on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


Saving My Grandparents

by William Nations

I began hearing about Judy and her strange ways shortly after my grandparents lost the farm and moved to town. Town was Augusta, Arkansas, population 3,000 economically depressed souls. My grandfather had made the classic patriarchal mistake of letting his only son, my uncle, take over the farm. My uncle quickly ran it into such abject bankruptcy that both the land and the modest farmhouse became the property of the bank and a few disinterested mosquitoes.

One afternoon, an old friend of Nanny's from the hill country came over for a fried catfish supper. This friend from the hills, it turned out, had a cousin who was living on the street just behind Nanny and Papa's new home. When Nanny heard this she insisted that Papa run over there and invite her hill country friend's cousin over to join them for supper. Unfortunately, after Papa made his way through his new back yard and across the street, he went to the wrong house. Instead of the cousin of the friend from the hill country, Papa invited Judy.

Though she wasn't the intended guest, Judy enjoyed the fried catfish just the same. Nanny and Papa and Nanny's friend from the hill country politely pretended it was Judy they had meant to invite all along. They didn't say anything when Judy started talking about her dolls. She had one, she said, that symbolized money. It was green. With it, she telepathically communicated with her selfish daughter. She had a red one that represented someone who had betrayed her. And so on. Judy had made all these dolls herself. And when the air smelt just so, Judy said, she liked to set them up out in the yard to catch the wind.

"That's interesting," Nanny said.

Apparently my grandparents were the only two people in all of Woodruf County who didn't know that Judy was insane. She was universally avoided, ignored, and gossiped about. But having lived on an isolated farm all their lives, my grandparents didn't know how to avoid or ignore anybody. And it was too late anyway. They'd gone and made friends.

Over the next few years, I never visited my grandparents without hearing about Judy. There was the time she rang the doorbell at 3:00 A.M. with a pile of clothes over her shoulder and announced that she was moving in. That didn't happen, but she came by a few days later with a peace offering in the form of a two-liter bottle of RC Cola. Then there was the time she came by the house with the outline of some large, angular object inside her coat pocket. In short, Judy was always dropping by and making somebody nervous. And Nanny and Papa, despite the good counsel of my parents, among many others, couldn't figure out how to keep Judy from coming over.

When I arrived at my grandparents' house one late summer afternoon, I wasn't in the door five minutes before Nanny was talking about Judy, who had recently told Nanny that she believed Nanny was a witch and that she was "gonna get her." After this, Nanny went to the police to file a complaint. But the officers said there was nothing they could do about Judy until Judy did something serious. Threatening to get my grandmother wasn't serious. Nanny looked at me and said, "They should just lock her up and throw away the key. Everybody knows she's crazy, dammit!"

Hearing this made me just a bit uncomfortable. Having recently spent the better part of a college semester in a private mental hospital where a chain-smoking psychiatrist who perpetually sucked Slim Fast from a hospital straw convinced me that my resplendent epiphany about being the reincarnation of Jesus Christ was a manic delusion, I was somewhat ambivalent about just locking people up and throwing away the key.

I answered my grandmother by saying that even people who are a little different have rights, which of course didn't faze her. Even though she had been told of my problems, she simply couldn't compare them to a neighbor who was threatening to get her.

Nanny continued talking until she had me updated all the way to the events of that very morning when she'd finally declared to Judy that she was no longer welcome in the house. Judy hadn't taken this too well and had stormed off. Nanny believed that Judy was in love with Papa and simply wanted Nanny out of the way so she could have Papa and all of his bald, 75-year-old radiance for herself. This wasn't, of course, the end of it. Judy had made yet another trip to my grandmother's backdoor that day, this one only minutes before my arrival. She'd come bearing a cake with thick yellow icing. When Nanny told her that she didn't want her cake and repeated that she was not welcome in the house, Judy swiped her finger across the cake's thick icing and tasted it, as if to prove that it was safe to eat. Unconvinced, Nanny refused the cake again, and Judy went back home madder than hops.

As the afternoon faded to evening, Nanny's frustration faded with it, and she began to cook dinner. We had pork chops, fresh purple hull peas, cornbread baked in the iron skillet that had been seasoned sixty years ago, fried okra and jam. After supper, we sat in front of the television watching a country music variety show. Nanny loved it. Papa read the paper for a while and then went to bed around eight o'clock. Nanny and I stayed up gossiping about the misguided doings of assorted relations until the local news rolled around. After we got through the weather, she said, "Now, honey, why don't you sleep in the guest bedroom this time?"

"That's okay Nanny," I said, "I'll be just fine here on the sofa." So she helped me make a pallet of assorted old pillows and quilts there on the sofa.

No one ever slept in the guest bedroom on account of the squeaky bed. The squeaky bed squeaked so loudly that if you so much as rolled over in the night you'd wake yourself up. Nanny and Papa simply couldn't understand what everybody complained about. They had tested the squeaky bed for themselves several times and they had never heard a thing.

Once I was comfortably alone in the dark, beneath the covers of my pallet, I let my mind wander, like that of any over-sexed twenty-year-old. I thought about this girl I knew back in high school. I hadn't seen her for a couple of years, but I fantasized about her frequently because I believed she was the only woman I could ever love. I was operating under the premise that though I was undoubtedly attracted to other men, it was prudent to try and date women anyway. I did this sincerely. Such is growing up gay in Arkansas.

As I focused more and more on my desires, I tried to project my thoughts across the miles and miles of countryside between us, with the hope that they might reach this girl. And that her thoughts would turn to me in response. I guess some people might say I was attempting astral projection. Call it what you will, this activity led me into a deeply relaxed state, somewhere along the quiet border between sleeping and waking, where I lingered.

Just as I was about to slip into a dream, I heard a sharp metallic scrape. Outside of my grandparents' living room was a small concrete patio with a high metal fence separating it from the backyard. What I heard, I was certain, was the scraping of that iron gate against the concrete. It was the sound of someone entering the patio. I heard the scraping sound again. Someone was closing the iron gate behind herself, and someone was talking to herself. I realized with a clarity that I would have doubted had I been fully awake that these sounds were being made by Judy and that she was coming to kill us.

I raised myself up slightly off of the sofa and faced the sliding glass door. As I was fully waking, I heard the loudest sound of all: glass exploding into the living room, spraying jagged shards, the night air, and terror.

"Judy, you bitch, get out of this house!" I screamed.

But she wasn't in the house. Yet.

Panicked, I ran out of the living room, closing the door behind me. As I rounded the corner to the hallway, Nanny and Papa, having heard my screams, came rushing toward me. Nanny was in such a hurry that she hadn't bothered putting her teeth in.

Unable to explain what was happening, I led them back into the living room, where we found Judy. Up until this moment, I'd never seen Judy in person. I was astounded to see a stout, sixty-year-old, barefoot Amazon in a nightgown. She was standing on the broken glass. Her feet were bleeding. She was perfectly still. And she was holding a long, thick butcher's knife, the kind you crack open a fleshy watermelon with, and she was holding it cocked, ready to strike.

For one long, dumbfounded moment, we all just stood there. We looked at Judy. Judy looked at us. Finally my grandmother said, "Judy, what in the name of all Hell are you doing?" With that, Papa, in his simple wisdom, realized what he should do. He stepped toward her. As he approached Judy's large frame (she was at least two inches taller and certainly a good fifty pounds heavier than Papa), he reached out his arm as if he was going to put it around her shoulder in a hug. Once he got his arm all the way around her, he grabbed hold of the wrist that held the knife. Seeing that the weapon was now safely immobilized, I followed behind him and wrestled it out of Judy's hand. Not knowing what else to do with it, I took it to the kitchen and put it in the sink. Simultaneously, Nanny called the police. But since she hadn't put her teeth in, they got the address wrong.

We stood there with Judy for a really long time. Nobody said anything for a while. Then Nanny asked Judy what she was doing breaking into the house that way and scaring us all to death. Judy pointed a craggly finger at me and said: "Him! It was him. He came to me, whispered in my ear, and told me to do it."

I froze. All I could think about was my attempt to project erotic thoughts at the long-lost girl from high school. Had Judy somehow intercepted my furtive, half-hearted message? Had it somehow spurred Judy to action instead of the former head cheerleader it was intended for? Had my insane brain waves somehow synchronized with Judy's?

I kept these thoughts to myself.

After the police finally figured out where they should be and came to take Judy away, Nanny, Papa, and myself were too keyed up to go back to bed. So we did the thing that came naturally: we had bacon and eggs cooked in the sixty-year-old iron skillet, home fries, gravy, biscuits, and jam. As we ate, we speculated about who Judy would have butchered first, though it seemed clear to me and Nanny that Judy's real intention was to murder only Nanny and make Papa her love slave. We talked about the flowerpot she'd thrown through the sliding glass door, and we wondered if we'd ever sleep again.

Through the course of the conversation, Nanny and Papa kept concluding, much to my astonishment, that I'd saved their lives. They claimed they never heard the sliding glass door breaking, and if I hadn't been there at least one of them would have been murdered. I really didn't think their conclusion was warranted. All I'd done was scream appropriately. Were I a real man, I thought, I'd have disarmed Judy all by myself. Listening to them go on and on, I realized that it was their version of events that was going to be retold.

The next day, we learned that Judy was taken to the State Hospital and that filing charges wasn't necessary since she'd probably never leave there. She did escape once though, and the authorities called Nanny and Papa and told them to lock their doors. Except for that, they never heard about Judy again.

Now, many years later, what happened that night seems much simpler. Having stepped out of the long shadow of my own problems, I no longer worry about some deep psychic connection between Judy and me. Except, perhaps, when I hear unfamiliar sounds on my way to sleep. Nor do I feel guilty about not stopping her by myself. When I look back on that night, my thoughts about Judy are paled by the memory of the rich and humble lives my grandparents lived then. Last time I saw Nanny alive she was in the nursing home we moved them both into when they couldn't take care of themselves anymore. Though her heart was winding down and her breathing was shallow, her mind was still sharp. In fact, she could see me better than I could see myself. She spent most of my visit in a desperate if well-intentioned attempt to fix me up with her big-haired physical therapist. I think she may have even tried to give the girl my phone number. Some things you just can't hide from your grandmother.

I wish I could tell you how many people at her funeral came up to me to tell me what a miracle it was that I'd "saved Nanny and Papa the night that crazy woman tried to break in. What was her name again?"

It is quite different for Papa. Having labored outdoors all of his life, his body is as robust as ever. But he has no short-term memory, and he cannot carry on a conversation of any length without saying that he's "just gettin' older and meaner" at least three times. After a few tries, we all decided to stop telling him that Nanny is gone. Each time we tell him, we tell him for the first time.

When I go back to see him in that place, I dread the moment when I first spot him wandering the halls. I worry this will be the time he doesn't recognize me at all. For now, he still knows that I belong to him. But I'm sure he couldn't tell you how. Not at first anyway. But then he takes a slow second look and says something about that time I saved them from Judy and how wasn't that something? Standing there, I am, at last, grateful that he thinks I saved him from the worst.

William Nations was born and raised in central Arkansas. For the last five years he has lived in New York City, where he works as an Internet consultant.

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