On a hot blue day the summer of 1970, my father, a tractor salesman, was driving his red pickup truck to visit a farmer who was interested in buying a new combine. To hear Daddy tell it he was driving along whistling to Slim Whitman on the radio when the sky went black and a mighty wind began to whip the trees, pulling at the young sprouts not yet a foot up out of the ground, until the thin green plants began to lose their grip on the dirt, catching in fence rows and along the tall grass in the ditches. He said he considered turning around to head back home but decided to continue on, thinking he could find shelter in the basement of Old Man Gibbs' house, if he could just get there in time. By and by - that's what he liked to say - it was too late to run from the wind as he was smack in the middle of the storm.
He stopped his truck in the road, to wait. Wait for what I don't know. He said the hail hitting his truck cracked hard against the windows. He was amazed the glass didn't shatter. Mud and shreds of plants from nearby fields stuck to the glass.
"All the sudden I seen a finger come down from heaven. It picked me up, turned me around, and set me back in the road pointing the opposite way."
"Praise, Jesus," Mama muttered in awe as she listened to his tale. Then she started to pray-cry, her hands on her mouth.
Daddy just looked at her in a soft way, not like usual, and then he pointed a short, thick finger at her and said, "I seen the hand of God."
Daddy had witnessed the power of the Almighty in a way that Mama, with all of her tongues and intercession, never had.
That's why when Mama invited him to join us the next week at a revival meeting with the Evangelist Brother John Wesley Dugan, Daddy said, "Yes," without missing a beat.
There are two important things you ought to know. The first is that we don't get tornadoes in Lewistown. Ain't happened in a hundred and forty years all because of a baby saint named Crescent. He died a child and, for whatever reason, the church people of the day cut off his arm and buried it in the foundation of the church they were building. Ever since then our town has been protected. Mama said it's some kind of Catholic hocus pocus, but she can't argue with the fact that tornadoes come to the city limits and then take a detour. Even if Mama don't believe it I think there's something special about that little saint's arm.
Another thing is that Daddy has a wooden leg. If you didn't know him, you'd think he felt good about himself, the way he locks his knee and cocks his hip when he walks. When I think about him, his bad leg is not the first thing that comes to mind. I think of his Elvis hair, how he hates onions and loves motorcycles, but not necessarily that he's only got one leg. When my friends find out, they think it's a big deal, and ask questions about what his wooden leg looks like. I tell them how it doesn't have any toes, that it squeaks loud in the dry winter air and that yes, I've seen my daddy without it on.
The main thing is he can't run. Mama said he used to be quick and wiry when he played football in high school. These days he only runs when he absolutely has to and then it's a clumsy skip-hop that makes me want to giggle at the wrong time - say if he's trying to run down Mama when she's driving off in the middle of an argument. Mama says if she could have practiced being married to him for twenty-four hours, she would have found something else to do with her life.
Three months after they were married in spring of 1961, Daddy broke his leg in a motorcycle wreck. On Sundays he ran a track up the road near Henderson that farmers built on a patch of useless, strip-mined property. Mama said Daddy came around the last turn in first place, leaning hard into the curve, when his front tire met with a deep scar in the dirt that upset his stability and sent his body pitching sideways through the air, his bike flying alongside him. By the time he stopped rolling, his leg was up behind his shoulder blades, and Mama had covered her face and begun sobbing, believing she was a widow at twenty-two.
Doctor Stufflebeam - Stuff as everybody called him - tried for months to get that leg to heal. Besides the awful cuts and bruises there were three clean breaks, so the doctor put him in a cast up to his hip. Six weeks later, he lifted most the skin off Daddy's leg when he opened the cast. Stuff shook his head and wrapped up the leg again to buy time in deciding what to do next. Within a few days, clouds of red blood had formed on the white plaster. He replaced it one more time. Mama swears that the last time, Stuff dumped a handful of maggots into the wounds to try and get hold of the staph infection that was setting in. But when he opened it up a week later, the maggots were thriving and there wasn't enough leg left to fix, so he cut it off. Mama told me about the maggots. I didn't make that up. She claimed she saw them with her own eyes. She said that was medicine in the sixties. Of course, this all happened before I was born, so it's not that big a deal to me.
It was losing his leg that made Daddy meaner than a hellcat, least that's what Mama said. She kept telling him he needed Jesus, but the only time he ever spoke that name was when he was mad over something Mama spent money on, or when he stormed out the door because Grandma came to visit, hollering that his house wasn't big enough for her and him both. He'd sit on a stool at the Shady Hill Saloon until enough time passed that he figured it was safe to head back home.
Mama told Daddy on more than one occasion that he was a dirty s-o-b who was going straight to hell and could burn forever before she'd miss him. He never went to church. Not even for the Christmas program the year I sang "Silent Night" in Spanish. Mama didn't like going alone. I think in her best dreams Daddy was with us. She wanted us to be a happy family like everybody else, but she stopped asking one Sunday morning after Daddy barked, "Portia, get off my ass!" and raised the back of his hand at her. She told me to keep praying about it, so every night when I knelt by my bed with Mama and asked God to protect the prisoners of war in Vietnam and all the people in Communist countries, I added, "And please, God, help Daddy get saved." And of course God answered in the form of that tornado, which led to Daddy finally agreeing to go to the tent revival.
Every summer our church set up a red and white striped tent on the lawn and invited Brother Dugan to come preach for a week. He was a slick-haired, Bible-thumping, fist-pumping preacher who packed the place every night. Brother Dugan was handsome and everybody loved him, and when he was in the pulpit and laying his anointed hands on people, they got healed. Just the year before, I heard a little boy who never spoke a word in his life say "mama" and I saw a woman get up out of her wheelchair and dance the two-step like she'd practiced it longingly in her head all the years she had been confined. Sister Cunningham testified one night in the middle of song service that the Lord had healed her of the hemorrhoids that had cursed her for forty years. I didn't know what those things were but figured if it excited her that much it was probably a blessing to be healed of them. She waved her hankie and kept standing with her arms in the air even after the song service had ended.
Brother Dugan was the real thing, and I often tried to think of a reason for him to lay his hands on me. I didn't have any deformities or speech impediments or deadly diseases, so Mama made me sit back while the others got prayed for.
I knew Daddy would be a good one for Brother Dugan. With the way God talked through him, I was quite certain that the Lord God Himself would whisper in Brother Dugan's ear that Thomas Blevins was in the room and wasn't leaving without getting saved. At least that's what I was praying for.
The revival started on Sunday morning and lasted a week. Daddy went on Tuesday night. He got home from work early to get cleaned up while Mama fixed hamburgers for dinner. By the time we got in the car there had been two arguments; one over how to pronounce the word "aluminum." Mama said Daddy was saying "alunium." And the other was over what color wall-to-wall carpeting they were going to get for the living room now that they had finally saved enough money to buy some. Mama said blue. Daddy had his heart set on green shag. The ride itself was quiet. I could smell Daddy's Old Spice cologne. The hair on the back of his neck and inside his ears needed trimming. But I had to say he looked handsome in that brown leisure suit of his. When we finally found a place to put the car, Daddy got out and made a beeline for a row at the back of the tent near a big fan where we all sat while Mama made her rounds like she always did, smiling and laughing at the people she'd seen the night before like they was old friends that hadn't spoke in thirty years. Only after the music started did she come sit down with us.
Sister Martin had been the organist for about a hundred years. She got enough men to drag her organ, big as a car, out under the tent, I think, so she could have a front row seat to all that was going on. She didn't want nobody else playing her organ either. She played that thing like she was kneading bread. I think the way she hovered close to it and then leaned away from the keys made her look like she was working harder than she actually was. All the while she kept an eagle eye on the kids in the congregation.
At seven o'clock the song service kicked off with the congregation singing "There's Power In the Blood," which got people loose in the joints so that they were standing and clapping with a host of others, raising their hands in the air and moving around the aisles shouting, "Hallelujah!", "Praise the Lord!" and "Thank you, Jesus!"
A few more songs and the women were crying and waving their hankies to heaven, and the men were bouncing on their toes with their arms stretched to the ceiling. The shouting quieted, and the musicians stopped when someone's voice rose above the noise to deliver a message in tongues. I was hoping we could skip that part since Daddy was along. I didn't want it to scare him. Whenever I brought a friend to church that part always caused their eyes to blow up big. I hated having to explain in a whisper that it was just something our church did and to nevermind, it was no big deal. I'd try to act surprised when they thought it was weird, like it was the normalest thing in the world. What really made me want to crawl under the pew was when Mama was the one to deliver the message in tongues. She could never do it without shaking and sobbing and rocking back on her heels. Thank the Lord, she didn't do it in front of Daddy. By the time all the excitement calmed down we'd been standing for the better part of an hour.
When everybody finally got situated in their seats and the offering was collected, Brother Dugan finally took the pulpit. He came bounding from a door behind the platform flashing a white, toothy smile. I swear he sparkled from his glossy wing tips to the top of his perfectly combed head. He wore a black pin-striped, three-piece suit with a bright white shirt and a silver and gold tie. A bulky gold ring with a fat purple stone stuck out from his right pinky finger. His wedding band flashed gold in the lights when he shook his fist.
The congregation started clapping and then acted like they didn't have the sense to know when to stop. "Give the glory to God," Brother Dugan yelled in a happy voice with one hand lifted high. The applause crescendoed one more time before he opened his Bible and began to read a scripture to calm the crowd. "All have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God!" he yelled. "Hallelujah! We're all sinners! Not a one of us is worthy of heaven! Not without the blood of Jesus!" Brother Dugan's voice sounded like he'd screamed too hard and too long. Even when he whispered, he was hoarse. He'd stretch his chin out to make a point. "You know who you are!" He pointed his Bible at the crowd with his index finger holding his place. "Those of you who haven't asked for the blood of Jesus to cover your sins," he paused for effect, "you know who you are, Ha, ha, praise the Lord. Do you want to go to hell?" He had a way of drawing guilt to the surface. Shame flushed on the cheeks of the sinners while those of us who'd already asked for forgiveness, asked again just to be sure.
I was keeping my eye on Daddy. Every time Brother Dugan would get to pointing his finger and shouting at the crowd about sinners, I'd look over at him to see how he was handling it. I knew he was a sinner, and I knew he was going to hell because Mama had said so. He didn't have an expression on his face; he was just listening with his hands folded in his lap. Mama put her hand on his leg like she wanted him to especially hear something. I seen him pick it up off his knee and give it back to her.
At the end of his sermon, Brother Dugan told everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. Sister Martin started working on her organ. For a few moments it was quiet. Brother Dugan let people sit a minute to brew in their own guilt. I could hear the quick suck of a sobbing breath here and there as Sister Martin began to play "Just As I Am."
When Brother Dugan finally spoke, his voice was low and serious. He said he was getting a special word from God. He said there was a man in the congregation with a family that loved him and hated him all at once. The top of my head started to tingle. He said he wanted that man to come forward. There was another long stretch of quiet when nobody moved. I feared Daddy was missing his big chance. Then Brother Dugan went on to name a few more people that he knew were in the crowd and needed prayer. He said there was a woman who had a bad gastro-intestinal condition, another one was for someone he said was "affected" in the mind. Plus, he said he could feel the presence of an alcoholic, an adulterer and a homosexual who all needed deliverance. Sister Martin sat tall at her organ to see who was moving forward. Brother Dugan said whomever wanted to be healed of the oppression of Satan and sin in their lives could form a line down the center aisle, because he was going to pray for them by the laying on of hands and anointing people with Holy Oil. The deacons gathered around the front to catch the ones the Holy Spirit knocked to the floor, sometimes before Brother Dugan had even laid a finger on them.
I watched as Brother Dugan talked to each person individually, some of it I could hear in the microphone. Mostly though, he was just saying, "Hallelujah," and "Brother, or Sister, something good's gonna happen to you tonight." Sometimes it was better than television to watch people get healed or to really get something good from the Holy Spirit that would make them run through the sanctuary with their hands in the air crying and laughing with the weight of a heavy load lifted. One time Brother Farrell, who is normally quiet, got prayed for, and he got to running laps around the sanctuary until Brother Dugan stopped him and asked him to testify to everyone that Jesus had delivered him from alcoholism.
The movement of Daddy shifting his weight in the seat caught my attention. I turned to see him stand, so I gathered my things to get up and go home, but he turned back to me, snapped his fingers and told me to sit down. Then he stepped over Mama who looked at him without saying nothing, and he walked down the middle aisle of that tent where the line had finally thinned out.
Brother Dugan had been praying for Doyle Smith, with the pointy head, who got prayed for every time there was an invitation. He finished up quick when he saw Daddy in line. "I been waiting on you," Brother Dugan said. And then he laughed, not like something was funny, but a holy laugh that could have came straight from God's belly. It was a joyful laugh of delight that Thomas Blevins had finally, finally laid it all down. All my blood rushed to my face, and I felt the Spirit in my chest and warming my knees. Brother Dugan reached behind for some anointing oil, then hovered his hand over Daddy's forehead, and I squeezed my shoulders together for I knew what was coming.
"In the name of Jesus!" Brother Dugan yelled as he smacked the palm of his hand on Daddy's head, then snapped it back with a yelp as if he'd stuck his fingers in a fire. Daddy dropped backwards onto the ground with his knees locked. The deacons caught him under the arms on his way down. Brother Dugan stumbled as if he was drained. Daddy laid there, his hands shaking. I started to cry. Never in a million years did I think this day would come. Sure, I'd prayed for it, but I'm not sure I believed it would really happen. Right then I began to wonder about the future. About tomorrow and the day after that, but I wondered more about next month and next year. I wondered if Daddy would change into somebody like Lola Sullivan's Daddy, who always had butterscotch candy in his pocket that he handed out with a hug to whoever wanted one - even if they stunk and nobody else wanted to be near them. Or, maybe God had a call on Daddy's life, and we'd have to buy a touring bus because we discovered we could all sing like the Happy Goodmans, and that Daddy could preach and people would get saved, and we'd wear nice clothes, and people would tell us what a blessing we were in their lives. Away from the spotlight, with just the three of us traveling to the next city, I could imagine sitting next to Daddy with a map unfolded in my lap. He would stay off the main drag choosing two-lane country roads for our route because the scenery was more interesting. We would stop to eat at roadside diners, and he would call me his little sidekick. I was excited about whatever was going to change in Daddy and whatever was going to change in our lives. I was ready for us to be a family, and this was the perfect beginning.
Several women had gathered around Mama who sat at the back of the room crying tears of joy. I could hear her speaking in tongues, the same familiar sounds she always made when she was using her prayer language. Hun datable sheeka dable sundai. I didn't know what those words meant, but I reckon it was something akin to "Thank you Jesus."
I had a powerful urge to get closer to Daddy, so I snuck through the rows of chairs and old folks who'd gotten tired of standing to get a better peek. Although I'd seen this many times before, even with Mama, I was embarrassed to see Daddy laying on his back, lips moving in prayer while men stepped over him to lay more bodies down. His suit coat was bunched behind his shoulders; one pant leg rode up high enough to expose a wooden calf. He rested his elbows on the ground with his hands in the air, palms up. That's when I took a walk to the water fountain. I didn't want him to open his eyes and catch me looking at him.
It was an hour or more before he finally got up off the floor. He sat for a moment on a folding chair to get his bearings and to sip some water. Brother Dugan came to him and put one arm around his shoulder. "I'm plumb wore out," Daddy said, a look like peace washed across his face.
"Welcome to the Kingdom of God," Brother Dugan said with a raspy voice and a handshake. I stood back and watched the two of them talk. Brother Dugan was radiant. His hair had not shifted once during the evening. The white collar of his t-shirt showed where he had removed his tie and loosened his top button. He had Daddy's complete attention.
I want to marry that man, I thought.
The next day Mama and I talked about what happened.
"Mama, was Daddy serious last night?" I asked.
"Of course he was, Sophia Jean," she said. "What makes you think he'd do something like that for show? You know your father better than that."
"I want it to be real," I said. "What if it don't stick?"
Mama teared up. "This ain't no time to let your faith fail," she said. "Don't even talk like that."
I was ashamed of my disbelief.
Then she told me that he called her out to the car that morning so she could watch him stick his last pack of Winstons under the tire and back over them as he pulled away for work.
I felt my faith increase.
I thought about how Daddy would stand up next Sunday night and testify how he'd been delivered from Demon Tobacco. The congregation would clap and cheer to the Lord for his grace and mercy on my Daddy. I thought about all the people who would love on me because my Daddy had gotten saved. And I thought about how my family was probably going to go off to the African jungle as missionaries, and Daddy would tell all those naked people how Jesus made him quit smoking, hallelujah, and then I would be a preacher's daughter which was what I always dreamed about anyway. Pastor Clifford's daughter, LaDonna, had been presented with a brand new saxophone just because she was the preacher's daughter and now I had hope that maybe my life would be just as privileged.
Before all that could happen, Mama said we needed to get baptized. Not her, she already had been, three times. She said Daddy and me had to take the next step in our walk with the Lord. New believers got dunked under the water like John the Baptist did to Jesus. Getting all wet like that was symbolic of burying the old sinful self and becoming a newer, better person. I got excited because it seemed like a grown up thing to do. Besides, I really like to swim. What worried me was looking like an idiot all wet in front of the whole congregation. And Daddy's wooden leg.
As it usually happened, a couple of weeks after Brother Dugan's revival, there was a special baptismal service. When the night came, we packed a change of clothes and got to church a little early. All of the "candidates" were instructed to go get ready in the room behind the platform. Men on the right, women on the left. We were told that when our name was called we were to climb the five steps to the top of the tank where Pastor Clifford was waiting in an awful white t-shirt that showed the hard kernels of his brown nipples when it got wet. The men went first and when I heard Thomas Blevin's name called, I snuck up the steps to watch.
Daddy stood at the top of the stairs leading into the water. He was wearing blue pants and a white, threadbare t-shirt just like Pastor Clifford's. He had no shoe on his left foot and his right leg was covered to his hip in a plastic garbage bag, wrapped in long silver strips of duct tape. I found out later that despite all Mama's efforts to keep his leg dry, the garbage bag had leaked anyway, but looking at it just then it looked like it could float away.
Holding the rail with both hands, Daddy stepped sideways into the water placing both feet on each step before descending to the next one. I reckon the trash bag made his footing slippery. His face was not smiling nor did it look mad. The preacher turned Daddy's back to me, and began to speak into the microphone. "Tom, I have a few questions to ask you, okay?"
"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?"
"Yessir." Daddy nodded.
"Have you asked for forgiveness of your sins?"
"Well then, very good. Do you want to say anything to the folk?" Pastor Clifford pointed to the microphone.
Daddy shook his head.
Pastor turned Daddy toward me, though I didn't think he could see me hid in the shadows at the top of the baptistery steps. Pastor whispered where I could hear, "What's your middle name, Tom?"
"Bruce," Daddy whispered back. And then he looked at me. I still didn't think he saw me, but he was looking straight ahead to where I was, and then he winked. He usually only did that when he was getting ready to do something ornery to Mama. When he did it this time it made my heart light up. He was in the water, but we were in this together. I was so proud he was my Daddy that I could've busted apart.
Then Pastor Clifford pinched Daddy's nose shut and said, "Very well then. Thomas Bruce Blevins, by the profession of your faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
With that he pushed Daddy's head under the water and then pulled him back up. The pushing motion had thrown Daddy off balance and coming back up for air only made it worse. He was sputtering and grabbing for the sides of the tank while trying to get a foothold. He caught himself just before he went back under. Pastor kept trying to grab Daddy's arm but Daddy said, "I got it," and was able to get his bearings on his own. He slowly made his way for the stairs. I watched him carefully make his way out of the water and then gasped out loud as he slipped again, on the third step nearly falling back in, but he righted himself and walked away without another word.
When my name was called, flutters tickled my stomach. My knees rattled as I stepped down into the water. It got deeper and deeper until it was up to my armpits and my dress floated to the surface, level with my chin. The whole rest of me, panties and all, was exposed underneath. I kept trying to press my dress to my sides and became so distracted that Mama, who was watching me from the steps, snapped her fingers at me and told me to pay attention.
"Honey, have you asked Jesus in your heart?" Pastor Clifford asked.
"Yes," I whispered, hoping he hadn't seen my panties.
"Have you asked Jesus to forgive you from your sins?"
"Yes," I said, hoping I'd remembered them all.
"Then Sophia Jean Blevins," he said putting his thumb and forefinger to my nose, "by the profession of your faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
When he pushed me under the water, I felt my feet lift to the surface like I was drifting in a stream. I imagined floating up and up into a clear blue sky through the soft clouds and on to heaven into the arms of Jesus. Maybe this was what the rapture felt like. Then he brought my head out of the water forcing my feet back to the bottom and setting me vertical again. I brushed the strings of my wet hair out of my face not really caring what I looked like. A strange, happy pain tugged at my chest, and I thought I might cry. Pastor Clifford motioned for the next person, so I kicked my feet and swam to the edge of the tank, because it was easier than walking through water that was lapping at my chin.
I waited for weeks after our baptism for God to talk to Daddy about our family going to be missionaries in the wild jungles of Africa, to tell those people about how Jesus loved them and that they were going to burn in hell if they didn't ask him into their hearts. It hadn't happened. I'd seen him put money in the offering plate. He suggested I pray for Grandma after we'd been stewing about her cancer. It seemed like we were moving in the right direction in some ways. On the one hand he was a new man and everything was going to be ok. On the other, his fights with Mama got worse. "Gotdammit Portia!" he yelled when she told the youth group they could use our living room to store empty pop bottles they had gone door to door to collect. That was the worst cuss word he could have picked, and then he blurted it out over something to do with church, which was like a double-bad sin.
"They're worth a nickel a piece, Tom," she told him.
"I don't give a good got damn if they're worth enough to make you richer than J. D. Rockefeller. They don't need to go in the living room!"
"We just need to pray harder," she told me later. "He'll come around. He's under attack by powers and principalities."
"Who are they?" I asked her.
"That's the good and evil in High Places waging battles for the souls of sinners," she said.
It was like Mama to have big ideas about things. If she concentrated on the big things she didn't have to worry about the little ones, like whether Daddy had been drinking or when he might hit her again.
"Long as you and I have enough faith it'll be alright," she said. "Long as we have enough faith."
That summer Mama kept busy like she was setting an example for a good Christian. She headed up the Bible school, organized for the youth club, sang in the choir, volunteered at the Rescue Mission and helped crochet shawls for missionary baskets that were sent to Africa.
She tried to get Daddy involved with her, but he was less and less interested with anything going on at church. He joined us on Sunday mornings, but he stayed home the rest of the time. One Sunday he said he didn't feel like going and then he never went back. We'd pull out of the driveway with him sitting in a lawn chair on the back porch chewing on a timothy weed, staring out at the garden.
Mama said she was bothered by his behavior. I would hear her talking about it to the ladies at church. They would tell her to keep praying, sometimes putting her in the middle of a circle and laying their hands on her. She cried to Brother Clifford one Sunday night until I fell asleep on a pew waiting for her.
"What's a matter, Mama?" I asked Mama in our dark car before she turned the key.
"It's your daddy, Sophia. He don't want nothing to do with church. How can he say he believes, and act like he does?"
"He still talks to God," I told her.
"He's ignoring God's people in God's own house," she said. She revved the motor of our Rambler. The tires barked as we drove out of the parking lot.
"Maybe we need to keep praying for him," I said.
"That's all I've ever done for that man and look what it's got me," she said.
I wondered what it was that made Daddy decide to stop going to church, but given a choice, I'd rather sit on the porch and chew timothy with him than go sit for two hours with the likes of Sister Martin staring down on me. I didn't believe that he'd turned his back on God. I think Daddy still talked to God. I heard him say once that even though he didn't like our neighbor, Mr. Benson, he said his prayers for him. And when Uncle Gene killed himself in prison Daddy said he hoped God had mercy on his soul. I guess his and Mama's ideas of being a Christian didn't line up, so Mama decided she'd straighten him out.
Daddy said he was going for a ride in the country to see a farmer about a tractor and did I want to go with him. I said, "Sure," quick-like, because me and Daddy didn't do a lot of things together. I think it was because I got on his nerves, like he wanted silence, but I couldn't shut my mouth. It was a Saturday that Daddy had come into the kitchen where Mama was baking a cake. We had already done our weekly dusting and vacuuming. The kitchen and bathroom rugs had been shook out in the backyard, and Daddy's shirts were drying on the line out back.
"You got plans for her?" he asked Mama with a flick of his head in my direction.
"Not particular," she said.
"Get your shoes," he told me.
I climbed up into the door of Daddy's pickup and slid in on the slick vinyl seats. He kept his truck neat. It wasn't fancy, but it was clean. Even the rubber floor mats looked like they'd been scrubbed. Between the seats was a file box full of folders with the names of his customers on the tabs. A cardboard pine tree cut-out hung from the mirror. He played an 8-track of Slim Whitman. I'd grown familiar with the warbling yodels that made Slim famous. "Sweetest voice in the world," was what Daddy said. Once when a disc jockey made fun of Slim on the radio Daddy called him up and threatened him if he made anymore wisecracks.
I sat on the hot seat of Daddy's truck, buckled in, grabbing onto the door handle with two hands, looking out the window. I told myself I would not talk too much or say anything stupid. I would think about what I wanted to say before it came out my mouth. "Where we headed?" I asked.
"No place special," he said. After a few moments of silence in which Daddy was starting his truck and wiping dust off the dash with his hand he said, "You want an ice cream cone?"
"Sure," I said. This filled me with delight. He pulled into the gravel lot of an ice cream stand, told me to stay put, and came back holding two ice cream cones covered in a hard chocolate shell. I was busy enough licking at the drips that I didn't speak. Daddy turned the radio up and handed me a couple of wadded napkins that I smoothed around my cone. A light breeze blew through the cab, and I felt the summer heat all around me. When I finished, long after he was done, he started the truck again. I heard rocks crunch under our tires.
"Thank you for the ice cream," I said.
"You're welcome, PeeWee." That was the only time he ever called me that name and I loved it.
He picked up speed at the city limits. A hot wind whipped through the cab making my hair wild. His hair stayed put except for a black clump in the front that had fallen to his eyes. The sun was behind us beating down through the back window. I stuck my arm out and opened my hand in the wind. It took effort to make it stay put, to keep it from being torn from my shoulder. I pointed my fingers forward and let the current blow over them. I let it take my arm on wild dips and swerves like my hand was a bird in a storm, a dolphin cutting through tall waves.
We passed a cemetery. Memorial Gardens it said on a sign. A white cross towered above the ground, surrounded by small, identical white crosses.
"That's where they buried my leg," Daddy said like it was normal.
"What?" I said. Not once had he ever mentioned his leg or the accident that took it. His silence was not strange. I was accustomed to the subject being off limits. The story had always been told by my mother, and aside from our occasional conversations about it, it was never discussed. I had never asked Daddy what happened. I thought that bringing it up might embarrass him or make him angry.
"Sure is," he said.
"Where at?" I asked. "I mean, what spot?"
"See that row of shrubs along the back?"
"Is there a cross on it?" I asked.
"No," he chuckled.
"I reckon something like a leg or a hand don't get no cross," he said.
I looked at Daddy's leg as he was driving. I knew it was a wooden foot that was pushing on the gas. Through his trousers I could see the outline of a hinge and a depression where everybody else had a kneecap. I folded my right foot up under me and sat like that until my leg tingled to sleep. At home once I tied a belt around my thigh and strapped my ankle up behind me. Then I hopped around the bedroom to get an idea of what it would be like. It wasn't easy. I tried, like Daddy does every night, to hop on one foot to the bathroom, take a shower, and hop all the way back to bed, but I got tired before I was done and loosened the belt to free my foot.
There was a part of me that wanted to talk to him about it. I had questions. I wanted to know what happened, what it felt like to not have a leg and what it was like to have a fake leg. But Daddy never talked about it, like he didn't talk about a lot of things. That included complaining. If he got his crutches out in the hot summertime and walked around with an empty pant leg pinned up, it meant the wool sock he wore over his stump had rubbed blisters on him. And in the wintertime the cold air dried it out and made the hinge at the knee squeak and pop so that he couldn't sneak around if he wanted to.
I hadn't thought about his leg being buried. I thought maybe they had thrown it away at the hospital, or burned it like we did a lot of our trash. But maybe it was like the forearm of the baby saint, buried under the church, too important to throw away. Somebody believed that arm had protected our town from destructive storms for so many years and they got others believing it too. What if Daddy's leg served a similar purpose?
I said, "Daddy, do you think your leg's in heaven waiting on the rest of you?"
He laughed in his way, with a little grunt and toss of his head. Then he shifted his frayed toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
"I don't reckon it's anywhere but in that hole," he said.
Then he laughed again, which kind of hurt my feelings, because I was serious. "I got to get you away from your Mama more often," he said. He slowed the truck, I thought, to turn a corner, but it was to do a U-ee in the middle of the road. He must've forgot something, I thought. We crept back down the road toward the cemetery. He pointed the truck at the entrance.
Daddy poked along the tire track roads through a garden of crosses. We ended up at the hedgerow along the back that separated the graveyard from a large flat cornfield.
"Hop out," he said.
I followed him between the graves unable to remember which end was the head and which was the feet. Mama always scolded me at the graveyard, the time when my granddaddies died and again when we buried Aunt Eulah. She said it was disrespectful to walk on dead people's heads, but for the life of me I couldn't remember which end was up. Daddy didn't seem to notice.
He stopped before the row of bushes, then stood there for some time looking up to one end and then down to the other.
"Let me see if I can remember exactly where," he said.
I stayed behind him a few feet, watching.
"Was there a funeral?" I asked.
"No," Daddy said, scratching his head. "The doctor told me they put it out here. I never actually came to see the spot."
"How do you know where it is?" I asked.
"I don't. I was hoping something would look different."
I began to look with him. We walked, the two of us, up and down that long row of bushes looking for something in the dirt, a sign.
"What about here?" I asked pointing to a bare spot in the grass.
"Could be," he said. "But it don't look big enough."
I spotted a patch of tiny purple flowers. From a distance it could have been a puddle, or a hole, or a mirage. The chaos of color seemed to burst out of the hard ground. It was out of place there among the silence and the headstones. Each flower perched atop a delicate stem layered with leaves like the tiers of a cake, their petals opened to the sky. One could go easily unnoticed but the whole party of them hollered for attention. I picked one to closer study the tiny masterpiece of it. "Daddy," I said. "I bet this is it."
He joined me, standing quietly to study the spot. He surveyed the area as if placing us in the cross section of imaginary coordinates. "I believe you could be right," he said. The two of us walked around the edge of that purple sea. "I think I remember Doc saying something about it being near the headstone of a soldier from the First World War."
"Lookie here." I pointed to a weatherworn cross, the softened outline of an American flag barely visible.
"There you go," he said. "This must be it."
Daddy stood there a long time with his hands folded in front of him looking down at those flowers, silent. I hated to interrupt his thoughts; he seemed far away with them. But I had a powerful urge to speak.
"I'm sorry about your leg, Daddy," I said, taking his hand.
"I am too," he said dropping my fingers, cocking his head at the sky. "Come on. Look's like we're going to get some rain."
Off to the east, pewter clouds, full and heavy, had gathered, churning in on themselves, looking like they were collecting their energy for battle.
Back in the truck Daddy was quiet. An uncomfortable quiet. I wondered if it was a bad idea that we had gone into the graveyard. Maybe it bothered him to be so close to his leg. Like seeing something in the store you know you won't ever get to have.
Daddy reached for the radio dial. He turned on the farm channel where a man was talking about the sunny weather forecast even as fat, ripe drops of rain splattered against the windshield. I scooted a little closer and put my hand on Daddy's wooden knee. He didn't move nor did he look at my hand. I left it there a little bit longer. Even if he couldn't feel it, I could.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Cyn Kitchen. All rights reserved.