The Last Citizen of Groves Grove
by Gregory T. Janetka
Seventy-two years ago today, in a drafty house built by numb, calloused hands, a stocky woman with a jagged scar stretching from her right eye to her left cheek, grabbed her abdomen as she collapsed into labor. Her husband, who was in a nearby field fretting over the functionality of the second-hand mechanical reaper that would be needed to finish the corn harvest by Saturday, found his steady stream of curses cut short by her drowning wails. Dropping his burden he flew toward the sun-baked home, oblivious to the tree stump the Tully’s boy promised to remove weeks earlier. As his right foot slammed into the remains, his big toe snapped and he fell, slicing his chin open on the rocky ground. Unfazed, he stumbled onto the porch, crossing the threshold in time to hear his wife’s agony join with his first-born son’s terror, both lamenting the child’s loss of that safe haven for this land of accidents. Tears ran down the woman’s scar and onto the child. The man, still unaware of his injuries, resumed his endless cursing—this would certainly put a damper on the corn harvest, but at least it was a boy. Thus began the life of Ernest Edward Grove.
Ernest, tears long dry, lives in a non-distinct suburb of Chicago known as Groves Grove. Once again bald, his parents returned to the soil, Ernest relaxes on the front porch, drinking coffee.
“A four-letter word for unsullied…” he says, taking a bite of toast.
The land surrounding him, upon which he was born and plans to die, was settled by a distant relative some one hundred seventy-five years ago—give or take one hundred seventy-five years. Time, if one ignores the Groves Grove Chamber of Commerce’s annual report, has not been kind to the area. The rich fields and dense forests hibernate beneath concrete and steel; strip malls smother farms that fed generations. On the precise spot of Ernest’s birth, where those tears ran down that mangled face, where blood from his father’s chin stained the unfinished wood floor, sits the skeleton of a teen dance club, shuttered three weeks ago amid allegations of sexual misconduct and underage prostitution.
Taking another bite of toast, Ernest brushes the crumbs from his trousers and skips to the next clue.
“A seven letter word meaning, ‘to send to the devil.’ Hmm…”
So far nine clues and nine blank answers.
How had she been so good at these damn things? Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe every answer she ever gave him was wrong. Sitting under the big maple, her head on his lap, red hair flowing down his leg, what did it matter? Whenever he was around her his rigid mind had flowed with ease, her presence allowing for leaps of wonder and creativity.
And so he continues to read the clues out loud, smelling the expectant wind and waiting for an answer. When nothing comes his eyes fixate on paint peeling off the porch railing.
Nicknamed “Rose Cottage,” Ernest picked up the blue-and-white prefab post-World War II ranch-style house on a whim some forty years ago and has done little to it since. If one was going to start a family—which is what one was supposed to do—one must have a house. As a house was easier to come by than a family, that’s where he began.
Echoes rang throughout the three-bedroom house for twenty years, until one Christmas morning when Ernest’s niece Celia presented him with a perpetually molting teal-and-ivory bird. Still unnamed, it is now eighteen. Celia, having shed her geeky adolescence for a stale adulthood, is twenty-five. She had no clue how long birds could live. Neither did Ernest. Every week he lines the cage with the business section of the newspaper even though the bird enters only at mealtimes, defecating wherever it pleases. It has two songs—one for day and one for night. Ernest can never remember which is which. After five years of unaccompanied singing, an arthritic black cat, whose name changes day to day, arrived on the back doorstep. Coming and going according to no reason, it returns home under cover of dark to curl beside the old man’s feet. No matter where he lay snoring—bed, couch, floor, bathtub—the cat is there when he awakes. A mouse, Philip, scampers about from time to time, unnoticed. While the two have yet to meet, Ernest is terrified of stepping on the helpless creature during one of his endless trips to the bathroom during the night. Grateful for the simple presence of one another, the family of strays live in ungentrified harmony.
An old man in a town of old men, Ernest’s days passed unnoticed until two years ago when the death of his younger brother David left him as the last living relative of town founder Ezekiel Elijah Grove. Larger-than-life tales of Ezekiel flooded the neighborhood, no more so than in the Grove household. Fur trapper and con man of the Mid-Atlantic, he first set foot on this land when he fell from the top of a moving coal car. As the train disappeared into blackness he wiped the blood from his eyes and became lost in the stars, wandering through the prairie grass until overtaken by fatigue. Awoken by the late August sun he found before him a pristine, virgin land. Cut off from any reference point to his past, Ezekiel Elijah Grove applied the one thing he had left—his surname—to everything he could see, wedding himself forever to this ground. David thrived off the legacy, Ernest, meanwhile, felt smothered by the weight of the past.
Uninterested in taming these wild, flat lands, Ernest left the corn fields as soon as possible to go to college, leaving college to go to war. He gave little thought to the town, settling back down in Groves Grove simply because she was here. When she left he knew she’d be back soon and so he waited. With the rest of his siblings gone, Ernest, in his official role as representative of the founding family, is trotted out for “Grove Days,” “Grove Fest,” “Taste of Groves Grove,” and any other number of excuses the town finds to lavish love upon itself. While the seasons change the parades offer continuity—hollow symbols of hometown pride clogging the streets and filling the windows, Ernest smiling through gritted teeth, passing the time by reminding himself how glorious it will be to rejoin the nameless pile of forgotten white-haired men once more.
When not fulfilling this role, Ernest’s days are quiet and sober with the exception of Friday night. Well back before the ghostly mouse, the concerned cat, and the foolish bird, Ernest has met up with the ol’ fighting Eighty-Second. While their numbers have diminished, and ailments among the remaining have grown, their joy from sharing the same smoke-filled room remains unchanged. As a craggy-faced boy of seventeen, Ernest lied his way into taking part in his generation’s attempt to end war through war. After leaving his blood in the soaked soil of foreign lands, he returned home in the first wave of physically unaltered men to a half-mile long ticker-tape parade in good ol’ bloodless Groves Grove. These days the men talk of their wives, grandchildren, memories, but mostly do what they’ve always done, what they did in the bars, in the foxholes, in the hospitals—play cards. Ernest, deafeningly average, breaks even week in and week out and is always the last to leave.
His only other regular outing comes the second Thursday of each month, when his sister-in-law Constance takes him out to dinner. Even if it means crossing several county lines, she insists on the newest restaurant. Conversation soon turns to David, whom both can speak about to no end. Warm with thoughts of the dead, they arrive and take their seats. Constance pounces with a kind explanation of the strange ingredients on the menu, relishing the new role inherited upon her husband’s death. Ernest smiles, nods, and picks a forgettable middle-priced dish at random.
Every other day of the month, he takes his meals at home, on an unvarnished TV tray, or at Sara’s diner. Barring wartime, he has frequented the all-glass storefront uninterrupted for the last forty-seven years, breaking in more new waitresses than Sara herself. On pleasant evenings, Ernest pushes his empty plate and cup to the center of the table, sets down four dollar bills and heads out for a long walk. Whoever he runs into receives a pleasant greeting followed by a compliment about their outfit or hair, or, if nothing else strikes him, their smile. In recent days the gesture has often been left unanswered or outright ignored, the old man a nuisance at best, an ominous threat at worst. Of what? Of the inevitable, Ernest supposes, but that will never stop him.
Today, on his seventy-second birthday, Ernest finishes his third cup of coffee with his fourth piece of toast and waves to the postman. Putting down the blank crossword he goes to the mailbox and returns with an armful. His heart races as he sifts through the pieces one by one. Grunting, he goes through the pile again, this time violently shaking out catalogs and magazines, sending cardstock droppings about the yard. The chair creeks as he sits down hard and his dead weight strains its capacity. The rest of the mail scatters the ground, his head collapses into his chest. Here it is, his birthday, and no postcard, no word from her at all.
The ads and reply cards rustle in the wind and when the calls for his money become oppressive he stands up with resolve and lumbers inside. He showers and shaves, thinking of the shoe box on the closet shelf. Once a year he takes it down to add her latest postcard and gets lost for hours in her words. The box casts a shadow as he removes his favorite green blazer and matching tie, but he refuses to look at it and slams the door.
The Midwestern sky smiles down, filling his car with warmth that leaves him lightheaded. At the airport he takes a seat at an empty gate, covers his lap with several napkins and proceeds to eat french fries one at a time, absorbed into this world of comings and goings.
Painting, she said, that was her future, and for that she must go to Rome.
“What can I send you from Italy?” she asked.
“Oh nothing,” he said, “just a postcard so I know you remember me.”
“How could I forget?”
She wore all white that day, embroidered with fine flowers only noticeable when close enough to feel her breath. They hugged and smiled and he began to lean in then rocked back on his heels and threw his hands in his pockets.
A few weeks later she delivered on her promise and postcard followed postcard. When she met Andrew the cards slowed to every few weeks. When she gave up painting to teach English, they slowed to every few months. And after she married she sent only one a year, on Ernest’s birthday. Somehow, someway, except when his birthday fell on a Sunday, the card—never with a return address and always postmarked from a glamorous European location—managed to arrive on his actual birthday. Maybe she lived around the block the whole time, having a friend send them from Paris, London, Barcelona. Maybe in his delusion he wrote them to himself. Or perhaps she really did frequent those places, the ones they dreamed of during those endless summer nights after the crosswords were long finished.
The competing scents of fast food grease and pink antibacterial soap waft up from the steering wheel as Ernest leaves a series of illuminated streetlights in his wake. One stop left. Although able to park closer he leaves the car at home and sets off on foot. Strolling to the end of the paved, lighted sidewalks, he crosses onto hard, rocky land lit solely by the three-quarters moon. The ticking of his watch fills the night as his cataracts act up, creating halos around anything the light touches. Reaching the remains of the carousel on the edge of town—the last place he saw her—he pulls the pin on his watch. At that brief, unexpected meeting, years after physical passion passed into memory, time, as was the way with them, became irrelevant.
With some hunting and a steady hand Ernest finds the horse with the purple bow on its tail, the one a young Celia had elbowed another girl from in order to take the reins. Ernest had made her apologize, but she got her steed so what did she care. Calliope music thundered in his ears as he clung to the pole that cut through the horse, both helpless to the sudden rotation of the world.
It was then he had seen her standing outside the gate. With each revolution their eyes fixed and her hand reached up to wave but never quite made it. The ride spun and weaved, tilting back and forth, music cracking and popping over blown speakers. By the time it creaked to a halt he was sick and she was gone. Ernest released his grip, shaking his hand to regain feeling. That night he went home and swallowed his St. Christopher’s medal, a decision which nearly killed him.
Today, on Ernest’s seventy-second birthday, he received no postcard from her, no word at all. Tonight, as he lets go of the horse and walks toward the gate, he is at peace for he finally knows where she is—right here beside him.
Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who runs the site Literary Chicagoland. His work has been featured in Foliate Oak, Glass Mountain, Gravel, Heartwood, and other publications. He is currently looking for representation for his first novel and novella. More of his writings can be found at gregorytjanetka.com.