Grandpa swerved through a cloud of whiskey and over the centerline. I sat in the passenger seat, holding a paper grocery bag. Midafternoon sun drifted through the changing maples which lined the back road leading home from the store. Grandpa wore his tweed driver’s cap, a rumpled tan jacket, and driving gloves, his outfit he donned every time he took the car our. We turned onto East Center Street and passed the Federal Medical Center, a prison filled with dangerous sick people.
A crowd of birds startled to flight as Grandpa scraped the curb. One of them missed the memo and fluttered across the road, low enough to meet Grandpa’s Buick head-on. It tumbled up the windshield and over the roof, landing ten feet behind the car. I looked back, my mouth wide, then looked at Grandpa. He hit the brakes and shifted into reverse. I bawled, pleading for him to stop, even though I wasn’t sure what was happening. Grandpa kept backing up, his leather hands guiding the path of the tires. He silently accomplished his mission, shifted into drive, and drove off.
“Nothing deserves to suffer like that, not even a bird,” Grandpa said after I’d calmed down. This was no consolation. He kept that sad, steely combat medic look on his face all the way home. We pulled into the driveway. The bird vanished from my mind as my thoughts returned to the grocery bag on my lap. I was at Grandpa and Grandma’s house now, with dogs and cats and TV and sweet treats awaiting me. Grandpa was somewhere in the South Pacific in 1942, trying to revive a GI who’d taken a bullet to the chest. That man wouldn’t make it back home.