Honey (Chapter 4)
What can I say about Daddy? You can’t believe what I say about him anyway. It’s none of it true. At least not in the same way that what I say about Reuben or Mama or Caleb is true. What I say about them is, as far as I can tell, what I really saw and heard and thought, even if it’s all colored by the romantic imagination of a young girl dazzled by the poetry of Tennyson. But what I say about Daddy is weighted with something I can’t quite put my finger on even to this day. I can’t trust my own memories. They’ve been in the forge, so to speak, brought up to a heat, and shaped to fit. They are lies, all of them. You ought to know that.
The proudest day of Daddy’s life was October 24, 1924, the day he put the sign up on the store—W. L. Bass Mercantile. He had the date painted in the lower right corner of the sign. It was, though none of us could know it at the time, five years to the day before Black Thursday, the day the stock market crashed. Daddy had been partners in the store with Bill and Pauline Roberts for about fifteen years, and they had finally retired and sold it to him outright. It had been Roberts’ Mercantile for about as long as anyone could remember, and Mama always said Daddy was a good man to have waited all those years for that day to come and never once to have complained to Bill Roberts. The original deal when Daddy bought half the store was that the Roberts would retire in three years, but then they couldn’t let go.
And I guess Daddy was a good man. But like I said, any judgment I make of him has to be qualified.
Some people said Daddy was too soft-hearted to run a mercantile. Delaney was a town built around small businesses and the timber industry, and the people were pragmatic and business-minded, most of them. They were big-hearted, but they lived by a pragmatism that was somehow more deep seated than the heart. It governed their opinions of other people, even people they loved, and it governed their actions in dealing with them. Daddy was never in sync with that shared character. He and Mama would talk at the supper table about how hard it was to watch a good man like Bill Roberts turn away someone whose kids needed food, just because the man was behind on his account. Daddy would pick at his food, not eating.
But things changed after Daddy took over. The store didn’t make as much money, for one thing. But then it didn’t cost much to operate, since the rest of us all worked there–Mama, Reuben, Caleb, and me. One day while I was dusting off canned goods up by the front door, Lucius Standifer came in, and I thought surely Daddy would say no to Lucius. The Standifers lived several miles up Delaney Creek in the hills on a farm that Daddy said wouldn’t grow anything but rocks and kids. Nobody knew how many kids they had. Lucius only came to town a couple of times a year, driving a wagon that looked like the wheels would fall off any minute, pulled by two bony mules with runny eyes. He always brought five or six kids with him, dirty and snot-nosed, but they never seemed to be the same kids from one time to the next.
So I dusted off the canned goods and watched Daddy and Lucius talking in the doorway. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I expected Daddy any minute to shake his head “no” and Lucius to look downcast and go off back to the hills. But next thing I knew Daddy nodded and they shook hands and Lucius and his wife Flo Dell started filling up a couple of baskets with dry goods.
Then Daddy walked over to me, untied his apron, and said, “Honey, you want to go to the saw mill with me?”
“Sure, Daddy,” I said. “What for?”
“Lumber,” he said. “I need to build me a hog pen on the back side of the shed.”
Mama looked up at him from behind the counter and opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself.
Daddy got me by the hands and swung me around onto his back. He had strong hands, but not big and rough like most men in Delaney. Long and fine. Whenever Aunt Naomi played the piano, Daddy would sit and watch her hands move on the keys, his fingers barely moving on his pantlegs. He never said anything. Not many men in Delaney played piano.
My only memories of holding on to Daddy are piggyback. He’d swing me up and scoop my legs snug around his waist, and I’d wrap my arms around his neck and lay my head over on one arm, my face up close to him. I could smell his shaving soap. He’d carry me along, me looking over his shoulder, like I was there but also not there. Snuggled up close, but also hidden, spying, as if he didn’t know I was there.
Looking back now, that sounds like a description of our whole life with each other. The only time I was snuggled up close enough to smell him and feel his warmth was when his back was to me. When he was looking the other way. And it would be a long time before I would find out what the problem was. People who are not from a small town always say they would hate to live in one because everybody knows everybody else’s business–that you can’t keep a secret in a small town. Well, that’s not true. Small towns are good at keeping secrets. You can grow up in a small town and never know the most important thing about your own daddy, even if it’s almost a legend in the town. Reuben knew, and Caleb knew. But I was the youngest and a girl. Nobody ever told me anything.
When Daddy and I pulled up to the sawmill in Reuben’s old Model T, Ewing McCracken came down the loading dock and met Daddy on the porch outside the office. The McCrackens lived up the other side of Foster’s Mountain, and Ewing’s wife Rachel was known for her cakes. If you didn’t have one of Rachel’s cakes at your party, people talked. Ewing had worked at the mill for over thirty years. He always had a few days growth of beard, and his hair and beard were iron gray. He was the last of the old crew that had worked the mill back when Daddy and Uncle Henry had owned it.
Daddy and Ewing shook hands, and Ewing slapped Daddy on the shoulder and looked at the car and grinned real big. His teeth went every way but straight up and down.
Daddy said, “Hello, Ewing.”
Ewing said, “Hey, Walter. How the hell are you? Where you been keeping yourself, anyway?”
Then he leaned over to one side and looked around Daddy to where Daddy had swung me up on his back, and where I was keeping my head down out of sight. Ewing took hold of my foot and shook it a little bit and said, “This can’t be that little baby girl you had last time I saw you. What was her name? Sugar Muffin, was it?” And he laughed with a sound like the first isolated huff a steam engine makes when it starts.
Daddy shrugged me down off his back, and I put my face into his waist when Ewing bent down to me.
Daddy said, “Her name’s Honey.”
“Oh, yeah, sure, Honey,” Ewing said. “I knew it was something sweet.”
“This is Mr. McCracken, Honey,” Daddy said. “You give him your hand like a good girl.”
Ewing’s hand was real calloused, but warm. It made me think of a lizard. He shook my hand and grinned at me. I resented always having to give somebody my hand to be “like a good girl.” I didn’t really want to be a good girl if it meant always giving my hand to people I didn’t know. That’s a good laugh now when I look back at it.
“You sure got some pretty eyes,” Ewing said.
Daddy asked him how things were going at the mill, and Ewing said, “We’re still in business, which is more than some sawmills around here can say.” By the 1920’s the hardwood forest was playing out all over the Ozarks.
He looked at Daddy and shook his head. “Shoot,” he said, “it’s never been the same since you sold out.”
I had my arm up around Daddy’s waist, and I felt him go tense. I looked up at his face, but nothing showed there, and Ewing sure didn’t seem to notice anything because he went right on.
“I don’t guess we ought to call them the good old days,” Ewing said, and he huffed again like a steam engine, “but things were a whole lot more interesting around here back before Virgil ran off and Henry. . . .” He was still looking into Daddy’s eyes and didn’t seem embarrassed or anything, but he stopped and I heard a crow caw from down in the gully, and then Daddy put his hand real casual like up to my face, but I could tell he was covering my ear and pulling me up against him.
But I still heard Ewing say, “I guess the less said about that the better, huh?”
The mention of Daddy’s daddy Virgil and Uncle Henry was like the dinner bell on a hungry day. All my senses leaped at it, and I shook Daddy’s hand off my ear.
“Yes,” Daddy said and looked out over the car at the woods. He didn’t want to talk about this. As Usual.
But Ewing kept right on. “You remember that time Virgil and Henry tried to kill each other right there on the docks?” he said, his eyes lighting up and getting wide.
Now I could feel a fine trim of humming all along my skin. What Ewing said opened a whole new world to my imagination. But Daddy turned me toward the steps with an awkward hurry and swatted my bottom and said, “Honey, you go wait in the car while I order the lumber. I’ll just be a minute.” His voice sounded funny.
I stopped at the edge of the porch. “I want to go with you,” I said. What I really wanted was to hear Ewing McCracken tell the rest of that story.
But Daddy turned to Ewing and said, “Ewing, it’s nice talking to you, but I got to get back to the store.”
“Sure,” Ewing said. “I understand.”
Daddy said, “You tell Rachel I asked about her. Hope everything is good at home.”
“Good as gold,” Ewing said. “See you, Walter.” He looked over at me and winked and said, “Take care of your Daddy, Sugar Plum.” And he walked back down the loading dock, taking all my hopes with him.
“You go and get in the car,” Daddy said. He went into the office, and I looked one last time at Ewing as he disappeared around a stack of railroad ties. The saws whined and the engines chugged, and I got in the passenger side of the car, disappointed, imagining my grandaddy Virgil and my uncle Henry trying to kill each other. In my mind that could mean only one thing. A duel. I imagined them standing back to back on the loading dock with their dueling pistols raised and Ewing and Daddy standing off to one side.
Ewing says, “Gentlemen, are you ready?” Both of them look straight ahead and nod, just barely moving their heads. Granddaddy Virgil wears a confederate cavalry officer’s hat with the brim tied up on one side and has a pointed white beard. Uncle Henry in a dark shirt with blousy sleeves and a scarf at the neck. Then Ewing counts, “One, two, three,” and the two men step away from each other one measured step at a time. At the count of ten, they both turn and face each other, dashing, handsome, Henry’s moustache trimmed to a thin line above his lip. They level the guns at each other and take aim.
When the screen door of the mill office popped shut, I jumped like I’d been shot, and I looked up expecting, for just one second, to see someone fall to the porch mortally wounded. Daddy came down off the porch, stepped up on the running board and reached in and set the spark and the throttle. Then he stepped down and went around to the front of the car and pumped the crank, a little growl forced out of him on each exertion. Starting that old Model T had always been a high point of any day for me. Reuben had told me stories about how the kick-back of the crank had broken men’s arms, so every time he or Caleb or Daddy cranked, I watched with a powerful mix of fear and excitement. But what I was feeling this time had nothing to do with Daddy cranking. I wanted to know about Granddaddy Virgil and Uncle Henry, but I was pretty sure I had missed my chance.
The engine fired and roared up, and Daddy jumped back on the running board and adjusted the spark and throttle down and then climbed over the side into the driver’s seat. As he sat down, he looked over at me like we were just going into church and he wanted to be sure my face was clean.
He didn’t say a word all the way home. I was dying to ask him about Granddaddy Virgil and Uncle Henry. But even at eight years old I knew better.
That night Mama put me to bed as usual and tucked me in and we said our prayers and she went back out to the living room where Daddy was reading the Bible. She always left the lamp in my room burning so that Daddy could come in and kiss me goodnight and turn it out.
I lay there waiting for him and looking at the shadows the lamp cast on the wall and thinking about what Ewing McCracken said about Granddaddy Virgil and Uncle Henry almost killing each other. I wanted somebody, anybody, but especially Daddy, to tell me something, anything, about that delicious family secret, the near-murder of my granddaddy by my uncle. But I knew Daddy wouldn’t tell me, and I knew I couldn’t ask, and I didn’t think it was one bit fair. How was I ever going to know any of the dark family history if nobody in the family would tell me anything, and all anybody else in town would do was make obscure remarks about Virgil and Lilly Bass and about the way Henry Bass died?
By the time Daddy came to kiss me goodnight I had sulked myself into a pretty fit state. He usually just came in and patted me on the head and said good night and we gave each other a peck on the lips and he blew out the lamp. But that night when he reached his face down to kiss me, I pushed my head back deeper in the pillow and tried to look into his eyes. Tried to look hurt and a little angry.
When I first pulled my head back, Daddy stopped his face right in front of mine and wrinkled up his eyebrows and said, “What’s the matter, Honey Bear?”
I just stared at him with as much self-righteous indignation as I could muster. I had been robbed of my birthright, and I was going to fight to get it. But I wasn’t prepared for his reaction. His head pulled back the tiniest bit and his smile dropped to a straight line and he looked right back into my eyes like I wasn’t even there. Like I was something that frightened him but that he couldn’t quit looking at.
I said, “Daddy?” and I sat up and hugged his neck and snuggled my face into his shirt. But he tensed up and pulled back a little more before he relaxed and put his arms around me. It scared me. I didn’t know what had happened. But at eight years old, sure I had done something terrible to Daddy, I swore I would never again even think about asking him about Lilly or Virgil or Henry Bass.
It would still be four or five years before Able Solomon would tell me, almost in passing, that I had my Grandma Lilly’s eyes, a characteristic I shared with Uncle Henry, and it would be longer still before Aunt Naomi, the year before I left Delaney, would finally tell me some of those Bass stories I was so anxious to hear.
It was still a long time before Vandever Ivey, or the drummer, Kelsey Denney, with his blue eyes set so close together and his long fine-boned hands, or John White Moore, the brakeman on the Frisco Line. Before Uncle Purvis Nielson. And it was still a very long time, nearly thirty-five years, before Daddy lay on that hospital bed in Huntsville waiting to die in a state of grace. By that time John Kennedy was about to be elected president, and everybody in Madison County was scared to death that the Pope would be running the country. Daddy was eighty-seven years old and sick and could have cared less about who was elected president.
I sat there in that hospital room, the walls a pea-soup green, and I held his leathery old hand, those long bones as delicate as ever. And I watched the black-and-white television on the table in the corner. Art Linkletter. Queen For a Day. Children Say the Darnedest Things.
Even then, when Daddy was dying in the gentleness and peace of a soul that knows the worst about itself but sets it all aside to step into glory, he wouldn’t look me in the eyes for more than a glance. He had spent a lifetime looking at everything in the room but me whenever we talked.
But as he lay in that hospital bed, one arm taped to a board with a little butterfly IV in the back of his hand, a small oxygen tube taped to his nose, I held the other hand and brushed the hair, still black as ever, back off his forehead, and he closed his eyes and gave me a little squeeze.
I was forty-four and putting all my hopes in John F. Kennedy. Something bigger than myself. Camelot had finally arrived.
And right at that moment it was enough. I could sit there and hold Daddy’s hand and watch him die. I didn’t think about the drinking, or his hitting Mama, or the fight with Reuben, or the day I left Delaney. I remembered Daddy putting up that sign on the store front. W. L. Bass Mercantile. It was a big sign. Covered almost the whole facade above the porch awning. Daddy stood right there in the street in front of the store, with his arms folded across the front of his gray apron, and Mama on one side and me on the other. He watched until Hiram Stotts had nailed the last nail and bolted the last bolt.
Then he swung me around onto his back, and we went inside to get Reuben and Caleb to come see how it looked. It was the proudest day of his life. When I told him I was thinking about it there in the hospital all those years later, he opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling like it was a mile away, and he smiled and shook his head with that vague look that comes with the amazement of memory.
“Hiram did a good job with that sign,” he said. “It’s still there to this day.”
And he was quiet again, and the artery in the side of his neck pulsed with the regular beat of his heart.
“But it will pass like everything else,” he said.
There was not the least bit of regret in the way he said it. He was dying in grace, going to his eternal reward. And that old empty space yawned inside me, and I wanted more than anything to fill it.
Daddy always said he had found Jesus out on the cannery dock the night my brother Caleb was born. The night Daddy gave up the struggle and found grace. My oldest brother, Reuben, who was with him, always told me it was just a barn owl, that they were out there listening to the bullfrogs in the river while Mama was in labor and a barn owl nearly flew into Daddy’s face.
When I told Daddy what Reuben said about the owl, he laughed out loud, that dry husky laugh of an old man without much wind, and nodded his head and said, “There was an owl.” And his eyes watered just a little and his half smile lit up the empty world.
I had never told him that I went to that cannery dock myself once, looking for Jesus, but I didn’t find him. The night after John White Moore took me to the roadhouse. I could see the handwriting on the wall, like King Belshazzar, as Mama used to say. Measured and found wanting. I was afraid of dying in my sleep and opening my eyes in torment. Even more than that, I think, I was afraid of going on living with that big hollow place inside. That emptiness was already getting heavy. So I went to the dock that night to find Jesus, the way Daddy found him. And the moon was shining and the crickets were singing just like Daddy said. There was even a bullfrog bellowing down at the river. I waited and looked and listened, and I could smell the algae and the honeysuckle, and the desire rose up in me till I wanted to call out. But I didn’t. And I didn’t find Jesus. There wasn’t even a barn owl.
I wasn’t mad. Just tired. And a later that night, lying in bed at home, I decided that on my next birthday, my twenty-first, I’d leave Delaney for good. After seven years of the Depression, the town was coming apart at the seams anyway. And as far as I was concerned, it was time for the good years to follow the lean.