That Stuff in the Back of the Family Closet

“Scott, we have to figure out what to tell your father!”

“Don’t vote for Richard Nixon.”

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“Scott this is serious … This is your mother.”

“I assumed that. The same one that married dad 50 years ago. You shouldn’t vote for Richard Nixon either.”

“I think I killed TOMA. “

This requires some explanation. On a couple accounts. Mum had a fairly serious streak of violence. Never quite knew where it would come up, but the operative word: serious. There was that phone call to the police.

“Mrs. Heist, you can’t be shooting people.”

“What the hell do you mean, I just did.”

“We’re on the way.”

You see it’s like a convergence of opposing forces. There was this guy, on the night my dad was away. A guy with a Fedora hat. And the guy with a Fedora hat decided to look in the downstairs window. Real close as in against it. Granted it was on the dark side of the house, well away from the road, and he had no business being there. Apart from that, if he had any idea my dad wasn’t home, he would know not to expect any mercy.

The other converging force was the cherry table, little night table between the two cherry rope beds in my parents bedroom. Between the two beds, in the little cherry table, there were two revolvers. Harrington and Richards .22 long rifle on a .38 frame and my dads government .45. Both loaded.

As a kid I was taught to stay away from these bastards. Firstly most importantly, I promised my dad. He told me these were for killing people. And so I had no question, took me out to Aunt Celia’s farm, on the hill where we dug dogwood trees to transplant, showed me the .45, opened the cylinder showing it was empty, and placed a single cartridge in the cylinder, positioned as the next train out. I was told to hold with two hands, cock the hammer bringing the round into alignment with the barrel. From behind he put his hand on my shoulder so I knew where to find him, saying:

“Pull the trigger.”

This is what I did. My next recollection was the blue sky , being knocked on my ass, the smell of what I later learned to be cordite, the revolver lying next to me, my ears ringing from the sound. A hell of a lump on my forehead. Guess I was about eight.

“That’s for killing people. It’s not like TV.” That was my introduction to firearms as weapons. I don’t know but maybe he made the same introduction to Mum. Anyway, she went for the .22 on the .38 frame. She simply opened the window, just above the guy, sending three of the nine rounds, down the pike in his direction. The police found the Fedora, a round or two through its brim. 

The weapon HERSELF.

The guy was lucky, Mum wasn’t a detail person. However she kept the hat …now again, for years, would put it on somebody’s head to check the fit. It was always a relief, for her to take it off without hustling up the stairs to the little cherry table between the two cherry rope beds. Point being, when Mum mentioned death and dismemberment, we were accustomed to getting real quiet and listening.

And then there was Toma. In addition, to a moderate amount of ordnance, there were the Doberman’s. Usually, a well-trained and immaculately behaved female with the German name: Helga, Graufen, Fraulein … my Weimaraner., etc. However. Dad had retired, discipline lagged a little, and Toma became the light of his life. She was not the light of ours.

She would knock people over, slam into them, most notable was Dana’s belly when she was carrying Chris at eight months, knocking mum down the stairs, and most notably refusing to suffer in silence. Howling for an hour on end while sitting on dad’s lap watching a ballgame was hardly unheard of. Let’s just say we greatly loved dad. And visited less than ever in memory.

“I think I killed Toma.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to get excited and find it was for nothing.”

“You know grandma’s large black cast-iron frying pan, the one that always hangs along the cellar steps?” Now she had my attention.

“The one with the long handle and lots of leverage?”

“Yes that’s the one. Well she was driving me crazy, knocked me over on the stairs and howling, you know what that howling is like..”

“Yes …. What about the cast iron pan with the long handle?” Had turned the light table off and stopped editing. Wished I hadn’t quit smoking. Sitting on the captain’s chair next to my desk, holding the phone, gently rocking, thinking about Players Navy cut … a straight cigarette with yellow Virginia tobacco.

“The big cast iron pan? Mum … the pan…”

“Yes the pan, well she was howling and running around knocking things over…”

“Yeah I got that. What about the heavy cast-iron pan ?”

“Yes grandma’s heavy cast-iron pan , the big one, was right there on the wall, hanging there, and she was howling and running around, wouldn’t listen at all … And knocked over the canning pots will you know how she gets… “

“Yes, the cast-iron pan…”

“Well it was was right there on the wall, where we always keep it, and I picked it up with both my hands and raised it above my head… And brought it down on hers. With all my might.”

“… And …”

“Well … There was this noise, remember what it sounds like when the bell rings at the Moravian church? … It was loud like that. And then it got real quiet.”

I was thinking about retirement, as a concept. It worked well for our neighbor Frank who was an electrician, and Bill who worked for Air Products … But does one size fit all . Whether or not it was questionable in some cases? Mum with her earrings, the red pseudo-Chanel suit, Arpege perfume, three secretaries, and her light green Buick Riviera with 340 hp. And of course, grandma’s large heavy cast-iron frying pan usually used to make lots of eggs on Sundays or during a blizzard.

“Are you there, Scott?”

“Yes I’m here.” But thinking about that job I turned down in Omaha.

“What about Toma.”

“Yes, Toma. Well there was this noise like the Moravian bell when it hit and her legs just went out, both front and rear, right out to her sides. And she was very quiet. I mean she is very quiet and I thought I’d call you, I still have the pan in my hand …. I’m upstairs now , and we have to figure out what to tell dad?

I was thinking about family, personal pronouns like WE and all that families go through together and how we manage to do it without killing each other. I was thinking about qualifying words like: “usually”. And player Navy cut cigarettes …

When I heard that howling… Like Saki’s wolves coming over the mountaintop, in my direction. I never lied to my father, but actually upon adult thought, it occurred to me that part of life was trying new things… that howling wasn’t from the TV.

“Oh my God, oh my God … The incantation that my mum used before she was about to go bonkers. Seemed something Chicken Little would say when it was for real.

“ Keep the pan nearby… How is she? ”

“Well she is making a sort of strange noise kind of walking sideways … But she seems okay?”

“I’m on my way.” If memory serves that’s what the police said. I took the turbo Porsche, figuring if I had to do any more telephone, was going to find a heavy cast-iron pan for myself. When I got there, Air Porsche the birds were singing, the dogwoods we had transplanted were blooming, the fish were swimming in the goldfish pool, dad had dug and built himself. Grandma’s heavy cast-iron black frying pan was on the kitchen table and Toma was making an even weirder sound … I wondered if a cast-iron pan could break vocal cords? Our was it just lack of air?

And mum was saying: “she seems just fine, sort of.” And I took the pan back to the cellar steps. Mom gave her fresh water saying: “see .. she drinks water.”

“I don’t think we really need to tell dad about this…”

“Neither do I.” More than 40 years. Once he lent her the fountain pen used all through college. They were driving somewhere. And he never saw it again. I mean this was a pan not a fountain pen … But somehow, as Toma drank water, then walking like Gene Kelly doing “singing in the rain” over to a corner to lie down … fell against the wall, sliding down a little until she stopped.… tongue out. Toma was actually better behaved than she had been in months. And was making groaning noises we preferred to think of as snoring.

“Have you eaten?” Said mum.

“ Not very hungry … Where’s dad ? When does he get home?”

We all had dinner together. I found myself going very slowly. Chewing a lot. Mum made big dishes of food, none of it pan fried. Dad was hungry. Toma sort of snored. A little rattle. Unevenly. Like a Moravian bell cooling down. After dark I drove back to the cottage listening to Carla Bley. Night Glow, I think.

“She hit Toma with the cast Iron Frying pan? What are you going to do? “

“It will clarify itself if she’s alive in the morning.”

“The Goddamn dog or your mother?”

“That’s what will clarify itself. They are all grown up and will have to work it out themselves.”

So that’s the story of the posted frying pan with the fried egg in it. Grandma’s pan that hug by the cellar steps. A family heirloom. The cellar stairs is like a closet. Sort of.

Addendum: sometime later, maybe months, dad and I were walking… with Toma and he said:

“She has the funniest lump on the left side of her head.”

I’ve never lied to dad… But I looked at the “bump” with about 40 years of misgivings.

“Yes, I see it too.” As I remember, it was autumn.

Still think voting for Richard Nixon was a lousy idea.

Think this was a Christmas present, had to be around the time I was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. Gave it to Dad along with a Richard Nixon signing pen Nixon gave me. Dad always said: “He treated you okay.”. “Yeah, sure you taught me how to polish my shoes, wear a good suit, and speak properly. He’s still ‘nutz'” “you and your left-wing etc, etc. “, a Parker, framed with a fairly well-known photograph of mine with Nixon & Agnew with their arms in the air, while the crowd roared. Suspect you have seen it.

© H Scott Heist 2016 /

This is the work and creation of Scott Heist and all rights are reserved. Use is by written permission. The View from Splinter Cottage, Splinter Cottage, and Every Day is a Short Story, Tastefully Cheeky. The World Wide Table Cloth & The Character in the Vines are trademarks in use for many years and similarly protected.