If my father had understood what his father was trying to tell him, maybe he would have waited until the morning to say what he now says. Maybe he would never had said anything, packed up a small bag, and left town for good. Abandoned love and any expectation of it. Instead he confesses to my grandfather, all in a rush, the same way he might have admitted that he had broken the new mower, or left the front gate open all night.
My grandfather stares hard at my father's knee and is quiet a long time.
"You done her wrong," he says. Repeats it. "You got no choice but to take care of it. You done her wrong."
In those days this was my grandfather's interpretation of the world: A thing was either right or it was wrong. Or so it seemed to my father, and he was getting tired of it.
"No, sir," he says, lips tight. "That's not what I intend. I'm in love with someone else." He takes a breath. "I'm gonna marry Eula Parker." Even as he speaks her name he is startled by this statement, like it is a giant carp he has yanked from the depths of the river. It lies on the step before both of them, gasping.
My grandfather looks at him with sadness rimming his eyes and says quietly, "You should've thought of that before."
"But you see," my father says, as if explaining to a child, "I love her."
My grandfather grips his knees with his big hands and sighs. He reaches out for his son's arm, but my father brushes him away, stands up, and walks heavily across the porch. When he goes into the house, he lets the screen door slam behind him, and it bangs twice in the casement before clicking shut.
Late that night, after washing the dishes of a silent dinner, my father sits on the porch sharpening his pocket knife. He taps his bare feet against the hollow stairs and even whistles through his teeth. His father's words have still not completely closed in around him. Though an uneasiness is slowly creeping up, he is still certain that the future is bright chrome and glorious, full of possibility. Behind him, a string of the banjo gently twangs as it goes flat in the cooling air. It is the first night of the year that smells of autumn and my father takes a few deep breaths as he leans against the porch railing and looks out into the yard. This is when he sees something out under the old elm, a long, twisted shape leaning unsteadily against the thick trunk of the tree.
He steps off the porch onto the cool grass of the yard, thinking first he sees a ghost. As he gets closer to the shape, he believes it next to be a fallen limb, or one of the hands, drunk on moonshine - then, nothing but a forgotten ladder, then - with rising heart - Eula come to call for him in her darkest dress. But when he is just a few yards away from the tree, he sees it is his father, his back to the house, arms at his sides. He is speaking quietly, and my father knows by the quality of his voice that he is praying. He has found him like this before, in the hayfield at dusk or by the creek in the morning, eyes closed, mumbling simple private incantations. My father is about to step quietly back to the porch when his father reaches a trembling hand to the tree to steady himself, then lets his shoulders collapse. He blows his nose in his hand and my father hears him swallow back thick, jumbled sobs. When he hears this, when he realizes his father is crying, he turns and rushes blindly back to the house, waves of heat rising from beneath his ribs like startled birds from a tree.