My father, Paul Creel, isn’t the man he used to be, hasn’t been since he’s had the brain tumor. Mama says he’s deteriorated, and I have to say I agree with her. In the photograph on their dresser they’re in their church clothes, holding hands. He’s wearing the double breasted dark blue suit he used to wear to church. Mama’s wearing her favorite church dress, sky blue silk with white polka dots–a little tight on her now. Too many pounds in the wrong places, she says, but she still wears that dress to church.
Mama’s feeding him Gerber’s baby food. She dips a spoon into the jar, concentrating her gaze without changing her smile on the spoon sliding over to his open mouth. She wraps the jar in aluminum foil so he won’t know it’s baby food. One time my wife, Sandy, made the mistake of telling him what he was eating. He wouldn’t let Mama feed him that night; he wasn’t having any baby food. Mama spoons out chicken and dumplings, coaxing the stuff past his lower lip. We’re having chicken and dumplings for dinner, Pauley. That used to be one of his favorite meals. Chicken and dumplings, collard greens, corn on the cob, a quart of iced tea to wash it down, you better believe he could put it away.
Mama has him in a diaper when the Reverend Hatcher comes to pray for him. We can’t keep him from pulling the blanket off. The Reverend Hatcher is sitting beside the bed. He takes my father’s right hand in his big ham hands. patting it like he was patting a dog if he had one but he doesn’t. He won’t look at the diaper.
My father turns over on one side, that he’s able to do. He cups his chin in his hand, stretching toes out on one stretched out foot, his toenails so long they’re hooking. Pay no attention, Mama whispers, he’s deteriorating, so I try not to. The Reverend Hatcher can’t get up out of his chair. The Reverend Hatcher’s white shirt, it’s stuck to the ladder back chair.
He told me this story about the war, just after I turned sixteen. He had me learning to drive; he took me down the road a ways and made me keep at it until the gears stopped grinding and I got the hang of it. Then we went to the Dairy Delight in town and he bought me a banana split. I saw him filling up his side of the booth and remembered the photograph of him in the living room, a skinny kid like myself then, and that made me ask him about the war. He said you wouldn’t want to know about it. Then he said–here’s something I think you should know about–and lit up a Camel and started in.
He had a buddy, Denny Maxwell. He told me what had happened to Denny Maxwell. That was in November of 1944, in the fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. It was cold in the Hurtgen Forest. In the mornings they’d have to thaw out their socks, try doing that in a foxhole. He and Denny were on patrol one morning and up ahead they saw a farm house. There weren’t any Germans around. Denny Maxwell was freezing his tail off so he decided he was going to go to that farm house and get warm no matter what. The farm house sat in an open field edged with woods, but that didn’t bother Denny Maxwell. “He told me the bullet that had his name on it hadn’t been made yet.” Denny Maxwell wanted my father to go with him, but my father wasn’t about to do that. He said he didn’t want to be a target. So Denny Maxwell went out there himself and the Germans opened up on him from the woods. He must have had a dozen bullets in him and every one had his name on it.
“You remember Denny Maxwell, Wayne,” my father said to me, grinding his Camel out in a Dairy Delight ashtray, “when you’re about to do something stupid.”
My father worked at Uniroyal for thirty years. Before that he worked at the mill hauling cotton bales on a fork lift. He got laid off when the mill closed down, but lucky for him–lucky for me he’d say–he got on at Uniroyal. At Uniroyal, he had job security, and benefits, a pension, a group medical plan, the only bad thing about his job was, toward the end anyway, before he retired, they kept changing shifts on him. He’d work day shift part of the week, then they’d switch him over to the swing shift. That, he used to tell us, can get old pretty quick. He’d tell Mama he ought to quit, take a little less in his retirement package.
I remember him in his blue suit, Mama unfolding her napkin, laying it primly in her lap, her hair gray even then. There’d be this silence when my father said he wanted to quit, fried chicken, fried catfish in front of us, yams, black eyed peas put on hold while my father studied Mama’s dubious face, knowing always what answer he was going to get yet acting as if he didn’t. As soon as Mama got her napkin arranged, stirred sugar into her iced tea, she’d say “I hear what you’re saying, Pauley, but what would you do if you did retire?” And my father would say “I’d go fishing.”
After church my father used to tell Marleah Willis how much he enjoyed her hymn singing. Marleah was married to Buddy Willis at the time. Buddy used to sell Chevrolets, but after the two of them split up he moved to Columbus and started his own used car business.
Marleah Willis could really sing high and sweet, and when she did a solo for the congregation, my father would lift his head up and close his eyes, her voice taking him where he wanted to go. He’d sit on the end of the pew so he could get out quick when Marleah came our way. When he complimented Marleah on her singing, heads turned, people noticed it. He wasn’t tall but he was broad in the shoulders He had a gut on him then. He could put away steak and potatoes and corn on the cob, fried okra, a dozen catfish, so he took up a lot of space in the aisle. He’d be pointed one way, toward the altar, and Marleah she was on her way out of the church, the traffic backed up behind her, Marleah trying to get past him, knowing she had to say something back. She’d say, “It’s sweet of you to say that, Mr. Creel.”
Every Sunday it’s sweet of him, Sandy would say, and Mama she’d snap her pocket book shut and shove her hymnal back in the rack.
That Sunday Mama talked to Marleah in church, I was still thinking about what had happened at Jack Lazenby’s annual Fourth of July barbecue. Jack held it behind his house, which was half a mile down the road from the convenience store he owned and ran, The Lazy Bee–Lay-Z and a striped bumblebee Sandy tells me is called a rebus.
We were sitting around Jack’s barbecue pit, the chigger patch Sandy called it, digesting barbecued pork–y’all come but bring your own lawn chairs and Chigger-Red–that was Sandy’s view of Lazenby hospitality. Marleah was sitting next to me. She was telling me about life without Buddy. They’d been divorced for nearly a year now. She’d had to haul the garbage to the garbage pit down the road, wasn’t that fun, and keep the lawn mowed. Buddy wasn’t making cigarette runs for her Winston One Hundred Lights and his Marlboro One Hundreds.
Big Jack was shooting off bottle rockets. Fire one, he’d boom out, fire two! I heard them whooshing out in the dark, popping over the pines. Marleah shook her last cigarette out and crumpled the pack. “I’m thinking that’s my last Winston, Wayne.”
I’d smoked my last panatela, but I wasn’t about to be her errand boy. I said I wasn’t used to making cigarette runs. She tweaked my shirt below the elbow and said she would go with me. Sandy had gone to the bathroom. We might be back before she missed us.
I decided to stop at the Lazy Bee. Marleah went in with me. We both used the restrooms. Then Marleah bought two packs of Winston One Hundred Lights. I bought a five-pack of Phillies Panatelas.
After I parked at Big Jack’s place, Marleah said she didn’t want to go back to the party right away. We could hear fire crackers popping and crackling down the road. Marleah moved closer to me, and I heard her catch her breath. I put my arm around her, stroked the back of her neck. She leaned over and kissed me on the mouth, and then she put her head on my shoulder. Having her close to me, I wanted that to last.
We kissed again, this time tonguing, then I was biting her lower lip. She pulled away from me, I knew I’d gone too far. I hadn’t known when to put the brakes on. She smoothed her skirt out. “I hope you didn’t get the wrong idea.”
I pitched my voice into casual. “Far as I’m concerned, nothing happened.”
Marleah said, “Something did happen, Wayne. You got carried away. So let’s get back to the party.”
Once we got back Marleah went right over to Dottie Lazenby. She listened to Dottie talk about their trip to Disney world and Epcott Center. Sandy said to me, “You missed the bottle rockets.”
A week went by. I couldn’t get Marleah out of my mind. I even called her house from the parts department, but all I got was her voice on the answering machine. That same day after I got off work Sandy told me she couldn’t sit with my father this evening. She asked me if I would sit with him. She was taking Mama to Wal-mart to stock up on trash and garbage bags, laundry and dishwashing detergent, a long list of household items substantially cheaper at Wal-mart than they are at Winn-Dixie, Sandy said, when I asked her why go across town to Wal-mart when Winn-Dixie was two miles down the road. I was wishing Sandy didn’t have the summer off from teaching, that way Sandy would have been been at Beauregard High, not here asking me to sit with my father while she took Mama shopping on her day to sit with him. I took six garbage bags out to the car and opened the trunk and stashed them.
I brought the radio to the bedroom and plugged it in. We got a rundown on the ball games that afternoon and some stuff on the Braves game coming up, then some call-ins, then gospel. It wasn’t long before we were playing the leg game. My father’s left leg would fall off the bed. I’d intercept his foot, taking care to avoid his toenails, catch his ankle, and hoist the leg back up onto the bed. He would lower it and I would raise it again. Through the bedroom window, across the road, I saw Wyatt Kirkpatrick’s wife, Stephanie, come around their house driving a lawn tractor. She was wearing a halter and loose fitting shorts. She raised her hand once and patted her hair. The next time I tried to lift up my father’s leg he wouldn’t let me. “Leave it be. Wayne.” So I let it be.
On Saturday I drove by Marleah’s house. She was outside moving a lawn sprinkler away from the mailbox. She gave me a fluttery hand wave and smiled. I waved back but I didn’t stop. I drove on over to the Lazy Bee and picked up a six pack of Diet Coke. There was a telephone outside the Lazy Bee. I thought of calling up Marleah then and there, why not, hey Marleah it’s Wayne, I’m down here at the Lazy Bee and thought you might be out of Winston One Hundred Lights. On another Saturday, I might have done it. But on this one I was scheduled to sit with my father.
Mama was outside weeding her marigold bed, and she looked up when I came up the front steps, my feet crunching down on the welcome mat, and she said Wayne Junior’s in there with him, Wayne.
My father was sitting on the side of the bed. He had Wayne Junior’s Walk-Man on. He had his legs spread and his hands on his butt, tapping one foot on the carpet. When Wayne Jr. saw me coming, he slipped the earphones off my father’s ears, trying not to upset him too much. Wayne Jr. put the earphones over his own tender ears, waiting for me to start in on him.
His voice was going, “Gimmee that, Wayne.” Wayne Jr. looked at me for direction and I told him to turn the damn thing off.
My father’s hands weren’t on his hips anymore, he was on his feet, he was doing this ballerina twinkle toe step across the bedroom and out the door. We caught up with him in front of the TV set, channel surfing with the remote.
While Mama went on back to the bedroom, to tell my father Marleah was here, I was talking to Mama, in my head–why does this have to happen, how sad can this get? Don’t you understand, Mama came back in my head, he just wants to hear her sing.
Marleah was standing in front of my father’s unit map. It was just us, in the living room. “I’m really not sure I should do this.”
“Do what?” I chanced it. “See me again?”
“I told your mama I’d sing for your daddy. I didn’t think you’d be here, Wayne.”
Marleah was smoothing her skirt out again. The skinny soldier my father used to be was where he usually was, tacked to the unit map. Then Mama was back. She said we could see him now.
Mama went in first, Marleah next. My father was sitting up in the bed. His hands were folded over his belly. Mama sat near the foot of the bed, Marleah stood next to the dresser. When Mama called her over, she came. She let herself down in the ladder back like my father was holding the chair for her. Leaning forward inches away from him, she took his right hand in one of hers. “How you feelin’, Mister Creel?”
“He’s doing real well,” I had to say. Paul Creel in his blue suit, the man in the photograph, what if he were here in his in his Sunday suit, would his left hand be flopping like a fish? But he couldn’t fit into that suit anymore.
“Mister Creel?” Marleah raised her voice. “Mister Creel, I came here to sing a hymn for you. What hymn would you like me to sing, Mister Creel?”
“You sing whatever you feel like singing,” Mama said.
My father’s left hand flopped like a fish. I couldn’t allow him to go on this way. I grabbed his left hand and stopped it. I dragged his right hand loose from Marleah’s. My father gave me a look I’ll never forget. He yanked his hands away like I was contaminated. “Leave, Wayne! You hear me? Leave!”
The air came on with a rush. Nobody said anything. Finally Mama signaled us to leave the room. We left my father glaring out the window at the front yard, the mimosa out by the mailbox, the bird bath, Marleah’s white Honda Civic, Wyatt Kirkpatrick’s place across the road. He had his chin in his hand, his feet stretched out like he wanted to float away somewhere with Marleah floating with him. But she was walking out with me. We walked on out to Mama’s marigold bed. It was hot outside. Marleah’s frilly white blouse was damp. Sweat streaked her layer of face powder. A butterfly flickered behind her. I heard a mocking bird going–joodeejoodeejoodee. I heard a car down the road somewhere. Marleah looked at me hard when we got to her car.
“I only came because your mother asked me to. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Next time you come I’ll make sure I’m somewhere else.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Marleah said.
Marleah got in her Honda and drove away. Across the road Wyatt Kirkpatrick’s underground lawn sprinklers poked their heads up into Wyatt’s front yard, hissing, squirting out water. I could cross the road, keep going, get wet, plant my feet in Wyatt’s water soaked grass. If I did that, would my father be watching me through the window he had on the world? What would he say if I trekked past Wyatt’s barbecue pit, the swing set for Wyatt’s two sons, if I kept on going, the hissing sprinklers behind me now, along with Wyatt, and Stephanie Kirkpatrick, Mama too, Sandy, Wayne Junior, if I climbed over Wyatt’s chicken wire back fence, on my way to the woods, the deep woods, the tall pines that would grow taller as more years ticked off my short life. If I were to do that, and, I told myself, I still might, would I be doing what Denny Maxwell had done, would I, in my father’s view, be doing something stupid? Or would I be doing what would please him most?