G r a n d d a d ' s G a r a g e
by Brandon Massey
"Look at all of this junk," Craig said. Frowning, he stood amid a
jungle of old car tires and warped hubcaps. He kicked a hubcap; it rolled
like a giant coin across the dusty floor, struck a paint can, and crashed
to the concrete. "Granddad was a damn pack rat. It'll take us forever to
go through this crap."
"You know how Granddad was, always collecting things," Steven said.
He ran his fingers through his short hair, brushed out a cobweb that had
attached itself to his scalp when he'd walked through the door. No one had
been in the garage since Granddad had passed three weeks ago, and spiders
and who knows what else had begun to reclaim the dank space. If Mama had
not asked him and Craig to sort through the garage, months might have
passed before anyone crossed the thresh-old. Steven would have avoided
entering because the garage triggered bittersweet memories; Craig would've
stayed out, Steven guessed, be-cause he didn't feel that anything in there
was worth his time. Craig had precious little time for anything that
didn't make him money.
Steven swept his gaze across the garage. A mounted deer's head hung
from the wall, above a dirt-filmed window flanked by flimsy, ragged
curtains. Gray afternoon light struggled through the glass. A pair of
naked lightbulbs that dangled from the rafters provided addi-tional light.
Still, shadows ruled the musty, junk-filled corners of the chamber.
"What a mess," Craig said, his brown face puckered in a scowl.
Standing beside an old manual push mower, he spit on the floor. "I can
taste the dust in here. Can we raise the door or open the window to let in
"They won't open," Steven said. "They haven't worked in years."
"Are you serious? What the hell kind of sense does that make? Why
have a garage if you can't raise the door to park a car inside?"
"Granddad never parked in here. I thought you knew that."
"I never had time to figure out that old man's crazy habits," Craig
said. "Some of us have real careers and lives to lead."
Steven opened his mouth to come back with something to salvage his
pride, but a chirping sound cut off his response: a cell phone. Like a
quick-draw gunslinger, Craig unsnapped the phone from its holster on his
hip and placed it against his ear. "Hello? Hey, girl, how ya doing? I
ain't doing nothing now, just chilling with my baby brother at my
granddad's place. What's up with you?" Winking at Steven, Craig walked
outside, his voice drifting away as he chatted with one of his countless
Steven wondered, not for the first time that day, why their mother
had bothered to ask Craig to accompany him to Granddad's house. Although
he and Craig were adults - Craig was thirty and he was twenty-eight - in
family matters she insisted upon their doing things together, as if they
were still children and unable to function indepen-dently. Granddad had
served as a father to both of them (their biologi-cal father had fled the
responsibilities of fatherhood after Steven's fifth birthday), but Craig
had seemed to resent the role that Granddad had played in their lives.
"You can't tell me what to do; you ain't my daddy!" had frequently been
Craig's answer to Granddad's request that Craig help mow the lawn, rake
the leaves, or shovel the snow. If Craig had railed against assisting
Granddad when he had been alive, why did their mother assume Craig would
want to help now that Granddad was dead? Steven had been prepared to clean
Granddad's garage on his own.
And there was a lot of cleaning to do. Craig was right: Granddad
re-ally had been a pack rat. The garage was large, able to accommodate
three cars, and even if the roll-down sectional door had worked, there
would not have been enough free space to allow a single car to park
in-side. The area was filled with two long, wooden tool benches laden with
screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, paintbrushes, and other assorted items; a
chest-style freezer that lay like a coffin against the far wall, the top
covered with empty cans of oil and pour spouts; an old-fashioned Speed
Queen washing machine with a wringer to roll clothes through; a couple of
lawn mowers; an old Schwinn bicycle; and a bewildering jum-ble of auto
parts, tool boxes, gardening implements, rusty appliances, pipes, buckets
filled with junk, milk crates teeming with more junk, and more. More items
than Steven could catalog.
He looked toward the ceiling. He saw pipes, fishing poles, and boxes
poking out between the rafters, resting on plywood sheets.
"Well, Granddad," Steven said to himself, "you sure took advantage of
every nook and cranny in here." Grief twisted through him. Weak-kneed, he
sat on a short stepladder.
He'd known that coming back to Granddad's place would be difficult
for him. Louis Miles had always seemed to Steven like a redwood tree, a
fantastically solid and eternal creation of nature. Granddad was
sup-posedly eighty-six when he died. For years, there had been a rumor in
the family that Granddad was much older than his reported age, but no one
could verify it, because Granddad said he'd lost his birth records decades
ago, and he had no brothers or sisters to provide a point of reference.
Steven, for his part, would've estimated that Granddad was ac-tually
younger than he claimed to be. Granddad had the bounce, smooth, dark skin,
and sharp mind of a man thirty years younger - facts that made it hard for
Steven to accept that Granddad was gone. He seemed too damn healthy to die.
But he was gone. Granddad had willed his property to Steven's mother.
And Steven's mother had charged her sons with maintaining Granddad's home
until she found a renter or one of them decided to move in. At any rate,
their maintenance was to begin in the garage.
Steven heard Craig roving around outdoors, chatting nonstop on his
cell phone. Clearly, Craig was not pressed to help him.
"Whatever," Steven said. He began sorting through a pile of items
near him: an old clock radio, floor tiles that looked like giant slices of
old cheese, a milk crate full of screws and bolts, a wooden toolbox
secured with a shiny padlock ...
Perhaps it was the apparent newness of the padlock that caught his
attention. He dropped to his knees to take a closer look at the weath-ered
red box, which served as the foundation for the junk pile.
He grasped the lock, tugged. It was clasped tight.
He chewed his lip. Why would Granddad put a new lock on an old tool
chest? Granddad had been a purposeful man and never did any-thing without
a good reason.
Steven went inside the house. In the kitchen, beside the
refrigera-tor, a peg board hung on the wall, and enough keys to please a
jailer dangled from the hooks. He scooped the smaller keys into his hands
and returned to the garage.
His brother was pacing around the driveway, yapping like an
Steven removed the articles from the top of the toolbox. A strange
but familiar design was carved in the center of the wooden lid, outlined
in black: a circle the size of a half-dollar, and within the circle, a
series of tiny hieroglyphic characters.
Granddad used to wear a silver pendant around his neck that bore the
same inscrutable symbols. Whenever Steven had asked him what the
characters meant, Granddad would answer, "It's from Africa," which only
increased Steven's confusion and curiosity -and only con-vinced Craig that
Granddad was just a weird old man.
But it was certainly weird to find the identical design emblazoned on
Steven looked at the keys in his hand. He tried them in the padlock.
The third one worked.
When Steven raised the lid, the hinges creaked, reminding him of an
old door in a haunted house.
_Come on. Don't let your imagination run away with you. There's
probably nothing but junk in here_.
A light blue, velvety sheet concealed the contents. Slowly he pulled
away the fabric.
He didn't know what he had been expecting. If not junk, maybe a stash
of gold coins. What he found instead were books. All hardbacks with dark
covers, they were stacked in neat columns, perhaps twenty books in total.
They had the look of age, of old, forgotten classics that littered
garages, attics, and basements across the world.
A different man might have closed the box in disgust, but Steven had
been an English major at Illinois State and occasionally took a stab at
writing mystery stories (and, less often, poems for women he liked). He
plucked a book out of the chest. He examined the cover.
_Invisible Man_, by Ralph Ellison. Okay, he'd read this one in high
school. He opened the book.
"Whoa," he said.
A signature in black ink was scrawled across the title page: _Ralph
Ellison, May 2, 1952_.
Steven checked the copyright page. This book was a first edition.
"Well." The air seemed to have been sucked out of his lungs. He
wasn't an expert collector, but he estimated that this edition had to be
worth a thousand dollars at least.
He carefully set aside the volume and looked at a few of the other
_Native Son_, by Richard Wright. _Their Eyes Were Watching God_, by
Zora Neale Hurston. _Harlem Shadows_, by Claude McKay. _Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass_, by Douglass himself. _Poems on Various
Subjects_, by Phillis Wheatley.
All of them appeared to be authentic first editions, in mint
condition. All of them were autographed.
Wheatley's book went back to 1773.
"Impossible," Steven said, breathing hard. His thoughts seemed to
have derailed like a train on greased tracks.
Outside, birds chirped and dogs barked, normal neighborhood sounds on
a weekend afternoon.
Rational thought, when it returned to Steven, exploded back into his
consciousness. Where had these books come from? How had Granddad come to
own them? Why had he kept them in here? He was afraid to think of the
monetary value of these volumes, sitting here as if they were worthless
pulp fiction paperbacks, not national treasures. What if someone stole
He replaced the books in the chest. Bending down, he lifted the box.
It was heavy, about fifty pounds, but he only needed to carry it inside
the house, somewhere safe. His arm muscles straining, he hefted the chest
out of the garage, climbed the short flight of steps in the breeze-way,
and shouldered his way through the door. He placed the box on the floor
beside the kitchen table.
As he was about to flip up the cover and dig through the rest of the
texts, Craig's footsteps clapped up the breezeway stairs. Quickly, Steven
slid the books underneath the table.
"Hey, bro," Craig said. "I'm gonna pick up a six-pack and some rib
tips. Want anything, like some spring water or something? Warm milk?"
Craig chuckled; he found it amusing that Steven wasn't a drinker.
"I'm fine, thanks," Steven said. "I'm going to keep working in the
garage. There's a lot of... stuff in there."
"Weird." Craig shook his head. "When you get old, I bet you're gonna
be like Granddad. Fill a garage with junk and leave it to your family to
clean it up when you kick the bucket. That was so goddamn inconsiderate."
"Yeah, the nerve of Granddad not to have cleaned up his garage
be-fore he passed."
"He had to know that he'd die soon. Shit, he was eighty-six, right?
At that age, you start making preparations. Get your house in order. Know
what I'm saying?"
Steven only looked at him. He had to restrain himself from launch-ing
himself at Craig and busting his disrespectful mouth.
"Anyway," Craig said, "I saw old Mr. Jackson across the street,
watching me like a damn vulture. You know how nosy he is; you might want
to go talk to him before he rolls over here and you can't get rid of him.
I don't feel like talking to him."
"Okay," Steven said. Craig's suggestion that he talk to Mr. Jackson
was perhaps the smartest comment he'd made all day. Mr. Jackson had lived
across the street from Granddad for thirty years, and the men had been
close friends. Mr. Jackson might know the story behind the rare books.
Craig left the house and zoomed away in his Lincoln Navigator, cell
phone once again pressed against his ear.
Steven crossed the street to talk to Mr. Jackson.
"It's gonna storm soon," Mr. Jackson said. A lean, mahogany--skinned
man, he scanned the cloudy sky, perched in his wheelchair like a bird in a
nest. He turned to Steven. "I ain't talked to you since Louis passed.
How're you holding up, youngblood?"
"Fine, I guess." Sitting in a wicker chair on the veranda, Steven
sipped at the lemonade that Mr. Jackson's daughter had brought for him.
"We're cleaning Granddad's garage today. Granddad sure col-lected a lot of
stuff." Steven watched Mr. Jackson closely for his re-sponse.
"Yep, he sure did." The old man stared into the distance. "Louis had
a peculiar knack for finding antiques. Hell, sometimes we'd be on a
fish-ing trip, he'd see a sign for a rummage sale, and he just had to stop
and check it out. He'd find the damnedest things, Louis would."
"Like books," Steven said.
Mr. Jackson stared at him.
A current of understanding passed between them, like electricity.
"Like books," Mr. Jackson said. "And other items."
Other items. Steven wondered if more amazing valuables awaited him in
the garage, hidden under a heap of apparent junk.
"Granddad picked up all of those things at rummage sales?" Steven
"Sure. Rummage sales, flea markets, junkyards. Sometimes I don't know
where he got them. Things had a way of kinda falling into his hands." Mr.
Jackson looked at his own wiry, weathered hands as if an ancient treasure
might be found within his leathery palms. "Louis called it his mission."
"If it was his mission, why didn't he open an antique shop?" Steven
said. "Instead of running that delivery business like he did?"
Mr. Jackson looked again at the darkening afternoon sky, paused.
"Youngblood, it might be my mission to go fishing every week, but that
don't mean I want to open a bait-and-tackle shop. Some things you do out
of love. Some things you do because you have a gift. And some things ain't
supposed to be sold." He looked at Steven squarely. There was a warning in
his black eyes. Mr. Jackson was in his late seventies, and both his legs
had been amputated due to his diabetes - but at that moment he was as
forceful and forbidding as a spirit that guarded a cursed Egyptian tomb.
"It's a big garage," Steven said, hoping to lighten the mood. "It'll
take me a while to go through everything."
"That it will. Louis had been collecting for a very long time. All of
Distantly, thunder grumbled. Ghostly fingers of lightning plucked at
"How old was Granddad?" Steven said. "According to what he said, he
would've been eighty-six when he died, but there was always a rumor in my
family that Granddad was older."
"What makes you think I'd know?" Mr. Jackson seemed more amused than
Steven shrugged. "You and Granddad were buddies. I thought you might
have an idea."
Mr. Jackson appeared to be mulling over an answer when the front door
of his house opened, and his daughter, Anne, appeared, saying that her
father needed to come inside before the rain started. Anne smiled at
Steven; then she grasped the handles of Mr. Jackson's wheel-chair and
began to roll him inside. Before Mr. Jackson disappeared in-side his home,
he winked at Steven.
"Every man got a secret, youngblood. Your granddad wasn't no
As rain hammered on the roof and thunder shook the walls, Steven
explored the garage with the fervor of an archaeologist combing through a
dig. He found, secreted throughout the garage, several more boxes and
chests of various sizes, colors, and makes. Usually concealed beneath
ordinary heaps of junk, swaddled within cobwebs, and filmed with dust, the
boxes were constructed of steel or wood, all of them se-cured with
padlocks. Strangely, all the locks could be opened with the same key that
he'd used earlier to uncover the books. But the strangest fact of all was
that each box bore the same enigmatic hieroglyphic de-sign on the lid.
Clouds of dust swirled around him, but Steven ignored the filth and
dug up the artifacts with trembling hands.
In one box he found a collection of pristine-condition letters
ad-dressed to various people he'd never heard of; the only name he
recog-nized on each was the name of the author, Paul Robeson.
In another, Steven discovered a beautiful, vibrantly colored quilt
that depicted a scene that, at first guess, came from a Biblical story: a
bearded man feeding fish to a line of people. A label attached to the
un-derside of the lid read, in what Steven recognized as Granddad's
hand-writing: _Harriet Powers quilt, 1887_.
Another contained vinyl records in their original jackets: recordings
by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Josephine Baker. The respec-tive
artist had signed each album.
Still another had a piece of sculpture in excellent condition: it
por-trayed a man and a woman embracing, and broken chains lying at their
feet. The label read: _Edmonia Lewis,1881_.
Yet another long box was lined with cool velvet and full of gold
pieces: coins, necklaces, rings, and other ornaments. There was even an
item that appeared to be a staff, crafted of gold. A label attached to the
underside of the box's lid read: _Musa reign, Sudan, circa 1320_. Musa,
Steven recalled from his African history classes, was the best-known ruler
of ancient Sudan, renowned for his wealth.
Sweat poured from Steven's brow and into his eyes. He wiped away the
perspiration with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of dirt in its
You didn't find treasures like these at rummage sales, in junkyards,
or at flea markets. Not these days. Steven refused to believe such a thing.
He thought about the hieroglyphics engraved on the boxes and on the
silver pendant that Granddad had worn. He thought about the per-fect
condition of the artifacts in a less-than-ideal storage environment. He
thought about the family rumor that Granddad was much older than he
claimed to be.
_Every man got a secret, youngblood. Your granddad wasn't no
Who was Granddad - really?
Steven could not draw a rational conclusion. Every theory -that
Granddad was hundreds of years old, that he lived through the cen-turies
randomly collecting valuables, that he preserved the artifacts using
African magic - was utterly crazy. Steven was a logical man, an ordinary
man, a high school English teacher who might not live the flashy life of
his attorney brother but who compensated with his loy-alty, dependability,
and common sense. Common sense, most of all, would help him arrive at a
sensible solution to this mystery.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?"
Startled, Steven shot to his feet - and in his haste, his legs bumped
the open chest in front of him, knocking the box sideways and spilling
coins on the fioor. Steven half-turned to see Craig staring at him; then
he spun to set the box upright. He snatched up the coins, too, praying
under his breath that Craig assumed he was only picking up more junk.
"What do you have there, man?" Craig hurried forward. In one hand, he
clutched a half-filled bottle of Heineken. "Gold coins?"
Steven slammed the lid shut, but the contents hadn't escaped Craig's
"It's only junk," Steven said. His hands were filled with coins; he
slid them into his pockets. "Screws and washers, stuff like that."
"Don't lie to me. I saw money in there." Craig took a swig of the
beer. "Open it up and lemme see."
"Seriously, Craig, it's only junk. That's all that's in this garage.
"Open it, Steven." Craig's eyebrow twitched, a sure sign that he was
getting angry. His grip tightened on the beer bottle. "Open it now."
Steven stared at his brother, who was older and had always been
taller, wider, stronger. In the past, Steven had always wilted under
Craig, had let Craig take his toys, his money, his candy. It was part of
being the little brother. Big brother always got whatever he wanted, and
he got the leftovers.
But Steven was not going to budge. Not this time. The stakes were too
high. He had stumbled upon an incredible store of amazingly valu-able
artifacts, and he would not let Craig plunder them to sell to the highest
bidder. Granddad never would have wanted it that way. For a reason that
Steven had yet to learn, these treasures had fallen into Granddad's hands,
and he was certain that they were not meant for sale. He was willing to be
his life on it.
He drew in a breath and held his ground against Craig.
"No," Steven said.
"What?" His eyebrow twitching, Craig took a step backward. "You're
not going to let me look in there?"
"You heard me, Craig. No."
Craig's shoulders drooped. He turned away as if to leave -and then he
swung the Heineken bottle at Steven. Steven was caught off guard. The
bottle thwacked into his shoulder, driving a shard of pain down to his
marrow and instantly numbing his arm. Craig seized him by the front of his
shirt. Steven grabbed his arm, and they were suddenly in a wrestling
match: grappling, pushing, tugging, grunting, and cursing.
But it didn't take long for the big brother to assert his physical
dom-inance. Craig had been a wrestler in college, and he'd remembered some
of his techniques. He wrapped Steven in a painful headlock and twisted him
up like a noodle. Steven's face was mashed against the floor, his nose
sticking in an oil spot. Craig's knee slammed into his kid-ney; agony
buckled through him, and he felt his lunch erupting up his throat in a
hot, putrid rush.
Craig left him there on the floor, vomiting and gasping.
"Boy, you should know better than to show out with me," Craig said,
getting to his feet and cleaning his hands on his jeans. "I only wanted to
see what was in the damn box. I know I saw some money."
Steven flopped onto his back as Craig walked toward the chest. He
couldn't get up to continue the fight. The pain that had begun in his
kid-neys had spread like a throbbing cancer throughout his body. _Sorry,
Granddad. I tried_.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Granddad had kept his life savings in
here," Craig said. "A nutty old man like him would do something like that.
Bad enough that he gave the house to Mama, and we both know she'll give it
to you. I deserve my share, dammit!"
Craig put his hands on the lid. He raised it.
Even from where Steven lay on the floor several feet away, he heard
the sound issuing from the chest. It was louder than Craig's chill-ing
scream, louder than the thunder and pounding rain.
The furious buzzing of a swarm of bees.
Steven never again wanted to witness an incident like what hap-pened
in those few, seemingly endless minutes after Craig opened the box: the
dark mass of bees emerging like a shark's mouth from the depths of the
chest, swallowing Craig whole; Craig howling and tearing out of the
garage, blindly bumping into walls, falling over his grand-father's junk,
finally escaping through the door, but unable to evade the angry cloud of
insects; Steven finally struggling to his feet and running outdoors into
the rain to follow his brother; Craig fleeing down the side-walk and into
the street, directly into the path of an Oldsmobile; the im-pact of the
automobile smashing into Craig like a boom of thunder ...
Sometime later, after the ambulance had rushed Craig to the hospi-tal
and loved ones had been called, Steven went back to the garage. He
approached the chest full of gold that had spewed a swarm of bees onto his
brother (amazingly, no stings were found on Craig's body when the
paramedics arrived, and Steven never mentioned them).
Heart thrumming, Steven opened the box.
The same golden objects that he'd seen earlier lay within.
He sighed, closed the chest.
The mysterious circle full of hieroglyphs carved on the lid seemed to
Or perhaps that was his imagination.
"How's your brother doing?" Mr. Jackson said. They sat on the old
man's veranda. Both of them had glasses of lemonade close at hand.
"He finally pulled out of the coma," Steven said. "But he's paralyzed
from the waist down. The doctor doesn't think he'll ever walk again."
Mr. Jackson looked down at his own wheelchair and shook his head. "A
terrible thing to happen to such a young man. A shame."
"Some things ain't meant to be sold," Steven said. "A wise man once
told me that."
Mr. Jackson nodded, his face grim and drawn.
Steven sipped his lemonade. He reached into his jacket pocket and
removed two photographs. He placed the photos near Mr. Jackson's hand.
Mr. Jackson brought the pictures close to his eyes. "Where did you
find these, youngblood?"
"In Granddad's garage, of course," Steven said. "I'm sure you've
no-ticed that I've been spending a lot of time in there the past few
weeks. I'm moving into the house soon."
Mr. Jackson laughed - a high, thin sound. Steven had rarely heard the
old man laugh, and hearing his laughter made him laugh, too.
"You know, youngblood, you always favored your granddaddy," Mr.
Jackson said. "Spitting image of the man."
"That's what everyone says," Steven said. Mr. Jackson gave him the
photos. Steven finished off the lemonade and stood.
"Leaving already?" Mr. Jackson said.
"I have a lot of work to do. But I'll see you around."
"Youngblood?" Mr. Jackson said when Steven had turned.
"Yes, sir?" Steven said.
"Louis made a good choice in you. You'll do fine. Lord knows, you'll
have plenty of time to learn."
Steven smiled. "Thank you. I appreciate that."
Steven returned to the garage. Although he'd spent all his free time
in there lately, he hadn't done much cleaning. Cobwebs still ringed the
windows, dust covered the floor, and junk filled the garage in no evi-dent
But, of course, it wasn't all junk. His recent findings -and he
seemed to discover more each time he explored - led him to believe that he
stood on the humble threshold of one of the most magnificent museums in
He slid the photographs out of his pocket. The first was a
black-and--white shot of two black men sitting on the stone steps of what
appeared to be a brownstone, in a neighborhood that was most likely
Harlem. Steven guessed Harlem because the younger man was Langston Hughes,
a famous writer from the Harlem Renaissance period. The older man, who
appeared to be in his fifties, was Louis Miles, Steven's grandfather.
Granddad looked the same as Steven had remembered him shortly before
his death, and the photo was probably taken in the 1920s. Steven
discovered the picture between the pages of a signed first edi-tion of
Hughes's _Not Without Laughter_.
The second black-and-white showed Granddad and four other black men,
standing under a tree. They were dressed in the uniforms of Union troops.
Granddad didn't look to be any older than thirty. Steven found the photo
inside the pages of a Civil War soldier's diary.
In addition to the pictures, Steven located Granddad's pendant. He'd
assumed Granddad had been buried wearing it, but either he was mistaken -
or this one had been created solely for him. Attached to a silver
necklace, the pendant had dangled from a tool-laden peg board on the
garage wall. It was crafted from a piece of silver the size of a
half-dollar. On one side, the intricate array of hieroglyphics had been
inscribed; on the other, words engraved in English read:
_Thou shall preserve what would be lost, destroyed, or sold for selfish
When Steven had slipped the necklace over his head, a strangely
pleasant chill rippled down his spine, and a feeling of rightness settled
over him like a comfortable blanket.
Standing on the threshold of the garage, the pendant resting against
his heart, Steven exhaled a deep breath.
"Thank you, Granddad. For trusting me."
He locked the garage door and went to his car, which he'd parked in
the driveway, a used but reliable Chevy. He got behind the wheel and
started the engine. Quickly he rolled onto the street and pulled away.
He'd spotted a rummage sale earlier that afternoon, and he didn't
want to miss it.
"Granddad's Garage" copyright © 2004 by Brandon Massey
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