His Grandfather’s Ring
A Short Story
Copyright 2016 Shawn Cowling
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Sil went numb before the third beep of the end of the phone call notification sounded. He returned his phone to his pocket and his body made way to his car for an hour’s long drive to his grandfather’s house. Muscle memory guided him there as his mind could not be further away from the moment.
Your grandfather passed his mother’s voice echoed through his head.
Sil was weeks away from his 42nd birthday and knew full well his grandfather’s time was limited, but the shock was not distilled by his knowledge of mortality. He was always close to his grandfather, so much so that his grandfather’s nickname for him became his most common moniker. He was born Lee, but was always called Silly as a toddler. That was his grandfather’s influence. Sil held dear memories of the knobby knuckles and wrinkled skin of his grandfather’s hands trying to tickle him.
When he arrived at the house, the floor boards creaked in familiar pitches. The kitchen lights were on as they always had been. There was a cup half full of water sitting on the coffee table between the family room’s couch and the TV; just as it always had been. Everything felt the same, but woefully different. There was no one humming old country songs, no smell of fresh baked bread filling the well-lit kitchen; no grandfather.
Sil’s eyes welled with tears as he stood alone in the shell of a home. His parents and siblings were flying in to town in a few days. Until then, the part time crop duster was to start working on cleaning up for a funeral reception. It was the most responsibility his family had given him in years. Despite being the closest one to the family’s patriarch, he was not the old man’s emergency contact. All his life he had coasted by with a charming smile and a disarming wit. He was far from a dullard, quite the opposite in fact. He read, wrote, plotted and thought all his life; but he was quick to tire and bore of any one activity. His parents interpreted this as laziness and an inability to commit. His grandfather thought his mind was too good to sit still too long.
Sil wandered the house, trying to think of the last time he had visited. Three months he said realizing that it had been three months since he brought a pot full of spaghetti for his grandfather to work through until his next visit. The next visit was to have taken place a week or two later. He walked into the kitchen and saw the pot; cleaner than it was when it arrived in this house, sitting on the counter with the pasta strainer inside of it. Sil left the kitchen as soon as his eye made contact with the mark of his failure.
He made way for the bedrooms upstairs. He had boxes in the spare room Sil told himself. He could start packing, show his parents he could help.
The stairs were covered with a carpet that had not been updated since the mid-1980s, and even then at the behest of Sil’s mother. White had been the fabric’s original color, but grandchildren, dozens of dogs and cats and 30 some years of wear and tear had changed the carpet to a more brown-like color that would make the house very challenging to sell. Sil hopped over the third to the top stair, one he and his sister had broken in the ’70s playing flashlight tag. He was sure that defect would have to be disclosed and all these years later he would have to confess his part in the breaking of stair three. His grandfather told a story about a dog trying to eat it; a story Sil and his sister committed to memory to keep the ruse going.
Walking by his grandfather’s room, the door was closed. It was always closed. While his grandfather was generally a very open, pleasant being and welcoming beyond compare; the bedroom was off limits. Animals, kids, adults; Sil was pretty sure even his long since departed grandmother was not allowed in the room. Everyone knew to knock on the door five times and wait for the old man to open the door and talk to you in the hallway. Sil repeated the tradition, wishing that somehow the knobby knuckles would reach out to him once more. He knocked five times on the door, waited the customary five seconds and sighed. He had hoped. He jiggled the doorknob, ever curious about what his grandfather cherished.
Locked. That’s the pits he said. He took a mental note to call a locksmith and made way for the spare room.
The spare room’s door was never closed. It sat at the end of the hallway, adjacent to the grandparent’s suite. It was much larger than the room the elders had chosen as their own. Sil and the other grandchildren used to fill the room with tents and sleeping bags for sleep overs in their childhoods. Seven children, ages five years to ten years, huddled into a single space and racing to the bathroom that sat across the way from grandpa and grandma’s room.
Sil had not talked to his cousins in years. Christmas card contact ended when the group was in their 20s and he could care less about connecting with any one over Facebook. He could not even remember the last time any of his cousins had been considered, but standing in the spare room, standing where Jake stabbed Sandy with a tent pole accidentally, he wanted to give each of them a hug.
The room looked different now. The white carpet was fraying and, like the rest of the upstairs, very brown. The walls were covered in cob webs, there was a bed centered on the north side wall, book cases were everywhere full of dust covered tomes that had not seen the sun in some time. The curtains against the windows on the north and east facing walls looked like they had not been opened in recent memory. Boxes of old newspaper clippings now filled the space that once entertained children.
It was a junk room. The discarded items of a life well lived had been tossed here to be forgotten by their original owner. Sil rummaged through the newspaper boxes, wondering what they could have meant to his grandfather. Articles on savings and loan scandals, a few days’ worth of South Asian political discord, an unbelievable number of Cadillac advertisements; but nothing that helped him understand who his grandfather was.
Sil put weaved his fingers together and put his joined hands on his head, a nervous reaction he took from none other than his grandfather, what am I doing here? He pondered. He looked around and saw more piles of newspaper boxes than any one house should have possessed. He was sure he was standing in a fire trap and could not imagine the rodents living near the east side window, the one that leaked during heavy rains.
He went to his car, slapped his hand against the trunk to help it open, and grabbed a dust mask and gloves, common traveling companions for a crop duster. Dust flew into his still wet eyes after slamming the trunk closed. He had intended on getting the car washed; one day.
Returning to the spare room, he took a deep breath, the cold air sending little spikes of pain through his teeth, and got to work cleaning up the mess his grandfather had left. He remembered the warnings his grandfather gave to each of the grandchildren about leaving behind a mess. The warnings grew direr as the kids aged. At six it was “pick up after yourselves or Grandpa may trip on them. You don’t want broken toys!” By their teens Grandpa had abandoned any softening language, “clean your mess or see your deaths!” Sil planned on sharing that one with his kids had they ever existed.
He picked candy wrappers and broken pencils off the carpet, wondering what in the world this room was once used for. He thought he would need boxes to pack up the old man’s belongings, but he turned to trash bags before finishing the first corner of the first room. You were full of lies, Grandpa he muttered before checking underneath the bed in the room.
Under the bed something seemed to glimmer in a light with no source. Sil squinted to try to make out what the object could be and how it reflected the room’s light despite being stuck in the exact middle of a king sized mattress frame. It was just out of reach, whatever it was. His tried pressing his generous mid-section further into the floor, hoping that being flatter would give his arms the extra inch or so needed to grab the trinket. Exasperated, and wishing he exercised more often, he pulled his arm away from the underside of the bed and loosened his glove just enough to maintain control of the finger tips, but not enough to lose the glove under there too.
He was quite glad no one was around to see him flail and squirm and huff trying to grab at what was probably a gum wrapper.
Got ya he shouted, the room shook a little, as the gloves made contact at long last. He pulled back his prize, with much the same joy as he felt when reeling in larger trout when fishing with his grandfather and brother long ago, and clambered off the ground to view what he found.
A ring of deep cherry colored wood with a perfect grain sat in his glove. It was redder than red and smelled of cigar smoke. At the top of the ring, mounted in a silver harness sat a rock robin’s egg blue with black lines running through it. Sil had never seen a stone quite like it. It was mesmerizing. He stared at it, examined every nook of the rock and the wood.
He tried to remember his grandfather ever wearing jewelry outside of his K-Mart discount watches, or recall a moment his grandfather may have smoked anything other than a rack of ribs on the grill outback. The ring’s presence made no sense, but neither did the state of the room. Sil figured it must have been his grandfather’s possession and yet another indication that the two spent too little time together.
Sil ran his fingers over the ring. It was smooth and shiny; easily two of two of his favorite qualities in any object. The ring had an energy to it. He looked at it and knew that art and beauty could not only exist in such a splendid manner, but this sort of wonder could be crafted by human hands. All he did was pour chemicals over acres of land at a time. As he rolled the ring around his gloved hands, he felt better about his place.
He had never worn a ring. Never felt the need. But this ring was different from anything. He removed his gloves and slipped the ring over the increasingly knobby knuckles of his right hand’s ring finger. He pulled his fingers together to form a fist and admired how the blue of the rock and red of the wood worked to make even his hairy, callused hand look good.
From the moment the ring slipped over his finger, his ears filled with the sound of a buzzing mosquito. He looked around to see if the creature was easily splattable, but the beast was nowhere to be found. He sat on the bed and continued looking at the ring; the sound growing louder, louder still before it became even louder than his own thoughts.
What in the world, he said, frustrated and jumping off the mattress.
Once his feet touched the floor the buzzing gave way to the sound of a tree cracking in half. Sil acted on instinct, throwing his hands over his head and bracing for impact. His eyes closed and he winced, thinking something was either about to smack on top of him or, perhaps even worse, he was about to crash land in the living room below. His parents would have a fit if the house was destroyed when he was the sole occupant.
He folded over, meeting head and knees together and waited for the carnage that was certain to bring insurance adjusters into the fold.
He felt a slight twinge in the finger bearing the ring, but that was all that came from the buzz and the crack.
Then he opened his eyes.
No longer was he standing on terrible carpet and candy wrappers. The spare room he spent many childhood weekends in had given way to open air, the sound of seagulls cawing and groups of men and women laughing. He looked at his feet and saw warped boards. He was at a beach, rather the boardwalk near a beach. In the water stood a horde of people in what he assumed were swim suits. No bikinis or speedos in sight though. The swimmers wore black from ankle to neck. Women swam in dresses and men walked the beach in suits that looked thick and scratchy.
Where in the world am I? Sil wondered. He turned his gaze upon the shops and stalls dotting the boardwalk. Rides? He could not identify the wood and steel structures he saw.
“Razzle Dazzle here!” A man with a curled mustache shouted over a crowd of boardwalk pedestrians.
Stilts? Sil’s breathing sped up. He knew not where he was, but he knew he was not meant to be here.
“Need a paper, sir?” A small child with a thick east coast accent asked while bumping against Sil’s leg. Had he been carrying a wallet, he would have checked to ensure the street urchin did not steal it.
“No, no thank you, uh, sport,” Sil said. He thought making use of old timey slang would help him blend into whatever sort of cosplay convention he had stumbled into. The newspaper boy ran off, accosting another pedestrian.
Sil felt at the top of his head. He was wearing a hat. He hated hats. This one made of some fabric he could quite identify, had a wide circular brim around a low cylinder colored yellow and wrapped in a purple ribbon. At least, he thought, it isn’t a Yankees cap.
All of his clothing had changed. He was wearing suspenders, brown cotton pants with a pleat that could stop a race car, and a white shirt that he knew he would sweat through in half an hours’ time if he did not find some shade.
He walked down the boardwalk, taking in more of the scene. “Hot dogs!” A vendor screamed, stretching the two short words into multiple syllables and taking a solid minute to complete the phrase. “Try ’em before the Californians find ’em!” Sil had no idea what that could have meant.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” a man in a stove pipe hat said while standing on a barrel. Sil made it a point to never pass a man shouting from atop a barrel, so he stopped to listen to the rest of the speech. “Step to this, this very hut. This hut of mystery and intrigue. Within these walls rests the most beguiling, the most bewildering, the most besieging images your eyes and ears will ever take part,” the emcee had a knack for drawing a crowd. Before long a crowd of dozens had gathered in front of the barrel based podium and squeezed Sil away from the venue.
He looked at the stall’s name banner and read Barnum’s Side Show. Sil shook his head in disbelief. Wherever he was, he was pretty sure they were being quite offensive in operating a circus side show, even a pretend one.
I must have knocked my head pretty good he tried to rationalize before heading to a new spot.
He came to a cross street on the boardwalk and decided to head away from the beach.
He passed a sign reading “Lilliputia” with an arrow pointing to his right. A promoter, in typical fashion of the promotors along the boardwalk apparently, screamed, “See now The Last Days of Pompeii for a mere nickel. The bargain of a lifetime.” A few minutes later another promised a life changing trip to the moon.
Once beyond the attractions and yelling vendors he saw a building labeled “The Infant Incubator” and, upon looking into the window and realizing this was not a clever name for a pub, he pivoted on his heels and turned down an alley that seemed less well trafficked than the rest of the boardwalk.
The gulls could not be heard here. The laughter at the beach could not be heard. The boards felt dry and the smell changed from ocean to beer. Sil had found his favorite spot and hoped he would not come out of whatever coma he had found himself in before he visited whatever pub was near.
“I’ll get you back the money, I just need one good race. The horses haven’t been favoring me,” Sil heard coming from the alley.
Typically when faced with a fight or flight decision, Sil was a flight sort of guy. He ran away from his brother when they were little, he ran away from his sisters, he ran away from his 8th grade bully Jarod Dyson, he ran away from a party in college that was crashed by a rival house. Sil ran away from any sort of task that asked him to be more than he thought himself capable of.
Despite his track record, he found himself running to the cry. His feet decided to fight and were carrying the rest of him to battle. What are you doing he asked himself.
“I’m a bit done listening to the excuses of a drunk, and a poor gambler,” said another voice, heavy with an accent Sil was pretty sure could only be owned by a Dubliner.
Sil stopped when the scene came into full view. Three men in bowler caps and long coats standing around a man in slacks and a dirty white shirt, little specks of blood slowly dotting it, attempting to climb to his feet.
Sil looked around for any sign there was someone else, somewhere better, to help the man on the ground. There were only five people in the alley though. No gulls, no laughter; just a gambler paying his debts in blood.
Crap Sil said. His feet moved him closer to the attack.
He tried to think of something witty to say, something to let the obvious bad guys know he meant business. He raised his hand and pointed at the group of men he was rapidly approaching, opened his mouth and shouted, “hey, hey, hey!”
Not exactly terrifying he thought.
“Get away from that man!” Sil said.
The three men in coats exchanged a look of amusement, followed by laughing wildly at the interloper.
The man on the ground got to his feet, but was pinned to the white painted wall by the long arm of one of the coated men. The men in coats stood with their chins tilting upward, confident in their position. Sil had a good half foot and a fifty pounds on the largest of the three, but these were three men unaccustomed to challengers.
“I mean it,” Sil said. He was now face to face with a short, freckled man with a wispy red hair flowing from underneath his hat. The man stood in the middle of the group of attackers, a position Sil thought indicated leadership. Sil willed his voice to avoid shaking and moved to imitate the posture.
The man in the middle motioned for one of the goons at his side to move on Sil. In another wildly out of character moment, Sil recognized the slight action on the part of the other man, clinched his hand into a fist and put it into the man’s face. Sil’s hand landed the punch with great success, the man fell to the ground in the blink of an eye and the goon that was to attack Sil moved instead to tend to his boss, but the hand had never felt a greater pain.
You can’t feel pain in a dream Sil noticed. He had not panicked until that realization. His breathing picked up pace, drawing in shorter breathes and he lost the ability to blink.
The man in the middle gained his footing, shoving aside the goon attempting to help him rise again. He held a finger in the air and shifted his eyes between the goons to tell them to wait before killing Sil. His other hand dabbed his upper lip checking for blood, of which there was plenty.
The man’s tongue move around in his mouth for a moment before he spat out a tooth. The tooth bounced against the wooden planks of the board walk before falling below. A spit of blood followed and he smiled at Sil.
“You got some hook there, boyo, I’ll give ye’ that,” the man said with a grin.
“Cormac, you want this guy gone?” One goon asked, snarling and looking into Sil’s eyes.
Cormac, Sil noted, I’ll have to remember that one.
Sil watched Cormac look him over, deciding his fate. For a beat, Sil thought he was doomed.
“No, I don’t think we’ll be doing any murderin’ today after all. You’ve got a familiar face, you know that?” Cormac asked.
“You’ve got a bloodied one,” Sil said, staring down on the loan shark. He was now pretty sure he was in a coma, otherwise he would have thrown up.
Cormac laughed uproariously. “You got the spirit, boyo, you really do. I like that,” Cormac said.
Sil did not see the move happen, but he felt it. A fast, hard fist landed into his stomach and Cormac grabbed his head as he doubled over in pain and shock.
Cormac pulled Sil’s head over and spoke directly into his ear, “That spirit will get you killed if I ever see you around again I will take your nose. Then your thumbs. Then your elbows will bend in abnormal directions. D’ye understand?”
Sil coughed, gasping for air, but managed to reply, “Got it.”
Cormac pushed him to the ground. “And boyo,” he said, “I will be seeing you around.” Cormac held his right hand’s ring finger and rolled the ring that was placed there; blue stone, red wood.
“Wait, wait, how did you,” Sil started.
A scream filled the alley and a woman called out, “Won’t somebody help that poor man?”
Any other setting and Sil would have laughed at an obvious Blazing Saddles reference, but Cormac and his goons ran off when their plot had been foiled.
Crap Sil thought. He slapped the ground.
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” the bad gambler said, extending his arm to help Sil off the ground. “They would have ended me.”
Sil got to his feet, dusted off his still immaculately pleated slacks, and walked away. He could care less for the man’s safety now. A crowd had gathered at one end of the alley, trying to get a glimpse of whatever commotion was worth making them leave the tavern. Sil waved them off.
He returned to the beach for no other reason than having a crowd around him in the unlikely event Cormac and the goons found him. Certainly no one would be foolish enough to assault a man in broad view of the delicate beach goers. He felt his pulse slow and only when it returned to its resting rate did he realize how loud and fast his blood was pumping during the fight.
He leaned against a rounded banister that kept boardwalk and beach separate by visual boundary only. Sand was absolutely everywhere. He did not notice any of it; the sand, the people, the gulls. He leaned against the post and looked at the ring, curious if it had caused this vision or if coma dreams were really intense. The knuckles around the ring were covered in dried blood and a scab was starting to form over where Cormac’s teeth cut into the space between pointer and middle fingers. Sil did notice the pain. His hand was going to take ages to feel better again.
Why does my hand hurt if this is a dream? He pondered.
He stood in that spot for hours. Ignoring stomach pains, ignoring the throbbing in his hand, trying his very best to ignore the incessant cries of the blasted gulls; he just stood and waited for something to happen. If he was in a dream state, he would have to wake up eventually. If he was not… He had no idea what to do if this was real.
The sun fell and the swimmers vacated. The boardwalk was his alone. He had never seen a beach at night. It was remarkably boring. He brought his thoughts to his airplane, to the truck stop on I-80 that had the best cinnamon rolls, to the World Series, anything to keep his mind off what was increasingly a very odd, very real situation.
Then he thought of his grandfather. He wondered what the old man would have said about getting into a fight with the loan shark in the back alley of the most bizarre Renaissance Fair ever. He wondered what this ring had to do with what was happening. He wondered what his grandfather knew about the ring.
He stomped one foot on the boardwalk and kicked the pillar he had called home for the last several hours. What is happening! He called out under the brightest moon he had ever seen. Above him stars twinkled. He had lived in and around cities his entire life; never before had he seen so many stars.
Then he heard the buzzing of a mosquito, growing ever louder by the moment.
Is it happening again?
He held his hands above his head.
I’m very much ready to go home.
The sound of a tree being split in half echoed against the walls of the shops and out to the ocean. Sil closed his eyes and thought of home.
When he opened his eyes, he was in the spare room once more. Candy wrappers, boxes of old newspapers and bad carpet brought tears to Sil’s eyes. His clothes had returned to his customary attire and, to his delight, there was no hat atop his head. He ripped the ring off his finger and put it in the palm of a glove sitting beside him on the king sized mattress.
He wanted to run out of the house, burn it to the ground and let his parents deal with the repercussions. He didn’t though. If he could face down mobsters in the street, he could clean up an old man’s house and avoid magical jewelry with ease. He was not sure he wanted to run from the ring either.
The spare room was not going to be his starting point though. He would leave this room to his sisters, he thought. He pushed himself off the mattress and stepped out of the room into the hallway.
Perhaps his eyes were more tuned for spotting abnormalities or perhaps the house shifted ever so slightly, but as Sil entered the hallway he saw something on the top of the door jamb of his grandfather’s room. He had walked this hallway so many times, but could not remember a door jamb being on any of the doorways. This time however, a little twinkle caught Sil’s attention.
He moved to the doorway and put his hand at the top of the wooden frame. He came back down with a key.
No he said, questioningly.
His entire life he had wondered what secrets his grandfather kept tucked away behind this perpetually locked door; now he had the key.
He slid the key into the door’s lock slowly, thinking it surely had to go to some other lock in the house. He was wrong. With a twist, the door unlocked and swung open.
Sil had no words. His jaw dropped as he took in the room. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with posts holding deep red circles of wood, silver mounts and stones of brilliant shades of yellow, green, red, and blue. Beneath each post there was a label, hand written in his grandfather’s writing, with places and dates. “NYC 1810” read one, “Tokyo 1650”, “Barcelona 1700”, “London 1912”, “LA 1934”, “Rome 30bc”, “Ulaanbaatar 13th Century”, the rows and columns of posts continued with time and place notes.
What did you find, Grandpa? Sil’s pulse raced and breathing fell shallower, it felt like facing down Cormac all over again. He loved the feeling. He walked along the walls and kept reading the notes. His grandfather’s handwriting was exquisite with flowing lines that were more like calligraphy than simple cursive lettering.
One empty post sat near the bed. The note under it read “Coney Island, early 20th”. Sil pulled his ring from the palm of the work glove and placed back on its post.
He spun around to see all of the rings sparkling back at him. Hundreds, thousands even. Sil’s eyes welled once more. He had completed a full circuit of the room and was stopped by a night stand with a lamp, a Michael Crichton book, and an envelope with Sil’s name beautifully written across the face.
Sil choked back more tears. His grandfather knew he would be the first in the room, knew he would be the first to see the treasure locked behind closed doors. He opened the envelope and pulled out a post card older that read “Atlantis at Coney Island” across the top. He turned it over and read a note.
“Sil, put on a ring. Find yourself, be the man I know you are capable of being. Come back wiser, stronger. Don’t let your mother see these things, or this note. If she asks what the note said tell her something mushy then burn it. It’ll be funny.”
He wiped a tear away and his pocket began to vibrate. He pulled out his phone and the screen read “Mom”. Sil pressed the green button to answer and his mom was already talking.
“You know what, mom, I got this. Take the cheap flight, a few days won’t make a difference to grandpa anymore,” he replied to the news his parents did not want to spend $600 each for a flight leaving in the morning.
“I can handle it, really. I’ll get the funeral home on the line, I’ll get the lawyer out here. I’m fine. It’ll be like punching a mobster in the face,” he said with a little laugh.
“No, that analogy does not make any sense. I agree. I’m going to get back to cleaning up now. I’ll see you in a few days. Love you, mom. Bye.”
He went to put the phone back in his pocket. He wanted to find another ring, travel far away, find out what else he was capable of; but he didn’t. Right now he had to prove he was capable of taking care of his grandfather. He walked to the spare room and started cleaning. He thought grandpa would approve of the choice.
About the Author
Shawn Cowling is a dad, blogger, and book writer guy attempting to make dumb jokes at twice the rate considered healthy behavior.
Other works include The Egress and the Jupiter Cult, the People on the Highway series and Roan’s Demon.
Find more short stories and fun stuff at his blog,
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