My brother William, 10 years old to my 13, visibly shook in the big feather bed and gave me his famous zombie gaze; he had a way of somehow flattening his face so that his dark brown eyes, science-fictionally wet at all times, nailed you—a look of disappointment and immediate forgiveness that could make you feel ashamed even when you were innocent of whatever thing it was he thought you’d done, or, more often, as now, left undone. We were at our crazy paternal grandparents’ farmhouse in the woods of Alpharetta, Georgia, in the unheated first-floor bedroom always assigned to us, where, this time of year, two days past Christmas, it was cold enough to see your breath. I’d not yet got into the bed with William, but still sat on the edge of it, removing my shoes and socks. I’d just asked him a question he’d declined to flatter with an answer, and when I turned to him, there it was, that look. What I’d asked was, “Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?”
The moment before, he’d softly confided to my back that Daddy Perry, our scary tyrannical grandfather—big and fat; narrow brown belt cinched high on his belly; salt-and-pepper crew-cut; white-stubbled neck bulging from the collar of a plaid flannel shirt, topmost button always buttoned; spit-slimy cigar clamped between tiny yellow teeth—had groped him that afternoon in the dairy barn. William had said touched, not groped, but I knew what he meant because the old man had pulled the same stunt with me when I was William’s age. Of course, I should have admitted this to William, but I’d never told anyone, and something about the onset of puberty had pretty much sealed my resolve to keep it that way. I’d also acquired, through a kind of cultural osmosis, a knack for making unpleasant things smaller than they actually were.
I put my back to William again and stuffed my socks inside my black-and-white tennis shoes, which I tossed against the short wall beneath the nearest window. Because all the room’s walls were bare wood, the shoes made a loud thump that might have brought one of the adults in to see what was going on. I waited a few seconds, listening for footsteps, but none came, so I stood up and started unbuckling my belt. I automatically glanced into the farthest corner of the room at the rifle leaning there, its stock about the same reddish-brown color as the walls, its dark barrel gleaming in the lamplight: the Christmas present I’d expected to get a year ago, when I was 12, but which, for reasons never explained to me, had been delayed a year—a Winchester .22 Hornet, the so-called “rifleman’s rifle.” Since I’d had it only four days, I was neither convinced of the fact of it nor used to its attendant weight of responsibility. It had also come with a small box of cartridges, which I was keeping close to hand, on the table next to the bed. Once stripped down to my underwear, I crawled in, shivering , next to William beneath the covers. The only light in the room was on my side of the bed, a double-globe table lamp that required three turns of the switch to get it to go off.
In the dark, I recalled the time, three years earlier, when Daddy Perry had done to me what he’d done that day to William. Puffing on a cigar, he lay in his green Naugahyde recliner, close to the stove in the living room, and asked me to throw in another log. The woodbin rested on the floor between the recliner and the stove, and as I bent to grab a log, he slid his hand between my legs, lifted me up a couple of inches by the crotch, and squeezed me, hard enough to make me freeze, but not so hard as to make me cry out. Immediately he started to pulsate his grip on me, which radiated something like goose bumps up into my belly and down into my thighs. “Somebody’s been eatin’ his Wheaties,” he said in an especially gooey drawl. “Kinda big for your age, ain’t you?” Even if I’d had an inclination to speak, even if I could have begun to imagine an answer, I couldn’t have found my voice. Since he apparently didn’t intend to release me, I lifted one leg and climbed down off his hand as if I were dismounting my bicycle. As I walked straight out of the room, I bumped a branch of the Christmas tree, sending a glass ornament crashing to the floor.
Now, lying next to William in the dark, I imagined my little brother standing on a lower rail of a stall in the barn, and Daddy Perry, half-human, half-hippo, creeping up behind him and grabbing him between the legs. At last, I said, “I guess we could tell Daddy,” a lame idea since we both knew Daddy Perry exercised a kind of mind-control over our father and absolutely nothing would come of it.
“He wouldn’t believe me,” said William. “He’d say I made it up, just like he said I made up the thing about the ironing board.”
He referred to something he’d claimed happened Thanksgiving night at home in Alabama. For some reason, the maid had left an ironing board behind William’s bedroom door, so when he’d closed the door, turned off the light, and got into bed, he saw it there, white and ghostly in the dark. A chill washed over him as he stared at it, and then, soon, it glided toward him and stood at the foot of his bed. William said he felt the ironing board wanted something from him, and even though he was afraid, after a while he started to feel sorry for it. He’d related the incident at the supper table the day after Thanksgiving , and our father, normally a handsome man, had sneered in a way that made me think of a baboon. Mother, intrigued (possibly even moved) by the story, asked William why he’d felt sorry for the ironing board, and William said, “Because it didn’t have any eyes or ears or mouth.” At that, Daddy snorted down his nose—exactly, I imagined, like a baboon—and told William he needed to stop making up stories to draw attention to himself, that he was too old to be doing such silly stuff, and that it was like something he would expect a little girl to do.
“Well, I don’t think we can tell Mother,” I said now.
“Not in a million years,” said William. “That’s why I told you.”
The next morning, I woke up feeling no time had passed. I could smell the usual morning aromas—coffee, bacon, and cigar smoke. William was already gone from the bed and from the room, presumably to the kitchen for some breakfast. I suddenly had the thought that he might have taken my rifle without asking permission, and I raised up on my elbows to make sure it still stood in the corner where I’d left it. To my relief, it did, and I let my gaze wander the still-frigid room for a moment. The wooden walls were patterned with watermarks from the often-leaky roof that made them look something like time-darkened maps. An old picture calendar from 1949, thumbtacked to the closet door, showed a purple-robed Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood, as the disciples, reliably disappointing, slept in the background. That closet was between the bedroom and the living room, and most oddly, you had to walk through it in order to go from one room to the next. On the wall opposite the closet door, a window, covered with lacy sheer curtains, looked out onto a long concrete porch across the front of the house. Through the curtains I could see that the bottom pane was partially covered with frost and that the sky was overcast. The prospect of
another gray cold day spent mostly indoors made me roll onto my stomach and burrow my face into the pillow, a luxury enabled by my being on Christmas vacation and not having a school bus to catch.
I wandered a while in the meaning of what William had told me. We’d never been sat down for the sort of talk parents would have with their children a generation later. Nobody had ever told us it wasn’t okay for a grandfather to do what Daddy Perry had done—since we lived in a world where such things didn’t happen, it wasn’t necessary to warn against them. What puzzled me most, even at the age of 13—even after I’d acquired some grammar-school intelligence on the subject of sex—was what could have moved Daddy Perry to do what he’d done. I vaguely understood that comparable (though gentler) behavior, between a man and a woman, was meant to lead to sexual intercourse, an alleged operation of pleasure, but where could it lead between this dreadful old man and William or me? I felt no more equipped to answer this question now than I had been three years earlier, though this time, I did see a connection between Daddy Perry’s obscurely sexual act and his fondness for humiliating people. Nothing tickled him more than belittling our father, for example. I believed that when he put his hand where he had no right to put it, he did in fact take pleasure from it, the bully’s pleasure of hurting somebody smaller.
I decided that no matter how gloomy or cold the day might be, William and I would find some old tin cans and bottles in Daddy Perry’s junk pile, set them up on the stone wall beyond the corn field, and take target practice. I hadn’t yet let William fire my new rifle, though he’d asked more than once, and it would be generous of me to make today the day I consented.
In the dark living room, with its walls of knotty pine and worn braided rugs, I paused to warm my fingers at the stove. I thought the house seemed strangely quiet. After a moment, I continued on to the kitchen, where I found Mother sitting silent, hands folded, at the big red Formica table in the middle of the room while Granny Mac washed dishes at the sink. Right away, I didn’t like the way Mother looked. She could have been pretty—she had agreeable enough features, a decent figure, wavy blond hair, but her facial expressions ranged mostly from patient and long-suffering to put-upon and hurt. I had the distinct feeling that Granny Mac had just said something wounding. I sat down at the table and sang out my most cheerful “Good morning.” Granny Mac didn’t turn around from the sink, but Mother immediately stood, adjusted the collar of her blouse, just so, and slid her chair back in place with a precision that suggested she was taking some kind of moral high ground. She said, “Good morning, Dan,” with a resigned tone. “I suppose I should go and see if your father’s ready.”
Before I could ask what Daddy was supposed to be ready for, she left the room. Granny Mac turned off the tap, stared for a long moment at the doorway through which Mother had gone, and slowly shook her head. She dried her hands on her apron and gave me the sad smile you give people you feel sorry for. “Some people are just too sensitive for their own good,” she said. “Some people get their tail up if you so much as look at them cross-eyed.”
To me, there was only one thing interesting about this pale, wrinkled old woman who lived out in the woods with a mean old man and made biscuits from something called scratch and served them with something called red-eye gravy—her voice, so small and tremulous that when she spoke she seemed always on the verge of bleating. As she set about making my breakfast at the cook stove, she said, “Now, where’s that little brother of yours?”
This surprised me, as I’d assumed William had already been in for breakfast ahead of me. “I don’t know,” I said. “He was gone when I woke up.”
“Hm,” she said. “He probably got out early with Mac.”
Mac was what she called Daddy Perry. “Got out to where?” I asked.
“Same place he goes at the crack of dawn every morning come hell or high water,” she said. “Out to the cow barn.”
I thought it inconceivable that William would go to the barn again with Daddy Perry, but I also knew Daddy Perry could be persuasive, so I stood up abruptly, scraping the chair legs on the linoleum, said excuse me, and shot out onto the screen porch, with Granny calling behind me, “What in the world, child?” I threw open the outer door with such force that a bright green chameleon that had been resting on the screen went flying through the air. I strode across the bare dirt yard beneath the enormous beech tree behind the house and then on down the stone steps to the grassy barnyard. I lifted the latch on the barn door and pulled it open wide enough to stick my head into the warm gloom, pungent with tobacco, wet hay, and raw milk. I couldn’t see Daddy Perry or anything else, but I smelled his cigar and heard the repeating ping of a jet of milk striking a metal pail. “Daddy Perry,” I called out, “is William in here with you?”
“Who wants to know?” he answered.
“It’s Dan. I’m trying to find William.”
“What you want him for?”
“Daddy Perry, have you seen him or not?”
“Maybe I have and maybe I ain’t.”
“Well, have you?”
“I might’ve seen somebody that looked like him.”
“There was a boy out here a while ago supposed to be helping me milk the cows,” he said, “but I told him to get hisself back to the house ’cause he was useless with a capital U.”
I let the door slam shut, not caring if it scared the cows. For a moment I contemplated the rusty hasp and staple and the padlock on the outside of the door. I imagined one of the cows, startled by the noise I’d made, kicking over the milk pail and causing Daddy Perry to drop his cigar into the hay, starting a fire that would quickly engulf the barn, and Daddy Perry trying to escape but finding himself locked inside. I imagined the charred carcasses stacked up amid the rubble and embers and how hard it would be to distinguish Daddy Perry from the cows. When I turned around, I saw my father standing on top of the stone wall that separated the lower barnyard from the higher back yard of the house. Beneath his wool jacket he wore the brown-and-gray plaid flannel shirt Mother had given him for Christmas. Even from this distance I could see the meticulously placed part in his black hair. He was holding my peacoat in one hand and my blue sock cap in the other, and now he indicated with an upward jerk of his chin that I should come and get them.
He had a way of squinting his eyes and scrutinizing you as if he found something about you curiously off, and this is what he was doing when I reached the wall and looked up at him. He said, “You ought not to let that door slam like that. It’ll scare the cows.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Me and your mother are going to drive Granny over to the store to get some groceries,” he said. “Where’s your brother?”
I told him I didn’t know where William was, that I was looking for him right now, as a matter of fact, that Granny had said he probably went out to the barn with Daddy Perry, but Daddy Perry had just told me he’d sent William back to the house.
“Well, when you find him,” said Daddy, “y’all both need to get yourself something to eat. Granny said you ran out of the house without touching your breakfast.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He threw down the peacoat and cap to me, told me to put them on, and then continued staring at me as if he didn’t trust me to obey. After I had them on, he said, “We ought to be back in about an hour. Behave yourself.”
“Yes, sir,” I said again.
I watched him disappear around the side of the house, and then I stood still, considering William’s possible whereabouts. I didn’t think he’d returned to the house, because somebody would have surely seen him. He could have snuck up the back stairs to the abandoned rooms in the attic, I supposed, but that was unlikely, as he’d never liked being up there by himself. I could see from where I stood that he wasn’t in the tractor shed, so that left only the little whitewashed shack on the other side the road, where Daddy Perry cured his hams. As I climbed the steps to the back yard, I heard the crunch of Daddy’s tires out on the dirt road, and then a sudden wind rattled the dead leaves that still clung to the branches of the beech tree.
The shack stood close to the edge of the road and rested about a foot off the ground on cinder blocks. I stomped up the three wooden steps at the front, hoping to frighten away any snakes or rats that might be around, and then pulled on the wire loop that unlatched the door from inside. As expected, no William. I ducked my head down under the half-dozen hams hanging from the rafters and moved to the back of the shack, where a door opened onto the cornfield, plowed-under and furrowed as if a giant comb had been dragged through it. The sky over the field was a uniform silvery gray, with the glow of a faraway sun behind it. I called out William’s name, but no answer came back. I decided to walk the quarter-mile to the creek and see if maybe he’d gone down there, as I could imagine him sitting by the water’s edge on a favorite boulder and doing his thinking.
The red clay road—named for our family, since Daddy Perry had the biggest farm on it—cut between the green and gold pastureland on either side, enclosed by barbwire fencing and creosote posts. Beyond the pastures, closer to the creek, was an apple orchard, and then nothing but woods. As I walked, yelling William’s name now and again, I recalled a long-ago summer visit to the farm, a hot afternoon when Daddy Perry had put us in the back seat of his gray-and-white Oldsmobile sedan and driven us to the creek, flying down the road and taking the two sharp curves and the two whaleback hills beyond the orchard so fast, he’d given us butterflies. Once we’d crossed the wooden bridge that spanned the creek and pulled into a clearing just big enough for one car, he told us to pile out, which we did, and then ran to the edge of the muddy water. When Daddy Perry caught up to us, he said, “Y’all boys take off your clothes and get on in.”
I was seven and William four—too young to readily defy what our grandfather told us to do, but old enough for the prospect of being naked in front of him to horrify us. I shrugged my shoulders, and William, imitating me, shrugged his. I said, “Nah … I don’t feel like getting wet,” and William said, “Nah … me neither.”
Stone-faced, Daddy Perry said, “Well, why you reckon I brought y’all down here?”
I could think of no answer to this question, but I remembered that our mother had packed swim trunks for us, so I said, “Can we go back to the house and get our trunks?”
“You don’t need no trunks,” he said. “There ain’t nobody around here. Now get your clothes off like I told you before I walk over yonder and break me off a switch.”
William looked at me, miserable at the mere mention of a switch. He moved behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist, and rested his face against the small of my back. Through my T-shirt I could feel his lips moving, which I understood to mean he was praying. At that moment, as we stood next to the murmuring brown water, true inspiration visited me, and I inaugurated a tactic we would employ several significant times over the course of our growing up. I turned around, leaned down, and whispered in his ear one word: run. We took off, past Daddy Perry, past the car, across the wooden bridge, and headed out on the dirt road back to the house.
Of course, it was only a matter of two minutes, when we were just past the apple orchard, before Daddy Perry pulled alongside us. He leaned over in the seat, looked specifically at me through the passenger window, and said to get in. I slowed down, but William’s instinct was to speed up; he raced ahead, faster than I’d ever seen him run. I noticed that he was a little knock-kneed in his baggy khaki shorts, and just then, a bluebird flew out from the brush between the road and the fence on my right side. It made a quick circle around William’s head and flew off over the pasture toward the woods. Then Daddy Perry floored the Oldsmobile and left us in billows of pink dust. William stopped to let me catch up to him, and we walked the rest of the way to the house. Naturally, we feared that some form of retribution would be waiting for us, but to our relief we didn’t see Daddy Perry again until suppertime, and he acted as if nothing unusual had occurred—an aftermath that surprised us then, but one we would soon come to expect.
Now, as I reached the edge of the orchard, I lifelessly called out William’s name again, and to my astonishment, he answered back. I stopped, shielded my eyes from the glare of the sky, and looked into the gray crosshatch of trees. At last, I spotted him in a gnarled old tree about 30 yards away.
I carefully squeezed through the barbwire fence, walked through the tall grass to where he was, and stood beneath him, looking up. I said, “What are you doing?” though I could see that he was reading his pocket Bible.
He said, “Reading.”
“Yeah, but why up there?”
“Why not up here?” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
I studied his face for a moment, and then said, “What happened?”
“Nothing,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“I know you were in the barn with him,” I said.
He lowered his head and pretended to return to his reading.
I said, “William, tell me what happened.”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “He said if I didn’t go help him with the cows, he’d tell Mother he caught me stealing money from his wallet.”
“You stole money from his wallet?”
“Don’t be stupid,” he said.
“Oh, he just—”
“So I went and as soon as we got there, he started talking nasty to me, and I just got up and walked out.”
“What do you mean, talking nasty?” I asked.
“Told me I was as useless as Daddy was. Said he bet he could make me cry in less than one minute.”
He was snapping the corner of the Bible’s leather cover back and forth with his thumb. I saw that his eyes had started to well up, so I said, “Well, good for you for getting out of there when you did. Now why don’t you come on down, and let’s get some breakfast.”
“I’ll be along soon,” he said. His face brightened as he added, “I just want to finish this—it’s the part where they go and find the empty tomb and they think somebody’s stolen his body and Mary Magdalene looks straight at him and thinks he’s the gardener.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, only vaguely remembering the story. “You’re not cold up there in that tree?”
“No,” he said, “I’m fine.”
“Okay,” I said, “but don’t be too long. They went to the grocery store, and I don’t want them coming back and finding you still haven’t eaten anything.”
“I won’t be long,” he said.
I have no memory of walking back to the house that morning. I’ve always had a feeling that I took some detour and that something delayed me a few minutes, but I don’t know what it would have been. The next thing I can recall is looking through a window between the screen porch and the living room and seeing Daddy Perry resting in his green recliner. In order to avoid him, I went in through the kitchen and then a back way that wove through each of the downstairs bedrooms, until I came to mine and William’s. I remember sitting on the bed and thinking about Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for a gardener, and then how she recognized him the minute he spoke her name. I thought that detail rang humanly true, that it stood out and made the implausible events that surrounded it more believable. I remember looking through the white lace curtains of the window at beads of clear water on the pane where earlier there had been frost. I remember that I still wore my hat and peacoat, and I remember that when I stood up, took a single cartridge from the box on the bedside table next to me, and moved toward the corner of the room, I felt light as a feather and propelled by something outside myself. I already knew what I was going to do, and I gave no thought whatsoever to the possible consequences. In that particular way, I was no longer myself, or at least not the version of myself I was familiar with. I lifted the Winchester from the corner, slid back the bolt, dropped in the cartridge, closed the chamber, and left through the closet between the bedroom and the living room.
From a few feet away—past the Christmas tree, dark and overladen with icicles—I could see that his dead cigar rested in the ashtray stand next to the recliner, and when I crept forward and the side of his head came into view, I saw that his eyes were closed. A big picture in an ornate gilt frame hung on the wall at the far end of the long room, a curly-haired boy petting a Saint Bernard, and I imagined them watching me as I brought the stock to my shoulder. When I got close enough to put the front sight within an inch of his left temple, I released the safety with my thumb, and the sharp click it made caused him to open his eyes and absorb the situation. His hands were flat on the armrests of the recliner. He didn’t move except to press his lips tightly together and to shift his eyes so he could look at me diagonally, up the barrel of the rifle. That was when I might have said, “If you touch him again, I’ll blow your head off,” like somebody in a movie, but I didn’t say a word. The extreme silence had a violent air to it. What felt like a long time passed, with neither of us making a move, and then, at last, he lifted his left hand, lay his fingers against the barrel of the rifle, and swung it slowly to one side, away from his head. I didn’t resist, but as soon as he lowered his hand, I put the barrel back to where it had been and touched the tip of it to his temple, where a small purple vein throbbed beneath the skin. Now when he looked up at me, I saw real fear in his eyes. I let a lengthy 10 more seconds pass and then raised the barrel toward the ceiling and left the room the way I’d come in, closing both closet doors behind me.
This happened on the morning of December 29, 1962. For the rest of the visit, Daddy Perry didn’t speak to William or me or even look at us. The following Christmas, when I asked Daddy if William and I could stay home rather than go with him and Mother to Georgia, he said okay. Over the next several decades, the population of Alpharetta grew from about 1,300 to more than 65,000, and it became a tony suburb of Atlanta. Daddy Perry’s land—originally home to the Cherokee people, before they were evicted from it under the Indian Removal Act of 1830—was eventually sold and the proceeds divided among his heirs. My father received a payout of nearly $300,000, every last penny of which he squandered on the commodities market. Today the narrow clay road that once ran in front of the old farmhouse is a parkway, as wide as six lanes in spots, and still bears our family name.
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