He had been a fearsome man, the kind of slim and lethal Southern man who would react with murderous fury when insulted, attacking with a knife or a pine knot or his bare hands. When I was six I watched him kick the mortal hell out of a man in a parking lot. I cannot remember why he did it. I just remember how the man covered up his head and tried to crawl under a car to get away, but he was too fat and wedged himself half in and half out, while my daddy kicked his ass and spit on his back and called him a son of a bitch. I remember how the man's yellow sport shirt had blood on it, how his pocket change spilled out into the gravel, and how the man's children--I remember a little girl screaming--stood and watched, in terror. I distinctly remember that I was not afraid, because no matter how much red hatred clouded his eyes, how much Jim Beam or beer or homemade whiskey assaulted his brain, he never touched me. In some sick way I admired him. This was, remember, a world of pulpwooders and millworkers and farmers, of men who ripped all the skin off their knuckles working on junk cars and ignored the blood that ran down their arms. In that world, strength and toughness were everything, sometimes the only things. It was common, acceptable, not to be able to read, but a man who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, was a pathetic thing. To be afraid was shameful. I am not saying I agree with it. It's just the way it was.
But in the end he was very afraid. The years of drinking more whiskey than water had wrecked him, and somewhere along the way, he had picked up TB. People were not supposed to still be dying of it then, in 1974, and he might have lived if he could have quit drinking and cleaned up his life. But it was the drinking that killed him, really, just as sure as if he slipped and fell and cut his throat on the broken bottle.
He was only forty, when the sickness took him down. But by the time he was scared enough of dying to try to live, to truly want to live, he was out of every option except The Cross.
He said he began to see a dark angel perched like a crow on the footboard of his bed, just waiting, expectant. He knew enough of the Gospel to be fearful of fallen angels, and he was afraid that it might have been dispatched from hell, special, to ferry him home. He said he threw shoes at it to get it to flutter away, but it returned, it always returned. I never, ever liked to listen to him when he talked drunk and crazy that way, and the phone seemed to grow hot in my hand.
He had never been inside a church in his life, back when he was young, indestructible. But as the sickness squeezed his lungs he began to hope that Jesus was more than just a fifty-cent mail-order picture enshrined in a dime-store frame on the hallway wall, that salvation was the trick card he could play right at the end and stay in the money. I know it because I asked my momma what they talked about all those times. O he talked about y'all, a little. But mostly he just wanted to talk about the Lord.Ó
I guess it is what you do if you grow up with warnings of damnation ringing from every church door and radio station and family reunion, in a place where total strangers will walk up to you at the Piggly Wiggly and ask if you are Saved. Even if you deny that faith, rebuke it, you still carry it around with you like some half-forgotten Indian head penny you keep in your pocket for luck. I wonder sometimes if I will be the same, if when I see my life coming to an end I will drop to my knees and search my soul for old sins and my memory for forgotten prayers. I reckon so.
He would ask to see her in some of those calls, but anything my momma had for my daddy had been beaten and starved out of her a long time ago. At least, that is the conviction I had at the time. He would ask to see us, too, his sons, but too much time had gone by since he had been anything close to a father and the overpowering memories were bad, of curses and shouts and my momma motioning us away, out of the room. I had not seen him for more than a few minutes in years, since I was six and we went back to live in my grandmother's house on Roy Webb Road.
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