Three Finches appeared in our home in the spring I was 12. My dad let them in. He said I had to read more, so I read. As I did, I saw Atticus Finch wrestle the world and lose, and yet I felt somehow he hadn’t. That spring their world became mine. Atticus and his children moved around my cold room as weightless as birds, and bearing the heat of their realm lightly on their wings freely conveyed their warmth to me for a time so that my own desperate temperature rose by degrees in those days. I liked having them around. I was sad to see them go.
In the summer, I met Jane Porter the same way. She was talking to someone out of sight. She was planted in the opposite corner from where I sat reading on the floor in my family's piano room. Her brown skin glistened with jungle sweat, her face fierce. “You don’t know him,” she said. “Could you have seen him charge the monster as a bull might charge a grizzly ‒ absolutely without sign of fear or hesitation ‒ you would have believed him more than human. Could you have seen those mighty muscles knotting under the brown skin ‒ could you have seen them force back those awful fangs ‒ you too would have thought him invincible.”
When the weather turned in the fall I read outside atop the air conditioning unit, leaning back against the brick wall of our house. No one looked there. The great fan ran perpetually, drowning out every sound save the rhythmic rush of warm air. Occasionally I would drowse, and when I did I awoke in a wigwam on a raft moving downstream, or in a hole in the snow poised for club or fang, come what may.
I understood nothing in my youth. When I became a father I understood. Parents journey into the mysterious essence of each child, possessed of neither inequality nor favoritism, and tread lightly the divine landscape of our children’s souls. That’s where they are different. It's where we are all different. And whether we treat our children differently or not is a secret kept by English ghosts in the dead of night. If any would seek answers, look there. Or maybe closer in the wisdom of our fathers.
My older brother and I had hearing problems as kids. We had settled in Atlanta by then. My dad took my brother to a specialist in Chicago when he was a teenager. He got hearing aids, but it only got worse. He’s mostly deaf now; my little brother too. In a way, my dad sent me to a series of specialists as well, whom I visited at my leisure in the corners of our home or perched atop the fan outside. I wonder if he thought I might hear them, might learn to listen from them. I wonder if he hoped they could awaken whatever was deaf or dead inside me.
When we were still in Little Rock on Cherry Valley Drive, they opened up the end of our street and started new construction. They began adding multi-story apartment complexes that would be accessed from an active thruway connected to Rodney Parham. My dad forbid me to play there. Too dangerous. The buildings went up slowly, and the crews left the top floors framed in but free of walls. A boy could step off the side and fall straight to the ground. It was a long drop to the debris littered construction area below. Great view, though. We could see everything from up there.
My friend Scottie Wroten and I were up there one day swiping scrap wood and nails for a fort we had going in the woods behind his house. When the sun got low in the sky, he touched me on the arm and pointed. I looked down the street toward our house and saw my dad in his white dress shirt and slacks. He was walking down the middle of the street, his belt clenched in his right hand right out in the open in front of God and the whole neighborhood. He was taller then, six feet four, before age and the burden of children began to shrink him. From a distance, it looked like his powerful arm had become one long belt. It was horrifying. Unforgettable.
He didn’t wait till we were home. Didn’t say a word. Didn’t wait for Scottie to vacate the premises. He did it right there on the second floor under the open sky. I think Scottie managed to get halfway down before the second swing landed. I couldn’t stand the view after that. Never went back.
On July 4, we traveled to Missouri for The National Fence Painting Contest. It was just my dad, my brother and me. Pat was competing. He got his picture in the paper dressed like Tom Sawyer. I can see Pat’s face covered in white; paint in his eyes under a straw hat. Boys abandoned their brushes to beat the clock, sloshing their buckets onto the fence, bracketed by screaming parents and tourists. One glorious frenzy of activity.
We stayed at a motel in Hannibal that weekend. We learned about Mark Twain. We explored MacDougal’s Cave. We were Arkansas’s goodwill ambassadors to contestants and their families from other states. I understood this after the fact.
I figure it was the heat of the competition that put one boy in a foul mood. Pat and I ran into him standing by the pool at the motel. The boy was dressed up. We weren’t. Must have been a Sunday.
He was a swarthy little cuss, and pale, with a small pinched face begging to be smacked whenever he ran his mouth. I didn’t do anything to him. Nothing. He took one look at me and was offended. He said I thought I was a big shot for being in the contest. I said I wasn’t in the contest – my brother was. He said I was and I wasn’t nothing. I said I wasn’t, I just look this way. He said where are your shoes. I said I don’t care about shoes. And I must have glanced down at his, and he spotted me doing it and it got him fired up, like I was saying I didn’t care for his shoes.
He said these shoes are real leather. I said why they got heels on them like girls’ shoes? He said they are black dress shoes like businessmen wear and they’re for church and they’re expensive. Who cares, I said. I don’t care about your sissy shoes. He said I sure did care because I was so jealous and dared me to throw his shoes in the pool if I didn’t. Here was this boy’s mistake. He wanted me to like his shoes. He wanted me to like them and think well of him, as if his shoes were a reflection on him. He wanted it so badly that he projected his own appreciation for his shoes onto me, without knowing a lick about me. He was just proud and stupid I thought because they weren’t my shoes at risk of being pooled, and the contestants were all headed home later that day anyway. I’d never see him again.
He repeated his boast and set his shoes on the pool deck. So, in go his shoes. And he starts yelping like a puppy who got stepped on. He said, 'Fish ‘em out!' I said hunh-uh. He starts crying and saying how much trouble he is going to be in, and he swears I’m in for it worse. I said my shoes aren’t ruined, how am I going to be in trouble? Eventually the dads got involved. One of them found a long pole with a net on the end and got the boy’s shoes.
Another time, I was minding my own business watching TV and a show comes on with a man asking people for money to help kids who can’t walk. There were men and women behind him talking on phones. So I tore the label off a coffee can, wrapped it in construction paper and scrawled a message on it. Went door to door collecting money to help those kids. Some of our neighbors had the show on in their living rooms when I came knocking. I couldn’t have timed it better.
It was just a stroke of bad luck that earlier in the day I had been thinking about walking to K-mart to get a candy bar, but found myself without the means of acquiring one. After I had my candy bar, there were a lot of unpleasant questions from my parents about where I got it, which surprisingly had the power of diminishing the pleasure of something I had already eaten. Did I take the money from mom’s purse? Did I take it out of my dad’s wallet? I told them what I had done to help those kids. They listened. They exclaimed and interjected. And soon I was back on every doorstep in the neighborhood returning the money and telling the adults, with their kids standing there gawking at me, what I had done. I didn’t even understand the word 'fraud' – though my dad claimed I sure as hell knew what lying, cheating and stealing were – but I found myself repeating the word just the same. It was humiliating. As if it was premeditated. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more horrible punishment. My dad disagreed there. He said that wasn’t punishment. That just sets things back to zero as far as the money goes, minus the candy bar, but the damage to your name and the trust in us as parents among our neighbors is lost. What do you do about that? You don’t even know what you’ve done. But I guarantee you are going to remember it. What happened after that isn’t fit for print.
Not long after that we moved to Dallas, through no fault of my own. I was 10. We were living in a townhouse on the edge of a busy freeway. I waited till my dad was asleep to ask his permission to do something I knew he’d say no to otherwise. I wanted a comic book at the Safeway across the freeway. So, when he was napping on the couch one weekend I asked him if I could go. And he said yeah, kind of. So I went and came back.
When he woke up, he asked me where I got the comic. I twisted up my face real confused and said, why daddy you said I could go get one at the Safeway if I came right back. I believed you and went ahead, and came right back. He said why didn’t you ask me before I took a nap. I said what. He said you waited till I was in a compromised position to take advantage of me and the situation to benefit yourself. I said well it sounds real bad when you put it like that. All I did was…. Wait till I was asleep to ask me to do something I have repeatedly said no to, he said. He was dead on. It was like I was wearing a t-shirt with my whole scheme laid out and he was just reading it off. You’d think a boy would get tired of being whipped.
It was a curious thing, but it never went for me the way it did for the good little boys in the stories. When they were in a tight spot, they would bow their heads and tell the truth and get a slab of cake for the deed, and let off the hook for the rest. It wasn’t that way for me. When I confessed, I was chucked in the dungeon. When I lied, I was flayed. If I took the fifth, it was the stocks. When I ran, they called the dogs. And when I complained that I got a bad draw of parents, they said redraw then. I said where’s the deck? They said oh it looks like the cards are played out. It left a good boy precious few options after a miscalculation.
It was some years later that we went skiing in Colorado. My dad took us all. My mom had a long-denied fantasy of a real white Christmas surrounded by her family. It was hard to come by in the South.
We were all there in a chalet fit for a queen, readying ourselves to head out into the snow. My mom had bundled herself up so much that she couldn’t bend her joints and had saved her shoes for last. She rolled around on the floor in futility, and at last asked me to put her boots on her. I said everybody else got themselves dressed and you can too. My dad asked me how many times she had put my shoes on me when I was a boy. I said not too often that I can recall. Countless times, he growled, and you can’t help her once. He humbled me and was right to do it. It was one of many thankless, unsavory jobs he had to do as my dad.
I got in trouble for everything I should and nothing I shouldn’t. My dad counseled me, corrected me, chastised me and disciplined me. Wasn’t lax or lazy about it. He did the hard things. I never thought about how to make things easy on him when I was young, or how to lighten life’s considerable weight by doing my part and making good choices. Children don’t think about what they do to their parents. We expect them to just keep loving and sacrificing, despite the heartache. And we do. We always will.
As I got older, trouble took on a different quality. It was more dangerous. More serious. There were fights with other boys over the years. I never got into trouble for those. He’d talk to me about keeping my mouth shut and middle finger to myself and not adding fuel to the fire of an altercation and not creating trouble. But I didn’t get in trouble for figuring out who I was. I wasn’t disciplined for resisting the prideful, evil or cruel. The world takes the fight out of boys. My dad wasn’t going to help it.
Decades went by. I found myself in the fight of my life – battered, alone and outnumbered in a hellishly incorporeal, protracted battle – and at the age of 70 my dad rolled up his sleeves, set his feet and fought beside me. He didn’t have to. He wanted to. He defended me and my children from the greedy, the selfish and the cruel. This man who had resisted the worst parts of me all my life, fought for the hope of realizing the best in me. He dove headlong into the muck to rescue me and my family. He sacrificed his own livelihood that we might have new life. And so we do. Because he redeemed us.
I am older now and seldom look back anymore. There’s no future in it. I talk little and listen long. I hear the voices of the ones who spoke to me as a boy. I hear everyone’s story. Everyone matters. My hearing gets better every year.
Thanks to my dad, there is one story I revisit each year. In the winter, I read it anew and it is new to me each winter. I read it to remind myself. I read and watch in my mind’s eye as the man Ebenezer stands alone in the shadows of his room at 12 a.m., the half-light at that hour in the snowbound London cityscape being more congruous with his spirit than the day. His face, his heart and the sky wear a single, nightmarish shade.
Though his breath fogs the glass, he stands late at the window of his cold room looking out at the winter stretching away before him as if he is removed from its darkness by the very measure his eyes can traverse over the land; the distance between his high station and the forest away at the edge of the city he supposes to be the measure of his safety.
He bends at that same frosted pane countless times, staring into the phosphorescence, looking and seeing nothing. Looking and rubbing the window and seeing nothing. Bending and looking and looking and being blind all the while.
Ebenezer goes on that way until, one night, he is scared out of his bed. He is brought to a point of crippling anxiety and insufferable dread where the seriousness of his sins are made concrete to him; they are made real for him to see. Then, outside his home and knee-deep in the icy wilderness, someone shows him something that at last pierces his rich, comfortable, merciless hide, and thereafter he becomes like a second father to Tim. He got out of bed and repented. It is miraculous, but not too much. Ebenezer was a most malleable soul in his author’s hands. I must not be less so. For it will soon be Christmas morning, and we will face that day together.