By Kira Lynn Farnsworth
You chuckle. The waitress has your pappy pegged. The entire night she stayed three steps ahead of him, countering his every cranky demand. “I was raised by one of you,” she tells him at one point, just after bringing three biscuits after your pappy had requested four. “Just for you,” she’d said. Pappy cackled. She was being very familiar, but pappy didn’t mind. He even gave her a big tip. We all stare. Everyone who knows pappy knows that he doesn’t tip over a dollar, and yet there it is, a five dollar bill. Your sister doesn’t tell him until later that she put an extra five on her credit card.
You’ve been quiet today. You haven’t quite felt like you fit in. You’ve spent the day with your pappy and your sisters, and now the day is coming to a close. You’re sitting on the back seat, a paper bag filled with the dessert pappy bought for mamma melting at your feet. You’re content to stare out the window, lost in your own thoughts while your sisters talk around you. You start to think about things, history and stuff.
Pappy likes to tell stories. Maybe that’s where you got it from. As long as you could remember, he regaled you with tales of his misspent youth, his time in the army, his promiscuity and drug use. He reveled in the retelling of the mishaps of his younger years. There was his first puff of pot at age fourteen. The girl who offered it to him deemed him unworthy of another drag until he learned how to smoke. So he took up cigarettes, learning how to puff and not waste it. He didn’t like cigarettes, he told you. He wanted the weed. Even now, some forty years later, he recounts this with nostalgia. “If I could ever go back to a drug,” he says, “I would go back to weed.”
He chose to tell you this as you were sitting in the IRS building waiting for your turn to request a copy of your tax returns. There’s an old, fat cop sitting on a chair, eyeing you suspiciously. You were embarrassed, but you only rolled your eyes and changed the subject. You’re used to your pappy’s lack of awareness of his surroundings.
You remember the time he told you about his enlistment. He had you trapped in the car, driving down to a family reunion, to the big one with twelve aunts. You didn’t know them very well, but you didn’t want pappy to go alone. You listen with half an ear as pappy retells his story. You’ve heard it all before, but you let him talk. You could repeat it word for word if you wanted to.
Pappy was seventeen when he joined the army. He got enlisted to ‘Nam but he never went. He told the office he couldn’t go because he was only seventeen. “They should have held on to the papers,” he tells you. “I was only a few months away. Had they held on to my papers a few months, they could have drafted me for ‘Nam. But they didn’t, they refiled them and I got sent to Germany instead.” He chuckles, pleased with his own ingenuity.
“Aren’t you a smart one,” you say, inwardly wondering what would have happened had he gone to ‘Nam. He probably would have died, or deserted. Either way, you wouldn’t be here. Then he tells you about how the speeding laws in Germany were different than in Utah. If you were going the normal speed, you were going too slow. If someone hit you from behind, you were at fault because you didn’t move out of the way. He likes this, you think, though you can’t be sure.
“I was drinking one night,” he tells you. He tells a lot of drinking stories. There was the time he drove with an open bottle of bourbon under his seat, cavorting with his friend. (He’s frequently telling you about the times he’s managed to sweet-talk his way out of a ticket. “Catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” he tells you.) This time when he got pulled over, his friend started mouthing off.
“Hey, copper copper,” his friend crooned, laughing maniacally. (He breaks off his story at this point to tell you the origin of “cop.” It’s because they have copper buttons, you see. People started calling them coppers, then eventually it got shortened down to cop.) So his friend was mouthing off, and your pappy reaches over and smacks him right across the mouth and shuts him right up. The cop thinks this is hilarious. “You made my night. Have a great one.” With that, he goes back to his car without spotting the bottle of Jimmy Beam at his feet.
You begin to doubt the system.
Your pappy tells you about the crazy guy in the army. He wasn’t really crazy, you see. It was all a show. Back then, the only way to get out of the army was if you were crazy or gay. This guy was so determined to get out of the army, he pulled a bunch of stunts. Pappy tells you about the time he walked up to his friend, who was sitting next to the crazy guy. He was confused, you see, because he couldn’t figure out why his normal friend was sitting next to the loon. When he got there he found out it was all a farce. “It’s all an act, you see,” his friend explained. “He just wants to get out of his draft.” The sergeant walks by and the guy goes nuts. He rocks back and forth, muttering under his breath. If the mood strikes him, he screams a little.
Pappy thinks it’s brilliant. You think it’s stupid.
He tells you a story about the day that same private cleaned the toilets. He cleaned them spotless, making sure there was nothing left in them. Then he took some crunchy peanut butter and clumped it up in a log, dumping it in the toilet. Soon enough the sergeant came by to check his progress.
“Private,” he barked, standing in front of the stall.
“Yes, sir,” said the private.
“What’s that in the toilet?” The private reached into the water, pulled out the peanut butter, and took a bite.
“I don’t know, sir, but it tastes like crap to me,” the private said. He dumped it back into the toilet and flushed.
Now, pappy never said “shit.” You’re his baby girl, after all, and everyone knows you don’t swear in front of a lady. He always said “crap,” but you knew by the devilish gleam in his eye that that was not what the private said. Now, why he would tell stories about his heydays of war and drug use but not use a swear word is beyond you, but that was pappy's reasoning. There was a limit to what could be said in a lady’s presence. He just never seemed to have any consistency as to what that was.
Pappy tells you about the day he turned twenty-one. He’d been in the army for about four years at that point. He used to go in his fatigues to the state liquor store on the corner of Seventh and Fifth. He would go in and buy his liquor, and the cashier never questioned his age. He was, after all, an army gent. On his twenty-first birthday, he brought along his newly legal license.
“Card me,” he ordered the bemused cashier.
“Why?” asked the cashier. He’d already wrapped the bottle and set it on the counter.
“Just do it,” pappy said.
“Sure. Whatever, man,” he said, accepting the driver’s license. You can imagine your pappy’s grin as the cashier discovers he’d been selling alcohol to a minor for years. Pappy has an odd sense of humor.
There was a time you asked him about his scar. He has a big dent on his head, visible beneath his thinning hair. You were only six the first time you remember hearing the story as your curious fingers explored the spot on his head, much to pappy’s annoyance. It was near the end of his army days, while he was still stationed in Germany. He spent his days blisteringly drunk or stoned, most of the time both. He tells you about the night he went driving. He was still at the age where he thought himself invincible. He drank from the Jimmy Bean, tucking it under his seat between sips.
He lost control of his car. He can’t remember how. He doesn’t remember the sound of shattering glass and crunching metal as he ran headfirst into a building, though he tells you that months later he had a flashback to that night when watching an episode on the telly. Even now, thirty years later, he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember the sound of the sirens as he was rushed to the hospital. He doesn’t remember being rushed into the ER, unconscious on a gurney.
He doesn’t remember the paramedic looking down at him in stunned horror. You imagine he wasn’t a pretty sight. You can still see the indent where his skull had met the windshield. The paramedic asked the doctor, “Is he going to die?” He shouldn’t have done that, pappy tells you. Medics know that if a person hears them voice that they’re going to die, they won’t fight as hard to live.
Your pappy did. He came out of his stupor long enough to say, “It’s not my time,” before falling back and getting wheeled into surgery.
Your pappy tells you he got married twice while he was in the army. He’d had their names tattooed on his arm and everything, though now it was faded from all the times he’d rubbed salt into it. “Cheaper than getting them removed,” he’d tell you. There were two round scars covering the places their names once were. “Cigarette burns,” he said. “I was really drunk one night.”
You know your pappy got himself clean. You start to think about how he’d met your mamma, which led to you. It was at a singles ward dance, he’d tell you. He’d been watching her that night. It was a little creepy, and mamma would be the first to tell you. At one point mamma’s dance partner left her out standing in the middle of the floor. Pappy saw this and swooped in, taking his chance. Then he invited her to Denny’s.
Mamma didn’t like him. She thought she was going to die. She thought he was going to kill her.
“He had roach clips hanging from his mirror,” she said.
“I did not,” Pappy said.
“Did too.” Pappy gives up. They’d had this argument before. It always ended with Mamma saying, “I know a roach clip when I see one.” You don’t know how. She’s never had a drink in her life, much less done drugs, but she says she knows. She’s from Michigan, after all. She’s not naïve. You don’t question mamma.
Your mamma and pappy dated for a month. Your mamma often tells you about how she tried to break up with him after two weeks. “Give me a month,” your pappy said. She did, and a month later they were engaged. Six months later they were married. Now here you are, the middle of five kids. You wish they’d had you sooner or later, but that’s what you were stuck with. You are the middle child. You don’t fit in on either end of the spectrum.
You pull yourself back to the present as pappy pulls the dented SUV up to the house. The whole thing is a mess. It was one of his fixer-upper salvaged cars. Now that he’s retired that’s what he does, he fixes cars. Your sisters tumble out of their seats, arguing as they head up the front steps. You smile a secret smile as you hand pappy the soggy paper bag. At least you know you’re pappy’s favorite.