Mom gave me his forehead, the kind that creeps higher than most and leaves room for a whole palm and then some. Definitely his. Maybe it was ugly for a little girl to look like she had a receding hairline, but he never laughed. Not unless I tickled his chin with my fingertips.
He smelled like chewing tobacco and peppermint and citrus all rolled into one. Sometimes I’d hug him just to get a whiff of that natural cologne burned into his skin from the sun and the Marlboro man.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I got shot in ’Nam?” He loved to tell me his war stories. I’d perch on his knee, rocking in the old recliner, and fall into his words. The deep jungles of Asia, the rice paddies, the rain that cried for days - I knew the whole spiel, but each time I longed to hear what would happen next.
“And all of a sudden a bullet jumped up and bit me! You know where that little bugger bit your Pop-Pop, baby doll?”
“In the butt!” I’d squeal, and we’d laugh like it was the greatest joke ever told. As far as I was concerned, it was. My Pop-Pop with the bugger in his butt and the palm-and-then-some on his forehead and me on his knee.
He lived in Bologna, Arkansas until I was 10. After that I called it Vilonia like the grown-ups, since I practically was one. He used to tell me I was an old soul, whatever that meant. Mom called me that too, sometimes. Come to think of it, a lot of people did. I never knew what it meant, but it must have been wonderful ’cause Pop-Pop loved me to the moon and then some. I loved him to Jupiter, which Mr. Wilson told me is farther than the moon. He knew a lot, that Mr. Wilson, but not as much as my Pop-Pop. He knew the best way to catch a firefly and which part of the bed I could bounce the highest on and which of my five smiles was just for him.
We caught 17 fireflies one night but I must have forgotten to screw the lid on the jar because the next day they were all gone.
“Don’t worry, baby doll,” he crooned, wiping my tears with his hardened fingers. “They carried my love for you all the way to the moon.” We caught 18 fireflies the next night.
My cousin, Tammy, started smoking when Pop-Pop got sick. She said it was bad and gross and that it was the reason Pop-Pop didn’t tell me stories anymore. I never understood why she started if it was so bad and I was scared she’d get cancer, too. Daddy told me Pop-Pop lost most of his hair because of the medicine. Apparently, nobody found it funny that his forehead took over his whole head. Mom used to cry because she didn’t want Jesus to take her Daddy away. I would try to make her happy and tickle her chin, but she didn’t laugh like him.
Jesus must have heard my mom cry cause Pop-Pop got to go home to Bologna and catch fireflies and talk about ’Nam. It’s ’cause he was a fighter, a soldier, and he still had more stories to tell me, like the day I was born and looked like Elvis. He liked Elvis, but not as much as he liked me. I was his baby doll, even if I was a big girl.
“Hey there, baby doll. Come sit with your Pop-Pop and have you an Oreo.” He loved Oreos. After he beat up the cancer he ate lots of them. Pop-Pop said he did his best thinking with a belly full of Oreos, though he could never tell me what he was thinking about.
“Just remembering, baby doll.”
“My friends back in ’Nam,” he’d say, and dunk his cookie deep in milk.
“The ones who got bit by the buggers in the heart?” I’d ask. He’d laugh and drop crumbs on his chest and scoop me up to sit next to them.
“Yeah, right in the heart.” He would get sad thinking about his friends that the buggers bit, but never too sad to laugh at the one in his butt. Oreos always made him feel better though. Oreos, milk, and me.
I had only seen my mom cry a few times in my life, mostly at movies that weren’t even sad. She cried a lot the day Pop-Pop died. She cried on my bed with me still in it, holding me tight and trying to convince me things would be okay. I think she was really just trying to convince herself. I didn’t want to cry ’cause it would make him sad, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to crawl on his knee and listen to the stories of jungles and rice and eat Oreos with milk. I wanted to bounce on the corner of the bed that made me fly so high I could touch the ceiling fan.
Pop-Pop visited me that night while I was crying in my sleep. He sat at the kitchen table and talked to me about Heaven, about how he wasn’t sad for his buddies that got bit in the heart anymore. He was happy and eating his Oreos, patting the groove in his lap where only I fit.
“Come here, baby doll. Come sit down and have you an Oreo with your Pop-Pop.” I couldn’t sit on his knee anymore. I was too big and he was too far away. He promised he’d love me forever and ever, which is a very long time, you know, but I’d love him even longer - forever and ever, and then some.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.