Grump & I
fiction by Daniel Reiss
I look down at the scar crowning my elbow. Today is the first time we’ve spent alone together since the bite. So far, Grump has kept his cool.
“Boone?” He says the name of my father, his son. “Where we goin’, Boone?”
“Nah, Grump—not Boone.” I thump my chest. “I’m Sterchi—your grandson. We’re going to that museum up in Bristol. The one in the old hat factory where you recorded them hits back in the day. Don’t you remember cutting the ribbon at the grand opening last June? How hot it was?” I feel stupid for asking him this, rude. I watch for signs of paranoia, watch him stare out the truck window at the decommissioned train cars rusting like carrion by the old L&N Station off Henley Street.
“Oh right,” Grump says. “That’s right.” His temple throbs, grasping at smoke for recall of the museum, the ribbon cutting. It’s been five years since Grump started forgetting enough simple shit that my dad made him go see a doctor, five years since the initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Seeing him struggle gooses my spine like a sharp winter wind. According to Dr. Adhams, there’s a good chance that I’ll wear the same disoriented expression someday, that I’ll be dependent on others to survive. When that day comes, I hope they put me down like a dog.
I don’t go to church anymore, but I still talk to God when the world has me anxious. I feel better after crying and speaking to Him, even if nothing changes. Last night, I prayed to God that today would go well. I prayed that Grump would somehow remember the building he made history in. Once, before his brain started playing tricks on him, Grump told me he found God in Mamaw Roo, Jesus in the fiddle, and the Holy Spirit in Ernest Stoneman’s callused fingertips. “But the thing is,” he said, “my Trinity’s bound for changing every day. Besides for God—She’s a keeper. That’s the glorious thing about religion, Sterchi. It’s all in your head.” I pondered this exchange before praying last night.
A beat later, Grump breaks the silence. He says, “Boone? Where we goin’, Boone?” I don’t respond, don’t correct him. I keep driving, pushing forward.
As a boy of five or six, I would sit on Grump’s lap while he drove his big orange tractor around his small farm in Northeast Tennessee. He’d suckle on cans of beer and tell stories about the famous musicians he used to record with. I’d absorb every word he said. Grump taught me how to chop wood and run a grain combine; how to birth a calf and field dress a buck.
Two decades later, eighty-four years of wrinkles define the topography of his face. His eyes are bespectacled milk and honey, ears large and cauliflowered. When he speaks to me, it’s with a tactful politeness reserved for strangers and first acquaintances. That’s what I am: a stranger in his eyes—though I still learn from each of our visits.
My dual-striped Bronco rumbles out of Knoxville traffic and merges onto I-81 North, the highway hedged by pockets of fuzzy hills and ridgelines. A fishy musk of Bradford Pears drifts through the open windows. My Bronco used to belong to Grump. Does he remember that? Does he remember how emotional I got when he gifted me the keys?
I tune the radio to WIVK’s Red Cup Recital, Grump’s favorite live radio broadcast, and we listen to an up-and-coming Kentuckian pick his banjo, rasping soul-jerkers through coal dusted lungs.
“What you think of this man’s music?” I ask Grump.
“That noise, Boone, I hear it.”
“Don’t his songs remind you of you back in the day?”
“Who?” Grump asks.
“You. Back when you played music.”
“Never mind.” I turn up the radio. Maybe I’m wasting my time.
It’s ninety miles to The Bristol Sessions Memorial Museum, a stone’s throw past the Virginia state line. I keep waiting for Grump to accuse me of predatory practices, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sits peacefully in the passenger seat for two hours. God bless the little blue pills Dad slipped into his oatmeal this morning.
“Look, Grump,” I say. “We’re here.”
We park next to a bustling diner with checkered awnings and a hand-lettered sign advertising: Best Fried Catfish Bites in App-Uh-Latch-Uh. A soft breeze teases odors of fruit cobbler and fish grease. I watch a pickup truck pull off the road and hail an acquaintance passing by on foot. A mounted Bristol police officer smiles and waves as he rides by on horseback. Everyone waves back. This small town is all Sirs and Ma’ams. Streets are named after generals, kids after quarterbacks. Thirty-three churches serve 19,000 residents. Though it’s a bit too stuffy and puritanical for my taste, these are Grump’s people, and in that sense, it feels like home.
My grandpappy was born eighty-four years ago, a few miles south of Bristol in Piney Flats, Tennessee, on the last day of 1899. He sprouted during an era when Tennesseans still plowed their land with mules and oxen, farming the same eight acres in Piney Flats all his life, subsiding on his own terms—until three years ago, when the severity of his Alzheimer’s induced his children to place him in an elderly home in Knoxville. Now a nurse bathes him four times a week with a warm sponge.
“C’mon, Grump,” I say, unbuckling his seatbelt, practically lifting him out of the Bronco. “Let’s go see your shrine.”
He looks small and unimpressive in his red flannel shirt and baggy
jeans, squirrel-hide watch chain dangling from his plastic hip.
He stops in the middle of the lobby and just stands there, a
The museum takes visitors on a short yet informative tour of The Bristol Sessions. The average skimmer could easily meander through the museum—learning more about banjos, fiddlers, and Depression era mountain music than they’d ever dreamed possible—in less than ninety minutes, and yet after two hours, Grump and I haven’t even reached the halfway point. Crawling, backtracking, staring into space, Grump seems more focused than usual, and I try not to disturb him. It’s unwise to awaken a beast you can’t rock back to sleep.
A dark cloud has ballooned from the crotch of Grump’s jeans. The piss is already dribbling on the floor by the time I react. Rushing through exhibits in search of a restroom, Grump appears perfectly relaxed. Luckily, it’s a Tuesday, and the museum is mostly empty, except for a pasty contingent of Methodists on a bus tour from Missouri—most of whom have their pants pulled up to their nipples. No one seems to notice the old man urinating all over himself.
“Don’t thank me,” the kid says, all business, grunting as he pushes open the bathroom door. “Accidents happen all the time. Trust me…I know.”
A faint odor of urine wafts behind us as we continue our tour. No signs of Curator Ken or Little Saint Restroom. No signs of anyone, actually. The museum halls are empty, except for a red-faced janitor mopping up fresh pee. A sad ballad plays from hidden speakers, a fiddler mourning his beloved who’d been swept away in a flood on the Nolichucky River. I’m surrounded by the ragged faces of my pioneer ancestors framed on the walls. I hear echoes of ghosts yodeling behind me, spirits of the black-and-white photos on the walls. I feel their eyes dancing around me like a game of tag, but I cannot catch them in motion. Like Grump, many of the nineteen musicians who recorded at the Sessions grew up worm-belly poor. Empty was a word they knew too well. In defiance, they filled themselves with music.
Daniel Reiss is a writer from East Tennessee. He is currently enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Eastern Washington University. An earlier version of Daniel's story, "Grump and I," won the 2022 Knoxville Writers' Guild fiction contest and was selected as the runner-up for the James Still Prize for Short Story from the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival.