Penmanship

by Matthew Cashion


Sister Fermina squeezed Harold's hand hard enough to make his knuckles pop. This was the moment he decided to run away, toward his father's house in the North Carolina mountains, four hundred miles away. It was the final day of his third grade school year, and his father was currently between his third and fourth wives, so he figured it was a good time. He'd had enough of Sister's Fermina's ninety-year-old scaly hand guiding his pencil over every curve of every letter of the alphabet, printed and cursive, lowercase and capital. He'd had enough of her office, which was a janitor's storage closet, and her desk, a door over sawhorses. Her sighs came with gusts of hot breath that smelled like dog crap. Her red and yellow eyes accused him of sins he hadn't yet committed. For an hour, she squeezed his hand. At the end of the hour she shook her head and told him to go away.

That afternoon on the schoolbus, Harold told Angela Rosenberger he was running away. She was sitting in the seat in front of him. Her tape player played, "Play that Funky Music," by Wild Cherry, and she was singing along in a voice that didn't sound like hers.

Harold said, "I really mean it. I’m leaving."

Angela said, "Listen to this part."

"I'm not coming back," Harold said.

"I'm working on a dance routine to this," Angela said. Then she played it again.

At her stop, she patted his hand. She said, "See you next year, Harold."

"No you won't," he said.

When he got home, he oiled his bicycle chain. He tested the brakes. He packed a sandwich. He checked the South Georgia sky, cloudless, and deemed conditions worthy of takeoff. Then, remembering his manners, he called his father to tell him he was coming.

His father said, "Hell-fire, Harold. If you want to run away, I'll come get you."

Harold said, “Hurry, please."

That night over dinner, Harold told his mother that his father was coming to get him.

His mother laughed. She said, "Harold, honey. We've talked about this. Your father says things sometimes just to make you happy, and he never follows through."

They were sitting at the table. Harold's stepfather, Henry J. Rowland, said, "Maybe he means it this time." Then Henry took a sip of milk.

Harold's mother looked at Henry like he was shooting toward the wrong basket.

"He said he'd be here tomorrow at four o'clock," Harold said. "He said he was going to call you tonight to talk about it."

Harold's mother and Henry argued over whether Harold should leave with his father, should his father show up at all. They had started washing dishes, but Harold could hear everything from the table. Harold's mother said it was a bad idea for Harold to spend even one second of unsupervised time with his father. Then she asked Henry if he remembered last summer when Buddy had visited for a couple of days and then called at one a.m. asking if someone could bail him out of jail.

Harold's mother and Henry spent a lot of time lately reminding each other of things. Henry asked Harold's mother if she remembered how he and Buddy went from the jail to have a nightcap, and how Buddy had apologized deeply and then thanked him for being a good father-figure to his son, which was something Buddy admitted he hadn't yet been able to do, though he hoped one day he could, Henry said.

Harold's mother asked Henry if he remembered what Buddy did for a living. Then she reminded him. She said he was a salesman and a bullshit artist. Henry reminded Harold's mother that Buddy was improving lately, citing the Sunday night phone calls and the frequent letters he sent (with handwriting just like Harold's).

Henry was a kind man that Harold had called "Dad" since Harold was four years old. He had three daughters from a previous marriage, but they were older and lived with their mother, who told them bad things about him that they believed because they never had anything much to do with him. When Harold was five, Henry named him "Harold the Leech," because as soon as Henry got home from his hardware store, Harold attached himself to Henry's leg and Henry carried him through the house like that, laughing. Contrary to the nuns, Henry possessed some mysterious faith that Harold might one day amount to something. And just now, Henry seemed to be taking Harold's side. He told Harold's mother that Harold should get to know his father.

Harold's mother reminded Henry that he might be forgetting the big picture. Henry said he hadn't forgotten anything. Harold's mother said it was just like Henry to remember only the good things. Then Harold's mother went to her side porch studio to paint and listen to Neil Diamond. Henry took Harold's plate away and winked. He asked Harold if he felt like working on his knuckleball, his splitter, his two-seam fastball, his slider, and his curve, a nightly ritual. Henry believed Harold might make a pitcher. That, or a cabinet-maker. Henry saw that Harold had a good eye for strike zones and architecture. He'd given Harold a tool-belt and equipped him with his own eight-ounce hammer (later, he could graduate to a sixteen-ounce), a box of nails and a pile of scrap lumber and showed him proper technique in grip and form. Harold wore his tool belt now, at the kitchen table, in case something should need hammering. He took it off and got their gloves and ball and they went out into the late light of early summer, passing through the turpentine-saturated side porch where Harold's mother applied touches to another lighthouse. Neil Diamond said I am, I said, to no one there.

The next day at five-thirty, Buddy ducked through the front door with the aura of a circus star. He wore dark glasses, and even though Harold couldn't see his eyes, he felt his father staring down at him with full approval. He was a 6'6" giant, and he brought a gust of air into the house that smelled of something strange and new Harold would later associate with the mountains. Harold imagined some exotic playground his father was taking him to.

Buddy said, "Hey pal."

While Buddy and Henry talked in the kitchen, Harold's mother pulled Harold into the living room, squatted in front of him, put her hands on his shoulders, and issued a heart-to-heart.

"Look at me," she said.

Harold looked. Her eyes were wide and serious.

She said, "It'll only be for three weeks."

Harold nodded. He had figured on staying permanently, but he thought he'd wait to tell her this by phone, three weeks from now, when she'd be used to his being gone.

She said, "I want you to call me every single day and tell me how it's going."

Harold nodded.

"If you get homesick, let me know, and I'll be right there."

Harold nodded again. She hugged him tightly. He was pretty sure that she was crying. He was her only child, and he had never spent the night away from her. She stood and walked him back into the kitchen, prepared to hand him over. She was pleasant to Buddy, but she didn't have much to say. She stared at Harold, wet-eyed. When Buddy pulled away, she was standing in the driveway, her hand over her mouth. Henry had one arm around her shoulders, waving with his other arm. Harold's stomach started aching. He kept seeing his mother's wet eyes, and it made him wonder whether he should be leaving after all.

Buddy said, "You okay, pal?"

Harold said he was.

His father told him he had a spot on his shirt and pointed to it. When Harold looked down, Buddy hit him in the nose with his finger and called him a sucker.

It was 1976, and Harold was eight. Buddy owned a custom van—carpet on the walls, floor and ceiling, a mini-refrigerator, cabinets, leather chairs, CB radio, hi-fi stereo, and a bed in the back partially concealed with a bead curtain. He told Harold to grab a couple Cokes from the fridge. Harold's mother didn't want him drinking these because she thought the sugar would make him a diabetic like his father, but here was his diabetic father telling him to get some Cokes, so he did.

Somewhere near Savannah, Harold went to the bed, and there discovered a stack of Playboy magazines. He flipped the pages slowly, not knowing what to think, except that further flipping was necessary. Toward the center, he discovered some pages that opened out to reveal a woman named in honor of a month. All the women seemed extremely comfortable lying on beds with cozy-looking blankets and pillows all around them, or sometimes even on the floor or in the back seat of a limousine without seeming embarrassed at all, really. They were very friendly-looking. Harold figured the people taking their pictures must have been their husbands or some family member who saw them first thing in the morning before they had time to put on clothes. Sometimes the women looked so comfortable their eyes were almost shut and their mouths were open just a little like it was the most relaxed they'd ever been, and they looked as if they were still half-asleep and hated the thought of getting up. It made Harold want to curl up beside them. He studied the hair between their legs and he studied their nipples and belly buttons and the curves of their hips and legs. He got to know all about them too, because in their own handwriting (much neater than his) they revealed their turn-ons and turn-offs, their hobbies, their career goals, and their definitions of the perfect date and the perfect man. A lot of perfect dates involved flying off to places like Paris or Rome in a private jet. By the time he got to the last centerfold in the last magazine, and for reasons he didn’t fully understand, he began to lick the bodies on the pages. He felt a little stupid at first. Then he licked again. He found himself thinking of Angela Rosenberger, a third grader, in a whole new light. He remembered what she had confided to him about kissing her older cousin for hours at a time just so she could practice, and he suddenly wanted very badly to be the next boy she might want to practice with.

When Harold licked himself into a thirst, he went back up front, stopping at the min-refrigerator for another Coke. Buddy was listening to his CB radio, channel 19, which was reserved for truckers. Learning trucker language was to be another part of Harold's education that summer. Buddy was reading his mail, which meant he was eavesdropping without talking. He was listening for reports of Kojaks with Kodaks, or bear sightings (cop alerts) at his front door (ahead of him), especially plain wrappers (unmarked police cars) parked at specific yardsticks (mile-markers) taking pictures (using radar). Harold took his seat next to him. His father went awhile without saying anything, and then Harold realized he'd probably seen him in his rearview mirror licking his magazines. Buddy lit a cigarette started a philosophical conversation.

He said, "You know, son, there's a lot more to a woman than just a body."

"I know," Harold said.

Buddy said, "There's a lot more to a good relationship than just sex."

"I know," Harold said. He looked out the window at the moving woods, knowing all about it. "How much further?"

"A long way," Buddy said.

They didn't say much else. A few miles later, a woman's voice came over Buddy's CB.

She said, "Silver-Lining—is that you on 95th Street northbound over?"

"Roger that, Lady-Luck. You must be following me over?" It was a woman trucker he'd been talking to the day before when they'd both been southbound. She'd dropped a load of apples in Florida, and now she was northbound with a load of oranges.

She said, "What're you carrying over?"

"The fruit of my loins," he said. "My one and only from my first over."

"Silver-Lining. I don't believe you mentioned young'ns. Did you kidnap him over?"

"Got him on loan. Hey, what-say we tie on a feedbag, then tie one on, then tie each other up over?"

She laughed at this. Then she addressed Harold. She said, "Junior, I hope you get a better education than your old man got over."

Buddy handed Harold the receiver so he could reply, but he waved it away. He knew a lot of other people were listening, and he didn't feel like explaining anything about his first three years at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic grade school.

"His mother tells him not to talk to strangers," Buddy said. "But we'll get past that over."

Lady Luck and Buddy flirted for awhile. They talked as if they thought Harold wasn't listening. At first, Harold figured them to be old friends, but pretty soon he realized they had never met. Buddy wasn't shy at all, and it made Harold want to be like him. Being friendly with women seemed to come easy to him, and Harold wondered how. Now, Buddy was trying to talk Lady Luck into stopping so they could get to know each other better.

He said, "How 'bout a quickie at the next pickle park over?"

A pickle park was a rest area, but Harold didn't know why they called it that.

She said, "You're not that lucky, Silver Lining. I better keep her in boogie toward Virginny, where my ball and chain is waiting over."

"Hell-fire," Buddy said. "Virginia ain't the only state for lovers over."

She laughed again. They talked awhile longer until Buddy took an exit and changed interstates. She said maybe she'd catch him in a short-short the next time through. He turned off his CB and pushed in an eight-track tape of Willie Nelson, who kept singing about phases and stages and circles and cycles, and when that was over, he pushed in Waylon Jennings, who sang about ladies loving outlaws like babies loving stray dogs. The music made that stretch of highway feel sad and lonesome. The whine of the wheels got brighter. The shadows in the woods got louder.

In another hour, Buddy said they should stop for the night at a motel near Columbia, South Carolina. He drove through two unsatisfactory motels and stopped at the third, which had a restaurant/lounge attached. It was here where Buddy came up with the idea that he could use Harold to meet women. He shared his plan while Harold finished a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke and Buddy finished a steak with whiskey. He'd spotted a woman sitting alone at the bar across from their booth. He wanted Harold to approach her and say this: "Would you like to meet my Daddy?"

Harold was too shy and he didn't want to.

"Just go up to her and ask the question," Buddy said. "She'll either say yes or no. If she says no, say, thank you anyway. If she says yes, then lead her back over here."

Harold didn't want to. Buddy wanted him to and Harold wanted to please him, so he did.

Harold rehearsed. "Like this? Do you want to meet my father?"

"No. Would you like to meet my daddy?"

"Would you like to meet my daddy?"

"Just like that," Buddy said.

Buddy knew Harold was nervous, but he must have believed his nervousness would improve their chances.

"Hurry," Buddy said. "Before she leaves."

She was sitting on a high barstool, and Harold's head came to just above her hip, which is what Harold tapped to get her attention. She smiled down at him, flapping her arm in front of his face to wave away cigarette smoke.

She said, "Hey sweetie, is something wrong?"

"Would you like to meet my Daddy?"

She stared at Harold. The corners of her mouth moved up, then down. She looked around the room and back to him. Harold pointed to a booth across the room, where Buddy was staring down into his drink. All of a sudden he looked pretty sad too. The woman said what the hell, she was all alone, so she put out her cigarette and followed Harold back to Buddy.

Buddy stood when they got to the table, towering over everyone. He politely introduced himself, invited her to sit, then ordered her a new glass of wine. They started talking pleasantly, explaining how they came to be here at this spot and time in history. Buddy lit her cigarette with his flip-top silver lighter. They turned their heads to blow smoke away from Harold. She explained that she was on her way to Ft. Lauderdale from Louisville, taking a vacation from her husband to meet a former lover. Buddy said he'd drink to that. Then he explained how he'd just picked up Harold in Florida. He always said Florida instead of Georgia, which confused Harold until he figured out that Florida must sound prettier than Georgia.

Pretty soon, Harold started yawning.

Buddy said, "Hell-fire, let's have one more round."

A waiter brought wine, whiskey, and Coke. The woman pulled out a picture of her daughter and claimed she was close to Harold's age. She said her daughter would fall in love with Harold in a New York minute if she were there. Harold tried to picture her daughter as a Playboy centerfold. He decided she had too many freckles. When the woman excused herself to go to the bathroom, Buddy slid him the motel-room key across the table and said he should go watch television and then go to sleep.

"I'll be there shortly," Buddy said. "I'm going to have one more drink, and then I'll be along. You’re okay with that aren’t you? Our room's just a few doors away."

Harold did as he was told. He watched Charlie's Angels, who worked hard to please their invisible boss, laughing and lounging at the end while they gathered around the intercom his voice came through. He watched late-night television full of beautiful women being in love with rich men. He watched until he fell asleep. When he woke, three hours later, Buddy still wasn't in his bed. So Harold went looking for him. He put on his shorts and t-shirt and slipped into the size sixteen cowboy boots Buddy had left beside the door. He shuffled across the parking lot to keep the boots from coming off. He went back to the lounge, which had grown more crowded and much louder. “Love to Love You, Baby” was playing loudly. Harold knew the song from the tape recorder Angela Rosenberger carried on the school bus. Strange-colored lights were swirling. Harold didn't see his father anywhere. He had to pee. He found the bathroom, and stepped up to a urinal. A man in the next stall looked down at him. He was trying to be friendly.

The man said, "How's it hanging there, good buddy?"

Harold didn't say anything. He looked down at the stream he was making.

The man said, "Nice boots you got there."

Harold finished quickly and went back out, shuffling between all the bodies, weaving through the loud voices and laughter and cigarette smoke, ducking beneath glasses people held out to their sides. A couple of red-eyed women patted him on the head and called him "Sugar," but he kept moving, looking at every face for his father's face. He circled once more, and went outside. He looked in their motel room again, but he wasn't there. He went to the van. The side door was locked, so he banged his fist against it.

The first thing Harold saw was the pistol his father was pointing at his face. The second thing Harold saw was his father's penis, which was also pointing. Buddy lowered the gun and cursed. This was the gun he kept in the glove compartment, which Harold had discovered several hours earlier, and which Buddy had ordered Harold never under any circumstances to ever lay a finger on. Harold had asked him if it was loaded, and Buddy said, "What the hell good is an unloaded gun?"

Then the woman came into view—the same one Harold had approached in the bar. She was pulling her dress over her head. Then she picked up her underwear and her bra and shoved them into her purse. She gathered her shoes then and made her way to the door, holding on to Harold's shoulder as she lowered herself to the ground. Then she zig-zagged away in no particular hurry. Buddy fell back on his butt and frowned. He held the gun across his crotch, and stared out the open door past Harold into the night at some spot that must have been the saddest thing he'd ever seen.

He said, "Get in here and close the door."

Harold closed the door, crawled in and sat next to him.

Buddy patted his leg and sighed. He said, "Were you scared?"

Harold nodded.

"I'm sorry," Buddy said. "That won't ever happen again."

Harold thought about the sad spot his father had been staring at and tried to find it, even though the door was closed.

"You like those boots?" he said.

Harold nodded.

"We'll try to find you some that fit."

Buddy got dressed, and led his son back to the motel room. He fell asleep quickly and started snoring. Harold listened to the rhythm of his breathing and tried to match it.

Some twenty years later, after Harold fell into the side door of a college-teaching job, and then found himself taking over a course called Women’s Studies, he asked his father if he remembered that night the same way. Buddy didn’t remember it at all. But he did not, to his credit, deny it could have happened. He was wise enough to admit that he’d done a lot of things he might not remember. When Harold accused his father of being a womanizer, Buddy said, “Hell-fire, son. Sounds to me like it was your fault that a woman was deprived of some pleasure that night.” When Harold asked him about being used to meet women, Buddy said, “I don’t remember that. That may not have been right, but hell, I was young.”

* * *


That summer, Harold and his father slept together on the waterbed that took up the entire bedroom of the trailer Buddy had been renting since he split from his third wife, a woman Harold had never met. Above the waterbed he'd hung a vinyl painting of a naked woman lying on a bearskin rug. They slept late and stayed up late. They ate their meals in restaurants and diners, where Buddy flirted with waitresses who knew him by name. Every time a waitress told Harold that he looked just like his father, Buddy had the same response. He said, "Son, thank the lady."

Buddy taught Harold to play poker. Pretty soon Harold was snapping the face-up cards while dealing seven card stud to his father and to his father's friends, most of whom made up the sales force Buddy supervised at the cemetery owned by his first cousin, a man Harold called Uncle E. On the fifth day, Harold begged Buddy and then Uncle E for sips of beer. They both said no. Harold kept asking.

Finally, Uncle E said, "Go ahead and give him one."

Buddy said, "His mother would kick my ass and cut my dick off."

Uncle E said, "One sip will cure him of wanting another one."

Buddy handed Harold his open beer. Harold held it with both hands, and all the men looked on. He sipped from it. Even the smell was bad, and when he got past the smell, the taste made him want to gag, but he fought it back and smiled instead. Then he took a second sip.

"Now look what you've done," Buddy told Uncle E.

"He's not my son," Uncle E said, and all the men laughed and the game resumed and when Harold finished that beer he asked for another one, but no one laughed and Buddy told him to go to bed.

At the end of the second week, Buddy dropped off Harold and his toothbrush at Uncle E’s so Buddy could have a date with a woman who would later be his fourth wife, a divorced accountant who didn't seem too fond of Harold being there, taking up Buddy's time. He'd been dating her for almost a year, he said, which confused Harold, given the motel incident and the fact that he'd never mentioned her in a letter or on the phone. When Harold asked his father why he had never mentioned her, Buddy said he guessed he was in the habit of keeping his cards close to his vest. Harold knew what he meant. He’d started holding his cards that way too.

Buddy told Harold he’d be back for him the next morning. Uncle E had been Buddy's best man when Buddy and Harold's mother got married. Uncle E explained this at the kitchen table while Harold ate pizza. He poured himself more whiskey and told Harold that his mother was a very special lady—beautiful, talented, and smart. He said he'd been in love with her before Harold's father married her, and even after they were married Uncle E stayed in love with her. Truth be told, Uncle E said, he might still be in love with her. Harold stopped eating. He wanted to call his mother. He wanted her to come pick him up so he could go home to her and to Henry J. Rowland. Uncle E took another sip of whiskey. His eyes were nearly closed.

"One of these days," Uncle E said, "just so you know—I think she and I may start talking again."

Harold said, "Could I please be excused?"

Harold went to bed, feeling homesick. He was tired of Buddy's loud friends, he was tired of Buddy's smelly trailer, he was tired of eating every meal at a diner, and he was tired of being the punchline to his father's jokes with waitresses.

Sometime in the night, Harold got up to get some water. He wandered toward a dim light coming from the kitchen and soon saw Uncle E, wearing only boxer shorts, talking on the phone while sitting on the edge of a kitchen chair that faced the cabinet. His chin was level with the counter, but he seemed comfortable enough. His left forearm rested at an angle on the counter, and his left hand held a cigarette and a whiskey glass simultaneously. Through the hole in his boxer shorts, his erect penis was protruding. But he wasn't touching it. Harold didn't understand. He imagined a penis in that condition would probably itch very badly, but Uncle E seemed comfortable not touching it, and this impressed Harold a great deal. Uncle E whispered something in his deep voice that he followed with a laugh.

He said, "I still have a certain amount of expertise in that particular area, my dear."

Harold went to bed.

The next night, Harold called his mother. He wanted to tell her to come get him. It was Sunday, and he and Buddy had just returned from a diner, where his father had asked another waitress to marry him. Buddy said he'd leave him alone so he could talk in private.

Harold's mother said, "Is everything okay?"

Harold said yes.

"Don't lie if it's not, Harold—you can tell me. Is everything okay?"

Harold said, "What's Dad doing?"

She paused too long, and it made Harold suspicious. It made him wonder whether the next thing she said would be true.

"He's outside," she said.

"Can I talk to him?"

"He's cutting the grass, I think. Are you having a good time?"

"I guess so," he said. It was dark out. He didn't believe Henry was cutting the grass.

"Everything's going to be just fine," she said.

She sounded like she'd been crying, or was about to.

"Don't you worry about a thing," she said.

"Tell Dad I said hello."

Buddy entered the room just then, and suddenly Harold felt unfaithful for calling his stepfather Dad. He could tell he'd hurt Buddy's feelings a little. He sank into a chair and lowered his eyes like he'd just gotten bad news.

Buddy said, "I want you to remember something."

Harold stared through the window toward some dark spot of the future.

"I want you to remember that no one will ever love you as much as your mother loves you, okay? That's something I didn't realize until it was too late with my own mother, and I feel guilty about it every day. So you should try to make it as easy on her as you can, okay?"

Harold wondered if Henry Rowland would be there when he got back. He remembered Henry waving in the driveway and suddenly doubted it.

"Son?" Buddy said. "You hear what I said?"

Harold heard his father's voice, but it seemed to come from some great distance.

He swore to himself just then that he would never, under any circumstances, get so close to a girl that it would require marriage. He thought it would be a great idea, in fact, never to get too close to a girl. The girl he would start not getting close to the soonest would be Angela Rosenberger, whether she'd developed breasts or not.

He thought of Sister Fermina. He imagined the three-minute walk to her office as a kind of private march no one else could know about. He imagined sitting beneath her yellow bulb, back stiff with proper posture. He remembered her familiar odors. He would see her at nine a.m. on the first day of school, and at nine a.m. every day of his fourth grade school year, her heavy and scaly hand pressing itself on top of his as they made their way through every letter of the alphabet, printed and cursive, first lower case, then capitals.