Grandpa Tells a Story

Maury Zeff

An old man in khaki trousers, a white shirt, and blue suspenders sat in an aging wicker chair on the porch of a plantation style house, his feet resting on the porch, and thumbed through a well-worn copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Suddenly two young boys burst out of the house. They were followed by their golden retriever, Shemp. The older boy carried two old-fashioned fishing rods and a bucket of worms.

The boys ran past the old man, shouting, “Bye, Grandpa!”

The old man put down his book, leaned forward, and laughed, “Whoa, whoa, boys. Where’s the fire?”

Jimmy, the older one, said, “We’re going down to the fishing hole. Johnny Smith said he saw a big mouth bass in there the other day.”

Little Tommy said, “Yeah, we’re going to catch a real big fish!”

Grandpa chuckled. “Why don’t you boys set a spell? Grandma’s baking up one of her apple pies. I’m sure she’d put some vanilly ice cream on it if you asked her real nice.”

Jimmy and Tommy looked at each other.

Jimmy said, “Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt to stay for a bit. But Grandpa could you tell us the story about The Kid again?”

“Well, I don’t know, boys. You’ve heard that story so many times. I’m sure you don’t want to hear it again.”

“Please, Grandpa, please, please!”

“Please, please!”

“All right, boys, get some chairs and gather round.”

The two boys grabbed a small wooden bench and pulled it up close to Grandpa’s wicker chair.

“Ah yup, it must’ve been the summer of aught-eight or aught-nine. It’s been a long time, hard to remember after all these years. America was going through a terrible war in the Philippines. They had said that our boys would be home from Manila by the end of the year. We’d gone in there looking for the Gatling guns President McKinley had sworn were there. WMD they called them.”

“WMD?” Jimmy asked.

“Yep, weapons of moderate destruction. Craziest reason to have a war, if you ask me. They never found those durned guns either,” he said as he packed tobacco into his pipe.

“Meanwhile, America needed something to take its mind off its troubles. It started out as a small statewide championship, nothing special, but it grew. Telegraph lines were jammed that entire summer with news of the event. And by the time it was over, there wasn’t a person in the US that hadn’t heard about The Kid, Emily van Houten, those crazy brothers, and that quiet little girl in the crinoline dress.

“It was exactly what this country needed. They held it in Aloevera County, smack-dab in the middle of the state,” Grandpa said, poking his thick index finger into the palm of his weathered right hand.

Jimmy stared wide-eyed at Grandpa. “Were you there?”

“You bet I was. I remember the first day of competition. I was up early that morning.” He chuckled. “I guess I was a little too used to farm life. I saw him there too, staring out over the school yard, past the kickball diamond, beyond the jungle gym, to the east where the sun rose, bright as a fire in the sky. You could see the glimmer in his eyes. He was there to win. He barely noticed the chalk lines of the court. I don’t think he was even worried about that dang court.”

Tommy shifted in his chair. “Who was he?”

Grandpa smiled and reflected a faraway look in his eyes. “Nobody really knows. They just called him The Kid.

“The Kid had just arrived in Tuckerville that morning. He rode all night on top of a boxcar. The only thing he carried with him was an old leather bag. In that bag were his pennies. He would only play with his own coins, which he polished every night. Back in those days, you didn’t have to play with regulation pennies. When he played, those pennies shined like rubies.”

Grandma came out on the porch with thick slices of apple pie and ice cream on top for everyone. The three of them began eating.

“I tell you, you’ve never seen anyone play the way he played. He was born for the game. Legs and arms that hopped and scooped effortlessly,” Grandpa said, through mouthfuls of pie, as he stretched out his long legs. “Ah yup, he was tall as an oak and lean as a cedar. Must’ve been seven feet if he was an inch. And red hair like a fire engine, he had.

“Anyhow, there they all were, probably fifty players in all, ready for competition. You’d never seen a finer assemblage of athletes in the world and have never since. Players had come from as far away as Taggart City, which was a great distance in those days.

“I’ve never been prouder to be an American than when they played the national anthem that morning with the country’s finest young men and women gathered to engage in good sport and all 44 stars waving over the field.” Grandpa lowered his voice to a hush, “Then the master of ceremonies raised the loudspeaker to his lips and said…” Now Grandpa spoke in a voice rich with bravado, “‘Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the first ever state hopscotch championship. On these courts, over the next three days, these worthy competitors will do battle with coins, shiny pieces of glass, yes, even jacks to see who will carry the title and the unheard of sum of $45.’” Grandpa put his bowl and spoon on the floor of the porch.

“The first two days were a whirl of competition. Scores of books have been written about those matches. But nothing can describe what it was like to really be there. Greatness battled greatness, hopping their way into glory or ignominy. Gods were created every time a coin hit a number and giants brought down when someone hopped off a square. They played a blind round-robin with double elimination in a lottery pick-up rotation. Are you boys following me?”

Jimmy and Tommy nodded in unison.

Grandpa gave a chuckle, which turned into a full laugh, causing him to hack up a glob. He spat it on the back of Shemp’s neck and then rubbed it into his fur with his right hand. Jimmy and Tommy looked at him quizzically.

“Oh that. It’s very good for his coat. That’s an old home remedy I got from my grandmother. She was a horse whisperer, you know.

“But that’s not important for our story. You see, they had just introduced American rules hopscotch back then. Some of the country folk were used to English rules, which had been the way ever since Lord Cavendish, the British ambassador, had played a seventeen-hour hopscotch match with Andrew Jackson on the front lawn of the White House back in the thirties. Old Hickory also played jacks and patty-cake for days at a time. He was a vigorous man, but some say he didn’t lose too good.” Grandpa shook his head. “After one three-day long session of Simon Says, he made the decision to attack and subjugate the Cherokee nation. Anyhow, a lot of the great nineteenth century hopscotchers dropped out after their first round because they weren’t used to these newfangled rules, y’hear?

“I reckon that The Kid had never played American rules before, but for him it didn’t matter. It all came so naturally. To watch him play was wonderful. He made grown men cry the way he threw those coins and hopped from square to square, scooping over to pick up the coins as he spun in the air. Ah, I used to count along with him, one, two, three, four…It was magic, like watching a bird that did these things instinctively.”

Grandpa examined his silver, wire frame glasses and ceremoniously put each lens in his mouth, huffing cleansing air on them. He then wiped them off on his cotton shirt. Replacing the glasses he continued, “I do believe that this tournament changed hopscotch forever. Many pioneers of the game realized that a new era had begun after this contest.

“By the third day, it was down to just four competitors including the Kid. There was Emily van Houten. Now that girl had a scary lisp, absolutely terrifying. It was as if the Devil himself had risen from Hades with a speech impediment and pigtails. Her father was an important man in the Bull Moose Party. Some say he had used his contacts to get her into the semi-finals.

“Then there were those two brothers. There was something strange about them. What was it? I can’t seem to recall,” Grandpa said, rubbing the side of his head. “Oh, yes, they were joined at the hip. I think they went by the name of Siam-I-Am. A lot of folks thought they shouldn’t be able to play. But they had two arms and two legs between them, just like the rest of us,” he said, extending his arms and legs to make his point. “And there was nothing in the rules that barred competitors with two heads or two torsos.” Grandpa paused to empty out his pipe again and refill it.

“And then there was a quiet little girl with hair as black as coal. She wore the prettiest crinoline dress.” He paused. “I can’t recall her name.

“For the finals, they played a sudden death, blind selection, rotating singles style tournament, old Gaelic rules. So The Kid was matched against Emily. He outplayed her and outclassed her every throw of the coins. He hit every square perfectly, hopping on each one right in the center. It was a hot day, hotter than a steam engine locomotive trying to get to Wilsonberg over the mountain pass. The Kid barely perspired as he kicked up the dust off the court. Except for sucking on a single piece of eggplant, The Kid took no refreshment the whole time.

“Then it was Emily’s turn. She hit one squarely, barely made two, and then overthrew the third square. They were playing no do-overs. So she lost that round. The next round and the one after it were the same. In the final round, after The Kid had thrown and hopped his fifth consecutive perfect match, Emily lost it on square one. She was disqualified. Now people in Aloevera County weren’t mean-spirited, but you could tell they were happy for The Kid. There was just something about that Van Houten girl that wasn’t quite right.

“Nobody knows why she did what she did next and they never will. Emily walked up to The Kid to shake his hand. Instead, she leaned in and kneed him—hard.” Grandpa grimaced, as if he could feel the pain himself. “Now that wasn’t cricket, but you can’t entirely blame her. She was just playing the way she had been taught by those big money folks back east. Ruined her childhood, if you ask me. The endless training, the weeks on the hopscotch circuit, the relentless pressure. She had been sent to the best hopscotch academies in Switzerland. And look where it got her.”

Jimmy and Tommy both leaned forward, chins in cupped palms, oblivious to everyone except their grandfather. “Then what happened, Grandpa?” Tommy begged.

“Well, you could see The Kid was not too well off after that kick from Emily. Meanwhile, Siam-I-Am had beaten the little girl in the crinoline dress. She played proudly, but those brothers were just no match. They had the energy of two men. And their two heads and torsos actually gave them better balance as they hopped down the court. Plus, they said that the one on the right was right-handed and the one on the left, left-handed. So if one got tired, the other took over the throwing. Of course that poor little girl was devastated. She wept like a Democrat. But everyone understood.

“So now it came down to The Kid versus the brothers. You should’ve seen it, boys. There was never such glorious hopscotch as we saw that day. The first four rounds were even. Both had played perfectly, not a square missed or over-hopped, and that was with The Kid’s injury. Then on the final round, those brothers seemed to have some kind distraction. I don’t know if it was the heat or just brothers being brothers, and I think you know what I mean, but they just lost their focus. And as they hopped to pick up their coins on square 8, one looked one way and the other looked the other way, and they fell, flat on their faces. There was a hush. And then one of those boys started yelling at the other, calling him clumsy. But it was too late. They knew they had come in second. And then The Kid completed his ten squares and that’s all there was to it.”

Jimmy could hardly contain himself. “So, Grandpa, what happened to The Kid?”

Grandpa looked long and hard out toward the woods before he answered. “Nobody knows. No one ever saw him again. I do know this: he never played hopscotch again.”

“Why’d he do it, Grandpa?”

“I can’t tell you. Some say he did it for the love of a woman. Others say it was for the money. I don’t think so. Heck, he left town without even collecting his prize. Those Si-ah-mese boys picked it up instead. I heard they paid for an operation with the money. Said they had their noses fixed and collagen put in their lips. Dangedest thing.

“You know what I think?” Grandpa asked without waiting for an answer. “I think he did it for himself. Just for the pure love of the game.”

“Wow, Grandpa! I wish I could’ve seen The Kid.”

Grandpa just smiled.

Then a dark look crossed his face. “Of course, all of this happened before the game was ruined. First with that Hitler fella introducing it at the Munich Olympics, training teams of Aryan supermen hopscotchers. Then later came the big money and the multi-million dollar endorsements. And now the East Coast hopscotchers are feuding with the West Coast hopscotchers. People die on hopscotch courts everyday. It’s sad. Times change.”

Grandpa noticed the concern on the boys’ faces. “Well, never you mind that. Why don’t you run along and go catch that fish now? And when you boys get back, I’ll tell you about my time in the Hopscotch Corps during the Great War. Ah, yup, it was a hellish war, but we tried to make the best of it.”

Jimmy looked back at him. “Boy, Grandpa, you sure were the greatest generation.”

“Now get out of here before I put gravy on you and serve you up with some biscuits.”

“Gee, thanks, Grandpa!” And with that, the boys and Shemp ran off the porch and down the dirt road, a trail of dust following them.

As Grandpa looked far off into the distance, he recalled the crinoline dress he’d worn that summer day so many years before.