Grump & I
fiction by Daniel Reiss

The last thing I need on this trip is another accusation of kidnapping. Last Fourth of July, while stuck in traffic on our way to Aunt Mel’s barbeque, Grump freaked out and accused me of taking the “wrong feller” hostage. One second, we were discussing our favorite flavors of ice cream, the next he was biting my arm with porcelain dentures. 

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
befuddled statue. 

The museum is housed in the old Taylor-Christian Hat Company on State Street, a few blocks from the heart of downtown Bristol. A faint and weathered remnant of the Taylor-Christian logo still marks one side of the three-story building, sleavings of chipped paint peeling off the faded red bricks. Everything on this block looks like it could use a good scrubbing. 

I hold the heavy door open for twenty seconds to allow Grump sufficient time to shuffle through. Once inside, he gawks up at the bright lights on the ceiling. 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 befuddled statue. Although I know it’s the dementia confusing him, I like to imagine that the history of this place chills him to the bone.

As I pay for our admission, the woman’s eyes behind the ticket counter settle on Grump, glossed with pity. The glass cases of wooden instruments appear to be haunting him. “Is he with you?” the ticket lady asks me.

I nod. “That’s my grandpappy.”

“Poor thing’s shakin’ like a leaf. This his first time here?” 

“No, ma’am,” I say, taking our tickets. “He’s been here before.” 

Grump is one of the last surviving members of The Bristol Sessions: a series of recording events staged fifty-seven years ago, during the Summer of 1927. Most astute Americana historians refer to the Sessions as the “Big Bang” of modern country music, the place where it all started, making Grump a founding father.

“You good, Grump?” I ask. But he’s already shuffled off into the dim lights of the first exhibit. 

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. 

We spend a half-hour sidetracked by Country Kids’ Cove, where children can pluck miniature instruments, craft their own guitar picks, and watch a short, animated documentary on the history of The Bristol Sessions. One interactive exhibit invites young listeners to identify an instrument after hearing a few chords of melody. Correct answers elicit a cheering audience from the exhibit speakers. Incorrect responses earn players a horn buzz, followed by an encouraging voice urging them to “try again.” However, the exhibit’s design team apparently didn’t consider what would happen if a stubborn grandpa with Alzheimer’s fell in love with the obnoxious musical cadence of the wrong answer buzzer.




After twenty-five or so incorrect answers in a row, the machine stops encouraging Grump to “try again.” It shuts down with a strokey whirrr, malfunctioning in a way that drives the old goat hysterical. It’s been so long since I last heard Grump laugh, I’ve almost forgotten the sound of his barrel-chested bellow, the laugh of a man twice his size. Grump and I hee-haw like drunk fools—until a tall, weedy fellow in a collared shirt admonishes, “Please quiet down. You’re not the only guests in this museum.” Immediately, the hair spikes on Grump’s neck. He hollers, “Who the hell are you, the sheriff?” I bury my face in my hands. 

“Actually, sir,” the tall weed says. “I’m Ken Darlington—the museum curator.” I recognize Ken from the museum’s grand opening last year, a supposed expert on bluegrass music. He’d handed Grump the giant scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon. Ironically, he doesn’t recognize the legend now berating him. As I lead Grump away, the old man stops fussing and stiffens his legs, then grows still. I hear a trickle of liquid, so soft and slow at first I think it’s in my head.

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. 

For some reason, Grump goes totally limp once we’re in sight of the restrooms. I’m forced to drag him the last thirty yards like a piece of driftwood. It’s an easy chore. Grump wouldn’t tip a hundred pounds on a scale if I dropped a brick in his pocket. 

Inside the bathroom, there’s a boy of eight or nine washing his hands in the sink. There is no one else. He stares as we stagger in, sudsy hands working under the faucet. His soulful eyes drop to Grump’s soiled jeans, and he nods his towhead as though he watched it happen. I sense a connection, a benevolent purity, fizzling between Grump and the boy. 

“Here.” The boy dampens a handful of paper towels in the sink and offers them to Grump. I reach to accept the towels, but Grump bats my arm out of the way and grabs the towels first. Surprising, as he’s usually wary of unfamiliar faces. The sizes of the old man and the child are strikingly congruent. Grump doesn’t say anything but nods at the boy. His urine-soaked brogans screech like wet tires as he pivots on the bathroom tiles.

“Make sure to wipe it off while the pee’s still fresh,” the boy says, brushing past us. “And remember to have your momma wash your jeans when you get home.” Grump starts rubbing his pants with the wet paper towels.

“Thank you,” I tell the kid. He’s probably twenty years younger than me and a whole lot wiser. “Thanks a lot.” It’s all I can get off my twisted tongue, dumbstruck by his good will. 

“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.” 

The door swings shut, and it’s just Grump and me again. As Grump dabs his jeans with paper towels, I think about how, years from now, I won’t remember what the little boy said or what he looked like. Only how he made me feel.

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.
“I always had a jitter in my leg when I was younger,” Grump told me once. “Till I started playin’ music, singin’ songs I wrote in my head. After that, music’s all I ever wanted to do. And I did it every day.” 

As we approach the end of our tour, Grump turns around and gasps when he sees me walking behind him. I see the ocean in his eyes, tiny pupils adrift in deep, gray water. “Boone? What you doin here, son?”

“We came here together,” I say. “Don’t you know I’m always with you?”

Grump smiles. Then I smile. “It smells like church in here,” he says. “Did you bring me to church, Boone?” I think about the yodeling ghosts I heard earlier and wonder if Grump heard them, too. When I ask him, he looks at me as though I’m clinically insane. “Of course I heard them,” he says. “Of course, of course…”

“You ever been here before?” I ask hopefully. “Inside this building, I mean?”

But he’s already wandering away. I follow behind him like a mother duck. We’ve been inside the museum for almost four hours now, the doors scheduled to lock soon. I gently nudge Grump from behind every time he stops. Where has this energy come from? It doesn’t make sense. I remember Easter a few years ago, when a quarter mile walk around the nursing home nearly caused him to pass out.  

“By God, Boone!” he cries suddenly, pointing at a large portrait on the wall. “I know that feller there!” The picture depicts two young, suspendered men with scraggly beards, shirt sleeves rolled up to their elbows, hand-rolled cigarettes tucked behind their ears. One holds a guitar, the other an open-back banjo. Although their faces are streaked with red dirt, their eyes sunken and hollow, they emit a rugged, embraceable swagger. The man with the guitar is Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. The banjo picker is Grump. 

Grump’s finger wags wildly at Stoneman. “That one there, I know that feller!”

“You remember his name?” I ask.

“I damn well should, shouldn’t I? But it keeps slippin’ away.”

“What about the other man? Do you recognize him?” I cross my fingers, as Grump studies his reflection mirroring off the museum glass. 

“Nah, Boone. I ain’t seen him before that I can recall.”

Why do I torture myself this way? Why is it so difficult to accept that he’ll never be the same?

I start reading from the plaque below the picture to keep myself from crying. Grump, unimpressed by himself, wanders down a long dark hallway towards an exit sign. Small, mounted speakers thrum old-timey banjo music recorded at The Bristol Sessions. As I approach Grump from behind, I hear a hum of recognition purr deep in his chest. His compass has steadied, he no longer looks as lost inside these walls. Rather, there’s a nostalgic stasis to him, one I hardly ever see anymore. I hear something tapping on the ground and look down. . . .

No, I realize. Grump can’t pluck the strings with his old finesse. And no, he remembers neither his favorite artists nor the names of their songs. He can’t even recall his own modest legend. But every time that mountain music kicks, Grump’s feet start tapping to the rhythm of his past. And by his smile, I know he remembers.

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.

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