Needlework, The Novel
Julie completed the first draft of her novel, Needlework, in 1997. After discussions with her agent and a publisher, she began revising that draft, a process that went on until her illness made it impossible to continue. I have compiled the latest versions of Needlework I found in her files and am publishing that compilation, a chapter at a time in serial fashion, on AllanShowalter.com.
Chapter 2 of Needlework can be read or downloaded in PDF form below.
All posted portions of Needlework can be accessed at Needlework – With Links To Published Portions.
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Note: Originally posted Aug 18, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
Needlework – Chapter 2: PDF Download
To download a PDF version of Chapter 2 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 2 – PDF
Needlework – Chapter 2: Manuscript
Needlework – Chapter 2
When Daddy knocked on my door the next morning, my room was still half dark. It took me a minute to figure out where I was. The lilac wallpaper, the windows, and the curtains were familiar, but the things that made the room mine were gone, replaced by Mother’s sewing machine, her desk, her piles of magazines. Mother had seen my leaving for college as a rite of passage for both of us. I was done with high school and she was done with raising me. When I came home for my first visit in October, my room had been transformed into a combination study and junk room for Mother. My things were packed in boxes and stuffed in the back of the closet. “You can sleep in the guest room, or you can sleep in the extra room,” Mother told me. Even now, when I was living at home from the first of June until the wedding on September 1, Mother still called the room I was staying in the extra room.
I stretched and looked at the clock. Five-thirty. Time for a shower, a quick breakfast, and I’d be ready to go by six. On my way to the bathroom, I nearly tripped over a cup of coffee Daddy had left in the floor outside my door. I sipped it — still too hot to drink. I walked to the end of the hall and looked out the window, holding the coffee under my chin so it warmed my face
As I watched the sun come over the dry cleaners next door, Daddy came out of the house, dressed for travel in a white shirt and khakis. He put his suitcase in the trunk and slammed it. Then he stood frowning at the kitchen door. He was waiting for me. I moved away from the window so he couldn’t see me, sloshing hot coffee down the front of my gow
I gulped enough coffee to wake myself up, burning my throat in the process. Then I rushed back to my room and threw on the clothes I’d laid out. My suitcase was packed, but when I shut it, some of my clothes stuck out the sides. I poked and pushed, putting a knee on the suitcase to force it closed. The latch wouldn’t catch.
We hadn’t even left and he was already mad at me. We’d be locked up in a car together for hours and hours and he’d never talk to me. My stomach knotted up at the thought of twelve hours of his silence.
I always had to figure out what Daddy wanted. A knock on the door and I was supposed to know he was ready that minute. If he had to tell me what to do, I’d already failed by not anticipating his needs. From the time I was six, it was my job to set the table. Every night, I would watch him sit down. If he began to eat, everything was O.K.. But if he stared at the table, I knew I’d forgotten something. My mind would race, trying to figure out what I’d missed. Salt? Bread? Butter? None of us could eat until I fixed my mistake. My mind would go blank under the power of his disapproval. And it never changed. My reaction was the same at sixteen as it had been at six. His frowning silence reduced me to terror.
That was why I couldn’t work for him in the restaurant. He expected me to be a waitress. But his idea of training me was to say, “Think what the people will want and get it on the table before they have to ask for it.” Then he stood behind the window to the kitchen and watched me.
Just knowing he was standing by the car waiting made my stomach hurt. I sat on the suitcase and bounced. One latch clicked in. Good enough. I looked around the room to see if I’d missed anything. Nothing that mattered. I looked at my bed. Mother hated an unmade bed. My stomach grabbed again. The longer I kept Daddy waiting, the madder he’d be. But if I didn’t make the bed, I would ruin Mother’s day. This was what it was like to be caught between my parents — not choosing which one to please, but choosing which one of them to make less mad.
As I rushed toward the car, the trunk opened by itself, startling me. When I got into the passenger side, Daddy was hiding his grin. “How’d you do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” He smiled at the steering wheel.
When Daddy said something he thought was funny, his eyes would crinkle and he’d look down, maybe darting a look to see if he was in trouble.
That’s how he looked when I asked how he made the trunk open by itself. “Do what?” he asked, looking down at his hands on the steering wheel, glancing at me quickly out of the side of his eye. Then, still staring at the wheel, he made me jump by moving all the electric windows at once.
We didn’t talk as we headed out of town and onto the highway, ten miles until we passed the cafe which used to be Daddy’s, used to have a neon sign that blinked “Hopewell’s Restaurant” across the field where the highway interchange was supposed to be built but never was. Now the restaurant was a showroom for pop-up trailers for fishermen to pull behind their cars. I looked at Daddy trying to guess his mood. If I talked about something besides the restaurant, he might think I didn’t know how much it bothered him. If I mentioned the restaurant, he might be thinking about something else, and I’d remind him of it. It was always like that with Daddy; I couldn’t just say what was on my mind.
I once saw a list of businesses which were most likely to fail. It read like a map of Daddy’s life, as if those were the only careers for him to choose from. He’d tried most kinds of farming — growing corn, milking cows, and, for much of my childhood, raising turkeys. He even decided to raise mink once. He fought drought, tornadoes, hail storms, falling farm prices, and more poultry diseases than you ever heard of. And he lost.
He leased a Texaco station a block off a major intersection. Within a year, three stations were built on the intersection. He won a salesman of the month trophy when he started selling life insurance. But the second month he didn’t have any more brothers or buddies to sell to and he couldn’t afford the premiums on the policies he’d bought on Mother and me.
But his dream, always, was to have his own restaurant. He was fifteen when Uncle Clete gave him his first real job working in his cafe. He learned to be a great cook, and he could always make a living working for someone else. What he wanted, though, was to be like Uncle Clete, cooking in back part-time, but up front, too, seeing the customers, ringing up the sales, deciding what candy bars to carry in the glass case and what songs to put on the jukebox.
Three years ago he heard that a group of investors were putting together a recreation and shopping area ten miles out of town. An interchange was planned for the new highway which would bring tourists traveling the old Route 66. The plans called for a gift shop, camp ground, service station, and restaurant in the first wave. After that, there was even talk of an amusement park. “It’s bound to be a moneymaker,” Daddy told Mother. “Some of the richest men in town are behind this.” The area was to be called Ozarkland, and the investors promised a dozen billboards starting as far away as Springfield to advertise the place. The paper was full of stories about how the Ozarks were about to explode as a tourist area.
Daddy sold the farm, borrowed from everyone he could borrow from and bought the restaurant. By the time he opened, the scheduled start date for the highway exit had been moved back a year. “It’s just politics,” he told Mother. “The big boys say they have to smooth some things out in Jefferson City. But they’ll do it. They won’t let this fall through.”
The week after we opened, Daddy drove Mother and me eighty miles to Springfield so we could drive the eighty miles back looking for the billboards. They all showed a hillbilly family, barefoot and ragged. The father leaned against the front stoop whittling, the mother was hanging clothes on the line — lots of long johns with the flaps open. A half dozen kids played in the dirt around her. The first billboard just said, “Ozarkland — Food, gas, souvenirs. 80 miles ahead.” The second started telling how to get there. “Take the Monett exit. South 5 miles to Highway 42, West 10 miles.” “Can you read that?” Daddy asked as we drove past. “Going seventy, could people read that and remember it?” He didn’t ask the more important question — would people go fifteen miles out of their way for food, gas, souvenirs?
It wasn’t Daddy’s fault the restaurant failed. Everyone who came said the food was good. Tourists who happened to find it said they’d tell their friends about the best hamburgers they’d ever had. And one regular customer said the saddest day of his life was when he found out he’d never have another one of Daddy’s rolls.
But most tourists stayed on the highway. He tried advertising in the Athens paper, but the location was wrong. People in town wouldn’t drive ten miles for a meal. If they were going that far, they’d drive ten more miles to Joplin where they could have drinks with their dinner.
Giving up on the restaurant meant admitting that he couldn’t be a success at the thing he did best. He fought it and he held out longer than he should have. It didn’t help that Mother kept telling him he was a fool. He knew he’d been snookered. The original investors in Ozarkland made a profit — something to do with the way the money was moved around — but the men who bought the businesses all went broke. And it didn’t help either that Mother was promoted to Business Manager at the hospital right around then. She’d made more money than he had for years, but now she was an executive besides. The first time she came home carrying a brief case, he got up and left the house.
He started drinking. It got so he had his first drink in the morning in the back room of the restaurant, and sometimes he passed out by the middle of the afternoon. Mother kicked him out in February. We heard he was living in the back of the restaurant, then that he’d moved in with a waitress named Lorna. The day after the divorce, the police called and said they’d found him passed with a telephone pole on top of his car. Six inches over and he’d have been dead and not just dead drunk.
Mother and I drove by the junk yard where they towed his car and she saw how close he came to being killed. When I came home from school the next day, she was waiting for me. “We’re going to get your father,” she said.
She made me drive to Lorna’s. It was a trashy place with no grass in the yard, just hard- packed dirt. An old wringer washer that someone had tried to make into a planter sat on the sagging front porch. Mother sent me ahead, “Make sure he’s in there.”
Through the screen door, I could see half a dozen men playing cards. My eyes adjusted enough to pick out Daddy. He looked loose, happy. Drinking, but not drunk. Lorna came in from the kitchen carrying a bowl of potato chips. “Jan,” she said, “come on in. Look, Jimmy,” she turned to Daddy, “Jan’s come to see us.”
Us? She put her hand on Daddy’s arm. I opened the door and walked into the room, and she hugged me. “It’s really important that we get to be good friends.”
He’d made promises to that woman.
I had to get him out of the room, find out what was going on before Mother barged in and humiliated herself. I whispered to him, “Daddy, could I talk to you in the kitchen?”
He started to get up, but his attention was drawn to the front porch. Mother stood in the open screen door with the sunlight behind her. She was wearing a white summer dress, cut straight and close to her body, and high heels. The sun made her red hair seem almost to vibrate. She looked like Suzy Parker, the model in the ads for Revlon’s Fire and Ice. All the men in the room stared at her without talking. I looked from her to Lorna, ten pounds overweight with ink black hair and mascara smeared under her eyes. Mother walked over and put her hand on Daddy’s arm. “Come on, Sugar,” she said, “we’re taking you home.”
And just like he had been waiting for her to come, he got up and walked out with us. Not a word to Lorna, nothing. The three of us walked to Mother’s car and she drove us home.
Mother took vacation time to take care of the most difficult parts of closing down the restaurant. By then, mostly it was formalities — Daddy hadn’t kept a regular schedule in weeks. She sold the equipment, listed the building, and worked with a lawyer to make sure that we could keep the house.
And gradually, Daddy came back to us. Mother talked him into signing up for the real estate course. His drinking slowed and then it stopped. There was never a day when he declared, “I’ve had my last drink,” never a time when we celebrated his reform; but it happened. He stopped drinking completely about a month before I went to Winchester. Mother and I talked about it to each other, but we never mentioned it to him. He still kept a bottle of whiskey in the freezer, and one hidden behind the towels in the bathroom. Every time I came home from college, I checked them, and I knew Mother checked them too. Their level hadn’t changed in a year, but he hadn’t thrown them out.
I looked at Daddy, trying to guess how he was feeling. His jaw was knotted and he had that line he got on his forehead when he worried. But that could be his concern with Uncle Clete. Maybe he didn’t even notice the restaurant.
I stared at the road ahead, and counted the ways Richard wasn’t like Daddy. He never went out drinking, and he hadn’t looked at another girl since our first date. He was careful with money. And he talked to me. Maybe not about important things, at least not about the things that were important to me when I was on the debate team and thought I was bound for bigger arenas. But if there wasn’t enough salt in the meatloaf, he said, “Could I have some salt, please.” He didn’t stone up and expect me to figure out what was wrong. He told me what he wanted.
The car was slowing down. Daddy pulled onto the gravel shoulder and put it in park. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Why don’t you drive the first turnpike,” he said. He got out to walk around the car.
I started to sweat, the familiar burning in my stomach. I hated to drive in front of Daddy. Just knowing he was watching made me screw up. Once he stood at the kitchen window watching me try to turn the pickup around. Every time I backed up I hit the faucet next to the well house. He didn’t come out until I’d broken the pipe and water was spurting six feet into the air. He walked over, opened the well house and turned the water off, never said a word.
I slid over to the driver’s seat. I couldn’t see over the steering wheel. I ran my hand along the front of the seat, the side, underneath, trying to find the lever to move the seat forward. He got in and closed the door while I was still searching, then watched me, impatient with how long I was taking, shaking his head at my stupidity.
“On the arm,” he said. I looked at the arm rest. Lots of buttons. “It’s electric. Adjusts about any way you want.” I pushed one button and a back window went down, another and my knees started to rise, another and the back of my seat straightened up. The fourth button moved the seat forward. My position was awkward, but I could reach the pedals, and I didn’t want to keep Daddy waiting any longer. I put the car in drive, pushed down the left turn signal and pulled slowly and cautiously onto the road just like I’d been taught.
From behind us I heard the blast of an air horn moving up fast. Daddy turned around. “Floor it!” he yelled. I hadn’t adjusted the mirror, so I couldn’t see the truck. I could only judge how close it was by the air horn which got louder and louder, and by the expression on Daddy’s face.
People say that when you’re dying your life passes before your eyes. I always thought that meant you would see your birth, your childhood, all the years flying past. I had once practiced what it would feel like to die by picturing myself blowing out birthday candles — chubby one-year old, gawky eleven-year old, sweet sixteen. But what happened in those seconds was not a chronological review — highlights of the life of Jaynice Ray Hopewell; it was a montage of the things that were most important to me at that moment: Daddy will never know how much I love him. Mother will never get over this. Richard will be OK.
I gripped the steering wheel and watched the needle on the speedometer move from 30 to 40 to 50. When it reached 70, I looked at the rear view mirror. The semi was so close now, I could see it in the mirror pointed at the sky. Then gradually it disappeared as we pulled away.
I kept driving 80, trying to put more space between us and the truck. I was afraid to look at Daddy. “Thought we were goners for sure,” he said. I began to shake. “You don’t have to keep it floored all the way to Texas,” he said. I took my foot off the accelerator. “Faster than that,” he said.
I tried to control my breaths, but I was sobbing. “I’m sorry.” I had come close to killing us, but I was more upset that I looked stupid in front of Daddy. I clutched the steering wheel, trying to bend it, break it. You’re such an idiot!
“Settle down, Jan,” Daddy said. I looked at him quickly. He was frowning. “There’s no reason to get worked up over this. You made a mistake. People make mistakes.” He reached into the back seat and grabbed a pillow. “I’m going to take a nap. I’ll drive once we get to Tulsa.” He punched the pillow a couple of times, put it against the window and turned sideways in his seat. “Adjust your mirror,” he said. “Don’t kill us.”
I felt his eyes on me, critical, waiting for me to make another mistake. He wasn’t going to talk anymore. He was determined that I was going to drive this stretch, and if he got killed that would just show how incompetent I was.
He said. “If we’d have died, your mother would have killed us.”
Five minutes after we got our ticket at the entrance to the Will Rogers Turnpike, Daddy started to snore.
He wasn’t watching me; and if he wasn’t watching me, maybe he wasn’t mad at me. If Mother was here, she could tell me. Slowly, I went over what had happened, trying to figure it out for myself. He’d been frowning. But had he been mad? What had he actually said? “People make mistakes. There’s no reason to get worked up.” Maybe that’s what he meant.
The adjustments I’d made to the seat made me feel like a half-folded jackknife, but moving felt at that moment. I considered the thought. Me and Daddy together. Peaceful.
I set my mind to the drive, alone with my thoughts on one of the dullest stretches of highway in the country. Flat, no scenery, no billboards, no traffic. Only four exits between Joplin and Tulsa. The big excitement was a Howard Johnson’s that stretched over the highway ten miles past the entrance. Once Richard’s parents had taken us there for dinner, driven all this way to eat fried clams in a restaurant where you could sit at a window and watch big trucks drive under your feet. After that, nothing to see except exit signs pointing off to places like Vinita and Miami, towns that must be there somewhere, but you couldn’t see anything of them from the road. And you couldn’t speed, either. They stamped your ticket with the time at the entrance. If you got to the exit too soon, the guard made you wait while he called the Highway Patrol.
My parents and I had made the trip between Athens, Missouri and Eunice, Texas, back and forth, dozens of times over the years. Those trips merged in my mind. Mother and Daddy sitting in front, me in back, lying down or reading. Usually we traveled at night so I could sleep. Sometimes Mother sang, sometimes they listened to the radio. “Mr. and Mrs.
North,” “Boston Blackie” faded in and out, Mother talked low and soft, Daddy chuckled or answered in a word or two as I drifted off to sleep. When I opened my eyes, I would see their silhouettes, the red dots of their cigarettes, sometimes their hands touching on the seat back. The trips were happy, Mother and Daddy excited about seeing friends and relatives, or eager to get back home. Even going to places we knew so well, the trip always seemed full of possibilities. Our troubles were suspended while we were driving.
The first time we drove this road I was six. Daddy had just come back from California after being gone for three years. He and Mother got married again and decided to make a clean break with the past. We would move to Missouri and raise turkeys. Away from the Hopewells, especially Uncle Clete. Away from all the friends who had taken sides in the divorce. A fresh start.
They didn’t tell me about their plans. Just like they hadn’t told me they were getting married until the morning they woke me up, put flowers in my hair and told me I was a bridesmaid.
Mother woke me up the morning we left Texas and said, “Get dressed and stay out of the way. It’s going to be a busy day.”
“What about school?” I asked.
“I told your teacher you’re not coming.” She pulled a blouse and some pants out of a drawer, tossed them on my bed, and left the room.
When I came in for breakfast, Daddy was leaving. His keys jingled as he walked out the door, and then I heard the engine of his car out front. Daddy drove a convertible he’d brought back from California. He’d come back right after Christmas and he’d promised that in spring he’d take me for a ride with the top down. That meant he was planning to stay with us until it got warm.
Mother told me to keep out of her way, so I put on my coat and went outside. I practiced scratching the words I knew on the sidewalk with a stick. Maybe when Daddy came back he would see them and tell me I was a smart girl.
I heard the truck before I saw it. It turned our corner belching smoke and pulled up in front of our house. It jumped three times after the motor died. The door opened and Daddy got out. He pulled at the wooden sides, maybe testing their strength or trying to stop a rattle.
Uncle Clete drove up and parked behind him in his maroon Buick. Even in a big car, he rode kind of stooped, he was so tall. He ducked to get his head clear of the door frame, then stood up. When he saw me standing by the porch, he winked. He was the biggest man I knew. And the most handsome.
For the three years Daddy was gone I had only seen Uncle Clete when Mother and I passed him on the street. He would nod and say hello. Mother would nod and say hello. I wouldn’t say anything. In the month that Daddy had been back, he’d taken me to the coffee shop three times. Uncle Clete would scooped banana nut ice cream and gave me a nickel for the jukebox. He and Daddy sat and smoked while I looked at the postcards on the rack. Uncle Clete would ask me to read the new cards, and the two of them would exchange a smile, not a bragging smile — they’d never brag on me — but a hidden smile that no one else could see.
When you’re growing up, especially if you’re a girl, you measure other men against your father. Judged that way, Uncle Clete was larger than life. He was taller than Daddy by three or four inches, big and muscular where Daddy was wiry. He always seemed more important — he owned the restaurants where Daddy worked as a cook, he drove a Buick when Daddy drove a Chevy. Later, I might feel guilty for thinking Uncle Clete was stronger, better looking, more important than my daddy, but when I was six, it seemed natural because that’s the way Daddy felt, and maybe Mother too.
Mr. Loomis across the street yelled at Daddy, “Where’s that fancy car?” “Can’t move to Missouri in a fancy car.”
“So, you’re taking off today. Need any help?”
“Thanks, but I’ve got my brother here. We should be able to manage everything.”
He wasn’t going to take me for a ride with the top down. He was leaving again and Uncle Clete was helping him, just like Mother always said he would.
I went inside and sat against a wall in the hall. What had I done this time? I’d been careful, but I must have done something.
He left when I was three because of me. I was supposed to be asleep. I heard Daddy come in. Heard him go into the bedroom where Mother was reading in bed with the light on.
Heard their voices, low and tense. Heard Mother crying.
Their door opened and the floorboards creaked at the same time I smelled the fried chicken smell that was always on Daddy when he came home from work.
Through almost-closed eyes, I saw him standing in the doorway. I held my breath and closed my eyes tight. He’d be mad if I was awake, he’d be disappointed. When I couldn’t hold my breath any more I started taking little sleeping-puppy breaths. He walked closer and stood over my bed. My heart was pounding. If I’d opened my eyes as soon as he walked in, it wouldn’t have been so bad. I would have just been awake when I was supposed to be asleep. But as the minutes stretched, it was worse. I was sneaky. I was pretending to be asleep and I wasn’t.
He stood there a long time. My stomach was sick from being so afraid. Daddy didn’t love sneaky girls.
Then he reached down and smoothed my hair off my face. “Better get some sleep, Jan,” he said and kissed my forehead.
I couldn’t hug or kiss him back because I was supposed to be asleep. The next day he was gone. I sat in the hall thinking about it.
Maybe it wasn’t that I was sneaky, maybe it was that I didn’t kiss him. Maybe if I kissed him now, he wouldn’t go away again.
I went into the living room looking for Daddy. The couch and chair were gone. Where would Mother and I sit? Mother came out of their bedroom with a stack of her sweaters and put them in a box.
Mother was leaving too. Daddy had gone away and now he’d come back to get her.
I went back into the hall and sat, too terrified to cry. What would I eat? How would I get to school when it snowed?
Uncle Clete came out of my room carrying my Toni doll. “You want this with you or you want it packed?” He squatted down beside me.
“Am I going?”
He made a choking sound. “Oh, Jaynice Ray, of course you’re going.” He caught me up in a hug and lifted me off the floor. “You’re going, and you and your mother and daddy will be happy.” He put me down and wiped his eyes. “We’ll sure miss you here, though.”
Mother was standing in the doorway. Her face was pale and she tapped her foot. “What’s going on here?” She saw the doll Uncle Clete was holding. “I told you all her toys go in the boxes.” Uncle Clete looked at the floor and shook his head, got up and loaded a table by himself.
It was almost dark when they finished. The wind had picked up and a few snow flakes blew around.
Daddy and Uncle Clete tied a tarp over everything, and the three of us climbed into the front of the truck. There were two padded tractor seats and a gear shift sticking up from the middle of the floor. Mother had stuffed Kleenex in the holes around the gas pedal and the windows. I could sit in Mother’s lap or lie on a blanket she put at her feet.
As we pulled away from the house where we’d lived since I was a baby, I looked back. Uncle Clete stood on the porch without a jacket, a cigarette in his mouth, his eyes squinted against the smoke and the cold.
I waved from the truck as long as I could see him.
The Oklahoma highway blurred. I wiped the tears away with the back of my hand. My first tears for Uncle Clete.
I searched for other early images of him, came up with a fragment. I was little, sitting on his lap. Playing with his big round ruby ring. “It’s magic,” he said.
“Can it tell the future?” I asked.
He pushed his lower lip out, considering. “Nope. But if you look real hard you might see the past.” These memories were buried deep by more than just time. Some things about your family, it seems you’re born knowing, like that Mother didn’t want me to like Uncle Clete.
I woke Daddy at the end of the turnpike to get the money to pay the ticket, and started looking for a place to pull over. Daddy would want to drive through the city. “Keep going about ten miles,” he said, “Just this side of Tulsa, there’s a place that makes great hash browns. We can get gas there, too.”
“OK” I tried not to sound surprised. Daddy never stopped in Tulsa. That was a rule of the nine hundred and ninety-nine times we’d made this trip. I used to hope. After the endless Will Rogers Turnpike, Tulsa was as exciting and exotic as a carnival. Tired and bored with travel, I was always hungry. Big Boys and Ramada Inns flashed by, truck stops and diners, a motel like a castle, called The Camelot, where I thought the Kennedys stayed. Signs shouted to us — “eat here,” and “bar-be-que,” and “T-bones.” We passed them all. They became fewer and fewer, as we headed out the other side of town, and it became clear we were going right onto the Turner Turnpike, another hundred miles to Oklahoma City.
“There it is,” Daddy said. “On the right. You can tell the food’s good by all the trucks.”
The Seven Gables was a giant truck plaza with spaces for at least fifty large trucks to park. Signs directed drivers to bunks and showers. Dozens of diesel pumps, but we had to search for a pump for cars. Then we had to park on the edge of the huge lot. We walked through
diesel exhaust and the rumble of engines toward a building that looked like it had started out as a farm house and then grown in every direction possible. Maybe it once had seven gables, but I could only see one now.
Inside was a truckers’ general store. Everything you might need for life on the road. Antifreeze, oil, wiper blades. Sheepskin seat covers. Bawdy post cards and cheap toys to send the family back home. License plates with a hundred different first names. Bumper stickers showing the Confederate flag, rodeo riders, nearly naked women. Eighteen-inch clubs. Clubs? I’d seen people beaten with clubs on the news — freedom riders, civil rights workers. A large man in a plaid shirt picked one up and slapped it against his palm, then tried another.
I turned my back to him and whispered. “Daddy, why do they need clubs?”
“To whack their tires. That’s about the only way you can tell if those big tires are losing air.” He looked at my expression. “What did you think? Think those bumper stickers meant this was Ku Klux Klan headquarters?”
I’d been stupid. I steeled myself for anger, or worse, disgust. But when I looked up, he was grinning. “Little Girl, I’ve got to show you more of the world.”
I smiled back at him. He hadn’t called me Little Girl since I was thirteen and Mother told him it embarrassed me.
We walked through a door into the sausage, bacon, and cigarette haze of a full restaurant at breakfast time. Patsy Cline’s voice came from the jukebox. One of the waitresses sang “Sweet Dreams” along with Patsy, dipping her knees on the low notes as she carried her order to a table. I started to sit at the first booth we came to, but Daddy motioned at a sign, “Reserved for Truckers.”
We found a booth farther back, and I asked, “Why’d they do that? Reserve places for truckers?”
He considered it for a minute. “Makes sense. Give your best customers the best tables. Make them feel special.” He looked around, lit a cigarette, stared out the window for a while. “Put them where you’ve got your best waitresses, where they’ll get the quickest service.” He looked out the window again, still thinking.
When I wasn’t afraid of Daddy, when we were relaxed together, I liked to see the way his mind worked. He never jumped at an answer, always thought it through, worked it over before he said anything
Daddy’s quietness wasn’t just a matter of not talking much. When he did talk, conversation took on a different pace, different from anyone except other Hopewells. Conversation never went pow-pow-pow back and forth like it did with other people. It was pause,consider, talk, pause, consider talk, a rhythm almost like the hop, shuffle, step I learned in tap dancing. Except it was slower than hop, shuffle, step.He never talked over anyone,
never interrupted, wasn’t like most people who finish each other’s sentences and start answering a question as soon as they think they know what it is. Once you talked to him a little while, you started to slow down yourself, started to feel rude and foolish if you kept on at your normal pace. Even Mother talked a little slower around Daddy. “They can watch their rigs out the window from those tables.” He looked at his cigarette and nodded. “Makes sense.” Daddy knew service, knew what people wanted. And he knew hard work. But he didn’t understand business, and he sure didn’t understand sales. “Make good food, sell it at a fair price, and people will come eat it,” he’d said. But they hadn’t.
How was he going to sell real estate? “This is a nice restaurant,” Daddy said.
It was the kind of place he always wanted. Red booths and Formica tables, chrome napkin holders and sugar pourers, clean ketchup bottles all filled to the top. Middle-aged waitresses in pink uniforms joked with customers and carried five or six plates stacked up one arm and a pot of coffee in the other hand. A busy clatter came from the kitchen, and a bell rang any time an order was up. On the cover of the menu, a cowboy twirled a lariat and the word “Howdy!” came out of his mouth. “Breakfast served all day,” it said. “If you find better chicken fried steak, take off your boots and pick up your harp. You’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“Let’s have steak and eggs,” Daddy said. He closed his menu. “That’ll hold us till Shamrock.
We’d been together almost three hours and neither of us had mentioned Uncle Clete or the reason for the trip. To outsiders that might seem strange, but there was nothing to say, and Hopewells didn’t talk if there was nothing to say. They didn’t sit around rehashing details, searching for truth and comfort by talking things out. Talk was for conveying facts, sometimes opinions, never emotions. So Daddy and I didn’t talk about Uncle Clete since there were no new facts and nothing subject to opinion. He was dying of lung cancer.
Twelve months earlier he was dying of a stroke, and six months before that of a heart attack. And after the heart attack and the stroke he was dying from cutting his own throat. He had smoked and drunk whiskey and run with women until everything about him was worn out. And the same way he used up his body, he used up the people around him. Aunt Lila had divorced him three years ago, and Pauline hadn’t been to see him in two years. After the stroke when he wasn’t able to take care of himself, his only choice had been to move home with Granno. Those were the facts and there was nothing to say. He was my dad’s closest brother and he was forty-five years old.
Daddy wiped up the last of his egg yolk with a corner of toast. His plate was clean, ready for the dishwasher except for the rib-eye bone from his steak. He crossed his silverware on his plate, leaned back and lit a cigarette, and said, “The good thing about being on the road is there’s nothing you can do. You’re doing all you can just getting there.”
“I was thinking something like that in the car, that trouble’s kind of suspended while you’re driving.”
Daddy smiled. “Your mother would never come up with an idea like that in a million years. Guess you’ve got some of your old man in you.” He held the check out at arm’s length, the first time I’d noticed him doing that, then he pulled out his wallet. “Yep, on the road’s the only time you know you’re doing all you can. Just got to pray you’re moving fast enough.”
All morning I had been thinking of Daddy’s moods in terms of myself. Was he mad at me? Was he testing me? I’d even thought his getting up at dawn and waiting for me in the car was some kind of torture designed to make me look bad. For the first time, I thought beyond myself and my hurt feelings. Daddy was afraid Uncle Clete would die before he got there. It was that serious. “Let’s get going, then,” I said. Inside my head, a three-year old said, “I’ll be a good girl, Daddy. I’ll take care of you.” I heard Mother’s voice saying, “You have to protect him.” At that point, I still thought the voices were saying the same thing.
As we walked out to the car, Daddy put his hand on the back of my neck.