A Taste of the Worst

Henry lived on a farm with his father, two older brothers, and his grandmother. Being the youngest person in this arrangement meant that you always got the short end of the stick. The dirty end. It wasn't just that he had to wear hand-me-down clothes, or that his older brothers pushed him around as if he were some kind of unbreakable toy, or that he was the only kid in the county whose mother had died when he was four. Maybe a boy could handle all of that if it weren't for Granny. Granny tipped the scales in more ways than one. Not only was she the meanest and laziest old lady in the world, but she was a real fatso. A waddler, if you want to put it nice. She ate so much and she did so little that she was like a big loaf of bread dough that stands out too long and keeps rising and pretty soon it's bulging up over the edge of the mixing bowl. Everything Granny sat in was like a mixing bowl, what with her bulging up over the edge of whatever she decided to stuff herself into.

People said Henry was the quiet one in the family, and usually he was--unless something so terrible was done to him that he had no choice but to speak up. Henry had figured out that if you are youngest and if you have any wits about you at all, you can stay out of a lot of trouble by doing more thinking than talking. The way he saw it, the only safe place to get things out in the open was inside your own head with your mouth closed, just thinking. If you kept your mouth shut, you could ask any question you wanted to. Why, for instance, didn't his father find some sort of housekeeper who was about the same age his mother had been? Or why didn't his father send him off to live with his aunt? Either of those choices would have been better than Granny. But, oh no, to make matters as bad as they could be on this earth, his father had decided that Granny would live in the house, in the basement by night and upstairs by day, until the boys grew up.

Until the boys grew up. Some growing anybody could do with the likes of Granny around. When she did manage to get up and walk, she looked like she was carrying two ten-gallon water balloons on her backside. And she wasn't much better from the front. Her checks were so big and heavy they looked like a couple of wrinkled pancakes that could fall off her face if she shook her head fast. But she was strong when she wanted to be, and if she was really angry her thick arms and big hands could swing out quick as a cow's tail and swat you a good one. At least Henry could outrun her, if it ever came to that.

It hadn't come to that yet but the summer was just getting started. Henry had looked around inside his head for a good summer plan, and he had come up with one--he'd stay outside all day, stay clear of ole Granny all the time except when it was time to eat. But today not even that plan was working out. He'd gone outside to play all right, but then he'd gotten into this little game with his older brothers, throwing corncobs at one another. It was a good enough game with no sides, just everybody for himself. A hit on the leg and you have to cripple, a hit on the arm and you can't use that arm, a hit in the back and you have to crawl, a hit in the head and you're dead-out of the game.

Things hadn't gone well. As usual his older brothers picked on him. They wanted Henry to get hurt so he'd quit playing and leave them alone. That's what the corncob game was really all about. So Henry had gotten hurt, and now he was moping along across the stinking farmyard, kicking dirt. His left elbow oozed blood where a corncob had clipped him, and his knees hurt because his brothers pushed him down when he wouldn't stay dead like they said he was supposed to.

Times like this he really had no choice but to go to the house and take his chances with Granny, what with his dad out in the back of the field cultivating corn.

He swung open the screen door and yelled, "What's to eat?"

Just as loud Granny yelled back, "Don't let the flies in!"

He pulled the screen door shut quickly.

"And don't slam the door!"

That's the way Granny was. She'd get you coming or going. Henry walked into the kitchen, and there she was, plopped down and filling up his dad's swivel chair by the kitchen window.

"I'm hungry," he said, keeping his range in case she was in one of her cranky morning moods.

"Milk in the refrigerator," she said. She looked him over. "And what have you done to yourself this time?"