believe the healing of his hands.
Here in heaven, we will wait for your arrival.
Here in heaven, you will finally understand.
Worry ‘bout my daughters,
Worry ‘bout my sons.
Child, when life don't seem worth living,
come to Jesus, and let him hold you in his arms.”
~Mindy Smith, “Come to Jesus”
When my father was growing up in the hills of southern Missouri, he would ride his bike into town with his buddies, in the smoky days of Indian Summers, to watch the preachers who crawled in from the backwoods to stand on their rickety boxes and sermonize to the patrons of the town square. They would stand up there, sweat dripping from their brows — as if they felt the flames of eternal hellfire licking their backs from the doorsteps of the townspeople — and rave all day. They would speak on how they were all doomed to damnation, until people would tire of this entertainment and the police would urge the makeshift moralizers to leave.
There was one man in particular they went to watch. He brought in his snake, a fat rattler the color of dense dust, to cleanse the watchful and weary crowd. The devil was in them, he professed — even in my little boy father — and these snakes, with their dangerous flicking tongues and teeth, they could sniff it out and suck the devil right out of you, to swallow whole and contain in their quivering bellies. Trouble was, sometimes you couldn't be saved in time and the poison of the devil killed as it left your body. But still, wasn't dying saved better than living with the devil inside?
Years later, when I was growing up, I had a baby doll who, when I had learnt the story of Moses at Vacation Bible School, was put in a basket and pushed down the Concrete River that was our front walk to be found by her new Egyptian mother. I first named her Ruth, but after she was left in the rain, waiting to be saved, she was no longer Ruth, or even Moses, but a forgotten soul, beat down and carried away by the heavy Missouri rain.
You see, my great-grandmother — my father's mother's mother — was the type of woman who always wore a cross, and the comfort was not in its protective powers or even its symbolism, but in the fact that it had been there, hanging in the hollow of her neck, every day since she was born. When she died, her husband kept going over it, tumbling the thought around in his hands, and all he had to say as he savored that symbol with the calloused fingers of a hard-working, God-fearing man, was that she had stopped going to church after their youngest daughter left home. She left God, he said, and after that, there was nothing he could do. The only time she ever went again was the summer their grandson came to stay.
She grew up in the Ozarks, in Missouri, and you know her father had to be a religious man, the way they all were in the dust pits of Depression orchards, the way they all listened to that good gospel music with the country twang. She and her husband Clyde had a dairy farm a few towns away in Murphysburg and my father was sent there to help out one hot, muggy summer; they could use all the free help they could get and my grandmother had boys to spare.
He was ten, my father, still going by Bobby, still wearing coveralls over worn shirts, and a baseball cap that hit right where his still-too-big stuck out ears lifted out from the side of his head. His brown hair was shorn short and he had knobby knees. Typical freckle-faced country boy. He appeared in place on a farm, even though he had grown up in town and the closest he ever came to farm work was shooing his mothers' chickens back into their pen in the backyard. But still, it was a yes ma'am, no ma'am world and who was a ten-year-old kid to say, no, Dad, sir, I don't want to work on the farm for the summer, I want to play baseball and catch frogs in the creek with my friends?
Besides he liked his Gramma Nora. She spoiled him, best she could, with all the pies and goodies she could make him. His grandparents were fairly lucky, having a dairy farm, and even if it wasn't selling, they at least always had fresh milk and butter; they even had an apple orchard, as Granpa Jack was fond of saying the Ozarks were the best hills in the world for growing sweet apples. And his Granpa Jack would give him a wink after the chores were done, a signal to Bobby he could go off and catch frogs ‘til he was warty with them. It turned out there wasn't much working to be done on the farm for ten-year-old boys.
In the hot heavy evenings of the summer, the three would sit out on the porch for a while, in that time when everything is hazy as the fireflies come out and the sun settles. It was a plain straight porch, rectangular in every aspect, but it looked up at the curving hills and watched the sun set. Bobby would sometimes drag the radio out, but mostly, he'd lie on his stomach on the plank porch floor and pore over comic books and old books he found around the farmhouse. He was a new Boy Scout and dreamt then of being a park ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Gramma Nora would sit in a rocking chair, hewn by her son, Bobby's uncle, and rock back and forth, eyes closed slightly. She had grown plumper as she got older, as most grandmothers do, but somehow her hair refused to turn grey. This Bobby could not figure out, because Granpa Jack's hair was sparse and wiry grey.
Granpa Jack would sometimes throw a ball with his old dog, Jake, but most of the time he too would sit back in his rocking chair and close his eyes as he rocked silently back and forth. And so the three of them would sit there, silent. And watch the world pass them by.
Nora kept a bi-monthly hair and nail appointment in town, at Sally's Beauty Shoppe — Shoppe with two “p's” as Sally felt it gave her beauty parlor that cosmopolitan feel which she felt Bob's Barber Shop lacked. Nora had kept this appointment since before she and Jack were married. Jack appreciated it when they were dating, or so she had felt; when they were going out on the town, going to dances, he had a girl who looked nice and took care of herself. When they married and she moved out to the farm with him, he didn't understand why she still insisted on making the trip into town, on a working day, to have her nails done when nobody but him and the cows were gonna see ‘em most of the time anyway.
“I like the company, those girls are my friends,” she said. “And besides, you don't want me looking like some red, raw-handed slob, do you?” Well, maybe he didn't. And they weren't that far from town anyways, and she went in after the morning chores and was back in time to serve up lunch for him.
Bobby had really only been at his grandparents about a week and was just starting to settle into a schedule, as regular as he could, when Gramma Nora woke him up one day and said they were going to town to get his haircut. She was already dressed, but the sun was barely up. Bobby looked at her with one eye half open. “I don't need a haircut, Gramma. I just got one.”
Gramma Nora put her hands on her hips and raised one eyebrow. “How long ago?” she asked.
“Dunno. But I just got one.”
“If you just got one, then you ought to know when you got it.” She smiled. “Doesn't matter, you're getting one today, now rise up.”
Bobby was the type of kid who jumped out of bed in the morning — a habit he would never really lose — and though his idea of early rising didn't yet mean before the sun was full up, a barbershop visit was never completely uninteresting. He grumbled, “yes, ma'am,” and sat up straight to rub the sleep from his eyes.
Nora was in the kitchen making quick breakfast when Bobby fumbled his way downstairs.
“Not dressed yet?” Gramma Nora said.
“Don't worry about him, he's out doing something in the barn. It's because of him we're up so early.”
Bobby scowled — his mouth making a wide oval “o” — and his freckles squinted. Gramma Nora's kitchen was tidy, but filled with knick-knacks — where they came from, Bobby had no idea. Mickey Mouse waved down at him from a faded teal beach pail; tiny stuffed dogs drooped over the side of a shelf, their ears at their bellies. One of those old-timey telephones, where you held the piece up to your ear and talked into the other hung on the wall, black and shiny, so that Bobby saw his rounded face in it, small and faraway. His gramma was flipping eggs in a heavy skillet; the fore muscles of her arms strained and her black hair already curling in tiny ringlets around her face. The eggs were fresh and the milk too. While he was watching his gramma fry the white and bubbling eggs, she had one eye on the slit in the ruffled blue check curtains.
“Better skedaddle and get dressed, Bobby. Eggs'll be done when you get back down.”
Bobby squeezed his eyes closed, smelling the simmering scent of bacon grease, and remembering what his mother had told him before their trip over, scooted out of the chair, jumping over the first step completely. Hair slicked, ears scrubbed, and shirt on right side front, he slid back into his seat as Nora was turning around, skillet and plate in hand.
They sat and ate their eggs in silence, Gramma Nora cutting small, bite-size pieces and gingerly lifting the bacon to her mouth, while Bobby scrambled the food into his mouth, guzzled his milk, and sat waiting, watching her as she finished.
“Didn't your mother teach you to take your time with your food?” Gramma Nora asked him.
“Yes, ma'am,” Bobby said. “But sometimes I forget.”
“Next time,” she smiled. “Go and get your hat. Sun'll be out fierce today and we're walking.”
Bobby was up the stairs again before he heard the “walking” part.
“Walking?” he asked, as he tugged his hat on his head, “Why're we walking?”
“It's going to be a nice day and I could use with the exercise. Won't it be nice to take a walk with your gramma?” She held her hand out to his and he took it.
“Sure,” Bobby said, “I've just never walked to town here, is all.”
“Well, it's not all that far, a few miles,” she said as they pushed open the screen door and took their first steps.
It was in the now bright daylight that Bobby noticed his gramma was wearing a dress he had never seen before. It was light cotton, pink with tiny winking white flowers allover it and though the pink was a sort of faded pink, it was still bright and new. It wasn't fancy like a church dress or nothing, it was short sleeved and hung straight to her knees, but she looked nice and he told her so. She smiled down at him and thanked him, squeezing his hand tight in hers.
His gramma's hands were plush and fleshy, smooth and soft wrapped around his small, calloused hands. Hers were brown, but the brownness faded and spread into peach in gaps between each finger.
They walked in silence most of the way into Murphysburg; Bobby found he didn't always know what to say to his gramma. It was only when they reached town that he found words.
“Are you getting your haircut at Bob's today too, Gramma?”
“Oh no,” she smiled, “We're both going to Sally's. I always go there and a barber shop is no place for a young boy by himself, or a lady for that matter, even an old one like me.”
“I'm going to get a girl's haircut?” Bobby said, his voice leaning upwards into a whine.
“No, no, nothing to worry about. Sally cuts little boys' hair too. You'll have the same haircut you always do.”
Bobby nodded. A beauty shoppe was still an adventure.
Sally's Beauty Shoppe was the first right on Joplin Ave; white lettering frosted the front window in deliberate, curving scrolled lettering and a little bell on a bending twist of flat iron tinkled when they pushed open the whitewashed front door. The smell of acetone and hairspray hit Bobby's nose immediately and he doubled over next to his Gramma, who, impervious to the scent, glided in to greet her old friends.
“Sally, Shelly, everyone, this is my grandson Bobby. You remember I told y'all he would be spending the summer with us.” Gramma Nora beamed with pride at the small freckle-faced boy with his hand clapped over his nose.
“Oh he's darling, just precious,” Sally cooed. “Does he need his hair done today? He'll be first, Nora, if you don't mind.”
“Not at all, Sally, and yes, he'll be having his hair cut today.” Nora settled down her weight in a plump pink chair and reached out her buff-colored nails to be shined and polished. Sally grabbed a few yellow phone books, piled them on the seat she stood in front of and patted them, smiling at Bobby to hop up.
There was a slight breeze, which Bobby felt now on the back of his neck where his hair was newly shorn. He took a deep breath now that they were outside again so as to smell the familiar hill smells and rid his senses of the beauty shoppe scents. Gramma Nora's hair was black and tightly curled, ending in short spikes at the back of her neck. She patted it frequently with the hand that held all of her shopping bags.
“How come we can't tell Granpa Jack about the new stuff we bought?” Bobby asked, looking up at her.
Gramma Nora's penciled eyebrows raised slightly. Beige lipstick puckered into the lines in her lips. “Because it's a surprise for him, he likes me to surprise him by looking pretty with the new makeup.”
“Oh, so it's a secret? Like I can't say I know, but just wait for him to notice?”
“Yes, sort of.” Gramma said, and turned her head down to look at him. “Like a surprise birthday party. You can't let on that you know, even when he starts to suspect something.”
Bobby squeezed her hand tight and lifted himself up with it to skip over a muddy patch. He felt her lurch forward and stopped himself.
“Sorry, Gramma. I forget sometimes.”
“It's alright, Bobby. I'm just not as young and strong as I used to be.” Gramma Nora squeezed his hand back and they continued walking. The sky was a clear kind of transparent blue, so clear Bobby felt he could look right through it up into the heavens. Everything was sort of a golden green and he noticed this time as they walked past, an old shed, raised up on a hill to their left. The wood was a dead brown the color of dust and the tall grass was growing up inside it, passing through its windows and waving in the summer air.
“Can we go exploring, Gramma?”
“No, sweetie, it could be dangerous. And Gramma's a little tired, she'd like to get home.”
Bobby kicked a dandelion and watched its puff float into pieces.
“Aww, alright. I am kinda hungry.” He marked the shed's spot in his head though and vowed to come back someday before he left for home again. They weren't too far from the farm; he could hear the somber lowing of the cows just over the next stretch of road.
“Why'd you walk, Nora?” Jack asked, his jaw stretched tight. Bobby watched from the stairs as his gramma looked down at her feet, her mouth a thin line angled against the softness of her face.
“I'm asking you, Nora, why'd you walk? Why'd you make the boy walk, why did you walk in the heat? You know you'll just end up in bed again.”
Bobby's gramma turned her body in and he watched her shrink into her feet. He felt tears and anger bubbling up inside him like bacon grease as he watched the scene. Granpa Jack was standing straight, one hand on his hip and the other grasping the kitchen chair as he spoke with exasperation in his voice.
“Dammit, Nora, it's a simple question. If you're gonna keep those nail appointments and the hair appointments and if you get all nice to go into town, why'd you walk? Why would you get all dusty and sweaty and walk? You should've just told me where you were going, and you should've told me you were taking Bobby.”
“It was a surprise, I was getting a haircut and it was a surprise and we walked because it was a nice day and we wanted to have a walk together, just me and her, not you and you said she couldn't drive so we walked and it's not her fault.” Bobby was looking at the floor, watching the black and white tiles blur to the taste of saltwater.
“Is this true, Nora?”
Gramma Nora only nodded, she didn't look at Bobby and she didn't look at Jack.
“Let me see that haircut, there, Bobby. Looks nice now doesn't it,” Granpa Jack said. “Sure, you needed one, didn't you. Get one at Bob's, with all the boys?”
Bobby nodded, “Yessir.”
“Alright then,” Jack nodded at Nora, “let's have some supper and settle in, yeah?”
It was a meal prepared and eaten in silence and Bobby hoped all was right with the world — his tears had dried and the chicken slid smoothly down his throat.
The next time Bobby got to go into town was for church that Sunday morning. His grandparents were regulars, the kind of folks who hadn't missed a Sunday since birth — since before then, really. Gramma Nora wore a peach straw hat, which tipped up to reveal a rim of white, nestling three white silk flowers and a tiny robin. Her dress was also peach, a light summer linen, with a wide white trim that encircled her neck. It was sleeveless, so she wore a light jacket to cover the flesh of her arms. Bobby had tipped into the bathroom where she was finishing pinning on her hat to have his church outfit approved.
“Handsome as can be, Robert Hause.”
“Thanks, Gramma. I don't wear a suit to church at home.”
“Well, your Granpa likes things to be a certain way, especially for church,” Gramma said. “Nothing wrong with that. Besides, we're paying our respects to God, don't forget that.”
“Can't look like hayseeds in the house of the Lord, now can we?”
Granpa Jack's voice rumbled up from downstairs.
“Can we get a move on, Nora, church is not a beauty pageant.”
Gramma Nora looked at Bobby and winked. She leaned down to smooth a lick of Bobby's hair down and looked him the eye, holding him by the shoulders.
“Don't mind your granpa, ok Bobby? He loves you, he can just be a little particular.”
“Sure, I know that,” Bobby said.
Gramma Nora smiled. “Of course you did.” She held out a peach gloved hand, he took it, and they hurried downstairs and out the door, to where Granpa Jack was waiting in the truck.
“That a new hat, Nora?” Jack asked.
“Jack, you know I had this made up for Easter. Just haven't worn it since then, is all.”
Jack grunted his consent and started the truck. It was an old blue Ford, with a white stripe down the side and blue leather seats with strips of stitching down the middle of them. Bobby sat in the front, in between his two grandparents, holding onto his Gramma as his bottom lifted slightly in the air at each bump in the road.
The First Baptist Church was a long rectangular building with whitewashed siding and short and squat steeple that reached up from the archway over the front door. The roof and the trim around the windows were a slight green, the color of the plastic grass in Easter baskets. The pews inside were long narrow wooden benches and there was one stained-glassed window behind the altar that sent pink and purple light dancing across the minister's back.
Granpa Jack and Gramma Nora nodded at a few people on the way in, pausing to take a program from the usher, and pushed Bobby into a pew three rows from the front. Bobby watched as the congregation filed in, each in the same seats as the week before.
Hats — blue, pink, yellow hats filled the room. Bobby sat ramrod straight in the pew as organ music strained and rose into the stale air. He counted twenty-nine hats so far and stretched his eyes and neck around to count more. Twelve pink ones out of the twenty-nine alone, not counting his Gramma's peach hat. Granpa Jack's voice sang a low and shaking bass and he tapped the Primitive Baptist Hymnal in front of Bobby. Bobby grabbed it and Granpa Jack tilted his own hymnal down towards Bobby so that he could find the page. He heard his Gramma singing, soft, so that he could barely hear, in a warbling, shaking voice.
“I'd stay in the garden with Him / though the night around me be falling / But He bids me go; through the voice of woe / His voice to me is calling.Ó
At his Granpa's nod, he joined in, a tentative boys' tenor.
ÒAnd He walks with me, and He talks with me / And He tells me I am His own / and the joy we share as we tarry there / none other has ever known.Ó
The congregation found strength in the final chord, swelling together with the organ's descant and sat down with resolve, in fluid motion. Bobby returned to his attempt to count hats; he found that he couldn't possibly catch all of the hats behind him without being caught. He moved on to windowpanes — six panes in each window — but the preacher caught his eye as he looked back to the stained glass window.
ÒIt is a choice we make, to be wicked,Ó he was saying. ÒMan is born into sin, but he need not die into sin. If we choose Christ, we are re-born into a new nature and it is only then that we may enter the kingdom of Heaven.Ó
Granpa Jack was nodding and Bobby felt his head bow up and down in the same rhythm.
ÒIn the Gospel of Luke, it says, ‘I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” the preacher continued. His Adam's apple bobbed furiously as he shook his words at his congregation. The people were “amen-ing” and slapping their knees in agreement; the entire room was stirred. Bobby looked up at his gramma, whose arm rested on the end of the pew, the fleshy part pushed flat against the sanded and painted wood. Her eyes looked heavy and her lips, thin. In the summer, his grandmother's skin looked plump and brown — unlined even in her old age, as though the fat beneath pushed the lines out from underneath. In the winter, when she came to visit for Christmas, it was thin and white, like paper, and dry to the touch — fragile, like it could tear with a scrape of the fingernail. She brushed rouge on it in the wintertime, like the kind she bought at the beauty shoppe, and the rouge feathered against her cheeks and formed angled spots against the whiteness. Bobby liked the summertime Gramma better.
The congregation was on its feet again, bobbing to the organ waves. Bobby could smell the fried chicken from the kitchen below and his stomach growled loudly. Gramma Nora looked down at him out of the corner of her eye and a small smile formed itself of her lips.
The last Sunday before Bobby left, thunderstorm season had hit the Missouri hills in full force. The skies had gathered in a cloud of purple and gray and black and low rumbling could be heard in the distance, from dawn's beginning. It seemed as though the sun never rose that morning. Bobby was lying in bed, stiff in his Sunday clothes on the coverlet, as he listened to the argument that was taking place in the room down the hall. Gramma Nora was still in bed and her muffled voice was trying to tell Jack that she would not be going to church that morning, she wasn't feeling up to it.
Jack fumed that the Kaufman's hadn't missed a day of church in their life, not even when they were sick; feeling poorly was no excuse. Nora kept her silence and finally said, “I will confer with God from here today, Jack. Please take Robert and go.”
Bobby sat up straight as Granpa Jack burst into his room to tell him it was time to leave for church. They rushed down the stairs, and out the door, Granpa Jack grumbling about “unrecognizable illnesses.” As they walked to the car, the clouds bulged black with rain and the overflow began; the rain rushed down upon them, leaving deep, muddy gullies in the blue truck's tracks.
The drive back to Murphysburg that winter looked different. Trees bowed down to the road, their limbs made heavy by a glistening coat of ice so thorough that every crevice and bump on the trees was laminated with the freeze. The earth had taken on a damp appearance, the color of black cherries and red plums, and bruises. In the places where the trees remained untouched by the ice, they seemed to start out dead and brown at their tops, gradating towards the warm red and purple color of the ground around their trunks.
There was a trailer of cows in front of their car. The cows were stacked in the trailer, so that you could only see one cow if you were directly behind the trailer. Bobby stared at that one cow; her body black, but with one large white patch the shape of Bull Shoals Lake covering her face, so that her eyelid was white too and he could see her white lashes from the backseat of their car. She stirred and shifted with the movements of the trailer, her head held high in a nervous manner, her front two feet one in front of the other, stiffly. She looked straight out, but, as though she noticed Bobby's stare, rolled her eye back to look at him. She winked. Bobby winked back. And then she seemed to shake her head, as she stomped her front foot, and looked back out in front of her head. The bars holding her in were the old iron kind and looked to be rusted in some places. Bobby imagined his cow breaking the bars with her front feet and running alongside their car, briefly, as they passed each other, each running in the opposite direction.
Their car curved and twisted along with the road, coming up every few minutes upon a vista, overlooking the valleys of orchards and farmlands below. These hills were the only mountains Bobby had ever known. They were the reason why, even though his family only lived a few towns away from his grandparents, it took much longer than planned to get between the two homesteads.
My father didn't tell anyone about his grandmother. Though, they did know she had passed; they knew he was missing school to go to a funeral, which was absolutely, definitely a pretty big deal.
“My grandma died a few years ago,” Bobby's best friend Chase said to him, that day, as they were walking home from school. They had chosen to walk Army-wise — left, left, left right left — and were making a slow time of it, as they hopped twice on their left feet before taking that right step forward.
“Yeah, she fell down the cellar stairs — they're uneven, you know — and slipped and something broke. She was in the hospital a long time, but she didn't make it out, you know.” Chase stumbled a little as he hopped and grabbed onto Bobby's left elbow.
“How'd your grandma die?” Chase asked.
“Same thing,” Bobby said, looking towards the ground, pulling his elbow in. “She fell, but in the orchard. Picking apples.” Bobby closed his eyes and saw the orchard in the summer, the apples, the bright blossoms, pink and white, and then he saw them dead, wilting in an instant, a rope hanging from one of the branches, a noose, a limp body, the neck hung to one side. He opened his eyes again, and blinked.
“Man,” Chase said, “I hope I go out better. I wanna be climbing a mountain or something, or in some huge explosion, like James Dean. Yeah, a big fiery car crash. I don't wanna get old and fall.”
“I mean, I loved my grandma,” Chase said, “and I don't think that's how she wanted to go either, you know?”
Bobby stared at Chase so hard the freckles on Chase's face disappeared. Chase didn't pay any attention. He was still hopping, still talking.
“I bet she wanted to go out in some big blaze of glory, like on her horse, Diamond. He was the horse she had when she was little, she couldn't really ride horses no more, when she was alive. She was old. But she was crazy, my grandma was so much fun, she was. Bet she didn't want to go out at all, when she did.”
In a flash, Bobby was on him, tiny, white-knuckled fists flying, words and gibberish streaming from his tight red mouth.
“You take that back, Chase Hoffman, you take that back.”
“What, what?” Chase was near crying now, his own fists covering his face as he cowered from his best friend.
“You don't know nothing about dying and you don't know nothing about grandma's, so you just take it back, take it back, take it back, takeitback.” Bobby stopped, his chest heaving and as soon as he stopped his fists from flying, tears started pouring from his face. Chase was staring at him through a small peephole in between his two fists, and his eyes were wide. Bobby sat there, hunched over his best friend, both silent, for a good five minutes, before he got up and started the walk back home alone. Chase just sat there on the ground, stunned. It would be another few minutes before he rose and started back home. He let Bobby have a good head start first.
When the Hauses reached the farm, there were new ruts in the dirt where the cars of friends, neighbors, family, and the police had forced entry through the mud and melted ice. Granpa Jack was sitting in the rocking chair in the living room, wearing blue jeans and holding a stuffed dog in his hands.
“You know, she loved these knick-knacks?” he said as they walked in. “Stuffed every corner of the house with them, said it made the place cozy. Now she's gone, I keep finding them everywhere, some of them with the tags still on, still in bags. I don't know where she got them. You wouldn't believe all the stuff she had stored away, like a damn squirrel or something.”
“Dad,” Bobby's mother said, softly.
“You want some of this stuff? We have to do something with it, no sense keeping it, not doing anything sitting around in the back of closets.”
“Dad, there'll be a time to do all of that. But not now, I don't want to do that now. I can't do that now.”
Granpa Jack sat there, stroking the soft brown fur of the dog, touching its glossy black glass eyes. He nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Sure, there's a time and a place.”
Bobby leaned into his mother's leg. Hid his face in soft twill khaki. One brown eye peeked out from beneath the folds of his mother's skirt to look at his Granpa Jack. He tried to remember that Granpa Jack was the man who used to clip out comics from the newspaper for him to read at breakfast, the man who used to juggle him on his knees, a chortling, bouncing laugh coming from his belly with each jolt. He tried not to remember the man from the end of the summer.
It was hard to now, anyhow, that Granpa Jack sat there with a soft look and drooping bags beneath his eyes. Bobby moved with his mother to gather around Jack, their arms and tears shrouding him.
There was a knock at the kitchen door and the smell of warm casserole let itself in. Bobby's dad moved to answer the knock.
“Yes, we just got in, thanks so much for stopping by, we really appreciate it.”
“It's such a tragedy, this is the most we could do, please let us know if you need anything else.”
“Thank you so much, this is enough, more than enough. We'll see you at the funeral.”
Mr. Hause walked back into the room, casserole in hand. “That was Mrs. Wentz, she sends her condolences.” He paused. “Um, Jack, is there any place in particular you'd like me to put this. Looks like a potato casserole.”
Jack rose up out of his chair and handed the stuffed dog off to his daughter. “Let me just show you where I've been putting them.” He padded on the carpet into the kitchen, and Mr. Hause followed him.
“Well,” Bobby's mom said, “I suppose we had better eat some dinner and head to bed soon.” She pushed a stray hair back into place on Bobby's head, wetting her finger to make it stick.
“Mama,” Bobby said. “I don't want to go upstairs, I don't want to go sleep in my old room.”
“That's alright, baby, you can sleep down here if you want to,” she said, “but you're going to have to go up there sometime.”
“No, I'm never going to and I'm never going out in the orchard again, never, not ever.”
“Alright, alright, that's fine, just fine.” Bobby pushed his head into her shoulder and crossed his arms, frowning, and squinting his eyes as they filled with tears.
“Is the preacher going to be at the funeral?” he asked.
“Well of course he is, Bobby, why wouldn't he be?” his mother said, “He's the one who has to lead the funeral, isn't he? And he'll be there to help everyone get through this time. He'll be coming over here to talk to us soon, too.”
“What? No, he can't, I won't talk to him.”
“But Bobby, why not? He's a very nice man, you know him, you went to his church all summer, or didn't you?”
“That's exactly why I won't talk to him, he said Gramma Nora was going to hell.”
“What, Bobby, he said no such thing, he wouldn't mean it, you know that's not true.”
“But it is, mama, it is, he said all those who didn't repent were going to hell and all those who didn't accept Christ and weren't re-born couldn't go to heaven.”
“Well, then, Bobby, you have nothing to worry about, your grandmother was a baptized Christian, she is in heaven, I have no doubts about it.”
“But what she did was a sin and she didn't have time to repent, how could she?”
Bobby's mother pulled his face away from the folds of her body and holding him by the shoulders, looked straight in his eyes.
“Listen to me, Robert Hause,” she said, her voice shaky and hard, “there is a moment before each of us passes, no matter how we die, that we have to talk with God and in that moment I believe your grandmother spoke with him. And in that moment, she passed into Heaven. And that is that and I will hear no words otherwise, do you hear me?”
“Now you can refuse to talk to the reverend and you can refuse to go upstairs and sleep in your bed and you can refuse to go out in the orchard, but you must promise me that you will not refuse to believe that.”
Bobby looked down, down at his feet, down into the grains of egg-white carpeting. “I promise,” he said.
“Thank you,” his mother said.
The next morning Bobby woke from his makeshift bed on the couch downstairs with the sunrise that peeked in through the curtains. His grandfather was scouring through the downstairs closet, just behind the couch. Bobby's head poked up.
Granpa Jack turned around, his thinning gray hair rising in ruffled wings above his ears. “Bobby? Did I wake you? What are you doing down here?”
“I'm sorry, Granpa, I didn't want to sleep upstairs.”
“Oh, right. Your mother told me that.” He pulled out several plastic bags from under a pile of shoes and coats. “What are these? Have you seen these before? I've never seen all of these before.” Jack poured the contents of the bag onto the floor; pots of makeup, compacts, powder brushes and eyebrow pencils, mascara tubes and lipstick tubes and tiny eye shadow mirrors jumbled out. Jack picked one of the tubes of lipstick up, one marked Berry Pout. “Mary Kay?” he said. “Where did all this come from?”
“Didn't she ever give you the surprise?” Bobby asked.
“She said they were all a surprise for you, to look pretty for you.”
“When did she tell you this?” Granpa Jack asked.
“When we went to get our haircut, at Sally's.”
“She took you to Sally's?” Granpa Jack's voice was gruff. “Sally sold her all of this? And it was a secret?”
“Yeah, Sally's a certified Mary Kay saleswoman,” Bobby said. “But Gramma Nora said that it was for you, that we could tell you, like a surprise party.”
Granpa Jack was shaking his head. “All of these things she bought, and hid from me. How did she pay for it all? Credit, I guess, but why? “
Bobby watched his Granpa Jack sit there, on the floor amongst Plum Passion eye shadow trio's and Medium #3 powders, shaking his head, talking to himself. The next time Granpa Jack looked up to ask his grandson a question Bobby was out the door, the screen door swinging, slamming shut.
Bobby ran through the mud and the ice and the poking weeds, breathing hard, thoughts racing. He reached the wooden shed that he had seen on his walk back with Gramma Nora the day they went to Sally's together. Ice had glazed the entire surface, stretching the wooden seams of the boards, so that they now popped in all directions. The entire structure was in danger of falling apart.
It had taken some climbing to reach the shed and now that he was up in it, Bobby could see the entire valley his grandparents' farm was located in. He could see the fenced-in pasture where the cows still slumbered, the tiny farmhouse in the middle of it all, and on the far side, the apple orchards. The trees were dead from winter, brown sticks in the distance.
The day in Sally's Beauty Shoppe, he watched his grandma pour through Sally's catalogue, placing orders for next time, something from each page. She had a funny half-smile on her face, but it was a look of concentration. But when Sally brought out the trove of products Nora had ordered the time before, Bobby expected the same look of glee he got on his face whenever he bought something new, even something as small as a jawbreaker from the candy shelf at the grocery store. He expected a full smile, a smile that reached into her eyes, and her whole body, changing the way she stood, and walked, and held herself. But instead, he sat and watched as Nora took the products in hand, barely glanced at them and set them down beside her bag. Sally had gone so far as to apply the newly ordered products to Nora's face and an entirely different Gramma looked back at Bobby as he stared into her face.
Bobby woke up some hours later; he heard Loretta Lynn singing, “The Sweet By and By,” from the record player, far off, down below, her voice carrying into the hills. He rubbed his eyes and looked down, shivering. Cars and trucks were gathering in the yard for the visitation. His parents, Granpa Jack, would be looking for him; the preacher would be coming around to talk to them.
Robert Hause slowly descended from his hilltop, wading through the thick mud back to the farmhouse. He paused to wipe his feet at the door, walked in through the kitchen.
“Robert,” his mother said, “You're filthy! And where have you been?”
My father didn't speak a word; he went straight upstairs and took a bath, washing the dirt and ice from his hair, his head and his body. When he came back downstairs, he still remained silent, taking a seat beside his mother, and watching his granpa nod and talk to people, thumbing the silver cross with the black cord.
All rights reserved.
This story is dedicated to my own Nana, Lora Lee Eberhart, who passed away at her own hands some four years ago. I wanted to write a story about depression in the elderly, an often ignored fact or perhaps just overlooked, is that suicide rates among the elderly are some of the highest in any age demographic.
The suicide is therefore connected to the religion, to the songs of the religion, and especially to Mindy Smith’s “Come to Jesus,” where I drew the title, “Go to Jesus,” from. Smith’s song is very much a song of comfort, a call to take solace in the arms of Christ, a call to faith and a personal relationship with Jesus.