I still remember the taste. It was gasoline, had to be, and I spit it violently into the sink. I lunged beneath the faucet and rinsed my flaming throat. I was ten and I had consumed something lethal.
I still remember Poppa Gene’s response; his closed-mouth snicker with a few nods of his head. He sat cross-legged at his small kitchen table. Pale skin showed in the gap between his slacks and his dark socks. Beside him was a bottle of whiskey and a half-empty shot glass.
“So?” he asked.
“It tastes like gasoline.”
After another bit of tight-lipped laughter, he snatched the shot glass and finished off what remained.
“It’s bad stuff, and now you know to stay away from it. That was just a little drop. Think about a whole bottle.”
I couldn’t. I could only think of Danny Tatum, my classmate who had actually consumed gasoline. Everyone knew the story, and everyone knew Danny nearly died. When he returned he told a few of us about the burning and the gagging. I felt Danny’s pain.
Although I stayed at my grandfather’s after school for nearly three years, I have very few memories. I remember the drink. I remember the fading tattoo of an anchor and a woman on his forearm. I remember he pinched too hard. I remember two framed pictures in his hallway of people I never knew. One showed a sly-smiling woman in a dark dress standing on a dock. My grandmother. The second was of a square-jawed police officer. His cheeks were full, he was grinning, and his eyes weren’t sad. My grandfather, Poppa Gene, supposedly.
I can also remember the day he fell. I was in sixth grade, I know, because it was his final year.
I was doing homework at the table. Even when I didn’t have assignments, I often pretended that I did until my father got off work.
I remember tensing up when his hand grabbed my shoulder. I remember turning to see that his eyes were someplace distant. His opposite hand was clinched and unsteady. I simply sat frozen as his body gave way. His shoulder caught the table and spun him so that his back hit solid on the green linoleum.
The grimace on his face assured me he was still alive.
I jumped to my feet and began dialing my father’s work number on the rotary phone.
An anguished voice rose from the floor.
“I’m calling my dad,” I told him.
“Help me up Kevin,” he groaned. “It was just a little drop. Don’t worry your dad.”
I can’t remember if I helped him up or finished the call. I can’t remember if I rode the bus another day to his house. I do remember long, silent visits to the hospital. I remember the funeral because of the numerous officers and their cars leading the procession. For years, memories of my grandfather only came in such unpleasant drops.
Before last Thursday, when I came across a worn photograph of a handsome police officer while cleaning out my father’s attic, I honestly hadn’t thought of my grandfather in over a decade. Regrettably, I was now a week too late to ask my father any questions.
Thoughts of Poppa Gene weren’t necessarily on my mind Friday morning, the day my truck began sputtering. He wasn’t on my mind when I found the closest service station. And he wasn’t on my mind when a tall, silver-haired mechanic came out to look under the hood.
He introduced himself as Lyle Townsend, owner of the shop.
“Kevin Peretti,” I responded, shaking his hand.
“Peretti? Any relation to Gene Peretti, used to be a police officer with the city?”
“My grandfather,” I admitted.
“Well, it sure is nice to meet you. Gene Peretti was a godsend for me. He got called out to our house quite often, either cuffing my daddy or retrieving something I had stolen. My daddy went to prison and your grandfather took me under his wing. Saved me. He got me working with a city mechanic fixing cop cars and fire trucks. I can’t say enough about that man. But I probably don’t need to tell you that.”
His words took my breath. Somewhere between being upset with myself and feeling joy in Lyle’s revelation, I gave a few tight-lipped snickers at God’s amazing ability.
The Lord had sent a simple little drop, just enough to wet the soul, but it was wonderfully refreshing.
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