Gold Medal, 2012 North Carolina Silver Arts Short Fiction Competition

The Wart Charmer

By Tom Hooker

I was eleven when I first realized that Grandpa was different.

He was in the workshed, with a two-man bucksaw clamped, teeth-up, in a vise. He’d put a corn cob on the tail of a file, to make a handle, and he repeatedly drew the file across first one and then another of the saw teeth, sharpening them. I sat on a nail keg in the corner, watching. Bored.

The sound of a car engine and the crunch of tires on his gravel driveway drew his attention. Company. Grandpa put down the file and dusted his hands on his khaki work pants. He walked out the door and I followed. Sunlight flashed on his glasses, and a soft gust of wind blew his fine, white hair.

A brand-new 1962 Ford Fairlane, two-tone blue and white, stood at the head of the driveway, just short of the carriage house which held Grandpa’s 1955 Chevy Bel Aire. A red-headed girl, old enough to be out of school, but not by much, climbed out of the passenger side of the Ford, while a boy of about the same age clambered out of the driver’s side. She wore a white dress with tiny pink polka-dots under a pink sweater, which was thrown over her shoulders, shawl-style. The boy had on blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up and white T-shirt. His hair was slicked back into a duck-tail. He must have used a gallon of Brylcreem.

Grandpa wore a quizzical smile as he waited for them to approach.

“Mr. Trees? William Trees?” The young man asked. Despite his bad-boy appearance, he seemed respectful.

“That’s me,” Grandpa answered.

“How do. I’m Joe Carlyle. This is my girlfriend, Paula. She has something to ask you.”

The girl had been standing quietly, head down, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Now she glanced up at Grandpa’s face, but still didn’t look him full on. Shy.

“I’ve heard tell you can charm warts.” She spoke in little more than a whisper.

Grandpa turned and looked at me. “Willie, can you give us some privacy?” He turned back to the couple. “Let’s go inside here.” He led them into the workshed.

Most people might think that, having been dismissed, I was thwarted. But his request for privacy was guaranteed to pique my curiosity. I’d spent hour after hour exploring every inch of Grandpa’s homestead. After all, I had to stay here every day of my summer vacation so my parents could go to work: Momma to the shirt factory and Papa to the furniture plant. So I knew about one of the planks that made up the siding of the workshed, and of the core of the knothole that had fallen out, leaving me with a perfect peephole.

The three of them stood in the center of the room.

“I make no guarantees,” Grandpa said. “If it works, maybe the wart will fade away. Sometimes it takes six weeks.”

The girl glanced at the boy, and he glanced back. I hadn’t had much of a chance to look the girl over, but I hadn’t seen any blemishes on her arms or neck, or on the narrow stretch of her bare legs below the hem of her knee-length dress and above the tops of her bobbie sox. I wondered if the wart might be in a delicate location, and if I might get to see more than what I saw in the Sears and Roebuck catalog underwear section.

Finally, the girl seemed to reach a decision. She shrugged the sweater off her shoulders, revealing the fact that the dress was sleeveless, and she lifted her left arm. Grandpa studied a spot in her armpit. After a few seconds, he touched the wart with his index finger. No incantation. No potion to drink. No blood drawn.

Grandpa bobbed his head toward the girl. “You can put the sweater back on now.”

The boy, Joe, gave Grandpa a disbelieving look. “That’s it?”

Grandpa nodded. “If it works, the wart should be gone in six weeks.”

Joe fidgeted. “We drove all the way from Holly Springs.” Fifty miles. “And all you do is touch it?”

Paula put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Now, Joe. Don’t get riled.”

“How much do I owe you?” The boy grumped.

“I don’t have a set price. Just pay whatever you think is fair.”

Joe hesitated before reaching for his wallet. It didn’t take a mind reader to know that his opinion of a fair price was nothing.

“Tell you what,” Grandpa said. He fished a cigar stub from his shirt pocket and a box of Red Diamond matches from his pants pocket. “Hold off on paying me. Later on, if you think I’m due anything, you can send me something.”

Joe gave a brusque nod and the two of them drove off. A month later, Grandpa got ten dollars in the mail from him.

After the couple left, I withdrew to the grape arbor, which lay just beyond Grandma’s double clothesline. I didn’t want to show up in Grandpa’s presence too soon or he’d know I’d been spying. Plus, I wanted to think things over. I sat down under a trellis which held a grape vine and which cast a cool shade for me.

Warts. All I knew about them was that they were supposed to be caused by frogs, and frogs were good because you could chase girls with them. Girls, it seemed, thought the only things uglier than boys were frogs.

I had my doubts about the frogs and warts thing, though. If that story was true, boys should be covered in warts. Plus, we had the fairy tale about the princess who kissed the frog, and she didn’t get a wart on her lips.

Maybe it was just certain kinds of frogs. You had your basic bullfrog, which carried the bass in the serenade of insects and pond animals each summer night. Then you had the tree frog, whose skin was a bright glow-in-the-dark green. And all sorts of other varieties.

What did all that have to do with Grandpa? Maybe warts and frogs weren’t connected. It was time to talk.

When I walked up from the grape arbor, he was sitting on the steps which descended from the back porch of his house. He held a bright red apple in one hand and his pocket knife in the other. I sat beside him.

Grandpa had a fascinating way of peeling the fruit. He slid the blade of his knife just under the edge of a swath of peel, about one inch wide, and slowly rotated the apple, slicing away the rind. By the time he was finished, if successful, he had a strand of skin about one inch wide and maybe two feet long. He held it up while I applauded. Then he cut off a wedge of apple and handed it to me. I ate it while he cut a wedge for himself.

“Grandpa?” I said.

“Hmmm?”

“That lady said you could charm warts.”

“That’s what she said.”

“What does that mean?”

He handed me another slice of apple. “Well, some people believe that I can do something to make warts disappear.”

“Well, can you?”

He gave me a sidelong glance and a whimsical smile, and shrugged.

I sat silently, waiting.

“This is something –,” he began, but a shout from across the way cut him off.

“Trees! Who was that who just left? Did they come for some of your magical folderol?” Carl Lufkin, our neighbor, marched along the path which connected our two houses. His pin-stripe bib overalls, too big for his small frame, flapped in response to his agitated motions. My buddy, Bobby Voyles, who didn’t much care what he said about anybody, called him “wormy.” But not to his face.

“You know what I think about all this conjuring you do,” Lufkin continued. “You’re going to call down the wrath of God. And with me living next door, me and my place is liable to catch a lightning bolt, too!”

Now, now, Carl,” Grandpa rose with a sigh and faced his neighbor, who had arrived at our doorstep. “Don’t get your drawers in a wad. They came and asked me, what was I going to do, turn them away?”

“Heck, yes,” Mr. Lufkin replied. His problem was that he was too nosy. Everybody made fun of the legendary gossipy old women, but they had nothing on Carl Lufkin.

Grandpa put his hand on Mr. Lufkin’s neck, just above his collar. A gentle, guiding hand as he directed him back down the path toward his own house. Grandpa talked in a low, soothing voice. I noticed that the finger Grandpa had touched Paula’s wart with now rested on the skin of Carl Lufkin’s neck. I wondered if, in a few days or weeks, a wart would appear on that spot. Wouldn’t that freak Mr. Lufkin out?

Eventually, Mr. Lufkin calmed a bit, and Grandpa left him to walk, still muttering, back to his house.

Grandpa returned to sit beside me. “Carl just gets all stirred up for nothing,” he said. He paused, gathering his thoughts. “My grandma was supposed to be able to charm warts, too. It’s not a big thing, not like what Superman can do in those comic books you like to read.”

I smiled. While Mom and Dad called my comic book fixation a waste of time and money, Grandpa seemed to look upon it with tolerant amusement. “When did you find out you had this … power?”

“I was in high school,” He reached down and plucked a blade of grass. “A woman who was eat up with warts came to see Grandma. I mean she had warts all over; face arms, legs – you name it. Grandma was so agitated she didn’t notice me to send me away. She just started to work. Up until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to Grandma’s goings and comings, so I hadn’t noticed if or when she’d done such a thing before. But after the old woman left, I asked, and Grandma told me what she’d been up to.”

He put the blade of grass in his mouth and looked across the yard with an unfocussed gaze. “Sometime after that, I saw that a classmate of mine had a wart on his arm. I acted curious about it, to give myself an excuse to touch it. I kept a watch, and about a month later, the wart was gone.”

I scratched my head. “Can you do other things? Like cast spells and such?”

“I share a bit of Carl Lufkin’s worry. This wart charming business fell into my lap. I’m leery of looking farther for fear I might stir up something I don’t want to mess with.”

“What about Dad? Can he do anything like that?”

Grandpa shrugged. “Not that I know of. Grandma said this kind of thing tends to skip a generation. My mom didn’t have it either, to my knowledge.”

I studied his worn leathery face. “Does that make you a witch?”

He laughed. “I’d be a wizard, if anything. I’m not aware of any place that issues wizarding licenses, so I don’t think of myself as one.”

I had one more question before I went to my hiding place to think. “You said this power skips a generation. Does that mean I have it?”

Grandpa gave me a long look. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

* * *

The next fall, I entered the fourth grade. During recess, my buddies and I decided to harass the girls, as usual. No frogs were at hand, so we trapped a few June bugs and used them to chase the girls. They shrieked and ran in different directions, so us boys split up to go after them. I’d noticed that, this year, some of the girls didn’t work quite so hard to escape. Thus it was that Teresa Stout, my victim, seemed to give out of breath when we reached a spot least visible from the schoolyard.

She sat on a fallen-over tree trunk. I didn’t know quite what to do, so I shoved the June bug I held toward her face. She didn’t even flinch. She just swatted the insect from my hand, and it flew away. I sat beside her, wondering what to do next.

“Do you think old Mrs. Hale is really going to make us write a book report?” she asked. Sunlight caused the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks to glow.

“I don’t know. I guess. Said she was, anyway.”

Teresa twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “Maybe you and me could work on it together.”

That’s when I noticed a wart peeking out of the unbuttoned collar of her blouse, right where her collarbone met the base of her neck.

She slapped me when I touched it with my finger.

* * *

I had just taken the last sip of my coffee when Lydia stuck her head through the break room door. Like most nurses, she had given up the starched white uniforms for floral scrubs. “Dr. Trees? Mrs. Johnson is in examining room A.” She turned away. “No rest for the best dermatologist in town.”