Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Age of Belief

Painting by Ralls Jennings

The Age of Belief

Growing up, Tucker's maternal grandfather was his hero. By the time Tucker knew him, the old man was retired from twenty years in the ore mines. He lived far away, in Birmingham, so the family only visited a couple of times each year. But those visits were special. They were magical.

The family would roll out early of a morning, children dragging suitcases and teddy bears down red brick steps to pile into the back of the station wagon, a Chevrolet with quarter panels blue as a robin's egg and a faux wood trim. The morning air always smelled fresh and damp.

Tucker's father sat behind the wheel with a ceramic cup in one hand, steering with the other. Periodically he blew on the cup, and steam would rise around his face as the smell of fresh coffee filled the car. Their headlights were long yellow columns that swung like great clumsy arms as the car rounded bends, sweeping fog from their path and revealing mysteries hidden on the roadside, birds, four legged critters, wooden crosses erected as monuments to fatal accidents and small stone structures built long ago for reasons now forgotten.

When they reached I-75, there came a lull. When they had gunned down the ramp and joined the mass of automobiles barreling along the interstate highway, the flatness of the miles stretched out to monotony. Tucker and his brother, Dennis, would begin to wonder how long until they arrived; soon after, their father would forbid their asking the question again. Tucker napped or thumbed through a comic, ignoring his mother's warnings that mobile reading caused headaches, nausea and who-knew-what-all manner of illness.

Around noon their mother would begin to point out landmarks, and the kids would realize they were nearing Birmingham. The excitement would escalate once more. Down the ramp they'd go, off the highway and into the satellite neighborhood of Lipscomb, Alabama. As they pulled into the narrow drive that led to the small white house with green-and-white aluminum awnings above the windows, they'd spy Pawpaw sitting on the porch swing, a guitar across his lap and a Good Book on the seat beside him.

Pawpaw was an evangelist of sorts. He was never pastor of a church, but he used to lead ad hoc worship services among the miners. He told his fellows not to despair, despite the fact they were forced to spend the better part of their lives beneath the planet's crust. Soon enough, when they died, they were headed to a place where the sun always shined. (Oh, they tell me of an uncloudy day.)

He was quick to whip his Bible out, Pawpaw was, and show things to you in black and white. But he didn't shout or try to talk over a body. His voice was deep, calm and steady. He spoke as though patiently explaining to a child something the kid probably couldn't understand anyhow. When he did that, folks often stopped arguing and started listening, straining to get the point of what he said.

Most of the time, though, he preferred singing to preaching. He said a smile and a song spoke louder than any sermon. He wasn't a fancy guitar picker, just an old man who strummed simple chord patterns and sang with a mid range, slightly ragged voice, the voice of a man who had breathed too much subterranean dust and smoked too many Camels.

Pawpaw would be there waiting, sitting on the porch swing with a guitar across his lap, a Bible at one hand and a smoldering cigarette at the other. As the family piled out of the car, he'd lay the flat top down. Tucker would run across the yard and throw himself into his grandfather's arms. The old man would pick him up and swing him around, and you never saw two happier fellows in all your life. He would hug Tucker's mother, scuff Dennis's head and shake Tucker's father's hand. Then they would all follow him inside to be greeted by the smell of sizzling catfish before the door swung shut behind them. Tucker's grandmother always fixed catfish and hushpuppies on the day they arrived. Tucker never knew why. They never ate catfish at home, but they never ate anything else for lunch on the first day of their visit.

After the noon meal, if it was the autumn visit, Pawpaw would take Tucker out back to the orchard. The old guy was proud of his fruit trees. Some had been in the ground when he bought the place, but most, he'd planted himself. He would carry a bucket and show how to select the best apples from off the ground, ripe but not rotten. When the bucket was full, they'd tote them into the kitchen which now smelled of cinnamon and brown sugar, and where rows of glass jars stuffed with pickles, tomatoes and jam lined the shelves. Grandma would dip flour from a square tin with a rooster on the side and start peeling the apples, preparing to make pie for the desert.

By then, Dennis would be watching a show on television. His father would be seated nearby, watching with him or skimming through the local newspaper. But Tucker never watched TV at Pawpaw's house. Instead, he would follow the old man out to the porch and sing along, give me that old time religion, and preaching, praying, singing, down on the public square, the same standards every visit about the love that Jesus had for all men. For Pawpaw, religion was all about tradition and about the person of Jesus Christ. The old ways were better, and Jesus was the Path and the Light to take you back. Tucker wondered sometimes how much of Pawpaw's faith was simply nostalgia. He thought maybe Pawpaw's focus on the past and on the person of Jesus Christ was mere distraction, smoke and rumbling that served to distract from some greater, terrible truth. Young and fearless, Tucker wanted to see God's face.

As evening fell, they would go back inside for supper. Gathered around the Formica table, with the pear tree's laden branches swaying in the breeze outside the window, Pawpaw would say Grace over a table full of roast beef and vegetables. As they ate, the old man would tease the child, calling him names like Jingle Joe, and the boy would beam in return. Pawpaw would ask if he had been kissing any little girls, and the child would act grossed out.

Finally, came the pie. Pawpaw always drank a last cup of coffee with his pie. When it was finished, Tucker would climb into his lap and taste the sweet mixture that remained in the bottom of the cup. His mother would cluck her tongue, but she didn't forbid him tasting it. He didn't really like the flavor of coffee, even sweetened, but he liked sitting in his grandfather's lap and playing at being grown.

After the meal, Grandma would clear the table while everyone else settled into the living room to visit. Sometimes, instead of joining them, Tucker would venture into the surrounding neighborhood to play with the children who lived thereabouts. Or else he'd sit alone on the walk in the front yard, listening to cats caterwaul in the gravel alleyways that separated the houses and counting stars as they came out. He would make a wish on the first to appear. Which was sort of like praying, he supposed.

Pawpaw had made a walking stick for his grandson, just like his own, from an old cedar post. Tucker kept it hidden under the porch, and he would fetch it to point at the first star of the night. The power of his wish was magnified in the presence of this magic wand made by his grandfather's hand. He would wish for a new bicycle or a stereo. He would wish that his father would quit playing golf and start hunting or fishing instead. The wishes rarely came true, but that never caused him to doubt the power of his stick. He never doubted the power of the stars themselves.

Pawpaw's yard was a magical place when Tucker was a child. In years to come, after his divorce, after a tour of duty overseas he never talked about, after a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse, he would sit alone inside his efficiency apartment, listening to the hum of the half-size Frigidaire. The noise was a strange comfort, like the purring of a cat. It filled the little room with its presence as he bathed his limbs in the soft blue light of the silent television.

Occasionally he thought of the stars that used to hang above his grandfather's house. He remembered, too, the magical cedar stick that Pawpaw carved for him. He smiled as he recalled the certainty with which he had believed in its power.

Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, he returned to Birmingham to visit family and old friends. While there, he stopped at the little white house with green-and-white aluminum awnings above the windows where his grandfather used to live . After an uncomfortable word of explanation to the woman who lived there, he looked in his secret spot underneath the porch. But the magic stick wasn't there. It was gone, and he couldn’t for the life of him think where he might have put it.


Randy Lowens is a native of rural north Georgia with
kinfolk in Alabama. He eats dinner at noontime rather than during the
evening. He was most recently featured in Fried Chicken and Coffee,
and full publishing credits are listed at