from FUNERALS AND FLY FISHING
The Baseball Game
My grandfather and I are finishing our Deluxe Frozen Entrees when the phone rings. I've already noticed that happens a lot here. You'd think he was in real estate. The last few times, he just ignored it and said "Mike will get that downstairs," but this time he gets up. "That's my private line."
"Hello?" There's a pause and then, "Rita, how are you?" In less time than it could have taken her to answer his question, he answers, "Sure, I'll put him on," and hands the phone to me.
"Hi, honey," Mom says. "I miss you already. How was your trip?"
My grandfather walks out of the room, but I keep my voice low. "Fine," I tell her. "But there's this little detail about your dad living in a funeral home that you forgot to tell me. And there's a dead person here."
"I should have told you. I thought there was no use raising your stress level any higher. Remember, though, I grew up there. I knew you wouldn't need to have contact with the business part."
"Gee, Mom, that makes me feel tons better." I practice the sarcasm I've gotten so good at lately. "If I see any dead people upstairs I'll just send them back downstairs where they belong."
"Very funny. I really am sorry to hear that he's got business, though. He can be pretty tied up when there's someone downstairs."
"Actually, it doesn't seem like too big a deal so far. Mike is taking care of things for him tonight while we go to a baseball game."
"That's great." Mom sounds really surprised. "He has some help now, does he?"
"Yeah. Mike picked up the dead man while your dad was at the airport getting me."
"My dad?" she says. "You can call him Grandpa, you know."
"Right. We'll see. So, tell me about California."
"Oh, honey, I think it's going to be fun. If you're doing okay, that makes it even better for me."
My grandfather has already cleared away our plates and wiped off the table. "I'll be fine," I say, "but I guess I'd better go. We don't want the Pirates to start without us."
"All right, sweetie. You take care. I'll call again later in the week."
"Good-bye," I say, and hang up the phone.
My grandfather looks as if he's confused. "Who said anything about the Pirates?"
"You did, didn't you? You said we could go to the baseball game tonight. And the Pirates are your team, right?"
"I like the Pirates, and we can stay home and watch them on TV if that's what you'd rather do. The game I was planning to take you to is the recreation league game up at the park. I sponsor one of the teams."
"Right," I say and nod. So now I'll have two exciting items on my vacation highlights list: grocery store and non-Pirate baseball game. This place is a thrill a minute.
The park is a mile or so from my grandfather's house in the opposite direction from the store. As we drive, he points out some landmarks. There's big sign in front of his church advertising the festival that they're having in a few days. The hospital is right across the street from there. A few more houses follow, then we're at the ballfield.
Some metal bleachers sit on one side. As we start toward them, it seems like everyone we pass knows my grandfather. "How's it going, Stanley?" one guy calls. "Who's the boy?" When my grandfather tells him, he says, "Come on, he's too good-looking to be related to you." Both of them laugh.
"Hey, Stush." Another man slaps my grandfather on the back. "What's new?"
We miss almost an entire inning until we finally sit down. The team at bat has "Delvecchio Hardware" printed on their shirts. Sure enough, the red team in the field says "Stanislawski Funeral Home." I'm amazed all that writing fits on the back of a shirt.
"Why did that man call you Stush?" I ask.
"It's just a nickname, a nickname for Stanley."
"Oh." I feel dumb.
"Do you have a nickname?" he asks. "What do your friends call you?"
I feel my face turning red. I bite my lip on the inside to keep it from shaking. What am I going to tell him? They call me Stan-is-lousy to make fun of the stupid name I got from you? And by the way, I plan to change it as soon as I'm eighteen. I finally answer, "The kids I like just call me Brad."
My grandfather looks like he's planning to say something, but then he turns to watch the game.
The players are high school kids. Most of them are tall and skinny, but one on our team already has the kind of round belly that you usually see only on older men. After he hits a grounder past the second baseman, his whole body bounces as he runs for the base. He makes it by a split second, and all of us Stanislawski fans cheer.
"Can I get you a Coke?" my grandfather asks.
I watch him as he gets off the bleachers. He's moving a little stiff-legged, like his knees are stuck in a sitting position. It takes him a while to reach the bottom even though we're only sitting in the fourth row.
"Are you related to that guy?" A red-haired boy sitting a few feet to my left suddenly starts talking.
"Are you talking to me?" I ask.
"Who else?" the kid answers in a smart-aleck sort of way.
"He's my grandfather." I hope the conversation stops there.
"You staying at his place?"
"Yeah. So what?" I stare straight ahead at the game, hoping he'll leave me alone. I clap for the next play, trying to distract him, then realize it was a Delvecchio Hardware run.
"I just thought you might want to know something for your own safety, kid," the boy mumbles, sliding closer to me on the bench.
fi0I try not to look in his direction, but I'm just too curious.
"What do you mean, for my safety?"
"You know how dead people lay down in the caskets?"
"Yeah. So?" This kid is getting on my nerves.
"Well," he continues, "you can only see the front of their heads when they're in there. And it's a good thing, because everyone knows old man Stanislawski scalps the backs."
"Yeah, right," I say. "How would you know?"
"He keeps the scalps in a bag in his drain-the-blood room." Then, with a voice that tells me he means it, he adds, "My brother has seen it," then scoots back to where he was sitting before.
"Here's your Coke." My grandfather sits down beside me. I jump and barely miss knocking it out of his hand.
The Bag of Scalps
For the rest of the game, I try to act as if nothing has happened, but it isn't easy. I can see the redheaded kid watching me out of the corner of my eye. When I finally look over at him, he just nods slowly.
Who is this kid and why should I believe him? I keep asking myself. But then another thought rushes in: I don't know my grandfather either. I do know that my mother didn't like him much. What if she was afraid of him? Maybe she knows about the scalp thing and just didn't want to tell me that either.
My grandfather talks about the good plays and the players he knows as if everything is normal. "You see number seventeen, Brad? The shortstop? He's my friend Ed's son. He's the best baseball player to come out of Wallace Corners in a long time. You can bet that boy will get a scholarship somewhere if the pros don't snatch him up first."
I let him ramble on, but I tune him out. Instead of listening, I watch his hands, with their thick fingers and bulging knuckles. I wonder if these are the hands of a scalper. Finally he notices that he's the only one talking. "Hey, I'm sorry. After traveling and all you must be tired. Why don't we head home and get you to bed? It looks like we're going to win anyway."
"Sure" is all that will squeak out, but at least it gets us moving. I look at the kid on the bench again, and he gives me one last nod.
When we get back to the funeral home, my grandfather makes sure there are clean towels for me in the bathroom, then says he has some phone calls to make.
I'm so grubby from the airplane ride and the ballpark that I have to take a shower, but I set a new record for speed. Being behind the shower curtain seems scarier than just being in the house with a potential maniac. I step in before the water has even gotten warm enough, and I know there's still soap in my hair when I get out.
Between the cold water and my nerves, I'm wide awake when I finish in the bathroom. That's good because I've had about enough of this visit. Dead bodies, open caskets, and now scalps - I've had enough of this place. I've got a return ticket, but of course it's for the end of next week. I wonder if the airlines would take me now.
I wish I hadn't fallen asleep on the ride from the airport. I have no idea how to find my way there. If I hitchhike, whoever picks me up ought to know the way, I guess. Mom will have a fit when she finds out, but she'll understand when I tell her about the scalps. If I have proof.
I know this last thought is true, and it may be the scariest thing of all: I need to find the bag of scalps before I go. I can't just tell Mom, "I ran away because I heard a creepy rumor." I need to see the evidence with my own eyes.
I dress for bed and turn out the light. I hear my grandfather come to the doorway a few minutes later. He doesn't say anything, so he must think I'm asleep.
He pulls the door most of the way closed behind him, so I can't tell if he's getting ready for bed yet or not. I try hard to listen for noise, but the next thing I know, I'm waking up from a nightmare: My grandfather is standing in front of me, holding a knife in one hand and a dripping, bloody scalp in the other!
I spring up in bed. My heart's pounding, and my T-shirt is damp. The room is dark, but the curtains are open, and there's light coming in from the streetlight. If I'm going to find those scalps, this is the time to do it. I take slow, deep breaths until my chest stops pounding, then I make myself get out of bed.
Since the door isn't closed tightly, it doesn't make noise when I push past it. There's a night-light glowing from the bathroom. The rest of the hall is dark. I tiptoe past my grandfather's room and toward the living room.
I wonder if there's another way down to the basement, like a back set of stairs, but it's too late to try and find my way around now. I shuffle my feet in little steps, hoping that if I kick something it won't make me trip. I haven't noticed where the cat's bed is. If I tramp on her, I could be a goner.
Feeling my way, I make it to the front door of the second floor. Of course, it's closed tightly. I don't think my grandfather set any kind of alarm system. Still, it takes a long time to ease the door open silently. When I finally get through the doorway, there's a handrail and the steps are carpeted so I can move a little faster.
At the bottom of the stairs, I need to open the door into the funeral home, but I stop. I know Mr. Chihoski is in there in his casket. His family is coming to look at him tomorrow.
My mouth is getting dry, but I have to keep going. I want to see those scalps for myself, and I've then got to get out of here.
I open the door to the funeral home. A little bit of street light comes in to my right through the front door window. It's not bright enough for me to see the casket, but it shines enough light on the hallway that I can find my way. I set one foot on the carpet, then rush the length of it. I feel like the ghost of Mr. Chihoski can't hurt me if I get past him quickly.
It's darker at the end of the hall. I feel along the wall and push a big door open to another set of stairs. I find a handrail and follow the stairs down.
When I'm at the bottom, I feel around for a door, but find a light switch instead. I'm two floors below my grandfather now, so the light shouldn't be a problem. I switch it on, and a bulb lights up overhead.
There are closed doors to my left and right. I gently turn the handle on the left door first and pull it open. I can barely make out the side of my grandfather's car. This is just the garage. I close that door.
I realize that the door on the right must be the one I'm looking for. I slowly try the knob, and it opens, too. As I put my hand around the corner of the room to find another light switch, a strong odor hits me. It's the same nasty smell we had in our classroom the day the science teacher demonstrated a frog dissection.
When I flick the switch, the lights buzz a little, then they burst on at once. The ceiling has lots of fluorescent bulbs, and suddenly it's as bright as the grocery store.
I walk in just a few steps. A large, white table sits in the middle of the room. It looks like something you might find in a hospital or Frankenstein's laboratory. Luckily, there's nothing - that is, no one - on it. A big stainless-steel sink is attached to the wall, and several pieces of plastic tubing are draped from a rack above it. A shirt like the one Mike was wearing hangs from a hook on the wall, and a white doctor's coat sticks out underneath it.
I don't see much else except for some shelves and cabinets and a small window near the ceiling. I take another step inside. When I do, I see a big grocery bag sitting on the floor by the wall. The shape of the bag tells me that it's full, and all I can see coming out the top is a patch of brown hair.
My heart starts to pound, but I walk toward the bag anyway. The kid was right. My grandfather really scalps people.
Suddenly, I hear a footstep behind me. I spin toward the door.
"Bradley! What on earth are you doing down here?"
Copyright © 2004 Mary Bartek
This text is from an uncorrected proof.