I grew up in the hyper-Christian culture of Charlotte, North Carolina, within spitting distance of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s ill-fated Praise the Lord Ministry and other evangelical fiefdoms too numerous to count. But because my mother believed in Faulkner and Steinbeck above all other gods, my upbringing was more literary than religious; for that, my gratitude to her knows no bounds.
My companion, Amelia, had a clear view of the whole incident. It went like this: It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and we both wanted to finish stripping the doors of this old farmhouse before dinner. With a lot of little bedrooms, we had a lot of doors to strip. Amelia had run the belt sander over most of one door. It was the first of about four passes we’d make with the sandpaper, but the only pass using the heavy sander, an alligator of a machine that gobbled and grabbed its way across surfaces while we reined it in with muscle.
Shoulder down, chin out, my father dragged his old athlete’s body down the sidewalk and up the steps to my flat. Refusing any help with his suitcase, he entered, looked around, and exhaled. “I don’t know what you got me into, but here I am.” Though he intended it as a joke, it came out as a challenge. He was nervous. So was I.
That spring, my father became a voluntary mute. He’d putter around the house with a spiral-bound notepad and a black pen, frantically scribbling down directives or questions.
“Tiny,” the note would read, “I’ve gotta work, so get yourself and all your friends out of the house for a while.”