Hand Me Down Death

April Vázquez

My great-grandmother Molly Belle died in 1993 at the age of 101.  Her funeral was held on a sweltering day in July in Yancey County, in the mountains of North Carolina.  My grandfather, Robert Basse, was one of the pallbearers, as was his friend and neighbor, Walter.

Walter was a transplant to the area, a northerner who had retired to the mountains several years before.  He and his wife were outsiders in that close-knit community.  The way they looked—the wife’s outlandish floral prints and oversized belts, Walter’s unruly hair and eyebrows—was unusual, as was the way they talked.  Not just the accent, but also the casual profanity that peppered their speech; they were the first people I’d ever heard invoke the name of Jesus without reverence.  None of us had ever seen anyone like them, and most people avoided them altogether.  My grandparents, however, were always kind to the couple.  For years, they met for lunch every Friday, and after his wife left Walter that winter, my grandparents continued spending time with him.  He had no other friends or family nearby.

As they drove up the mountain to the family cemetery after my great-grandmother’s funeral, my grandfather turned to my dad.    

“I saw her,” he said.  “Last night.  She came to me in a dream.”

I can imagine my grandfather saying these words: his swollen hands on the steering wheel, his thinning red hair faded to golden, his pale green eyes watery with age.  His body, still as solid as a tree trunk, was stiff with arthritis and an old shrapnel wound from World War II.  You could see the soreness when he walked.  I was surprised, years later, to discover that he was only 71 when he died.

“She told me she’d see me soon,” my grandfather went on.  “I want you to know that I’m ready to go.  I’ve made my peace with God.”

This conversation, which my father related to me afterward, stands out in my mind because less than a week later my grandfather was dead.  Walter, the friend who had stood beside him at his mother’s funeral, shot him to death in his own living room for no reason that anyone has been able to surmise in the twenty-three years since.  He also killed my uncle Robert in his home, and his own son-in-law, Mike, whom he shot in front of his three children–Walter’s grandchildren.  He then drove home, called the police, and sat calmly on his front deck, waiting.

When I google my grandfather’s name, all that appears online is a list of addresses: people who still live on the road named for him, rental properties, houses for sale.  My grandmother, whom Alzheimer’s reduced to a piteous, child-like state in her last years, is gone.  My aunt, who witnessed her husband being shot to death and escaped only because Walter stopped to reload, has never remarried.  I don’t know what became of the three kids. Walter hanged himself in jail with an Ace bandage the next day.

A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. April’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, The Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, The New Plains Review, and others.

3 thoughts on “Hand Me Down Death

  1. superdawk says:

    A rather bizarre story that hit me like a thunderbolt after the careful build-up details of an unusual relationship. On the one hand there was a almost sentimental introduction to a perhaps long lost fidelity of rural friendship, then a complete disconnect with a murderous half-story that left me feeling like I’d been stabbed in the heart for no apparent reason. I thought there was also a few grammatical issues that made the story confusing.
    Line5: Marion’s the wife’s outlandish floral prints – Marion, the wife, her outlandish floral prints.
    Line 9: after Marion his wife left Walter that winter, – and after Marion left Walter that (which winter?) winter ( you already introduce Marion as Walter’s wife)
    Line19: . “I want you to know that I’m ready to go.”(He told my Dad.) ” I’ve made my peace with God.”

    What did I learn from this story? That if I make friends with outlandish people, who live in rural America, I could get killed for not particular reason, depending on the breeze that whispers through the magnolia scented nights.


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