Which was fine with him. He hated them right back. His whole life people called him “Spooky Jones” behind his back. Every once in a while, they’d slip up and call him that to his face.
Like, right at that moment, when my teacher, Mrs. Burch, was rushing from the blacktop across the grass, trying to intercept him before he got to me with that knife. And that squirrel.
“Spooky! No!” she shouted. I remember, too, that she was wearing these kitten heels with a really sharp point, so she sank a little into the ground every time she took a step. In a way, it was like watching two horrors—my grandpa, some ancient giant, his hands out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, taking each step almost in slow motion, and Mrs. Burch and her herky-jerky steps, arms bent like bat-wings, steady as the rest of her shook. “Don’t kill her, please!”
This did seem to get my grandpa’s attention. He stopped for a second, but then shrugged, as if it was too much effort to explain. By now, there were sirens and the daytime cop, Bill Evans, and a handful of volunteer firemen had arrived. They, too, were now racing toward me. My grandpa stood over me, slit that squirrel’s throat, and yelled out, “Make her lucky, motherfucker.”
I know it sounds crude, but it felt like a prayer. Squirrel blood rained down on me.
I was lucky, too. So very, very lucky. I cracked six vertebrae and two ribs, but just bruised my spinal cord. I lost most of the feeling in my back, but I wasn’t paralyzed. I did have to wear this big cast that wrapped around me like a plaster corset. My mom wanted to take me into the city to the hospital, to see if there was something more that could be done for me. But there was no way my family could have afforded that.
As it was, my mom had to take another job at the gas station just to pay my medical bills. Everyone said we should have sued the school, but we didn’t have the money for a lawyer and, looking back, I doubt the school system could have afforded my medical bills either.
This meant I spent a lot more time with my grandpa. Someone had to watch me. First thing in the morning, my dad would carry me out to the car, drive so slowly and gently, like he was afraid I might break, and lift me out and put my on his dad’s couch. Grandpa would be cooking breakfast.
“Want some?” He’d ask, while my dad was back out at the car getting my books. And that might be all he’d say to me until lunch time. Sometimes he’d go out. He drove an old rusted-out pick-up that didn’t go into reverse anymore and that farted big black clouds of oil-tinged smoke when he came to the four-way stop. When it started up, it sounded like the end of the world. I could hear that truck for a good five minutes after he drove away and get that much warning when he was on his way back. When he got back, he’d always ask me, “Been snooping around?” But early on, I couldn’t get off the couch without help. During those afternoons when he’d leave, I was always afraid that I’d have to go to the bathroom. And how would I get up?
I hadn’t snooped.
Sometimes, he’d bring home groceries, a can of Coke for me, a six-pack of beer for him, a whole raw chicken for the one-eyed dog that sometimes roamed his back yard. That dog. He didn’t listen and he didn’t obey. No use naming him, he wouldn’t come when you called. He was a mess of scars and he was missing not just an eye, but part of an ear. He was the size of a Rottweiler and broad like that, but he was white, with black spots. I always wondered what kind of monster had taken his eye and his ear. It was hard to imagine who could have bested him. His tail had a weird bend to it—when he wagged it, it only went about half-way. And the dog always, always smelled like beer, like he must have sat in a bar when he wasn’t with my grandpa, though I never saw him around town.
My grandpa never smiled. Never had a kind word for anyone, though he wasn’t always mean. He just wanted the world to leave him alone and resented when it didn’t. He never hugged me, never played with me, and never, that I could remember, even touched me before I needed help getting off his couch to go to the bathroom. He didn’t let me die while I was under his watch. He fed me, gave me something to drink when I wanted it, and make sure I didn’t pee myself. That was the extent to which he could do for others.
My mom told my dad that she couldn’t believe my grandpa had managed to father seven sons.
“Just obligation,” My dad said. “He’s his father’s seventh son and his father was his father’s seventh son and on back, for generations. He did what he had to do to make sure the tradition was carried on.”
“Is Uncle Matt supposed to have seven sons, too?” I asked. My dad didn’t answer me. My dad had a hard time with his family, sometimes.
Early on, when I was still pretty unsteady on my feet, Grandpa had gone out in the back yard with the chicken. I heard a noise like someone was trying to play an accordion that hadn’t been used in years. Grabbing various pieces of furniture to steady myself as I walked, I made my way to the back door. My grandpa sat on the stoop, the broken-up raw chicken spread out on a paper grocery bag on the porch next to him. He threw a wing into the air and that old boulder of a dog jumped up to snatch it right out of the sky. That strange noise? My grandpa was laughing.
One afternoon, a month or so before I went back to school, Grandpa got a call from Bill Evans, the daytime cop, that Uncle Matt had been arrested.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get this straightened out,” he said. He was pulling some things—his knife, a rusty pistol, and, weirdly enough, his wallet—out of his pockets and putting them in one kitchen drawer. Out of the adjacent drawer, he pulled a rabbit’s foot, a red flannel bag about the size of a pouch of chewing tobacco, and a small, thick, gnarled root. He put those things in his pockets. He patted himself down, as if to make sure he had not forgotten any weapon he might be carrying on him, and then he headed out the back door. I waddled after him.
His truck smelled like the dog. The vinyl seats burned the back of my legs. I couldn’t get the seatbelt to latch and my grandpa struggled with it a while. “Fuck it.” He finally said.
The jail was the newest thing in our town, built just a couple of years before. It had twenty cells and a set of double doors that had to be opened remotely by a guard behind a bullet-proof window. We weren’t that dangerous—the people who lived there. Sure, people got beaten up and accidents that didn’t really seem like accidents happened. But, for the most part, our problems were not that bad and the people who had those problems, in turn, were also not that bad. The jail wasn’t really for us. The county made a lot of money handing the overflow from the city. Some of those guys really were dangerous.
That time my uncle got arrested, he was one of three prisoners in the whole place. When we talked to him, they let us have the whole visitation room. Not counting the guard, the father of a girl in my class, we were the only people in there.
At the time, I adored my Uncle Matt. He wore his hair long and shaggy, even though everyone at school called him a commie. He also liked to read and he gave me books he thought I would enjoy. When I finished them, he wanted to talk to me about them, wanted to hear what I thought of them.
Looking back, it’s obvious that he must have been miserable in that town, lonely and bored, too smart for his own good. It’s easy enough now to see how tempting anything that seemed interesting, that staved off the boredom must have been.
But then, sitting in that room, across that table from him, watching him run his fingers over the gouges someone had already carved in the tabletop, I was upset and afraid for him. He looked like hell. His eyes were sunk into his head and there were dark circles under them. The jumpsuit they had him in was too big for him and it made him look thinner than he was, so thin you’d think he might break.
My grandpa sat next to me, his hands folded in front of him, his head down. This upset me even more. Could he not see that something was terribly wrong with Uncle Matt? What kind of man doesn’t hug his son when that son is in such obvious distress?
They were quiet a long time, as if they were trying to remember whose turn it was to speak first. Finally, my Uncle Matt broke the silence.
“You have to get me out,” he said.
“I should leave you here!” My grandpa growled before Matt was even finished.
“Okay, okay,” Matt said. “Leave me here. That’s a good idea.” He meant it, which I found confusing. “The longest they’ll hold me is a week. Then I can come by your house and get the bail money.”
I didn’t get what he was saying. Why would he need the bail money once he was out of jail? But I got to grow up with Matt pulling this kind of shit on my parents, too. I came to recognize it. He was always scheming. Once he decided that you were going to give him money for something, he considered that money his. Once it was his money in his mind, he then felt no qualms about telling you what to do with it.
“I don’t have the money to bail you out,” my grandpa said.
“Well, you’ve got to get it, Dad,” Matt said. “I owe some bad—”
“You always owe some bad people!”
“I know. But these guys are really bad.”
“How much do you owe them?”
Now, this was the other thing I came to learn about Matt. He thought everyone in the family’s wallets should be open to him, but it seemed to offend him when you asked questions about his financial situation. He bristled at the question. But he answered it.
At the time, this seemed like the largest real number I’d ever heard of. I couldn’t imagine anyone in town had that much money, let alone in my family.
“Shit.” Grandpa said. “No fucking way, son. I don’t got it.”
Then Matt leaned over, like he was making some great and wonderful deal with Grandpa, letting him in on some secret that would benefit the two of them. Maybe Matt should have been a used-car salesman.
“They’ll take the dog.”
“What?” I blurted out. Grandpa scowled at me, but he nodded at Matt, because I’d asked the question he had as well.
“If they get that dog, they’ll wipe my slate clean. I won’t owe them nothing.”
“My dog,” Grandpa said.
“They’re going to kill me, Dad.”
“Then help me, for God’s sake. I’ll get you another dog. What’s the fucking big deal?”
“It’s my dog. How’s taking my dog clean your slate? How’s that a deal you can even trust?”
“That’s what they said.” Matt shifted in his seat. He looked at me and winked, like this was just some bullshit he had to go through before he inevitably got his way. “That’s the deal. They get the dog and I’m free and clear.”
Grandpa sat defeated next to me, his shoulders slumped, his chin in his chest, his hands hanging limply by his side. Matt tried hard to give the bad news the time it needed to sink in but he was giddy, already anticipating how Grandpa would help him off the hook.
“No,” Grandpa said, so quietly both Matt and I looked at each other to check if we’d heard correctly. “No. You got yourself into this mess. You get yourself out.”
“Louise!” Matt cried out. He wanted me to come take his side. I was frozen between them. I said nothing. When Matt realized Grandpa wasn’t going to change his mind, he shot up out of the chair and began to pace furiously back and forth.
“I’ll get you out of here,” Grandpa said.
“I don’t want out of here,” Matt snapped. “I want the god damn money or the dog.”
“No,” Grandpa said, again, this time louder.
“Fuck you,” Matt said, rushing at my grandfather. I don’t know if he would have actually hit the old man, but the guard stepped in before I could find out.
The guard took Matt back to his cell and my grandpa sat in the chair as still as the dead. His breathing sounded pained.
Finally, he reached in his back pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. He shifted in his seat and wrestled in his front pocket. I expected he was getting something strange, but he came back with two old mercury dimes. He spread the handkerchief out in front of him on the table. Then, he tied a knot in the two corners closest to me. In the folds of each knot, he slid a dime.
He whispered something to it. I couldn’t make out anything but “in the whole round world, there is only one” and then that handkerchief stood up. The corners where the knots were stretched out toward me like rudimentary hands and the other two corners folded just enough to make the thing some feet. It took a few steps toward me, turned and took a few steps toward the way Matt had gone. It bent forward, and, with a great leap, it flipped over backward and landed.
“Can I touch it?” I asked, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the answer. I reached toward it and it slid, deftly, out of my way. It strutted around the table and, when I put my hands flat on the table top, the handkerchief came over and reached down with its knotted hand and touched my finger.
It felt ordinary. Like cotton against my skin. I looked for the trick, but I could find no wires, no mechanism that made the thing move like that. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But just as I felt I was making a new friend, Grandpa snatched the handkerchief back. I probably slumped down in disappointment as he untied the hands. I know I didn’t realize until later why he was pressing the handkerchief to his face before we got up and left.
In the truck, I asked him, “How did you do that?”
“Can I do that?”
“It’d make my life easier if you could,” he said. “But no. I never heard of anyone in our family being able but the seventh sons.”
“I keep waiting for him to show signs.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Drugs. And he’s an asshole.”
When I got home that evening, I related everything that happened with all of the enthusiasm of a kid who knows something important the adults don’t.
“Your Uncle Matt is not on drugs,” my mom said, but I could hear in her voice that it was a lie. “He just has some problems. He’s sick and he needs our help.”
Later, as I laid awake in bed, straining to hear what my parents were talking about in the other room, I heard my dad say, “Well, it is just a dog. What kind of man wouldn’t do whatever it takes to help his own son?”
My mom answered, “It’s always just something.”
The next day, my grandpa never left the house. He didn’t come out of his room until nearly lunch. He looked rough, like he’d been drinking all night. When he put my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of me, he said, “Sometimes I pray that one of those girls I ran around on your grandma with got knocked up. That there’s another son out there, older than Matt, I don’t know about. That maybe your dad is my seventh.”
My dad was furious that he said that to me. I liked that he talked to me like I was an adult, though. And what could my dad do? The medical bills being what they were, he and Mom had to work. Someone had to look after me. Who else could do it? Uncle Matt?
The next day, when Grandpa left, he said, as usual, “Don’t be snooping around,” and this time, I took it as an acknowledgement that there was something to find if I did look. For the first time in my life, I went into his bedroom. It wasn’t big. The double bed that sat on the far wall took up so much space that I had to turn sideways to get between it and the Walmart pressed-board bookshelves that sagged into broad grins under the weight of all his books. Next to the bed, he had a record player and a few, very few records—Willie Dixon and Johnny Rivers are the ones I remember.
On the other side, there was a huge old chest of drawers, but the bed was so close to them, I couldn’t get the bottom drawers open very far. Only enough to see that they were full of clothes. In the top drawers, though, I found a couple of things that seemed important. One was a picture of my grandfather as a young man, not much older than me, maybe early high school, with his six older brothers—at least that’s what it said on the back. I never met any of them.
Uncle Matt told me once that the Joneses who could leave this place did and never looked back.
“I imagine your folks and you will be gone before long, too,” he said, but it took them a long time to get the money. My accident set them back, the town took a downturn, and then they spent a while being the ones Matt hit up or stole from. But, yeah, eventually, we left, too.
Anyway, the photo. All of them were smiling except my grandpa. He had a huge black eye and he was holding his arm like it hurt. He glared out of the picture.
Maybe if I saw that picture now, I’d understand something different about it. Maybe there was some indication that his brothers were concerned for him. But I remember being so pissed at them. Could they not see that something bad had happened to him? Was there nobody to look out for him? He seemed so alone.
The other thing I found was a small black book. I don’t know where I got the idea that it ought to hold all of the names of Grandpa’s girlfriends, but that was the kind of book it was. The leather binding was cracked and the spine was broken. A piece of butcher string kept the whole thing together. I opened it up and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. My only guess is that it must have been my great-grandfather’s based on the content.
It was full of observations of the weather and about which moons marked the best times for planting, Bible verses with notes on their uses next to them—“Ezekiel 16:6 will stop any bleeding”—and names of relatives in my family going back eight generations with comments about them. Josiah Jones, my great-great grandfather, was marked “useless and unreliable.” Uncles, at various remove, sometimes shared the same description. It seemed to be a family trait, passed down for generations, even more common than all the seventh sons.
There were a lot of seventh sons. By my count, twelve. And the rest of the Jones men seemed to have tried their damnedest to have that many—a lot of families had five or six sons.
I remember flipping through those pages, and how itchy my cast was while I was reading, how it hurt pressing into my thighs when I leaned forward, how hot it was. And then I remember how an ice-cold chill ran through me as I realized I was the first girl in the family. Whoever had written in the little black book knew of none and I knew of none. I hadn’t met all my cousins, but the ones I had met were all boys. No one ever mentioned there being another Jones girl.
I was it.
Young girls daydream about being special, about how, one day, her real parents, who are kings and queens or astronauts or at least rich enough to buy her clothes anywhere other than Walmart, will show up and take her away, or about how she’s destined to save the world. I knew I was not special. Life had made that pretty clear. But I was one of a kind. That must be worth something.
That’s why I took the two dimes out of the tray on my grandpa’s dresser and that’s why I slid them into the knots I made in one of his clean handkerchiefs.
“Stand up,” I said to the linen heap now on the dresser. And it did. That handkerchief stood up just like the one at the jail had. I wasn’t even surprised. I was only disappointed that I hadn’t seen my grandpa doing other tricks, so I didn’t know anything else to try to do.
I sat back on the bed, watching the handkerchief dancing around, the knots bobbing around like hands thrown in the air. I felt satisfied, like much of the experience of breaking my back sucked but this might have made it all worth it.
Just then, I heard someone trying to open the front door. I knew it wasn’t my grandpa. I would have heard the truck and the only neighbor close enough to walk over never did because she was afraid of the dog. My parent were both at work and, anyway, they would have called to make sure Grandpa and I were home before coming clear out here. The bedroom was on the wrong side of the house to sneak a look out the window.
But I knew something was wrong. I don’t know why I did it, but I slipped the black book down the front of my cast. I stood up and felt satisfied it was wedged in there firmly. I was just about to leave the bedroom when I turned back and grabbed the photo of Grandpa and his brothers. I shoved it down my cast, too, and then straightened up my shirt. I darted into the bathroom just as Uncle Matt was coming in the front door.
“Louise?” He said it so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him. I came out of the bathroom and was about to ask “What?” when he hushed me and dragged me into the other bedroom. “Louise,” he whispered. “You get into the closet and hide under some blankets and you don’t come out until I tell you.” He was plainly terrified.
“Is Spooky here or not?” A voice from the front room asked. I recognized it immediately. Bill Evans, the daytime cop.
“No,” Uncle Matt said. “Yeah, I think it’s too emotional for him, giving up that dog. He probably went to grab a beer.”
Officer Evans hollered, sounding like he was in the kitchen now, “You sure he’s giving up the dog? I don’t need the old man putting a curse on me.”
“It’s cool,” Matt said, waving me into the closet. “He’s fine with it.”
“No he’s not!” I said to Matt, but quietly, because I was afraid. He was making me afraid. Matt glared at me, but walked out of the room.
I’ve thought about this next part a long, long time. I’ve wondered if there was ever some time when Grandpa kept the dog tied up in the back yard, maybe when Uncle Matt was a kid, and that’s why he thought the dog would just be there whenever he showed up? But my dad says, no, the dog always roamed free and mostly only showed up in the back yard when he heard Grandpa’s truck. That was his signal to make himself available for food.
All I can figure is that Matt, so desperate to get out of trouble with whatever mysterious people whose interests were being represented by the daytime cop, thought he could just manifest that dog with his magical powers, even though he’d never shown much propensity for magic.
But that dog wasn’t in the back yard.
They waited for, I don’t know, it felt like forever, and I waited, too, sitting in the back of the closet, hiding behind hip waders and ancient snowmobile suits, my legs sore from resting on hard-soled boots. But that dog never showed up.
I was about asleep when I heard Uncle Matt screaming. I jumped up and ran out of the closet. My legs were tingling and I had to use the hallway walls to support myself, but I rushed to the back of the house. Out the window, I could see that one, huge police officer kneeling over my uncle, beating him to a pulp. If Matt had tried to fight back, that strategy had failed him before I got to the porch. He was whimpering and crying, but making no efforts to even protect himself.
The words “Stop or I’ll call the police” were out of my mouth before I could catch them. Here was the police, the only one on duty. Bill Evans, a man I had known my whole life, looked up at me and I swear, he was sorry. Not sorry he was trying to kill my uncle, but sorry that I had witnessed it.
“Oh shit,” I said, next. I turned and ran back into the house. I locked the back door and then hurried to the front. I thought about trying to run for the neighbor’s, but I wasn’t very fast, especially not for long distances. I locked the front door. Then, I went into the bathroom, locked that door, and climbed into the tub. It was all I could think to do—this was an emergency so I treated it like a tornado.
I could hear him pounding on the back door. He was yelling my name, yelling how he wasn’t going to hurt me. That was the last thing he said before he broke the glass out of the door and let himself in. He shook the whole house as he stomped through it. He only pounded on the bathroom door three times.
Thud, thud, thud.
I was shaking, I was so afraid. And, I don’t know why, but I thought of my grandpa the day I broke my back, him lumbering across the schoolyard with that half-dead squirrel. “Make me lucky, motherfucker,” I said, being at a loss for all other words.
Officer Evans kicked the door. But it wasn’t solid. It was just one of those cheap old hollow pressboard doors. The handle and the hinges were the most firm thing about it. His foot went right through the plywood almost to his knee. He tried to pull it back out, but the door had broken in toward me. Pulling his foot back out caught his sock and shoe in the plywood splinters. He lost his balance and I heard a crack that made me feel nauseous. His foot was still on my side of the door, but it hanged in an unnatural way.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I could hear Bill moaning. And then, thanks to whatever god answers a prayer that goes ‘make me lucky, motherfucker,’ I heard him call dispatch on his radio and ask for an ambulance.
I’m sure Grandpa heard it come across the scanner. He beat the paramedics and the volunteer fire department to the house.
“Louise?” He asked through the door. “You all right?”
“Uncle Matt,” I said.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Grandpa said. Then he said, “Bill, I’m going to make this simple for you. From here on out, whatever you do to my people is going to get done to yours.”
I heard Bill pull his gun. That’s not a sound you mistake for something else. I know he was ready to kill my grandpa.
“This what you want for your granddaughter when you have one?” Grandpa asked him. “To hear you gunned down in your own home? You got no mercy for my family, have some for yours.” The house was quiet enough that I could hear Bill holster his gun.
Of course, everyone has to test a curse. That’s one of the first things you come to learn about human nature once you can curse. So, after the ambulance dropped Bill off at the hospital and they came back for Matt, we were both herded into the back to accompany him, even though Grandpa told the paramedics that Matt could “fuck himself.”
After we were out of sight, the other two cops set Grandpa’s house on fire.
Before we even made it to the hospital, Bill’s house caught fire. You can probably guess which one the fire department saved and which one burned to the ground.
Later, Grandpa and I stood in front of the ruins of his house. I cried to see the place I’d spent so much time reduced to char and stink. Grandpa stood motionless, his hands hanging at his side. I reached for one, held it as tight as I could. He did not grasp back. I looked up at his face and I shuddered, without even meaning to. He looked so alone, like he might not have even known I was still by his side.
I wanted him to be angry, to burn the whole rest of the town down around us, just by wishing and making it so. Seeing him sad was unbearable. How much is a person supposed to just take, before he breaks? I didn’t know the whole story of my grandpa’s life, but I knew, as powerful, as spooky, as everyone thought he was, forces beyond his control had left him without a home. I wanted to make it better. To make it right.
“I did snoop today.” I reached down the front of my shirt, into my cast, and pulled out the book and the picture. He took the picture from me and gave it a little shake, like he was making sure it was real. He nodded, which I believe was the closest he could come to saying thanks.
He didn’t take the book, though. “You should probably keep that.”
My stomach sank. They’d even ruined magic for him.
There wasn’t really anything for us to do until my mom got off work, so Grandpa sat on the tailgate of his truck, drinking a beer, waiting to see if the dog might show.
I stood in the front yard, staring at the neighbor’s house, thinking about the daytime cop and my uncle and the couch and the day I saw my grandpa, sitting on his porch, laughing at that dog. The one time I ever saw him anything even remotely like happy. I was pissed again for him. Fuck this place. Fuck these people. Fuck a son that never stops taking so much from his father. Fuck a hard world that makes men into this. Fuck having so little and losing it so easily.
Just then I saw smoke on the neighbor lady’s roof. Not a lot, just a small tendril, like someone had thrown a cigarette onto a pile of leaves and the leaves hadn’t yet decided whether to burn or just smolder out.
And I stood there, squeezing that black book in my hand, uncertain myself.