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He Walked on Water
He wore starched white shirts
Buttoned at the neck
And he'd sit in the shade and watch the chickens peck
And his teeth were gone, but what the heck
I thought that he walked on water
Papaw died when I was 6. Yet, it’s hard to express how large he still looms in my mind. My thoughts of him are vivid. Oversized memories, casting their long shadow over all others, eclipsing the lesser lights. But somehow these recollections remain burning luminous things. Constellations guiding me back to times to which I couldn’t otherwise return.
I can remember the way he smelled–like Marlboros and Old Spice and good leather. And the way he would snore, gently puffing and blowing in rhythm with the crickets chirping outside the window, in tune with the quiet buzz of the police scanner on the dresser.
Even now I can recall the sound the buttons on his shirt made as I drove little toy cars up and down his belly until he made me park them in his breast pocket so he could finish his nap. How I would then curl my face into in his neck and think that nowhere felt as comfortable or safe than beneath his whiskers.
I remember standing beside him in the early morning breeze. He would have his coffee and I would be leaning, with my back arched, trying to pee off the porch but getting most of it between my stubby toes. He would slap his knee and laugh every time, saying, “Boy, you better not let your mamaw watering her flowers.”
I must have driven ten thousand miles sitting between him and the steering wheel of his rusted out Ford. “Let’s take her out on the blacktop and open her up,” he’d say. Then he’d pop the clutch and throw a little dirt at the edge of the driveway.
Mamaw went first. He took it hard. So he came to live with us. That was the farthest he had ever strayed from the house where he was born–an 8th of a mile down the road. My folks put him in the room right next to mine because he wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was fascinated by the zippo lighter he carried. He always said that he won it in a poker game but I have since learned that he took it right out of a dead man’s coffin during a wake because that fella owed him for two bird dogs he’d bought but had never gotten around to paying for.
One particular night, I got up from Papaw’s bed with the excuse that I needed a drink of water. But what I really needed was to see how that zippo operated. After swiping it off of the nightstand, I crawled under the bed and commenced striking it. As I mashed its wheel with my thumbs, the lighter sputtered and spat a flame onto the bottom of the box spring mattress. It caught like a prairie fire carried by high wind. I thought blowing it would put it out. I was mistaken.
Papaw woke up to the sound of cracks and pops beneath, and fell to the floor and started beating on the bed with his hands. The smoke alarms woke the rest of the house up. Grandaddy ran to grab the fire extinguisher. Grandmother grabbed a broom. Papaw grabbed me and huddled me over in the corner.
The next morning, I got myself an old fashioned country ass whoopin, a tomato stick to beat the dried innards of the fire extinguisher from the mattress, and a punishment still more severe to follow. My grandaddy told me that I was not, under any circumstances, allowed to sleep in Papaw’s bed again. That was too much. I begged him for another whoopin. But he would not relent.
That night, as I lay sobbing in my own room, I felt the covers pull away from me as Papaw crawled into my tiny twin bed saying, “Now, if you don’t dry up all that crying ain’t neither one of us gonna get any sleep.” And I could feel him smiling at me through the darkness. And that’s where he slept every night hence until the day he died.
These are just a few snatches and fragments taken from the tapestry of early recollections, technicolored swaths sewn together; the patchwork of things past. I have so many more. Enough to carry me all the way back to the happiest times. Enough to get me home.