After a while he motioned for me to follow him into a back room where he had my present, and I planned to take it and run. He handed me a long, thin box, and inside was a brand-new, well-oiled Remington .22 rifle. He said he had bought it some time back, just kept forgetting to give it to me. It was a fine gun, and for a moment we were just like anybody else in the culture of that place, where a father's gift of a gun to his son is a rite. He said, with absolute seriousness, not to shoot my brothers.
I thanked him and made to leave, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm and said wait, that ain't all, that he had some other things for me. He motioned to three big cardboard egg cartons stacked against one wall.
Inside was the only treasure I truly have ever known.
I had grown up in a house in which there were only two books, the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog. But here, in these boxes, were dozens of hardback copies of everything from Mark Twain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There was a water-damaged Faulkner, and the nearly complete set of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan. There was poetry and trash, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, and a paperback with two naked women on the cover. There was a tiny, old copy of Arabian Nights, threadbare Hardy Boys, and one Hemingway. He had bought most of them at a yard sale, by the box or pound, and some at a flea market. He did not even know what he was giving me, did not recognize most of the writers. "Your momma said you still liked to read," he said.
There was Shakespeare. My father did not know who he was, exactly, but he had heard the name. He wanted them because they were pretty, because they were wrapped in fake leather, because they looked like rich folks' books. I do not love Shakespeare, but I still have those books. I would not trade them for a gold monkey.
"They's maybe some dirty books in there, by mistake, but I know you ain't interested in them, so just throw 'em away," he said. "Or at least, throw 'em away before your momma sees 'em." And then I swear to God he winked.
I guess my heart should have broken then, and maybe it did, a little. I guess I should have done something, anything, besides mumble "Thank you, Daddy." I guess that would have been fine, would not have betrayed in some way my mother, my brothers, myself. But I just stood there, trapped somewhere between my long-standing, comfortable hatred, and what might have been forgiveness. I am trapped there still.
He could not buy my friendship, not with a library, but with the books he bought my company for as long as he wanted it that day. We went back in the living room and he unscrewed the cap on a thin pint of what I believe was George Dickel or some other brown likker. He drank it in little sips, and talked about how pretty my momma was when they were married, about a time when we all went to Texas for a summer so he could work a body and fender job, about the bulldogs he used to fight in the pits over in Rome, Georgia, about the mean woman he used to court over that way who kept a razor tucked down the neck of her blouse. He talked of a hound dog he had that could climb a tree, of the time a rattlesnake bit Boots, his momma's fat Chihuahua, and how she swelled up like a beach ball. I had heard them all before, or thought I had, when I was a child, but I cannot say it was a bad thing to hear them again.
I asked him once or twice to tell me about Korea, because I was a boy and boys are thrilled with war. But he just said nawwwwww, he didn't like to dwell on it, that I should thank the Lord I never had to go.
Finally the bottle was down to a swallow or two and he was huddled back in a corner of the couch, quiet, as satisfyingly, numbingly drunk as a man in his condition could be. The whiskey was like tonic to him, I guess. It warmed instead of burned. I just sat in a chair all the way across the room, waiting. I had experience with drunks, with him as a child, and later with kinfolks who staggered into our house for a place to sleep. I knew it was just a matter of time until he slipped into that deep, deep sleep that no amount of shaking or even a house fire would wake him from. I would take my gun, my books, and leave him forever.
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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