Philip Boddy, Jr.: Ecumenical Challenges (Memoir) Nov. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born in Chicago with maternal grandparents, who went back to the drawing board for childcare, probably saved me from a stint in Joliet. Mom was a “wild-child” in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Nana solved that by hiring two strong-willed black nannies from the South. Miss Roberta then Miss Betty were given total authority over mom and her sister. These ladies were rehired when I showed up. Well before the Marine Corps, the first words out of my mouth were Sir, Ma’am, Please, Thank-you, You’re most welcome, and May I?. Miss Betty taught me to cook oatmeal, grits, “dirty gravy” with greens over toast, and a myriad of vegetables for entree’s. We had garnet yams growing on the South-facing kitchen window 13 floors up. I learned the classic variations of “Uhn, huh, hmm…” with accents like Chinese to have a conversation or show you were paying attention before it was known as Black English. I was a Yankee boy lucky to be “Raised and Praised up right.”

Ecumenical Challenges

In September of 1960, the first day at St. Joseph’s Military Academy consisted of checking in, a proper haircut, and an initial indoctrination.  I lugged my duffle bag with a complete uniform issue through check-in.  A senior eighth grade cadet pointed to a doorway for my next station.

Inside, a line of new cadets aged from first to eighth grade formed along the wall.  At the far end of the hall, a barber snipped away clumps of wavy hair from a startled newbie.  His clippers buzzed as a cadet swept the scattered locks up from the dull green linoleum floor into a waste bin.

Quiet conversations droned among the boys in line.  A number of new wee tykes had tears in their eyes.  A young novitiate in a black-over-deep-blue habit consoled them.  They were homesick already. Subjecting first and second grade children to a military boarding school seemed odd to me.  Maybe they were Spartans who survived the mountaintop.

Experienced returning cadets were already in their recreation halls by grade level.  They had arrived in uniform with military haircuts.  Small groups of them with their parents and siblings were chatting among teaching nuns.  Smiles, shoulder pats, and occasional laughter trickling throughout the hallways helped the time pass.  Observing the black and white habited Sisters bantering informally with cadets and parents assuaged some of my fears.

However, one caveat kept me on guard.  These friendly dialogues surrounding me were among Roman Catholic families and the Vatican’s own version of Women Marines, the teaching order of the Sisters of St. Joseph.  My parentage was half Irish and half Brit/Canuck.  I was also an Episcopalian.  That sort of made me an Irish wolfhound among the Vatican lions.

*                   *                  *

My priest, Father Mainor, had been appalled at my parents’ decision to send my brother Ricky and me to a Catholic military boarding school.  Since we were already enrolled and our complete uniform issues were packed, he went ahead with a game plan to ease my transition.  It rivaled any strategies the Chicago Blackhawks had to handle the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

For a couple of hours a day during my remaining week before leaving, we reviewed prior catechism lessons and New Testament highlights.  Since my little brother was going into fourth grade, he was too young for any religious academics.  On the other hand, I was already confirmed.  

I was also considered a bit iconoclastic due to my questioning some of the religious authority and historical events.  Father Mainor welcomed these exchanges in our discussions.  But he cautioned me that any such inquisitiveness during, or even outside of, classes at St. Joseph’s would be viewed dimly.

On our last day, Father gave me a folded note to study before arrival at the academy.  He told me it contained two important things to learn and remember about the Sisters.

“First, Flip, always remember they really do love you.  These women have taken a lifetime vow to ensure your well-being…whether you want it or not.”

He smiled, winked at me, and dipped his head to signal if I’d understood his meaning.  I nodded in agreement, so Father Mainor continued, 

“Ah, that brings us to the second issue you’ll deal with.  You already know Roman Catholics consider Episcopalians, along with Lutherans, to be temporarily astray theologically.  Many of the Catholic clergy are convinced it is their primary duty in life to help us return to the Vatican family.  Because you’re confirmed, they’ll ask if you want to be excused from any catechism classes.  Do not take that option, Flip.  Tell them you wish to stay in those classes.  It will help you to understand our faith.  It will also earn you respect from your teaching nuns.  Hold your doctrinal questions until weekends for discussions here.  The Sisters of St. Joseph won’t be receptive to any contrasting viewpoints evolved from the Protestant Reformation.  Don’t even think about it.  Got that, kid?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Good.  Now that note…don’t deviate from the two scripted responses I’ve written for you.  They already know you’re confirmed as an Episcopalian.  Soon after your arrival an experienced Sister will contact you.  It will be just light conversation for introductions.  Once that’s done, the real purpose will come out.  This Sister will politely let you know about their duty to help you return to the authentic or true teachings.  Don’t get miffed about it.  It’s just her sworn duty.  

Be polite, articulate, and go by the script.  You were in theater at Parker so you’ll know your lines.  Give the nun your best Irish smile, look her right in the running lights, dot your ‘i’s, and cross those‘t’s.  So, are you ready for tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Father, I guess so.”

“Flip, I know what you’re thinking.  Look at the bright side.  Not having any young ladies to chase for the school year will have you all rested up for next summer.”

“Yeah, and there’s always the benefit of my having fewer adventures to bore you with during Saturday confession, huh, Father?”

He smiled and then we shook hands.  I put the note in my blue jeans’ pocket and headed up the block for my last supper of a cheeseburger, crispy fries, and a black-and-white malt from Johnny at Cotler Drugs on the corner.

*                     *                    *

I leaned against the wall, pulled out my steel comb, and realigned my blond

Brill-Creamed mane.  My attire consisted of cuffed blue jeans, high-topped black and white Converse sneakers, and a leather jacket.  My father wasn’t too keen on the James Dean look so the jacket was a dark orange-red Western-styled affair.  

I grinned at a punch line for an Irish joke whispered by a seasoned Polish cadet beside me.  He decided to forego the required haircut and was promptly sent to our line.  I learned later this, and other rebellious endeavors, had been his modus vivendi since his parents dropped him off in first grade.  He definitely was a Spartan survivor and was also in my sixth grade class.

An elderly nun in black and white strolled toward us with her arms clasped behind her.  My clothing and pompadour must have prompted her attention.  She stopped and turned with military precision to face me.  The Sister looked me up and down then broke into a broad smile.  Her aquamarine eyes glittered like Austrian crystal through her wire-rimmed spectacles.

I smiled back at her.

The Sister rocked back and forth on her feet then spoke, “Well, Cadet Hollywood, it looks like you’re finally going to get a decent haircut.”

The reception hall fell silent except for the buzzing of the barber’s clippers at the far end.  The veteran Polish cadet next to me sidestepped two strides away quietly while looking down.

I grinned and replied, “Yeah.”

I came to, after a sharp crack accompanied by a white flash, on the floor by the wall with one leg over my duffle bag.  The other cadets snickered along their line. 

The nun stood over me with her arms again clasped behind her.  Her head tilted while she still grinned.  The left side of my face throbbed and burned.  

She leaned down toward me and whispered, “It is Yeah, SISTER.

I was still holding my face and replied, “Yes, Sister.”

She nodded and quipped, “Ah, and you’re a quick study, too.  What is your name?”

I jumped up and faced her.  I wasn’t really angry.  Curiosity overtook any reactions I may have had.  Just who was this lady?  This Sister strolled up to me and joked about my hairstyle like Pat O’Brien. 

Then I came to at her feet as she grinned down at me like James Cagney.  Funny…she didn’t look Irish, but she hit like one.

I smiled and told her my name, making darned sure to add the Sister.

The nun nodded again then spoke, “I’m Sister Pietro.  My class is the eighth grade and I have other duties regarding behavior throughout the upper grades.  Your name is on the sixth grade roster.  You and your younger brother are listed as non-Catholics.  May I be impertinent in asking what faith your family is?”

In my best formal use of the King’s English, I answered according to my script, 

“My pleasure, Sister.  We are Episcopalian and I am confirmed in the records of

The Church of Our Saviour at Fullerton and Clark Street on the North Side.  

My priest is the Right Reverend Father Mainor from Toronto, Canada.”

Sister Pietro chuckled, “… and a bright heretic, to boot. You are probably aware it is my sworn obligation to attempt your conversion back into our community.”

I paused, remembering those dotted ‘i’s and crossed ‘t’s, served up my deepest stare right into her aqua crystals, and repeated the second phrase of Father’s note, “Oh, yes, Sister.  I am looking forward to any ecumenical challenges.

Her eyes twinkled as she laughed.  She reached up with her right hand and gave a gentle tug on my left ear lobe followed by a faint tap on my left cheek.  Then Sister Pietro murmured, “Me too, Cadet Hollywood.  I’ll introduce you to your teacher, Sister John Mary, after all these formalities are concluded.” 

In that moment, we became joined at the theological hip.

Sister Pietro turned on her heels, stepped off, and resumed patrolling the haircut line.  The other newbies stared at me.  By the end of the afternoon, my nomme de guerre would be The Heretic to many of the cadets.

Sister Pietro called me Cadet Hollywood the rest of that year.

Dennis Mitton: One By One. Each In Turn. Sans One. (essay/memoir) Nov. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m an ex-pat from Seattle and still miss the mind-your-own-business culture of my home and never, ever get used to waving to strangers or to tucking in my polo. But there is an honor and a history and a courtesy in the South that is noble and heartwarming. There is much to dislike but where is that not true? There is much more to like. In fact, we wave at strangers because there really are no strangers. Even with the history of strife and pain, the South remains a family. Some cousins are more distant than others but all are related and all are welcome. I am a working scientist interested in superbly crafted non-fiction and fascinated with fiction as a truth telling tool.

One By One. Each In Turn. Sans One.

I was a Christian then, and an expat, too. I moved from Seattle to the heart of middle-Georgia where people did odd things like drink gallons of cold, sweet tea and waved at every single car that passed them on the road. They ate grits. They said ‘y’all.’ They told me that they liked my accent. The people were hospitable, famously so, and I enjoyed this. Friends from church and work invited me to a home on Tuesday nights to drink coffee and eat cake and sing a couple of songs and talk about the week. Prayers would ascend, shoulders were hugged, and good feelings glowed. It was nice.

But this Tuesday was different. I could tell by the rows of Hondas and Toyotas lining the street. I squeezed in between cars under an arching sweetgum and the spiky fruit cracked under my feet as I walked a block to the house. The driveway was as packed as the road.

Taking up half the driveway was a van and trailer. I think it was a van. It was long and had four wheels and was shaped like a loaf of bread. It was so entirely covered with duct tape and Jesus Saves! bumper stickers that I wasn’t sure that it had doors or even a metal body. There was supposed to be a special speaker from Florida at the house that night and I couldn’t believe that this thing drove. Behind it was a shoddy trailer that tilted a bit to one side. The rear door was open and inside was a squirrel’s nest of pamphlets and paperbacks and music stuff and, well, if cleanliness were godliness then whoever owned this wreck was on the wrong side of the coin.

I made my way up the front steps and through the open door into the foyer. A card-table was set up there and was covered like a game of solitaire with the same pamphlets and books and cassettes that were in the trailer. I picked up one of the books and thumbed through the first pages. The type was about a quarter of an inch tall and I spotted grammatical errors on the first page. Everything was self-published or recorded and tawdry. I rebuked myself for being judgmental. The home’s host had been traveling to this preacher’s church in Florida for a couple of months and invited him up to our little get together. I wasn’t sure that anything good came from Florida but should give the man a chance.

The living room was rearranged and the comfortable Scandinavian furniture was all pushed to the walls and replaced with two rows of cushioned metal folding-chairs borrowed from the church. The family piano was moved to what was now the front of the room and a battered plywood podium with a microphone resting on the top was next to the piano.

The host caught my eye, showed a toothy grin, and marched over to me like a lost brother. He grabbed my elbow and steered me with a glowing glee toward the kitchen. “Ooooo brother! Have I got a treat for you,” he said. He was so excited that I checked my growing unease. We went into the kitchen where several folks were catching up and chatting. He pulled me to the corner table where I met the Great Man. Every prejudice about smarmy, sweaty, obese backwoods televangelists rolled up and hit me square on. This man oozed out of the dining chair. I feared that it would impale him on a broken rung when it collapsed under his weight. He shook my hand with a sweaty palm as large and thick as a first baseman’s mitt. His hair was slick and thin and pasted back over the top of his pasty head. He was a cartoon. He saw straight through me. Maybe my ‘Hello’ told him I was a foreigner. I don’t know but his welcome wasn’t welcoming.

His wife was a sensible backdrop. She appeared sweet and cowed and entirely without age. Her long dress covered any hint of flesh and smothered any curves she may have had. Her hair – I am not joking, was pinned and quaffed into a climbing beehive monstrosity that reminded me of the Tower of Babel. She sported pinkish cat-eye glasses. If she told me that she was the preacher’s mother and maintained her youth by drinking the blood of nubile girls, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I was astounded that this man, who was so oily and odious, was held in such regard by my friends.

With a clap from the host, we moved to the living room and the ‘service’ began. I found the chair closest to the front door in case I had to make an escape. Who knew if snakes were hiding inside the podium? The show started and the wife played the piano and sang an old hymn. The Great Man joined in and they sang a couple of the old standards and then some newer songs. Though not to my taste, I was surprised at their talent. She moved easily around the keyboard and they both had fine voices. They shilled their cassettes and books for a moment which was fine: the worker is worthy of his wages. He mentioned his church in Florida, a rented double-wide in the woods. He said that tonight, he was here to pray for anyone who asked. That was it. He hoped that he could encourage everyone and help them on their way with god.

Maybe there was a secret script. Each person, one after the other, made their way up front. These were all folks that I worked with and ate with and argued about football with. These were folks who ran the local nuclear plant. Each one, in turn, tiptoed to the front of the room and waited for the Great Man to ask the same question. “What is your need today, Brother?” “Sister? What are you looking for from God today?” Each person, in turn, whispered into the microphone. A woman said, “I need help in my marriage. I want to be closer to my husband.“ Another said that she struggled every day. “I wake up early to pray and by the time I’ve got the three kids ready for school I’ve screamed over breakfast, lost shoes, and homework left undone. Why can’t I be better?” In each case, the Great Man focused and listened without judgment. He would nod and then say a heartfelt prayer for each person. I didn’t expect to see this gentleness and caring.

When the first person went to the front and after the man finished his first prayer, he put his meaty glove on the forehead of the woman and prayed again. “Lord? Be with this woman and fill her with your love.” All at once, and if anyone was surprised they didn’t act like it, the woman just melted. She didn’t fall over or topple. She just collapsed in on herself. It looked like she vaporized and her clothes, without a body to hang on, fell to the floor in a pile. I looked for a bloody stain on the floor. A couple of men in the group went up to where her clothes were and lifted her. She looked confused and beatific and she walked back to her chair as if floating on music.

One by one, each, in turn, everyone went forward. Except for me.

There was a turn. A prodigal threatened the show. The Great Man took the microphone and paced as much as he could in the tiny living room. He stopped and spoke. “There is one person who hasn’t come to the front to receive their blessing,” he said. Heads popped up from prayer and swiveled to see who was left. His words hung for a moment before he elevated his game.

“There is a brother here with a drug problem. A word from God will help to heal that pain.”

I said my first oath of the night. “Crap-o-moly.” I was the youngest one there and the only man with long hair. Was he just making this up? I was stumped. Any kind thoughts I had toward the man evaporated. I stewed in my seat thinking that I haven’t used a drug since I smoked pot at about sixteen. I prayed again, not the loftiest of prayers: “If you want me up there then pick me up like a chess piece. But I am not going up because that fat ass wants me up front for his show.”

The Fat Man was having none of this. He put down his microphone and walked over to me. He stepped in front of me and touched my shoulder, waving me up front. Time stopped. Within a second, I had a conversation with myself about what to do. I could have left. I could have said no. I could have told him that he was a fat fraud and an embarrassment to everything good. But I went up front. He grabbed the microphone.  

“Brother? What is your need?”

“I was just sitting down and you pulled me up here. Why?”

Kindness fell from his face like scales from St. Paul’s eyes. His flabby face reddened and twisted. I refused to answer anything and he said some prayer that I don’t remember. At the same time he widened his right palm and, in a great swooping circle, as if Micheal Jordan was going to slam that dunk as god-damned hard as he possibly could, he brought his hand around in a roundabout and crashed it on my forehead. He broadened his stance and pushed down with his full four-hundred pounds. This was his show and god-damned if he was going to let some little long-haired rebellious Yankee ruin it. I don’t know if anyone could hear me but I stared straight at him and said that if God wanted to knock me over then he could very well do it but I wasn’t going down just because this fat ass was pushing me.

And I didn’t. He let up and let go of my forehead. The men on either side of me, ready for the fall, slinked backward to their seats, looking at the carpet as they walked. I thought of walking straight out the front door but no, that would give him a satisfaction I wasn’t prepared to give. “See? He left. The weight of his sin is too heavy.” Who knows what stupid shit he would have made up to save face. No. I went back to my seat and sat straight as he closed with a final prayer.

The meeting now over, a few people moved up front to talk to him but he made his way back to the protection of the kitchen. I spoke with a few people about banalities. No one ever spoke of this to me a single time. Nor did I ever bring it up. I have no idea whatsoever what happened to this man and his wife. I never went back to the prayer group which disbanded over the next couple of months.

Meredith Baker: Daddy’s Home (memoir) Oct 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m a debutant, a beachcomber, and a native of South Carolina. The place of my most vivid memories was my grandmother’s farm — shucking corn, snapping beans, and hand-churning peach ice cream.

Daddy’s Home

It’s 5:00 and today, like every day, Mom is in the kitchen cooking dinner. I’m pacing the front yard, listening for a familiar sound. While I walk around, I gather granite pebbles – free, sparkly treasure. Tomorrow I’ll tell the gullible Turbyfill boys I’ve found diamonds in my yard, or I’ll save the rocks until Halloween and give them out to trick-or-treaters, like I did last year.

Putt, putt, putt. My head snaps up, and I scurry to the corner of the lot − the spot as far away from the house as I can go without breaking the “stay-in-the-yard” rule. A familiar blur plays peek-a-boo with me through the trees. The pearl white VW bug turns onto my street and heads towards me. Daddy’s home! 

I run alongside the car giggling and waving, careful not to get too close. Daddy slows down giving my five-year-old legs the false hope of being able to keep up; he speeds up, and I fall behind. Daddy turns into the driveway and stops. When I catch up a moment later, he’s waiting for me at the top of the drive, his window already rolled down.

“Hey, Sloopy. What did you learn at school?” 

I respond with a kiss to his cheek, and answer his question with a question, “Can we, Daddy?” 

He lowers his eyelids and glances around as if we are planning something illegal, “You think we should?” 

I burst into a giggle fit at this ridiculous comment. Of course I do. We haven’t even told Mom about our ritual, which makes our secret double-delicious. I set my feet firmly on the car’s narrow running board and grab the rearview mirror tightly.

“I’m ready.” 

My stomach flips as Daddy shoves the gearshift into neutral. It flops as he eases off the brake.  We roll down the cement driveway at warp speed. Before the tires can make a quarter turn, we’ve burst into song — our song. “Haaaaannnng on Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on.” We belt out the words as we glide down the hill and sing the refrain until we drift to a stop under the carport. 

I hop off so Daddy can get out of the car. The trip down my childhood driveway seems to shorten with each passing day. Daddy scoops me into his strong arms. My thoughts dissolve as I snuggle against his neck, oblivious to the fact that there is one less day in a finite number. Unaware I am wishing my childhood away, I whisper in his ear, “I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

Dwight Watson: Zero Degree Gravity (memoir) Oct 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Now retired, I devoted the past thirty-six years teaching at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. But I was born in Johnston County, raised in Burlington, responded to frequent calls from Emerald Isle, the lower island of the Outer Banks, to relax, and have known North Carolina as my home.

Zero Degree Gravity

It was a stellar year for NASA. 1965. The Gemini missions, 3-7, launched the heroic pairs of Grissom and Young, White and McDivitt, Cooper and Conrad, Borman and Lovell, Schirra and Stafford—astronauts who lifted imagination and made many of us look to the sky. I was 13, and, like other youngsters, I dreamed of orbiting the Earth and floating in zero-degree-gravity. My parents had other plans for me—plans that were more celestial than cosmic, more heavenly than astronomic. In other words, church. To my sorrow, I remained grounded in church while Edward H. White II walked in space. 

I sat with friends, Jimmy and David, fellow space travelers, in the sanctuary of the Baptist Church to which my family belonged.  Making good use of the half pencils and tithing envelopes provided, playing Hangman and Dots and Lines, we occupied an unforgiving wooden pew near the exit just about as far away from the pulpit and the preacher as young teenage boys can get. 

My brother, ten years younger than I, a rather large and active 3-year-old, who later made good on his size by becoming the center and long snapper for his high school and college football teams, at the time was sitting near the front of the church (I believe in the third row) between my mother and father. More accurately, he wasn’t “sitting,” he was gyrating, popping up and down and spinning away from self-control. He had reached that time limit planted in children that says, “Enough is enough! It’s time to raise some hell. I’ll show you what the devil looks like!” I may be overstating the situation, and so let’s just say that his mind and body were no longer in the same place. And, as our Southern Baptist preacher’s sermon gained steam, rocking the ages, and cleansing souls of disharmony, my little brother, matching the energy level of the preacher word for word, summoned his inner demons to a dance. He began clogging, in a fashion, rapidly on the seat of his wooden pew.

You should know, now, that we were not Charismatic Christians, nor Holy Rolling Pentecostals (although I had visited some of those churches growing up), and we were far from the Snake Handlers reported to gather in rural parts of my birth state. We were your run-of-the-mill Southern Baptists, who, when filled with the spirit during a particularly charged sermon, might shout out “Amen!” and sometimes lift a waving hand or two in the air. And, during the long drawn out alter call, the singing of “Softly and Tenderly” or “Just as I Am” just one more time, and one more time, one sinner after another would leave the pew and journey to the arms of the preacher at the front of the church—exchanging Saturday night’s transgression for Sunday morning forgiveness.

On this particular Sunday morning, my brother could not wait for the invitation, the alter call, to be “saved.” He heard a different request. And while dear mom and dad struggled to keep him still and quiet, his body began to surge, and, determined to demonstrate his dance moves, he shot up in the pew, arched the small of his back on the top of the seat, and executed a perfect backflip into the lap of a surprised church goer behind him. He was safe, landing in one piece, that is, except for one of his shoes, which, during the flip backwards, he launched into the air some twenty feet or more. 

We watched as the shoe flew through space. On a mission to escape the sanctuary—it slipped, as the poet says, the “surly bonds of Earth,” leaving behind the pulpits and pedestals, the naves and narthexes, the baptismal pools and backdrops of River Jordan, past flashes of brilliantly stained glass, mosaics of Jesus, deep red and purple, cobalt blue and green, and all facets of amber, and beyond, far beyond the sanctuary lamps and hanging fixtures, and, with superluminal speed, to the sky above—the firmament. 

The congregation, and the preacher, were amazed at the flight of my little brother’s shoe. When it landed some distance away from the launch pad, at first there was silence, and then laughter, followed by more and more laughter. In that moment, we were unaware of our weight; we were free falling. I do not know what the sermon was about that day, but I am pretty sure for me it had something to with going to church, reluctantly, then meeting the unexpected, the unshackled sensation of laughter, the singularity of space and the distortion of time, and floating in zero-degree-gravity.

Elodie Pritchartt: A Hollow Space (Essay) Sept 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born by the river — the Mississippi River, that is, and in its oldest city, Natchez. I and my family are Southern Gothic with the humidity to prove it. We’ve got suicides, antebellum homes, wealth, poverty, slaves, violence, heartbreak, snakes, armadillos, dogs, cats and enough guilt to form our own religion, but we’re not all that crazy about religion.

A Hollow Space

I haven’t been home half an hour when it starts.

“The big sweet sweetgum by the front gate finally died,” he says.

Every death affects him these days, animal or vegetable. 

“Oh, really,” I say, still unaware of its significance in the scheme of things. 

“I took the tractor and went down to the gate to cut it down last.” 

He crushes a pecan with a hammer. Shells skitter across the counter and spill onto the floor.

“I hooked a cable onto it, up high so I could pull it down, you know?”

I nod, having seen it done many times before. 

“And then I went to cut a vee out so it’d fall the way I wanted it to. It’s a big tree.” 

I shudder. My father has no business pulling down trees like that sweet gum. He’s eighty-three. But to tell him otherwise would be cruel. He refuses to acknowledge weakness.  Better to let him die quick and violent than to take away his power.   

I think about the time we brought the pony into town in the back of the Scout when I was a kid.  My buddies and I wanted to bring him to the Mayfair at school for rides. The pony wouldn’t budge. Stubborn little bastard with a mean streak. Finally, my dad just reached down and picked up its front hooves and put them on the tailgate, then squatted down behind its hindquarters and lifted it into the Scout.  We watched, astonished.

It’s the kind of memory you can’t really share, except with those friends who saw it.  No one else believes you.  They think you’re lying again.  But it’s been a long time since I lied about anything.  Well, about anything unimportant.  I save all my lies for stuff that matters.  But people don’t forget the lies, and that’s a bitch.  Because sometimes you need to be believed.

“Well, when I started making the cut, I got about six inches in, and realized it was hollow. So I worried that it might not fall the way I wanted. I called Power & Light and told them they’d better send some people out to cut it down. It could fall the other way and bring down those lines out on the road. You know?”

I nod, quiet.

“It was the weekend. So I left it hooked to the tractor ’til they came out on Monday. They brought a crane and cut it off at the top, got it down to a manageable size. Then they said, ‘Let’s go ahead and pull it down with the tractor.’ So we tried to pulll it over, but it broke about halfway up the trunk. And you know? It was the strangest thing.” 

“What?”  There’s something in his voice that makes me pay attention.

“When it broke, the front half of the trunk fell off, but left the rest of the tree standing. And inside the trunk, about six feet up, was a horseshoe hanging on a nail.”

“You’re kidding,” I say. 

“No. You should’ve seen the looks on everybody’s faces. That tree had to be over a hundred years old. And it looked solid, all the way around. No knotholes, nothing.  But it was hollow, starting about six inches inside the tree.”

“Show me.”

We’re starting out the front door when he says, “Oh, no.” 

I ask him what’s wrong.

“There’s a dead chipmunk out here.”

I look down and see the lifeless little body neatly laid at the doorstep.  

“It’s the cat,” I say.  “He’s brought you a present.”

I smiled. He didn’t. 

“I’ve been finding them everywhere,” he says, in the strangest places.

I can tell he’s upset, and I’m puzzled. Things like this never bothered him before. 

Now, me?  That’s another story.  After he’d come home with a bag of squirrels he’d shot for dinner, I’d lay their little bodies out in lifelike poses, hoping they’d come out of it.  I’d cry as he pulled the skin off them like taking off a shirt.  

How many times had he come home from a hunt with a deer thrown across the hood of the Scout, its eyes surprised, and blood dripping from a tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth?  He’d throw a rope over the rafter in the front of the barn, and attach a hook to the end.  make a cut all the way around its neck and set a hook into the skin. He’d attach a chain to the hook and attach the other end to the bumper of the Scout. Then he’d back the Scout up, pulling the skin clean off the deer. It was quick and bloody with a thick, coppery smell that hung in the air. He didn’t give it a second thought. 

Now he spent his days putting out salt licks and corn, and chasing off anyone who dared try to poach a deer, in season or no. It was late afternoon and the light was slanting at sharper angles, sending shadows out across the field. We stopped by the workshop in the woods. 

“See that metal post right there?” 

“Yes.” 

“Okay, now look over there.”

He pointed to another post some distance away. 

“Those two posts are forty feet apart. If you take a string and tie it between the posts and measure 20 feet, that’s where you’ll find the water line for the house. I know because it broke one time and I had a heck of a time trying to find it. When I did, I made sure to mark it. I couldn’t mark the exact point because it’s in the roadbed, but you measure, and that’s where it is. I’m probably the only person who knows that.”

He sighed and his shoulders seemed to sag.

“You’re going to need to know these things when I’m gone.”

I nodded but couldn’t speak. 

“You know, when people die, it really doesn’t matter who they were or what they did. They’re only remembered by the few people who knew them, and once those people are gone, you’re forgotten. It’s like you were never here at all.” 

I knew he was right. I’d thought it, myself, on occasion. We spied two deer eating acorns under the oaks before they saw us and fled for the woods. 

“Brandon died day before yesterday.”

“Oh, no. ” 

Brandon was the golden retriever he’d rescued a couple of years ago. He couldn’t stand seeing a dog without a home and he now had a pack of about 14 dogs. At least two or three times a day, they’d gather in the front yard. One would begin with short, high yips and within a moment the others would join in, howling and yipping at ghosts.

Brandon had been a steady quiet, companion who never complained. 

“Remember how he chased after the car the last time you were here? A few days later he just lay down and died. He seemed just fine, and then he died.”

I wondered how old he’d been.

We stopped beneath the oaks from which the deer had fled. He showed me how to tell the difference between a buck and a doe.

“The scat the doe leaves looks like little round balls, like pebbles. See?” 

I looked.

“Now, look over here. This is a buck.”

Several mounds of scat, larger than the first, like little mushrooms bloomed beneath the tree among the acorns and the leaves. I thought about all the lessons I’d missed by moving so far away. 

By the gate, the trunk still stood as he’d left it. I looked down into the hollow. Twisted through the trunk was some ancient barbed wire that emerged again on the outside of the tree.

“Only thing I can figure,” he said, “is somebody hung that shoe on that fence a hundred or more years ago, and the tree just grew around it.” 

He reached in and pulled out the shoe where he’d hung it. 

“Well, I’ll be,” I said, shaking my head. I wondered why the shoe hadn’t become embedded in the tree. Who had put that shoe on the nail? How long had they been gone? Does anyone remember them? I tried to remember when barbed wire was invented. How many people had come and gone since that day? 

I remembered the arrowheads we’d found in the lakebed a few years before, just feet from that spot. 

“I’m tired,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m always tired lately.” 

We started back to the house so he could lie down for awhile in the cool of the evening.