The Anthology 

The Cast Iron

By Tylie Shider

I spent the first week of the quarantine visiting my maternal grandfather at his retirement home in Twin City, Georgia—where he remigrated to live comfortably on the fixed income he earned up north working as an auto-mechanic for 40 years. 60 hours a week 6 days a week and he never lets me forget.

I know what you’re thinking: there is the threat of a lethal and nebulous virus and a senior citizen is a vulnerable person. Yes, it is risky. I could easily be an asymptomatic carrier, but it was too late to turn around. I was already on a desolate flight from JFK to Savannah when 45 declared a state of emergency and the nation sheltered in crisis. So, for 7 days my grandfather told me stories and fixed us a hot breakfast: biscuits, bottomless pots of coffee, and eggs he scrambled on a (turn of the twentieth century) cast iron skillet he salvaged from a pile of kitchen appliances his mother used to feed her sharecropping family of 13 children: 9 girls and 4 boys.

He told me his sister, Alberta, who was burdened with the task of dividing their deceased mother’s estate, had tossed the skillet in a chest labeled junk.

“I could hardly recognize it,” he exclaims!

“It was buried in rust about this high,” he describes, measuring about an inch of air between two of his calloused fingers.

Bird, formerly known as Alberta. Keep up! I had to.

So, Bird tells him the skillet is useless and she ain’t trying to make more work for herself—considering she had been knee-deep in a century of irrecoverable nostalgia: photographs, obituaries, vinyls, threadbare muumuus, quilts by the pound, and yes, more obituaries and photographs of open caskets. She felt like a grave digger—sorting through piles of dust and skeletons. Once she discovered a postcard from a young soldier in a hard hat that read: To my darling … and the rest is history because time had smeared the end of his note which had been scribbled in blue ink. The postcard puzzled Bird for a moment. Had she been in love with a soldier and forgot? Of course not. She had 8 sisters but could not remember who the soldier loved—so she maintained it wasn’t her and tossed the poor postcard in a chest of junk. His love must’ve been unrequited, she shrugs. Or worse—he died young and in love in Vietnam. War is heartache enough to kill a man. Bless his hard-hatted bony heart.

She was tired. And something about the recent loss of her mother cut her patience short, and now her brother was working on the last of it trying to save a damn frying pan.

Furthermore, “what do you need with a cast iron skillet older than you,” she asks him intuitively after a deep breath and a silent prayer. To which my grandfather rebuts—he ain’t never been scared of old age or rust. Bird laughs. She knew better than to make a fuss. Men turn everything into war. And now her brother has to prove he can conquer a hundred years of rust.

My grandfather carried the skillet out back and Bird pressed on because the real work was getting the house in order before nightfall. In the distance, she could hear my grandfather sanding the skillet and cracking open tall cans of beer from a freezer in the garage. At first, his sanding irritated her and she counted 3 beers in the last hour or so and even heard him piss in a bush like he was 12 years old. All this and the sun hadn’t even set good.

Dusk fell as she continued to organize the house into piles of junk and things to remember and divide between her 8 surviving siblings. The sanding and crackling beer cans created a rhythm for her to do the work.

Bird began to hum songs—till what appeared to be an insurmountable chore felt like dancing—she hummed—humming the church hymns her mother hummed:  “Even Me,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” She hummed and danced—till what felt like a ton of bricks lifted and her work was complete.

A few minutes after she fell into a rocking chair belonging to her late mother and grandmother, the sanding stopped and the door swung open letting in just enough moonlight to reveal my grandfather and the cast iron skillet shining like new.

Bird rocked in the chair near sleep in the middle of the room—which she had divided into 2 towering walls of storage and junk.

“You look like mama,” my grandfather declared grinning and swinging his skillet and waiting for his sister to praise him. He did it. He restored the skillet!

But Bird lifted her nodding head and told him to shut the door and wash up because he was covered in pollen and her allergies are known to flare up in springtime.

Serving me hot eggs my grandfather laughs at his ego and gears up to tell me another story.

And while we eat, drink, and laugh at the breakfast bar, annihilation hangs in the balance, panic penetrates the airwaves, and the doors of the church shut—as the president dispatches the U.S. Comfort to the Harbor in New York City to increase hospital beds in the epicenter of a pandemic.