Falling Off by Angie Johnson
Grandpa’s in bed. One leg lies soft across the sheets and three of his toes hang ash-black from his foot like lumps of coal and he dares me to touch one. I am eleven. Grandmother slaps away my outstretched hand and crows, Geh raus! She takes me by the ear and shoves me into the hall and stands me firm beneath the oak-framed Christ whose lenticular eyes open and close depending upon which way I lean. He’s a mess. A crown of thorns and blood sopping into that bloodshot glare, that bloodsoaked beard.
When she’s done gauzing his foot, grandmother orders me back into the room. Read, she says and she yanks closed the drapes. She hands me a Bible bookmarked with a blue-beaded rosary and I sit in the chair next to his bed. Read, she says. I open the book and I remove the rosary and I read the Psalms, stumble over words like sheminith and Higgaion and shiggaion, and she growls at my sputtering, she flits from the room, one hand clutching the cloth bandages she means to wash and the other fixing her hair. I keep reading until grandpa hisses, “For Christ’s sake, child, close that goddamn book.” He rolls toward me. His syrup-brown eyes seer into mine and there’s a silence between us as big as God. “In the morning,” he says and I clutch the blue-beaded rosary and I lean close. “In the morning, they’ll saw it off.” He scowls so hard I forget to breathe and I don’t dare look at his leg. “Gangrene,” he says. “One piece at a time.”
It’s been coming a long while, he says. Tonsils at Lent. A Christmas appendix. An Epiphany kidney. A Good Friday gallstone. He lost his nerves on the commemoration of St. Placid, teeth on Pentecost, part of a lung on Maundy Thursday, and a benign tumor on Easter. “Tomorrow my foot,” he says and he makes a slight sawing motion and goes err-err-err through his dentures.
Tomorrow is Corpus Christi.
Grandmother starts clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and breaks the trance. I look away. I peer into the hall. From where I sit, the lenticular eyes on the bloodsoaked Christ are closed. I sit tall to make them open but they don’t. I sit taller. Then something touches my arm and I startle back into the room. It’s grandpa. His touch is light and cool and gengle and I look at his hand on my freckled arm, at the purple veins and the blue lunulas and the fingertips gone as ash-black as his toes.
“Pieces,” he says and his opiate-wide eyes hold my gaze. “That’s how he gets us, the bastard, until the last limb is falling off.”
Angie Johnson’s work has appeared in Mason’s Road, Fairfield University Online Literary Journal, Soviet Peaches: a Literary Magazine, and was an Honorable Mention for CALYX Journal’s 2011 Tenth Annual Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize. She has been a recipient of both the Minnesota State Arts Board/Artist Initiative Grant and the PLRAC/McKnight Emerging Artist Grant and has written and published over a dozen children’s non-fiction titles for Coughlan Companies. She is an active member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), as well as a professional Minnesota writers group, and although Colorado is where she grew up, Johnson lives in south central Minnesota with her husband of 20 years and two incredible children.