One night when I was sixteen, my father got out of bed, went into the living room, and fell to the floor. He was a big man, and from my own bed I heard the noise and felt the house shake and heard my mother call out, “Roy! Roy! My word!”
She switched on a light, and it was vicious, the way light is in the middle of the night in a house that has been dark. My father lay on the floor in his T-shirt and boxer shorts. He lay on his back, as if pressed down by the mound of his belly. The stumps of his arms — he’d lost his hands and forearms in a farming accident when I was barely a year old — stuck out at his sides, short and useless, like flippers.
I was frantic. My father was fifty-eight and diabetic, and though I had spent a good portion of my early teens despising him, my biggest fear was that one day, before we could resolve the hostility between us, he would die. “Call the ambulance,” I kept saying to my mother. “We should call the ambulance.”
She got down on her knees beside my father, the way she knelt by her bed each night to say her prayers, and she touched his arm at the elbow. The loose folds of her white gown lay in swirls around her, and I thought of the painting that hung above our couch: Jesus kneeling at the rock in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night that Judas would betray him.
“Roy,” my mother said, and he groaned. His eyes opened, and she said again, “Roy. Roy, do you want to go to the hospital?”
He blinked his eyes against the harsh light. “No,” he said. “No, I just got dizzy for a minute.”
“Can you sit up?” she asked.
“I’m all right,” he told her. He tried to lever himself up with his stumps, a difficult chore.
“Lee,” my mother said to me, “help your father.”
This was the man who over the years had beaten me with persimmon switches, yardsticks, belts, and lately the steel prongs of his prosthetic hooks. How odd it felt to be standing over him. There was something in his face, something I had never seen before — a sheepish cast about the eyes, a timid yet hopeful look. I took him under one arm and strained against the burden of his weight, helping raise his body, whose bulk he used to bully me. For a moment we stood there, not moving, not speaking. It was the first time in years that we had touched without anger. When I finally led him back to bed, our steps were slow and halting, as if we were just learning how to walk.
For some time, I had been heading toward a life of wrongdoing, inching closer and closer to the point where I would be lost forever. I was a shoplifter, a vandal, an arsonist, a burglar. We lived in a farming community in southeastern Illinois, a town of barely a thousand people, and I had fallen in with the crowd that got its kicks from seeing how far it could stretch the limits of decent behavior. We stole record albums, cigarettes, magazines — whatever appealed to us. We broke into people’s garages to steal the beer they kept there. We even figured out that one window was always left unlocked on the first floor of the high school — a window conveniently hidden in a shadowy alcove off a rear alley. On Saturday nights we’d push open the window and climb through and spend hours roaming the halls, drinking Cokes in the faculty lounge, scuffing across the gym floor in our boots, stacking books in lockers so they would come tumbling out when someone opened the door.
Our town was a town of alleys; swaths of cinders over hard-packed dirt ran the length of each block, skirting the backs of people’s properties. These alleys became our undercover routes as we slunk through the night, sticking to the shadows, waiting restlessly to come upon some opportunity for mischief. There was a retired Latin teacher who kept a leaf-filled compost pile in a wire cage around the trunk of a maple tree in her back yard. We noticed it one night as we were passing through her alley, and a few days later I devised a plan, which I demonstrated for my friends: I broke two matchsticks and stuck their heads into a cigarette, one on each side, near the filter. Then I lit the cigarette, laid it on the floor, and waited. It took twenty minutes for the cigarette to burn down and ignite the match heads. “Twenty minutes,” I told my friends, “and poof! By that time, we’re gone.”
That’s how close I was, in 1972, to becoming ruined beyond repair. Though I didn’t know it then, there was a line somewhere, and if I stepped over it, I would really be gone, and no one, no matter how much they loved me, would be able to get me back.
Still, there were nights that could turn me and my friends, punks and miscreants all, sweet and shy with wonder. On these occasions, we forgot about being criminals, dropped our tough-guy façades, and were just kids who felt small in the enormous world. We talked unashamedly about God (Was there one, and if so, why did he let people suffer?), the war in Vietnam (If drafted, would we go, or would we high-tail it to Canada, or even go to prison, to keep from killing or being killed?), and death (What would it be like? Was there a heaven, a hell?). Each question gave rise to another. Were our fates predetermined? Was it a sin to kill an ant? Did eternity really mean forever?
One night in winter, the wind screaming across the barren fields, we climbed into an empty grain wagon and slid down its high, slanted walls to the bottom, where we huddled together for warmth, looking up at the sky, its wide expanse bright with stars. The wind’s howl was muted there, and for a long time none of us spoke, awed by the sudden calm. At that moment, I’m sure, our parents waited for us in our homes, wondering what had gone wrong with their sons, recalling how sweet we had been, how innocent, when they had first held us in their arms.
When the doctor told my father that my mother was pregnant with me, my father said, “Can you get rid of it?” My mother told me this after my father was dead, explaining that he had only been concerned for her safety, pregnant at the age of forty-five. But I’ve always wondered whether, no matter how much he may have grown to love me, he always harbored a certain resentment over the fact that I had come into his life unexpectedly and fouled up the works — like the ear of corn that would jam in the picker’s auger a little over a year later, the ear he would try to dislodge, only to have the auger chain grab a loose fold of his glove and pull in first his right hand, and then, when he tried to free it, his left.
It must have been after the auger mangled my father’s hands that a deep and abiding rage settled in him. All through my childhood, he punished my mischief with whippings, raising hot weals on my buttocks, my legs, my arms, my back — on whatever part of me he could reach as I tried to avoid his blows. My mother, the most gentle person I knew, stood witness to these beatings, dismissing them, perhaps, as the punishment rightfully due a sassy kid. As I became a teenager — coming home nights with alcohol on my breath, telling my father to go to hell, threatening to kill him — our battles became more ferocious. One night, he jabbed his curved steel hook into my throat, pinning me to the wall, and this was too much for my mother. “Roy,” she pleaded, “let him go.”
The night he fell in the living room and I helped him back to bed, things began to change between us. Some of the meanness drained out of him, and out of me, and we managed a careful truce, the way animals confined to the same space eventually tire of fighting for dominance and watch the other with wary eyes.
One Saturday, my father and I drove down to our farm to hunt rabbits. Snow lay on the fields, and the sky was thick with clouds. Over the white landscape, chimney smoke curled skyward from farmhouses, and vapor lights came on in barnyards, their sensors fooled by the unnaturally dark day.
I have since read that in Siberia temperatures drop so low that human breath freezes and falls to the ground, where it breaks with a barely audible tinkling. The Siberians call the sound “the whispering of the stars.” Though it wasn’t nearly that cold the day my father and I hunted rabbits, our words were just as fragile; we knew if we said the wrong thing it would fall and shatter into pieces at our feet.
We took measured steps through an abandoned hog lot overgrown with brush. “Be ready,” my father said. “Right,” I said, and I held my single-shot twenty-gauge at an angle in front of me, prepared to swing the stock up to my shoulder, draw back the hammer with my thumb, line up the sights, and squeeze the trigger — all in an instant.
We swept along the perimeter of the lot, where snow had piled up against the fence rows. Then, just as we eased down the slope toward the old hog house, a rabbit stirred, the white fluff of its tail flashing, and broke into a run.
“There!” my father shouted, and I fired.
The rabbit kept running, curving back up the slope toward the ridge of the pond, where I caught a final glimpse of his tail before he disappeared into the brush.
“You didn’t lead him,” my father said. “You’ve got to lead him. I’ve told you how to do that. Don’t you remember?” He banged his hooks together the way he did when he wanted to get them at the right angle for holding something, and for a moment I thought he meant to take the shotgun from me, but he let his arms drop to his sides. “Don’t you listen when I tell you anything?”
“I listen,” I said sharply. The old anger, which had been reduced to a smoldering resentment since the night he had fallen, threatened to blaze up between us. We both felt the danger, that precarious moment just before one of us said too much, and the other answered in rage. It took so little in those days. My father’s face was red with the cold, and I could see his jaw muscles working, a sign that he was fuming. Again, he banged his hooks together, and the clanging of the steel echoed across the hog lot. I broke open the twenty-gauge, and the spent shell fell to the snow with a hiss. The air around us was suddenly hot with the scents of sulfur and gunpowder.
“They always run in circles,” my father finally said, in a voice that was quiet, yet tight with reined-in fierceness. “Stay here. Be ready now. I’ll run him back around to you.”
I slid a new shell into the shotgun and watched my father walk away. He swung his arms as he slogged through the snow, leaning forward and struggling up the slope. At the top, he leveled off and skirted the edge of the pond. Then he circled to his left and slipped into a persimmon grove, and I lost sight of him.
I stood alone in the cold, thinking how, with a sharp word, he could always make me feel weak and inept. Every time I bollixed a job on the farm — couldn’t drive a nail in straight, or grease a fitting, or loosen a rusted nut — he’d call me a pantywaist. Every time I said, “I can’t,” he’d say, “ ‘Can’t’ never did nothing.”
Before long, I saw my father emerge from the persimmon grove and start to circle back down the slope. He kicked his way through the undergrowth, sidled through a briar thicket.
That’s when I heard the rabbit rustling in the brush. Suddenly there it was, a spot of gray fur against the snow. I raised my twenty-gauge, pulled back the hammer, and took aim — and there in my sights, a horrified look on his face, was my father.
My hands were shaking. There had been times when I had been so furious with him that, given this opportunity, I might have pulled the trigger. The thought scared me to death, made me feel how easy it would be to let rage take over. I lowered the gun, and my father and I stared across the distance at each other, neither of us saying a word as the rabbit scurried away to find cover.
When we got home, my mother was reading her Bible at the dining-room table by the weak winter light that filtered in through the windows; it was her habit never to turn on a lamp until she absolutely had to. When I saw her there, her head bowed, I was able to imagine the calm that surely came over our house whenever my father and I weren’t there.
“You’re back,” she said with a sigh, and perhaps just a trace of disappointment. She got up to help my father off with his coat and boots. The legs of his overalls were caked with snow; she would have to help him out of them, too. “Did you get anything?”
“No,” my father said, glancing at me, and I lowered my head and stomped my snow-covered feet on the mat. “Not a thing. We came up empty. I guess we’ll have to sing for our supper.”
And so we silently agreed to keep from my mother the story of how we had faced each other in the hog lot and I had held my father in my sights, because no matter how ugly we were to one another, the truth was we both loved her dearly and wished, for her sake, that we could be better than we were.
Through all the turmoil, my father and I granted my mother one favor. On those Sundays when she wasn’t working in the laundry room at the nursing home, we went with her to church. It was there, I believe, that she was the most content. The three of us went to the Church of Christ and sat on a wooden pew, my mother between my father and me, and listened to sermons that, for the most part, told us if we hadn’t accepted Christ as our savior, we were damned to spend eternity in hell. Preachers banged their fists on the pulpit, waved their Bibles in the air, and shouted that on the Judgment Day there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the lost were cast into the fiery furnace forever. The plan for salvation, however, was simple: if we, the lost, would only come forward, confess our sins, accept Jesus as our savior, be baptized into Christ, and live a Christian life from then on, we would one day ascend into heaven.
I wanted to believe this. Every Sunday, when the preacher issued the invitation and the congregation stood and sang, I thought about stepping out into the aisle and making my way to the front of the church. But I felt like an outsider. “Come home,” the congregation sang — even my mother, in her quiet, reedy voice. “Ye who are weary, come home.” I wanted to take those steps, because until I did there would always be the feeling that I was wicked, closed out of the circle of goodness, and what I hated more than anything was to stand there next to my mother, failing her one more time. Though I never really believed I was a bad person at heart, and always thought I would survive my father’s rage and eventually return to my mother’s gentle and good way of living, when I was in church and the congregation was waiting for us lost souls to confess our sins, I felt vile, beyond redemption, and my heart turned rotten with shame and despair.
It was at these moments that my father and I closed ranks to form a union of misfits. “Brother Lee,” he said to me as we drove home after church, mocking the reverential way the congregation members addressed one another.
“Yes, Brother Roy?” I said.
“I sure could use some more of that soda cracker, Brother Lee.”
This was a reference to the Communion wafer, emblem of Christ’s body, of which only the congregation’s duly baptized members partook. I suspect we chose to mock this part of the service because it was the moment in which we, the lost, were made most visible. When the silver Communion trays were passed down our pew, my mother broke off a small piece of the cracker and drank from the thimble-sized cup. But my father, because of his hooks, never touched the trays, and I held them only long enough to pass them on. Each Sunday this said, to anyone who cared to take note, that my mother was saved while my father and I were lost.
So when my father asked for more soda cracker, I said, “Right away, Brother Roy. And some grape juice?”
“Outstanding, Brother Lee.”
And we went on that way for a while, like a bad vaudeville routine. But we shut our yaps when we saw my mother sitting there with her hands clasped over her Bible, her head bowed, as if she were ashamed to look at us.
The truth was she had something we envied: a peace that came from faith. No matter how painful we made her life, she believed that one day she would have bliss. As a girl, she had suffered through her father’s drinking problem, and later her sister’s death from cancer. She had married my father when she was forty-one, and only a few years later he had lost his hands, throwing her forever into the role of caretaker. But none of this had shaken her resolve. She knew God would reward her endurance.
All through the riot that my father and I had created in our house, I remembered the times as a small boy when I had gone with my mother to the country church set back in a grove of oak trees. In my memory, it was always summer. The windows were propped open with the sawed-off ends of broomsticks, and I could hear the breeze rustling through the trees, could feel it falling cool across my face. I could smell the varnish of the pews, the paper of the hymnals, the tang of the grape juice as it passed by me in its goblet. I could hear the flap of paper fans stirring the air, the turning of the tissue-thin pages of Bibles, and the voices rising in song: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “In the Sweet By-and-By,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” My most bittersweet memory was of the way the singing sounded from outside the church on those rare occasions when I would get fussy and my mother would have to take me out to the car.
“Do you want to go home?’’ she would say.
I would listen to the singing, such a sweet murmur, like the babble of a brook hidden in a dark forest.
“No,” I would tell her.
“All right then, mister. Straighten up.”
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks after my father and I had gone rabbit hunting, I told my mother I wanted to join the church. She said it could be done that very evening. We would get to the service early, and she would tell the preacher my intentions. (She didn’t say that, this way, my intent would be made law, and I would be less likely to change my mind when it came time to step out into the aisle.)
“We’ll need to take a towel,” she told me. We were sitting in the living room, my mother in her chair, and I on the ottoman at her feet. “And a change of clothes.”
“To wear for the baptizing. Something old, but not too shabby.”
I asked her where I would be baptized, since the Church of Christ had no baptistery, and it was winter and too cold to use a pond. She told me that one of the elders would call the Church of Christ in Olney, the next town over, and after our service we would go there and use their baptistery.
My father was napping in the bedroom, and my mother and I spoke in near whispers, as if plotting a conspiracy. Outside, the sky was dark with clouds. Our storm windows rattled in their frames.
“What’s Dad going to say?” I finally asked.
“This isn’t about him,” my mother said. “This is about you.”
When he woke from his nap, she told him the news. I heard them in the bedroom, their voices murmurs behind the closed door. My mother spoke for a good while, and, though I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I suspected she was making it clear to my father that this was what she had hoped for all along, and now she expected his cooperation. If he dared say anything to make me change my mind, if he made light the way he and I had done so many times on our drives home from church . . . My mother’s voice went on and on, and I imagined my father sitting on the edge of the bed, his head hanging down, his bare stumps resting on his belly. When he did speak it was only a few words. Then he came into the living room, but didn’t look at me. He just stood at the window. “Looks like snow,” he finally said.
At church, when the preacher gave the invitation, the congregation sang “Just as I Am.” I came forward, and the preacher, a Brother Toliver, shook my hand and led me to the front pew, where I sat until the singing had finished. Then he asked me whether I had come to repent of my sins, whether I believed in Jesus Christ and was prepared to be buried with him in baptism and to rise again and walk in a new life. And I said that I was.
Then I stood and faced the congregation, and, as they sang another song, the members walked by me one by one, extending to me the right hand of fellowship, welcoming me into their fold. Some mumbled words of encouragement or congratulations. They told me I had done well. They called me Brother. When it was my mother’s turn, she merely took my hand, held it a bit longer than the others had, and gazed up at me with damp eyes. My father waited at the back of the church by himself, the only one not permitted to come forward and greet me.
In a few minutes we would drive to Olney, where Brother Toliver would lead me down into the baptistery and announce that he was baptizing me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Then he would cover my mouth and nose with his handkerchief and tip me back into the water.
But for a while longer I stood at the front of the church as the members circled past me. Between each of them, I caught a glimpse of my father, making his way to the end of the pew. Glimpsing him in the spaces between the passing congregation members was like watching frames of film passing through a Kinetoscope. With each peek, he had moved closer to the aisle, and I felt rising in me the great hope that he had decided to come to the front of the church and tell Brother Toliver that he, too, wanted to be saved. Then I saw him step into the aisle, turn, and start walking toward the church doors. Each time I saw him after that, he had moved farther and farther away.
I feared that he would leave, drive off into the night and never return. But when my mother and I stepped out of the church, our car was there, engine running, clouds of exhaust billowing up behind it. By this time, snow had started to fall, and the wipers were clearing it from the windshield. Though I couldn’t see my father, I knew that he was there somewhere, in the dark. I imagined he felt the way I did each time we fought: forsaken beyond any chance of forgiveness or love. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but I couldn’t. He was my father. He had his own guilt to bear.