My daddy, Joe Norton, was a traveling preacher. Back in the '40s, when we didn’t have a car, he rode buses all over, bringing the Word of God to towns that were too small and too poor to have their own preachers. The five of us—Daddy, Mama, my big brothers John and Bobby, and me—lived in a tiny town ourselves, out by the oil fields of West Texas. Hamlin was the kind of place where folks didn’t even have locks on their doors, they trusted each other so much. When Daddy had to be away for a week or two at a stretch, he could rest assured we were safe at home.
I couldn’t, though. I had a hard time getting to sleep when he was gone. Usually, the boys had the bunk beds in the kitchen across from the back door. But Mama knew how anxious I got when Daddy wasn’t around. She would put the boys in the bedroom, then give me the top bunk and take the bottom one herself so I’d feel more secure. I’d climb into bed with my favorite doll, Trudy, whose expression changed when you turned her head. I made sure Trudy’s sleeping face was showing, but then I would lie awake myself, my mind awhirl with all the scary things that might happen without Daddy around. "He says God always takes care of us, Trudy," I’d whisper to my doll. "Well, I sure do hope it’s true."
The summer I was 9, I hoped more fervently than ever, because something terrible happened, something no one in Hamlin could remember ever happening before. A burglar was on the loose—a stranger going around breaking into houses, stealing things, and hurting people who got in his way. What if the burglar came to our house while Daddy was gone? What if he got me?Daddy didn’t want to leave us. Still, he had made a commitment to folks out of town, and we knew he couldn’t go back on his word. So one July day when the sun looked like a fat egg yolk in the sky, we went to the bus station to see him off. Daddy asked us kids to mind Mama, then we held hands and prayed. Just before he got on the bus, Daddy opened his Bible and gave us a short reading from Psalms, his voice more serious than a month of Sundays: “The angel of the Lord encampeth round them that fear him, and delivereth them.”
I repeated that verse to myself as we shaded our eyes and watched the bus pull away. Coming up our walk back home, I heard Bobby holler, “Look at that dog!” I followed his pointing finger to our front porch, where a huge, mottled creature was sprawled at the top of the steps, taking an afternoon snooze. John whistled. “Never seen anything like him!”
The dog lifted his massive head, half-perking one ear, and surveyed us lazily, as if we were on his porch.
“He sure is ugly,” John said, noting his gold fur covered with black spots.
“Go away, dog!” Mama commanded. “Scat!”
The dog didn’t budge. He just stared at us with black eyes as shiny as marbles. Sighing, Mama stepped over him, turned, and lifted me across his bulk. Creeeak. Mama opened the screen door. “Just leave him be,” she said. “Soon as he figures out we can’t feed him, he’ll go away.”
But he didn’t. That night, I checked outside before I went to bed, and he was lying on the front porch in the same spot. He stayed there for several days straight. I never once saw him leave the porch.
Before we knew it, Mama was telling us, “Daddy’s due back tomorrow.” That evening, the crinkles in Mama’s forehead smoothed out, and she smiled a lot during dinner.
It got dark out, and I climbed up the ladder into my bunk with my Trudy doll and turned her head so she was sleeping.
“Night, Mama,” I said, swinging my hand over the side of the bed.
Mama reached up and squeezed my hand. “Night, Libby. Sleep tight.”
The light from the alley behind our house shone into the room and hit the blades of the floor fan, making some strange, shifting silhouettes on the wall. I yanked the covers up so no one could see me. Daddy, I wish you were here.Creeeak. What was that? It sounded like the screen door that led to our back porch! I peeked over the edge of my covers. A looming shadow moved across the wall as the kitchen door eased open.