DON’T TOUCH MY CHILD,” the woman said.
She and her son stood in front of me in the checkout line. Her son looked to be four, maybe five. A towhead. I had placed my hand on the short-cropped sunlight for the barest moment.
The mother turned the boy toward me and pointed at my face. “Do you see that man? He might be a very nice man, but we don’t know that. He might be the kind of man who would do terrible things to you. We have to be careful, don’t we?”
The boy darkened. Had his mother been wearing a skirt, he might have disappeared. She wore white shorts and he hugged one of her legs. She turned him toward the front again and placed her own hand on his head and held it there.
My righteous anger—can there be righteous anger?—was complicated by the fact that I understood where she was coming from. I held my words because I couldn’t find the ones called for. I wanted to announce that I was a decent human being, but to do so would have seemed to give credence to the possibility that I wasn’t. Better to remain above the whole thing. I wondered if the cantaloupe in my basket had been a wise choice. It was ripe. Indeed, I decided it might be too ripe. I left the line and went back to select another. When I returned, the mother and her son had made it through the checkout and were gone.
Leigh and our daughter Sarah were away, in Holly Springs for the weekend. My inclination was to call Leigh as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot. Then I remembered I had sworn off using the cell phone while driving. On the way home I lost the desire to tell Leigh about the incident. The University of Memphis Tigers were stomping the enemy when she called to report that Nan was right, their mother’s confusion was worsening, the time had come to face reality. I assured Leigh that it was fine with me if she stayed over to help maneuver Rosamond to the clinic on Monday. I agreed it might be good for Sarah to be a part of the process. It could be a “growing up” experience. At eighteen, our daughter still had a lot of growing up to do.
Once again I came close to an account of my dressing down by the young mother at the market stop. But Rosamond’s condition deserved some space around it, without getting into something else. As a designer of brochures and such, I hold with the notion—for me it’s more of a dictum—that you signify the import of something by setting it off with space around it.
The Tigers won and I celebrated the victory by slicing my cantaloupe. It was a good one. I found I wasn’t hungry, so I wrapped it in foil, with care, and by morning the whole refrigerator bloomed with it. I transferred the melon to the garbage.
Pastor Vogel questioned with his eyes, from the pulpit, fleetingly, where was the family? Pastor kept up with things. He knew as well as I that I never showed up alone. It wasn’t unusual for Leigh to do my churchgoing for me. I know it doesn’t work that way. I make it a point to attend at least once a month. Two reasons: I can’t persuade myself that Communion is unimportant, and I trust that some kind of regularity at the altar will be a witness to our daughter. When the three of us partake together, I delight in her presence at the rail. I remember kneeling there as a young boy, between my parents, the old pastor’s blessing on my head an integral part of his communing them. I was taught that his blessing meant something and I believed it and I still believe it.
The sermon today did nothing to shush the woman from yesterday. Pastor Vogel—I’d never faced it before—was not a feel-good preacher. You didn’t come to his church to feel better about yourself. He confronted you with the bastard you knew you were deep down, and couldn’t escape from, then turned your eyes toward the man of the wood and the nails who desired to set you free from the man who shaved in your mirror morning after morning. It was “meet and right” for my pastor to touch a nerve or two in each sermon, to nudge me closer to the gospel. The woman yesterday had no call to speak God’s word at me.
Shaking my hand after the service, Pastor Vogel followed through on the question he had telegraphed. “Nobody sick, I hope.”
“They’re in Holly Springs for the weekend.”
His hand sought the next in line, but his eyes followed me a moment. “If you don’t have plans, hang around. Veda’s in New York for the marathon.”
The menu at Bronte had changed.
Paul Vogel engaged the waiter. “Last time I was here, my salad had a dry crumbled-up oak leaf in it. I’d like to order the same salad, if it’s still available.”
The waiter matched Paul Vogel’s straight face. “I believe it can be arranged.”
“Ditto,” I said, game for whatever.
“So what’s going on?” Paul Vogel said.
“Not a lot.”
“Come on, now.”
I didn’t think of him as one to pry. Nevertheless, it seemed that he was digging for something he knew was there.
“Strange incident yesterday,” I said.
I couldn’t hold it down. The story was coming up like acid reflux. My medicine for the complaint was pretty good, but it wasn’t working on this occasion.
“She’s right, of course,” the pastor remarked, “but how rude.”
“Rude. That’s the word.”
“This is where we are. This is how it is.”
I couldn’t believe he was going to leave it there.
He went on to tell a story of his own. His father, also clergy, had been picked up as a suspected highjacker at O’Hare back in the early seventies. Taken into a private room, he’d been searched, unsuccessfully—down to his skivvies, no less—and then turned over to a sky marshal who accompanied him on his flight. The sky marshal even followed him to the restroom door. “When Dad told the family about the experience, I told him that I would have been furious if that had happened to me. He said he might have felt like that when he was a teenager. As it was, at that stage of his life, knowing he was innocent, he found it humorous. I believe he was right. There’s little enough humor in our lives. We’d better sniff it out where we can find it. When you find it, consider it grace.”
Interesting, I thought. The spiritual implication. I doubted that I’d be able to keep that perspective. I didn’t think it was all that good a fit.
“How about these oak leaves?” he said.
“If you can deal with them, I can,” I said, and he laughed.
He said, “Still, we have to acknowledge the mother’s rightful vigilance.”
I decided not to mention the incident to Leigh. I knew what she would say, so why bring it up? She would say, “Well—don’t obsess about it.” She had told me more than once that I was given to excessive reflection. I was beginning to agree with her.
“I smell cantaloupe in the garbage,” she said, entering the house on her return from Holly Springs Monday night.
“It’s Nan I’m worried about. With Robert and his cancer, she has enough on her without this.”
“How do we help?” I asked, back from the garbage run.
“I don’t think I could bear having Grandmother live here,” Sarah said.
“It might come to that,” Leigh told her.
Sarah looked at me as though for help. “Dad—?”
“We’ll do what we have to do,” I said.
Leigh thanked me with her eyes.
Maybe I was a fairly decent man after all. I knew a lot of men who wouldn’t take in a mother-in-law for any reason. Rosamond was a friend. She and I got along better sometimes than she and Leigh did. But what the chemistry would be now, with Rosamond losing her grip on what was going on, there was no telling.
Leigh put Rosamond in the bedroom nearest us, so that we could keep an ear tuned to her nighttime rovings. That had been Sarah’s room since the day we brought her home from the hospital as an infant. Had been hers until a couple of years ago when she set her heart on the gabled room above the garage. A passage above the breezeway connected it to the upstairs hall. Leigh understood Sarah’s desire for new space, and decided it was a good idea. Although I agreed it was time for our daughter to have a room out from under our nose, I moved her stuff with less than enthusiasm. I could remember the first night home from the hospital, peeping in with wonder. Also with a sense of weighty responsibility that was unlike anything I’d ever shouldered. Coming back to the present, I granted that having Rosamond in that room next to us was a good arrangement.
A really nice thing developed between Sarah and her grandmother. Assigned a study in oral history, Sarah interviewed Rosamond and in the process the two females became friends. Rosamond’s past so interested Sarah that it became an ongoing fascination. We reminded our daughter that her grandmother didn’t have a firm hold on anything anymore, not to set too much store by what she related. Sarah suggested that Rosamond’s memory of events might be truer than what actually happened. Leigh counseled me to let it go and not revert to our often-expressed philosophy that truth is objective and absolute or it isn’t truth at all. I agreed. It wasn’t necessary to insist on our worldview at every turn.
My art table at the agency backs up to an expanse of glass overlooking the river. When a design isn’t going well, I might swivel around from time to time and immerse my struggle in the flow. The river has been a friend of mine since I was a child. I used to accompany my mother on her jaunts to the library. As a reward for being a good boy while she selected her books for the week, we’d stroll down to Confederate Park where I was allowed to straddle one of the old cannons and contemplate the river below. I picked a houseboat, painted it red and lived in it. I rode barges down to New Orleans, or up to St. Louis. I knew which direction was which. I rescued women and children from sinking vessels.
Today, a deep fog haunted the river, and what water was visible came in torrents down the glass. The design on my work table was coming together without help from the view. I felt good about the new approach I was taking. A certain smugness, which had nothing to do with the design, contributed to my buoyant attitude. I’m not an umbrella man, but I had brought into the office the black brolly that Leigh gave me for Christmas, which I usually left in the car. On this occasion, the morning clouds had threatened so darkly that I played it safe. Let it rain, let it pour. I was prepared. I hooked my protection over the edge of the art table so I wouldn’t forget and leave it. But forget and leave it I did, and then realized it before I reached the ground floor. On my second trip down—this time having the elevator car to myself—I sported the brolly on my shoulder, rifle style, and whistled.
Reaching the sidewalk, I unfurled the black and walked under it.
A woman heading in the same direction overtook me and said, “Is it raining?”
Only then I noticed that the weather had changed. The rain was gone. The sun had broken through. “By George, it isn’t,” I said, uncovering myself.
She seemed to see more humor in it than I did.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? I could have sworn—”
I said, “Maybe it’s just that I have a common face.”
“I don’t think you should put it that way, when I was trying to be nice.”
She walked on ahead, then turned and waited for me to catch up.
One moment I didn’t recognize the woman and the next moment she and her young son were standing in front of me in the checkout line, cantaloupe in the air.
“I remember now,” she said. “You were at obedience training. You had a black Dobe, I believe, who was very attentive to my fawn Dane.”
“Sorry,” I said. “We used to have a multicolored mutt, but I don’t think he ever made it to obedience training.”
The woman let it go and went her way and I went mine.
Supper was a favorite of mine. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. A favorite of Sarah’s, also. It was good to have something in common with my daughter. A bottle of red hot sauce completed the table. Sarah and I liked our soup fiery. Despite Leigh’s warning, Rosamond shook some fire into her soup and then couldn’t eat it. The ensuing conversation was practically scripted. I decided it was time for me to brighten things up with a dash of comedy. I figured my umbrella story ought to do it. Sure enough, I soon had the attention of all. By the time I got to where I started back up the elevator, Rosamond let it be known, respectfully, that she couldn’t follow what was going on. I told her I understood her problem, I could hardly follow my own narrative. I began again and we made it to the point where I raised the umbrella in the sun and the woman came up and asked was it raining.
I laughed from the gut. I had come to believe that the ability to laugh at one’s self is a sign that you’re maturing into true adulthood. Leigh and Sarah laughed with me and I appreciated their support. Rosamond saw fit to comment that she remembered when Mississippi ladies carried parasols to protect them from the sun. It was a plus when Rosamond connected with anything from days gone by. Mentally I patted her on the back.
I was about to flash back to my previous encounter with the woman, but thought better of it. In my bones I knew I wasn’t ready to laugh about that. The day would come, I felt sure, but I wasn’t there yet. The day would come and I would relate the whole thing to Leigh and she would laugh heartily because she’s a good wife.
We were still at the table when Sarah’s date arrived—the real table, in the dining ell, to which we’d taken since Rosamond’s move in. (Previous to that, we ate most meals at the kitchen bar, our bottoms on high stools, our eyes on the television screen.) Leigh had met the date. I hadn’t. “Seems like a nice boy,” she had told me privately.
“How old is he?” I’d asked.
She wasn’t sure exactly. “Twenty-one, I think.”
“That’s three years older than Sarah. He’s no boy. He’s a man.”
“He’s entering medicine,” Leigh said. “I guess that does make him a man.”
“What’s his name?”
“Steve. Stephen. I don’t know his last name.”
“Why is it,” I asked, “that young people don’t identify themselves with last names anymore?”
“It might be that I just didn’t catch it,” Leigh said.
“It’s a growing trend. Surely you’ve noticed it. Last names don’t mean a thing with this next generation. Especially when it comes to introductions.”
“Is this an issue with you?” my wife said.
“You’re the one who grew up in the Delta where the social question is: ‘Who are your people?’ Where people aren’t people at all unless they have a respected family name.”
“I’ve outgrown most of that, I hope. Am I to understand that you’ve picked up what I shucked off?”
“Let’s not pursue that,” I said.
Since then, the subject of Steve whomever hadn’t come up.
I did take it as my privilege—and my duty—to answer the door chime.
“Be nice,” Sarah said, rising when I did.
Rosamond entered the moment with, “There’s nothing in the world like dancing with a Delta boy.”
Leigh explained to her mother that Steve wasn’t a Delta boy and they weren’t going dancing.
I opened the door and extended my hand. “I’m Sarah’s father.”
Sarah stood there beside me. “Dad,” she said, “this is Steve.”
His shoulder-length auburn hair parted down the middle didn’t fool me. He wasn’t Jesus. Neither was he a Second World War aviator, despite the bomber jacket featuring historic scars on genuine old leather patina. Vaguely it occurred to me that the jacket might be a family hand-me-down, a salute to continuity of some kind.
I didn’t press for the last name.
“I hear you’re going into medicine,” I said.
“I hope to make it.” Steve was whisking Sarah toward his Pontiac.
He would touch my child. In one way or another, he would touch my child and there was nothing I could do about it.
Rosamond broke a dish helping Leigh clear the table. I stooped to pick up the pieces and she touched the top of my head. She was catching her balance. Or blessing me.
I needed somebody’s blessing.
Before she lifted her hand, she reprised her statement about dancing with a Delta boy. Which was a perfectly good note on which to contemplate the smallest mercies of God.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.