We had heard he was sick, but that information registered somewhere far below my second-hand motorcycle and my first real kiss in relevance and importance. My older brother, Sam, who was nine the last time he left us, who went outside to dig crumbs of shattered coal from the frozen mud so that we would have something to burn to stay warm, was scarred more than me by the memories, cared even less than me. My younger brother, Mark, did not have a single cognizant memory of him. I wonder sometimes if that is not a blessing, but then I think that while my older brother and I grew up with a cracked image of a father, with some vague memories of fleeting good times, he had nothing, has nothing now, as if he was hatched into this world.
Then one day my momma told me he had asked for me, only me. She said he was bad sick and it might be the last time. He said he bought me a present, and wanted to give it to me himself.
Even now, over twenty years later, I wonder if the reason I saw my father that one last time, that I heard the closest thing to a confession he would ever make, is because I responded to a dying man's cry for attention or just wanted the present, the bribe. I guess it does not really matter anymore. I went to the little house where he lived and knocked on the door, determined to stare him down, man to man, to let him know exactly what I thought of him for what he did to us, to my momma. I was going on sixteen, six feet two and 185 pounds, and had fought bloody battles over girls in the parking lot of the local Hardee's, and now and then my brothers and I mixed it up just for sport. I was not afraid of him anymore. I was not helpless now, not some child hiding under the bed.
I know why he wanted to see me. If my daddy had a favorite, I guess I was it. I guess he thought I was smart, because he liked the fact that I would sit quiet with a book about Dick and Jane and read it so many times that I memorized it, then show off in class by reciting my page, not reading it. He liked the fact that if I got into a fight on the playground and someone had a grip on my throat, I would stick my thumb in his eye, just like he taught me when I was still just a very little boy. He was proud of the fact that, if a batter got a hit off me in baseball, I would throw the next pitch at his head. Like he taught me.
I guess he thought I was a lot like him. Even now people say that. They tell me I remind them of him in little ways. As the years slip past, it is easier to hear, but at the time I hated to hear it, think it.
He was living in a little house in Jacksonville, Alabama, a college and mill town that was the closest urban center--with its stoplights and a high school and two supermarkets--to the country roads we roamed in our raggedy cars. He lived in the mill village, in one of those houses the mills subsidized for their workers, back when companies still did things like that. It was not much of a place, but better than anything we had ever lived in as a family. I knocked and a voice like an old woman's, punctuated with a cough that sounded like it came from deep in the guts, told me to come on in, it ain't locked. It was dark inside, but light enough to see what looked like a bundle of quilts on the corner of a sofa. Deep inside them was a ghost of a man, his hair and beard long and going dirty gray, his face pale and cut with deep grooves. I knew I was in the right house because my daddy's only real possessions, a velvet-covered board pinned with medals, sat inside a glass cabinet on a table. But this couldn't be him.
He coughed again, spit into a can and struggled to his feet, but stopped somewhere short of standing straight up, as if a stoop was all he could manage. "Hey, Cotton Top," he said, and then I knew. My daddy, who was supposed to be a still-young man, looked like the walking dead, not just old but damaged, poisoned, used up, crumpled up and thrown in a corner to die. I thought that the man I would see would be the trim, swaggering, high-toned little rooster of a man who stared back at me from the pages of my mother's photo album, the young soldier clowning around in Korea, the arrow-straight, good-looking boy who posed beside my mother back before the fields and mop handle and the rest of it took her looks. The man I remembered had always dressed nice even when there was no cornmeal left, whose black hair always shone with oil, whose chin, even when it wobbled from the beer, was always angled up, high.
Use of this excerpt from All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright© 1997 by Rick Bragg.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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