A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Papa had been sick the better part of the summer. He went into the hospital just as the crape myrtle by the back porch started to bloom, and by the time he got home, its pink blossoms lay scattered over the grass like confetti.
Papa had been so close to death that Dr. Stuart had told me to notify all the family, which I had done, and they had come down from Shreveport and up from New Orleans to stand around the hospital waiting room, crowd up in the house, and get on one another’s nerves — and mine.
But Papa didn’t die. He didn’t get better either. Finally the doctor let us take him home, because he said it didn’t much matter where Papa was at that point.
Well, everybody agreed it didn’t seem right for the family to just turn around and go home when Papa was sick unto death (we had second and third opinions on that), and, anyway, when he did die, they’d all have to turn right around and drive back for the funeral. So everyone stayed on. We put my brother, Eugene, and his wife, Pidge, in the front upstairs bedroom and my sister, Edna, in Mama’s sewing room. Mama’s brother Floyd and his wife, Estelle, don’t live but two miles away, but they took all their meals with us and usually stayed to watch The Tonight Show, so they might as well have been living with us. They were certainly every bit as much trouble. They must have got up with the chickens to be at our house every morning for breakfast, but they didn’t miss it once. Supper neither.
Papa stayed to his own room and didn’t leave it except to go out on the back porch, supposedly for some air but actually to smoke. Well, that’s a kind of air, I guess — the kind that Papa’s always been partial to. Eugene and Pidge spent most of their time up in their bedroom, which irked Edna and Estelle. I was glad myself; I didn’t need two more people getting in my way, not with Edna all over the place, taking charge the way she does. At least once a day I’d hear her sing out, “This won’t do! This is no way to do!” Mama took this from her and didn’t even seem to mind — and, I’ll mention, didn’t come to my defense time one — but I’d had about enough. After all, I’m the one who’s lived at home and kept house for Mama and Papa all these years, and I’d never received any complaints about the way I did things. Edna had her own house in Shreveport where she could keep the glasses to the left-hand side of the sink, lip down, if she wanted to and use wax instead of furniture polish seven days a week, and I wouldn’t ever know or care. But no, she had to tell me my business. Edna’s always been like that, and it didn’t used to bother me, but when you’re cooped up in a house with people you generally see only on holidays and your daddy’s dying — or trying to — you’d be surprised how little slights pile up.
Mama and I were the only ones to see to Papa. She cooked his meals the way he liked them, and I played cards and listened to the radio with him and just generally provided company. He wasn’t so weak he couldn’t have gone into the living room and visited with folks, but he didn’t want to.
“Clyde,” Mama said to him one afternoon, “do you feel like putting on your robe and joining us for a spell, maybe eating supper with us? It would mean so much to Eugene and Pidge and Edna and Floyd and Estelle. They all want to be spending time with you. That’s why they’re here.”
“No, I don’t,” Papa said, looking up from his solitaire game, in which he’d just placed a black queen on a black king. (He could see fine; he was cheating.) “And what they’re all here for is to be Johnny on the spot when I die, so they can say later, ‘I was with him at the end. Oh, the last thing he did was to take my hand,’ or some such. Well, they’ll have to make that part up, because I ain’t going to oblige them.”
“That’s a shameful way to talk about your flesh and blood,” Mama said, but Papa just grinned at her — his old, easy grin that was so infuriating. And Mama didn’t have a convincing case to argue, so she had to go back and say that Papa wasn’t feeling well enough to join us. Truth to tell, nobody seemed too broke up about having to eat without him — except for Pidge. “Why, bless his heart,” she said. Pidge says that about everybody. She’s famously softhearted. But I had to hand it to her; at least she was in there trying. She took Eugene’s hand and said, “Why don’t you take your supper in and eat with your daddy tonight, darling?” But Eugene said he’d wait until he was invited, thank you very much. Which was the same as saying he’d wait until Judgment Day.
“Does Clyde have a TV in his room?” Aunt Estelle asked me as we were setting the table for supper one night.
“No, he likes to listen to the radio,” I said.
“The only time I listen to the radio anymore is in my car,” Estelle said.
“Papa’s making a big old mistake,” Edna told us, coming along behind me and changing the position of the bread plates. “If he stops taking an interest in life, life is going to stop taking an interest in him. He’s got to get a positive attitude and fight this old heart disease!”
I don’t know which irritated me more: the way Edna referred to Papa’s mortal condition as “this old heart disease,” like it was some yard dog; or her foolish talk about “positive attitudes.” She’d picked that up from her late husband, Walt, and you see how much good it did him. I wanted to say, Let’s face it, Edna, when your heart swells up to the size of a basketball and starts switching rhythms more often than the Alicia High School drill band, it don’t matter what kind of attitude you got! But I didn’t, because Edna would have accused me of being hysterical.
When I’d called her from the hospital, she’d said, “He looked fine to me when I was there Easter. Papa’s not about to die; he’s way too mean. But if you and Mama are going to go and get hysterical on me, I guess I’d better come.”
And she’d come down here, where neither Mama nor myself were the least bit hysterical, and raised all kinds of hell with the nurses and badgered poor old Dr. Stuart unmercifully. Then, when Eugene and Pidge came up from New Orleans, she acted like she was the only one in the know and set them down in the waiting room to explain Papa’s “case.” Poor Pidge cried and said she couldn’t stand to think of a sweet man like Papa suffering the way he was doing. Of course Papa wasn’t suffering particularly, except maybe his pride, and Papa was not a sweet man, sick or well. Pidge should know it better than anybody. Papa had always referred to her as “Eugene’s babe.”
“I see you brought your babe,” he said when Edna finally ushered them into his hospital room like she’d fetched them herself from New Orleans in her Buick. “She’s starting to pack on some weight, isn’t she? There’s nothing worse than a dumb, fat babe, Eugene. You’d best put her on a diet.”
My brother, to his everlasting shame, just stood there staring out the window, clenching and unclenching his hands, but Pidge laughed and said, “Oh, Clyde, you’re absolutely terrible.”
Which he absolutely was.
Instead of going into the expected decline we were all assembled for, Papa began to feel a little better. He started winning more hands of gin rummy and getting restless and spending time on the back porch with his hunting and fishing buddies. “Holding court,” Mama called it. The men didn’t come in the house, just parked their trucks in the yard and came around to the back and sat on the porch steps talking and passing a pint around.
Finally Mama and I parleyed with Dr. Stuart: Was Papa maybe going to make a monkey out of the specialists and get better? Had his basketball heart started to shrink back down? Just what could we expect?
Dr. Stuart was embarrassed on account of his calling Papa’s death wrong — you could tell by the way he raked at what was left of his hair. He said he might be wrong about how long Papa would live in the condition he was in, but he wasn’t wrong about his condition, and if we wanted to talk to the specialists again, we should be his guest. Or he’d be happy to show us the special X-rays again. Mama said, “Lord, no,” because X-rays, even the plain ones, always made her feel faint. She said she was sorry to be a pest; she just didn’t know what to say to the family. After all, they had jobs and lives and couldn’t stay on forever, but they were devoted to Papa. (Not strictly true, but what else could she say?)
Dr. Stuart said he wasn’t God Almighty and couldn’t say the day and the hour someone would die, and he’d thought grown people would understand that.
And we did. It was just that Papa’s death was turning into the longest house party anybody ever gave, and Mama and I were both bone tired and headed for collapse.
Things just got worse from there. Eugene and Pidge had a big fight and stopped speaking, so instead of being up in their room and out of the way, Pidge spent all her time watching television with Estelle and crying, and Eugene commenced to drive into town to visit people he used to know that he didn’t even like. Then Edna decided what was needed was for all of us to pitch in and give the house what she called a “thorough cleaning” and get rid of what she termed “junk” so that when Mama was a widow, she could find her way from sofa to sink. That is Edna’s phrase, too: “sofa to sink.”
Well, to begin with, there was already a clear shot from the sofa to the sink, and the house didn’t need cleaning, or it wouldn’t have if there hadn’t been a tribe of people camped out in it night and day. And what was this “junk” she was talking about? I mean, everybody has belongings. We might have had more than most, but only because we’ve stayed put instead of moving all over creation like some people. Mama had her ceramic-cat collection and her African violets. And, OK, she did still have the fabric she’d bought in 1954 to make Edna and me matching dresses that we’d both refused to wear, but was that a crime? Papa had his tackle boxes and guns and his knife collection. It’s true that some of his duck decoys had crept into the house from his workshop, but only because Mama thought they looked pretty on the mantel.
I kept my things in my own room, except for my library book and my stationery box, because in the evenings, while Mama watched television, I liked to read or write letters to my friend Ellen, who’d married a man in the armed forces and had lived all over the world. But the way Edna was going on, you’d have thought she was looking at cleaning out the monkey house at the zoo. Since Mama just stood there looking blank, I stepped forward and put my foot down.
“Let’s all try to remember why we’re here and not add to the confusion, Edna.” I used the voice I use with misbehaving boys in my Sunday-school class, and, thank goodness, it worked.
That night after supper Floyd raised even a worse topic. He declared it was time to discuss “arrangements,” and he launched right into it, saying how he’d always hoped that Mama and Papa would join Estelle and him and our grandparents out at New Hope Cemetery. Eugene happened to be home, and we were all jammed in the living room listening to Floyd explain that it was best to decide these things beforehand, while people were still clearheaded. Mama sat stiff in her chair by the window, looking down at her hands and twisting her wedding ring round and round on her finger. Finally she said, “Floyd, I’ve made arrangements. Clyde is going to be in that new mausoleum out the Barham Road. Right at prayer level. And in time I will be there beside him. So, though I appreciate your offer for us to be with Mother and Daddy and you and Estelle out at New Hope, I’ll have to decline.”
Well! Mama had never mentioned this to me, and I knew she had to have been out to look it over before she bought in. (Mama is an extremely prudent shopper. She once saved fifty dollars on double-coupon day at Kroger.) I’d driven her right past Eternal Rest many a time — made jokes about it, even — and she’d never said a word. I have to say, my feelings were hurt.
“What do you mean, ‘at prayer level’?” Edna wanted to know.
“Well, if you kneel down to say a prayer, your eyes will be even with your loved one’s name on the crypt,” Mama explained, looking more animated than I’d seen her in a long time.
“We don’t hold with kneeling at our church,” Estelle said.
Mama let this pass. Floyd said he hated to see the family split up like that. He was standing by the mantel, casting a shadow over Mama and breathing loud enough for us all to hear, on account of his asthma.
“What does Papa say?” I asked.
Mama just sniffed.
Papa always said he wanted to be buried in the woods in an unmarked grave. That wasn’t realistic; there’s laws about dead people and what you can and can’t do with them. But a high-rise mausoleum just off the interstate wasn’t my idea of a compromise. New Hope was way out and had a nice, old-fashioned churchyard; it would come much closer to what Papa wanted.
But it was Mama’s husband we were talking about, and so it seemed to me it was her wishes, not Floyd’s, that counted most. Since Papa couldn’t be bothered to come in and hold up his end of the argument, I came down on Mama’s side, much as I did hate that tacky Eternal Rest.
“Well, then, looks like everything’s settled,” I said.
Floyd sat back down. The air had kind of gone out of him, and his eyes went back to the TV screen. Eugene didn’t seem to care where we put Papa, and Pidge went on quietly wiping at her eyes. We’d yet to find a topic that didn’t bring Pidge to tears. Maybe she was bipolar, which is what they would have said on Oprah.
Naturally Edna had to have her say, and she even managed to bring my name into it. “I would have thought you and Papa would have wanted to discuss this with us, Mama. Of course I will join Walt” — her deceased husband — “back in Shreveport, but what about Rose?”
Mama fiddled with her ring again. “I haven’t made all that many decisions in my life, Edna. I am entitled to make this one. Rose will make her own decision, and not, I pray, for many a long year. She may yet be joining a husband of her own.”
I’d no idea that Mama was still nurturing that hope. There I was, pushing fifty around like furniture, and Mama was calmly counting on a miracle post-midlife husband to take care of me — which probably meant she wasn’t intending to leave me the house either, and I have to say, even if it doesn’t sound nice, that I’d kind of counted on that.
I’d had more than one opportunity to marry when I was young, but Papa had always put me in the position of choosing between a potential husband and him. And I knew, because of Eugene’s situation, that once you crossed Papa on the subject of marriage, you were out of his life in any meaningful way for good. I never met but one man I could have put Papa out of my life for, and Papa took care of that. Or maybe I should say, took care of him. Who did Mama think was going to marry me now? All my old beaus were renting the Veterans’ Hall for their twentieth-anniversary parties.
I went back to Papa’s room to give him the news on his last resting place. He was sitting in his rocker, gazing out the window into the pines. The light was purple, and the sun was going down behind the trees.
“What is it, little girl?” he asked, not looking at me.
“What it is, is where your sorry carcass is going to wind up,” I said, plopping myself down on his bed and lying back against his mountain of pillows. “I thought you might be interested to know what we’re going to do with you when you’re dead.”
Papa took his eyes from his view and put them on me.
“You know that new Eternal Rest Mausoleum off Barham Road? That’s where Mama is putting you. At ‘prayer level’ too, which costs extra. I guess you can take that for a compliment.”
“What in the holy hell is ‘prayer level’?”
“When she gets on her knees to pray for your sorry immortal soul, her eyes will be even with your crypt.”
“That’s right, Papa. She’s going to shove you in a drawer like you was a loaf of bread.”
I was mad, see, that Papa had left all the work to Mama and me here at the last and wouldn’t do thing one to help us with the family. He could have avoided this whole mess if he’d just taken some responsibility himself. He still could.
“Damn,” he said.
I’d expected a little something more, but he went back to studying his view, which was now filled with floating fireflies. The sun was setting good and proper. It was over in Texas now, where Papa had come from when he was seventeen, so handsome he could waltz right through closed doors and into shut hearts. So charming he could call the birds down from the trees, people said — well, Mama said. He never talked about his family. He told Mama and her people that he was an orphan. I’d never believed that. I took him for a black sheep who’d gone east instead of west, like they normally do. Papa always did the unexpected.
“I ain’t spending eternity in no drawer,” he said.
“Well, you’d better say right quick where you do want to spend it, then. What do you expect when you hole up back here and refuse to talk to anybody?”
“I’m tired. Get off my bed.”
I got up and took the rocker. Papa turned on the radio to a country station out of Shreveport. “Jesus Christ on a crutch,” he said. “Prayer level!”
“You said it.”
“And you was just going to let them do this to me?”
“I don’t know what you think I can do about it. I’m not the one in charge. When was I ever? Floyd offered Mama one of their plots out at New Hope, but she said no — she’d bought in at Eternal Rest. So that’s that, unless you say different. And I don’t mean saying to bury you in the woods; I mean make a sensible plan. Anyway, I don’t know why you think I should care.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’ve concluded that your mama is a natural-born widow,” Papa said, real aggrieved-like.
“I mean she’s got a talent for it. A goddamned flair.”
“How would you know? She hasn’t had her chance at it yet. She’s still just a put-upon wife with a mean, old, sick husband and a house full of relatives who can’t leave. You don’t have any idea what Mama and I have been through since you got sick — how hard it’s been on us. You’re waited on hand and foot with nothing in this world to do but die, and you can’t even do that.”
OK, that doesn’t sound nice, I know, but Papa was famous for being self-centered, and that hadn’t changed a lick just because he was sick. It was worse than ever, actually. For him to see what other people were going through, you always had to make him stand still and look. Maybe I shouldn’t have made him just then, but I was tired, and come to that, I no longer really thought of him as a dying man. He’d been living all summer and showed no signs of stopping — which suited me fine, understand. I probably loved Papa more than anybody and with less cause. But damn!
“If I wasn’t so sick, I’d teach you to talk to me like that,” Papa said, but there was no heat in his voice.
“I know you would, but you need to know it hurts me when you talk about Mama that way, when she’s so tired and sad and trying so hard to make your last days nice.”
Papa turned up the volume on the radio.
The next morning about 4:30 I was out in the backyard sitting in the double glider with my back to the house, hoping not to hear any human sound for another thirty minutes. I’d been having to get up earlier and earlier just to breathe air somebody else hadn’t already breathed twice. Between Estelle’s Tonight Show and Mama’s early-morning radio programs, it was getting so I might have to stop sleeping entirely to get a moment’s waking peace.
It was cool out, and I was wearing my green cardigan. You could feel winter gathering in the woods. I heard somebody walking across the pine needles and turned to see Papa dressed like he was going hunting — khaki pants, flannel shirt, oiled boots — and looking for all the world like his own ghost.
“What are you doing up?” I asked.
He sat down opposite me and didn’t say anything right away, because the walk from the back porch to the glider had winded him. He held an unlit Chesterfield in one hand and his old Zippo lighter in the other. He’d had that Zippo since World War II. I’d lost everything of any value that anybody had ever given me: my eighth-grade-graduation ring, my high-school ring, my Sunday-school perfect-attendance medal. So that Zippo had always impressed me. Anyway we sat there in the predawn stillness, not saying anything, him pushing the glider with the toe of his boot, rocking us gently to and fro.
There wasn’t much left unsaid between us. We were both hot-tempered and sentimental by turns, so we’d said pretty much everything, good and bad, that we ever had to say to one another. I had just one item of business left to take up with Papa, but the opportunity hadn’t arisen, and it was beginning to look like it wasn’t going to. So I just sat there looking at my father. I’d gotten so used to seeing him in bed in his yellow pajamas that I’d almost forgotten what he normally looked like. He was a tall man, a good part Cherokee, with those squinched-up eyes and that thick black hair that never goes white. His dark complexion had been creased by an outdoor life lived just a little too hard: smoking and drinking, sleeping four hours instead of eight. He still looked pretty good, all told. It would have taken me or Mama or a doctor to see the pallor under that olive skin. Finally he got his breath and spoke.
“Little girl, you’re keeping mighty queer hours.”
Then he up and said, “Let’s go.”
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“Go! Move out. I didn’t get dressed to sit in my backyard. I’ll tell you, this damned prayer-level deal is the first thing that’s scared me since the Battle of the goddamned Bulge. I can’t get my mind around it. I thought I was ready to die, but I ain’t ready to be at no prayer level. But your mama has her heart set on it. I talked to that woman half the night, and it’s clear to me she’s aiming to take her revenge for every way I ever done her wrong by sticking me in a drawer soon as I give up the ghost. I pled with that woman! But she just kept saying it was ‘bought and paid for.’ It didn’t seem to matter what I thought. The only thing to do now is to leave out of here while I can do it under my own power. I aim to skin out from this prayer-level deal.”
“Your own power? I wonder how far you’ll get on that.”
“That’s where I’m going to need your help.”
He looked straight at me. He wasn’t smiling or angry. He looked calm and settled in his mind.
I watched Papa smoke his cigarette and didn’t say anything. Then he said, “We don’t have time for you to wallow around in this. I mean for us to leave this morning before they’re up.”
“No,” I said. His eyebrows shot up, and I heard my own heart beating, but I didn’t back down. “I’m a grown woman, and I need more than ten minutes’ warning to leave my life behind on nothing but your say-so. If I aid and abet you in this, Mama won’t ever take me back. I’ll think about it and tell you my decision tonight. You just have time to get back in your pajamas and pull the covers up to your chin before Mama comes in to see what you want for breakfast.”
And I got up and went in the house.
That afternoon, when Dr. Stuart came out to see Papa, I didn’t go back to the bedroom with him like I generally did. I’d stayed clear of Papa all day except to bring him his breakfast. He’d left his boots beside the bed, and I’d picked them up and thrown them in the wardrobe. He was wearing his flannel shirt over his pajama top — a little reminder to me of his intention — and listening to the weather report. They were predicting rain.
When Dr. Stuart came back out, he sat down at the table. Mama gave him a cup of coffee and a dish of the blackberry cobbler she’d made that morning for Eugene, who was hunched over his bowl, reading a book he’d propped up against the vinegar cruet — science fiction, of course. That’s all Eugene ever read except for the Wall Street Journal. While Papa’s hotshot heart doctor poured heavy cream all over his cobbler, Pidge and Estelle stayed in the living room, where they were watching some girls on Oprah who were “divorcing” their parents. I thought, Dear Lord, where do I get in line?
“Not much change,” Dr. Stuart said to Mama, “but I’m starting to hear rales in his chest.”
Eugene stopped reading long enough to ask Dr. Stuart if he should have a dermatologist look at a mole on the side of his neck. Dr. Stuart never looked up from his cobbler, just said if Eugene was concerned about it, he ought to have it checked. I wondered if Oprah’s guests knew a way to divorce brothers and sisters too. None of us asked the doctor any questions about time remaining; he’d gotten touchy on that subject.
Pidge wandered in during a commercial and began telling Dr. Stuart how much she admired people who dedicated themselves to the sick. Dr. Stuart got up and was at the door in a quick minute then! Gray Stuart had never dedicated himself to anything but Gray Stuart, and you’d think anybody would have known that, but Pidge had all these idealized notions.
Since the discussion about last resting places the night before, Mama had gotten out her brochures from Eternal Rest, and after lunch she sat down with Edna and Estelle to show them how come she’d bought in. The kneeling part aside, Estelle was impressed.
“Perpetual care,” Mama emphasized. “No weeds growing over you or your loved ones when there’s nobody left to weed. (This was a comment on the fact that none of us had given her any grandchildren — no grave-weeders in her future, or “perpetuity,” as she was now calling it. Perpetuity was a concept Mama had latched onto like a snapping turtle.) “Rainproof,” she added, looking at Edna. “Plus you don’t take up valuable cropland just being dead, because of the high-rise. Course, I wouldn’t want to be up that high myself, but Tim — that was the salesman; his mama was an Easton — Tim said lots of folks prefer it. For the view.”
Edna put on her reading glasses and looked over Mama’s copy of the contract, hunting for some way Mama had made a financial fool of herself. But I guess she couldn’t find anything wrong, because all she said was that you couldn’t pay her to be buried in a monstrosity like that, and that she, for one, had never been afraid of a little rain. Estelle liked the rainproof part. She told us that she worried about “seepage.”
“Why don’t you look at these with us, Rose,” Mama said, patting the chair next to hers, but I said I had to do some laundry and excused myself.
I went to my room to be alone and think. I’m almost never in my room in the daytime, and as I lay there on my bed, it struck me how much it was still a girl’s room, though the girl had been gone years and years. The Bible that Mama had given me when I was twelve was on my bedside table, with my last letter from Hal, my one true love, stuck in it at Galatians 4. (“Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.”) A sampler Mama’s mother had stitched before I was born hung over my desk: “Love Bears All Things.” I never quite knew how to take that. I had to wonder if it does, and either way, I’d already made my decision.
That night I went in with Papa’s supper, one of his favorites, naturally: chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, okra, yellow squash, sliced tomatoes, cornbread, and iced tea. Mama was feeding him like a shoat. I said, “You can take off your shirt, because we’re not going anywhere.”
Oh, he looked up then! That wasn’t what he’d been expecting, not at all. I’ll be honest, until that afternoon it wasn’t what I’d been expecting either, so I knew how he felt. I sat down in the rocker.
“I wonder,” I said, “can you guess who I was thinking about all day today?”
He poured vinegar over his okra and didn’t look up.
“I was thinking about Hal.”
I hadn’t worried for a minute, the way I’d done with other boys, about introducing Hal to Papa, because he was just the kind of man I knew Papa would have to respect. Not like Lamont, who’d failed the first of Papa’s tests when he’d come lugging his cousin’s deer rifle to go dove hunting. But Hal — now, Hal could outshoot Papa. He could outshoot me. I’d finally found a man to suit us both, and, Lord, it sure hadn’t been easy! I’d had to go down to Plaquemine Parish to find him, but I’d made the effort so as not to pay the price poor Eugene had when he’d gone against Papa and married Pidge. And because I never saw any reason to short myself. I’m like Papa that way.
Papa was mightily impressed with Hal. Pretty soon they were spending so much time together they hardly had a minute for me. Papa even gave him some of his precious secret bass lures. He passed on his Argosy pulp magazines to Hal before he was done reading them. The way things turned out, I’d always felt that Argosy had a lot to answer for.
The back pages of Argosy had ads for sporting vacations and competitions of various kinds. Papa was intrigued with an advertisement for an Alaskan safari that Dr. Bill Chip, our dentist, had gone on a couple of years before: you went up to Fairbanks, and they flew you over the tundra in an airplane, and you shot your game out the window with automatic weapons. Papa didn’t think that was real sporting, but the dentist had come back with three trophies that he had mounted in his office, so every time Papa went in to have his perfect teeth admired, he had no choice but to stare into the glass eyes of Dr. Chip’s mountain goat, his wolverine, and his arctic wolf. Papa purely couldn’t stand it. All he could talk about was a way to top Chip’s ace, and he knew what he needed. He needed a polar bear. (He was going to go the whole hog. He’d consulted with a taxidermist in Shreveport who said he could stuff a bear and stand it on its hind feet.) Papa particularly liked that polar bears are the only species that will hunt man — on purpose, for the sport of it. “They’re exactly like us,” Papa said — like he was bragging on a grandchild — and this, he said, wiped out the shame of shooting at them from low-flying aircraft. He reckoned polar bears would do the same to us if they had planes.
There was just one hitch: get Papa up in a plane, and he couldn’t have taken good aim at his own head, on account of how airsick he always got. He’d found that out in the war. So Hal was as much an answer to Papa’s prayers as he was to mine. Hal was a good enough shot to bring down a polar bear from two hundred yards, visibility permitting, and he flew like a bird. (He’d been a paratrooper in the army.) Papa said he’d pay for the whole thing; all Hal would have to do was go up in the plane, shoot the damn bear, and keep quiet about it, letting Papa take credit for the kill.
Hal tried to get out of it six ways from Sunday. He said he hated cold places, didn’t even like ice cream. But he was dealing with Clyde Terrence, top pig in these parts and his future father-in-law. It was never really possible for Hal to say no.
You don’t need me to tell you that Hal died in a plane crash in Alaska. Anybody could have seen that coming like a train down the track. I saw it myself from the beginning and begged Papa to let my bridegroom off the hook, but Papa had that polar bear in his sights, and I couldn’t dissuade him.
So after Hal’s plane went down (Papa had sat the whole thing out in the hangar, drinking and playing cards with the flight mechanic), I told Papa that my ruined happiness was on his head, and that I’d pay him back someday if it took my whole life or his. He’d said he understood my point of view, that he’d probably feel the same, and if I could wait that long, so could he.
Well, there in Papa’s bedroom that night, the time had come. He’d sat there expecting all day that I would help him escape, and now I’d told him I wouldn’t. I think he knew why, but, Papa being Papa, he naturally tried to wriggle out of it.
“It wasn’t never my fault that plane crashed,” he said.
“No, sir, but it was your fault he was on it.”
“What has this got to do with Eternal Rest?”
“It’s our last chance to balance the books. We’ve been going on like we got all the time in the world, but, sad to say, Papa, we don’t. Now, I’m as sorry as I can be about that, but if you’re going to even pay the interest on what you owe me, you’re going to have to do it soon. And I’ve found the thing. I honestly thought I never would, because, let’s face it, what’s the punishment that could fit that crime? Then, this afternoon, it came to me: Eternal Rest.”
Papa had put his fork down. He was staring at me like he’d never seen me before in his life. Now, that tickled me, because ever since Papa had given up on Eugene and turned his full attention to making a “man” out of me, he had worked overtime to cast me in his own image. And he’d done such a good job that now it was like looking at his own face in a mirror, and he didn’t even recognize it.
“Look,” I said, “I gave you my word that I’d pay you back, and it was you who taught me a person’s word is her bond.”
Papa picked up his fork and went back to eating his supper, calm as you please. He didn’t argue another word. Well, he knew I was right, you see. He’d recognized the face in the mirror. All he said was “Rose, you are a hard woman.”
I took that for the compliment it was, coming from Papa.I got up and pulled the curtains back to let the cool night air into the room. I took Papa’s tray to the kitchen and came back with his coffee (black, three sugars) and a cup for me (black, no sugar), and I sat down in the rocker, facing him.
“Do you want to play gin?” I needed Papa to know there were no hard feelings.
He picked up the deck and shuffled it, doing the triple-waterfall shuffle I’d always admired. I’d practiced it from the time I was five. Even that evening Papa’s shuffle was better than mine. More fluid somehow.
“What are they doing out there?” Papa asked.
This surprised me, because he’d shown a remarkable lack of interest for so long in the goings-on in the rest of the house. “Not much,” I said. “Pidge and Estelle are watching something on television. I didn’t notice what. Mama’s doing the dishes, and Edna’s drying, and they’re talking about whether Mama should get new linoleum in the kitchen when you’re gone or replace it with Spanish tile.”
“Spanish tile! The hell you say! Where’s Eugene at?”
“I didn’t see him. On the front porch, maybe. Or gone into town.” I was counting my cards. “Don’t tell me you want to see Eugene?”
“Not this moment,” Papa said, “but I reckon he and I should talk soon. I’m making him my executor.”
“What? I thought James Barlow was your executor.”
Barlow was Papa’s lawyer and sometime business partner. They were thick as thieves. Hell, they were thieves.
“He was,” Papa said, “but I’ve been thinking. You see, if I make Eugene executor, he’ll take it for a token of my esteem. It’ll make him happy. At first. That’s what he gets out of the deal. And it will make your mama happy, because she’ll think I came around at the last and recognized her precious boy as my son and heir.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Papa went on: “Little girl, there ain’t a more thankless task in this world than being somebody’s executor. It’s a job the devil thought up in a bad mood. It’s guaranteed to make Eugene miserable for the better part of a year or longer, the way he piddles around. The whole goddamned family will be climbing him like a tree before it’s over. Of course Barlow will have to finish it in the end.”
We had been playing gin while Papa talked. I was so distracted that I slipped back into an old habit of collecting jacks. A minute later Papa said, “Gin,” and I was caught with thirty-seven points.
Papa leaned back against his pillows. “If I was to disinherit the boy, the way I’d like to, it would cause all manner of fuss and make your mama miserable, but this way I look good, your mama’s happy, and Eugene will eventually be damned sorry I’m dead. He don’t know it yet, but he’s going to miss his old daddy.”
“It’s beautiful,” I conceded and added up his score. I’d been skunked.
“Thank you,” Papa said, shuffling the cards. “Would you like a rematch?”
And the doctors thought Papa wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain! I hope that just once in my life I get as much as he was getting that night.
Grandma’s sampler was on the money. Love bore us up pretty good when the time came. At least, until the funeral.
Papa died just at the hour the sun sank into Texas on the tenth of October, the start of dove season. We congregated at Eternal Rest early on the morning of the thirteenth for what they were calling “the interment,” all our missions more or less accomplished: Mama had Papa at prayer level. Edna had seen her duty clear. Estelle and Floyd’s vigilance had paid off — they’d been on the spot when Papa died, and Floyd even got to make the telephone calls. And Eugene was his father’s executor. (Pidge couldn’t have been prouder of him if he’d actually done something.)
And of course there was me. Papa and I had settled our old score, and we’d had the pleasure of sharing one last private joke — watching Eugene grapple with Papa’s fiefdom would provide me with sport for a year.
Yes, at Papa’s funeral the love that bears all things was floating right there in the early-morning mist, the same mist Papa and I used to encounter when we’d start off on a dove hunt. And while Reverend Simmons was sermonizing about Papa going to glory, I was remembering those long-gone October mornings: the way Papa and I would walk from the deep shade of the pines out into an open field and feel the first warm sun of the day on our faces; how we’d amble through the tall grass, guns over our shoulders, letting the dogs flush the birds. Some mornings we’d never even raise our guns.
Standing there, I realized how light I’d let Papa off. Oh, Mama had her portion of him boxed in that bought-and-paid-for drawer, all right, but that wasn’t really Papa. My papa couldn’t be stored at prayer level or anywhere else. I knew he was already out and rambling through the tall grasses again. Free as a bird. And I was left here. Alone.
After the ceremony Eugene and Pidge walked to either side of Mama and helped her into the limo. Floyd held my arm as I got into his midsize Ford. Estelle and Edna followed us, elbows linked — two grizzled veterans of more funerals than anybody would care to count. Edna was saying, “Poor Rose. It hasn’t hit her yet.”
As usual, she was wrong.
When we published Marjorie Kemper’s short story “Rayleen and R.L. Bury Their Luck” in our April 2009 issue, we weren’t aware that she suffered from Sjögren’s syndrome, an incurable complication of lupus. She was keen and spirited in her correspondence and never mentioned her health problems. So it came as a shock when we learned that she’d died on November 12, 2009, just when we were about to tell her that we wanted to publish “At Prayer Level.” We’re saddened by her passing and grateful to her husband, Gary, for permission to print this posthumously. What was already a fine story is now also a fitting tribute to Marjorie’s memory.
Marjorie Kemper’s “At Prayer Level” [July 2010] is one of the most amazing, beautiful, and wry stories I have ever had the privilege of reading. Her writing reminds me of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. I am truly sorry to hear of her death.
My daughter lends me her copies of The Sun, which I always read with great interest, even though I don’t often identify with the authors and narrators. I was especially impressed with the short story “At Prayer Level,” by Marjorie Kemper [July 2010]. I have read it three times already, something I rarely do with current fiction. It is beautifully written, and I am sorry to hear that this talented author has died.
When I mentioned to my daughter that I thought “At Prayer Level” was the best story I have ever read in The Sun, she asked why. I thought for a moment and replied, “Because it is about normal people.”