Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2014    poetry    all issues


Cover Mia Funk

Bill Pippin

Chris Belden
The Finger

Amberle L. Husbands
Only Whistle Stops

Kyle A. Valenta
The Narrows

Robert Martin

Eileen Arthurs
Portrait of an Artist, After All

Gibson Monk
The Tenth Part of Desire

J. S. Simmons
Bodies In Motion and At Rest

Nancy Nguyen
Truck Stop

Melissa Ragsly
The Pigeons of Apartment 9C

KC Kirkley

B. Yvette Yun
Fire in the Sky

Katharine O’Flynn
The Island

Brent DeLanoy

Daniel C. Bryant
Out County Road

John Mort
Red Rock Valley

Zac Hill
Conversations With Dakota Fanning

Haley Norris
The Last Day

KC Kirkley


“Who’s that?” he said to me from the hospital bed that dominated the living room. On the far side of the bed an IV drooled through a cloudy tube into his hand. His eyes were closed and his other hand was squeezing itself in a fist, in rhythm, as if he was milking an imagined cow.

“It’s just me, Gramps,” I said. “Just Les.”

He was quiet for a long time, and I thought that perhaps he’d fallen asleep. I tried to take the time to reflect on his life, as one is supposed to do in such situations.

I considered that I was never particularly close to him and even then (even now!) his given name, Cecil, sounded strange to me. We all called him Gramps and he was ever a mystery to me, an austere relic from the unimaginable world of the past. I tried to picture him as a young man riding a horse through the snowfields of rural Michigan, but could only fill in the image with mental scraps of movie scenes pasted together into a miserable mix of melodrama and special effects. He filled a role, Gramps did, but I had a hard time thinking of him as a real person, see. I had spent entire childhood summers within meters of his hardened frame, vaguely aware that he was fixing the lawn mower, washing out the bird bath, painting the carport. But no way can I say I knew the man, and that’s the first thing you need to know.

“How old are you?” he said.

I was working under the assumption that I should find ways to make him use his mind, to keep him sharp, I figured. I said, “I’m the youngest, remember? I was born in ’88, remember? How old does that make me?”

“Shit,” he said.

“Anyway, what does it matter?” I said. “Do you need anything?”

“Is it raining?” he said.


“Pray for rain . . . That’s in the Bible . . . right?”

“I guess. Sounds like something from the Bible,” I said.

“Well . . . pray for rain, then,” he said.

In fact, we had been having a drought. How very astute of him, I thought. How very cogent and apropos. Perhaps he is getting better, I thought.

“Who else is around?” he asked.

No one else was around, of course, and no one ever was. The smell of approaching death offended them, I guess, or maybe I am being cynical and it’s just that the rest of the family was harried by critical, pressing business as soon as Gramps was installed in Mom and Dad’s living room. Either way, there was no one else but me, and hadn’t been for some time. I admit that I took some pride in telling him that I was the only one.

He sighed.

We were both quiet. There are unbearable stretches of quiet when one is waiting for another to die. He continued squeezing his hand in that infuriating rhythm. After a time, what could’ve been ten minutes or three hours, it was hard to tell, he roused himself a bit. He sighed again.

“Tomorrow,” he said.


“You go to my place.”

He didn’t have a place, actually. He’d been staying at my parents’ house for nearly a month, his hospice arrangement being such that it was believed he’d be more comfortable there. Prior to that he’d been living at a retirement home.

“Your place at Sherwood Oaks?” I said.

He opened his eyes and returned to me a withering glare. “My place . . . my real place,” he said. He meant his home of 58 years, then, the ranch home on two acres out on Chestnut which had been sold to a young family named the Sandersons a couple years prior. He had poured himself into that property over the years; he had landscaped it, worked it, gardened it, remodeled it, added on, remodeled it again, mowed the wide sloping lawns over 3,000 times, built and tore down and built again everything that existed there. I, though younger, also felt tied to the place. For me, it was the creak-slam of the screen door at the back porch, the smells of mown grass and apples rotting at the base of the tree, the paradoxical sense of fresh senescence, the strange combination of agedness and renewal, the white home standing triumphantly bright against the green of the grass in summer, blending in a dull monotone with the snow of winter, the musk emanating up from the basement stairs; all these were elemental to that place for me. It had been the site of every family gathering, every holiday meal; it had been the epicenter of our small universe for half a century. His nostalgia wasn’t surprising.

“Go to my place,” he said.

“What for?”

“I left something.”

“You left something. Two years ago.” I began to doubt his grasp on reality again.


“It’s not there anymore, Gramps. The Sandersons have been there, they’ve certainly cleared it out by now,” I said. How terrible, not to understand this, to be so confused, I thought.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “They wouldn’t be able to find it. You’ll need a shovel.”

The second thing you need to know is this: I’m not exactly the most respected individual in my family. For instance, one of the reasons that I had to sit, every day, in that living room with Gramps is because I was the only unemployed member of our little clan. I’d been fired from my teaching position at the junior high school. Not many teachers get fired, you know; it takes a special kind of failure. But there had been days when I just couldn’t force myself to go there, to face those kids with their toxic cynicism and spastic attention spans, and that was problematic for my employers. I wasn’t bold enough to walk out or resign or to make some grand gesture about the state of education and the apathy of a spoiled generation of pre-teens. Instead, I just showed up less and less until, poof, I just didn’t work there anymore. Mom offered my old bedroom to me and tried to help me salvage some pride by framing the offer as a request to help with Gramps. Dad was less tactful.

“Might as well try to carry some of the weight around here,” he said.

“Sure, Dad, of course.”

“Maybe pick up on Gramps’ work ethic while you’re at it.”

“Go to my place,” Gramps had said. He’d never asked me for anything before, and I could always only assume that this was because he did not believe I was capable. All those childhood summers watching him work, and never did he need me. I watched him rig up braces with vice grips to hold his boards steady while I stood by and pretended to play with my GI Joes. He climbed up and down ladders to retrieve tools that were lying near my feet. Not that I longed to help, but I found it curious, how he never asked.

I suspected he couldn’t remember my name, and although I could have blamed it on dementia or strokes or simple aged forgetfulness, I also knew it was possible that I just wasn’t that important. However, no one else was available, and Gramps needed my help, so he told me to pray for rain, to procure a shovel, to visit his true home. He didn’t have the look of confidence as he explained these things to me. Instead, he turned his yellow, mucous-filmed eyes on me and seemed to assess my worth with grim resignation as he looked me over from hair to heels.

“Go in the morning,” he said to me after a long moment. “Early in the morning.” He took a labored breath. “Maybe two o’clock, that would be good. They’ll be sleeping.”

“Why not knock on the door?” I said. “Why not tell them you need it?”

He glared at me again. “Where’s your uncle?” he said.

“I don’t need him, Gramps,” I said. “I can do this.”

“Ok, then. Don’t ask dumb ass questions. This is not a thing they can know about, leave it at that.”

“What is it?” I said.

He shook his head. “I want you to bury me with it,” he said. “Make sure they put it in my casket. Right on my chest, understand?”

“Don’t talk like that. You’re going to get better, Gramps,” I said.

He shook his head again, this time with an added touch of disgust. “Cut out that bullshit and listen.” He coughed awhile, caught his breath, breathed deliberately for a moment, then continued. “It’s under the hydrangea bush along the south wall of the house,” he said. “Deep. You’ll have to remove the bush first.”

I remembered the hydrangea, of course. I could picture the white siding of the house, the dark strip of black rich soil beneath the white wall, the brick border of the planter edge, the dappled spheres of the hydrangea flowers pluming from the spades of green leaves. We children used to pick the flowers and throw them at one another like snowballs. In the spring, bees would hover over the bush in reverence. Grandma, who died long ago, used to dote on that hydrangea. She fed it something mealy, mixing it into the earth. She clipped the flowers and decorated the dining room table with them, briefly transforming the house into something strangely sensual with their faint fleeting fragrance.

“Come on, what is it?” I said. “So I know what I’m looking for, is all.” I couldn’t help myself, I guess.

He sighed. “You’ll know when you reach it. It will be obvious.”

“Should we pray?” I asked.


“For rain. You know, like you said.”

“Ah, yes. It was more of a saying. We don’t need to do that.”

“It wouldn’t hurt though, right?”

“Fine then. Go ahead.”

Gramps was not the most spiritual man. I, on the other hand, had learned that any religious practice could be acceptable, if carried out with earnestness. I grabbed his hand and closed my eyes. His hand pulsed in mine, still squeezing out that strong steady rhythm, and it seemed impossible that he could die.

The third thing is this: correlation does not indicate causation. I learned that concept in college and it has become a guiding principle for me. Such as, just because it rained the afternoon that Gramps and I prayed together, that doesn’t mean there is a God.

I parked on Chestnut about three blocks from the old house and hiked down the road, trying to look inconspicuous with my spade and black trash bag. Gramps had fallen asleep while we prayed, and then the family came home and Gramps had given me hard sideways glances from his bed, seeming to mean that I should not bring the subject up around them. So, I hadn’t had a chance to ask him more questions and, therefore, I was left to equip myself using only my weak wits and the limited knowledge he had shared.

The rain was still falling steadily, and as I set the spade to the soil, I wondered why we had been praying for this rain, after all. To get the spade close enough to the base of the bush, I had to press my body up against the wet leaves and flowers. The water ran down the front of my shirt, soaking me quickly. I worked around the bush gingerly at first, stopping at each perceived sound, each skittering leaf blowing across the sidewalk, each nocturnal animal noise. I eyed the windows of the house, expecting the lights to flash on and the air around to burst alive with sounds of outrage and offence, shouts of trespass and vandalism.

Soon, though, I warmed to the work and I forgot to be so wary. The task was physically demanding; the exertion in my hamstrings and forearms, the mud, the feel of my wet fingers slipping into the earth between roots, it all felt true and elemental.

I cleared a ring-shaped hole around the bush, sliced through roots with the blade of the shovel, reached into the bush’s heart, pulled and pushed, heard its roots crack, felt them crack with my hands on its base. The wet earth held it still. I reached into the ground again and ripped at the remaining roots. My fingers tore through the small ones, my hands snapped the larger ones, and then I found the center root diving down vertically, still grounding the bush. I attacked it with the shovel, slicing and gouging with some sort of newfound vengeance, until at last I felt the shovel point shoot through into the soil on the other side, and I think I may have heard a final sigh come from that bush.

I pulled it out and threw it on the grass, ludicrously exultant, spent with the receding flow of adrenaline.

The hole it left was large, but I saw nothing except dirt. I looked at my watch and realized that I had been there for over an hour. I leaned over, my hands on my knees, my body bent and wet from exertion. Rain mixed with my sweat as it ran off my nose and hands. A car drove by, slowing as the headlights swept across my hole. A teenager in the passenger seat leaned out the window and stared hard at me. I remained motionless except for the rise and fall of my torso working for air. The car kept going, slowly, the boy staring back at me for a long while.

I set to the hole again, certain that I was nearing the treasure. Yes, treasure, because that’s the shape it had taken in my mind. I blame Gramps for this—he’s the one who wouldn’t tell me what it really was, and so my imagination had free reign.

I dug deep and wide. I found nothing, and time passed quickly. I dug and dug. I threw dirt to the sky and the rain ran in rivulets down the banks of my hole. The rain made the digging tricky. The dirt was soft, but heavy. It made sucking sounds as I lifted my spade with each load, and it smelled like bone meal, loam, animals. I dug past roots and clay, but there was nothing.

The sun rose.

A neighbor said “Hey!”

I looked up from my hole. I was waist deep, bleary with fatigue and failure. I said “Hey!” back to him.

“What the hell are you doing?” the neighbor asked.

I didn’t recognize him, another new member of the neighborhood, like these folks here, who bought Gramps’ house.

The fourth thing is this: a hole is, by definition, absence. Whatever object Gramps intended for me to retrieve was absent. The hydrangea bush is absent, along with its roots. Gramps, himself, is absent too. By the time I got things sorted out with the police and the Sandersons, Gramps had squeezed his hand for the last time. My guess is that he was laughing at his fool grandson, out in the rain, digging up a hydrangea bush in someone else’s yard. Perhaps he wanted to be alone and knew I’d leave on such an errand, or perhaps he wanted me to learn something that I just wasn’t ready for.

The fifth thing is this confession, of course, and a reminder that still I’m the type of guy who tries to do the right thing, whether or not I understand why or what it is, and that is why I was standing in a hole where the hydrangea used to be instead of sitting where I should have been, with Gramps, perhaps.

KC Kirkley is a teacher, writer, and editor from Mendocino, California. His publications include a forthcoming short story in The Los Angeles Review and previous publications in upstreet number nine and Curbside Splendor (web). He is a contributor to and editor of Curbside Splendor eMagazine and holds an MFA degree from Spalding University.

Dotted Line