Green Hills Literary Lantern

Going to Hell in Pieces

 

 

 “I feel sorry for you,” my father told me.  “I might die before the world goes up in a mushroom cloud, but you won’t.”

            My father was fifty-five when he said that for the first time, older than the fathers  of any of my friends, who called me “The Surprise” as a nickname because I had three sisters, all grown and married by 1964, when I was thirteen.  They could never get enough of hearing about my nephew who was six months older than I was.  “Uncle Todd,” that boy called me, and if my friends were around, they poked each other in the ribs like morons.

            I knew how my father calculated.  He expected to die at seventy because of the three score and ten business from the Bible.  Until I’d been confirmed two months before, he’d had me memorize a verse a day.  I had to recite at breakfast, something like “Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble,” one of many bleak assessments from Job, so three score and ten still came back five years after I’d spouted that verse off to his approval.

            My father was figuring a fifty-fifty chance of the bombs dropping in the next fifteen years, one hundred per cent chance of them dropping in the next fifty-seven.  “You don’t know for sure,” I said, but when I was alone after watching the news I was always afraid he was right.

            For starters, Kennedy had been dead for more than half a year.  “That about clinches it,” my father would say.  “He got us out of the Cuba mess, but now what?  Lyndon Johnson?  This Goldwater fellow?”

            My father made me watch On the Beach with him, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner finding romance in the last few weeks before the radiation cloud from World War III drifted to Australia.  “We’re not going to get a chance to work things out like that,” he said.  “We’re the ones they’ll be talking about down under, the ones that turn into a hole in the ground.”

            “I’ll be in little pieces,” I said, giving myself up to hopelessness.

“If the big bang happens after I die, I’ll look for you,” my father said.  “God will make sure you get put back together again.  Nobody comes to heaven a mess.  That’s for hell.”

            I thought about that, going to hell in pieces, and I knew it was stupid.  I’d just finished health class.  I knew what nerves were, how being in pieces meant they wouldn’t be connected to my brain.  The only thing you needed to be yourself was your brain.  Which was the reason they made so many brain movies, especially ones about keeping it alive or changing it. 

            I watched them all when they showed up on late night television—The Brain Eaters, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, The Brain from the Planet Arous—but the only ones that were scary were Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invasion from Mars, because the aliens in both movies let you look like yourself after your brain was changed or it just disappeared altogether.  How did those people feel about themselves when they thought like somebody else?  My father, if he saw the new me in heaven, would be more disappointed than if he learned I was in hell.

 

My father had a Mom and Pop store named “Ben’s,” where he worked every day but Sunday, and my mother worked on Fridays and Saturdays when business doubled, but in January, two months after Kennedy’s assassination, the county killed his business, he said, by putting up a sign that said “No Parking, 6-9 A.M.” in order to speed up traffic during morning rush hour. 

I had to agree that things looked grim.  Even a thirteen year-old who didn’t have to get up early because school was out for the summer could tell we hadn’t been selling as much deli meat or quarts of milk.  I could read the expiration dates on the cartons, see how many turned bad before anyone bought them.  And one morning in June, when I helped out by watching the store for an hour, there were only two customers who bought newspapers and three boys who bought candy bars.  “Two magazines were stolen while I was gone,” my father said when he got back from depositing a week’s receipts at the bank.

            “How do you know?”

            “I count.”

            “You can’t count everything.”

            “If I’m here, I watch.  When I leave I count the things that people steal.  Who was in here?”

            I looked at the magazines he said were gone—Hot Rod was one, Car & Driver the other.  The men had walked right up to the counter for their newspapers, so I knew those boys had spent thirty cents in order to steal a dollar’s worth of magazines.  And I knew who they were, but I didn’t volunteer their names.  It was as hopeless as thinking I’d live to be seventy.

“If your father was a drinker, we’d be in for it,” my mother said.  “There’s blessings in this world.”

 

For two weeks in June I was going to the pool in town for swimming lessons.  “You're too old to drown,” my mother said.  “Let’s get this over with.”

The first day we jumped off the side of the pool to show we weren’t afraid, and then, to be sure, we held our heads underwater and counted to ten.  We stood in the shallow end and made swimming motions with our arms.  And then we did the dead-man’s float, something I mastered in a few seconds.  The second day we held the side of the pool and kicked.  We pushed a life preserver in front of us and kicked some more.

            “First chance to test out is today,” the lifeguard said at the end of our third lesson.  “Some of you are looking good.”

            Three boys ran to the deep end of the pool as I hesitated by the 4-foot sign.  The lifeguard didn’t say anything to them about running, but he looked at me and said, “You ready?  You’re big enough to give this a try.”

            None of those three boys looked older than ten, the minimum age for my group.  I outweighed the biggest of them by thirty pounds.  The lifeguard’s logic seemed so sensible to me, despite my fear, that I joined them at the 8-foot sign.

            “Down and back,” he said.  “That’s all it takes.  Down and back and you’re finished with beginners.”

            It started to rain while the smallest of those boys jumped in and treaded water like a duck.  One by one those boys aced that test and ran off through the downpour to wait for the lifeguard to sign their certification cards.

            “Ok, big guy,” he said, and I blinked the rain from my eyes and jumped, staying so close to the edge of the pool I nearly scraped my back open.  I held to the edge with one hand as if I needed to get reoriented.  “Reach and pull,” he said.  “here you go.”

            I extended one arm and started kicking, accelerating my feet as I felt myself sinking.  I reached with my other arm, my face went under, and I panicked into the kind of thrashing performed by drowning victims in the movies just before alligators drag them under.

            “Reach and pull,” I heard.  “Reach and pull, goddammit.”

            I sank and kicked my way back to the surface.  A moment later I heard the slap of the life preserver as it hit the water beside me.  “Swim or take it,” I heard, and I thrashed another five seconds before I draped one arm over it and let him pull me in.

            “I don’t get it,” he said.  “You look normal.”

            I hung my tag back on the beginner’s board and walked past those boys who were standing under an overhang clutching their tags, ready to turn them in for a small white card.  They looked at me as if they’d just learned I’d been held back for another year in eighth grade.

            For the next seven weekdays, I left for the pool, a five-block walk from our house, and then shuffled around town for half an hour, stopping in stores where there was plenty of parking and more than five customers per hour—a bakery where I could buy three cookies for ten cents and a newsstand where I could thumb through magazines for free.

I didn’t even go near the pool again until the last day, and then I looked through the fence and saw three tags left on the beginner’s board out of fifteen that were hanging there two weeks earlier.  One of them, I knew, was mine, but I didn’t wait to see which two boys were still trying to pass, whether or not, after nine days, they were willing to show up and be the ones who were too spazzy to swim.  I walked to the bakery and bought three raisin-filled cookies, and then I sat in the laundromat to eat them as if I was waiting for a load of wash to dry.

           

I didn’t tell my mother I’d quit the lessons.  “Good,” she said when I walked back to our house after leaving the laundromat and told her the lessons were over.  “That’s one less thing we have to worry about.”

            My father didn’t ask.  He’d been trying to sell the store for two months, but nobody wanted it.  “After World War III, a store like this will get a fresh start,” he said, “but right now it’s hopeless.”

            His brother, my Uncle Fred, thought he could have a job with the township except he was registered Democrat.  “Change,” my mother said, but he wouldn’t sign up for what he called “the party of the rich,” and so he took a half-time job cleaning the church.  “Just to tide us over,” he said.

My father pasted a sign that said “Going Out of Business” on the front door.  “Everything 50% Off” he printed on the second line.  There were things he discounted that still didn't sell—potted meat, canned asparagus, licorice taffy, pureed beets.   After a week, he marked down every unsold item 80%.  The canned meat stuck around until the very end, set at twelve cents with no buyers.  I picked up one of the two cans and read the ingredients, gagging when I got to “partially defatted beef fatty tissue.”   The licorice taffy was one cent, and even the kids with nickels who stood in front of the candy case those last few days didn’t buy it.

            He sold off the display cases and the cash register, a couple of chairs, a meat slicer, a clock, and finally, the neon sign that said “Ben’s” in perfect Peterson-Method script.  “There’s not much in a store like this except for what people buy,” he said.

From the other side of the street, the closed store looked like a pimple as soon as my father shut the door and locked it on that last day in the middle of July.  Next door, Hugo Massucci, the shoemaker, looked nervous.  Frank Stivic, the barber on the other side, shook my father’s hand, but he was looking at the darkness of the empty windows while he wished my father good luck.

            Two days later Massucci called my father to tell him all the front windows had been broken the night before.  I could hear Massucci from across the room, my father saying “Ok, ok” even when Massucci hollered, “What next?  A fire?”

            My mother talked about property taxes at dinner.  She said something about “that greasy wop,” and my father put a finger to his lips.  By the end of July the store was leveled and the debris trucked away.  I wanted to see what would replace it, but my father said it wasn’t his to worry about anymore.

            “You be careful around your father,” my mother whispered when he left the room.  “He’s having a rough time.”
            I didn’t notice any change in my father.  The only difference was he was home when I got out of bed at ten a.m. every day but Sunday.

           

The first Monday in August, when I looked out the kitchen window while I was eating a bowl of cereal, I saw my father talking to our neighbor Hilda Chuderwicz, who was never outside, and when he stepped aside, I could see she was pregnant.  For several months, by the looks of it, but she hadn’t switched to maternity clothes yet, which made her look even fatter.  “And her doctor telling her she’ll lose her kidneys if she keeps this up,” my mother said, two hours later, while I ate cold cuts and salad with them because we ate lunch at noon no matter what.

            “Seven in eight years,” my father said.  “It’s the Catholic way.  The only thing that will save her is Hank Chuderwicz is getting so fat he might up and die on her.”

            My mother raised a finger to her lips.  She could have been reminding me to say nothing about the future of running a small store, but my father just said “or dialysis,” and pushed away from the table.

            “The Gulf Building’s flashing blue,” he said, standing at the kitchen window and staring the six miles to downtown Pittsburgh’s tallest building.  “Anybody know what weather that means?”

            “Colder?” my mother said.

            “Rain,” I guessed, though the only thing I knew about the Gulf Building weather light was there were only four forecasts, red or blue, flashing or steady.

            “That’s what I thought,” my father said, and he left the kitchen.  A few seconds later, we heard the television come on, the channel that showed old movies at one o'clock.  His job at the church was nights and first thing Sunday mornings, which meant he had to finish up and then change into a suit because he taught Sunday School and I had to go, no questions asked.

            Sunday School meant getting up at eight o'clock, earlier than my friends who only had to go to church now that we were thirteen and confirmed.  The class had turned into almost all girls, eight of them and two boys—Brad Konig and Mark Atkinson, both of whom I wouldn’t sit beside for fear someone would think us friends.

Even they missed half the Sundays during the summer, so I’d  walk outside afterwards, fifteen minutes to kill before church began, and one by one the three boys who used to sit with me would get out of their parents’ cars and cross the street to where we stood in a small circle like the men who smoked and talked before they joined their wives already inside in pews.

“Your old man’s ringing the bell in a suit,” one of those boys, Joey Kreck, said the next Sunday morning.

The four of us had been standing around a minute longer than usual, testing how long we could wait before we could walk inside and sit down before the choir started up the aisle.  We’d moved a little, giving ourselves a view of the stairs where the choir gathered, and the bell rope hung down on that landing.

“Yeah,” I said, stopping before I had to lie.

“That’s what Billy Grob does.”

“Billy quit.  My Dad’s helping out.”

“Billy quit?  What other job could a retard like him get?” Joey said.

“Church is a big deal to my Dad.”

“Remember when we had him for Sunday School and he thought he could change us?”

“Yeah.”  I saw the choir coming up the stairs and started for the back door.

“I'm glad that’s over.”

I wished it was, too, especially when my father told the class stories meant to scare us away from sex.  In a class of almost all girls, I passed the time by choosing one each week and thinking about how many risks I’d take for each of them.

My father always read a passage from the Bible to get things started.  Something about lousy behavior—lack of faith, betrayal, and most often, temptations of the flesh—David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene.

            He told a story then, which was the best and worst part, because something strange always happened to the people in them when they let their bad side get the upper hand, and then, just when the story suggested something creepy, he’d start to embarrass me by preaching.  That first Sunday in August, for instance, before Joey Kreck noticed him ringing the bell, he told us about the history of human horns, starting with the woman who claimed her horns grew from arguing with her son, that she was so angry with what he did she scratched above her ear until a horn broke through her scalp.

Sure, I could hear all the girls thinking, but they were sitting up to listen, staying with him all the way to the last example, Mrs. Burnby, who married at fifty, according to her neighbors, for “impure motives,” and grew a horn right after the ceremony.

            Half an hour we had with him, and when his stories were over, five or ten minutes left in the class, there were always three or four girls who asked questions, talking like they’d learned English from the King James Bible, using words like covet and trespasses and countenance.

 

The Chuderwicz’s puppy was dead.  “Last week,” my father said.  “It was only three months old, and a Cocker Spaniel doesn’t get big enough fast enough to protect itself from the two oldest.  They tossed it into their new pool and threw rocks at it while it paddled around.  I don’t know if it drowned or they stoned it to death.”

            I guessed “drowned” because I didn’t think a seven- and eight-year-old could throw hard enough to kill a dog, even a puppy.  But I was glad to hear my father tell me that Hank Chuderwicz had just brought home a full-grown German Shepherd from the pound, tossed it through the back door, and yelled at his boys, “See if you’re tough enough to kill this blank!”  My father actually said “Blank” as if Hank Chuderwicz had screamed it at his children instead of bitch or bastard or more likely, fucker.

            And then it rained for the next three days, reminding me of the plagues my father cited at least once a month in Sunday School, though when I looked at the Gulf Building, it was steady red on top, so I didn’t know whether it had forecasted correctly or had changed colors to catch up to the weather that had already arrived.

 

On the fourth day after the German Shepherd arrived, my father put on a coat and tie and drove into Pittsburgh to testify at a trial for Jan Hughes, who had been in his Sunday School class when I was in second grade.  He was nineteen now, and had been arrested for rape, and my father was speaking as a character witness, but the only thing I could remember about Jan Hughes, who hadn’t come to church in five years, was how he used to stand where I did now when he was thirteen, one of another group of boys who tried to look as if they might skip church for a year or two until they didn’t show up at all.

            “It looks as if he’s guilty, Ben,” my mother said when he got home.

            My father glanced toward me as if he was evaluating whether I should hear him answer.  “I did what I could,” he said.

            “Of course you did,” my mother said, “but there’s only so much that can be done.”

            My father glanced at me again and started to pull his tie loose.  “I need you to help me out this once at work,” he said to me.  “Get in the car.  I’ll be there in a second.  This will only take a few minutes.”

            After he unlocked the church, my father motioned me downstairs.  “It’s time the church got rid of some things,” he said, and he waited for me to heft my side of the first of two enormous chairs he’d moved to the bottom of the stairs.  “Why do they have this stuff in the first place?” I said, but my father grunted and told me to lift.

            The overstuffed, blue chairs stunk of mildew.  Their velveteen cushions rubbed against my face as if they could infect me. “You know the answer to that,” my father said, balancing, finally, the first blue chair on the top stair.  “They belonged to Pastor Bringham’s wife.”

            She’d been dead six years, long enough for her blue chairs to take on a stink like all the old root vegetables that moldered in the damp room under our porch.  “We’re not done,” he said, as we struggled the second chair up the stairs.  “The water tank is what we’re really here for.  It belongs to nobody now and doesn’t do the church any good laying down here broken.”

            My father saw me looking at the Civil Defense sign above the door to the storage room.  “Down here is where you run if the bomb falls on a Sunday,” and then, as if he knew I’d been thinking about it every second the chairs were in my arms, he added, “At our house you hide in our root cellar.”

“There’s nothing in there but beets and onions and potatoes,” I said.

“There’s water,” he said.  “A radio.  Sleeping bags.  And canned goods from the store.  If you ever looked, you’d know that.”

I thought about how I’d last a few extra days listening to static and sitting in the dark eating partially defatted beef fatty tissue until my hair fell out and I had diarrhea and died.  He wrapped the burst hot water tank in an old quilt so we could grip cloth instead of rusted metal.  “Jesus,” I said, letting profanity slip under the sudden weight. 

            “Lift,” my father said.  “Swearing doesn’t help.”

            I listened for the whistling hint of wheeze in his breath, watched his face for a sign he felt the effort in his heart.  He was fifty-five years old and I was thirteen, but he was half the size of Hank Chuderwicz and way more confident in God, so there was no chance he’d call for help because he was afraid for his health.  “It’s just this one time,” my father said.  “The church can’t afford to hire another man.”

We sat in the basement to cool off.  It was still ninety degrees even in the early Friday evening.  “All these stories I tell you on Sundays,” my father said.  “You believe them, don’t you?”

“I guess.”

“If you don’t believe them, how will any of the others believe?  You’re my son.”

“I don’t know what they think, Dad.”

“I know you tell the truth,” he said then.  “That’s what I’m sure of.”

I felt sick.  If we moved into the room recommended by Civil Defense and the bomb fell on Pittsburgh, we’d live long enough to know the world had ended.  I wanted to go upstairs and be blown to hell and back.  My father would only know me for another fifteen years.  If I could keep who I was a secret from him for that long he’d never find out the truth.  

            Two hours later I woke from a dream in which he’d died.  The air raid alarm, which never went off at night, was moaning from the fire hall a half mile away, waking us with three blasts, then one, then three again, as if the sequence was meant to remind us how we’d never paid attention to which numbers meant tornado warning and which meant the actual arrival of fire and brimstone.  Outside, Hank Chuderwicz was shouting “Christ” and “hell” as if they were commas between complaints about dirt and trash.  His wife answered from behind their kitchen door.  Whatever she said, he shifted to “shit” and “fuck” to punctuate the parallel structures of hate.

            Hank Chuderwicz was working his way into the unforgivable blasphemies, combining sex and violence and the icons of Christianity in a voice that he wished, when his wife tried to hush it, would lift all the way to the “faggoty Christ” she would learn, soon enough, would disappoint her.

            It was dizzying to listen to a man fat and old enough to die on the spot lay his salvation on the line.  It was mutiny of the highest order, and if the Russians were sweeping in with a shitload of A-bombs, it was the ultimate in bad timing.

            Through the side window I could look down into their yard, the kind that real estate agents keep to the blind side of clients wandering the house next door.  The German Shepherd was snuffling through half-eaten sandwiches and rain-soaked cookies, looking for something, I imagined, hard enough to chew.

            The swimming pool was covered with a thin scum of bugs and algae that rippled in the yellow porch light.  The yard looked as if the world had already ended, the Chuderwiczs with nothing to lose in an atomic war, and then I thought that Hank Chuderwicz was screaming at the sky because he’d built a shelter underneath his basement, that he was wishing the bombs to fall so he never had to clean his yard or his pool and would outlive all of his neighbors who’d stopped having children after two and mowed their lawns every Saturday.

            And after the siren stopped, the Gulf Building placidly signaling steady blue, Hank Chuderwicz whistled to that dog, and it ran to the back door so fast I thought it would slam right into the fat thighs of its owner.

 

My mother handed me an envelope after church the following Sunday.  “Mrs. Newton said this is for you from Elise,” she said.  “I bet it’s an invitation.”

My father pressed his lips together and watched me open it as we walked to the car.  “She’s having a party,” I said.  “Friday afternoon.”

My mother snatched the card from my hand.  “Isn’t that nice?” she said, stopping to read it.  “It’s a pool party.  Now you can show everybody what a swimmer you are.” She smiled at me, but I was concentrating on not looking horrified.

My father unlocked the car and looked across the roof at my mother.  “I’m surprised the Newton woman was in church,” he said.  “We don’t see much of them anymore, and the girl, never.”

After our Sunday lunch, always a big deal with fried chicken or baked ham, I cut across the Chuderwicz’s back yard after making sure, when the Shepherd barked, he was inside the house. Unless fat Hank himself opened the door and kicked that dog outside, I could reach Joey’s yard ten minutes sooner by tracking through three yards than by going around by two streets.

            With that dog thunking itself against the back door, the Chuderwicz’s house had turned from the bedraggled house of hillbillies into a Levittown version of the Bates Motel.  If Tony Perkins gained 200 pounds and the self-righteous anger of God, he would be Hank Chuderwicz wishing for his pool to attract, in mid-summer, a bevy of bikini-clad housewives to ogle from the obese peep hole of his kitchen window.

            Joey was waving a card just like mine as I came up his driveway.  “A pool party,” he said.  “Elise Newton in a bathing suit.  I can’t wait to see how much of her tits show.”

 

“I’m sick,” I told my mother on Friday morning.

“You can’t be sick and not go,” she said.  “Your friends will think you can’t swim.”

“I’ll go, but I won’t go in the water.  I have a sore throat.”

“Of course you’ll go in the water,” she said.  “Who ever heard of swimming in a pool making anybody feel worse?”

The girls all wore one piece suits except for Elise Newton, who had breasts as large as any senior high girl.  For five minutes, as everybody showed up and was handed a glass of lemonade, she greeted us in a black two-piece that kept the boys from bunching up, each of us alone with staring.  Finally, there were six girls and six boys, a bowl of potato chips and a bowl of pretzels on a glass table where a record player sat in the shade beside albums by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and a stack of 45s, each of them sporting a sticker that had Elise Newton’s name and address printed on it.

I hung around the potato chips while the Beach Boys sang “Help Me, Rhonda” and “I Get Around,” keeping my eye on the pool.  Finally, as two girls who kept tugging  their suits up took off the Beach Boys, three boys jumped in the pool, all of them racing each other from one end to the other and back while the Shangri-Las sang “Walking in the Sand.”  The girls swayed back and forth for a moment, humming the tune before they walked away, and I waited for those boys to dare me to race, but instead they hung on the end of the pool, looking past me to where all the girls, including Elise Newton, were now sitting in the shade, wrapping themselves in towels as if they were wet and cold.

I was saved.  I pulled on the black t-shirt I’d brought along and started looking at Elise Newton’s records, picking “My Boy Friend’s Back” by The Angels and watching it spin around until I heard those two girls cheer from under the trees.  I was ready to play every girl-group song Elise owned to see what would happen because none of those girls had heard my father’s warnings in my Sunday School class.

I danced three slow songs with a girl named Marlene Mertz at that party.  Joey Kreck danced with a girl taller than he was, leaving Elise Newton to dance with a boy who was a year older than us, somebody who didn’t jump into the pool to race, somebody who wore long baggy shorts like the Beach Boys and a button-down Madras shirt, nothing you’d have on if you intended to swim.

My mother gave up asking me about it after I said “Ok” and “Yeah” to all her questions.  “But you had fun?” she finally said, and when I said “Yeah,” she seemed satisfied.  “See?” she said.  “You weren’t sick, just nervous.  I bet you were the best swimmer there.”

I shrugged and started reading a newspaper article about Jan Hughes.  He’d been found guilty in less than an hour.  “He’ll have time to think now,” my father said, nodding toward the section of the paper I was holding.

“What did you say when you testified?” I asked him.

“I told them he’d been confirmed.  I told them he had a conscience.”

The article said Jan Hughes had raped five girls; the first had been a year ago.  He hadn’t worn a mask or anything.  He drove to places an hour or more away so nobody would recognize him—Johnstown, Latrobe, Youngstown, Sharon and Wheeling—I wondered what he’d been thinking each time as he drove at least fifty miles out and back.

 

            The Krecks’ car was parked beside ours on Sunday.  “Nobody for President” it said on a sticker pasted to the bumper.  “That won’t work,” my father said, nodding toward it.

Mr. Kreck chuckled.  “It sure as hell beats that one,” he said, pointing toward the car next to ours, which had a bumper sticker that said “What’s Wrong With Being Right?” 

My mother frowned.  “God help us,” she said.  “That Goldwater is a button pusher.”

My father looked grim.  “It’s sink or swim,” he said.  “Hank Chuderwicz has one of those on his Ford.  It’s scary.  I thought Catholics always voted Democrat.”

“Catholics,” Mr. Kreck said.  “You never know.  And here they are ready to give up Latin in church.”

            “Is that right?”  My father seemed surprised, as if he hadn’t heard about the Catholics and their plans.  All he ever said about Catholics was “They’re not like us.”

“Those Catholics are in for a surprise,” Mr. Kreck went on.  “They thought if nobody understood the priest, they’d all suppose he knew the secrets of the universe.  Now they’ll know what he’s up to.  Hilda Chuderwicz is going to find out they sent her up shit creek with those seven kids of hers.”

“Maybe,” my father said, fumbling his keys out of his pocket to let me know it was time to climb in and go.

“And wait until that Warren Report comes out,” Mr. Kreck said.  “It will be a book and then some, you can bet on that.”

“Why?” my father said.

“It’ll take that long to cover everything up,” Mr. Kreck said.

My father looked at me.  “Don’t you listen to that.”

“Your father is a stubborn man,” Mr. Kreck said to me as I started to close the door.  “It makes for unhappiness.”

After we pulled away, my father said, “People like George Kreck and his wife are proud of not trusting anybody.”

            I took that to mean people like George Kreck were going to hell.  “Lucille Kreck has invited us to a party this Saturday,” my mother said from the front seat.  “Now don’t you think you’re too hard on them?”

 

On Friday there was one more story in the newspaper about the trial because Jan Hughes had been sentenced.  “At least fifteen years before he has any chance of getting out,” my mother said.  She looked at my father.  “But he’ll still be a young man then.”

            By now, as soon as my mother mentioned Jan Hughes, my father would say, “There’s no use talking about that,” and lapse into silence.

            It was his way of arguing when he was embarrassed by the subject, but my mother always kept chattering.  If you were in another room you’d think she was crazy, someone talking to a mirror or empty space, addressing it by name.

            “Ben,” she finally said that night before the Kreck’s party, “there are plenty of people who can’t take care of themselves.  That boy isn’t by himself in this.”

            My father hurried his food to his mouth.  One of his rules was never to leave the table with anything on your plate, but he had half a pork chop left, something that would give her plenty of time to argue with his downcast eyes.

            “There’s more where he came from,” she went on.  “You know what it comes from, Ben, and there’s some that’s worse.”

            My father picked up his pork chop in one hand and tore the meat off with his teeth.  He looked savage as he took it down to the bone, but my mother didn’t slow down.  “You know what I’m talking about here, Ben.  That boy has worse thoughts, you can count on it.”

            My father scooped up a mouthful of peas, pushing them on to his fork with his fingers, and then he examined his plate and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “You finished?” he said.

            “Go ahead and leave,” my mother said.  “You know I’m right.”

 

            Even before we arrived, I knew we’d been invited to the party because Mrs. Kreck and my mother were friends.  “You're such a stick in the mud,” my mother said to my father at least once a week.  “You should be glad I talk to people.”

            Joey and I were the only kids at the party.  My father always said, “We shouldn’t be there if there’s something the boy shouldn’t see.”

            I held a bottle of Coca-Cola and pretended it was an Iron City, taking swallows the way all the men but my father did, throwing my head back like I was ready to empty the bottle if somebody dared me.  I carried it against my hip as I walked among the three card tables laid out with cold cuts and salads and snack foods.

            When I opened the ice chest on the porch for a second Coke, I touched a bottle of beer and imagined lifting it, the shaved ice falling away into the chest of cold water.  “You getting ideas there?” a voice said from behind me, and I spun around so fast I almost lost my balance.  “Whoa there,” Mr. Kreck said.  “Maybe you’ve gotten into the stock already.”  He laughed as he handed me another Coke and opened an Iron City for himself.  “Your Daddy will have himself a fit some day,” he said.  “Yes, he will.”

            An hour later, while I carried a third Coke I couldn’t finish, the men had circled up and been talking loud for twenty minutes, and the women now were sitting in lawn chairs near the porch, half of them smoking cigarettes that sent small clouds of smoke into the clear evening sky.  My father was on the fringe of the men’s circle, and because it was close to where the snack food was sitting, Joey and I picked at the potato chips and listened.

“Chuderwicz is a fat fool,” Mr. Kreck was saying.  “He should keep it in his pants or wrap it.”

Joey laughed.  “Old Chuderwicz has the right idea,” he said to me.  “Get it out whenever you can, wrapped or unwrapped.”

My father nodded toward us and then at the men.  “Be careful,” he said.

All the men but my father took a drink from their bottles. “This isn’t Ben’s Sunday School,” Mr. Kreck said.

The light on the Gulf Building stopped blinking and turned a steady red, the signal I remembered from the three days of rain.  Mr. Kreck must have noticed it at the same time because he snorted.  “Look at the Gulf Building.  It’s been predicting rain all day.  That fucking thing is as big a joke as God.”

My father stared at Mr. Kreck and then looked at me.  “Tell your mother I’ve gone home,” he said.

Mr. Kreck watched him walk down the driveway and onto the sidewalk.  As soon as he passed behind the row of hedges, Mr. Kreck lifted his bottle and gestured my way.  “Your father thinks certainty is something you’re born with and have to keep like a birthmark.”

If he had cut through the yards like we did, he’d be home in five minutes, but I knew my father would walk to the end of the Kreck’s street, take a right angle turn, follow the main road for a quarter mile and then walk back our street, taking fifteen minutes.  My mother, half an hour later, asked me, “Did somebody say something?”

“Mr. Kreck.  I think he’s drunk.  He said fuck and God in the same sentence.”

“Well, there’s no going back from that one.”

 

“Half of you will be getting a new teacher next Sunday,” my father said two days later.  “You’ll be joining the high school class.  Perhaps a few of our absentees will be coming back now that summer is over.”  We waited because it looked as if my father was about to add something.

            “Let me say goodbye with one more very short story,” he said.  “You already know all about Belshazzar’s Wall, how God’s finger wrote his doom across it because he failed to take care of himself.”  I looked at the girls, who were sitting up, all right, but none of them looked as if they remembered anybody named Belshazzar.

            “God’s handwriting is as unmistakable as our fingerprints,” my father said.  “Imagine what he would write to you because of your behavior.  Imagine how he would have to judge you if the world were to end.”-

            The girls looked restless now, and so was I.  This wasn’t a story.  There wasn’t anything unusual in it but the quavery tone of my father’s voice. “His words don’t have to be spelled out for you to see them,” my father said.  “Keep your eyes open.  Think.”

            He stared straight at me then, so obvious two of the girls turned to look back at me.  When my father’s gaze returned to the Bible he was holding, one of those girls turned to look my way again, and when she twisted in her chair, her blouse pulled tight against her breasts.

            I began to think about what I could say to her when Sunday School was over, something to get things started so I could stand and talk with her while Joey Kreck and the others circled up, hands in their pockets, and wished themselves me.  She’d heard the same stories as I had; there was a chance she wanted to find out whether any of them were true.

           

Gary Fincke’s collection Sorry I Worried You won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and was published by the University of Georgia Press.  His latest book is a poetry collection, The Fire Landscape, published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2008.  Other new stories have recently been published in The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, CrazyHorse, and Black Warrior Review.